Alberta’s government and the federal government announced this week they will engage in a partnership to study the feasibility of operating a passenger rail service between downtown Calgary, Calgary International Airport, and Banff.
Such a service would use the existing CP railway to boost tourism, enable workforce mobility, and help address growing vehicle traffic congestion, especially during the busy summer months.
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The forthcoming study will build on the early findings of the preliminary 2019 feasibility study conducted by the municipal governments of Calgary, Cochrane, Canmore, and Banff on a long-haul bus or passenger rail service connecting these communities and destinations.
“The return of passenger rail connecting Calgary and Banff has long been identified as a way to address traffic congestion on the highway and in the Bow Valley communities,” said Banff Mayor Karen Sorenson in a statement.
“Mass transit would also help address housing challenges, labour mobility, and environmental protection, and it would be a fantastic experience for people visiting Banff, where the best experiences are had outside a vehicle.”
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi added: “Growing the travel and tourism economy is an important part of Calgary’s comeback, and we are looking forward to examining this long-discussed option more deeply.”
The 2019 study performed on the municipal level deemed a public transit service to be feasible, but it would require an agreement with Canadian Pacific (CP) and building a parallel track along the existing railway.
According to the study, the existing rail corridor would need to receive a new additional parallel track, as this is part of CP’s mainline between Calgary and Vancouver, which almost exclusively serves freight traffic. The busy railway does not have any windows in traffic patterns that would allow such a passenger train to operate, without the addition of new track infrastructure.
The cost of new infrastructure is expected to be about $680 million, along with an operating cost of $13.4 million to $14.3 million.
The rail service would make eight round trips per day during the summer and six round trips per day in the winter. Running between downtown Calgary and Banff, with stops at Keith, Cochrane, and Canmore, the rail service would have an end-to-end travel time of about one hour and 30 minutes.
It could generate an annual ridership of between 220,000 and 620,000 passengers per year, based on the pre-pandemic traffic demand forecast for 2022.
For bus service, depending on traffic and road conditions, there would be an end-to-end travel time of about two hours and 10 minutes, with as many as 26 round-trip departures each day in the summer and as few as 14 round-trip departures each day in the winter.
The capital cost ranges between $8 million and $20 million, and the operating costs between $4.5 million and $6.8 million annually. Such a bus service would require an operating subsidy of approximately $2 million per year.
Both ridership forecasts for the bus and rail services were based on low-cost fares of $10 or $15 each way. It could attract an annual ridership of between 200,000 and 490,000 boardings per year in 2022.
Banff sees approximately four million visitors each year. Typically, during the busiest months of July and August, roadway capacity in Banff was exceeded, resulting in congestion, on 97% of days.
A recent traffic study found that the equivalent of about 8,710 vehicles per day would need to be removed to avoid congestion in Banff, if vehicle traffic volumes continue to grow at the same rate.
In the 1980s, VIA Rail operated between Calgary and Banff with a travel time of two hours and 10 minutes, plus another 50 minutes to Lake Louise. This travel time assumed shared operations with freight.