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Proposed Banff, Calgary rail line continues back and forth with province

“This is a big mass transit public infrastructure project. … This is multiple levels of government, multiple stakeholders, multiple interests and politics all converging trying to get passenger rail service from the airport in Calgary to the National Park. There's some back and forth. That is part of that process.”
20210720 Banff Train Station 0007
Banff train station. EVAN BUHLER RMO PHOTO

BANFF – The potential passenger rail link between Calgary and Banff hit a snag after the province said the financial ask for its contribution to the plan would be too risky for Alberta taxpayers.

But the proponents for the plan – Jan and Adam Waterous of Liricon Capital – say it’s part of the process and the new transportation minister has possibly yet to be properly briefed on the full extent of the proposal.

“This is a big mass transit public infrastructure project. … This is multiple levels of government, multiple stakeholders, multiple interests and politics all converging trying to get passenger rail service from the airport in Calgary to the National Park,” said Jan Waterous. “There's some back and forth. That is part of that process.”

In a letter to Liricon Capital earlier in July, Alberta Transportation Minister Prasad Panda outlined concerns about the proposed rail line between Calgary and Banff. The main concern was too much potential financial risk to the province and taxpayers.

Multiple attempts by the Outlook to set up an interview with Panda were unsuccessful, but Panda told The Globe and Mail the possible financial risks to taxpayers were too much to proceed with the plan under the existing model.

He said if the private capital is successfully raised in a way that doesn’t threaten provincial taxpayers, the province will reconsider the plan.

Waterous said the letter from the province outlined what was liked and what needed work on, but there was concern Panda – who took over the role June 21 – was not yet fully briefed. She said key aspects of Liricon Capital and Plenary Americas – who are partnering for half the funding – new potential ridership numbers announced in a June 27 release were not accounted for.

Steer, an international consulting firm based in the United Kingdom, outlined the rail line could have up to 11 million passengers a year by 2035. The report highlighted the number could be realized if Parks Canada modifies its legislation to increase user fees for people driving into Banff National Park to incentivize public transit and there was further support mass transit.

Waterous said they’re waiting on the Parks Canada struck expert advisory panel that has been working to prepare recommendations for sustainable ways for people to travel in the Bow Valley. The panel is expected to release the recommendations later this summer.

“They are the ones missing. We have support in eastern Canada, all around Alberta with tour operators and various municipalities, but we need Parks to show how this train could also be their objectives,” she said.

“We’re assuming that supporting mass transit will be one of those recommendations. … We hope they will see this as their opportunity to make a transformative change to improve visitors' experience when they come into the park.”

The proposed project comes with an estimated price tag of $1.5 billion, which would see half come from the Canada Infrastructure Bank and the other half from Liricon Capital and Plenary Americas. She said the capital costs wouldn’t be burdened on the province.

The proposal to the province would see Alberta coffers chip in up to $30 million each year for 50 years and while the province would one day own it, the private partnership would build and run the service. Waterous said Liricon Capital, Plenary and the Canada Infrastructure Bank would assume the initial risk.

“It’s a real fundament tenet of the P3 (public-private partnership). It’s absorbed by us and not them,” she said.

But while the province could pay up to $30 million a year, the payment could be partially or fully offset by revenue from tickets to use the service, Waterous said.

She said if Parks Canada were to expand bus and shuttle service and increase fees for vehicles entering Banff National Park, the Steer study found increased ridership – and revenue – would offset costs to the province.

The ridership increase came after local municipalities have voiced a level of support and if Parks Canada – which has yet to jump on board – adds incentives for people to use the train as opposed to driving such as increasing fees for people driving into Banff National Park.

The Alberta Transportation Ministry has said it likes the concept of the plan – especially the possible reduction in relying on vehicles ­– but the plan underestimates what is needed to complete the project and overestimates ridership.

Though the province was hesitant to commit finances, it doesn’t shut the door to any involvement. The greater concern, according to the province, was for it to not have the level of risk and more work to be done by the proponents.

In the last year, Liricon Capital has met with municipalities, the province, Parks Canada and several organizations to gain support for the possibility of a passenger rail line linking Calgary to Banff.

Any line would also be constructed next to the existing Canadian Pacific Railway line. The stops would be the Calgary airport, downtown Calgary, Calgary Keith, Cochrane, Morley, Canmore and Banff. A memorandum of understanding was signed with CP Rail in 2021 to lease a portion of the 150 kilometres needed for the line.

The Waterous’ own the Mount Norquay ski resort and have the long-term lease for the Banff train station. They have previously said the plan would aid a possible car-free Banff and also be key in the redevelopment of the 17.4-hectare train station lands.

The vision for the train would have it run through seven communities, with Albertans paying $20 per ticket and out-of-province people paying more. The ticket revenue has estimated to bring in $30 million each year.

Several tourism organizations have voiced support and a memorandum of understanding was signed between Invest Alberta, Alberta Transportation and the Canada Infrastructure Bank. Environmental groups have raised multiple red flags on potential wildlife impacts and the possible increased visitation it could bring to the region.

The potential Calgary to Banff project has seen interest from the province and multiple municipalities, particularly with it possibly reducing vehicle traffic into the Bow Valley that has millions visit each year.

It could also be North America’s first hydrogen-powered passenger train system, that would further reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

However, several questions remain and an ambitious timeline of having the train running by 2025 was seen as unrealistic by the province.

Multiple partners would also have to sign off on the plan, including the province and Parks Canada.

“The real call to action is Parks Canada because they can do this. … They can increase their park fee for vehicles, provide shuttles and buses once people get in the national park,” Waterous said.

“You have to incentivize people and have buses and shuttles running every 15 or 20 minutes to make it convenient and have a better visitor experience. … We know we can get there and we’re close, but we need Parks Canada to step up and work with us.”

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