Provincial foot-dragging could derail Calgary-Banff passenger train plan, advocates say

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Provincial government indifference could be the last spike to the heart of a plan to create a hydrogen-powered passenger rail link between Calgary’s airport and Banff, say those behind it.

Time is running out on the proposal — which would connect the airport to the city’s downtown and carry passengers to the mountain tourist mecca — due to bureaucratic inertia within the Alberta government, say proponents of the Calgary Airport-Banff Rail (CABR) proposal.

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Continued inaction could soon mean a failure to access funds from the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB), which is willing to underwrite half of the project’s $2.6-billion construction costs, and the co-operation of Canadian Pacific Kansas City Rail (CPKC), which has agreed to the use of its corridor, said Nicholas Hann, CABR’s project director.

Private investment would pay for the rest of the capital costs, they said, for a project they still hope will be completed before the end of the decade.

“The CIB have put their pens down today, which is a big problem,” said Hann, who was once head of investments at the bank, which is an arm’s-length agency of the federal government.

“Since we signed an MOU with CPKC in November 2021, the level of engagement we’ve had (with the province) is not what you’d expect — we don’t believe we’ve been asked detailed questions, we’ve been given a bit of a brush-off.”

Alberta Transportation and Economic Corridors, he said, has not even engaged on the issue with the CIB, something he calls “puzzling.”

According to Hann and his allies, a major concern lies in the province’s intention to proceed with a $15-million rail master plan study over two years — time that would doom agreements with CIB and CPKC, the latter of which already views passenger rail along the corridor as a low priority compared to freight.

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There’s also a concern that if the federal Conservatives win next year’s election, the CIB would be disbanded, say project proponents.

In a letter to city council, Hann and Bruce Graham, executive director of Friends of CABR, implore the lawmakers to pressure the province to ensure the project moves ahead.

“We note that CABR is only requesting $10 million of matching development funding from the Government of Alberta to take the CABR project through planning, design, permitting and regulatory approvals, and into construction over the next 18 months,” they state.

 “We call upon the City of Calgary and the Bow Valley Corridor Alliance to take on a leadership role on these important projects and insist at the political level that the province addresses the issues of financial viability, deliverability and risk transfer before embarking on studies with no practical or commercial focus.”

At stake, they say, is a 150-kilometre rail line running from the airport southward, parallel to the existing CP tracks along the west side of Deerfoot Trail before crossing the Bow River on an existing bridge.

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Proposed stations would be located at the airport, downtown, near Stoney Trail at the Trans-Canada Highway, Cochrane, Morley, Canmore and Banff. Its tracks would follow the existing CP freight corridor, providing 10 trains a day to the Rocky Mountain terminus.

Banff train
A file photo shows a Canadian Pacific freight train pulls into the train station in Banff. Photo by George Rose /Getty Images

Regular fares from Calgary airport to Banff for Albertans would be $20, and $40 for non-Albertans, who would subsidize the service, which would also be used by local commuters.

Family business Liricon Capital, which owns the Mount Norquay ski area and holds a long-term lease of the existing Banff train station, has predicted the line could be “capturing less than 25 per cent of visitors to Banff National Park,” which hosts more than four million people a year, by far the busiest of Canada’s national parks.

The project would revitalize Calgary’s downtown by dramatically increasing the number of people visiting or passing through it, while giving residents in the core who rely on public transit an easy route to Banff and the airport, said Graham.

“Rail access to (the airport) and our mountain parks will have significant impact in business location decisions and to people wanting to live downtown,” he said.

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The province would kick in a capped $30 million per year to help pay down the project’s mortgage, but if the service exceeds financial expectations, that number could be eliminated, say Hann and Graham.

In late 2022, Liricon said it had clarified what it called the limited taxpayer exposure in that commitment for a provincial government that had backed away from supporting it, concerned about a potentially ballooning effect on the public purse.

Liricon says the service would reduce vehicle traffic in the national park, thus reducing emissions, though environmental critics say they’re wary of an increased human pressure on the area and the potential of more wildlife being struck by trains.

The company’s managing partner said the province’s vision of a wider, expanded rail network depends on moving forward with CABR.

“The province needs to immediately engage in a more fulsome and meaningful way with both CIB and CPKC,” said Jan Waterous.

“In doing so, the province will come to the quick and obvious conclusion that CABR needs to go first, as all other rails envisioned by the Smith government hinge on it being built. Without CABR, there is no integrated rail network.”

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Premier Danielle Smith has voiced glowing approval for the project, calling it an innovative way to boost tourism, a sector the province is bullish on building to $25 billion in annual visitor expenditure by 2035.

Such a line would benefit Calgarians, Albertans and all visitors to our province in accessing one of the world’s greatest natural wonders, our provincial and national mountain parks system,” she said in November 2022.

But Hann and Graham say Alberta Transportation bureaucrats have proven a bottleneck to keeping the project on track.

“Alberta Transportation is a highways department that doesn’t understand rail,” said Hann, who has a long history of shepherding major infrastructure projects.

According to its proponents, a four kilometres connection between the airport with the LRT Blue Line without CABR would cost taxpayers $700 million, while their proposal would provide that while also supplying another link to the downtown and Banff for $30 million annually from the province.

Ward 9 Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra also voiced frustration with the pace of progress on the proposal.

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After eight years of study of the benefits of CABR and receipt of a highly credible unsolicited proposal, it is very disappointing that further years of studies are proposed before starting the actual implementation of a badly needed transportation solution to Banff and the Bow Valley,” Carra, who sits on the Bow Valley Corridor Alliance, said in a statement.

In response to CABR’s concerns, an Alberta Transportation spokesman said planning the province’s wider, long-term railway future will remain paramount.

Any decisions on passenger rail need to be planned carefully to ensure the best use of tax dollars and provincial authorities to build a system that serves Albertans,” Jesse Furber, press secretary to Transportation and Economic Corridors Minister Devin Dreeshen, said in an email.

Alberta’s government is developing a Passenger Rail Master Plan that will look forward decades, identify concrete actions that can be taken now, and future actions to build the optimal passenger rail system for the province.”

The government, he said, looks forward to consulting stakeholders, including Indigenous communities, municipalities and the private sector, to that end.

CPKC declined to comment, but in an email the CIB said it remains open to supporting the proposal if the province does.

“The decision on whether and how to proceed with that project is Alberta’s,” it said.

“If Alberta elects to proceed with the project in a manner that aligns with the CIB’s mandate, we would continue to support its development.”

[email protected]

X: @BillKaufmannjrn

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