Alberta’s High Speed Fail
Most would love it, but few want to pay for it
by Alberta Venture Staff
Illustration Graham Roumieu
The bullet train debate is back. “Every once in a while it comes up, gets some people excited and some annoyed, then dies down again,” says Paul Pettypiece, president of the Forth Junction Heritage Society in Red Deer. While the idea to link Calgary and Edmonton with a fast train has returned, thanks to a provincial government committee examining its feasibility, Pettypiece says it was first proposed by an MLA in 1985. Ironically, the idea owes partial inspiration to Canadian Pacific and Canadian National deciding to scrap passenger rail services between Alberta’s big cities.
Back in the 1980s, rail companies wanted out of the unprofitable passenger-rail business; government, it was believed, needed to step in and build a better (faster) train. But it never did. Since then, Alberta’s population has grown by about 80 per cent, and nearly 75 per cent of us reside in Calgary, Edmonton or the corridor linking them.
If you build a bullet train, “Both cities can be considered as one by shrinking the time between them,” said Bob Brawn, a member of the Van Horne Institute’s board, to the Calgary Herald. Indeed, Van Horne’s influential 2004 study on the proposed train was subtitled “An Integrated Economic Region.” But detractors see the train as a white elephant that threatens Edmonton’s waning influence in Alberta.
So who’s right?
1. The Proposal
Alberta High Speed Rail (AHSR) estimates it can build a bullet train linking Calgary and Edmonton for about $4 billion using private funding. Company president Bill Cruickshanks says the resulting train would hit 300 kilometres an hour, take about 90 minutes and cost passengers about $100 per ticket.
2. The Cost
A 2004 Van Horne study created three hypothetical options (all with five stations – two each in Calgary and Edmonton’s downtowns and airports; one in Red Deer) and costed them out. It has since updated estimates to 2013 dollars. The options: upgrade an existing CP freight line to handle a 200 km/h train ($2.6 billion); build a completely new “green field” route with a 240 km/h Bombardier Jet Train ($3.9 billion); and build a 320 km/h electric-train version of the green field route ($5.2 billion).
3. The Financing
Few believe AHSR can build a train without public money. Bullet train projects “will always come out higher than what is projected,” says John Schmal, a former Calgary alderman who also headed the Canadian Federation of Municipalities. Schmal notes only two bullet trains in the world have paid for themselves. “You could be halfway through and all of sudden run out of money and where do you think they’ll look? To government,” he says. And, Schmal says, there are more pressing needs. “My gosh, we need billions of dollars currently for LRTs, to service populations within our cities.”
4. The Planes
Other demand is in the air. Each day there are 24 scheduled flights between Calgary and Edmonton, taking about 45 minutes in the air (or close to two hours with commuting added on) and offering a yearly total of about 1.3 million seats. Air Canada has supported the rail project on the condition it will connect both Calgary and Edmonton’s airports and not get a dime from public coffers. “To be clear, we would be opposed to the project if its construction or operation was subsidized by any level of government,” wrote Derek Vanstone, Air Canada’s vice-president of corporate strategy, in a letter to the committee. Rich words, considering Air Canada’s history of public subsidies.
5. The Demand
“The populations in Edmonton and Calgary need to be double what they are today, at a minimum” to justify a bullet train, Schmal says. But is population the only way to gauge demand? After all, the corridor linking the two cities is the busiest in Canada. Measured by trip generation, it’s 3.5 times busier than the Toronto-to-Montreal corridor. Despite having just more than two million people, the corridor’s traffic volume is “equivalent to a corridor with a population of more than eight million people,” according to a submission to the committee by Ian Rainey, with U.S.-Japan High-Speed Rail. Granted, much of that is freight which would not use a high speed rail link.
The 2004 Van Horne study projected bullet train ridership in 2021 would range from a low of 1.3 million fares to a high of 7.9 million. That, critics say, is rather wide. “There is a great deal more risk in these forecasts than people anticipate,” Marc-Andre Roy, a consultant advising the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts on the proposal, told the Calgary Herald. “It’s not uncommon for ridership not to materialize.”
The keys for demand, the Van Horne study found, were perceived congestion on the Queen Elizabeth Highway and the price of gas.