This post is in response to the recent advertisement published by the Standing Committee on Alberta’s Economic Future, soliciting comments and presentations at hearings on a proposal for High Speed Rail (HSR) service in Alberta. This is substantially the same as the letter sent to the Standing Committee.
The following remarks are based on my personal use of fast and HSR trains in mainland Europe (Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Italy, Switzerland, France, Spain) and the United Kingdom over the last few years (in preference to rental cars and air travel for certain journeys).
I am generally enthusiastic about and strongly support a high speed rail system (HSR) in Alberta – however certain conditions are required for success.
- The system must be carefully thought out, not just in the Calgary – Red Deer – Edmonton corridor but in future extensions to other major population or business centres.
- A successful HSR system will be strongly dependent on adequate populations to use the services offered and yet may also act as attractants to the province and distant centres just because desirable services such as HSR may be available. Careful population and potential usage projections are a basic pre-requisite to decision making, not ideology or a desire to establish a political ‘monument’ to any individual or party.
- An HSR system cannot stand alone – it must be part of an integrated public transport network throughout the province, extending from the homeowner’s door to international air service connections and everything in between.
- A state-of-the-art HSR system is probably not required so long as speeds and arrival times between major destinations (city centre to centre) are substantially better than can be achieved by efficient road (bus, car) or air transport systems.
- An efficient HSR should offer better travel times between major centres with a higher degree of safety for travellers, while reducing the demand for highway improvements for personal car usage. Calculations into the ‘cost’ and benefits of an HSR should include the reduced cost for unnecessary alternative infrastructure as well as the reduced human costs of accidents etc.
- Introduction of an HSR may extend the commuting range of present self-sufficient cities so that (for example) commuting from Red Deer to Calgary and vice-versa may become time-efficient for certain travellers. This has been borne out by the introduction of the HSR from Madrid (Spain) to certain adjacent cities.
- Conventional steel wheels on steel tracks are proven and relatively economical with trains powered by overhead electrical wires (established technology) but alternatives should be given good consideration.
- The Alberta climate with extremes of temperature and soils susceptible to frost heaving may make ‘conventional’ on-ground, steel wheel and rail HSR systems unsuitable.
- Electricity generation in Alberta is at present and for the foreseeable future largely coal fuelled, resulting in environmentally unsatisfactory (‘dirty’) electricity so that the purported environmental benefits of HSR may be negated by fuel usage and by life-cycle environmental construction costs.
- Magnetic levitation (maglev) trains may be a suitable alternative in Alberta and are already in service elsewhere in the world. They may be more economical to build and operate over the long term.
- Land ownership of the track right of way and related facilities (stations, electrical substations, access points such as parking and public transport facilities) should remain in the Crown.
- I have no particular brief as to the desirability of public or private ownership of the facilities and equipment, except to observe that the HSR should be considered a public service such as water, sewer, road and highway facilities and should be treated as such.
- Total separation of the HSR from the freight rail transport system is required.
- The priorities and requirements of passenger HSR and freight systems are totally different.
- Road crossings and the incursion of animals and people onto the tracks of an HSR would be disastrous to all parties.
- All road and freight rail crossings should be grade separated and at no point should freight and passenger rail share the same tracks. This is a basic requirement for passenger safety.
- HSR stations should be in city centres and airport terminals (YYC, YEG) to achieve efficiencies especially for business travellers.
- The temptation to include access points to the HSR at other than major centres and airports (as mentioned above) should be resisted in favour of developing a more efficient local or regional public transport system.
- It would be pointless to develop an HSR system without also developing a comprehensive and effective local or regional public transport system, which would also imply a shift away from reliance on one-person, one-car personal journeys which now appears to be ‘normal’ in Alberta.
- An HSR system should be closely linked to light rail transit (LRT) and express city bus services in Edmonton and Calgary and possibly other centres.
- Calgary and Edmonton, and possibly also Red Deer should consider re-developing an urban tramway system such as is found in many European cities; such systems should be closely linked to HSR.
- The tramway and LRT systems should connect to a comprehensive and frequent network of small, frequent local buses to serve outlying neighbourhoods and business centres, including possibly re-introducing a dial-a-bus system such as was initiated in Regina, SK, in the 1970s as well as conventional large buses operating on fixed routes.
- An efficient public transport system requires inclusion of taxis and common-usage cars such as Car2Go. Substantial improvements in Calgary’s taxi service are needed to facilitate the success of an HSR system.
- More taxis, more readily available, more of the time, at more economical costs.
- The success of Car2Go can be attributed at least in part to the poor and expensive taxi service now offered in Calgary.
- Access to taxis etc. should be guaranteed so that access to the HSR from home or workplace is easily provided without resort to the private car.
- Transit and taxi services in smaller and / or more remote centres (e.g. Medicine Hat, Lethbridge, Red Deer, Airdrie, Cochrane, Strathmore, Chestermere, Okotoks, High River) should be improved so that access to the HSR is not dependent on the private car.