High-speed rail in Alberta: a terrible idea that just won’t go away

Posted on February 07, 2014, 12:20 am
10 mins

“Modern high-speed passenger trains are not pushed forward on billowing sails…” Although, when we’re done paying for a multi-billion-dollar high-speed rail link between Edmonton and Calgary, this may be how many of us have to get around if we fancy using public transit. Below: William Cornelius Van Horne and the typical high-speed rail advocate – apparently they’re both baaaaaaack!

The Van Horne Institute? The Van Horne Institute? As in William Cornelius Van Horne, late of the Michigan Central Railway, the Chicago and Alton Railway, the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Cuba Railway Company?

Well, whooo, whooo, whoooooo-oooo better to advocate the loony idea of a high-speed rail link between two Prairie metropolises separated by a fine highway that takes less than three hours to drive in most weather conditions and with two of the industrialized West’s most primitive public transit systems at either end?

It doesn’t seem to say on the website if that’s the Mr. Van Horne this newest “institute” had in mind when it set up shop, though I might have missed it, but one look at the directors that grace its board gives a pretty good indication he’s probably the guy: representatives of railway companies, petroleum companies, railway petroleum companies, construction companies, engineering companies, electrical companies, telephone companies, the usual smattering of folks from acceptable departments of government and the University of Calgary, and one guy who runs a food bank. You get the picture.

Since an Alberta Legislature committee has been holding hearings lately into this fast-train idea – which in this province seems to rear its head about every three years, the last times being in 2011 during the Progressive Conservative leadership campaign and before that in 2009 as a newsworthy idea to burnish the image of the government of then-premier Ed Stelmach – it should be no surprise it’s back on the agenda in 2014.

And here we go again. According to a report by the Van Horne Institute, which is somehow affiliated with the University of Calgary, it could cost as little as $2.6 billion to build a line on existing CPR right of way but about $5 billion to do a bang-up job, and $5.2 billion for a superlative new line on which trains could run at a breathtaking 320 k/mh.

OK, those are big numbers. But let’s just stop for a moment because it is said here there’s no way the basic project can be completed for $5.2 billion, let alone the bells-and-whistles version – and, by gosh, those whistles are going to have to be loud if this sucker is moving at 320 kilometres per hour!

In 2008, a proposal for a similar line in California between San Francisco and Los Angeles, 614 kilometres, put the cost at $33 billion US! That has since gone up to $68.4 billion – and, people, when you start talking mega-projects, you are entering the land of the cost overrun.

OK, it’s a little less than half the distance between Calgary and Edmonton – 276 kilometres – and the countryside is less crowded, so maybe we’re only looking at $20 billion or so by the time the dust has settled. But $5.2 billion? Just forget about it!

Back in September 2011, when Alison Redford was the third-place candidate in the race to lead the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, she had something pretty sensible things to say about this idea. To wit: think of all the schools and hospitals you could build with the money it would take to build a high-speed rail link!

Of course, Ms. Redford said a lot of sensible things back in those days and we know now she can’t always be depended upon to follow through.

So there’s probably more hope to be found in the fact well-read and respected journalists like the Edmonton Journal’s Paula Simons are skeptical. In an excellent column yesterday, Ms. Simons observed that despite all the boosters’ fantastic promises, there’s no way this project will succeed without fully developed public transportation systems at either end, as exist in Europe where high-speed trains are a partial success.

Otherwise, I say, it’s just a big boondoggle and a transfer of taxpayers’ money to big corporations’ pockets.

So let’s review the principal problems with this idea, which haven’t changed since I first wrote about it for the now-departed Saint City News in 2009:

The idea fails for three principal reasons:

  1. Providing power to run the trains would be both a financial and environmental burden
  2. The line itself would create grave environmental problems
  3. The project would cost a fortune and fail commercially

Modern high-speed passenger trains are not pushed forward on billowing sails. They need electricity, and lots of it, to move. Just how much is subject to vigorous disagreement – they may be more efficient than passenger airplanes, or less efficient than automobiles. It depends on which scientist you’re talking to, and often who he or she works for.

But one thing is certain. In Alberta, the power required to drive fast trains from Edmonton to Calgary would still have to come mostly from coal-fired plants. That means greenhouse gas emissions. So while the train itself would be superficially “clean,” its power would not be.

So if we build this line, expect calls soon thereafter for a nuclear power plant – another spectacularly expensive technology that is superficially clean but really isn’t.

High-speed trains are almost unimaginably fast. The old ones run at about 250 kilometres per hour. An experimental train in Japan, where they don’t have to contend with blowing snow or Chinooks, has hit speeds in excess of 580 km/h!

There are deer in Alberta. They can jump high fences. Can you imagine what happens when a train hits a deer – let alone a pickup truck – at that speed?

So forget about level crossings anywhere between Calgary and Edmonton – and add that to the cost. You can bet on it most high-speed rail boosters haven’t.

Expect significant impacts on animal migration, surface roads and existing rail lines. Get ready for lots of bird deaths along the power lines as well. This being Alberta, count on there to be unexpected and expensive impacts for farmers along the route. So be prepared for significant upward impact on initial cost estimates.

The most compelling argument against this idea, however, is the gaping flaw in its business model touched on by Ms. Simons.

It simply cannot succeed without billions of dollars of infrastructure at either end. A big parking lot in Edmonton and Calgary isn’t going to do the trick.

Travellers will not use a high-speed rail connection without efficient public transport at the other end. If they can’t get around the other city – and they can’t now – they will drive. The trip takes three hours. They can even stop for coffee in Red Deer!

Oh, and one other thing. Ms. Simons suggests security on a high-speed train line would be less rigorous than at a major airport. Don’t bet on it. High-speed rail is a major target for terrorists everywhere it’s been built and requires security checks every bit as intensive and time-consuming as in airports, even Edmonton’s.

So two more multi-billion-dollar mega-projects would be needed just to make the business plan make sense.

As I said in 2011, this is a political idea, not a practical one – and with another election looming, it now may seem like a fine distraction to Ms. Redford and her advisors.

But if Albertans are looking for an environmental project that makes sense, we should spend our bitumen billions on such unsexy but workable ideas as public transit in cities and a government-run bus system for rural areas, both of which would offer huge environmental and financial benefits at a much more modest cost.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

9 Comments to: High-speed rail in Alberta: a terrible idea that just won’t go away

  1. jim

    February 7th, 2014

    You are absolutely correct.

    If we are going to spend $5 billion we could use the interest on part of that to subsidise a public bus system throughout Alberta so that people can get around without cars.

    Reply
  2. Sam Gunsch

    February 7th, 2014

    re: “They need electricity, and lots of it,”

    Maybe that’s a motive. Another massive corporate rip-off of the public purse to take full advantage of another massive corporate ripoff due to AB’s corporatist governance system.

    First: AB PC’s pushed through the $4B in DC powerlines so that industry can increase their level of exports already being sent to the west coast of USA via intertie’s with BC. Alberta has excess electricity generation being exported. And we citizens are subsidizing it on our power bills.

    see exports discussed by Joe Anglin at 38:20
    video re current exports at 3 cents/kwh to BC/USA
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2nGrVoV0ZQ&list=UU0p57SfxG9K9drnufor6SOQ&feature=c4-overview

    Specifically: At 38:20 minute mark listen to Joe Anglin’s comments rebutting the new AB Minister for Electricity re her ludicrous claim that AB is not engaging and would not engage in exporting electricity from coal power.

    Also…Wouldn’t have to go nuclear. There is currently more conventional generation capacity waiting in the wings, some of it in the application/approval process.

    CAP power is applying for natural gas units. (Shale gas, BTW, has a carbon footprint that sometimes exceeds coal due to methane leaks in production/refining… so no solution there.)

    Tarsands have applications for power generation in the system already. What else is it doing but waiting for lines and export opportunities being created by new powerlines we’re paying industry to build and own and lease back to us to pay maintenance on.

    …due to PC policy choices in the last decade we citizens in fees on our utility bills pay the entire costs of industry’s new powerlines that were never put to public assessment for need because in AB’s version of shell democracy / functioning corporatism the vested interests control governance/government over us: TransAlta, SNC Lavalin, ATCO, Capital Power, Epcor, AESO, etc.

    See Chapter 9 of Mark Lisac’s Klein Revolution where documents the extent to which TransAlta’s exec’s almost functioned as a shadow government in the early 1990’s.

    And hence we are handed the bills now after AB deregulated/ privatized/gave away our public electricity distribution system to the vested interests for bargain basement price. Amazing… TransAlta et al have been a lot more adept than Enron.

    But with friends of the ordinary guy like King Ralph/JIm Dinning to sell the snake oil, and Rod Love to whip most AB media into line, it wasn’t too hard to get the ball rolling back then for utility privatization and ultimately make us citizens pay the corporate freight to essentially a made in AB political-corporate cartel.

    Reply
  3. Sam Gunsch

    February 7th, 2014

    Since I’ve made a rather significant claim that I expect will be considered controversial
    re gas powered electricity…

    some sources below re electricity from natural gas NOT a solution to coal electricity

    http://www.ilsr.org/natural-gas-bridge-fuel-gateway-drug/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=natural-gas-bridge-fuel-gateway-drug&utm_reader=feedly

    http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/11/25/2988801/study-methane-emissions-natural-gas-production/

    Links below to the alternative small scale electriticy model growing in the USA and Europe, which requires gov’t start up support but not long-term give-away like AB’s.

    Opposite direction to AB’s permanent corporate welfare electricity model.

    http://www.ilsr.org/democratizing-electricity-system-vision-21st-century-grid/

    see this model illustrated here:
    http://www.ilsr.org/wp-content/uploads/files/centralized%20v%20decentralized%20power%20grid_0.png
    and here
    http://cleantechnica.com/2011/08/23/why-we-should-democratize-the-electricity-system-part-1/

    Rather than a world leader, we’re all paying for a corporate welfare electricity system imposed on us by power corporations in joint venture with a rightwing government governing AB as a corporatist state: negotiations over interest between groups (fully vested interests who have been buying off the gov’t through the decades in this case.)

    As opposed to that silly old ideal of a citizen-based democracy where elected representative serve the citizenry by engaging in a collective participatory search for the common good.

    FWIW… plenty of evidence that AB’s got the solar, wind, geothermal that could compete easily in AB were the playing field level. But until AB gov’t stops making us subsidize coal/tarsands/ export powerlines we’ll remain locked in to TransAlta/ATCO/Capital Power/SNC Lavalin’s bigger is better agenda.

    To phase out coal fired electricity we’ll first need to phase out corporatism and renew democracy.

    Sam Gunsch

    Reply
  4. David Grant

    February 9th, 2014

    There are good points here, but the fact remains that we do need to do something about dealing with climate change. I agree that taking the oil money and use it on expanding public transit. The problem is that while people say that want to do that, they don’t really want to do it because it takes away people God-given right to drive their cars. I still think that perhaps it would a better idea to build one across the country. Given the vastness of this country and the problems with maintaining the highways, that might be an idea worth pursuing.

    Reply
    • February 9th, 2014

      Money spent on public transit in cities and a government-run rural bus service would both be effective ways to do our part to deal with climate change. They would provide other social benefits as well. For that matter, something as simple as building more sidewalks, on both sides of all urban roads, would help green our communities. With the possible exception of the sidewalks – a low priority to people who never get out of their cars except to go into buildings – neither the current Alberta government nor the opposition party would be enthusiastic about these do-able projects for ideological reasons. But I fail to see how building a mega-project that would actually INCREASE carbon inputs would do anything positive about climate change.

      Reply
      • David Grant

        February 9th, 2014

        These are very good points, but do think that there might be merit to building high speed across the country as a whole and not the province. Perhaps it would be better to have high speed across the country and not the province. When the Mulroney government cancelled Via rail there was a lot traffic across the highways leading to more cost to upkeep them. While it is faster and better to fly from Calgary to Vancouver, airfare leaves a big carbon footprint as well. The thing is I haven’t seen many people vote to do the kinds of changes you suggest. Perhaps when the cost of oil goes up the suggestions you have made might come true and perhaps someone will find a way to make high speed rail more affordable.

        Reply
    • Debbie Cole

      February 17th, 2014

      This train is pushed by business for business. Simply let business pay for line. Corporate taxation has decreased so much–increase it back to where it should be – equal to personal taxes.
      We are in a free-thinking country, let people choose to buy economical cars that are better for environment and have their freedom to go where they want at the same time. A Toyota prius can deliver big on personal travel at 50 miles/ gallon or 5 litres for 100 K, both city and highway driving.
      Why the estimate from 4 to 20 billion? Can’t they figure a closer realistic number. California considered this with their huge population and the cost doubled from 33 billion US to 63 billion.
      Added compensations to farmers for interrupting their travel routes to accommodate the track, the inconvenience to rural Albertans are impacted, but not mentioned.
      Why should all Albertans contribute to this one project when a lot of us won’t Business pay!

      Reply
      • David Grant

        February 17th, 2014

        I agree with you when it comes to corporate taxes being too low, but I sill don’t know if I agree with you that there aren’t good benefits for high speed rail. While there are certainly environmental problems with this project, but when someone flies from Calgary to Edmonton there is a lot of greenhouse gases put out. I think there are a lot of infrastructure costs with maintaining and upgrading the highways. While it is true that there are disruptions in places where you build the railways and that needs to also be considered. In terms of letting big businesses pay for projects like these, often they don’t bother paying for them because they are only interested in short term profits for their shareholders. Projects like these have to be undertaken by the government because no one else will take it on. While I am not certain that high speed rail is good for Alberta, it might be a better idea for the country given the bigger resources that are available and the distances to travel.

        Reply

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