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(JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

GARY MASON

Alberta simply doesn’t need a bullet train Add to ...

Seemingly undaunted by a string of deficits and an uncertain energy future, a committee of the Alberta Legislature is investigating the idea of building an expensive bullet-train link between Calgary and Edmonton. A more unnecessary venture there may not be.

The dream of high-speed rail between the two cities isn’t new. It’s been bandied about for years and studied by both government and public-policy think tanks. Inevitably, those looking into it come to the same conclusion: It’s a wonderful idea – and not cheap. But the estimated cost of such a project – anywhere between $3-billion and $20-billion depending on how speedy and glitzy the trains are – is only part of the problem. The much bigger issue is need.

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High-speed rail is defensible in high-density areas. It’s why you find China, for instance, rapidly expanding bullet lines throughout the country. Although this expansion hasn’t been without grief and controversy, China’s trains link cities with populations of millions upon millions. It gives the service a reliable customer base and helps make a more credible economic argument for the lines overall.

But look at the much-troubled efforts to build a high-speed line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, a cautionary tale for Alberta if there ever was one.

On the surface, there would seem to be an argument one could make for the undertaking based on numbers and distance. Greater Los Angeles has a population of perhaps 16 million; the San Francisco Bay Area is home to more than seven million. And then there are the millions who live in between. That’s a lot of people who would potentially use such a line. And the current car commuting time between the two metropolitan areas is almost six hours – the proposed high-speed train would reduce that to 21/2 or three hours.

And yet the project has become ensnarled in controversy. The current estimated cost is $68-billion, but few believe that will be the final price tag, if it ever gets built. That figure is already 51 per cent higher than the $45-billion estimate released in 2008. The total had climbed to nearly $100-million before state Republicans and the general public went berserk and it was scaled back – at the expense of speed. The plan is now to use existing, but much slower, tracks.

The project got the go-ahead as a result of a referendum that received narrow (53-47) approval from the public six years ago. But in recent polls, nearly 70 per cent say they wouldn’t use the more slow-moving service necessitated by budget cuts. Opposition legislators are calling for a fresh plebiscite to gauge the public’s continued interest in financing such an endeavour.

Which brings us back to Alberta, where the current population in Calgary and Edmonton, combined, barely exceeds two million. Yes, the two cities are growing, but they’re each expected to add just a million people by 2041. Beyond that, a high-speed line would not be bridging the distance that the California track would, not even close. It’s not quite 300 kilometres between the two Alberta cities, a distance that takes less than three hours to drive. Yes, it can be a pain, especially on miserable winter days. And portions of the road aren’t in the best shape. But is that enough to justify the billions it would cost to build a high-speed rail service? Would it not be far cheaper to fix and expand the current highway?

How much time would a bullet train shave off the driving time? Some estimates suggest an hour. Would that validate the cost of a one-way ticket, which is certain to be in excess of $100 and more likely double or even triple that? For most, I doubt it.

Surely, Alberta’s first priority has to be desperately needed rapid transit inside the metropolitan areas of its two major cities. That won’t be cheap either, but in the end, it would serve a much greater need than high-speed rail.

The bullet-train idea should be halted before it has a chance to leave the station.

 

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