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

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William Cornelius Van Horne

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 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, 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, 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 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. 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 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 David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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