Tim Querengesser is an Edmonton-based writer whose work on cities, city governance and metropolitan economies has appeared in The Globe and Mail, CityLab, Canadian Geographic, The Walrus, Financial Post, CBC and The Sprawl.
Back in the 1970s, when the Alberta economy was exploding with oil investment, a federal study into a high-speed rail link between Calgary and Edmonton found that it offered the “perfect route length” for someone to do business in a single day in the two cities, which have intricately linked economies.
Forty years later, several provincial studies into superspeedy rail – the first in 1981 and the last in 2008 (with further consideration in 2014) – all roughly concluded that the idea is feasible, albeit with very significant public subsidies. But when it came time to act, politicians repeatedly found the idea to be too costly to build with public money, and have instead slowed progress down to a crawl.
So imagine Albertans’ surprise, then, that we saw, arguably, the latest iteration of that original decades-old dream of rapid-speed transit. A dream that’s held Alberta back since the 1970s is back in town, dressed in a new hat, sporting a new name, and promising even more outlandish speeds. It’s called hyperloop, and for a province that can’t get its priorities straight, all it is is more of the same.
On Tuesday, the Toronto-based passenger-pod company TransPod announced that it has signed a memorandum of understanding with Alberta to test the feasibility of building a Calgary-Edmonton hyperloop connection – hurtling people through vacuum tubes at up to 1,000 kilometres an hour or, as one critic put it, “an airplane, inside a submarine.”
The agreement forecasts construction to happen by 2030, at an estimated cost of between $6- to $10-billion. The deal will see Alberta provide the company with zero public money, but with land to build a test track. And if it works, a trip between two cities 300 kilometres apart could take roughly the same time many spend on a drive to work.
Alberta desperately needs high-tech industries outside of oil and gas, and on this point, the TransPod deal is a huge win. And if TransPod is successful at solving the many, many problems with hyperloops from a testbed in Alberta, that would be a once-in-a-generation victory.
There are a lot of ifs standing in the way of that technological dream, however. Hyperloops are extremely speculative technology right now; their costs are even more so. Critics have even described Tesla founder Elon Musk’s efforts to sell governments on the technology as him selling “snake oil.”
But the bigger trouble is Alberta itself. The province has rarely had a government with reasonable priorities for regional transit, even though the two closely linked cities bookend one of Canada’s most economically powerful corridors. And since the 1970s, the province’s population has doubled to 4.4 million, much of that clustered into the Edmonton-Calgary corridor. A 2019 study found that, by 2046, Alberta could be home to 6.6 million people and that more than 5 million will live in or between the two cities.
Given the high-speed rail dream has been repeatedly deemed too expensive, the compromise has been to invest billions in highways.
Some worry the TransPod deal now suggests Alberta can stall further on building transportation options as it waits for the technology to bear fruit, or for the private sector to build what it needs. But this would be a dereliction of its duty for the economic region.
What Alberta needs now is to return to its roots. The province was built on rail, and it still has the rough steel backbone and right of ways that comes with that legacy. Alberta doesn’t need a hyperloop. What it needs is a regional rail system that runs at regular speeds, first linking Calgary to Edmonton, and then creating a network to other communities. Ontario’s GO Transit should serve as an inspiration.
Critics balk at such talk, declaring that Albertans are committed to their cars. The drive between Calgary and Edmonton is just three hours, they argue, so it would be nearly as fast as regular-speed rail. And they have a point: Roads and driving are what Albertans know, and it’s where the province has invested.
But there is an economic cost to this approach. If several times each week, an Albertan drives the 300 congested kilometres between Edmonton and Calgary, that represents a loss of hours of potential productivity, not to mention mileage. And for anyone who has driven this route in winter, the dangers are well-known.
There are other options, however. Rail for Alberta vice-president Willem Klumpenhouwer says there is the potential for regular-speed trains to beat what a car trip can offer in terms of both time and convenience, and they would allow a person to continue to be productive if they so choose. And, unlike the stratospheric costs associated with high-speed rail or the hyperloop, a regular train network already more or less exists.
He also noted that most high-speed systems started as smaller, regular-speed rail, before building up to meet the demand for speed.
Alberta is right to welcome TransPod to our province. But it should also get to work building regional rail; hyperloops represent just one potential future. After all, if we can learn anything from the 1970s dream, lurking as it has now for a generation, it’s that conversations about dreams shouldn’t drown out conversations about what we need right now.
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