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Archive for July 6th, 2009

Speed matters for Edmonton-Calgary train: report

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On the Vancouver Sun website there is a report from the Edmonton Journal.

A 500-km/h high speed train that could travel between Calgary and Edmonton in an hour would attract nearly six million riders by 2021, says a report commissioned by the Alberta government and released Monday.

The report makes no recommendations on the feasibility of the project or whether government money should go into it, but suggests the possibility of a private-public partnership, also known as a P3.

Alberta Transportation Minister Luke Ouellette released the February 2008 report in advance of Monday’s federal-provincial Conservative caucus meeting in Calgary.

Well actually the report says a great deal more than that – and it looks at a variety of possible speeds from the UK style 125mph High Speed Train, US style Acela,  French TGV and the German MAGLEV. The good thing is that the full report is available at – from where you can download the hefty pdf files. They make interesting reading.

A disclaimer of my own – I was recruited by Dr Alex Metcalf in 1988 from the UK to come to Canada. So we have some history – and I want to be very careful to be objective in my comments. He is one of the lead authors of the report: one his earlier projects was the demand forecast which supported the construction of the bridge to Prince Edward Island.

Secondly, I wonder why this report has taken so long to emerge: February 2008 to July 2009 is a very long time indeed to consider a consultant’s report.

The study is refers to itself as “Investment Grade”  (“meets the requirement of Investment Grade Analysis as proposed by the High-Speed Rail Association”) – in other words it was intended to examine whether or not a private sector investor would put money into the project. What this means is that it is concerned with familiar issues of mode choice – and would enough people be willing to pay enough for a faster trip between the two cities. The answer is yes, and the faster the train runs the more would be willing to use it.

There is a lot in the language of the report which contrasts quite strongly with all the other things I am reading at the moment. The report is very optimistic about the economy of Alberta – after all that province has lots of oil and the rest of world is going to be increasingly short of it so there will continue to be economic growth for the foreseeable future – subject to the cyclical nature of a resource based economy. The words “peak oil” or “climate change” do not appear in it – so far as I can determine. Nor is there any sense that our perception of the world changed dramatically between then and now. So it is bit like reading BC government studies of the need for new highway and port expansion. Much of the stuff I read these days talks about the end of “business as usual” and the need for a steady state, no growth economy – or even the inevitability of dealing with the need to reduce our per capita energy consumption. Quite a lot of macro-economics seems to be turning away from GDP as a way of measuring how we are doing,and recognising that exponential growth is unsustainable.

I am not going to challenge the demand forecast – I am just going to suggest that there are other reasons why the Governments of Alberta and Canada should consider the case for building a new electric high speed rail line between Edmonton and Calgary. The idea of utilising the existing tracks or just upgrading them is not a good long term proposition. The private sector railway companies in Canada have little or no interest in running passenger trains and do not normally afford them priority. Freight railways have a rather different configuration to high speed lines – and the best separate them out. Since that means a new right of way, an electric railway is not that much more expensive, but gives a great deal of flexibility for the future as well as significant operational and environmental advantages for the present. Electricity can be made from a variety of sources: Calgary’s LRT runs on wind power.  Both France and Japan determined early on that a dedicated track was a prerequisite for high speed rail and both countries  now lead the world in the field.

One thing the current report seems to accept is that the line would not be integrated into the airports. This is a profound mistake. While a lot of business travel is city centre to city centre, the report recognises the need for suburban stations: that is, after all where most people live. But there is also a significant synergy to be had from integration with national and international travel which at present is by air. Of course air travel has seen significant declines – for economic reasons – and it long term future is highly uncertain, since it is currently completely dependent on oil as its energy source.

It is a bit depressing that the only way we seem to be allowed to think about these projects is if they are commercially feasible – not desirable from an environmental or quality of life perspective. One argument that Alberta should consider is the extent to which a new service would reduce the need of highway expansion in the future – and also the much better safety record per passenger kilometre of rail over road. The reduction in the demand for health services alone – even if the lower death toll is not thought good enough reason of itself – should appeal even to conservatives.

On the whole I am not persuaded that there is a good case for MAGLEV. It seems to me to be one of those “best is the enemy of the good” cases. I would be reluctant to recommend a technology that is not widely in use. French style TGV, on the other hand, has shown itself to be very successful and is being steadily expanded in the countries where it has been adopted. The British have tried Italian tilting trains on existing sinuous track (Pendolinos on the West Coast Mainline) but the success of the first French style TGV line from St Pancras to the Channel Tunnel has now got them thinking of new dedicated french style high speed lines.

I think railways should be a priority for our governments – if only because we know that relying on air and highways has brought us a whole lot of unintended consequences. Hopefully, now that this report has finally seen the light of day, the discussion can start in earnest.

Oh, as an afterthought, perhaps check out the newest Japanese shinkansen too.



Written by Stephen Rees

July 6, 2009 at 1:02 pm

Posted in Railway

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