JOHNSON – Hydrogen passenger train through the Interior is faulty thinking


REGIONAL DISTRICT of North Okanagan directors heard an ambitious plan last Wednesday that would connect Kamloops to the U.S. border by a hydrogen-electric tram service.

David Johnson.

A Kelowna City councillor and UBC Okanagan professor Gord Lovegrove pitched his idea for Okanagan Valley Electric Regional Passenger Rail or OVER PR.

Basically, an environmentally friendly train starting in Vernon, and going along Hwy 97 to Osoyoos and into the U.S. … with a stage 2 section from Kamloops to Vernon.

Lovegrove spoke to how a local tram rail project like this would enhance commuter and travel quality of life in the Okanagan, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and foster economic development, using Hydrogen-electric technology.

He said the region doesn’t have the population density for a Lower Mainland-style SkyTrain network, but that trains (trams) as used in Europe and elsewhere are within reach.

He can, we all can in fact, talk about sustainable transportation until green in the face, but let’s take a very short look at the real world for this particular idea.

A $3 billion or $5 million per kilometer rail system from Kamloops to the U.S. border.  It doesn’t take a full-scale market research study to just know that after the initial excitement honeymoon period, it would be lucky to carry a dozen people a day, long term.

Let’s keep in mind that this is not a high-speed rail system that would get you from Kamloops to Kelowna Airport in 30 minutes.  Given the geography, that’s impossible for this cost.  It’s a slow, light-weight tram service that would probably make that trip in 3+ hours.

If it’s that slow, we’ll just drive to catch that flight each year to Cancun instead.

Part of the deal includes hitting up senior Canadian governments for funding to build it, and empowering a new transportation authority to run it.  We already know that Canadian governments don’t belong in transport industries like this, so assuming that it should be a public entity is just a non starter.

A project like this would become a hole in the ground where endless public money would need pouring into it to keep it afloat long term. Eventually passenger prices would have to increase to try to offset the losses, cutting ridership even more.

Once it costs more than a tank of fuel to get to the Kelowna Airport …

There is just not a market for such an atrociously expensive system that few would use regularly and most of us might use once in a while or maybe once a year … or less. Generally, there is no mass market for this in a region this sparsely populated.  We just don’t have a history of a daily commute by train from city to city, but more about that later.

If this was a local project to run north/south just through Kelowna as a commuter along Harvey Street/Hwy 97, that’s not a bad idea and might actually alleviate traffic congestion and move people around Kelowna effectively.

I am wondering if this project (brainstormed by a Kelowna City council member) may have started at this size, but to pay for it, grew it to a full Okanagan regional system so that senior levels of government could be drawn in with ¾ of the needed cash to build it.

Now he’s trying to sell it to a sparsely populated region, mostly full of people who just don’t really need to travel from Vernon to Kelowna on a daily basis … much less all the way to Kamloops and Osoyoos and south through a crossing into America where there are no big towns at all.  This is just green lingo entrenched daftness.

If we look beyond these parts at where this kind of longer distance light rail service might get enough ridership to warrant its cost, you could easily run this from Vancouver to Seattle or even further south … as then you’re talking about a market that just might be big enough to sustain ridership levels to make it a reasonable business venture.

If you think about it, even for commuters from Langley or Tsawwassen to downtown Vancouver? … Hello … now you’re selling daily tickets.

On top of that, these would be a great place to test, run and show the world that sustainable environmentally friendly, cross regional and even international hydrogen rail transportation is not just possible but makes good business sense in North America.

Whenever anyone touts European trains as a reason to build them here … must be met with raised eyebrows and a concern that they truly lack the grasp of both geography and history over there and here … and why it just will never work here.

Open google maps, zoom into Europe, and count the number of massive cities within a days high speed rail ride … and what you have circled is a reasonable daily commuting transport market.

I, too, have traveled by train throughout Europe … it is amazing how large, intricate and often full of commuting passengers those systems are, but as you travel them, you begin to realize why it wont work here.

These light weight trams in Europe are usually used to travel between major cities or from smaller suburban outskirt residential communities to major cities or centres, and are used generally as daily commuters, as well as transit systems inside major cities.

They don’t wander from minor, small communities to other minor small communities, without a link to a major centre.  That’s just how it works.

In addition, historically and still very true today, much of Europe’s rural, suburban and urban to urban lifestyle revolves around rail transport … it’s part of their culture, its how they have always gotten about.

We as a society and culture in North America just don’t think like that, don’t make house buying and work opportunity decisions that involve a public transport commute like that.

Many, many people in rural and suburban Europe just don’t own cars, they don’t need to.  The transport system is that good, and it’s that good because there is a massive amount of people that use it.

People here just don’t know train commuting culture, the idea is just not a part of our zeitgeist. Lovegrove may quote specific European services as proof of concept, like Alstom in France, but ignores that what he would need is an entire change in transportation culture in our society for such a thing to be a success.

Let’s also just not even touch the issues with lighter weight tram trains plowing through the tougher Canadian winters in the mountains … these aren’t full powered CN cargo trains. This is not a problem in southern France, and they don’t run these through the Alps.

Once we have considered all that, we begin to realize that what we have here is a guy who wants to spend $3 billion of public dollars for a rail service between a couple of minor -small to midsize Interior cities, and likes to wax on about sustainability as the primary selling point for a service that will never see self sustaining cost to ridership numbers.

This is not a ‘build it and they will come’; it’s a ‘build it and look how sustainable and green it is, but don’t worry about if it will work … did I say enough green stuff?’

‘Nough said. Please don’t encourage him.

TNRD board … be aware if he comes to Kamloops on his tour.  Don’t get caught up by the sexiness of hydrogen powered rail and green initiatives.  Just ask him what his real-world market research/ projected ridership numbers are, as well as the long-term business plan for its financial operation.

David Johnson is a Kamloops resident, community volunteer and self described maven of all things Canadian.

About Mel Rothenburger (9634 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

4 Comments on JOHNSON – Hydrogen passenger train through the Interior is faulty thinking

  1. It does make sense when you run it along the old rail line and add the ability to rub freight as well to help subsidize it.

  2. If a pipeline made sense so does a train.
    If a pipeline got built so will a railway.
    Railways make also a whole lot of sense for freight transport too. In fact it could remove road transport between major centres altogether.

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