The strongest argument for high-speed rail between Edmonton and Calgary is not found in a dense study conducted for the Alberta government and made public last week, but in the fluid logic of a report for the Ontario government that emphasizes the link between future prosperity and investments in connectivity.
That document, Ontario in the Creative Age, written by Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management, and Richard Florida, director of the Martin Prosperity Institute, makes the compelling case that the ability to compete in a global economy is inexorably linked to connectivity, that the rapid movement of people, goods and ideas is a critical competitive asset. The Ontario government must, the authors state, invest now to that end: "Commuting time is wasted time. If we reduce it, we can dramatically increase productivity and prosperity in our province."
Alberta is blessed with two major cities of more than one million people, with two major research universities, two major sets of medical institutions, two business communities, two vibrant arts communities and, for that matter, two professional hockey and football teams.
Those cities are in relatively close proximity, 300 kilometres apart, about a 2.5-hour drive on the heavily travelled QE2 highway (if the Mounties don't stop you for speeding). Already, the corridor has the highest per-capita trip rate in North America, with 91 per cent of those trips made in private automobiles. As much as there is a competition between Edmonton and Calgary, their futures are inextricably linked.
Despite this, incredibly, there is no passenger rail service between them. What service did exist, the Dayliner, was retired years ago after hitting one cow or, at a level crossing, one pickup truck, too many.
In a spectacularly short-sighted move, Edmonton also gave up a large portion of its downtown rail lands - once derided as "moose pasture" by a former mayor - in favour of medium-density apartment blocks and some strip malls. This would hamper the ability to establish downtown-to-downtown rail service, which is vital.
Alberta's Progressive Conservative government has studied high-speed rail before, in 1985, when the cost was estimated at $1-billion for a travel time of one hour and 40 minutes. In the new study, the cost is estimated at between $3-billion and $20-billion, depending on the kind of train used, with travel times ranging from one to two hours. The faster it is, the more it costs.
But the new report makes an important observation: Enough people would use a high-speed rail service to justify building it, and the faster it is, the more people would be attracted to it. That should tempt some private-sector interest. The economic spinoffs, including jobs, would be great, which should tempt public-sector interest. There are also environmental imperatives.
Alberta should, at very least, move to define a corridor and reserve lands for such a service. But even that may prove too much for them. Early indications suggest the politicians will adhere to past practice and shelve the report, waiting for another two decades, when the costs will be that much higher, and when the physical obstacles to rail service, particularly into the city cores, are that much greater.
This would be short-sighted and it would come at a cost, not least to Alberta's future productivity and prosperity. Alberta's Tory politicians could benefit from a little creative thinking of the Martin-Florida variety.