Robert Pritchard names new board chair to lead Quebec City to Toronto high-speed rail project

The federal government created a subsidiary of VIA Rial and appointed Robert Prichard, current chairman of Torys LLP and director of Onex Corporation, as the first chairman of the subsidiary’s board of directors.JP MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

The federal government is creating an independent VIA Rail subsidiary to work with private partners on a planned high-frequency rail megaproject that will build and operate a dedicated passenger line between Quebec City and Toronto.

Robert Prichard, current chairman of Torys LLP and director of Onex Corporation, will serve as the first chairman of the subsidiary’s new board of directors. Two other board members were also announced Thursday: Marie-José Nadeau, who sits on the board of several other companies, will serve as vice chair. Former federal deputy minister Rob Fonberg is the third board member.

Mr. Prichard has been described as “the poster child for corporate Canada” because of his membership on numerous boards. He was mentioned in the 2019 federal ethics commissioner’s report on the government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin controversy but was not charged with wrongdoing.

The commissioner’s report concluded that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated ethics laws by pressuring then-Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould to overrule the attorney general’s decision not to invite SNC-Lavalin to sign a criminal case. Decision on Deferred Prosecution Agreement. The charges against the company.

During his tenure as SNC-Lavalin’s legal adviser, Mr Pritchard spoke with several senior officials, including then-Treasurer Scott Brison and a top political aide in the prime minister’s office, over the company’s delayed prosecution, the report said. wishes were discussed.

Mr Pritchard said in an email Thursday that he would serve on the new board in his personal capacity. “As a director, I cannot and will not give legal advice to any party dealing with HFR,” he said.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra announced the appointment of the board on Thursday, calling it an “important milestone” in the development of the project.

The Liberal government has been studying high-frequency rail for years. It has received interim funding to continue the planning phase, but Ottawa has yet to make a final decision to approve construction. The pace of planning activity has accelerated in recent months. On October 31, the government published the results of the expression of interest process, saying more than 50 industry players had submitted submissions.

The next phase is a two-month application for eligibility starting in January 2023, followed by an application for proposals planned to last nine months in late spring. Next is the “co-development” phase, which is estimated to take 3.5 years. Towards the end of that phase, the federal government will make a final investment decision and begin construction.

The government did not provide an updated cost estimate for the project. It could cost between $6 billion and $12 billion, Mr Alghabra told reporters last year. After the dedicated line from Quebec City to Toronto, a second phase could continue to Windsor, the minister said.

In a November report to the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships, the project was described by the government as a dedicated rail line of more than 1,000 kilometers in length, mostly electrified, with the ultimate goal of operating at speeds of up to 200 kilometers per hour.

While these speeds are slower than full high-speed trains, proponents of the project say the line will greatly improve intercity travel times because passenger trains will no longer be delayed by sharing the rail line with freight.

Previous planning documents have indicated the creation of an independent entity to oversee the project. The government is looking for a consortium of private partners to build and operate a new passenger rail service.

Federal planning documents propose a deal structure in which the Canadian government would provide “downside protection” in the event of revenues falling substantially below expectations. The deal will also include additional revenue to “ensure Canadians benefit from a high level of program success.” The documents mention the need for a “transition strategy” related to VIA’s existing workforce, which the government says will be done “in consultation with unions and with respect for collective bargaining”.

The plan was strongly opposed by Unifor, the union representing VIA rail workers, because it would effectively privatize the existing publicly owned railroad company.

Unifor spokesman Hamid Osman said there was no reason the project couldn’t remain within VIA’s current structure.

“Today’s announcement is concerning because we believe it continues the process of privatizing Canada’s National Passenger Rail Service,” he said in a statement. “Like many Canadians, we believe that VIA Rail must remain a public entity.”

The Windsor-Quebec City corridor accounts for nearly 75 percent of VIA’s revenue and 90 percent of the system’s passenger traffic, Mr. Osman said.

“Once the corridor service is separated, VIA Rail will be left with very few routes in Western Canada and the Atlantic,” he said. “Insufficient revenue will only further worsen service levels in the rest of Canada and jeopardize VIA’s future.”

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