BOW VALLEY – How would a passenger rail service change the Bow Valley corridor and its communities?
For Banff, it could help the Town meet its greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals by getting more private vehicles off the road. For Canmore, it could bring much-needed employees to the community from neighbouring municipalities. Cochrane, too, could benefit from any easement of traffic in a community that is the fastest growing in the province. Calgary, meanwhile, has long awaited a light rail connection to its airport, which a new service hopes to address.
Though many questions hang over a proposed rail project connecting Calgary International Airport to Banff and with all the communities in between, the mayors of Banff, Canmore, Cochrane and Calgary jointly support mass public transit to connect the municipalities and voiced as much in a panel discussion hosted by the Urban Land Institute in Calgary last week.
Jan Waterous and her husband Adam Waterous, who are behind the project with their financial holding company Liricon Capital Inc., said having all the mayors together in a room to discuss the proposed rail with interested members of the public was of mutual benefit for Liricon and the municipalities.
“This is a project that’s going to develop the region. It’s not one municipality, it’s each municipality within a region and how they support each other,” said Jan Waterous.
Liricon, which owns Mount Norquay Ski Resort and has a long-term lease on the Banff train station lands, wants to twin the existing track running through the CP rail corridor, with several stops along the proposed passenger line.
Banff Mayor Corrie DiManno said all the communities have “their own story” when it comes to the role rail has played in shaping them. But for Banff, a passenger rail is like “going back to the future.”
“Banff was purpose-built for the train and we had rail service up until 1990,” said DiManno. “So, we’re in a bit of a different position compared to the other municipalities where we are ready to resurrect rail service and welcome it back.”
The passenger rail aims to reduce traffic congestion by reducing private vehicle trips to Banff and along the Trans-Canada Highway, cutting per-person transportation greenhouse gases, and boosting tourism in communities along the way.
For the Town of Banff, passenger rail could also be an effective means of helping it reach its ambitious goals of reducing emissions, including greenhouse gases, by 30 per cent by 2023, and 80 per cent by 2050.
But while that potential side-effect is attractive, some environmental impacts are less clear, most notably on wildlife, DiManno noted.
Train strikes are a key cause of grizzly bear mortality in Banff National Park. Grizzlies are drawn to railways by easy foraging and food, like spilled grain. They’ll also walk along rails for ease of access while travelling.
Although the Banff National Park management plan is receptive to the idea of reintroducing passenger rail to tackle traffic congestion, it recognizes obstacles related to wildlife mortality on the existing tracks. A second line for passenger trains could worsen the issue.
“I think there’s still, of course, lots of question marks around the project,” said DiManno. “When it comes to environmental assessments and looking at how this would impact wildlife – Banffites care very deeply for this place – I think there still needs to be some questions answered around those types of conversations.”
Canmore Mayor Sean Krausert shares much of the same concerns around impacts on wildlife, but he believes those can and will be addressed now that Liricon gets closer to a formal engagement phase with communities.
“At this point, as we go deeper into design, and deeper into some of conceptual nitty-gritty, those questions can be explored,” he said. “That’s the challenge to this organizing group.”
Krausert said he looks forward to seeing more of that planning come forward, but at this point, the Town is unable to do much in the way of planning for the project unless it is approved by the province.
“We’re still at this stage of trying to figure out where our responsibilities begin and the project’s responsibilities end,” he said.
A memorandum of understanding within the municipalities could help provide that clarity, he added, but the final call still lies with the province.
Liricon is in stage four of the rail project, having worked within Alberta government provisions to complete concept, feasibility and development phases. Stage five is construction.
The company is currently working with the province to determine a proposed rail connection at the airport and how it could connect with the blue line of Calgary’s LRT system into the city’s downtown.
After that’s complete, there will be more community consultation. Liricon has presented the passenger rail project to all municipalities along the proposed route, but those discussions have been mostly preliminary in nature.
Formal engagement with Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation will be a “very significant part of that,” said Waterous. The rail aims to run through Îyârhe Nakoda lands, with a stop at Mînî Thnî.
Waterous said they reached out to the First Nation last year and received a letter from leadership inviting further consultation and the opportunity to learn more about the project.
“Right now, people are really talking about the idea of a train,” said Waterous. “What do they think about the idea of a train? But this next stage is a very important one, where we learn more about concerns and the opportunities within each community where the train would travel.
“That is going to involve quite extensive consultation.”
Waterous expects extending the rail from Banff to Lake Louise, a question she said Liricon has been asked since the beginning, will also come up for further discussion.
“We are considering the opportunity along with some of our chief stakeholders,” said Waterous of the idea. “But, of course, we don’t have yes or no on that today.”
Parks Canada has long supported redevelopment and revitalization of the train station lands as long as plans conform with law and policy.
The agency has also stated it would not support building a gondola connecting the train station with the Liricon-owned Banff ski resort, as proposed in the area redevelopment plan.
Liricon and project co-developer Plenary Americas are expected to pay half the rail’s $1.5 billion price tag, with the Canada Infrastructure Bank committed to paying the other half.
Waterous said the province is not being asked to pay any of the capital costs. Instead, the proposal seeks an Alberta government payment of $30 million per year for the project. Under this pitch, the government payments would not begin until construction is complete and are contingent on the performance of the train.
The Alberta government has included $5 million in its 2023-24 budget to advance the development of the rail project and Premier Danielle Smith has also been a vocal proponent of it since she was first elected.
Waterous said that from where she was standing, she saw the mayors coming together for a panel discussion of the rail project as a sign of telling the province to make it a priority.
“Housing is a really big issue, labour mobility is a really big issue, traffic and congestion is a really big issue,” said Waterous. “All of those issues are very much interconnected and could be addressed by this project, so I think it was very appropriate to have them all there.”
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.