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 economicfuture.committee@assembly.ab.ca. The deadline is March 31, and all submissions and the identities of their authors will be made public.

Highlights from the Alberta High Speed Rail report

Yesterday the Alberta government released a report assessing the potential for high speed rail service in the Calgary-Edmonton corridor. The report, which has been sitting on the shelf for about a year, was commissioned by the province and was prepared by Transportation Economics & Management Systems, Inc. (or TEMS). There are actually three parts to the report, which you can download here:

The press release included a few highlights, but nothing incredibly satisfying:

  • Nearly 10 million passenger trips took place in the Calgary-Edmonton corridor in 2006, with the breakdown as follows: 91% were by automobile, 6% were by air, and 3% were by bus.
  • The faster the high speed train, the greater the ridership and revenues.
  • People said they were willing to pay fares ranging from $56 to $120 for a one-way trip. (To compare: the lowest fare in the next month on WestJet currently is $99, or by car I can make the trip on about $20 of gas.)

I decided to dig into the report a little further. I was struck initially by the numerical nature of it – if numbers and formulas scare you, avoid reading the report. There is some useful, easy-to-understand data as well though.

The diagram above illustrates the Calgary-Edmonton corridor, and the five stations that would be part of the high speed rail system: Downtown Edmonton, Suburban Edmonton, Red Deer, Suburban Calgary, and Downtown Calgary. Each of the three major centres is called a “super zone”, and includes the surrounding communities, at least for the purposes of the report.

The images above illustrate the four types of generic train technologies used to represent various technology classes.

  • Talgo – 125 mph or 200 km/hr – diesel
  • JetTrain – 150 mph or 240 km/hr – turbine electric
  • TGV – 200 mph or 320 km/hr – overhead electric
  • Maglev – 300 mph or 480 km/hr – magnetic levitation

According to Wikipedia, the fastest conventional train in the world is the French TGV which set a speed record of 574.8 km/hr. The fastest non-conventional train in the world is the Japanese JR-Maglev which set a speed record of 581 km/hr.

This table outlines the strategies/predictions for each of the above:

  125 mph 150 mph 200 mph 300 mph
Average travel time (h:min) 2:00 1:45 1:35 1:00
Frequency (roundtrips/day) 8 10 14 17
Fare (in cents/mile) 25 35 40 60
Maximum fare one-way (Calgary-Edmonton) $56 $80 $90 $120
Maximum fare one-way from Red Deer $28 $40 $45 $60
Ridership (in thousands) in 2051 2821 4301 7656 10745
Passenger revenues (in millions of 2006 $) in 2051 137.1 269.0 610.0 1127.9
Market share (2011-2051 is constant) 1.85% 3.10% 4.84% 6.73%

Some other data points:

  • Demand for travel in the corridor is predicted to triple in the time period 2006-2051.
  • Total benefits by super zone are as follows: Calgary (40-45%), Edmonton (30-35%), Red Deer (20-25%)
  • Economic impact from building the system would range from $4.6 billion to $33.4 billion, depending on the type of technology used.
  • Growth in the economy of 0.2 to 0.5 percent, depending on the type of technology used.
  • Between 3400 and 7162 long-term (40 year) jobs would be created across the province.

There’s a lot more data available in the report if you want to take the time to read it.

What’s next? The government says it will continue to look at various options for the province’s future transportation needs, including high speed rail. No decisions have been made at this time, and the report itself makes no recommendations. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of support for the idea at the moment.

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 – something akin to MoveOntario 2020 and Toronto’s Transit City.

This issue certainly has legs, however. It has been brought up and discussed many times over the years. You can follow along and participate on Twitter using the hashtag #abhsr. For more general Alberta political topics, use #ableg. There’s some great commentary up on the stream already.