Calgary-Edmonton Corridor Next Up for Train Improvements

Calgary Edmonton High Speed Rail MapAlberta government reports on possible high-speed links costing between C$3 and 20 billion.

Last week, yet another North American governmental body announced that it would begin fighting for funds to build a high-speed rail line. This time, Alberta stepped up to the plate, arguing that a fast train link between Calgary and Edmonton, with a stop along the way in Red Deer, would be a appropriate corridor for investment. This is the second serious Canadian effort for high-speed rail, behind the more prominent Windsor-Québec City effort, which would connect Toronto and Montréal, the country’s two largest metropolitan areas.

Calgary and Edmonton are 180 miles apart, putting them about three hours of one another by car. As a result, more than ninety percent of the travel between the cities is done by road, with only a small portion of people choosing to fly between them. Via Rail Canada serves Edmonton along its nationwide east-west route, but it offers no north-south connection to Calgary.

The study, completed by a consulting firm for the provincial government, compared four types of rail investment — 125 mph diesel service (2 hour trip), 150 mph “jet train” operations, 200 mph electric travel, and 300 mph maglev service (1 hour trip). Unexpectedly, the report showed that economic benefits would improve as train speeds increased, and that ridership would similarly go up, reaching between 2 and 10 million annual riders by 2050, depending on the speed of the trains. The study found that 200 mph trains would be the most effective system for implementation; the project would cost around C$10 billion to construct. Other options would cost between C$3 and C$20 to complete.

Calgary and Edmonton are close enough to one another that high-speed rail service between the cities would be competing more with car drivers than airplane riders; this could make attracting market share more difficult than along longer distance routes of between 300 and 600 miles, which are a stretch for most drivers. But the question the government should have in considering whether to invest in this line is whether it expects people to choose rail over driving, and whether ticket prices will be low enough to make that option feasible. If estimates show that rail — with its lower trip times and stress-free commutes — will attract many of those people out of their cars, than this corridor would be worth constructing.

Image above: Alberta high-speed rail plan, from Government of Alberta

* Note: this piece was auto-posted; the transport politic will be back in normal operation on Thursday the 23rd.

19 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Denis Agar

    If there’s anywhere in the country that can afford this, it’s Alberta; but I question whether 200mph is the best use of money. Why not go with 125 mph downtown-to-downtown service (which is still competitive with flying) and use the leftover money to connect Calgary with Lethbridge and Regina (and by extension Winnipeg, Toronto, etc.) as well as Regina with Saskatoon? I think before we can start spending three times as much on European grade high speed, we need to ensure that the most useful corridors are operating at speeds competitive with driving. Now I would perhaps contradict myself on Toronto-Montreal, but I stand by what I’m saying for the rest of The Corridor, and especially communities with dying downtowns (Windsor, Sarnia, Brantford, etc.)

    Take the Toronto-Sarnia line, for example, which runs via Kitchener, Guelph, Stratford and London. It operates at embarassingly low speeds in some stretches because of degraded track. It is “low-hanging fruit” which could strengthen ridership not only on those lines but on the entire network (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Network_effect). This line connects over 1.4 million Ontarians to Toronto, and yet it runs 2-3 times a day at mindbogglingly low speed. And as I said, there is further incentive because it would help draw businesses to these cities’ downtowns. If people were able to rely on this line, ridership would skyrocket (not that it’s low to begin with). And such changes would not be as cost intensive as high speed rail.

  • PPP

    The Calgary-Edmonton line would be in the lower part of the acceptable range for high-speed rail. But my personal impression is that the line would be a winner-winner solution between these two big cities.

    Alberta has been already working with private partners to develop infrastructure in the state. Anyone has a feeling whether the state would have funds to develop this line?

    Your blog provides with very good information! Thanks.

  • Stewart Clamen

    Do get people to leave their cars at home, don’t you need broad mass transit systems on either end? Do Calgary and Edmonton have that? (This isn’t as much an issue when the goal of HSR is to seduce people away from airplanes.)

  • leonsp

    @Denis: There’s no such thing as left-over money. Federal and provincial governments will only pitch in as much as the project asks for. Any larger network will have to be built in stages anyways, so you might as well request as much as you need for the first stage — Calgary to Edmonton.

  • leonsp

    @Stewart: Calgary has two LRT and two BRT lines. Edmonton has an LRT line. Both have extensive bus networks.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calgary_Transit
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmonton_Transit_System

  • Stewart, both Calgary and Edmonton have LRT systems in place, with expansion in the works. (Calgary’s C-Train is already one of the busiest LRT systems in North America.)

    I think if Alberta can justify the 200mph link on its own merits and ability to attract riders away from cars and planes, then it should build it, regardless of whether some incremental improvement elsewhere is “a better deal”. On paper, the incremental changes might boost ridership more, but in practice the impact of an excellent Calgary to Edmonton rail link would be far larger. A 200 mph train is really damn impressive for North America, and people would take it routinely. The example it would set for other corridors would be more powerful than direct investment in them. The start of construction of such a link would get more people (and politicians) talking about funding the better rail links that they need elsewhere.

    By aiming high, you can get further and inspire others.

  • orulz

    Calgary has absolutely tremendous light rail ridership. Nearly 300,000 people use it per day, on just 30 miles of track. According to Wikipedia it is the second most patronized LRT system in North America, behind Monterrey, Mexico. And Calgary’s metro population is only about 1.1 million (compared to 3.8 million for Monterrey).

    If you look at total rail system ridership, Calgary ranks 12th, behind:
    1. New York
    2. Mexico City
    3. Montreal
    4. Toronto
    5. Washignton
    6. Chicago
    7. Boston
    8. San Francisco (BART + MUNI)
    9. Philadelphia
    10. Monterrey
    11. Los Angeles

    Note that every single one of those metro area popluation at least THREE TIMES larger than Calgary. Calgary is THE LEADER for rail transit in North America, with no exaggeration. They blow the pants off of anyone else when it comes to ridership per capita across an entire metro area.

    Edmonton has a pretty well used LRT system too. 50,000+ riders per day, on just a single line.

  • AL

    There is substantial short-haul air traffic between the two cities, partly because international flights are more prevalent from Calgary than Edmonton. There is also high business demand between the cities: Calgary has more head-office type work, Edmonton more manufacturing. There are also two scheduled bus lines serving the market: Greyhound and Red Arrow; the conservative government avoids anything in direct competition with industry so this will be P3 or pivate if anything

    I’d like to see the government work to simply get a 100 km/h (minimum) diesel service between the cities up and running using existing infrastructure and new trainsets. The trains should be spec’d for higher runnning speeds available once the infrastructure upgrades permit it, for example using similar Talgo equipment to Washington state. The initial frequent, reliable service will help build ridership but it will require operating subsidy. However, the initial capital cost is perhaps 10-15% of the high speed options in the report and the service could be up and running in a fraction of the time. Then new tracks with alignments capable of high speed can be gradually added, tied into the existing line, to incrementally lower the travel time. Eventually you should have trunk line Calgary to Edmonton that is electrified for TGV speeds, with continuing service over existing lines or new alignments to other destinations (Lethbridge, Canmore, etc) possibly at lower speeds. The initial diesel powered equipment can be cascaded to these branches or to establish local commuter rail.

    The high-speed rail seems to be viewed by the Alberta government as all-or-nothing. They are not willing to fund “all”. Hence we get nothing. Basic service is needed as a start!

  • Eli

    The biggest problem with HSR is simply the price to customers. If I want to use the Acela to get from DC-New York it costs $99 with a one-month advanced ticket. I could fly for $49. How does anyone ever expect HSR to take a significant percentage of the market when it’s so grossly overpriced?

  • orulz

    I think Amtrak’s current mandate requires it to set fares in order to maximize revenues rather than ridership. If its mandate were changed, they could then do whatever they want to undercut the airlines. Given that they operate with a pretty decent load factor, what reason do they have to lower fares? If the fares were $49 on the train, the acela would sell out way ahead of time, and they would not have any seats left for the high-price last minute travelers.

    I’ve always thought it would be a great if Amtrak could lengthen the acelas into 10 car trains, and bump up the frequency somewhat. That would increase supply, and thereby allow them to have lower prices.

    If Amtrak no longer had a mandate to maximize revenue, they might also be able to eliminate fare “buckets” and charge the same price no matter when you buy your ticket. That is how trains in Japan and perhaps in Europe work. And ridership would go WAY up.

  • Woody

    Eli & Orulz —
    The reason fares are high on the Acelas is because the supply of seats is very limited. As a result, prices have risen to what the traffic will bear.

    If Amtrak happens to make some money this way, fine. But in fact, the Acelas are full, even at the high prices, because the tracks are full. Completely full.

    The Northeast Corridor carries the hourly Acelas, Regional trains, Keystones from NYC to Philly and on to Harrisburg, long distance trains heading off to Chicago, New Orleans, and Florida, as well as hundreds of commuter trains into four or five cities. There is no room on the tracks for another single daylight train out of NYC to D.C. Not one more train can be squeezed into the schedule.

    The route from Boston to NYC is constrained by the numerous rivers, bays, and yacht basins along the New England Shore. Under maritime law, any ship or sailboat on a navigable waterway has a right of passage, so drawbridges must be opened at least every hour.

    So Boston is limited to one Acela per hour. And D.C. too. Not one Acela every half hour. Not an Acela every 20 minutes. ONE per hour. And every one is full. The scarce seats are priced high because of they are, in effect., bid up

    To get the Acelas, or their successors, up to a reasonable number of fast trains and available seats — with what the British call a “turn up and go” frequency — with added tracks, and new bridges, tunnels, and catenaries, as well as more equipment, will require as many billions of bucks as will raising the speed. If capacity is not greatly increased, but only the speed, then the tickets will cost even more thannow, and they will all be bought by the elite on expense accounts.

    • Nathanael

      Actually, there’s room for quite a lot more trains per day between NY and DC. They can’t operate into NYC during the morning rush or the evening rush, but there’s room for midday trains.

      NY-Boston has an absolute limit on the number of trains due to the drawbridges. This could be changed by act of Congress (altering maritime law with respect to these crossings), but it will be years before we have a Congress interested in helping passenger rail that much.

      Bigger problem: Amtrak has zero spare locomotives and zero spare cars, and it takes years to build them, and they’re quite expensive. So, y’know, another train could be run if someone GAVE them a train…. :-)

      I’m really not kidding about Amtrak’s car shortage. They repaired nearly all their damaged cars using ARRA funding, and they run them as hard as they can. Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, and California are ordering some new cars which will displace the cars currently used there to the East Coast, which will help some, but not for a couple of years. Amtrak’s replacing their very tired electric locomotives as we speak, and expanding the fleet somewhat, which will help a little when it’s done, but again, not for a year or two.

  • Adirondacker

    There is no room on the tracks for another single daylight train out of NYC to D.C. Not one more train can be squeezed into the schedule.

    There’s plenty of room except between Newark and New York and then only during rush hour. Amtrak has chronic car shortages. They are probably more constrained by not having enough cars than they are by track capacity. South/West of Newark and North/East of the Sunnyside Yards in Queens there’s plenty of capacity.

  • Matt Fisher

    I’m supportive of high speed rail in Alberta, but I don’t think something like the TGV is most appropriate at this time there. Using the existing CPR line for a service of 200-240 km/h would be more acceptable. Besides, if there’s one place where the TGV would be more appropriate in Canada, it’s Quebec City-Windsor, but not even as much as in California or the Northeast.

  • Is it really that helpful to say that other corridors that can’t get their acts together are why Alberta can’t have nice things?

  • Guys, remember that Canada and the US are two different countries, which means that there’s no competition for funds between Canadian and American HSR routes.

  • How has nobody mentioned the need for the HSR to have airport links in both cities? Both have airports out of town close to where the line would run….it’d be crazy not to link them up with this high speed line, to offer flexibility and possible code sharing with airlines. Yes, downtown to downtown is extremely important, but intermodal passengers could account for much of the air travel and offer travelers more options, which is always a good thing.

  • As an Edmonton resident who has driven this route hundreds of times (especially in the winter) I can honestly say that an alternate means of transportation is LONG overdue. Saving time is one thing, but safety is an entire other issue.

    The distance element mentioned is certainly a consideration; the fact remains that is IS a manageable drive…but honestly too short to fly for most.

    The challenge will indeed be marketing this to DRIVERS and not the FLYERS.

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