Tuesday, 25 February 2014

5 Reasons Why An Edmonton-Calgary High-Speed Train Is A Bad Idea

Source: Wired.com
This week has seen yet more discussion of the on-again, off-again proposed high-speed rail link between Alberta's two largest cities. In an article in yesterday's Calgary Herald, reporter James Wood contends that a number of Alberta MLAs are once again smiling on the concept. With real estate prices on the rise along the Calgary-Edmonton corridor, some proponents argue that the longer the province delays, the more expensive the project will become. Others argue that while the time is not yet right for the province to build it, the time will come when Alberta's population will be more than large enough to support it.

The last time I wrote about the proposed Alberta bullet train was back in 2010 in an article for Alberta Views magazine. At the time I voiced cautious support for the idea, noting that some countries (notably Norway and Finland) have made high-speed rail work in spite of having relatively sparse populations along similar lines to Alberta. And I still agree that low population, the most oft-heard argument against building a bullet train, is not necessarily a reason not to build it. After all, Alberta has a similar population base to both Scotland and the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, both of which have relatively fast trains (although not, strictly speaking, bullet trains). It could work here.

Nevertheless, the more I've looked at the issue, the more I've come to think that making a bullet train between Calgary and Edmonton a priority at this juncture would be very much misguided. As a longtime ex-pat in Japan I'm a huge fan of high-speed rail, but having thought a great deal about the issue I'm forced to conclude that it makes virtually zero sense here - especially as far as Edmonton is concerned. Here are my reasons why.

1) We don't have adequate urban transit infrastructure to support it.

There's a reason why high-speed rail works in places like France and Japan, or for that matter in Norway or Sweden. All of these countries' major cities have superb urban transportation systems, which efficiently move people from residential neighbourhoods to the major downtown rail hubs, where they can connect to fast intercity trains. We don't have anything like that here. Calgary is rather further ahead than Edmonton on the urban rail front, but both cities have a long way to go before they're on par with Munich, Seoul or Oslo. If we were to build a train tomorrow, you would have people driving to the train station on the departure end - only to arrive at the other end without a car and not a whole lot of other options for getting around.

2) The proposed system would benefit Calgary far more than Edmonton.

Edmonton and Calgary are very different cities. Calgary, with its relatively compact downtown and dense array of corporate headquarters, would attract its fair share of train travellers, who would be able to get off and do whatever they need to do downtown. Edmonton, by contrast, is an enormous sprawl, with the lion's share of economic activity situated in its periphery. How many Calgarians doing business in Edmonton are going to opt for a train that leaves them downtown, which still leaves them a trip to Sherwood Park or Leduc that, in rush hour traffic, will take them nearly as long as the train trip itself? Until Edmonton invests in far better public transportation and encourages far more business in its downtown core, this is going to be a flop for Edmonton.

3) The train would kill Edmonton's airport.

Here's the other problem for Edmonton. Edmonton International Airport, while most definitely on the ascendency, is still only half the size of Calgary International, which now has its sights set on an expanded Asia-Pacific role. The latest proposals for a Calgary-Edmonton high-speed rail link hint at a stop at YYC - but notably not YEG, which would make this train little more than a glorified extension to the C-Train. Even with a station stop at EIA, it would severely endanger the progress Edmonton has made in air service development, and without one it would be suicide for EIA. After all, why would anyone use EIA when you can simply take a bullet train to YYC - and get there in about as much time (and more comfortably) as you would taking the bus to EIA?

4) There are far less expensive ways of reducing single-occupancy car traffic on the QEII.

One thing that Edmontonians and Calgarians will doubtless agree on is that something needs to be done to reduce single-occupancy car traffic on the Queen Elizabeth II Highway - as well as within the respective cities. Here's an idea. How about creating dedicated bus lanes and up-gauging the Red Arrow bus system to an hourly articulated BRT service more resembling a train? Having ridden the Red Arrow myself, I can tell you that it's a wonderful service with all the comfort you'd expect from a rapid rail system - while costing a fraction of what building TGV tracks and stations would cost. And creating dedicated bus (and perhaps carpool) lanes on that highway would significantly shorten the travel time, while reducing vehicle emissions.

There are other strategies the province could take on this front. What about a serious campaign to promote car-sharing? Both Calgary and Edmonton now have car-share co-ops. There are also new technologies coming down the pike that could, by the time a high-speed rail system is in place, make such a system obsolete, like electric driverless cars. It's not hard to imagine a megaproject like this amounting to little more than an extremely expensive anachronism.

5) What about Fort McMurray?

The Calgary-Edmonton corridor is not the only transportation vector in the province with a serious need of overhaul. While exact numbers are hard to come by, travel between Fort McMurray and Edmonton has grown by epic proportions over the past decade, and in doing so is presenting a formidable transportation challenge. Fort McMurray International Airport is now easily the country's fastest growing airport, with growth far outpacing either Edmonton or Calgary, and Highway 63 between Edmonton and Fort McMurray has quickly become Alberta's most feared roadway. Passenger rail between Edmonton and Fort Mac once existed, and the rails are still there waiting to be used. And it wouldn't necessarily need be a full-fledged bullet train. Surely something along the lines of VIA's Windsor-Quebec City corridor trains would do the trick.

Those, in sum, are my thoughts on the subject. A bullet train between Edmonton and Calgary would, at this juncture at least, be a colossal misplaced priority, in my opinion. Improving public transit in both cities would not only improve overall quality of life in both but also probably do more for the environment than a high-speed intercity rail system would, as congested urban traffic creates rather more air pollution than intercity highway traffic does. Best, in my opinion, to concentrate capital spending on that while augmenting bus service between the two cities in a manner that is well integrated with their respective transit systems.

Moreover, as an Edmontonian I fear that, as things stand currently, an Edmonton-Calgary high-speed rail system would simply amount to a train "to Calgary" that would contribute very little to Edmonton, and potentially cause great harm to the city. Given the nature of Edmonton's geographic spread and its transportation deficit vis-a-vis Calgary, it's not hard to imagine a system such as this turning Edmonton into a glorified suburb of Calgary as opposed to a thriving city in its own right.

Agree or disagree? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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