BANFF – The train hasn’t left the station yet.
An overpass or at-grade signalized crossing are still on the table to replace the illegal shortcut across the train tracks between the town and industrial compound, but Banff council has put off making a decision pending additional clarity from Canadian Pacific Railway and Parks Canada.
Councillors weren’t ready to commit to the railway giant’s preferred option of a multi-million dollar pedestrian overpass, which needs to be 200 metres long and more than seven metres high for clearance for the double railcar trains.
While it seemed most councillors were leaning toward a less expensive at-grade signal pedestrian crossing linking neighbourhoods near Whiskey Creek to Eagle Crescent in the short-term, Mayor Corrie DiManno said there are still outstanding questions needing answers.
“We’ve got a few different ways to solve it, but it sounds like there’s no easy answer or else this thing probably would have been done years ago,” she said at a recent council meeting.
It is illegal to trespass on CP Rail lands, yet people take this shortcut to avoid walking or biking to the industrial compound several extra kilometres via Banff Avenue and Compound Road.
CP Police patrol the area, slapping people with a $250 fine if caught.
A counter shows there are typically between 5,000 and 7,500 individual crossings per month there, but the number dropped off to about 2,000 last winter with COVID-19 work-from-home restrictions.
“Even below 2,000, that’s 60 opportunities for a train and a person to hit each other every single day,” said Stephen Allen, engineering coordinator for the Town of Banff.
A tunnel or underpass beneath the tracks has been ruled out due to environmental and technical concerns, as well as an estimated price tag of between $10 million and $20 million.
An overpass could cost anywhere from $2.5 to $5 million for stair access only, or between $5 million and $12.5 million for bicycle and wheelchair access.
Allen said an overpass would likely require fencing or other methods to encourage residents to make use of the safe bridge rather than just continuing to cross at the current informal spots.
“It ticks a couple of boxes in terms of bridging over the top of the creek and providing free passage for wildlife underneath,” he said.
“It’s headed in the right direction in terms of some of the project goals, but it’s an incredibly huge structure to be placed out there.”
While acknowledging the current unsafe situation cannot continue, Councillor Chip Olver was quick to raise some red flags with the overpass idea.
She said a height of 7.1 metres to allow trains to pass under is essentially a two-storey building.
“There was also mention of it being lit, so now we’re going to have a two-storey lit crossing in an area of current dark skies with a wildlife corridor underneath,” she said.
Coun. Olver also worried a large overpass would become the viewing platform for photo opportunities for visitors to Banff, creating parking chaos in nearby residential areas.
“It’s going to become a destination, it’s going to be on Instagram. I really struggle with the thought of an overpass being a solution,” she said.
“I think we aren’t going to like what our choices become in the long-term. I think it’s going to end up being fenced and having people go around.”
A controlled crossing at ground level on the tracks, known as an at-grade crossing, has early cost estimates in the range of $750,000 to $1.5 million. Electronic signage, lights, bells, fencing and control arms could be required.
However, this is not CP’s preferred option and would only be viewed as an interim solution.
CP indicated an agreement with the Town of Banff would be required for an at-grade crossing, with a condition that a certain volume of trains and pedestrians would trigger a need for an overpass or tunnel.
Allen said the Town of Banff would need a ‘get-out-of-jail free’ clause in the agreement to have an option to close the at-grade crossing at that point rather than committing a future council to a multi-million dollar project.
“Entering into such an agreement would be very challenging for a municipality,” he said. “We would have to be very careful if we were to go down that pathway around what the terms of that agreement were.”
In September, the Town of Banff was notified by CP Rail that Transport Canada would put a $500,000 grant toward an overpass or underpass. These funds are controlled by CP and are available for use in delivering the project.
In addition, Allen said CP has indicated a willingness to contribute a significant portion of the construction costs for an overpass, but the exact specifics of a funding split have not been finalized at this stage.
“They are more likely to be more at the table for a grade-separated than an at-grade crossing,” he said.
“CP’s strong preference is grade-separation is the way to go. It completely eliminates conflict.”
One of the biggest challenges to finding a solution is the area is also considered quite sensitive environmentally.
Whiskey Creek is designated critical habitat for westslope cutthroat trout, which are listed as threatened under the Species At Risk Act and there is strong evidence that trout use the nearby shallow ponds for spawning.
In addition, the area is part of the Fenlands-Indian Grounds wildlife corridor.
“It is heavily used by wildlife moving east-west along the valley and navigating around the industrial compound,” said Allen.
Councillors also wanted further clarity on Parks Canada’s position on fencing given concerns about wildlife movement.
While fencing would be likely required as part of the overpass, one other option was to block off the illegal crossing and force residents to walk around via Compound Road and Banff Avenue.
“Unless there’s some clarity about what we can do with fencing, I don’t know how much further we can take this at this point,” said Coun. Grant Canning.
At the end of the day, CP has a regulated obligation to address the safety issue as the owner of the railway corridor.
“If we were to take no further action, CP would then need to make their own decision unilaterally about what is in the best interest of CP in addressing that safety issue,” said Allen.
“All would achieve is losing the seat at the table that we currently have.”