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Mega-bucks Express

A proposed Edmonton-Calgary bullet train needs billions in government aid to get on track

Patrick McGee - July 2, 2007

When the Wright brothers flew the first airplane in 1903, they could hardly have predicted that more than a century later in the fastest growing province of Canada, it wouldn't be airplanes being proclaimed as the way of the future, but trains. Then again, with speeds of up to 300 kilometres an hour, the proposed bullet train linking Edmonton and Calgary isn't exactly your average iron horse. Including a stop in Red Deer, the $65 trip is estimated to take a cool 84 minutes. And with plans to accommodate 14 round trips a day, the service could make air travel obsolete within Canada's fourth largest economic corridor.

The deep thinkers at the Conference Board of Canada and the Van Horne Institute, a think-tank affiliated with the University of Calgary, are encouraging the idea, and rail experts Bombardier Transportation, Canadian Pacific Railway and Via Rail are offering their expertise. So Premier Ed Stelmach may not have been far off in late May when he called the project "inevitable." But although everyone agrees a sleek high-speed rail service is a steamy idea, Albertans have reason to wonder whether the proposed project makes enough economic sense to warrant the huge infusions of taxpayer money that its backers are calling for.

The man at the throttle of the proposal is Bill Cruickshanks, a former banker and book publisher who now serves as president and CEO of Alberta High Speed Rail Inc. He has worked on the idea for eight years now, and proposes the government purchase the necessary land for terminals and rights of way for the tracks, in addition to shelling out the construction costs for infrastructure. The price tag for the land is in the $50-million range, he says, while the construction costs might be as high as $1.8 billion. Once the rails have been built, AHSR will maintain the tracks and conduct the service in the private sector.

Alberta's treasury may be flush with oil-industry cash, but an almost $2-billion bill strikes skeptics as a rather large government handout. Cruickshanks maintains his proposal is similar to how other transportation companies operate. "If we want to start an airline or start a bus company," he says, "we wouldn't need to go build a highway or an airport, because the government has funded these to a great extent.

So we're saying, 'Why should the government not fund another people-mover--which is the most modern and the most efficient people-mover--in the same manner?'" He also says that, while these costs may be expensive, it's only a one-time hit on the government, which would also receive consistent revenue from fees his company would pay every time a train moved down the track.

The idea sounds like a "great theory," says Edmonton city councillor Bryan Anderson, but he fears the "escalation of costs would just be astronomical." Moreover, he says there's too much uncertainty about traffic levels to expect the government to hand over the majority of upfront costs for the project.

Comparisons with other cities also make it hard to believe the Calgary-Edmonton corridor should be the first region on the continent to host such an ambitious project. The original home of the bullet train, Japan, has 127 million residents in an area about half the size of Alberta, which boasts a population of just three million. The home of Europe's most developed high-speed network, France, is slightly larger than Alberta, but has a population of 65 million. "A train between L.A. and San Francisco?" Anderson asks, "Good idea . . . but I just can't see, between two centres of a million people, that there is going to be sufficient traffic, given all the people that would want to use their car when they get there."

Nevertheless, a pre-feasibility study released in 2004 by the Van Horne Institute states that today's population is enough to support the project. It points to the fact that there were six million trips made between Edmonton and Calgary in 2003. Institute president Peter Wallis says that not only would a high-speed railway serve the growing province, it would also attract more growth.

More articles by Patrick McGee