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October 13, 2007
By Adam Legge
Director, Research and Information
Calgary Economic Development
CALGARY, AB, Oct. 13, 2007/ Troy Media/ – One of my favourite movie scenes is John Candy and Steve Martin barrelling down the highway in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” being accosted by occupants of another car trying to get their attention. Candy and Martin are told “you’re going the wrong way.” Soon to recognize they are driving into oncoming traffic, Martin replies “how do they know where we’re going?”
While I don’t think that the notion of a high speed train from Calgary to Edmonton is “going the wrong way,” there are definitely directions that the concept and Albertans are missing.
Alberta can’t seem to make up its mind whether it wants the Calgary-Edmonton corridor to take a legitimate place on the world economic stage or not. When TD Economics produced its watershed corridor report in 2003, we economic developers raised the flag. Finally they have noticed us. Yes, there is something happening on the other side of Thunder Bay, and, yes, it is pretty impressive, hugely impressive, when you consider that our GDP per capita is second in the world only to Luxembourg.
The media has recently profiled the proposed high speed train between the two anchor cities in anticipation of the release of the next report. They have highlighted a range of options, costs, but have also identified how divided Albertans are to the concept. I find this puzzling.
It is generally accepted that the original Alberta Advantage is long since dead. Increased costs for land and labour have shut us out of the cost competitiveness game, one of the pillars that the old Advantage was built on. So, we seek a new Advantage. Yet nothing seems to be sticking. Alberta has garnered the attention of the world lately with the development in the oil sands, and economic growth rates rivaling China, India and Dubai. Regions all over the world would sacrifice their first born company to attract global attention such as we have. So now it is time to show the world that we can play on that stage and that we know what we are doing.
A sophisticated rail system is a staple of any major global economic centre’s infrastructure. Plain and simple. Look around the world. In every major global economic centre of significance you will find a sophisticated rail system that serves its region, and connects with other regions, hinterlands and other provinces, states and countries.
I know what you are thinking – London, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong all have population densities astronomically higher than the Calgary-Edmonton regions. True, but this may be exactly the kind of infrastructure investment that enables our region to develop in a manner that fosters a more fulsome evolution to support a globally competitive and attractive economy, including everything from energy, agri-business, technology, transportation, creative industries and manufacturing. More importantly, it may catalyze sustainable residential development around planned train destinations.
One of the areas that I feel the plan for the train is short-sighted is its route. The train should be the Calgary-Edmonton-Fort McMurray train. Stopping at Edmonton is like building two-thirds of a bridge. The full lifeline of this province’s future goes that full distance. And so should the train.
Additionally, if Alberta wants to be a leader in sustainable land use, mobility and settlement, the high speed rail should be supported by regional commuter rail in the communities around the hubs. Small scale, cost effective feeder rail systems could deliver people right into downtown Calgary or Edmonton for work, shopping or further travel. It makes environmental and planning sense. Numbers will have to be run, of course, to see if it makes financial sense over time.
True, the high speed train and feeder trains are major investments for a small population density compared to global centres. But it is the kind of investment that is needed if we want to be considered a city on the global economic stage. It is the kind of investment for the Calgary, corridor, and Alberta that we want to, and can, become.
So if we want to show the world that TD Economics was right, and that we are a region of global significance, and that there is a new Alberta Advantage, this railway should be put in place and it should, over time, be established to connect the regions within the region to support fulsome economic development and a sustainable land use model of envy.
Yes it will likely decrease business for air travel. Yes it will likely lose money for many years early on. These are inevitable. Acknowledging that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. But the benefits to the whole – reduced traffic fatalities on the QE2; lower overall greenhouse gas emissions per traveler; time savings; an investment in economic development like no other region in North America - far outweigh the negative impacts.
An investment whereby we will be able to tell the world “we know where we’re going, and we can take you there.”