Skip to content

Conservationists call for environmental assessments for Banff-Calgary passenger rail

“The consequences of doubling the rail line may lead to increased wildlife mortality, changes in gene flow and ultimately impair the ability of wildlife populations to persist over the long term,” said Tony Clevenger, a board member with Bow Valley Naturalists and a well-known wildlife research scientist.
20210720 Banff Train Station 0007
Banff train station. EVAN BUHLER RMO PHOTO

BANFF – A coalition of conservation groups is calling on the proponents of a proposed $1.5 billion passenger rail between Calgary and Banff to slow down the speed of the project.

Conservation groups like Bow Valley Naturalists and Canmore-based Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative are increasingly concerned a passenger rail line proposed from Calgary to Banff ignores multiple wildlife and environmental issues.

They say they’ve been asking to be part of the conversation and for environmental impact assessments to be completed that help in the understanding of what this railway proposal could mean for grizzly bears, elk and other wildlife and their habitat.

“The consequences of doubling the rail line may lead to increased wildlife mortality, changes in gene flow and ultimately impair the ability of wildlife populations to persist over the long term,” said Tony Clevenger, a board member with Bow Valley Naturalists and a well-known wildlife research scientist.

“We expect careful science-based review of the potential impacts on wildlife and the diverse and rich natural capital of the area affected.”

The 150-kilometre Calgary-Banff passenger rail proposal would link Calgary International Airport to the Banff railway station, with several stops along the way, including downtown Calgary, Cochrane, Stoney Nakoda, Canmore and Banff.

The project is being spearheaded by Banff’s Jan and Adam Waterous, who are the owners of the Mount Norquay ski resort in Banff and hold the lease to Canadian Pacific Railway lands on both the north and south side of the tracks at the Banff train station.

The Waterous’ company, Liricon Capital, and Plenary Americas have submitted a proposal to Alberta Transportation, Invest Alberta Corporation and the Canada Infrastructure Bank to move to the design phase of the project.

If all goes according to their plan, they are shooting to have the railway project up and running by as early as 2025.

The project is being billed as a means of connecting communities, providing transportation for visitors to lead to fewer cars and reduced congestion, and therefore less pollution. More than four million tourists visited Banff every year pre-pandemic.

Jan Waterous did not specifically address questions about environmental impact assessments or studies, but said there will be an opportunity for consultation with the conservation community about the Calgary Airport-Banff Rail (CABR).

She said within Banff National Park, there is the opportunity to replicate the wildlife mitigations that have been developed in the park for the Trans-Canada Highway, including wildlife fencing and crossings.

“Liricon/Plenary, CABR’s co-developers, have worked with leading experts to identify opportunities for the system to reduce greenhouse gases and protect wildlife,” Jan said in a written statement, though did not mention who the experts were.

Waterous said amongst the CABR project’s many benefits, including labour mobility and strengthening the tourism economy, the plan is to dramatically enhance the environment by reducing the number of vehicles on the road.

“With potential to be hydrogen-powered, the system will allow visitors to travel from the Calgary Airport through the Bow Valley on a zero-emissions train to Canada’s flagship national park,” she said.

“By building the system entirely within the CP Rail right-of-way by twinning the existing track, the project will be operating within an existing major freight corridor that has been previously disturbed.”

Jan said Liricon/Plenary welcome the opportunity for input from the conservation community, municipalities, Indigenous Peoples, and the public-at-large during the next phase of the project, which is design.

She said no final investment decision has yet been made by either government or Liricon/Plenary.

“Proceeding into the design phase will allow a formal process of consultation and mitigation to be conducted,” she said.

The conservation groups point out various issues with the plan as is.

The route would cross multiple ecosystems from the prairies to the mountains, potentially impacting dozens of species at risk and further fragmenting important wildlife habitats.

Cumulative impacts associated with the footprint of the new rail line and the increased number of visitors to the already congested Bow Valley need to be part of the discussion.

There is concern passenger rail could just mean even more tourists in the already busy communities of Canmore and Banff, without actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions if people continue to drive.

Hilary Young, Y2Y’s senior Alberta program manager, said roads, trails, power lines and railways are all linear disturbances.

“Adding one more to the 130 or so kilometres from Calgary to Banff corridor will further fracture wildlife populations and reduce available habitat,” said Young in a release.

“Adding a high-frequency, high-speed rail line within an internationally-significant wildlife corridor will have far-reaching implications for multiple species, including grizzly bears.”

Clevenger, who studied Banff National Park wildlife crossings for almost 20 years, said the speed at which this project is being fast-tracked and what they see as a lack of transparency should cause alarm.

“We are concerned that this project is moving along at an accelerated pace, behind closed doors at governmental levels, without consideration for public transparency, formal input or review, at this early stage,” he said.

“The public needs to be allowed to review and comment on projects early in the approvals process before the project gains momentum… By the time public and experts have time to raise concerns, the project is virtually a fait accompli.”

While the proponents of the project say passenger rail would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, conservationists said the overall greenhouse gas emissions impact of the project is in fact uncertain.

Diana MacGibbon, of Bow Valley Climate Action Society, said the studies reviewed to date don’t identify the emissions associated with construction of the project, which the group estimates to be significant.

“Robust demand studies are also required to confirm that the rail line will actually entice people out of their cars,” she said. “Without that information, it’s difficult to determine whether the project will result in a reduction or an increase in GHGs.”

The environmental coalition is made up of Bow Valley Naturalists, Y2Y, Alberta Wilderness Association, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Southern Alberta chapter and the Bow Valley Climate Action Society.