Trains are needed for Urban and Rural Alberta to succeed

“The New Democrats are rolling out a plan to restore rural bus service in many of the 150 Alberta towns and villages that lost the service three years ago, says Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Brian Mason.

Mason, a former city bus driver, said he plans to examine options to bring back the buses but hasn’t made any decisions at this point.

The NDP pledged during last month’s election campaign to invest $8 million to restore the bus routes because it believes they are important to the quality of life for rural residents, Mason said.”

  • NDP exploring options to boost rural bus service, says Mason, By Darcy Henton, Calgary Herald, Last Updated: May 31, 2015 9:00 PM MDT

To be fair, I am still not sure whether the election of Rachel Notley is a good or a bad thing. I do have a sense though that the Notley Government may not be able to take on some of the huge issues which do confront this province. For example, in the last twenty years, the previous Conservative Government didn’t build the infrastructure necessary to move the province of Alberta into the Twenty First Century. Just think about the lack of any public transportation. I have had the privilege of travelling to the Caribbean, Europe, the US, Russia and throughout Canada and Alberta is the one of the few places that doesn’t have any public sector transportation service between its major cities.

Look at BC.  BC has a number of public sector carriers. For example, Via Rail runs through some of the Province. BC Ferries maintains a fleet that connects Vancouver and Victoria and their surround areas. BC’s intercity train system (i.e.the SkyTrain) connects downtown Vancouver with the Vancouver International Airport and with the cities of Burnaby, New Westminster Richmond and Surrey.

But this is not the only system like this. In Ontario, the Government of Ontario runs the GO system. GO runs a fleet of trains and buses that connect most of Southern Ontario. The trains start in Toronto and run west to Hamilton, east to Whitby and north to Barrie; while, buses provide a more intricate web of interconnection. The same is true in Quebec and various American States including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and New England.  However, when one looks at the route between Edmonton and Calgary, one will only find a few private carriers and no public sector providers.

Now, some might say that if there was a need, the Private Sector would fill it. However, my experience tells me otherwise. Compared to airlines, commuter train service tends to be a low margin service, requiring large capital investments with little reward and many problems. People who use trains are generally looking for a no-frills way of getting to a destination. I know this because I have often used a train in other places. Most recently, my wife, daughter and I travelled on the train throughout Italy for a month. Primarily, we used trains to reduce costs. We knew when we took the “bullet train”, our companions would have more money. They would be older tourists who had significant amounts of money saved or business people looking to get from Torino to Rome for an important meeting.

When we paid coach, we met students who were trying to get from school to home. There were immigrants who were trying to get around the country to find work and there were travellers like us – from Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand or around Europe – looking to save a buck. In many ways, it reminded me of the same demographic that I experience when I took the Go Train in Ontario or Via Rail when I wanted to go from Toronto to Ottawa.

This is very different from airline travel. Where rail passengers expect only limited services for last minute accessibility or ease, airline passengers expect speed, convenience, refinement and service. Just think about it. Via Rail is not expected to live up to the same service standards as Air Canada or WestJet. For example, the Conditions of Contract on your Via Rail ticket states that while your “rail ticket is not transferable and is valid only for travel on the train(s) and date(s) shown”; the times shown on the ticket “are not guaranteed. If necessary, VIA Rail may cancel a train or substitute alternate transportation without notice.”

Imagine if WestJet or Air Canada said that. Well, we don’t have to imagine. Gabor Lukacs and others have brought forward complaints against Air Canada, Porter and Air Transat and have gotten those airlines to change policies. (Gabor Lukacs takes fight to new heights with constitutional challenge, By Tim Callanan, The Canadian Press Posted: Mar 16, 2015 9:05 AM AT Last Updated: Mar 16, 2015 10:02 AM AT on All of this is due to our societal expectation over private airline carriers and the service they provide. This is probably why it is rare to find a student who has paid for their own ticket or immigrants trying to find work in a Canadian Airport. This expectation between the difference in service between private and public sector, between railways and airlines, has been played out repeatedly.

However, that difference between expectation of railways and airlines service means that while there may be a market for railways, no private player will fill that role. Consequently, if there is a need, it will be for government to provide a low margin, affordable service. So all, I need to do is show the need and that I can do.

Over the last number of months, many people in my network have had the privilege of driving from Calgary to Edmonton. Some of these people are Government Employees, while others are private sector players. What is interesting is that all of them have had to make the trip for business purposes and all of them have complained about how much time they wasted.  For example, if you fly, the flight might take 30 minutes. However, that is only the beginning because you still have to get through security, board the flight, and disembark; and all of that is hoping that your bags don’t get checked because they are too big. Then there is the drive. The drive to Calgary International (YYZ) is 30 to 60 minutes and the drive from Edmonton International (YEG) to downtown Edmonton is even longer. All said and done, the experience could take an individual two to three hours to complete. Or put differently, from a productivity point of view, it almost takes as long to drive to Edmonton, from Calgary, as it takes to fly. The only difference is that flying, one might get 30 to 60 minutes worth of work done.

However, compare that to VIA Rail. The crown corporation asserts that on most of its routes, while one will spend more than an hour on the train (when compared to air travel), the traveller will be able to be productive 90% (or more) of the trip. Or put differently, instead of having to go through the “exercise” which is air or car travel, one could just open up their laptop and work. Consequently, imagine what productivity could be brought to the Government of Alberta or various corporations, if their staff could work from a wi-fi enabled train.

The only question would be the cost of providing this new service. Now, one recent study proposed a high speed rail link. While, it could be operated at a cost of between $93 million and $129 million, the $2.6 to $5.2 billion dollar prices tag would be a bit of a worry.  (High-speed train would create an Edmonton-Calgary powerhouse, proponents say by James Wood, Calgary Herald, 02.03.2014)

However, if we are being frugal, we could just propose a regular commuter train. Like Via Rail, the American Amtrak or many European rail lines, we could have a simple rail system in Alberta which could run at 100 to 150km/h. Using Algoma Central Railway or Via Rail, as a model, we could estimate that such a service could run with a subsidy of about $4 to $12 million dollars. That subsidy would be in line with the subsidy that the NDP has proposed to give to private bus companies. The only difference is that Alberta would likely get a public rail service that connects Fort McMurray, Edmonton, Red Deer, Calgary and Lethbridge, while private bus networks serving rural Alberta would have a profitable structure to work within.

At the beginning of this piece, I stated that I was not sure whether the election of Rachel Notley is a good or a bad thing. I also stated that the Notley Government may not be able to take on some of the huge issues which do confront this province. This is just one issue which might give some perspective to others about my thinking. The entire province already knows that we need more infrastructure. Some have argued for the expansion of Highway 2 and 63. Others have argued for more “intra-” or “inter-” city transportation solutions. Either way, it takes a big visionary to move a province in a new direction and I am not sure if Premier Notley is prepared to move on a project which will provide the most benefit to the most people.

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