While some Ottawa municipal officials are resisting the concept, the leader of a private business seeking to set up an interprovincial commuter rail system in Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec says he can have trains running by 2020, assuming regulatory conflicts between the federal and municipal levels of government are resolved quickly.
The MOOSE Consortium, led by director general Joseph Potvin, wants to run metropolitan passenger trains over tracks owned by Ottawa, Gatineau, VIA, CP and CN, including the Prince of Wales Bridge owned by Ottawa, but federally regulated. The business model is based on station franchises paying a fee for train service, splitting the actual increased income and asset value of property within 0.8 km of the station. The project would use existing rail lines to places such as Smiths Falls, Montebello, Arnprior and others.
The city has resisted the plan, tearing up a section of the main line track and building the new Bayview Station in the middle of that corridor, and obstructing it, although Mayor Jim Watson says ultimately the city will use the Prince of Wales bridge for its own transit system, connecting Gatineau and Ottawa.
After MOOSE notified the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), the federal railway regular ruled earlier in the year that the city must reconnect the torn-up and obstructed Bayview tracks within 12 months of the agency granting running rights to another railway company. If not, the city must formally give notice that it will discontinue the line – which according to the law means that it must offer it for sale to a company that would run trains on it.
MOOSE has said that it would raise commercial funds to buy and fully refurbish the bridge for passenger service. But the city has taken the issue to the Federal Court of Appeals, and separately has initiated a “Section 40 Petition” through the federal Minister of Transport to have the federal cabinet rescind the CTA ruling. The city then put the appeal to the Minister “in abeyance” pending the Federal Court of Appeals decision on the matter.
However, Potvin says MOOSE has also initiated its own “Section 40 Petition” through the minister and cabinet, asking the Minister of Transport simply order the city without delay to repair the track that it dismantled and obstructed, and allow MOOSE “running rights” on the rail line.
“We’re planning to run trains across the bridge in 2020,” Potvin said. “We need the tracks whole.”
Potvin says investors are willing to put money into the project to cover the costs of track repairs, upgrades and running stock. But nothing can happen until the Federal Court of Appeals and cabinet get on with asserting federal regulatory clarity over the torn up Bayview area track and the neglect of maintenance on the interprovincial bridge, he says.
MOOSE has been working on the project since 2010, and filed its initial case with the CTA in 2011. In 2012, the agency confirmed that the city’s rail line is a federally-regulated railway, and is subject to CTA jurisdiction and rules. But in 2016 the city dismantled a part of the track and blocked the corridor, so MOOSE asked the federal agency to enforce its own 2012 decision. Finally in February, 2018, the agency ruled that the city had violated the agency’s requirements by tearing up and obstructing the railway at the Bayview Station.
MOOSE had said it would cover the approximately $50 million in costs to rehabilitate the Prince of Wales Bridge, and the company is on record with the city and CTA offering to commercially raise amount to also reconnect the track, if the Ottawa loses its court appeal.
Potvin says the federal government needs to make a decision without further delay. “We have been talking with many people at the City of Ottawa – some who love our plan,” he said. “There’s a fight going on within the city. We need the CTA/federal government to be the referee.”
A Toronto-based group of investment sydnicators is under an agreement with MOOSE to raise the funds for the railway project once MOOSE clears its regulatory hurdles, says Charles Ivey, representing the financial investment group. “We are the agents who are putting the (funding) syndication together,” he said.
“The investment world does not like uncertainty,” he said. “Right now we have a number of issues that have created some risk as to whether the project will be able to get off the ground.”
Ivey said that while private developers will fund the stations, tens of millions of dollars are needed for rail line upgrades. If regulatory hurdles can be overcome, the rail service will start in stages, depending on where the demand is greatest and the stations can be built.
Ivey said Potvin’s suggested 2020 start date could only be achieved if the legal and regulatory barriers are overcome right away.