The federal government's fiscal response to the pandemic is a two-parter, explained Chrystia Freeland, Canada's Minister of Finance, last year. Most immediately, the goal is to extend subsidies and income support to help people endure restrictions. Then, in the spring, to embark on a multi‑year infrastructure stimulus plan—one that will create jobs, grow the economy, allow for a green recovery and deliver on needs that existed prior to the virus' arrival in Canada.
With spring and a forthcoming budget now upon us, Freeland will have to deliver on the second part of that promise—and rail should be among her government's priorities. Not just any rail projects either, but ones that can better connect regions, improve supply chains and reduce emissions.
Rail isn't a new economic enabler. We're a country built on tracks. In 2019, Canada's railways moved nearly 88 million passengers and more than $328 billion worth of goods. Our freight railways carry more tonne-kilometres of goods than those of the entire European Union combined.
Our limitations with rail, then, were always about capacity. Right now, goods-moving freight trains often share tracks with passenger trains, causing inevitable delays and blockages. This drives up costs in supply chains and pushes people toward more emissions‑producing trucks and cars.
The sector knows this is a problem and has identified solutions. In 2016, for instance, VIA Rail first submitted to the federal government their High‑Frequency Rail proposal—a plan that would see upgraded and new tracks dedicated to passenger trains in Canada's most densely populated corridor, spanning Toronto, Ottawa, Montréal and Québec City.
Benefits of a project like this include more daily departures, shorter trip times, greater reliability and new connections to communities like Peterborough and Trois‑Rivières. Without conflicting with freight trains, VIA would be able to add as many trips as demand requires. The project would also further connect communities on existing VIA lines—like Kingston and Belleville—to major urban centres. This could help those seeking affordable home ownership with job access, as well as better support domestic tourism.
Yet, it's not just a matter of shaving off travel time. It's also about freeing up rail capacity for freight on existing corridors to create an efficient, regional pipeline between suppliers, manufacturers and distributors. These regional business incentives are why both Ontario and Québec chambers of commerce have come out in favour of the project.
Beyond the direct impacts on our economy, investing in rail will also transform the way Canadians travel. Each freight train replaces an estimated 300 trucks from our highways and roads. Making rail travel easier also offers a viable and sustainable alternative to cars, further reducing road congestion and GHG emissions.
As the government looks to invest in large‑scale and green infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy post COVID‑19, it should start with projects already waiting in the queue. Projects that, like VIA's High‑Frequency Rail, will boost our economy, get us closer to our emission-reduction goals and ensure the movement of people and goods is seamless across regions.
Jan De Silva is the President and CEO of the Toronto Region Board of Trade.
Michel Leblanc is the President and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal.