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Province on board with building high-speed Calgary-Edmonton rail link: developer

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Proponents of a high-speed rail link between Calgary and Edmonton say they’ve received backing from the provincial government to begin developing what’s long been an unrealized transportation dream in Alberta.

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Edmonton-based construction giant EllisDon Corp. says it’s formed a partnership with infrastructure consultant AECOM dubbed Prairie Link to move the $9 billion infrastructure project forward.

And the group says it’s signed a memorandum of understanding with the UCP government that paves the way for its development of the 350-400 km/h train that could transport passengers between the cities in a little over an hour and would also include a station in Red Deer.

“Prairie Link has secured a memorandum of understanding from Alberta Transportation laying the foundation for cooperatively advancing project development,” says the group’s press release.

“With an estimated capital cost of $9 billion, the project will be among the largest and most defining nation-building transportation projects in Alberta’s history.”

The concept of such a link in the corridor traversing Central Alberta has been batted around for decades and proven illusory, concedes Jeffrey Hansen-Carlson, a director with EllisDon Capital and project director for Prairie Link.

“We’re pretty serious, we’ve invested considerably and we’re prepared to invest even more in the next six months ,” he said.

“(People) have talked about this for 20 years but what Albertans want is a solution now.”

If all goes according to plan, construction would begin in 2023 and would last for seven to nine years, finally linking the city centres with connections to the two international airports, said Hansen-Carlson.

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Some of the project’s partners are Indigenous, says Hansen-Carlson, whose group has identified 19 First Nations and Metis communities that could participate or have a stake in the initiative.

The announcement comes as another proposal centring on a 1,000-km/h elevated, electromagnetic link between the two major Alberta cities is in the works.

Hyperloop, championed by Toronto-based TransPod, is aiming to complete the $24 billion project in the early 2030s, a timetable similar to Prairie Link’s.

Its developers – who have also secured an MOU from Alberta Transportation – are eyeing a 20-km test section in the Edmonton area.

Like Hyperloop, Prairie Link would be fully privately funded, developed and owned but its proponents say it’s a tried and true concept.

“Standard manufactured high-speed trains are proven technology and the infrastructure, which is quite a bit different from technology (hyperloop),” said Hansen-Carlson.

The train would be based on what’s long been operating in places like Japan and Europe but has yet to be realized in North America, though plans for transportation mode are arising in eastern Canada and the U.S., he said.

“Rail as connectivity in Canada is going to find its stride – I think we’re going to see a culture shift,” said Hansen-Carlsen.

The critical mass of population and business demand exists to make high-speed rail economically feasible in Alberta, he said and would require about 4 million passengers a year.

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He noted that was the conclusion of a provincial government analysis seven years ago.

Even so, the partnership will tap an independent engineering firm to conduct an assessment of its economic merits, added Hansen-Carlson.

Its consultations with First Nations and Metis will help inform what route the high-speed rail link would take – an alignment’s that’s yet to be determined, he said.

And its possible use of hydrogen propulsion would add a significant environmentally sustainable dynamic to the project, said Hansen-Carlson.

TransPod CEO Sebastien Gendron said his company’s vision of electromagnetic tube transportation for the Calgary-Edmonton corridor remains intact, with at least $20 billion in investment secured for it.

“So far, our project for Alberta remains the same and the fact that we have some investors lined up gives us a good head-start,” said Gendron, adding he’s been aware of the Prairie Link proposal.

Realistically, there would only be room in Alberta for one of the transportation concepts, said Hansen-Carlson.

“I genuinely want (TransPod’s) test track to proceed and the technology is proven and maybe in 100 years from now they can have our alignment,” he said.

“But we’re going to present a solution to satisfy a genuine need now.”

An Alberta rail advocacy group said it’s cautiously optimistic about the prospect of a dramatic leap forward the Prairie Link proposal might offer.

“High-speed rail provides the potential for an efficient, clean connection between major destinations on the Edmonton-Calgary corridor and with careful planning, regional communities can connect with these larger cities,” said Justin Simaluk, President of the Rail For Alberta Society.

But he cautioned against a high-speed line that would bypass most municipalities between the major centres.

“Current rail technology has improved to where non-high speed trains are fast enough to connect regions safely and affordably,” said Simaluk.

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