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Alberta Tory leadership candidates have high-speed rail line brainwave: All aboard for environmental and financial disaster!

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Alberta Conservative leadership candidate Alison Redford


Uh oh! The idea of a high-speed passenger rail link between Edmonton and Calgary reared its unattractive head at the Conservative leadership all-candidates' forum in Red Deer last night, maybe because the place is almost exactly halfway between Alberta's two big cities.

And like the paid reporters, it was the only thing your blogger could think of to write about in a hurry at the strangely bloodless if well-attended event, especially with a 90-minute drive over rainy roads between the candidates and the computer!

There was a CBC TV reporter running around trying manfully to trap an elusive Ted Morton for some kind of scoop -- so I guess that'll be the big headline when he finally corners him. And there were about 700 people there, which has to be good news for the Conservatives and a sign they're enjoying a strong post-Ed-Stelmach rebound.

There was plenty of troubling and misleading talk about the need for a review of labour legislation to make Alberta more "competitive," code for backing the government's most anti-union financers. More about this in a future post.

And there was a buzz among the gathered politerati that the mantle of frontrunner has somehow slipped from the shoulders of Gary Mar onto those of far-right ideologue Ted Morton. But analysis of that will also have to wait for the light of day.

In the meantime, readers, you're just going to have to settle for the darned train story.

In the past, proponents have pushed this scheme as good for Alberta's economy. Nowadays, the Conservative leadership candidates are also promoting it as "green" -- environmentally friendly, that is -- and high-tech.

Last night, five out of six of the candidates were warm to the idea -- with Doug Horner and Alison Redford the warmest. Doug Griffiths uttered the most sensible words on the topic, which were to advise listeners to think of all the schools and hospitals you could build with the amount of money it would take to build a high-speed rail link!

And Mar got a laugh when he noted that he'd told then-premier Ralph Klein that if Alberta ever built the line, he wanted to be the minister responsible. "He asked why, and I said that after 100 years of building railroads in Canada, Chinese people wanted to move from labour to management."

But the format didn't allow candidates to get into any detail about how much they'd thought about this idea, which in fact has the potential to be both a financial and environmental disaster.

But a bad idea is never so dangerous as when it allows self-interest to masquerade as high principle. And with their Sept. 17 first ballot bearing down on them like -- well, a speeding train -- this is precisely the sort of situation the Conservative leadership candidates now find themselves in.

As has been said once before in this space, a high-sped rail link must look like a mega-project that will burnish Alberta's tarnished environmental image at home and abroad and at the same time promise loadsadough to the government's private-sector pals. But this just makes it a dangerous idea, as well as a bad one.

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 likely 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.

But one thing is certain. In Alberta, the power required to drive fast trains from Edmonton to Calgary would have to come 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 for a nuclear power plant -- another 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, hit speeds in excess of 580 km/h! 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.

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. And be prepared for significant upward impact on initial cost estimates.

The cost of the Edmonton-Calgary line has been estimated in the past at between $3 billion and $20 billion. Last night, one of the candidates mentioned $10-billion, a nice round number. In reality, $20 billion is probably too low. An environmental analysis for a similar U.S. proposal put the true cost at $33 billion US!

The most compelling argument against this idea, however, is the gaping flaw in its business model -- something not one of the candidates mentioned. 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 be good enough.

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

If this sounds to you like the Edmonton International Airport development fiasco, you'd be right.

So another multi-billion-dollar mega-project would be needed just to make the business plan make sense.

This is a political idea, not a practical one, as befits a political leadership forum where candidates would like to stay away from topics that make voters really mad.

If Albertans are looking for an environmental project that makes sense, we should spend our billions on such unsexy but workable ideas as public transit in the big cities and a government-run bus system for rural areas.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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