Alberta Announces Passenger Rail Master Plan

By Adam Mills | Intercity Rail and Bus

Apr 30
Minister Devin Dreeshen announces Alberta's Passenger Rail Master Plan at Heritage Park (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)

The Alberta Government has announced a passenger rail master plan for the province, at an event led by Premier Danielle Smith and Minister of Transportation and Economic Corridors Devin Dreeshen at Heritage Park in Calgary on Monday April 29, 2024. The provincial government acknowledged that as Alberta experiences record population growth and evolving transportation needs, advancing passenger rail infrastructure is essential for enhancing accessibility, efficiency, and connectivity across the province.

The goal of the plan will be to develop a passenger rail network all across Alberta including projects in key corridors:

  • Calgary and Edmonton Commuter Rail
  • Edmonton-Calgary Intercity Rail
  • Regional Rail to Banff and Jasper
  • Regional Rail to Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie

Other routes were floated in a map made for the occasion, that included additional connections to Lethbridge and Medicine Hat.

Potential passenger rail routes – Government of Alberta

The plan would be created with the intention of being realised over the course of a many years as projects become viable. All of these are routes which had passenger service in the past, although many have lacked service since the cuts of the 1980s and 1990, and where the reinstatement of passenger service could leverage existing rail infrastructure.

Transport Action firmly advocates for plans such as this that can be implemented incrementally, delivering results to passengers and communities through successive governments, rather than relying on all-or-nothing mega-projects that have long study and delivery timelines.

Premier Danielle Smith said that the government has spent some time considering their options of how to develop and implement such a plan. She noted that they looked to BC and Ontario with their provincial agencies of Translink and Metrolinx, before eventually deciding to emulate Ontario’s model in order to gradually realise the creation of an Alberta passenger rail network. Devin Dreeshen announced that an agency would be created, but hasn’t been created as of yet. Transport Action has been advocating for this crucial next-step in realizing passenger rail in Alberta, because a provincial agency would have standing under the Canada Transportation Act to negotiate track access agreements.

Quite notably, Premier Smith admitted a fact that transportation advocates have been working to have governments understand for decades: endless highway expansion is not the answer to our transportation problems. Minister Dreeshen said that the province has looked at expanding Highway 2 to six lanes, but suggested that passenger rail would be a more fiscally responsible effort to lower road congestion. He also said that part of the plan will be to compare the costs of road and rail expansion, another key point that Transport Action welcomes and has been advocating for across the country.

How this project will be delivered continues to be one of many questions. The Minister said that public, private, and hybrid delivery models are being looked at. The announcement did make clear that the Alberta Government believes that they are the only ones capable of successfully developing a project like this given the many difficulties including ensuring downtown access and negotiations with the freight railroads. An RFEoI for the development of the plan has been issued.

When asked about the use of hydrogen propulsion, the Premier said she is hopeful given the investments Alberta has made in hydrogen technology, but didn’t fully commit to the tech. The use of hydrogen propulsion has been floated for many rail projects in North America, with California recently confirming an order for six more trains for regional services, but fuel cell technology occupies a niche between frequent corridors like GO’s Lakeshore and CalTrain that justify overhead electrification and shorter trips that can be operated with only batteries.

The best-case scenario for any construction to begin was given by Minster Dreeshen was 2028, with the premier hinting that the first projects to be undertaken would be commuter lines in Calgary and Edmonton.

Transport Action will also urge the province to leverage VIA Rail’s planning an operational capabilities, as many US states have done with Amtrak, to bring its vision to fruition, and to include additional train services to Jasper, currently served only twice weekly by VIA Rail’s Canadian.

This announcement comes thanks to the tireless efforts of public transportation advocates including our friends at Rail for Alberta. We hope to continue in our advocacy efforts so that Albertans can one day soon have the benefit of a fast, efficient, and sustainable passenger transportation network.

Photograph: Minister of Transportation and Economic Corridors Devin Dreeshen speaking at Heritage Park – Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta

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