Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Speed matters for Edmonton-Calgary train: report

with 7 comments

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

Tagged with ,

7 Responses

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  1. I think that MAGLEV is not an option, as conventional railways can reach speeds approaching that of a MAGLEV. After 500 kph, all ground based transit systems produce a roar as the air is pushed away by the rail/Maglev train.

    I think that was the downfall of the Bonn to Berlin Transrapid (German Maglev) as conventional railway HST’s not only could travel at high-speeds on their own ROW’s, yet still could use existing rail tracks when need be.

    The original German Transrapid guide-way was designed to also accommodate ICE HST’s.

    D. M. Johnston

    July 6, 2009 at 2:35 pm

  2. Steve
    Worked the Edmonton end for the railways for years in the passenger segment.
    First there was this airline called Pacific Western Airlines who ran a one hour shuttle service between Calgary and Edmonton Municipal. It was faster service than the Dayliner lash up that C.P ran for Via Rail once a day. For C.P.Rail the level 87 unprotected crossings were a nightmare for a passenger train with no front end protection.
    Highway 2 was faster than rail slower than air.
    The air shuttle ended when Edmonton City would not allow 737 jets to use the busy airport which were the meat and potatoes of the service. They moved it out to Leduc at the International Airport and the people would not use it.
    But at the same time C.P.Air was being sold along with Wardair and P.W.A.
    The sale was beggar’s breakfast rather lean and left a bad taste in many throats. This hard to swallow breakfast really started the high speed train train service between Edmonton and Calgary. Was it really a Rolaid for acid lurching in hopes the public did not get burned to bad? Ita has gone on for years with conservative governments of Alberta.
    The passenger rail was taken out of servce after a delibertley planned accident by the C.P.R. had there sectionman leave the switch open outside Innisfail in 1983 sending the Dayliners into empty propane cars in a siding killing the crew and a few passengers.
    The police found the sectionman in the bar with his keys in his pocket claiming “jeez I must a forgot”
    Rather than face a Royal Commission C.P.told Via the contract was cancelled. Via took C.P.Rail to court for damages and lost. The contract reads anyplace or anytime or wherever a passenger rail train is in accident the owner of the track is not negligent for any damages. So you are really correct about freight railways. Thus the government builds it itself or the public uses the highways or air.

    Bryan Vogler

    July 6, 2009 at 3:14 pm

  3. Maglev trains haven’t been, so far, a roaring success anywhere in the world. Even the Japanese are still studying theirs to death and can’t never seem to afford the astronomical outlay of cash a Maglev line means (and the only area in Japan with enough possible passengers is the Osaka-Tokyo corridor). On the other hand both the latest TGV and Shinkansen are primed to go, if they aren’t already going, at 320 km/hr top commercial speed, not maximum speed.
    I can’t believe that there would be enough passengers between Calgary and Edmonton to justify the price of a very fast train, even it they carried lots of small expensive parcels. It might work if it was part of a B.C -Maritimes fast train line, with a few heavily used sections paying for the ones that have much less passengers.

    Red frog

    July 6, 2009 at 10:28 pm

  4. Service speed isn’t the only factor when it comes to attracting passengers. Even those who rate travel time as the number one criterion are more interested in total travel time than one segment of their journey. This is obvious when you look at the failure of air travel between Calgary and Edmonton. Once the planes moved out to YEG demand dropped because there was now an additional trip from Nisku to Edmonton. This additional trip also means a mode switch and associated hassle.

    At the same time a plane or train that stops only at the two endpoints also discourages passengers who have to make trips between those endpoints and their actual origin and destination. The question is always how to get the perfect number of stops that will serve the maximum number of people without reducing service speed to a point where a significant number of passengers start considering alternatives.

    I agree with Stephen that bypassing the airports would be insane. Canada is simply too big to be connected entirely by road and rail. Edmonton to Vancouver requires 13 hours of driving, while YEG-YVR takes just 90 minutes by air. YEG-YYZ is only a few hours compared with several days by car or train.

    I think one stop in central Alberta would also attract more passengers than would be lost with the additional travel time. So at a bare minimum I see the train starting in Downtown Edmonton, stopping at YEG, Red Deer, YYC and downtown Calgary.

    Rights of way in the urban centres would be a problem, but the value of a true downtown station is worth some tunneling. We should not make the mistake of building our 21st century transportation hubs on the periphery.


    July 7, 2009 at 10:57 am

  5. David makes very valid points. To be viable, especially in the Western and Maritime provinces where the population is rather sparse (compared to Europe and Japan) a line needs intermediate stops. As for speed, according to Wikipedia the TGV (T = train) on the LGV (L= line and GV = grande vitesse) Paris-Strasbourg run at 320 km as I noted above.
    From Wikipedia: “Constructed for speeds up to 350 km/h, for commercial service it is initially operating at a maximum speed of 320 km/h (199 mph). It is the first TGV to travel at this speed in commercial service..”
    I am sure the latest Shinkansen is just as fast. OK my mistake..It is the E5 and E6, soon to be in service on JR east lines that will go at 320 km/hr. The N700 is running on the JR West and JR Central lines. I used it between Hiroshima and Hakata to go to Fukuoka for a day trip (281 km in 1 hr 2 minutes)

    As far as speed goes, A special TGV (a train with wheels, not a “flying ” train like a Maglev) reached just under 574.8 km/hr (357.2 miles/hr) in 2007.
    While that speed might be eventually reachable on a commercial run (the test train pretty much fried its motors) it isn’t practical because of all the stops en route necessary for the convenience of many passengers.
    The Shanghai Pudong airport Maglev train sweep passengers at 441 km/hr for 30 km then leaves then at a subway station on the other side of the river from Downtown Shanghai…

    Red frog

    July 7, 2009 at 10:06 pm

  6. […] detail. That is in stark contrast to the wealth of information provided by the full report of the passenger demand analysis for HST which I provided a link to. I think it would be a very good idea for some of the most frequent […]

  7. […] rail – though it does make for snappy copy. And the advantages of high speed rail have been discussed on this blog often enough […]

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