Should critical infrastructure like high-speed rail be left to the private sector?
In an era of climate change, some critics say such projects are best done as public works
High-speed rail has been talked about and studied in Alberta for half a century. In more recent years, it has been put forward as a way to reduce transportation emissions, one of the largest carbon-producing sectors.
But even as climate change visits more and more extreme weather upon us, many advocates feel it remains as far away as ever in Alberta — even with a private-sector proposal to build just such a train.
"There's a good two or three generations of people who kind of grew up thinking that trains are done and personal vehicles are the solution to all of our problems now," says Justin Simaluk of the Rail for Alberta advocacy group.
"We have got to ideologically get over that hurdle of how to transport people around the province."
In 2021, two companies — Canadian construction firm EllisDon and American consulting multinational AECOM, both corporate giants in their respective countries — formed a joint partnership called Prairie Link. This new company announced that it intended to build a high-speed passenger railway between Edmonton and Calgary, and had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the provincial government.
This came roughly a year after Toronto-based TransPod announced that it had also signed an MOU in support of its plan to build a hyperloop between the two cities.
A fast, convenient, affordable, accessible form of transportation (read: not airplanes or a highway) in the Calgary-Edmonton corridor may feel like a distant dream to many Albertans: often discussed, yet unattainable.
But in fact, such transportation existed for most of Alberta's history, albeit in varying forms of adequacy.
A complicated history
The building of the transcontinental railways is often viewed through a nostalgic lens by some, representing a bygone era of big national can-do projects.
But that history is complicated, and the role of trains in advancing Canadian colonization was understood at the time — one early line was called the Intercolonial Railway — and the promise of a railway to the Pacific was crucial to British Columbia joining Confederation in 1871.
Canadian Pacific (CP) Railway was founded in 1881 as a private company to build that cross-country linkage with heavy government subsidies. The railway was transformative, particularly for the West. Settlers arrived in droves in bare-bones carriages called colonist cars, and troops were able to arrive quickly to put down the Northwest Rebellion led by Louis Riel.
Canadian National (CN) Railway, meanwhile, was created by the federal government in 1919 out of a collection of smaller railways. Like CP, it transported both freight and passengers until 1977, when its passenger services were spun out into VIA Rail, also a Crown corporation. CP's passenger services were transferred to VIA the following year.
Passenger rail service was once common in Alberta, not just between Calgary and Edmonton, but along many branch lines through smaller centres. Even once the horseless carriage became widespread, roads were often in poor condition and the Prairie provinces in particular were defined by vast distances. Taking a train was often the fastest, safest and most comfortable way to travel.
The arrival of jet airliners meant trains could no longer hold that monopoly on speed and comfort. Sprawling suburbs and paved highways ushered in the dominance of car culture, and personal automobiles became synonymous with independence and affluence.
Eventually, after massive budget cuts beginning under Pierre Trudeau in 1981, VIA began curtailing or cancelling its less-used routes. Rail service between Calgary and South Edmonton ended in 1985. By 1990, VIA no longer served Calgary and the only remaining national route ran through Jasper, Edmonton and Saskatoon, as it does today.
Historical ridership figures are hard to come by, and VIA Rail declined to provide them. But a brief note in its 1986 annual report, while not referring to these specific routes, sums up the company's approach.
"VIA eliminated some trains which failed to attract sufficient passengers. While these adjustments were designed to contain costs, they also reflect VIA's need to tailor train services and on-board amenities to market demand."
From 1990 to 2021, greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector increased by 27 per cent nationally, making it the second-highest sector for emissions behind oil and gas.
Passenger rail service in Alberta isn't a cure-all, but it would be a step in the right direction — depending on the fuel used for the trains.
"If you look at global averages for energy efficiency, trains really are the best form of transportation aside from bicycles if you're talking about carbon footprints," says Ryan Katz-Rosene, an assistant professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa. "But that's a global average value. In North America and in Canada especially, we've got a problem because we still power our trains using diesel."
Katz-Rosene wrote in 2020 that taking a VIA train across Canada typically results in a higher carbon footprint than flying, due to diesel fuel, old equipment and low ridership figures.
Prairie Link has said they would use either electrified trains or hydrogen fuel. Both would have higher up-front costs than diesel, but electric trains have been around for over a century and the technology is more straightforward than hydrogen.
Katz-Rosene noted that there are also concerns about whether hydrogen would be a clear decarbonization win.
"Where are you going to get that hydrogen from? Where are you going to get the electricity from? Alberta's electrical grid is much cleaner than it was 10 years ago, but it's still the dirtiest grid in Canada," he says.
Studies about the possibility of high-speed rail between Calgary and Edmonton began before regular rail service ended. Government reports such as those from 1985, 1995 and 2014 concluded variously that it was a good idea, a bad idea, worth doing one day, or not worth doing at all.
Politicians have at times spoken in support of high-speed rail, but only with words not dollars.
As of the 2021 census, the Calgary-Edmonton corridor is home to 3.2 million people. It is a significant hub for tourist and business travel, its main highway is heavily trafficked, and at roughly 400 km from top to bottom is a notable pocket of density in a generally roomy country.
The question is, can you make money from putting a train there?
Enter private capital
VIA was, and is, plagued by a fundamental problem: it doesn't own the vast majority of its tracks. Instead, it pays right-of-way fees to other railways, primarily CN, to run its trains on their tracks, most of which are not doubled side-by-side for two trains to pass.
This means, as any VIA rider will know, that passenger trains often have to pull over onto a siding track where one is available and wait for a passing freight train, sometimes for hours.
Those freight trains are also much heavier than passenger trains, meaning more wear and tear on the tracks, meaning a lower maximum safe speed for travel.
This is why train travel times stagnated decades ago, at least in Western Canada. According to timetables, a trip from Edmonton to Jasper took about nine hours in 1928, six hours in 1944, less than five hours in 1970, and... six-and-a-half hours today. (At least those past trains ran daily.)
A high-speed railway (or for that matter a hyperloop) would solve this problem, because a new track would be required.
But this also considerably increases the cost of the project — which is why most new high-speed railways tend to be public projects.
Hyperloops, for the unfamiliar, are essentially magnetic-levitation trains operating inside a low air pressure tube. The lack of friction with air or a physical surface means they can travel at exceptionally high speeds. They are an unproven technology that has never been built to scale.
TransPod and Prairie Link both say their projects will be financed by the private sector. Prairie Link estimated in 2021 that its project would cost $9 billion, funded fully through the private sector. It said its MOU with the province contained no commitment of public money.
Alberta Transportation declined to release the MOUs it signed with each company. However, TransPod provided CBC News with a copy of its MOU, which stated, "This MOU is not intended to create any legally binding obligations nor does it imply or indicate any financial support... now or in the future."
(The MOU also contained a clause of expiry after two years. TransPod CEO Sebastien Gendron confirmed to CBC News that it had expired. The status of Prairie Link's MOU is unclear.)
Role of EllisDon
James Wilt dismisses hyperloops as experimental at best, and would much prefer a railway — but not from the private sector.
"I strongly oppose the privatization of infrastructure construction in this way," says Wilt, author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars?, a book about the importance of public transportation.
"I have very little faith that the project will be completed on time [and on budget]," he adds, pointing to recent light-rail projects in Edmonton and Ottawa as examples.
Edmontonians require little reminding of the ongoing saga of the troubled Valley Line. Construction began in 2016, with a projected opening date of December 2020. After a mysterious submerged concrete block, 30 cracking concrete piers and 140 km of oxidizing signalling cable, among other setbacks, the line has yet to open more than two-and-a-half years after it was supposed to.
Ottawa's Confederation Line was so plagued with problems — delays, design flaws, breakages, a literal sinkhole — that it sparked several court actions and a public inquiry led by a judge.
Both of those projects were built as public-private partnerships led by consortiums that included EllisDon, one of the two companies behind Prairie Link.
Neither Prairie Link nor EllisDon responded to multiple requests for comment.
CBC News asked Alberta's Ministry of Transportation and Economic Corridors for a response to four questions:
- the status of the Prairie Link and TransPod projects;
- what specific types of support the province would or would not consider providing;
- whether the government planned to change the Railway Act to include hyperloops, a key request from TransPod;
- whether there was any concern about EllisDon's track record regarding railway projects.
A spokesperson agreed to provide a statement by Monday evening. None was provided to CBC News, and a follow-up email did not receive a reply.
The respective consortiums behind the Valley Line (TransEd) and Ottawa's Confederation Line (Rideau Transit Group) are comprised of multiple companies responsible for different parts of a complex project. It's not known what responsibility EllisDon bears for issues in those projects.
Both Wilt and Katz-Rosene expressed a preference for government taking the lead role in pursuing a rail project. They each noted that the conversation around cost for large public-works projects often assumes that the cost of doing nothing is zero. But that fails to factor in the upfront cost of a car that gets downloaded to the user.
Maybe you'd take the bus instead. The government still pays for the costs of building and maintaining a massive network of paved roads, as well as less obvious costs such as potentially lower health care costs due to less air pollution from vehicles.
Not to mention the costs of worsening climate change — a global problem that, to be sure, won't be solved with one train line. But every bit of decarbonization adds up to a significant shift.
"I'm much, much less concerned about governments investing large amounts of money in infrastructures if they're going to be climate effective," says Katz-Rosene. "Because... you're going to have major savings down the line."
The rules of capitalism dictate that private companies don't invest heavily in uncertain projects unless they believe they can make a profit by doing so.
"What are the decisions and corners that get cut in order to ensure profitability, especially when we're in a case with potentially really small margins?" asks Katz-Rosene, speculating on such scenarios as paying workers less, or using hydrogen produced from fossil fuels.
'We want trains built, right?'
Simaluk takes a different perspective.
"At this point, we want trains built, right? Like, if it's government or private, whatever."
He and his fellow Rail for Alberta members are more concerned about the fixation on high-speed versus conventional speed rail, which adds to the costs and requires significant new construction.
Simaluk would much rather just see a boring diesel locomotive with passenger cars running on CP's track between Edmonton and Calgary, at least as a starting point.
"I still think it's better than having, you know, the 20,000 cars that might be on the road," he says.
Indeed, a key part of measuring the success of any such train would be how much existing car or airplane traffic it displaces. And Katz-Rosene noted that a study by one of his students found that price was a more important consideration than travel time in choosing transport options.
Simaluk mused that the federal government ought to play a role, perhaps even directing VIA to work with CP to find a way to restore service on its line.
In a statement, VIA said, "While we are always interested in exploring new routes, we unfortunately do not have the resources at this time (i.e., equipment, infrastructure, tracks, stations) required to expand our services."
Prairie Link's timeline anticipated beginning construction in 2023, but it remains to be seen if or when that will happen.
"They won't do it unless they can make a profit," observes Katz-Rosene. "That's how capitalism works."
For both him and Wilt alike, a project like high-speed rail belongs in public hands, with public responsibility for getting it right — especially given the stakes of failing to decarbonize as rapidly as possible.
"I know that the phrase 'just transition' is rather unpopular these days," quips Wilt. "But however we want to phrase it, it is urgently needed."