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A long history of ‘rail plus property’

Photograph morning fog by Familie Pinksterbos on 500px

morning fog by Familie Pinksterbos on 500px

Today’s Architect This City post is being brought to you live from the mid-base lodge at Revelstoke Mountain Resort on Mount Mackenzie in British Columbia. 

It’s currently foggy, rainy, and about 2 degrees celsius — which I’m told is fairly anomalous for this area. It’s unfortunate for my friends on the slopes, but it makes me feel somewhat better about hanging out all day to rest my back and shoulder.

The town of Revelstoke was founded in the 1880s when the Canadian Pacific Railway connected the area. And traditionally its economy has been closely connected to that rail. However, with amenities like the resort I’m currently sitting in, its economy now increasingly includes tourism.

One of the most interesting reminders for me on this trip through the Canadian Rockies is how instrumental rail was in unifying and then building this country. But in actuality, it wasn’t just rail. It was rail plus property.

Within the Canadian Pacific Railway was a division called Canadian Pacific Hotels, which built and operated both urban and rural hotels such as the Banff Springs Hotel and the Chateau Lake Louise (both of which I visited for the first time on this trip). And today, these railway hotels are absolutely some of Canada’s most inspiring landmarks.

The model at the time was simple. 

Sir William Cornelius Van Horne — who was president of CPR in 1888 — believed: “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.” He knew that it was all about moving as many people as possible. And to do that he needed to create accommodations and destinations all along the rail. In other words, rail alone wasn’t going to cut it. It had to be rail plus property.

This of course is a model that still persists today. Many public transit authorities, such as the MTR in Hong Kong, have been hugely successful by adopting a rail plus property model.

However as the case study of the Canadian Pacific Railway demonstrates this is not a novel approach. It’s actually a tried a true model. Rail, and infrastructure in general, goes really nicely with property development. 

So why don’t all transit authorities adopt a rail plus property approach?

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