Good afternoon, colleagues.
I am pleased to be replacing our chairman, Mr. Tweed, who, just like our deputy chair, Mr. Volpe, cannot be here today. It is my privilege therefore to chair this meeting.
As per the agenda, we will begin by hearing from witnesses, including Mr. Miller, Chief Safety and Transportation Officer at Canadian National. We will then hear from representatives from the Department of Transport. We will be discussing high speed rail, a study which is already underway.
You have all received the correspondence from the Minister of Transport, Mr. Baird, dealing with Bill . We will have an opportunity to discuss this during committee business, perhaps 15 to 20 minutes before the conclusion of this meeting.
Mr. Jean, you have the floor.
We're very pleased to be here. Thank you for the invitation. I'll make my remarks very brief to maximize the time available for the committee's questions.
At CN we are strong supporters of passenger rail operations in Canada as well as in the U.S. Here in Canada, about 77% of all passenger train miles are operated on CN's network. VIA Rail Canada, GO Transit in Toronto, and Agence métropolitaine de transport in Montreal are our three largest passenger train customers. There are others as well, such as the Rocky Mountaineer and our own operation on the former Algoma Central.
Safe service, efficient service, and reliable service are the keys for this business. For the first 10 months of this year, our on-time performance for our three largest customers has averaged about 92%. It's a little bit less for VIA Rail, and it's a little better than that for our commuter customers in Toronto and Montreal.
Another example of CN support for passenger rail in Canada is our strong relationship with VIA, with which we are working on upgrades to CN infrastructure to support additional train starts and improve schedule reliability in the Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa corridors.
I understand that your current study concerns high-speed passenger rail operations, which are an exciting reality in Europe and Asia and are currently receiving significant support in the U.S. This committee, the government, and Parliament as a whole will have a central role in determining whether or not Canada embarks on a true high-speed rail initiative.
It's an important and timely public policy decision involving significant costs but also significant benefits. Your decision will become a key element of long-term transportation policy in Canada.
Frankly, I do not envy you the task of balancing the mobility, energy efficiency, and environmental benefits of rail transportation with the competing investment needs that you must all deal with. But if I may, please allow me to summarize what CN feels are some of the key attributes of a safe and efficient high-speed rail passenger implementation.
First, we feel that it should operate on a dedicated and fenced right-of-way, without operations co-mingled between passenger and freight. There should be no public crossings at grade on that right-of-way, either public or private.
It should provide for electrified operation and electric locomotives. It should be protected, from a train control and safety point of view, with a positive train control type of system.
It should afford gentle gradients and curvature in order to obtain the types of speeds that the modern equipment can make. It should be efficiently linked to other transportation systems, particularly regional and urban public transportation systems.
I know that your committee has heard about the option that's generally termed “higher-speed” rail. This would be an incremental approach that would see passenger trains running marginally faster than today, still co-mingled with freight operations.
While I am not here on behalf of CN to say no to anything, this is not an option that CN would recommend. A maximum passenger train speed in excess of the current maximum of 100 miles per hour on existing heavy freight corridors is fraught with difficulties: in maintaining the track to the close tolerances required for passenger operations under those speeds, due to the heavy loads imposed by freight trains; in balancing the super-elevation of the curves required for the mix of both fast and slow trains; and in protecting against road and rail conflicts at crossings at grade and against the possibility of trespass. I would note that on our line, our Kingston subdivision between Toronto and Montreal, we have 246 public and 203 private crossings at grade.
Finally, in terms of maintaining schedule reliability as capacity consumption increases due to the increased difference in train speeds, which causes more frequent overtakes of slower trains, I note that in most territories outside the northeast corridor in the U.S., Amtrak, the passenger train operator there, is limited to 79 miles per hour, versus our current maximum here in Canada of 100 miles per hour between Toronto and Montreal. While maximum speeds for Amtrak are much higher in the northeast corridor—and again, I know your committee has studied this—there are very few freight trains operating in that territory, except on the short segments serving the Baltimore area. As well, the northeast corridor is completely grade-separated.
To summarize, CN believes that the best approach for high-speed passenger rail operations is on a dedicated right of way such as we see in Europe and Japan. However, we are willing to work with all participants on any option that affects our network or right of way. Our concerns with operating on a non-dedicated basis and co-mingling freight and passenger operations at higher speed include safety--and we would certainly want to have the rail safety group from Transport Canada at the table in any sort of discussion--passenger schedule reliability, and protection of our ability to move our customers or freight in an efficient manner.
Mr. Chair, I'll end there. I look forward to the committee's questions.
Sir, I don't have any cost data whatsoever to discuss with you. I know that's something the Government of Canada is working on with the governments of Ontario and Quebec.
In terms of the environmental mitigation measures you mentioned, you're absolutely right: they apply not only to high-speed passenger rail but to freight rail as well. We have a fishway through the middle of our intermodal terminal in Surrey, British Columbia, for example, and in our recent purchase of the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railway in the U.S., outside Chicago, we had issues involving the protection of butterflies and turtles.
It's a common thing for a linear network, of any type, to have to deal with these sorts of issues. You're absolutely right that this would be among the costs, both doing the reviews and the consultations with the people. Any time you have property acquisitions that might involve aboriginal or first nations communities, for example, they have to have their say, and they have their environmental experts comment on the uses of that land as well. It is a significant cost.
Again, it's for the government, and people such as yourselves, to weigh those costs against the benefits, including environmental benefits, you get from rail transportation, much as they have done in France and elsewhere in Europe, and in Japan.
Thank you for coming today, Mr. Miller. I appreciate your comments.
I've been one of the ones on the study tour to the northeast corridor. I think you've really come up against our big decision on the study to determine whether we're going to recommend incrementalism in the system or the advancement of dedicated alliance. To understand that better and understand what incrementalism in the system would mean as the Amtrak planners are working.... Even incrementalism is very expensive, billions of dollars being invested in what appears to be relatively little increase in speed.
Having said that, they have also taken operational steps in terms of freight and passengers in giving the passenger the priority in the daytime. Do you have any priorities on your system now between Montreal and Toronto?
Certainly our obligation and our expectation is that we're going to run the passenger trains on time, and we're contractually incented to run them on time. So if they are late we'll do whatever we can to get them back on time.
That's not to say that every individual dispatch decision will always be passenger over freight. Sometimes it makes more sense for the fluidity of the overall network to get the freight train out of the way. But generally speaking we do our best to get the passenger trains the high clear signal to get them past the freight trains and not to be delayed by the freight trains.
You raised a very important point. We do not run all our freight at night. We run our freight on a fairly balanced schedule throughout the day, again recognizing we obviously try to avoid the heaviest passenger train times by schedule. But because of the nature of our operation, the fact that our trains are coming from long distances away, they are not all running at night, as I believe they do, as you probably learned, at that one little spot on the northeast corridor.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. I'm going to be sharing my time with Mr. Jean.
When we began this study, we were looking at high-speed rail, and you've cited examples--Europe, Japan. We went to the U.S. anticipating we would see dedicated corridors being built and bullet trains on those dedicated corridors. That was not at all what we found. I think it was a very good experience, because I think economically we're a lot closer to what the U.S. is doing in terms of how much money we want to put into higher-speed rail and the demographics of our country.
You said you thought that the majority of lines in the U.S. were dedicated lines. I would tell you that was not what we found out. We were told the majority were shared lines with freight rail, and the only one that was a really, truly dedicated line with true high-speed rail was California.
Did I misunderstand you?
The first priority would be safety. It would be how the freight and passenger operations interact with one another, and as you mentioned, the number of grade crossings you would have to deal with, trespass issues, and so on.
The second priority would be schedule maintainability. Again, how do the freight and passenger trains interact? How do they delay one another? What sorts of impacts do you see? Can those be mitigated, and if so, how?
The first step would be a major risk assessment. Everyone--locomotive engineers, track maintenance people, the people who do the actual work--would be brought together to do a detailed risk assessment. Transport Canada rail safety people, as well, would be at that table to work through that in great detail.
The other priority, if I may--I should have said this--is that you really have to define what it is you are looking for. Is it 110 miles per hour? That is one thing. Is it 125 miles per hour? That is quite different. As for 150 miles per hour, I just wouldn't go there in terms of a comingled operation. I would strongly recommend against doing that.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I'd just like to say welcome to Mr. Plamondon, first of all. I wanted to let him know that there is a community in my riding, actually, called Plamondon, which was settled by persons with that name. Indeed, I was there last week. I made an announcement about investing in their arena, and they were very pleased to receive government funding for that.
Ten miles away is a community called Lac La Biche, and I have a question specifically for our guests today in relation to that community.
I met with the council of Lac La Biche last week, and they had a specific question in relation to CN. As you know, CN now has a yard in the community itself. Their interest is safety and efficiency in the community. They have two crossings, and when a train comes through town, it actually cuts the town in half. It cuts the community in two, as it does in many communities across the country. Their question to me was whether CN would consider closing the yard and moving it to another location just outside of town if there were some ability to trade land or trade some sort of equity position with the town. Right now you are making an investment in that track of $130 million. Would CN consider something like that at this stage?
Thank you. I am pleased to be back. I do not have much to add today to what I said last time, in May, when I spent two hours with the committee.
I'll start with just reminding people of what we said when we were here in May. I think what we did was take you through the different types of rail systems in terms of conventional, higher speed, and high speed, and tried to explain the differences between them. I also provided a bit of a summary of the previous studies that have been undertaken concerning high-speed rail with different parties and also with our provincial colleagues--Ontario and Quebec--and provided an overview of the update of the studies we are currently undertaking jointly with the two provinces. Also, I had noted at that point that we were making investments in VIA Rail that are ongoing now. The government announced two instalments: $516 million in 2007, and $407 million as part of the economic action plan earlier this year, for a total of $923 million of improvements on VIA Rail's networks, a lot of that going into the Quebec-Windsor corridor.
As well, I provided a bit of an overview of what we understand to be the program the U.S. government has launched in terms of its vision for high-speed rail. And I understand the committee had the opportunity to go to Washington and New York and had some discussions with the congressional representatives, Amtrak, the Government Accounting Office, and others. You probably know more about it than I do, so I would look forward to any insights you can provide us with about that program.
The one thing that I think you have been hearing, following some of the hearings that happened before the committee, is the importance of looking at a gradual system of higher speed to high speed. The approach that we are taking right now with VIA Rail is very much that. The investments are really to try to improve the service that VIA provides today, to improve the timeliness of the service, the on-time performances, improve the speeds but also add a few more frequencies. In fact, we view that as a transition. If ever high-speed rail does become feasible, we will be able to have tested whether or not additional riders will get on to VIA with improved service.
Other than that, I think you probably heard—just like we told you when we were here last—that there are key factors of success for high-speed rail. You probably heard that in the United States. We need to keep in mind that these systems are very expensive and that ultimately we need sufficient ridership in order to make the systems self-sustaining, and even in that we haven't yet found any system around the world that covers its operating cost or its capital cost. We are doing a study that I mentioned earlier with Ontario and Quebec, and we hope we are on target right now to finish that in the first quarter of 2010.
With that, I will open it up for questions.
As you may be aware, as part of the government's Asia Pacific gateway and corridor initiative, we have over the past three years announced numerous investments in rail infrastructure in the lower mainland. What we have been doing is systematically studying where the bottlenecks are in the rail infrastructure and then making improvements--studying what improvements need to be made, and then making improvements with partners. Those partners include the province; TransLink, the regional transit authority; and the port of metro Vancouver. In all cases they have included the municipalities as well as the railways.
The New Westminster rail bridge that you mentioned over the Fraser River is the last piece of the corridors that we are looking at. We've addressed what is called the Roberts Bank rail corridor, which goes directly from western Canada into Deltaport. We've already looked at the rail corridor at Burrard Inlet on the north shore. We made an announcement there in March of this year. Just a few weeks ago, in October, we made an announcement on the south shore on the terminals on the Vancouver part of the rail corridor.
The New Westminster rail bridge is our next study area, and we're hoping to launch the detailed engineering study on the possibility of replacing it. We've done some preliminary work with TransLink in looking at whether it would be possible to do a replacement bridge jointly with the replacement of the Pattullo Bridge. We've done that work with them. That is possible, but it's just that some of the height issues and the cost issues are quite large. We're just going to look at replacing the rail bridge itself and what the cost of that would be, because it's not just the bridge you have to look at; it's also the connecting rail lines that connect to the bridge.
Thank you for being here, Ms. Borges.
I wanted to say thank you, first of all, for outlining all of those investments in infrastructure that the government has made in the last few years. When this government came to power, it set out a document called “Advantage Canada”. It outlined the kinds of investments that needed to be made in infrastructure to move Canada forward and to have a long-term business plan.
You talked about the investments being made in Toronto and the York region, which I represent. We're certainly seeing the results of that. We have a bridge at the south end of Aurora that's going to be rehabilitated for our GO Trains. It's going to increase capacity for our GO Trains. Commuters to Toronto are going to find that it will be a tremendous advantage to them. The number of trains is going to be increased substantially.
Your intervention in May was a good overture for us in our preparation for our trip to Washington. I want to thank you for that. We had been talking about high-speed rail. What we found was that the discussion down there is not about high-speed rail—it's about higher-speed rail. We were introduced to the Amtrak perspective on the investments that are going into the northeast corridor.
Can you talk to us about how Canada is going to interface with those corridors in the northeast? What investments are we going to need to make in order to see an advantage in the connection between us and the northeast United States?
As you probably heard, Washington hasn't yet announced its investments. I don't know if you were told, but we met with our counterparts at the Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration in early October to get an update. I think they've received about 278 different applications totalling $103 billion worth of proposals for the $8 billion they have available right now. It will be interesting to see how they pick through those to see what investments they make.
With the services already in place, VIA, in looking at making improvements to its network, does improve some of those corridors on which Amtrak also provides services, where they connect in Niagara Falls, for example. Those improvements are happening on the Canadian side.
Until we get a sense from the U.S. side as to where their investment is going to be, much of what we're hearing about the Amtrak investment is that it's probably going to be more in the loop that does Philadelphia, Washington, Boston, New York, and New Jersey. That's where the priority is for them to bring the train speeds up to a higher level. I think they currently could operate at 110 miles per hour, but they're not. In most cases they're operating at 79 miles per hour. They will be improving that much like we're trying to do with VIA, in focusing on the corridor where VIA has the majority of the traffic. We are talking to them a lot. We are keeping a very close eye on what they're doing.
You might be surprised, and I don't know if they told you this, but the General Accounting Office met with us a year and a half or two years ago to learn from us what we do with VIA. I think they're trying to mirror what we've been doing in Canada for the last little while. Now that VIA is getting the biggest amount of money ever in its history to do all these improvements, I think it will go a long way in setting up VIA to provide much better service in the future and to work with Amtrak to try to improve the services across the key points of connection.
We are engaging with them. I think you heard from the Cascadia corridor as well. We have entered into discussions with them. They're interested in hearing some of our perspectives on what we've been doing here to try to emulate that in the British Columbia-Seattle corridor. We'll continue those discussions with them.
We've been approached by some of the states. Michigan and New York are interested both in terms of Montreal and Niagara. We'll continue those discussions and see how we can work together. If there are opportunities, we'll definitely talk to them about them.
I will be using some of Mr. Plamondon's time.
It is a good thing that you highlight the merits of government investments, but if we take the study on Amtrak, we have to admit that we are far from achieving the same results as the Americans, as far as passenger rail is concerned.
A little earlier on, Mr. Miller said that 78% of trains generally arrive on time, which includes passenger trains and VIA Rail. Amtrak completely controls passenger transport in the corridor. They choose the schedules whereas we have not reached that point. We have not had such a rate of success. The Agence métropolitaine de transport de Montréal has had significant delays in the last year. We do not have such a rate of efficiency as far as respecting schedules is concerned.