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Alberta's fast rail link stuck in station

(The following story by Jason Fekete appeared on the Calgary Herald website on August 15, 2009.)

CALGARY — Land has been assembled in Calgary and Edmonton, the provincial government is eyeing transportation corridors and there's growing corporate and public interest in the project, but a high-speed train won't be leaving the station any time soon in Alberta.

In the wake of a newly released government report studying the prospects for high-speed rail in Alberta, there's renewed momentum to build the 300-kilometre, multibillion-dollar link between Calgary and Edmonton -- one that could shuttle passengers between the two centres in as little as one hour.

The public is on board, with repeated polls showing a large majority of Albertans would ride the rails if a bullet train pulled into town. Companies from around the world also are expressing interest in both building and operating the line in some form of a public-private partnership with the provincial government.

But with Alberta's Tory government projecting deficits totalling more than $10 billion over the next few years, it will be upwards of two decades before a bullet train takes off in the province, said Transportation Minister Luke Ouellette.

"Money is pretty tight here," he said.

Ouellette said he envisions the province's primary role would be to assemble the necessary land and look to the private sector to build the track, purchase the rail cars and operate the system.

The Stelmach government's next step is to conduct a corridor study to determine which route the train would follow -- a process that will likely take about two years and cost up to $10 million, Ouellette noted.

He said he hopes to get government approval for the corridor study by as early as fall, which may kick-start a project that's been tossed around by Alberta governments since the 1970s.

It would likely take at least another few years after that to acquire the rights-of-way from landowners, which Ouellette expects would cost around $500 million.

Building the line and associated infrastructure could take another decade.

"Even if we started today, you'd probably be looking at 12 to 15 years before you rode the thing, and we're probably not going to get started immediately," he said.

The cost of a possible highspeed rail link between Calgary and Edmonton is $3 billion to $20 billion, depending on the technology and type of train chosen, according to the government report presented to provincial and federal caucuses in July.

Despite the eye-popping price tag, Ouellette believes there is strong corporate interest in the project.

Paul Cote, president and CEO of Via Rail, said his company is excited to work on an Alberta rail proposal, under the right conditions.

He met recently with Ouellette and Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel to discuss options, and believes a highspeed rail link would provide an important ground option for travellers.

"High-speed (rail) would be a realistic and relevant alternative," Cote said. "Via Rail would be interested if the shareholder (federal government) allows us to do so."

Mandel isn't sold, however, on the need for a high-speed train any time soon.

There are higher priorities, including improving the transit systems in both Edmonton and Calgary, he said.

Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier said he believes it's "just a matter of time" before the high-speed line is built, but insists his city's top priority is to expand its light-rail system and regional-transit options.

In Red Deer, Mayor Morris Flewwelling is urging all levels of government to get on board, saying high-speed rail could open up new possibilities for transportation, business and lifestyles -- just as the Canadian Pacific Railway did in the 1880s.

"Just get at it," Flewwelling said. "Too often we tend to be timid when we should be bold."

There are also environmental factors supporting a bullet train between Alberta's largest cities.

Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice, a Calgary MP and chairman of the federal government's powerful operations committee of cabinet, said high-speed rail would reduce greenhouse emissions from cars and could become a long-term infrastructure project that would benefit future generations.

However, several financial hurdles must be cleared.

"Any project has to fundamentally have marketplace support," said Prentice. "It's got to be a project that makes sense."

The study commissioned by the Stelmach government found Albertans would make a switch to rail when travelling the Calgary-Edmonton corridor, assuming tickets were reasonably priced.

It also said the private sector would be keen to help fund the system's construction and operation, while the Alberta government should be responsible for assembling land for the rights-of-way and a suggested five stations: one each in the downtowns of Calgary and Edmonton, another two, at each city's airport, and a stop halfway, in Red Deer.

"That corridor is viable for (high-speed rail) technology," said D. L. Leslie, spokesman for Siemens Canada, which has held repeated talks with the Alberta government about participation in a rail project.

Likewise, Bombardier Transportation, which has worked on high-speed rail projects around the world, said it is "very interested" in partnering with the Alberta government on a bullet train.

"If they proceeded, we would look at it and we would come up with an offer," said Bombardier spokesman Talal Zouaoui.

Alberta has procured land for the downtown stations in Calgary and Edmonton and continues to muse about purchasing the corridor rights.

Yet Stelmach and his top brass argue there are more pressing priorities during the current economic slump and believe light-rail transit near the two major centres is paramount to a bullet train.

The government study, meanwhile, found that the faster the train, the greater the ridership and revenues. It projects that by 2021, more than four million people annually would ride an electric high-speed train, which some experts say is the most viable technology.

However, the report -- which incorporated the opinions of Albertans who travel the province's busy QE2 highway -- found people are reluctant to park the car in favour of rail travel.

By 2016, an electric train travelling more than 300 km/h would divert about 46 per cent of all airline trips and 35 per cent of bus journeys -- but only three per cent of vehicle trips, the report said.

Monday, August 17, 2009

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