VIA joins Amtrak in its bid to replace aging passenger cars

A 1955 Budd-built Prestige-class observatory dome follows the Canadian Canadian westbound north of Toronto on September 14, 2022. Since then, concerns about the structural integrity of the aging stainless steel cars have led to the addition of buffer cars in each end of all stainless steel consists. Bob Johnston

MONTREAL — VIA Rail Canada has issued a formal request for information from potential locomotive and passenger car manufacturers who may be interested in retrofitting the company’s long-distance and regional long-distance passenger trains.

VIA’s appeal comes as Amtrak evaluates the responses received from a similar solicitation [see “Amtrak seeks carbuilder interest …,” Trains News Wire, Jan. 19, 2022]. It also comes as the equipment the company evaluates on the structural integrity of stainless steel cars built by Budd in the 1940s and 1950s — the cars VIA wants to replace [see “VIA: Need for ‘in-depth’ inspections led to buffer car decision,” News Wire, Oct. 19, 2022].

The Canadian operator’s “Long-Haul, Regional and Remote Fleet Renewal Project” market consultation notice issued late Friday, Jan. 27, said VIA is looking to select a “vendor to design, manufacture, test, supply, deliver and commissioning of vehicles and motive power and auxiliary equipment (on-board and out-board) with prescribed capacity for vehicle types (seater, sleeper, dining, multi-purpose, luggage) through an open competitive procurement process.’

VIA will consult with prospective applicants “to obtain feedback on VIA Rail’s proposed technical specifications, scope of maintenance work, and commercial and contractual terms.” This is “to reduce potential time to market [and] ensure clarity of requirements … before starting a formal procurement process.” Parties must sign non-disclosure agreements by February 17 before participating.

A general information session involving prospective applicants is due to take place in March, and confidential meetings with individual car manufacturers or consortia will begin in May. P1 Consulting was selected as a “fairness monitor” to attend all meetings.

The accelerated timeline for gauging manufacturer interest and initiating substantive discussions essentially recognizes that each participating manufacturer has already responded to Amtrak’s request for information.

The RDC vehicle stopped by the lake
Fishermen unload supplies from a Sudbury-White River rail diesel car in Goldie, Ont., on June 22, 2012. Such remote services offer equipment unique to VIA. Bob Johnston

Unique to VIA’s network as currently constituted are remote services in four Canadian provinces. With the exception of the Winnipeg-Churchill, Manitoba multi-day night train, they do not require the full complement of sleeping, saloon and dining cars required for ocean (Montreal-Halifax, Nova Scotia) or Canadian (Toronto-Vancouver, British Columbia). One remote route serving areas not accessible by highways, the tri-weekly Sudbury-White River, Ontario train currently operates with Budd-built diesel railcars. Another. between The Pas and Pukatawagan, Manitoba, uses the only remaining non-stainless steel VIA railcars, ex-Canadian National Relics, on a mixed train twice weekly.

Most manufacturing synergies matching Amtrak’s equipment needs, however, involve replacing the rolling stock of ocean and Canadian. Investment in new equipment has bypassed the replacement of cars built more than 60 years ago that currently travel long distances and remote routes. Instead, VIA purchased equipment for the Quebec City-Windsor, Ontario corridor: Bombardier’s Light Rapid Comfortable in 1980 and 32 five-car Siemens Venture trains at a cost of C$989 million (about US$750 million) that are now being delivered .

Whatever the manufacturer’s interest, this inquiry gives VIA management a tangible price with which to seek the government funding needed to maintain long-distance service.

It comes as the company is poised to launch new corridor trains but has been ruled out of developing a separate passenger “high-frequency rail” route between Quebec City and Toronto. That project has been usurped by Transport Canada, which has created a separate entity that could potentially include private investors [see “Responding to inquiries, Transport Canada adjusts ..,” News Wire, Nov. 1, 2022].

Transport Canada, as the transportation arm of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party administration, also oversees the passenger operator’s priorities and funding. In the mid-1980s, VIA tested borrowed Amtrak Superliners after Bombardier bought the design rights to these cars from the defunct Pullman Standard. Tests in a harsh Canadian winter were successful, but Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s government not only passed on an investment that would have benefited Bombardier, but also cut overall funding, precipitating VIA’s severe downsizing in 1990.

More than 30 years later, as VIA once again seeks to replace its aging fleet, the future of Canada’s transcontinental passenger rail system hangs in the balance. “VIA: New trains, new challenges” (March 2023 trains Magazine) provides an in-depth look at Siemens’ new rolling stock and the forces impacting the Canadian passenger operator.

Dinner is about to be served as the Canadian glides through rural Ontario in October 2018. VIA’s approach to long-haul dining is markedly different from Amtrak’s recent path. Bob Johnston

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