Does high speed rail have a future in Alberta?

Last week I attended a public meeting on high speed rail in Alberta (which I typically abbreviate ABHSR). The issue is being considered by the Standing Committee on Alberta’s Economic Future, an all-party committee consisting of 18 MLAs. As part of the process, the committee has now heard from the public in Calgary, Red Deer, and Edmonton, and is encouraging additional written submissions by March 31. I hope at least a few Albertans take them up on that, because their “public” meeting was poorly publicized and required going past three security checkpoints.

Alberta High Speed Rail Public Meeting

Here’s the stimulus provided by the committee on the idea:

  • It could offer service between Edmonton and Calgary (including a stop in Red Deer) with a trip time of one to two hours at speeds of 200-500 km/h.
  • One-way ticket prices have been estimated at between $66 and $142.
  • Capital costs have been estimated at $2.5 to five billion, but could be significantly higher.
  • A route would be chosen and land would be acquired along the route for tracks and stations.
  • Overpasses or underpasses would likely have to be built to accommodate many of the road crossings or, alternatively, bridges above any roads the track would cross could be constructed.

Clearly the idea is intriguing. A hundred bucks to get to Calgary in less time than it would take to drive? Sign me up! Driving is stressful, I could read or do some work on the train, there are lots of positives, for sure. But is Alberta ready? Is this an investment we’re prepared to make now?

There were some interesting viewpoints put forward at the meeting. Some felt the time is right, and that a project like this could allow us to harness the talents of all the smart, creative, and innovative people we have throughout the province. Others expressed concern that our population isn’t big enough to warrant such a project. And still others argued that automated, driverless cars are coming and will make the entire idea irrelevant (as exciting as the work Google and others are doing in this area is, there are significant hurdles still to overcome, so I’m not holding my breath).

Technically, the project sounds feasible. A few speakers talked about Maglev technology that has been deployed in a number of other places, notably in Asia. One speaker, Deryck Webb, said Maglev combined with vacuum tubes was the way to go (what he described sounded very similar to Elon Musk’s Hyperloop). I think the key issues are financial and political, not technical.

Alberta High Speed Rail Public Meeting

The issue last came up in 2009, when a report was issued assessing the potential for service between Calgary and Edmonton. At the time I wrote:

“I personally think if the province is going to be spending money on transit, it should be on city and regional transit. Both Edmonton and Calgary could use the assistance to improve their respective transit systems…”

I still feel that way today. If we’re going to spend a few billion dollars, let’s spend it on LRT first.

This is the message our local leaders are sending to the Province. One of the written submissions the committee has received thus far was from the Edmonton International Airport. President and CEO Tom Ruth wrote the following:

“Given the lack of local networked options in the Edmonton Region, we agree with the position of the City of Edmonton and the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC) that the priority should be to ensure there are fully developed networks in advance of HSR; including Light Rapid Transit (LRT) service fully developed within the Edmonton Region, with connectivity to EIA. Until these intra-regional options are fully built out, the utility of HSR is severely limited.”

Maybe high speed rail is in Alberta’s future, but I hope it’s after we have developed the LRT networks in Calgary and Edmonton.

You can see the full transcript of last week’s public meeting here (or in PDF here). You might also be interested in the Reddit thread on the issue. If you’d like to submit something to the committee, send it to The deadline is March 31, and all submissions and the identities of their authors will be made public.

13 thoughts on “Does high speed rail have a future in Alberta?

  1. I heard D’arcy Vane from EED at the apartment association last week who was also there and he very clearly explained the things required to lay the groundwork. He makes it sound less like a crackpot dream and more as a logical extension of our transportation strategy, decades in the future, just like Tom’s last quote. Cool idea.

  2. Of course Tom Ruth is coming out against it. High speed rail would probably spell the end of YEG as an international airport.

    1. I know what you’re saying, but I’m not sure I agree. The idea that you could hop on a train to catch a flight in Calgary sounds appealing, yes. But when I actually think about it, the last thing I want to do before or after a long flight is to have a long car or train ride. Unless it was 20 minutes from Edmonton to Calgary, I don’t see this as a realistic risk.

      1. Except that it’s already about 30 minutes from downtown to YEG and the one way fare on HSR (if it actually ends up being $66…) is comparable to a taxi fare out there. If the flight was cheaper out of YYC, or at a better time of day, or direct…that might put it past the tipping point.

        At any rate, flights between YYC and YEG would drop substantially, which means lost $$$ on both sides. Mr. Ruth is well aware of this. If it’s a 40 minute flight on Dash trash (plus security lines) vs. 1 hour on HSR for potentially LESS money, I know which one I’d pick…

  3. Of course, the Greyhound is about $30 from Edmonton to Calgary. Are people gonna pay an extra $36-112 to save an hour or two of travel time? Mayyyybe. I think it also depends how well integrated the HSR system would be into the existing transportation network. Lord knows the Greyhound isn’t very well integrated.

  4. The predominant transport framework in Alberta is one that revolves around the car. Even within Calgary and Edmonton, supposedly areas where public transportation use should be high, private car use as a form of daily transport hovers around 75%. Any movement away from the car would need to offer significant advantages in terms of cost and time savings, which high-speed rail (HSR) does not. If you already own a car, and are doing the drive between the two cities, the cost of a return trip is less than a one-way trip via HSR, in some cases substantially so (depending on the ticket cost). If travelling with passengers, then taking a car is a no-brainer. Assuming a travel time of two hours via HSR versus three hours by car, the saving of one hour in travel looks less attractive against the additional cost required to save that one hour.

    A specific example? I have driven, very conservatively, from Calgary to Edmonton, with limited in-city driving in Edmonton, and returned the same day on one tank of gas (approximately 80 litres) in a Nissan Murano, a mid-size SUV, with one passenger in addition to myself. Assuming the cost of one litre of gas at that time was 90 cents, then the total trip cost $72. Given I had one passenger, my trip cost came to $36 return, or $18 one way. Admittedly this is not how most people drive, but I wanted to use it to illustrate just how large a gap there can be between the two forms of transport. I should add that most of my friends and family do not travel alone for this kind of journey.

    Also, the capital costs have been severely underestimated, which is typical for this kind of project; there are dozens of papers and studies indicating that for high-speed rail, underestimates are the norm rather than the exception. One example? A paper from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University:

    Worldwide, the most recent example of HSR is the 350 km-long link between the Taiwanese capital of Taipei, located in the north of Taiwan, and the port city of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan. The project was completed in late 2007. Final cost? The lowest figure I have seen is 15 billion USD, with the highest being 18 billion USD. Regardless of the number chosen, both are well above even the highest projection for this project ($5 billion), which is similar in length.

    Furthermore, places where HSR has been implemented have density levels well above that of central Alberta; they also have a long tradition of using trains as a method of public transportation. For example, Taiwan’s population density is more than 600 people per square kilometer; Japan’s is a little over 300, while Italy, Germany, and the UK fall between 200 and 300. Alberta’s? 5.7.

    That being said, HSR is a thing of beauty. It is graceful, fast, elegant, and conveys a certain cachet that other forms of transport do not. But those in and of themselves are not reasons that justify the prohibitive cost of HSR.

    1. I spent six weeks commuting to Calgary for the week a few winters ago, and I know people who have done it longer. HSR would have kept me from driving home in a blizzard and would have made my Sunday departures, say, 6:00 instead of 3:00. In addition, my employer would pay less for HSR than paying mileage plus wear and tear on my vehicle. I don’t have to travel that much any more, fortunately, but I have colleagues who still make regular trips down.

      The number of people for whom HSR would be the no-brainer may be more significant than you think…

  5. I certainly agree that urban transit improvements should be the priority. As far as inter-city transit goes, I would like to see some provincial investment to provide public bus terminals that encourage competition – one central terminal where every company leaves from – for a small per-use fee, much like a landing fee – and therefore greatly reducing the barrier to entry in the inter-city bussing game. This model is the norm in Europe – or at least eastern Europe where the train networks are less extensive…further west I usually travel by train.

    Using the EIA quote is probably not your most convincing argument. As Adam said, it would basically kill EIA, or at best turn it into a discount airport (a Stanstead to yyc’s Heathrow). I was thinking about this when planning a trip in France last year, where I could wake up in Marseille, and still make my 2pm flight from Paris, some 800km away. Given the inconvenience of getting from anywhere but the far south side of Edmonton to EIA, if yyc had a train station in the airport, it would not be much different.

  6. I didn’t attend last week’s public meeting but I’d like to know what is really happening here? I worked in the Alberta Transportation Department in the 1970’s where we initiated the Edmonton-Calgary Corridor Passenger Transportation Study for considering a high speed passenger rail system. In fact, I was on the special passenger car that was brought to Edmonton for the purpose of this study. During this period of time the airplane flights scheduled from the Municipal airport to Calgary International Airport (35 minutes one-way travel time and under $50.00 fare cost was easily the best travel mode in the past. At that time the high-speed rail line was not cost-effective in addition to the consideration be given to many rail crossings in the rural areas.

    Today, the demographics and possible transport modes have changed radically. Where will be the core demand for this new service come from? Edmonton business people still prefer YEG or the private vehicle. The same for most politicians with the possible exception of Mayor Don Iveson. If not used for business purposes then what about tourism? The problem here is that we don’t have enough tourism activities between Edmonton & Calgary to justify this idea throughout the whole year. How about starting in Fort McMurray going to Edmonton as the first leg of high speed rail which would take the pressure off building a very expensive highway parallel to HWY 63? Well, I don’t know because the base roads might not be supportive here. But what about in the past when we had the ARR (Alberta Resources Railway) carrying commodities (coal, sulfur, etc) from different Northern points to the Edmonton destination. If any previous rail structure is still in place or could be upgraded we could save on total transportation costs by considering this option for feasibility i.e reducing significantly the travel time from the current 5-6 hours by road traffic. It’s a real mystery. It’s already taken 40+ years in the transportation strategy planning. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 40 years to make a final decision.

  7. There is still time available for the public to submit a written comment / email them comments if you would like to encourage that they continue to consider the rail development –

    I am developing a facebook group page and going to be yacking with anyone & everyone I know in the following weeks to encourage more time for discussion at the least if not ensuring returning to the drafting table to make sure this is not shelved for another 5 – 10 years. This no time to be ‘expanding’ the highways, ridiculous!

  8. The line should parallel the QEII highway as it won’t have to go over all the hundreds of range roads and the land is already purchased. At the center or one shoulder. What about snow being kicked up? So, people drive for miles in snowstorms on this road. Perhaps air foils on the trains could reduce this. Or warning lights along the way telling people a train is close and to slow down for blowing snow.

  9. I think it should be assumed this will happen one day. Therefore a small portion (6%?) should be set aside to begin collecting the land for the right of way. Eventually you can price the system as not needing any land, you have a head start.

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