A Vision for Regional Rail in Calgary

by Willem Klumpenhouwer
Wednesday, May 29, 2019

There's something special about taking the train.

I might as well be up front about it: I'm a fan of trains. I'll go out of my way to travel by train if it's feasible. I've worked for a railroad. I'm actually riding the train as I write this introduction.

But I'm not alone. As I wait to board the train in the morning I watch travellers of all ages peer down the track at the approaching engine. There's the same air of excitement and adventure that comes before boarding a plane, but without the sterile and hyper-secure atmosphere of an airport terminal.

Competing interests. The same person wants a bus to stop and go.

A VIA Train arrives at Kitchener Station. [Photo by @wklumpen]

Even as a commuter, taking the train every day for far too long, it's still my preferred ride. Stripped of the romance of travel my preference remains for the train over a bus or a car. The train is fixed, it's calm, and it has the right of way.

Calgary needs to hitch their engine to a regional rail service, and here's why:

The infrastructure is there, right to the core. Railways can spur development, have highway-like capacities, and are an iron highway directly into the heart of the city.

Calgary will keep outgrowing its roads. It doesn't matter how many lanes you build on Deerfoot, a "two-ton box containing a sofa and two armchairs" doesn't really fit in a city and a region that is expected to keep growing.

A little vision goes a long way. It doesn't have to be big. It doesn't have to be state-of-the-art. It just has to be useful. Start with useful, and grow from there.

Of course I won't just rely on romance, feelings, and bad train puns. There will be data. So hop on board and let's learn why passenger rail service isn't just a part of Calgary's past, but of its future.

Trains are in our cities' hearts

The railroad is a foundational part of Canada's settler history. In many cases, the railroad predated highways and roads in cities. While Moh'kins'tsis was a gathering place long before the train arrived, railways served as the backbone of goods and people movement in the early days of Calgary. For this reason, railroads sit at the heart of many Canadian cities, and Calgary is no exception.

Canadian Pacific Railway Stationi c. 1915

Canadian Pacific Railway Station and Palliser Hotel, c. 1915 [Public Domain]

Now that cities have grown up, the railway has the distinct advantage of being centrally located. There's no need to tunnel under existing buildings or build stations on the edge of town. The railway is just there, a direct line into the heart of the city, ready to be used. As a source of mass transportation in an urban city, this is quite unique.

In a way, Calgary has already begun to revive the potential of the railway rights of way in the city. The Red Line LRT runs along CP's Macleod Subdivision south of downtown, and the Southeast arm of the Green Line is planned to run partially along an old railway link.

This "downtown advantage" isn't just a nice idea, it's been a desirable trait of a transportation system for a long time. Calgary toyed with the idea of building a downtown penetrator in the late 1960s to move traffic into the core. The plan died a merciful death, but there's no denying that transporting people into the middle of the city remains a challenge for any urban city with a workday-oriented centre. Calgary's downtown railway can bring more capacity without additional disruption to the urban environment. The same can be said for Airdrie, Cochrane, Okotoks, High River, Canmore, Banff, and Lake Louise. All these places have the railway buit-in to their centre.

Calgary will need to take advantage of that capacity.

Calgary region population projection.

Calgary's population and jobs projection. [City of Calgary]

As you can see above, Calgary and the surrounding region will continue to grow. More people means more trips. Without viable alternatives more trips means more cars, and more cars means more congestion. More congestion means worse health for Calgarians.

So why not just widen the roads? The problem is, widening the roads doesn't help. It may ease congestion for a few years, but in the long run adding 10% capacity can result in a 10% increase in driving trips, leaving us worse than where we started, and still stuck in traffic. This is a well-understood and studied phenomenon called induced demand [PDF], and some cities and regions are starting to listen to the evidence. More cars, more congestion. More congestion, more pollution and poorer health.

And Calgary will grow out. By 2048, there is expected to be close to 2.5 million people in the Calgary region, rising to 3.2 million by 2076. Many of these people will live and work in surrounding communities or new suburban areas, as you can see on this map of forecasted regional population and employment change:

Regional growth in Calgary.

Put another way, Calgary and the surrounding area is growing, and is projected to become increasingly regional. If we categorize all those zones in the map above into approxiate geographical populations (below), we can see what fraction of the region's population is forecasted to live outside the city. Notice that the surrounding cities are taking up more of the total population. The shift may not seem like much, but consider it as a fraction of the total: 5% of 5 million is still 250,000 people and jobs.

Calgary and surrounding areas population as a percentage of the total.

The fact that Calgarians live further afield from their workplace (backed up by Calgary's travel survey data [PDF]) means that Calgarians are making longer trips to work that could benefit from passenger rail. Without a change that a rail service could provide, these increasingly long commute distances and times will lead to more cars on the road for longer. Calgary can't build itself out of congestion, but it can take advantage of its downtown railway.

Start with what's useful, and go from there.

Many rail-based transportation proposals dream big. High speed rail requires new corridors and tracks, at significant capital cost. While that may be a good long-term vision, to get Calgarians, Airdrians, Cochranites, or High Riverites (thank you CBC) on board and moving it's crucial to start small and start useful. Perhaps with something like this:

A regional rail route map for Calgary.

It's a simple start. A couple stops to the north, a couple stops to the south, and a route that connects Calgary with the tourist destinations of Banff and Lake Louise.

And it's backed up by the numbers: Almost 14,000 people live in Airdrie and work in Calgary, with an additional 11,000 between Cochrane, Okotoks, and High River. When congestion is high on the roads in the morning and evening rush hours, it's not uncommon to have up to 50% of commuting trips happen by alternative modes to Car, as is the case in Calgary and Toronto. For these long commuters, walking isn't an option, but the train can be. That would mean several thousand daily trips, just for work and just from Airdrie. Combine the other towns and cities together, and include stops in Bowness and Country Hills that aren't served by the CTrain, and you have the numbers to support a regional train service.

Calgarians also tend to travel to work all at once. This "peak period" phenomenon is typical in North American cities, and is especially pronounced in Calgary.

Travel departure times of work trips in Calgary.

Work trip departure time of Calgarians, from Calgary's travel survey. [City of Calgary]

This means that the majority of commuters could be transported with only one or two trains running inbound in the morning and outbound in the evening. This fits the bill for starting small and starting useful.

Build on current plans, focus on the region.

There's some momentum building for the idea of a regional rail service, but it needs a push. Work is being done to put together a plan for a connection to Banff. The next step is to put together a study that focuses on regional rail. There's more to be said about the potential benefits than I've covered in this article. They need to be written down and analyzed.

"Rail built this region — there’s something elegant about returning to it" says Gian-Carlo Carra. But there's more than just elegance and history to support it's return. The Railway's history has placed it right in the heart of our cities, where it needs to be to be useful. As Calgary expands into the surrounding area existing communities will continue to grow, and building more roads won't help.

Yes, there's something special about taking the train.