Wild Rose Bullet

The Edmonton/Calgary corridor continues to grow rapidly. So too does Alberta’s debate over high-speed rail.

By Benjamin Freeland

If Sir William Cornelius Van Horne were alive today, he’d surely be first in line to weigh in on the notion of a Calgary/Edmonton high-speed rail link. Haughty, wealthy and totally uncompromising in his vision, the 19th century magnate—president of the Canadian Pacific Railway—was largely responsible for pushing our country’s first transcontinental railway through to completion, a gargantuan feat he deftly capitalized on by launching CP’s trans-Pacific shipping services out of Vancouver and building the company’s now legendary railway-hotel chain. 

And Sir William’s ghost has been an increasingly familiar presence of late. A debate about rail travel in Alberta has been rekindled—albeit a kind of travel the Victorian-era rail baron couldn’t have envisioned. 

For starters, he couldn’t have anticipated the factors that would kill interest in trains as people-movers—chiefly the dominance of the automobile and the dawn of cheap air travel. But neither, of course, could he have predicted what would revive interest in trains in Alberta: the surging growth, density and congestion in the Calgary/Edmonton corridor, the problems caused by widespread use of cars and airplanes, and spectacular advances in train technology over the past several decades. Indeed, ever since the dramatic debut of Japan’s now iconic 0-series Shinkansen in 1964, high-speed (or “bullet”) trains, generally defined as any train operating at a speed in excess of 200 km/h, have been a staple element in humanity’s default visions of the future. 

Today’s advocates of high-speed rail seek a return to that fin-de-siècle spirit exemplified by Van Horne and other grand builders of yesteryear, arguing that high-speed rail will boost Alberta’s economy by reducing travel times for businesspeople, commuters and pleasure travellers, and alleviate the problems caused by less efficient, more polluting forms of transportation. It’s time Alberta exercised bold vision, they argue. The ever-growing spectre of global warming and scarcity of global oil resources has added a new sense of urgency to the debate, while US president Barack Obama’s announcement in April 2009 of an $8-billion investment in high-speed rail as part of the White House’s Recovery Act has set imaginations ablaze.

Fiscal conservatives, however, remind advocates that high-speed rail is a hugely expensive undertaking, and argue that Alberta is still too vast and sparsely populated a jurisdiction for Shinkansens. A high-speed train system won’t work here, they say; it will run over budget, and we will all be left footing the bill. Detractors dismiss the proposal as a boondoggle, argue it will barely put a dent in vehicular traffic between the two cities and suggest that the province faces far more pressing priorities, even in the long run.

For over a decade, Japan was the only member of the high-speed rail club, which eventually took root in Europe starting in Italy in 1978 and, most spectacularly, in France with the introduction of the TGV (Train à grande vitesse) system in 1981. French TGV technology would ultimately emerge as the model for most of the world’s high-speed rail systems.

The 1990s saw the expansion of TGV service throughout Western Europe, while Asian Tigers Taiwan and South Korea caught up by the turn of the millennium. With high-speed rail now entrenched in much of the developed world, developing nations have begun to follow suit. Five years after bullet trains were first introduced to mainland China, 1,600 km of high-speed rail lines now criss-cross the country’s populous eastern provinces. Vietnam has announced its intention to overhaul its antiquated rail system with the purchase of Shinkansen technology for use on the Hanoi/Ho Chi Minh City trunk route. Russia introduced its state-of-the-art Sapsam express on the busy Moscow/St. Petersburg route at the end of 2009. South America looks to join the club next, with bullet train systems under development in both Brazil and Argentina.

While Europe and Asia continue to develop newer and faster trains, North America, as a result of its relatively thin population density and ongoing love affair with the automobile, has yet to fully embrace the idea. Apart from Amtrak’s Acela Express, in operation since 2000 between Boston and Washington, DC, at the relatively slow top speed of 240 km/h (only 20 km/h faster than the first Shinkansens), train travel in the US remains little changed since the 1960s. However, as part of the Recovery Act, Congress allocated $8-billion for “world-class” intercity rail, with a priority on 10 corridors (envisioning eventual high-speed links to Vancouver from Portland, and Montreal from Boston).

Traffic on the QWII has increased 400 per cent since the 1980s: 50,000 vehicles ply the highway every day.

Canada has seen a gradual decline in passenger train service over the past four decades. CN Rail and its successor VIA briefly flirted with the idea of fast trains in the 1970s by introducing the gas-powered TurboTrain, which ran at a top speed of 167 km/h between Montreal and Toronto. It was replaced in the early 1980s by the LRC (Light Rapid Comfortable) system, which has a normal top speed of 160 km/h.

Western Canada (and Alberta in particular) has fallen almost completely off the rail travel map. CP Rail’s passenger service between Calgary and Edmonton (Strathcona) was withdrawn in 1985, and the abolition of VIA’s Super Continental service in 1990 and the subsequent northerly rerouting of The Canadian left Calgary without any passenger connections other than the Rocky Mountaineer, whose limited schedule and expensive service caters almost exclusively to Vancouver-bound tourists. Meanwhile, stations such as Edmonton’s former downtown (CN) and Strathcona (CP) stations have been abandoned.

While rail travel has come to be seen as an anachronism by much of the Canadian public, interest in high-speed rail never completely went away; the flame was kept alive by government and business interests. And while discussions in Canada have mainly focused on the Windsor/Quebec City corridor, since the late 1970s the idea of high-speed rail service between Alberta’s largest cities has only gained currency. 

The first formal investigations into bringing a bullet train to Alberta were initiated in the mid-1980s under Peter Lougheed. The Klein government reopened the issue in the mid-1990s. On both occasions a high-speed rail link was dismissed due to cost and uncertain ridership. Nonetheless, interest in Alberta remained persistent and by the early 2000s, a runaway economy and fast-growing provincial population helped put the idea back into the public imagination.

The term “Calgary/Edmonton corridor” entered national parlance about a decade ago in recognition of the increasingly symbiotic relationship between Alberta’s two biggest cities. Encompassing the Calgary and Edmonton regions as well as the cities of Red Deer and Wetaskiwin, the nearly 40,000 km2 corridor is home to 2.4 million people, or nearly three-quarters of Alberta’s population. It is the fastest-growing region in Canada. For the past decade, it has grown at a rate of around 3 per cent per year, although some cities and towns in the corridor have grown exponentially—Edmonton by 8 per cent, Calgary by 14 per cent, and Okotoks, Airdrie, Rocky View MD, Irricana and Crossfield all by over 20 per cent from 1996 to 2001. Traffic on the Queen Elizabeth II Highway has increased by approximately 400 per cent since the early 1980s; today the QEII is plied by some 50,000 cars and trucks every day and requires $5-million in annual maintenance and upgrading. Air traffic in the corridor has grown as well, with Air Canada and WestJet combined operating 24 one-way flights every weekday between Calgary and Edmonton as of 2008, flying an estimated 600,000 passengers between the two cities every year.

A 2004 study conducted by the Van Horne Institute—a University of Calgary-affiliated transportation infrastructure research organization named in honour of the late CPR president—concluded that sufficient demand existed to justify building high-speed rail linking Calgary and Edmonton, with a stopover in Red Deer. It predicted that such a system would significantly benefit the corridor and the province as a whole, with projected ridership and revenue able to cover the operating costs and repay most of the capital costs by 2030. The study, which incorporated Ipsos-Reid findings on surrogate city pairs, was followed four years later by a Government of Alberta study prepared by Transportation Economics & Management Systems, Inc. (TEMS), which yielded very similar results.

The Van Horne study projects benefits of $3.7-billion to $6.1-billion over a 30-year period, including: $172-million to $565-million in incremental tax revenues for Alberta and $378-million to $1.9-billion for the federal government; 25,500 to 52,000 person-years of construction employment and $1-billion to $2-billion in associated income; 2,700–4,050 jobs related to rail operations and economic development; $1.1-billion to $1.8-billion in associated income; and $1.2-billion to $1.9-billion in other benefits, including time and cost savings for system users and accident reduction on the QEII. The Van Horne study also predicts a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 1.8–3.1 million metric tonnes. The TEMS study projects direct benefits of between $4.6-billion and $33.4-billion, depending on the technology used, taking into account job creation, additional household income, municipal development, increases in residential property values, and provincial and federal tax benefits.

“You now have two studies in a row that have said that this would work,” says Peter Wallis, a former executive with Pacific Western Airlines and Canadian Airlines and the current president and CEO of the Van Horne Institute. “You also have an economy that’s trying to diversify and a need for reduced congestion. It seems clear that high-speed rail is the answer.” 

Looking at Edmonton’s High Level Bridge, the city’s once-majestic rail gateway spanning the North Saskatchewan River and the proposed northern bridgehead for the Alberta high-speed rail system, it is tempting to slip into romanticism, with visions of TGVs gliding into the downtown core. The top deck of the bridge is owned by the provincial government, ready to be upgraded for high-speed trains. The government also owns 3.6 hectares in downtown Calgary south of the CPR tracks which it has designated as a site for a potential bullet train terminus. No station site has been designated in Edmonton, although the vicinity of the legislature and Grandin LRT station has been suggested, as has Southgate shopping centre. The necessary land between the cities largely lies vacant, offering the promise of a relatively uncomplicated construction process.

At roughly 63 people per km2, the Calgary/Edmonton corridor has a population density roughly on par with Scotland or Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido (where Shinkansen service will be introduced in 2015). And while bullet trains are generally synonymous with densely populated corridors such as Tokyo/Osaka, Frankfurt/Munich and Beijing/Tianjin, high-speed rail has made inroads in less densely populated regions, most notably in northern Europe. In 1995, Finland’s state-owned railway company introduced Italian-built Pendolino (tilting) trains on intercity services radiating out of Helsinki, running at a top speed of 220 km/h. Sweden operates a fleet of Bombardier-built trains between Göteborg, Malmö and Stockholm at a top speed of 200 km/h, with upgrades planned for 2015. An extensive high-speed rail network is currently under development in oil-rich Norway.

The Alberta government waited a year and a half before releasing the TEMS report in July 2009. Transportation Minister Luke Ouellette praised the proposal, arguing that the corridor is one of the few regions in Canada in which a high-speed train could potentially be faster than air transport. Other ministers were less keen, including then-Minister of Sustainable Resource Development Ted Morton, quoted as being “very cool on the idea.” The Calgary Chamber of Commerce, Alberta Liberal Party and Greenpeace all expressed support. A Calgary Herald study published shortly after the release of the government report indicated that 61 per cent of respondents supported the construction of high-speed rail if it cost $3-billion to $20-billion. Polls also showed that 67 per cent of Albertans would indeed ride the bullet train.

Bill Cruickshanks, founder and CEO of Alberta High-Speed Rail Inc. (AHSRI), the Calgary group at the helm of the bullet train campaign, asserts that everything is ready. “All the pieces are there to make it work,” he says. “The government has bought land in Edmonton and Calgary, and MLAs have said they’re prepared to support it. And the government has passed Bill 19 [the Land Assembly Project Area Act], which allows them to assemble the land needed.” Cruickshanks proposes that his company would own and operate the trains, while the province would secure the land, build the tracks and lease them to AHSRI.

For Cruickshanks and other high-speed rail advocates, the question now is merely what type of system to choose. The Van Horne study offers three proposals, including a gas-powered JetTrain system developed by Bombardier running along the existing CPR freight line at a maximum speed of 240 km/h, a JetTrain service along a new dedicated passenger line (known as the “Green Field” route), and an electrified TGV-style train that would also operate on a Green Field route at a maximum speed of 300 km/h and connect the two cities via Red Deer in 90 minutes (as opposed to just over two hours on the JetTrain). The TEMS study also examined an even faster, maglev option: trains suspended, guided and propelled using magnetic levitation. This was dismissed by all parties as unfeasible owing to the cost. The TGV option, which the Van Horne Institute estimates would cost $3.7-billion (as opposed to $1.8-billion for the JetTrain option), has the greatest public support, says Wallis. “If you had to coalesce around anything, it would have to be the TGV,” he argues. “The long-term benefits are much greater.”

Opponents say that megaproject costs are usually lowballed: a bullet train could be “a huge albatross.”

The $3.7-billion figure has been widely analyzed in the media and debated by the public, and while Wallis and fellow high-speed rail supporters stand by it, others think the projection is wildly optimistic. Jerry Bellikka of Alberta Infrastructure estimates an actual price tag of $3-billion to $12-billion, depending on the train used, while others predict costs as high as $20-billion. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation has expressed grave concerns, assuming the project is at least in part publicly funded. Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel has also expressed reservations. “I’m concerned we have too many other priorities,” he says, arguing that provincial spending on schools and hospitals should take priority. 

Opponents have for the most part pointed to past megaprojects, both in Canada and abroad, arguing that they’re nearly always low-balled in terms of cost to the public. “This project has the potential to be a huge albatross,” says Niels Veldhuis, a senior economist with the Fraser Institute and director of the institute’s newly founded Centre for Transportation & Infrastructure. “Megaprojects like this… tend to overestimate usage while wildly underestimating cost. If a private-sector consortium wants to build [a high-speed rail system], I’ll support it. However, if this is going to be publicly funded, I would urge Albertans to be very skeptical.”

Citing the Channel Tunnel, which he says ran 80 per cent over budget and saw passenger traffic far below predicted volumes, Veldhuis contends that the main problem with Alberta’s proposed rail link is the lack of transport options for travellers once they reach their destination. “It costs anywhere between $40 and $70 to go by car—about what’s being proposed for the train,” he says. “But then you have a car on the other end. And business travellers need to be mobile. Edmonton has very few corporate offices in the downtown area; most of the traffic is going to the outlying areas.”

Advocates argue that high-speed rail will be a necessity, not a luxury: “Look beyond the present situation.”

The crux of the problem, Veldhuis contends, is the degree to which both Calgary and Edmonton are geared for cars; both cities have a long way to go before they establish the urban transportation infrastructure necessary to support a high-speed rail system. This concern is shared by the Canada West Foundation, a Calgary-based think tank, which supports high-speed rail only if improvements to intracity transportation are made first. “High-speed rail works if it connects to the appropriate urban infrastructure,” says CWF president Roger Gibbins. “It’s not an investment that stands on its own.”

High-speed rail supporters argue that both cities are making great strides in improving their municipal bus and LRT systems, and that any intercity rail system would be developed in tandem with municipal infrastructure. “Our framework involves a municipal system plan, including a feeder bus system,” says Peter Wallis. “It’s a step-at-a-time process. But LRT is expanding in Calgary. You have LRT expansion in Edmonton. If LRT and articulated buses linked to the train, people would use it.” 

As for the cost, Wallis contends that the straight-ahead nature of the terrain makes the proposed high-speed line less prone to overruns than megaprojects such as the Channel Tunnel. “The land is right there,” he says. “And a TGV system has no more than 1 per cent curvature.” The Green Field route, which appears to have the greatest support, would require the expropriation of 1,430 hectares, which the controversial Bill 19 would enable. AHSRI’s Cruickshanks adds that the only municipality other than the three cities with stations that would be directly affected by construction in the Green Field route is Airdrie—a community that could ultimately benefit if proposed expansions to the C-Train network go ahead.

Advocates argue that Calgary/Edmonton auto traffic—projected to triple between 2006 and 2051—makes high-speed rail a necessity rather than a luxury. “We need to look beyond the present situation,” says Cruickshanks. “The growth in the corridor for the next 50 years is going to be massive.” 

Wallis adds that the upsides go well beyond alleviating highway congestion. “Red Deer will be a prime beneficiary,” he argues, noting that the link could transform the fast-growing city into a bedroom community for both Edmonton and Calgary as well as a major business centre, in much the same way that Spain’s recently completed AVE (Alta Velocidad Española) system between Madrid and Barcelona transformed the mid-sized provincial city of Zaragoza into a major business hub.

He also envisions eventual expansion beyond the corridor, with feeder lines connecting with mid-sized municipalities such as Lethbridge and Grande Prairie, and dismisses the criticism that a Calgary/Edmonton high-speed rail system would suck the economic life out of Alberta’s smaller cities. “I don’t agree, because that ‘spine’ holds up a lot of things,” he argues. “And it would probably only be a matter of time before high-speed rail expanded beyond the corridor.” 

He also believes that the current economic climate is actually beneficial to building a high-speed rail system. “Construction prices are significantly lower than they were even two years ago,” he says. “Bidding is more competitive.” 

Ultimately, the biggest obstacle to high-speed rail in Alberta may be cultural: the supremacy of the automobile and the relative convenience and low cost of air travel. Alberta—like much of North America—has a long way to go before bullet trains are as attractive a travelling and commuting option as cars and airplanes. As well, the systematic destruction of passenger rail infrastructure in Canada over the past half-century has made creating new opportunities all the more challenging.

But even these barriers, bullet train advocates argue, are surmountable. “The culture of the car has to be addressed,” says Wallis, noting congestion, pollution and wasted time. And air travel is projected to get more expensive relative to other forms of travel as the price of oil rises.

If high-speed rail gets the green light, Cruickshanks suggests that construction would take four to five years, meaning that trains would not be running until 2015 at the earliest. The provincial government, however, remains at an impasse. AHSRI and other proponents continue their lobby efforts, bolstered by their belief that a majority of Albertans want a bullet train.

For now, the camps for and against high-speed rail in Alberta appear to be evenly matched. The fate of the project may yet hinge on the mercurial fortunes of the province’s oil and gas economy. As with alternative electricity generation, a high oil price could be a boon to high-speed rail, not only raising the cost of the alternatives but also creating a sense of urgency about resource scarcity. Conversely, a low oil price may cool enthusiasm for alternative methods of transportation.

What does seem clear, however, is that the Alberta high-speed rail debate, a two-steps-forward-one-step-back affair from the outset, is not going to disappear anytime soon. All the while, the ghost of Sir William Van Horne will continue to hover in the background. 

Benjamin Freeland is a writer and translator with a background in Japanese language and history. He lives in Edmonton.

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