All Aboard!

Alberta should choo-choose rail.

By Paula Simons

Once upon a time a passenger train ran between Edmonton and Calgary. In 1969 the Dayliner was so popular, it ran three times a day, in each direction, carrying about 80,000 passengers a year from city centre to city centre.

But as the 1970s wore on and train travel fell out of fashion, the route began to languish. So did its care and maintenance. In 1971 CP, which ran the line, closed its station in downtown Edmonton, putting the terminus of the route in Strathcona—which was hardly the hipster hotspot it is today.

As ridership decreased, CP reduced the frequency of service, which in turn caused ridership to fall faster. In 1978 VIA took over the Edmonton–Calgary train. But ridership continued to decline, and the line was plagued by delays and accidents. In 1981 the federal Railway Transport Committee concluded that the Edmonton–Calgary corridor was the best potential market outside of the Windsor–Quebec City corridor and ordered VIA to improve its service. VIA lowered its fares to $27 each way, and ridership perked back up to 53,000 passengers in 1982.

It wasn’t enough. On September 6, 1985, the train pulled into Edmonton for the final time. For the first time in 94 years, there was no passenger rail connection between the two cities.

Today, when we’re mired in traffic on the QEII or stuck in a security line at the airport, a fast, efficient rail link between Edmonton and Calgary seems a tantalizing fantasy. But is the idea of linking Alberta’s largest cities and largest economies with passenger rail really so fantastical? Study after study has shown we don’t have a large enough population to support expensive high speed rail, the sort that runs at 320 km/h or faster. But suppose we just had a modern, mid-speed conventional train, the kind with a top speed of 200 km/h, perhaps?

Sadly, VIA hasn’t shown much interest in that proposition. As the company recovers from the pandemic, it’s not likely to change its mind. The province, meanwhile, has signed a memorandum of understanding with a Toronto company, TransPod, for a feasibility study of a $7-billion “hyperloop” to run between the two cities—an unproven technology likely to be even more expensive than high-speed rail.

A good, old-fashioned-yet-utterly-up-to- date Edmonton–Calgary train seems a much more logical infrastructure investment than a hyperloop.

Sure. A hyperloop sounds wickedly cool—if incredibly uncomfortable. But I’m dubious one will be whisking us from Edmonton to Calgary anytime soon.

Trains are a different matter. Last June the province and the Canada Infrastructure Development Bank signed a much more promising MOU for a feasibility study of a 130 km rail link that would connect Calgary and Banff. It wouldn’t be high speed. Instead, it would be a “green” commuter train, which would go from the Calgary airport to downtown Calgary, and then on to Cochrane, Morley/Kananaskis, Canmore and Banff.

This wouldn’t just be a novelty for tourists: it would be a practical workhorse, running eight times a day, linking downtown Calgary to the airport and allowing workers to commute from Canmore to Calgary or from Morley to Banff, potentially taking thousands of cars off the road.

Key questions must be asked, such as the impact on wildlife. And plenty of financing questions must be sorted out. How much of the train should be funded privately? How much by different orders of government? Despite this, the conversation about the Calgary–Banff train is chugging full steam ahead—in no small part because the project has been vigorously and strategically championed by Banff-based financiers and developers Jan and Adam Waterous, the project’s most effective advocates, who’ve spent years lobbying for the line.

An Edmonton–Calgary train, alas, doesn’t have those kinds of well-connected private backers. But given our urban population growth, our need to lower carbon emissions and the economic and cultural benefits of linking the province’s two largest cities, a train—a good old-fashioned-yet-utterly-up-to-date train—seems a much more logical infrastructure investment than a hyperloop. And if a train from Calgary to Banff does get the go-ahead, wouldn’t a train from Edmonton to Calgary be the next logical building block of a modern passenger rail system?

This province was built by rail. As we look for ways to rebuild after COVID and to build economic resilience that doesn’t rely on oil and gas, it’s time to consider a pragmatic, practical infrastructure investment that could unite us, north and south. Time for public and private sector advocates to start talking about the new potential of commuter rail.

The pioneering British travel writer H.V. Morton once wrote, “Don’t let the train of enthusiasm run through the station so fast that people can’t get on board.” So. Let’s take the time to get the people on board. Because we don’t need a pipe dream—much less a magic sky-pipe—to whoosh us from one city to the next. Just a nice new train, rolling through the Alberta prairie.

Paula Simons is an independent Senator, a former columnist for the Edmonton Journal and a long-time Albertan.




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