Amtrak Cascades is the name given to inter-city rail service between Vancouver BC and Eugene Oregon. It is run by Amtrak with funding from the State of Washington and Oregon. Currently there are four daily round trips between Seattle and Portland, two between Portland and Eugene, but only one between Vancouver and Seattle. The current round trip between Seattle and Vancouver is geared towards people coming from Seattle, as it leaves Seattle in the early morning and returns in the late evening. For a number of years the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has been planning a second train that would leave Vancouver in the morning and return in the evening. This train would have the added benefit of providing through service to Portland and connections to other Amtrak trains for destinations further east and south.
Since September 1999 there has been daily service between Bellingham and Seattle. This is the train that was planned to be extended to Vancouver. Before that could happen, a siding had to be built in Delta (Colebrook), BC. For the first time since the cancellation of BC Rail passenger services, the BC government announced that it would invest in inter-city, passenger rail. The BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure announced on March 1, 2007 that it would contribute up to $4.5 million to the siding project, jointly funded with the BNSF railway and Amtrak for a total project cost of $7 million. The BC government boasted that the second train would inject $13.9 million into BC’s economy. The siding was completed in April 2008 and WSDOT announced that the second train could be running by the summer of 2008.
A year later and there is no second train. Why? Through an Freedom of Information request to the Canadian federal government, Transport Action has learned some disturbing facts.
Amtrak submitted a request to provide clearance services in June 2008 for a start date of August 2008. They received approval for clearance services from the US Customs and Border Patrol. Their Canadian counterparts were not so quick in replying and when they did, the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) wanted $ 1,500 per day or $547,500 per year to serve this train. When the first train started operating in 1994 there was no charge as Canada did not have to subsidise this service. Apparently the CBSA’s Rail/Mail/Sail customs offices are only open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and could not serve the 11:40 p.m. arrival of the second train. CBSA calls this a new facility and wants to be reimbursed. Nowhere else is an additional plane or bus or car called a new facility, but a train appears to be a different matter. Needless to say Amtrak refuses to pay.
Washington State has studied the impact of the existing train. American passengers coming to Canada spend money on hotels, meals transportation, and goods and services. Based on this analysis, the second train is expected to generate US$18 million in visitor expenditures per year, which means about US$765,000 GST revenue in for the Federal Government. The Federal Government profits, even if we assume the dollar at par.
Why is the Canadian Government being so obstinate in requiring extra fees? It seems they want to set a precedent. Soon no doubt everybody will have to pay a fee to cross into Canada. If it works for trains, why not charge for planes, buses, cruise ships and passenger cars?
There are other options for processing rail passengers from the US late at night. The rail border crossing is very close to the Peach Arch highway crossing. The CSBA post there is staffed, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. CBSA could run a van with officers to Blaine, board the train, process passengers and get off at White Rock. Any inadmissible passengers could be promptly returned to the US.
Additionally, there are rumours that CSBA wants to have all passengers on all trains entering Canada get off and have passport and luggage inspection at the border. It was easier to cross the Iron curtain during the Cold War.
On April 11th the Vancouver Sun reported that there was a tentative agreement to provide funding for the second train. However, this funding would only enable the train to run a few weeks prior to, during and for an indefinite period after the Winter Olympics. There is no plan for long term funding that would enable the second train to start running this summer. The CBSA is adamant that it be compensated for providing clearance services. WSDOT would like to begin operating the train this summer in order to market the service and build up ridership. Letters to the Federal Ministers of Public Safety and Transportation have gone unanswered.
The long range plan for Amtrak Cascades service produced by WSDOT and available on their website shows a total of four round trips between Vancouver and Seattle by 2023, along with a reduction of the four hour travel time to two and a half hours. This would make the trip very competitive with car and even air travel between the two cities. To achieve this level of service would require substantial improvements between Pacific Central Station and the border, such as replacement of the Fraser River rail bridge and improvements to track, new sidings, and signals. So far, the federal and provincial governments have shown little interest in passenger rail in British Columbia. The federal government has announced new funding for VIA rail, but the bulk of the funding will go to improvements in the Quebec – Windsor corridor. The third largest city in Canada has VIA service only three times per week. Perhaps, VIA should work with Amtrak to jointly operate Cascades service as they do for the Toronto – New York train.
Serious consideration should go to providing inspection services on board the trains as is done in other countries. This would make the service faster as passengers wouldn’t have to wait in line at Pacific Central station after getting off the train. It would also allow the train to make to stop in White Rock and Surrey. Pacific Central in Vancouver is not convenient for people from south of the Fraser River, so this would increase ridership. What about a station right at the border with a park and ride lot and a local bus loop? This might be more efficient for the CBSA by being close to the busy Peace Arch automobile crossing.
Open letter: Hon. Peter Van Loan and Hon. John Baird: Cost recovery for Amtrak Vancouver and free screening for airlines
April 1, 2009
Hon. Peter Van Loan
Hon. John Baird
Subject: Cost recovery for Amtrak and free screening for airlines
John J. Bakker, President Transport Action BC has long been attempting to bring some light on the problem of delay in approval of a second Amtrak from Seattle and beyond to Vancouver, B.C.
Transport Action Canada in Ottawa has received information through the Access to Information process indicating dilatory treatment (two years to respond) by the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) of requests from Amtrak for arrangements to clear international passengers. When the CBSA responded it demanded $1,500 per train/day for work that on March 31 the border agency announced will be done for free for six airports!
Professor Bakker, Professor-Emeritus Department of Civil Engineering, University of Alberta, says: “The Canadian Government objects to the thickening of our border with the United States, and rightly so. What used to be the longest undefended border in the world is becoming a barrier to Free Trade and to the movement of people who want to cross for legitimate purposes. But do we practice what we preach?
The State of Washington and Amtrak are willing to finance the extension of the second Amtrak train from Bellingham to Vancouver. This proposal was enthusiastically endorsed by the British Columbia Government, B.C. Tourism and the Vancouver Olympics Committee. The BC Government contributed $3 million to provide for an additional siding north of White Rock and this job was completed in April 2008. All was set to link Vancouver with Seattle and Portland going south in the morning and coming back late in the evening.
Yet there is no second train.
The Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) wants $ 1,500 per day or $547,500 per year to serve this train. When the first train started operating in 1994 there was no charge. After all Canada did not have to subsidise this service. Apparently the offices of CBSA are only open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and there would be nobody around at 11:40 p.m. when the second train arrives. So CBSA calls this a new facility and wants to be reimbursed.
No where else is an additional plane or bus or car called a new facility, but a train appears to be a different matter. Needless to say Amtrak refuses to pay.
Washington State has studied the impact of the first train. American passengers coming to Canada spend money on hotels, meals and transportation, as well as on goods and services they buy. The second train is expected to generate US$18 million visitor expenditures, which means about U $765,000 revenue in GST for the Federal Government. So the Federal Government makes a profit even if we assume the dollar at par.
The trains on the West coast in the US continue to have increased ridership. Total Northwest Corridor ridership was 847,563 in 2008 up 15.4% over 2007. Seattle is well served by trains from all directions, which maybe one of the reasons cruise ships are moving their terminal from Vancouver to Seattle.
Amtrak, thanks to Vice-President Joe Biden, is getting $1.3 billion in improving infrastructure. Washington State hopes to get some of these funds to build a third track between Seattle and Portland so as to speed up the Cascades services.
So why is the Canadian Government being so obstinate in requiring extra fees? … If it works for trains, why not for planes, buses and passenger cars?
As to how to solve the processing of passengers from the US late at night: The actual border crossing is very close to the Peach Arch. There is CSBA post there manned 24 hours, 7 days a week. Take a van with officers to Blaine, join the train, process passengers and get off again at White Rock.
Any inadmissible passengers can be promptly returned to the US. There are rumours that CSBA wants to have all passengers on all trains entering Canada get off and have passport and luggage inspection at the border. It was easier to cross the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.
What we need is real political leadership from you the responsible Ministers. The CBSA in its zeal to balance its own budget should be told that in an economic crisis, we should welcome tourists to visit Canada and not to make it an obstacle course. We need a kind of stimulus package for tourism, and this package could make a profit for Canada.
Yours very truly
For more information
|Update: Feb 9, 2009
The Seattle Times reports about the ongoing delays to the start up of the long-awaited second daily train between Vancouver and Seattle. As has been reported on this page before, the issue is the Canadian Border Inspection Agency wanting money from Amtrak to process the extra travellers. Requests for clarification from the CBSA have gone unanswered. A quote from the Seattle Times article sums up CBSA’s attitude, “A spokeswoman for Canada’s Border Services Agency, Faith St. John, said the federal agency could not comment on the issue.”
Transport Action Canada has learned of a report (PDF) produced by the Border Policy Reseach Institute at Western Washington University. The report examines the expected tax revenue generated by extra visitors that would come on the second train. The spending by day trip and overnight visitors to Vancouver is expected to generate the Canadian government $764,684 in extra GST revenue! This will more than offset the $1500 per day that the CBSA wants to charge Amtrak. It would seem that the CBSA wants to make a profit off of rail passengers, whereas plane, bus and car travellers are not charged to cross the border.
[Map created for T2000 BC by Matthew Buchanan]