Imagine boarding a train in Downtown Toronto and arriving in Montreal just a few hours later. That concept may no longer be just a figment of someone's imagination, if Robert Pritchard has his way. Canada's Minister of Transport, Omar Alghabra, recently appointed him as the Chair of the Board of Directors for VIA HFR-VIA TGF Inc. (“VIA HFR” for short), a new, wholly owned federal Crown corporation that will report to Parliament through the minister. He will lead a project to bring High Frequency Rail to Canada.

Robert Pritchard, chair of VIA HFR, the Government of Canada office responsible for developing the High Frequency Rail project, image courtesy of VIA HFR

Many readers will be already familiar with Pritchard. In 2009, former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty appointed him to be the first Chief Executive Officer of Metrolinx, as that agency and GO Transit merged to become the regional transportation agency for the Greater Toronto Area. After completing the merger, he served for eight years as chair of Metrolinx.

During part two of the Toronto Region Board of Trade's recent Transportation Symposium, Pritchard spoke about the project during his first formal remarks as the Chair. He told attendees, "When Minister Alghabra outlined his vision for High Frequency Rail, I was struck by the implications of linking Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City in a first phase, then — subject to further study — eventually adding London and Windsor. It is... a transformational vision.

"High Frequency Rail means frequent, reliable, and fast rail service on dedicated tracks, creating a powerful alternative to cars and airplanes, and making possible accessible, clean and comfortable transportation throughout the region. The minister’s vision is bold, and it is big. It is challenging, but it is also compelling. It is what we need, and it is what we will deliver."

Pritchard discussed the reaction of colleagues and others to his new role. "When my appointment was announced, I received a lot of feedback. There were two themes. First, it is about time: about time that Canada committed to catching up to the quality of rail service so many Canadians have enjoyed in other countries and wondered why we could not have the same at home. These responses were enthusiastic and supportive, urging that we get on with the job and deliver the goods.

"The second theme reflected skepticism: we've heard about this idea for a long time. Will it really happen this time?"

A high-speed rail train in the Gare de Lyon in Paris, image by Smiley.toerist - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

He continued, "The case for VIA HFR is compelling from every perspective. Everyone understands that. It is good for the climate. It is good for the passengers. It broadens opportunities for population growth and housing alternatives. It is good for the communities that will be served. It is good for business. It offers prompt, reliable transportation options between communities allowing greater degrees of freedom to citizens about where they live and where they work. This is why the instinctive reactions are enthusiastic support. It is a project whose time has come. It must be done.

"It is also a big challenge. It is a large and complex project requiring major investment and intersecting with many communities and interests. Big infrastructure projects are tough, and HFR will be no exception. The previous visions for high-speed rail linking these communities remained just dreams. Thus the skepticism [that] we will deliver this time. I am confident we will. This plan has been developed carefully, thoughtfully, and skillfully."

According to a Government of Canada news release, "High Frequency Rail will transform passenger rail service in Canada through the creation of a faster, more frequent, accessible, and sustainable rail service among the major centres of Québec City, Trois-Rivières, Montréal, Ottawa, Peterborough, and Toronto." In the release, the government claims that "High Frequency Rail could transform intercity passenger rail in the Toronto to Québec City corridor through a variety of project outcomes, including...

  • Shortening average journey times between major cities;

  • Providing more frequent departures between major cities;

  • Offering more reliable and improved on-time performance;

  • Adding new services to Peterborough and Trois-Rivières; and

  • Providing a greener rail system and cleaner travel option using electrified technology."

The Government provided Transport Canada and Infrastructure Canada with $396.8 million over two years, starting in 2022-23, to continue advancing these key project activities and undertake the procurement phase of the project.

Pritchard explained that plans for High Frequency Rail originated with VIA Rail. He said, "VIA has long faced a problem of sharing rail corridors with freight trains and being the second priority in these corridors. This has led to inadequate and unreliable service. To remedy this situation, VIA developed its vision for High Frequency Rail using tracks dedicated for passenger rail travel, thereby providing travellers a reliable and convenient alternative to cars and airplanes.

Map of VIA Rail High Frequency Rail concept, image courtesy of VIA RailVIA developed a plan for High Frequency Rail that included new dedicated tracks between Quebec City and Montreal through Trois-Rivières and between Montreal and Toronto through Ottawa and Peterborough. At the same time, it would upgrade its current tracks in the corridor to support more frequent and faster trains.

On December 15, 2022, the Government of Canada announced that it was creating VIA HFR as a dedicated project office for a High Frequency Rail project. Once it is fully operating, it will assume leadership of key project activities, including:

  • Indigenous consultations and public engagement;

  • advancing impact assessment requirements;

  • negotiations with host railways; and

  • technical and engineering design work.

Map of high-speed railway lines in Europe, image by Original PNG : User:Bernese media, User:BIL2011 SVG version: User:Akwa and others (see the history & the source file) - This file was derived from: High Speed Railroad Map of Europe 2015.svg&Own work using:BackgroundGeographical shapes from File:Europe laea location map.svgMeridian and circles from File:Europe natural laea location map.jpg Multiple countriesTrans-European Transport Network (TEN-T):Passenger railway map of Europe, core and comprehensive networks (updated Feb. 2019) (using exactly the same geographical projection as this map).TEN-T corridors maps.High Speed database & maps on the International Union of Railways (UIC) website.OpenStreetmap, transport layer: railways geographical paths (the geographical projection of the map is however different than this map, making the shapes a little different).Railteam Alliance interactive network map.European Transport Open data (Inspire Geoportal)Maps of railway networks, very deta

Pritchard admitted that getting residents of communities near the High Frequency line to support the project is key to its eventual success. "One of the biggest challenges we face is gaining the social license to build this 1,000-kilometre railway. We will touch many communities, and we need the support of all of them. Most significantly, we will travel through many Indigenous communities. We will engage with these Indigenous people: we will seek their advice, we will seek to involve them, and we will seek their partnership. This process of engagement is already underway and will continue throughout the impact assessment process. We will build a team to guide all the stakeholder engagement activities knowing that doing this well and authentically is a prerequisite for success."

He further explained: "Pritchard said, "[Another challenge is] building and maintaining public and government support for the project, given it costs a lot and will take a decade to deliver. To achieve this, we need to build momentum and then keep it up. We need to build support in every community we touch. We need to tell our story frequently and we need to build excitement about the possibilities that lie ahead. We need to explain the advantages of vastly improved passenger rail transportation, and we need to be seen as an important part of Canada’s strategy for addressing the climate crisis. We need to be expert, credible and transparent. And we need to select an outstanding private partner to realize all this promise with us."

Other rail carriers have a major role to play. "We also need to work well with the freight railways as we determine the best route for our service. It is clear that strong passenger rail service cannot be subordinate to freight rail service. We need to develop an approach that meets the needs of both."

On February 17, 2023, Canada launched a request for qualifications. From that process, it will identify as many as three qualified bidders, invite them to respond to a request for proposals and then select a partner to "co-develop and optimize the project."

Once the government has selected a private developer partner, VIA HFR would work with the partner to design and develop the High Frequency Rail project, in close co-ordination with VIA Rail. However, VIA HFR also operates at arms-length from VIA Rail and acts as a dedicated project office for the High Frequency Rail project. Eventually, VIA will take over the operation of the High Frequency Rail service.

Pritchard explained, "The thesis is that passengers will use a high-quality service that offers many trips a day in comfort and with reasonable journey times and arrives on time virtually every time. This will offer a superior alternative to cars and airplanes. It will be better for the environment, and better for the communities we serve. Our challenge is to deliver exactly this."

The government's release enthusiastically adds, "Canadians have been clear that they want clean air, an efficient transportation system, and an economy that works for everyone and creates good middle class jobs. High Frequency Rail will do just that. In addition to reducing pollution, it will provide better and faster service between... major centres... As Canada’s largest infrastructure project, it will also create jobs for the next decade.

Map of high-speed rail lines in Eastern Asia, image, by FlyAkwa (old png file : WouterH) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Pritchard added, "One question I am repeatedly asked is why this is called High Frequency Rail and not high-speed rail? Of course, everyone would like the highest possible speed delivering the lowest possible journey time. However high-speed rail carries unique and costly infrastructure requirements. We will explore opportunities to save travellers as much time as possible. As the minister noted when he launched the procurement, we want to leverage the private sector’s world-class knowledge and expertise to improve intercity passenger train service. We want ideas to improve the service, including higher opportunities for higher speed segments where these make financial and operational sense. But the objective is to save time, not to achieve speed for the sake of speed.

But, these would still be very rapid trains and rapid trains require specialized infrastructure to operate effectively. In 2017, we wrote that, "High-speed train lines usually require major investment by railway companies, government or other partners to build infrastructure that can especially support fast trains. Such trains usually require continuously welded rail on a grade-separated right-of-way that incorporates a large turning radius in its design.

"Most modern railways, but especially high-speed lines, use continuous welded rail or "ribbon rails" on the track bed. In this form of track, the rails are welded together to form one continuous rail that may be several kilometres long. With few joints, this form of track is very strong, reduces vibration and misalignment and provides smoother rides. Trains can travel on these tracks at higher speeds with less friction. Although welded rails are more expensive to lay than jointed tracks, they have much lower maintenance costs.

"Most high-speed lines are grade-separated, meaning that their builders have eliminated level crossings and the tracks cross over or under all roadways. They also usually require dedicated tracks, so that freight and other passengers trains don't slow down the service."

Special "ballast-less" (no gravel) track for high-speed trains in Germany, image by Klaus Leidorf, - Klaus Leidorf, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Canadian governments and rail service providers have long discussed the possibility of such a project along the Windsor-to-Quebec-City corridor – the most populous area of Canada. The Canadian National Railway developed its Turbo service between Toronto and Montreal in the late 1960s in an early effort to develop such a service.

In 2008, then premiers Dalton McGuinty of Ontario and Jean Charest of Quebec proposed a joint feasibility study of a fast train line linking the two provinces.

Before the 2014 provincial election, Ontario's then transportation minister Glen Murray included a Toronto-Kitchener-London high-speed rail line in the government’s list of transportation promises for the next decade in its Moving Ontario Forward plan. In October 2015, the province appointed former federal transport minister, David Collenette, as its special advisor on the scheme.

Collenette's report to the Province of Ontario proposed trains operating at 250 kilometres per hour at a cost of $55 million per kilometre. Under this scenario, passengers could travel between Windsor and Toronto in just two hours, instead of four hours with the current train service. A journey between London and Toronto would be slightly longer than an hour, similar to the time for a GO train trip from Union Station to Hamilton or Barrie.

In 2017, then-Premier Kathleen Wynne officially kicked off the preliminary design process for the proposed service. The provincial government intended to spend $15 million on an environmental assessment to determine the specifications of fast trains between Toronto and London by 2025 and Windsor by 2031.

The current provincial government of Premier Doug Ford paused spending on the project in 2019.

Pritchard concluded his remarks to the Board of Trade by comparing the project to other historic Canadian infrastructure projects: "Building our national railway in the 19th century was one of Canada’s great acts of building a nation. It was critical to realizing the full promise of Canada. This new project has similar promise, connecting our largest provinces with a 21st-century passenger rail service worthy of our nation. Moreover, it offers an opportunity to advance reconciliation in a way that eluded Canada generation ago."

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UrbanToronto will continue to follow progress on this proposal, but in the meantime, you can join in on the conversation in the associated VIA Rail Forum thread or leave a comment in the space provided on this page.

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UrbanToronto has a research service, UrbanToronto Pro, that provides comprehensive data on construction projects in the Greater Toronto Area—from proposal through to completion. We also offer Instant Reports, downloadable snapshots based on location, and a daily subscription newsletter, New Development Insider, that tracks projects from initial application.