The NDP and Unifor are concerned a passenger rail service connecting Toronto and Quebec City could become privatized following a federal announcement last week.
On March 9, federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra revealed the government is seeking private proposals to solicit “advice and views from industry” for the Via Rail high-frequency Quebec City-Windsor corridor.
“This really feels like a bait and switch … that the government is intending to have the rail line operated by a private company,” the NDP’s transport critic Taylor Bachrach told Canada’s National Observer. “This is a huge project and a huge opportunity for Canada and we need to get it right.”
The government’s expression of interest says the private sector would help design, build and finance the high-frequency rail project “that they would ultimately operate and maintain” and collect revenues from.
While it is common for major infrastructure projects to involve the private sector in the construction and design phases, Bachrach said “the idea that a private corporation could also take over the operation of this line over the long term” is a surprise and is “not going to be in the best interest of Canadians.”
In a statement to Canada’s National Observer, Alghabra said: “This is not a privatization of Via Rail. This will grow and strengthen Via Rail. The project is going to be the largest in Canada’s history and we need to do it right. That is why we are inviting the private sector to step forward with their expertise to partner in delivering this transformational project.”
This is the “biggest investment in passenger rail in a generation” and will create better travel options to connect communities, combat climate change and create jobs and economic growth, his statement reads. Alghabra also noted the government will work with the private sector and Indigenous communities and businesses to address any impacts the project may have on Indigenous peoples.
The Quebec City-Windsor corridor accounted for more than 90 per cent of Via Rail’s ridership and 80 per cent of its revenues in 2019. If the corridor is privatized, “that’s going to be a huge blow to the viability of Via Rail,” said Bachrach.
“The Liberal government is fixated with bringing in private capital and turning over major public infrastructure projects to the private sector,” said Bachrach. The result, he says, is low-quality services and higher costs for Canadians, which is why he hopes no private partners will come forward or the government will scrap the idea altogether.
.@taylorbachrach & @UniforTheUnion worry the federal government is privatizing service for the Via rail high-frequency corridor between Quebec City-Windsor. Ottawa's #LRT is one example of a "dismal failure" in a public-private partnership. #cdnpoli
Ottawa’s light rail train (LRT) is one high-profile example of a public-private partnership resulting in a “dismal failure,” said Bachrach.
After a construction period complete with delays, sinkholes, lawsuits and increasing costs, the LRT opened more than a year late in September 2019 and has since been plagued with stoppages, derailments and safety concerns.
The City of Ottawa and the construction companies are currently suing each other.
NDP MP Niki Ashton recently tabled a private member’s bill that would provide an alternative to public-private partnerships.
Her bill proposes removing language in the Canada Infrastructure Bank’s mandate that allows it to seek out private investment and instead encourage the federal government to fund public projects that will help Canadians manage the climate crisis. This would help communities finance critical infrastructure needed to survive the climate crisis and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“This is Canada's most densely populated corridor, so there's tremendous potential to use high-frequency rail to get people out of their cars and get them moving up and down that corridor in a low-carbon way,” said Bachrach. “This is a project that needs to be done well, and it needs to be done in the best interest of Canadians.”
Unifor is also calling on the federal government to reverse its decision on the rail project.
In a press release last week, Unifor said it plans to “aggressively fight back” against what it says is “the first of many steps to privatize Via Rail.”
“Privatization in transportation means higher costs, broken promises, worse service and route closures,” said Scott Doherty, Unifor's lead negotiator for rail, in the press release. “Public-private partnerships often lead to lower wages, job insecurity and health and safety risks for workers and “is bound to go off the rails.”
In response to Unifor’s concerns, Alghabra said in his statement that any arrangement with the private sector must respect collective agreements, work with Via Rail’s employees and unions and ensure existing employees benefit from job opportunities from the project.
“Via Rail is central to the success of this project, and will continue to play a critical role throughout its entirety, working collaboratively with a private partner,” Alghabra’s statement reads. “We will protect the public interest. We will protect public assets and we will protect and expand jobs and union membership.”
The Conservative Party’s shadow minister of transportation, Melissa Lantsman, did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.
Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer