COCHRANE - Planners and politicians from Cochrane to Edmonton may soon be faced with a number of challenges as the proposed Calgary-Banff Passenger Rail project inched towards becoming a reality this week, with the UCP government announcement of $3 million for a City of Calgary-led assessment of the connection.
On July 10, the government said it’s allocating the funding because the study is long overdue.
The investigation will assess passenger rail links beyond the city limits to connect Calgary with Banff by hydrogen-powered trains.
“As Calgary continues to grow, it's vital to have a road map to build out a transit network that increases capacity and supports transportation needs now and into the future,” Minister of Transportation and Economic Corridors Devin Dreeshen said in a government press release.
It is hoped such a rail line would not only boost tourism, but improve safety by reducing vehicle traffic on the Trans-Canada Highway between Calgary and Banff.
Preliminary proposals include a scenario where the Canada Infrastructure Bank would cover half the $1.5-billion construction cost.
While the project is still a long way from approval and construction, the pros and cons for Cochrane have been considered for some time, especially by Mayor Jeff Genung, who said he was pleased to see the announcement this week.
Genung sat on a panel discussing the project in June with the Urban Land Institute, a global non-profit educational organization, along with the mayors of Calgary, Canmore, and Banff.
“We talked about the benefits of this project with each of our communities,” he said.
Liricon Capital, the Banff-based family holding company of Jan and Adam Waterous, has been promoting its vision of a passenger rail service for a number of years. Liricon owns the Mount Norquay ski area and holds a long-term lease of the existing Banff train station.
The new tracks would follow the existing CP freight corridor, with 10 trains a day from the airport to Banff.
Stations outside Calgary are proposed for Cochrane, Morley, Canmore, and Banff. Proposed stations in Calgary would be at the airport, downtown, and near Stoney Trail where it crosses the Trans-Canada Highway.
Liricon representatives presented to the panel in June along with their partner Plenary, an international public infrastructure manager, developer, and investor.
“The conversations continue to roll, and it’s inching closer to starting,” Genung said.
Cochrane has set aside land immediately north of The Station for a passenger platform.
Making a trip to Cochrane more convenient would have an immediate and obvious tourism benefit, but would just as evidently present some traffic concerns.
The trains wouldn’t be as long as the freight trains currently disrupting traffic in town, and, according to Genung, would fit in between Centre and Fifth avenues when stopped.
Genung said that a few years ago, some preliminary cost estimates of a tunnel underneath the tracks at Centre Avenue came in around $50 million, so he guesses that figure would be closer to $70 million today, and there would be two needed, if indeed that were a proposed solution.
The hope would be that as more commuters used the train, local traffic would be reduced as well.
Genung said another one of the first things on Town council’s ‘to do’ list in the event of approval of the rail line would be a detailed look at how to improve and enhance the current transit system in Cochrane, to integrate it with the new train service.
Another benefit Genung pointed out was how the rail service might help address the labour shortage in the hospitality industries in Cochrane, Canmore, Banff, and Calgary, as potential employees would be able to move about more freely if they live in one but work in another.
“You could live and work in any one of our communities, interchangeably,” he said.
Genung said that if the project becomes a reality and is indeed hydrogen-powered, it would enhance Canada’s reputation internationally, as it would be the first hydrogen-powered train in North America.
“Most of the rest of the world has a strong train component built into their society – we’re kind of late to the game here,” he said.
“But as we catch up with the rest of the world in moving tourists around, the hydrogen component would really put Alberta, the Bow Valley, and therefore Cochrane on the map internationally.”
Alberta minister of infrastructure and Airdrie-Cochrane MLA Pete Guthrie cautioned there was still a long way to go before all the details of the project would be ironed out, but admitted he’d be on board with a ribbon-cutting down the line.
“This is exploratory – that’s what this is about,” he said at his annual Stampede BBQ in Cochrane on July 14.
“We have to deal with the stakeholders like CP, look at the infrastructure, really look at the nuts and bolts and see if this can be done in an affordable way that has a return on investment for Albertans,” he said.
He added that there has been a lot of interest expressed to the province on rail lines, especially for the Calgary to Edmonton corridor.
Premier Danielle Smith, In a November 2022 letter to Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek, committed the province to exploring the idea.
On Monday the province said the review would include stakeholders like the airport, Canadian Pacific Kansas City, the Canada Infrastructure Bank, and private rail developers.
Alberta Transportation said a request for proposals was issued to recruit an engineering consultant to begin the Calgary Airport Rail Connection Study in October, and complete it by August 2024. Those recommendations would then be considered by Calgary city council.
Some areas to be covered include a ridership review, development and evaluation of different alignment scenarios, and identifying the optimal connection route from downtown to the airport.
On Tuesday, the UCP government stated it also wants to examine the feasibility of commuter rail lines between Calgary, Okotoks and Airdrie. That direction came in the form of the mandate letter Smith issued to Dreeshen, as one of the numerous policy requests included in a $300-million investment in infrastructure.
The letter calls for “examining the feasibility of a province-led Metrolinx-like model for commuter rail service using heavy rail on the Canadian Pacific rail line from Airdrie to Okotoks ... with a view to developing a commuter rail system that can expand as Alberta grows.”
It says that assessment should also include the use of hydrogen-powered trains.