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UPDATED: Province partners with CIB to investigate Calgary-Banff passenger rail

Alberta government and Canada Infrastructure Bank are partnering to investigate the possibility of passenger rail from Calgary to Banff
13 Liricon Community Consulation 0001
Jan Waterous guides visitors through Liricon Capital's plans for revitalization of the Banff Train Station in 2019. RMO FILE PHOTO

BANFF – Investigation into the feasibility of  passenger rail between Banff National Park and Calgary International Airport is back on track.

On Tuesday (June 9), the provincial government announced it had signed a memorandum of understanding with the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB) to look at the feasibility of a new passenger rail service between Calgary and the mountain national park tourist town.

Ric McIver, Alberta’s transportation minister, said the government is pleased to be partnering with the CIB on the study of passenger rail between Banff and Calgary, with potential for stops in between.

“The CIB brings expertise and experience that is needed for a project of this scale,” said McIver in a press release.

“We look forward to learning more about this exciting project and hearing from our community partners about how this opportunity can support our tourism industry and get our economy back on track.”

In the 1980s, VIA Rail operated between Calgary and Banff.

With 4.2 million visitors to Banff National Park each year, the Banff townsite and tourist hotspots such as Lake Louise and Moraine Lake have been experiencing congestion chaos, while other communities in the region continue to get busier as well.

About 23,000 vehicles travel the Trans-Canada Highway in both directions at the Banff National Park gates every day. 

Canmore Mayor John Borrowman welcomed the feasibility study, but said he wants to make sure the consultant seeks input from the municipality.

“The Town of Canmore continues to be a strong advocate in support of developing efficient bus or rail public transit between our region and Calgary,” he said, noting the Town of Canmore has been a big supporter of Roam transit through the years.

“It’s all about finding more efficient ways of moving people around and reducing GHG emissions.”

Further to that, Borrowman said the Town of Canmore still has a number of questions when it comes to passenger rail.

“We have a number of questions we’d like to better understand. The fact is, of the municipalities involved, Canmore is the only one actually split up the middle by rail,” he said.

“Some of the question we have are around where a rail station would be located and capital and operating costs associated with that,” he added.

“The bottom line is, I encouraged Minister McIver to be sure that all of the communities are actively engaged by the consultant and are able to provide input to the feasibility study.”

Banff Mayor Karen Sorensen said Banff is thrilled the Alberta government and CIB is advancing the investigation into the return of passenger rail to connect Calgary and Banff.

“I believe that Bow Valley municipalities are united in the belief that regional mass transit is critical to the sustainability of our communities,” she said.

“It seems that the Canada Infrastructure Bank with the government of Alberta are interested in looking a little deeper at rail options.”

Passenger rail would provide benefits to tourism in Banff, said Sorensen.

“First and foremost, by shrinking the number of vehicles on roads would reduce the amount of congestion,” she said.

“It would be fantastic to have visitors and local Albertans arriving at the Banff train station by rail – that’s what we were built on, that’s our history.”

Jan Waterous, whose company with her husband Adam holds the leases to the train station and surrounding lands, including the new intercept parking lot, has been spearheading the return of passenger rail for many years.

“The MOU represents a big step forward and Adam and I are thrilled and grateful this project has achieved this huge milestone,” she said. 

“In the five years we have been working on this dream, it has been gratifying to see the communities and stakeholders embrace this green transit vision,” she added. 

“The model of an integrated, environmentally friendly transit hub for the town and the entire park is now one, big step closer. Can’t wait to hear the conductor say ‘next stop Banff!' ”

An earlier feasibility study released in February 2019 determined all-year bus and/or rail mass transit was feasible, but couldn’t move forward without support from other levels of government because of the high costs.

That study, which was commissioned by Banff, Canmore, Cochrane, Calgary and ID9, estimated required capital costs for a train service would range from $660 million to $680 million. Operating costs, after fare revenue is considered, would be between $8.1 million to $9.1 million.

This compares to a bus service, which the study indicated would have capital costs ranging from $8.1 million to $19.6 million based on year-round scenarios. The operating costs for bus transit, after fare revenue is considered, would be about $2 million to $2.3 million per year.

For passenger rail, the study put forward a scenario of eight round trips per day from Calgary to Banff in the summer and six in the winter. It calculated costs for both train and bus transit based on adult fares between $10 and $15.

Michael Sabia, board chair of CIB, said the Calgary-Banff rail project is the first of many potential projects in Alberta for CIB, which uses federal funding to attract private sector and institutional investment into revenue-generating projects that are in the public interest.

“An important part of the CIB’s role is to work closely with governments across Canada to advance new infrastructure opportunities,” he said.

Banff-Kananaskis MLA Miranda Rosin, who has been an advocate for this project, said passenger rail provides opportunity to attract international visitors and grow the province’s tourism economy.

“At a time in our history when many tourism economies have been effectively devastated by COVID-19 travel restrictions, I believe there is no better time to consider this strategic investment in our tourism industry and give hope to our industry operators than right now,” she said in a news release.

In 2017, Alberta saw $8.9 billion in tourism expenditures, which is an increase of five per cent from the previous year.

The provincial government is building a 10-year tourism strategy to double tourism spending in Alberta to $20 billion by 2030.

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