This week, it was announced that the provincial government has partnered with the Canada Infrastructure Bank to examine the feasibility of a passenger rail service between Calgary and Banff.
It is about time and frankly, we are wondering what has taken this government so long to get this process started?
A passenger rail service would be a game-changer for the Bow Valley and there are many reasons why this idea should be seriously considered.
Pre-COVID-19 the tourism industry was considered a growth sector and one that could lead this province into the future. Tourism to Alberta is responsible for about $10 billion in GDP for the province. The mountain towns in this province account for one third of that total amount.
Upwards of four million peopel travel to Banff National Park each year and for the most part they are coming in their own, or rented vehicles. All those trips have a cumulative greenhouse gas effect as well, adding to the carbon footprint of the tourism industry and this valley.
That results in traffic and congestion in the communities of this valley. Towns like Canmore and Banff were not founded and designed in the 1800s to manage the levels of visitation we are seeing.
Our residents are frustrated and tired of not being able to enjoy their own community as a direct result of feeling displaced by over crowded streets and amenities.
Local municipalities have invested time, effort and money into managing these issues. But so far, this valley has been left to its own devices to find those solutions. Banff, for example, has found no help from Parks Canada to create intercept parking to manage the flow of vehicles into the community during busy summer months.
A private company, Liricon Capital, however, stepped forward with a proposal to redevelop the train station and free intercept parking for the community. But the proposal is tied to plans to see passenger rail return to the valley.
Liricon has found private investment to go towards the captial costs to establish a new rail link and conducted a feasibility study of its own that pegs the cost at up to $680 million. But government funding from both the provincial and federal levels would be needed to see it become a reality.
So here we are – those governments are interested in the idea and will take the time to understand it better.
The benefits of passenger rail could include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving parking and congestion issues, and increasing the mobility of residents in the region overall.
But the idea is not exactly a home run. In addition to the fact it would have a large pricetag, one that at this point we can only estimate, adding another railway line through this valley would affect wildlife like grizzly bears, and would absolutely require an environemental impact assessment.
The plan includes stops in communities other than Banff, like Canmore, the Stoney Nakoda First Nation and Cochrane. This is where we as valley residents need to ensure there is better understanding of the implications of the proposal.
Where would these stops be located? Who would pay to operate them and build them? What happens if the project goes over budget, will the government cut smaller communities from the project to free up captial?
While the announcement of the agreement between the province and the bank is a big step forward for this project, there are still a lot of unknowns we should all be looking for answers to before we anybody can call out "all aboard" yet.