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Reconnecting the West Coast, Plains and Prairies

Amtrak's Empire Builder train rounds a curve in the Rockies, approaching West Glacier Montana.

On April 21, 2022, representatives of Transport Action Canada, including current Transport Action BC president Alex Mandel, met with fellow passenger rail advocates from across the border, All Aboard Northwest, the Rail Passengers Association, and the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority to discuss restoring and strengthening cross-border passenger rail services.

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority has recently been formed by municipal and city governments in the region to explore the restoration of the former North Coast Hiawatha train service through southern Montana, a key route for cities like Billings and many smaller communities along the route.

With the easing of pandemic-related border restrictions, Amtrak is already moving to restore Cascades services to Vancouver, and the group discussed the proposal to add additional services by 2035 brought forward in the Amtrak ConnectsUS plan, plus the possibility of additional station stops in Canada so that passengers from Surrey, White Rock and the Fraser Valley region can connect to the train.

All Aboard Northwest is currently campaigning for the reinstatement of the Pioneer route from Seattle to Salt Lake City and Denver, and a connection from Vancouver to this overnight service would provide a practical alternative to flying for BC passengers heading to Colorado and Utah.   

While passenger trains have not run between Winnipeg and Minneapolis-St. Paul since the 1960s, the recent announcement of a second daily Chicago – Twin Cities Amtrak service shows increasing interest in passenger rail in the region. Restoring this connection, historically the first railway into Western Canada, would probably require the reconnection of dormant tracks across the border at Emerson, so the first step would probably be an Amtrak Thruway motorcoach connection to begin demonstrating demand.

Additional cross-border bus service opportunities could reconnect BC Interior cities that have poor air service and no rail connections, like Castlegar and Cranbrook, to Spokane. The difficulty of reaching Banff from the US west coast was also discussed, because neither driving ten hours from Seattle nor flying to Calgary and hiring a car to drive back are satisfactory.

The group compared ridership data for Amtrak’s Empire Builder and other long-distance trains with their Canadian counterparts. Aided by greater reliability in dispatching by host railroads, Amtrak’s train draws half of its revenue from intermediate origin-destination pairs and coach-class tickets. This important comparison shows how much revenue might be available to VIA Rail’s Canadian if it ran daily and with reliable timings along its route.  

The reinstatement of Amtrak’s Toronto – Chicago service will also provide a valuable onward connection from central and eastern Canada to the US west coast and northwest destinations.

Further into the future, the possibility of a north – south rail corridor linking Alberta to Texas via Billings and Denver was discussed, although the first priority is to restore passenger service to Calgary from Edmonton and other Canadian cities. We see the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority as a model for what can happen when communities come together to pursue a common interest in sustainable mobility and connecting citizens with opportunity.

Photograph: Amtrak’s Empire Builder heading east toward Montana, by Steve Wilson

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