Passenger Rail in Alberta

Mathew Preston

August 13, 2020


Acting Leader Jacquie Fenske published the following editorial in the Edmonton Journal on August 13th. 

To empower our communities, unite our province, and grow our economy, Alberta needs big ideas.

As acting Leader of the Alberta Party, I’ve been holding Zoom calls — as well as the normal one-on-one meetings with stakeholders — with Albertans provincewide. The ideas discussed when people from all backgrounds are engaged can be truly enlightening.

Last week, one idea generated more interest than any other. Expanding rail capacity in Alberta has the potential to grow our economy and revitalize our cities, towns, and rural municipalities.

The dream of a “high-speed” rail link between Edmonton and Calgary comes up all the time. Quite frankly, however, while the Edmonton-Calgary corridor is our most vibrant, it is not nearly densely populated enough to warrant the incredible expense of such a project. Moreover, we’re overlooking a much more practical and affordable solution.

A modern conventional rail system on a jointly twinned, currently operating rail line would serve Alberta’s current and future needs. It would allow for a relatively affordable, but ultra-modern fast rail link between our two major cities and connect our vibrant outlying communities, and it can be done relatively soon. Non-stop service between Calgary and Edmonton would cut the three-hour drive between cities to a comfortable, stress-free one hour-and-40 minute ride, from station to station. Other trains would of course stop at both international airports, Leduc, Wetaskiwin, Red Deer, Innisfail and Airdrie.

The project also offers the possibility of affordable and fast connections between the two international airports and the nearby commuter cities or Airdrie and Leduc. Imagine the decrease in traffic and accidents during rush hours if we could put people on a fast train from those locations to the respective cities. Cost savings on highway maintenance alone ensures the viability of the project, without even considering the longer link between the two cities. And because the road allowance currently in existence on both the CNR and CPR right of ways is more than enough to accommodate an extra track, the land needed is already designated for rail traffic.

Because this track allowance already exists, this is a project that, with a little leadership from the province, could be started tomorrow. Combined with a link between Calgary and Banff, Alberta’s two major airports would be joined with one of our most visited tourist destinations. Working with CN Rail to completely twin and maintain the existing rail line to Jasper could be a major catalyst in reaching this government’s goal of doubling tourism’s contribution to the economy.

Commuter rail to smaller communities would allow young Albertans to save money by living at home while still attending universities in Edmonton and Calgary, and enable smaller institutions like Red Deer College to grow. The rise in working from home could see many people moving into smaller communities and more easily able to visit the city when they so desire, but still take advantage of all of the perks of small-town living.

Double tracks could revitalize some manufacturing in smaller centres by making shipping costs cheaper. Well-paying jobs would help attract more investment in smaller communities, and larger centres could add to their already-growing logistics industry as distribution hubs.

Growing rail in Alberta doesn’t always require government spending. The Battle River Railway has turned a profit as a small short-line railway between Camrose and Alliance. They don’t only haul grain and other goods, but take passengers on journeys that help explore the region and add vibrancy to the local cultural landscape, hosting plays and concerts and brining people into communities along the route. All that is needed from government to support the enterprising individuals making it a success is marketing and a stable business environment. Grants or low-interest repayable loans for start-ups could enable other smaller lines.

When Alberta was opened up to the rest of the world by the railway, community boosters provincewide saw endless potential. With a growing population and the need to diversify our economy, grow our economic base, and empower our smaller communities, a new focus on trains could be the big idea that Alberta needs. The people of our province pride themselves on big ideas, moonshots, and an entrepreneurial spirit that can’t be beat. Why not harness that by going back to the future and investing in a cost-efficient, ready-made solution?

Jacquie Fenske is acting leader of the Alberta Party, former MLA for Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville, and was a Strathcona County councillor.