It runs through the heart of Calgary like a steel spine. Our city was built around it. Our city exists in no small measure because of it.
The track of the Canadian Pacific Railway is a fundamental part of our urban geography. It is a daily factor in our relationship with the core of our city. It bisects the core from the Beltline. It runs through our neighbourhoods. It has become so familiar that their significance in shaping our city can be easily overlooked.
Yet now, in the wake of derailments, noise complaints, and visions of what our city's urban landscape should look like, Calgary's relationship with it's rail is again up for debate.
It's a complex situation with no easy answers.
OUR FIRST SPIKES
From the moment that the first spikes were driven, the rails have been an economic life-line for Calgary.
The CP has shaped our city’s evolution more than any other corporation over the past 100 years. Some might even say Calgary’s entrepreneurial spirit is a legacy from the CP’s entrepreneurial vision of building a transcontinental railway over 100 years ago.
The massive 158-acre Odgen Yards, which opened in 1912 immediately, became our largest employer, and stayed that way for decades as goods were shipped in and out of the city. At one time, all of the City’s streetcar routes were organized to get workers to the yards.
The rails were also the main point of entry to our city. The now long since vanished CP station was where newcomers alighted to begin their lives in our city – others just came to visit, staying at the purpose built Palliser Hotel next to the station.
In fact, the CP once owned most of Calgary’s downtown. CP created the design of the familiar street grid we still live with today. And Stephen Avenue, Calgary’s signature street, is named after Lord Mount Stephen - the first CP President. Mount Royal was created as Calgary’s first estate community for CP executives, and the iconic Calgary Tower was built by a CP subsidiary in 1968.
For better or worse, the rails have shaped us for a century. As Calgary's economy prospered and the city grew up around them, buildings like Gulf Canada Square, City Centre and the Palliser Parkades created a wall between downtown and the Beltline.
But fast-forward to the early 21st century, and today our city of 1.3 million is renegotiating its relationship with the rails.
A NEW RELATIONSHIP
What was a geographic scar through the city is being redesigned.
While once the land near the downtown tracks were mostly surface parking lots, today they have become construction sites for major new office, hotels, condos and museum buildings. The Ogden Yard, is now CP’s head office campus - with four buildings being renovated into contemporary head office campus with 450,000 square feet of Class A office space and the old Locomotive Shop converted into a 600-stall parkade.
The CPR even operates differently within the city, as Councillor Gian-Carlo Carra has successfully champion the railway to cease work between 11 pm and 7 am at their Alyth yard in deference to peace and quiet in the neighbourhood.
But is is the question of safety that is the most fraught.
Councillor Evan Woolley, amongst others, have publically questioned the movement of dangerous goods through downtown and the Beltline. This, in light of disasters like Lac-Mégantic, but also derailments here in Calgary like the one in at the Alyth yard in 2013.
There may come the day when freight trains will not be allowed to pass through the middle of the city, perhaps the tracks might even be removed entirely.
This would be a game changer for Calgary’s city centre. And the idea has been floating around for awhile.
In 2004, a team of City planners and community members worked together to develop a 100-year vision for what they called “Midtown” the area. That's south of the CP tracks to 13th Avenue SW, from the Elbow River to 14th street SW.
When it came to the railway, the ambitious plan identified some key ideas that would make the Midtown district a vibrant place to live work and play.
- Leave the tracks as they are
- Raise the railway line slightly to permit better access north and south
- Eliminate all together
- Bury them underground
Interesting ideas. But easier said than done.
David Watson, General Manager, of Calgary's Planning, Development and Assessment division, said at the time, “the bottom line was the cost of moving the tracks was prohibitive.”
The CP’s position was somebody else would have to pay for all the relocation cost and they would still retain ownership of the land. That turned out to be a non-starter.
So the conversation quickly turned to how to make the tracks work better by creating better underpasses, redevelop the surface parking lots, and address safety issues.
But event this takes big money.
Part of that strategy has been implemented with the enhancement of existing underpasses like the $15 million dollar makeovers to the 1st and 8th Street SW underpasses. And the building a new $60 million underpass at 4th Street SE linking East Village to Stampede Park and
But is this enough? There's still an argument about removing the tracks all together.
The big idea from the Midtown Urban Design Strategy was the transformation of 10th Avenue into a pedestrian friendly 'grand boulevard', with a streetcar that would link Millennium Park and the Bow River on the west with the Stampede Park and the Elbow River on the east.
Sounds lovely until you crunch the numbers.
It would cost billions and could take decades. Even if you could just dig up the main line, it's linked to an entire network of sidings in the Calgary region, which would also have to be reconfigured.
Would those billions be better invested in other infrastructure improvements?
But wait! There're other options. The past could become future.
In fact, relocation could be the worse thing we could do, as the tracks are critical to the region’s future transportation plans as we wean ourselves off the automobile.
Peter Wallis, President and CEO of the Van Horne Institute at the University of Calgary, notes “the tracks are an important part of future plans for Alberta’s high-speed rail link,” which the Van Horne Institute has been championing for years.
And discussions have also been ongoing about the feasibility of the CP track right-of-way being used for future commuter trains from Canmore and Cochrane to downtown Calgary. Also possible are commuter trains from the north and south like the GO Train in southern Ontario.
This raises the tantalizing possibility of Calgary once again having a major downtown passenger railway station.
This would take the combined efforts and agreement of the City, CP, developers and community members. But perhaps this moment, when oil has bottomed out, is the time to do it.
Francisco Alaniz Uribe, at the University of Calgary’s Urban Lab says, “we should use the current pause in our city’s growth to develop a private/public partnership to determine what is the biggest and bests future use of the CP Rail’s City Centre corridor for private and pubic uses.”
And certainly there seems to be more 'infrastructure' money floating about these days as governments look to boost Calgary's economy.
Uribe acknowledges the huge huge economic and engineering challenge presented by changing the tracks, but he thinks our city has a chance to imitate other city's faced with the same challenge.
He's for spending the money to boost the economy and bury the tracks. As he says, this would create a continuous public realm at street level between 17th Avenue and the Bow river. Which would represent the greatest gain for the public. This could allow Calgary to create something with grandeur, like New York City’s Hudson Yards or Chicago’s Millennium Park in the future.
Whether now or later, for esthetic or safety reasons, speculating about the future of the CPR tracks is sure to continue. It's just another example of how while in Calgary we can find ourselves at a crossroads, our visionary nature continues to create a world of opportunities.
This blog was first published by CBC Calgary for its online feature under the title "Possible futures for the CP Rail line in downtown Calgary" on September 16, 2015.
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