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Calgary-Banff passenger train to be investigated as part of overall provincial rail system

“The master plan also includes a cost-benefit analysis that will identify what elements of a passenger rail system should proceed and when,” said Devin Dreeshen , minister of of Transportation and Economic Corridors.
The train station in Banff in March. MATTHEW THOMPSON RMO PHOTO

BANFF – The Alberta government will develop a passenger rail master plan which will include looking at the feasibility of a passenger train service from Calgary to Banff National Park.

In an announcement on Monday (April 29), the Alberta government indicated the master plan, which will include a cost-benefit analysis that will identify what elements of an overall provincial passenger rail system should proceed and when, would look at regional lines from Calgary and Edmonton to the mountain national parks of Banff and Jasper.

“We want to open up access to our breathtaking and adventure-rich national parks,” said Premier Danielle Smith.

“Our efforts to grow the visitor economy in our province will be helped by developing a passenger rail line from Calgary to the heart of our national parks.”

In addition, the master plan will consider a commuter rail system for the Calgary and Edmonton areas that connects those cities’ surrounding communities and their respective airports to downtown areas.

The feasibility study will take a look at a regional rail line between Calgary and Edmonton, with a local transit hub in Red Deer, and municipal-led light rail transit systems in Calgary and Edmonton that integrate with the provincial passenger rail system.

Lastly, under the plan, rail hubs serving the major cities would provide linkages between a commuter rail system, regional rail routes and municipal-led mass transit systems.

Jan Waterous, managing partner of Liricon Capital which is behind the push for the return of passenger rail between Calgary and Banff, worries more studies will sit on the shelf, particularly related to the Calgary Airport Banff Rail (CABR) project.

“The risk is that at the end of the province’s year-long study process to create a master plan for provincial rail, we have studies that sit on a shelf and not projects that are shovel-ready,” she said in an email.

“For CABR to advance to construction, the province will need to advance our proposal in parallel with their rail master plan studies.”

Waterous said this is necessary so that Liricon and its development partner, Plenary, can secure more than $1 billion in committed Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB) financing in advance of the next federal election.

“Without CIB financing, there is no CABR,” she said.

Provincial officials say the sequencing of projects will be determined by the feasibility study, but best-case scenario construction would begin in 2027.

Smith said she suspects city commuter rail is the one most feasible immediately in addition to the airport lines.

“Then we have to get some advice on when it’s feasible to build out from Calgary and Edmonton,” she said.

But Waterous said she believes the rail master plan will conclude that the Calgary to Banff railway project is the foundation for expanded passenger rail, including providing the access needed to downtown Calgary for the Airdrie-Okotoks commuter rail line.

“Assuming the province advances CABR’s financial evaluation and project development agreement in parallel with the rail master plan, thus allowing us to secure CIB funding, CABR could drive the first spike in 2027 and last spike in 2029,” she said.

Banff Mayor Corrie DiManno said the connection from Calgary to the mountains is becoming increasingly important as the population of Calgary continues to grow, noting the city’s population has doubled since VIA Rail ended passenger train service to Banff in 1990.

“The best solution to traffic congestion in Banff is keeping private and rental cars in Calgary,” she said.

“Our small community struggles to manage personal vehicles because we simply do not have the road or parking capacity to handle the number of vehicles we see in peak periods.”

DiManno said On-It Regional Transit’s summer program from Calgary to Banff has been successful, adding it continues to break ridership records and expand its service. This year will have On-It offer a route between Calgary and Lake Louise.

“This says to us there is high demand for frequent, reliable, and affordable mass transit between the city and the mountains,” she said.

“But On-It carries about less than one per cent of Banff’s visitors, so we need to start exploring how we scale up this proof of concept.”

The mayor said Banff is extremely open to a pilot project between now and when the passenger rail master plan is expected to be complete in summer 2025 to help gauge feasibility and interest.

“The tracks and station already exist, we just need some provincial political will and gumption,” she said.

“We know mass transit is the way of the future and we welcome it.”

The provincial government’s plan includes a province-led Crown corporation to develop the infrastructure and oversee daily operations, fare collection/booking systems, system maintenance, and planning for future system expansion.

The government has also released a request for expression of interest to seek consultant services as a first step toward the development of the passenger rail master plan, and following this process, a request for proposal will be issued to select a consultant to have the plan developed by summer 2025.

“The master plan also includes a cost-benefit analysis that will identify what elements of a passenger rail system should proceed and when,” said Devin Dreeshen, Minister of Transportation and Economic Corridors.

“The plan will identify triggers for implementing infrastructure development, such as population and ridership, as well as optimal staging and expansion of the system as populations grow.”

Dreeshen said the plan will also consider financial and delivery model options, to consider the role of the public sector, private sector or a hybrid option.

“The plan will also assess government options to develop and operate an Alberta passenger rail system,” he said.

“The master plan will include a 15-year delivery plan, which will provide clear options to the government to lay out the next steps.”

While the announcement focuses heavily on government-led actions, including the creation of a new provincial rail crown corporation, Waterous said she was pleased that the province is looking to leverage private sector partners on certain rail routes.

“We believe private sector investment and innovation will be essential to making passenger rail in Alberta a reality and an economic success,” she said.

Parks Canada did not want to comment on the provincial announcement.

The 2022 management plan for Banff National Park does not close the door on the return of passenger rail to Banff, but it does raise challenges around wildlife mortality on the existing Canadian Pacific Kansas City Railway tracks and that a second line for passenger trains would only make that worse.

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