A view on intercity passenger rail in Canada – Ready for a mobility upgrade

A view on intercity passenger rail in Canada – Ready for a mobility upgrade

September 30, 2022

Key considerations for a successful High-Frequency Rail (HFR) project

Intercity passenger rail in Canada is lagging relative to other developed countries

Over recent decades in Canada, rail freight transport has continued to grow and generate profits while intercity passenger rail has faced challenges hindering its expansion. Since the development of road and air transportation in the middle of the 20th century, Canada has been losing significant ground relative to other developed countries regarding passenger rail. Not only does Canada significantly lag behind in passenger activity per capita, but investments to improve rail infrastructure are much lower relative to other developed countries.

"The interconnectivity of the HFR project is an important considerations that requires careful planning. Ensuring an integrated mobility network is an important factor to the success of the project."
Portrait of Dominique Gautier
Senior Partner
Montreal Office, North America

Dependency on infrastructure owners prevents any passenger rail operator from improving their service

Beyond the underinvestment, another fundamental factor restricting the expansion of intercity passenger rail in Canada, for example operators have limited ability to negotiate favourable access to intercity rail infrastructure. In North America, the rail industry is concentrated among a relatively small pool of railway companies (mostly cargo players) which both own and manage the biggest pool of rail infrastructure.

Unlike in Europe, intercity passenger rail operators must negotiate commercial agreements directly with infrastructure owner-operators as infrastructure manager are not governed by a strong regulatory framework that favors passenger rail and ensures favourable access to infrastructure (e.g. tracks and train stations).

HFR reduces dependency on infrastructure owners in the Corridor (Québec City – Windsor axis) and offers new growth opportunities

Based on preliminary studies, by increasing convenience of service (e.g. frequency, reliability) through control over rail infrastructure, intercity passenger ridership and revenue would increase significantly. Since mid-2014 Via Rail, the current operator in the corridor, implemented at customer centric strategy which increased ridership.

As 15 m Canadians live in the Québec City–Montréal–Ottawa– Toronto area, the HFR can attract a significant pool of travelers currently using other means of transportation. Intercity passenger rail captures less than 5% of the travel market in the Toronto-Ottawa-Montréal corridor, but attracts a very diverse clientele with different needs (students, seniors, tourists and business travelers). With the assumption of 15 frequencies per day for the HFR, VIA Rail projected to serve up to 9.9 m passengers per year by 2030 in the Corridor, more than doubling the 4.5 m passengers carried in 2018. The Corridor East has the most potential for the HFR project according to Via Rail's preliminary study.

Key conditions to ensure a large mobility infrastructure project

Project success can be measured by tracking how four key conditions will be managed by an operator. In this white paper we deep dive into those four conditions: (1) Designing a competitive offer, (2) Ensure integration with the mobility ecosystem, (3) Optimize the funding and governance structure, (4) Carefully plan and execute the transformative project.

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A view on intercity passenger rail in Canada – Ready for a mobility upgrade


Canadian intercity passenger rail development is lagging relative to other developed countries, predominantly due to limited financial commitment from the government and a high dependency on cargo host railways.

Published September 2022. Available in
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