Crossing the tracks: Alberta’s high-speed rail study

Lessons learned from an HSR rural assessment in Alberta

By Kate Ayers

Ontario is moving forward with plans to build a 370-kilometre (230-mile) $21-billion high-speed rail (HSR) system connecting Toronto to Windsor. The province plans to complete the project in two phases and estimates the second phase will wrap up in 2031.

In May, the province announced its $15-million investment in an environmental assessment, set to begin this spring. The Ministry of Transportation estimates the installation of the HSR will create $20 billion in economic benefits over 60 years. However, farmers and rural communities in southwestern Ontario are expressing concerns about the project and highlighting the potential negative impacts the rail could have on the region.

Peter Harrison, vice president of CPCS Transcom Canada, provided some insights on Alberta’s assessment process for an HSR. The province is reviewing the feasibility of the project. CPCS is a global management consulting firm that provides strategic advisory services on transportation projects.

“Back in 2010, the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties, which represents the rural municipalities of Alberta, hired CPCS to do a study of the impacts that a high-speed rail between Edmonton and Calgary would have on rural areas,” Harrison explained from the company’s Ottawa headquarters.

“We identified a number of impacts on rural areas and these were largely related to the fact that high-speed rail, when it’s built, has a ‘barrier effect.’ So, if it crosses farmers’ fields, for example, it would cut those fields in two. Depending on the specifics of (the rail’s) design, it may not be possible for farmers to cross the railway in the way that they may be used to.”

Another potential impact of an HSR is the severing of minor roads if the government does not construct bridges. The project may also introduce some uncertainty in the rural planning process – especially around towns that may have strategies in place for economic development, according to Harrison.

The advantages of an HSR depend upon station locations along the rail line.

“The reason speed rail gets built at all is because it will theoretically provide faster and more reliable travel between two cities. Typically, stations are built in larger communities because of the cost involved. So, depending on where stations are located, (the HSR) could provide benefits in terms of travel time for rural residents,” said Harrison.

A possible solution to the “barrier” issue is to elevate an HSR, which would allow farmers to move livestock and equipment freely beneath the line, Harrison said. However, that scenario would be significantly more expensive than building the HSR on the ground.

Cattle Silhouette
    ImagineGolf/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

The government could also create signs to help motorists navigate severed roads.

Public consultations are crucial to help mitigate significant impacts from an HSR, according to Harrison.

“It’s really all about consultation. Listening to rural communities and hearing what they have to say. Trying to understand what is most important to them,” said Harrison. BF

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