Environmental groups concerned about proposed passenger train between Calgary and Banff

By Colette Derworiz in Calgary

Conservation advocates and experts fear a proposed Calgary-Banff passenger train could proceed without addressing some key environmental issues in and around the national park.

Liricon Capital Inc., the leading private-sector promoter, touts it as a hydrogen transportation solution that produces less greenhouse gas emissions than driving.

The company says it has received support from municipalities and the tourism industry, but the Alberta government told The Globe and Mail it will not invest in the $1.5 billion train as it stands, because the financial risks are too high.

Environmental organizations — including the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Yellowstone to Yukon and Bow Valley Naturalists — and some scientists say the proposal also carries environmental risks.

“This is one of the most important conservation landscapes in North America,” said Tony Clevenger, senior wildlife researcher at the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University in Banff, Alta. “It also happens to be one of the busiest in terms of transport infrastructure.

“The idea of ​​this new rail line, which would be very close to the existing rail line, is really inconvenient – not just in the park, but outside the park on provincial and Stoney Nakoda (First Nations) lands as well. “

Concerns include wildlife deaths along the railway line – particularly grizzly bears, which have been hit and killed on the existing track – and the fragmentation of wildlife habitat in the already busy Bow Valley in Alberta.

Josh Welsh, Alberta program manager for Yellowstone in the Yukon, said passenger rail to Banff isn’t a bad idea.

“We see it as a way to potentially provide a vision of sustainable transportation that could work for wildlife, people and the planet,” he said.

But, he added, there isn’t enough information or collaboration to know if it works for wildlife.

“The Bow Valley is already under development pressure.”

A recent report by the Canmore, Alberta-based organization found that the mountain town’s footprint has increased fivefold in 50 years. He focused on grizzlies because “if you take care of grizzlies, you take care of a lot of other things.”

The report reveals that bears have lost approximately 85% of their original habitat in the Bow Valley.

“So when you’re talking about another piece of linear infrastructure, which is a train line…we’re talking about cutting out habitat, disconnecting wildlife,” he said.

Devon Earl, conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association, said the Calgary-based organization had similar concerns.

“We don’t believe there has been an adequate wildlife impact assessment,” she said.

She also wonders if a train would actually reduce the number of cars on the highway, saying bus service could be more cost effective.

Liricon said Parks Canada should consider raising Banff National Park entrance fees for private tour vehicles and expanding bus and shuttle service between park attractions.

Parks Canada said in a statement that its first priority is to protect the ecological integrity of national parks, but it is “not currently considering a proposed passenger rail service in Banff National Park.” Any review, he added, would focus on policy and legislation, including the Impact Assessment Act and park priorities.

Jan Watrous, managing partner of Liricon, said a study shows the train could carry around 11 million passengers a year and reduce road traffic.

“The fact that the passenger train will be a zero-emission hydrogen train and will significantly reduce vehicle traffic … means that human and wildlife mortality on the highways will be significantly reduced,” she said. “The specifics of the hydrogen solution and wildlife mitigations will be determined through consultation.”

The company said it is considering using technologies such as lighting or sound to warn animals of approaching trains and reduce wildlife fatalities on the tracks.

Colleen Cassady St. Clair, a biologist at the University of Alberta, said she spoke to Liricon about the idea, which stemmed from some research she led.

Although early tests show it can be effective for some wildlife species, she said “there is a lot of untested ground in a warning-based system.”

St. Clair said there could also be issues with wildlife crossing structures that pass over or under the tracks.

Clevenger, who specializes in wildlife crossings, said he’s heard the company is considering underpasses to align with those under the Trans-Canada Highway in Banff National Park.

“It’s very simplistic and completely unworkable,” he said. “You can’t put an underpass on the new track without putting an underpass on the main line (of the Canadian Pacific Railway). Both should be done.

Clevenger said the measure would reduce already compromised wildlife habitat.

A passenger train, he added, could end up increasing overall traffic to the national park.

“It’s a landscape that is full of people,” he said. “I don’t think they can handle it.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 15, 2022

Jose P. Rogers