Lack of political will is the biggest obstacle in front of bringing high-speed passenger trains to the Hwy 2 corridor, say experts who support the project.
Sixty-five people, mainly business leaders and municipal officials, attended an information meeting in Red Deer County Chambers on Wednesday to discuss a system connecting Edmonton, Red Deer and Calgary.
The County, the Red Deer Chamber of Commerce and the City of Red Deer sponsored the meeting.
Admittedly, it would be hard for Premier Ed Stelmach to ask Albertans right now for the $2.4 to $3 billion estimated costs of buying the land and building the system, said presenter William Cruickshanks, president and CEO of Alberta Rail Inc.
At the same time, the longer the provincial and federal governments drag their heels, the more it will cost and the more complicated it will become to acquire the land needed, said Cruickshanks.
He promoted a high-speed rail system on its safety benefits, its convenience and its ability to defer the need to continue widening Hwy 2 to meet the increasing numbers of vehicles that come along with population growth.
“Threading through this corridor is going to get harder every year. You build ahead of the curve, not behind the curve,” he said.
Joining Cruickshanks in the hot seat were moderator Paul Langan, founder of an advocacy group, High Speed Rail Canada, and Ashley Langford, vice-president of Alstom Transportation, which builds bullet trains and power systems.
Politicians focus on short-term goals with visible benefits, when high-speed rail needs leaders with long-term vision, like when the province first built Hwy 2 back in the 1960s, said Langan.
“Really, we’re the ones that elect these people. My thought is that the people have got to say it.”
Langan and Cruickshanks told their audience that political will would not develop without significant pressure from the public.
Certainly, education, health and the highway infrastructure are the government’s key priorities, said Langan.
He and Cruickshanks urged their audience to write or phone their MLAs asking them to bring the discussion back to the table.
Members of the audience expressed a wide range of concerns about running a bullet train in Alberta. They include whether the price of tickets would justify the speed and convenience, how the train would integrate with transportation systems at its various destinations and whether there would be enough riders to make it profitable.
Al Kemmere, reeve of Mountain View County, said his biggest worry is that train would cut one side of his county off from the other.
While he supports the concept, Kemmere said he sees some “significant casualties” for people who won’t see the same benefits as Red Deer, Calgary and Edmonton.
“The communities in between those drop-off points are not going to be able to have the advantage of the train, and yet they’re going to be affected by the train.”
Travel from one side of Mountain View County to the other — including farmers travelling between fields — is already affected by long trains on the CPR track and by Hwy 2, said Kemmere.
“Now they create another corridor, right in between those two, and it’s severing my county completely,” he said.
While the final route of the line will be up to the government, Cruickshanks said the line can be designed with bridges and overpasses so east-west traffic can cross the line and suggested that culverts and other types of structures can be built to allow farmers access to their fields.
He commended Kemmere’s suggestion for creating a new transportation corridor that would carry both the freight and passenger trains, but noted that CPR itself may not be willing to consider such a plan.
Red Deer County Councillor Reimar Poth said he learned nothing on Wednesday that changed his feelings about high speed rail.
“We all know about mistakes the government has made in the past. I want to make certain that whatever is proposed has a logical consequence with the ability to be profitable and serve the citizens of Central Alberta. If it doesn’t do that, it’s not worth looking at,” said Poth.