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Second Vancouver-Washington Amtrak train gets a reprieve

By: Ian Bailey and Gary Mason
The Globe and Mail
October 14, 2010

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A second Amtrak train running between Washington State and Vancouver will keep rolling for another year, with Ottawa reversing its opposition to continued subsidies after 11th-hour lobbying by senior U.S. officials.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. ambassador to Canada David Jacobson pressed the federal government to extend support for the train, put in place to accommodate a surge in tourist traffic during the Olympics. The reprieve means that Amtrak and its supporters will have a year to demonstrate that the economic benefits – estimated at $11-million for Canada – justify the added inspection costs borne by the federal government.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said on Thursday that he spoke to Ms. Napolitano about the matter a few hours before he announced at a Vancouver hotel that Ottawa would continue to waive fees that would otherwise recover an estimated $800,000 in incremental inspection costs.

“I think some of the comments she made were very encouraging and helped us move in this direction,” he said, also giving credit to Treasury Board President Stockwell Day and other B.C. cabinet colleagues.

He said the Canada Border Services Agency has found $800,000 to cover the costs without new funding, and without compromising its security responsibilities. “I have worked very closely with them to encourage them to dig deep and find that money without an impact on the services they provide,” Mr. Toews said.

“I can certainly assure you this does not impact on security. If that was the decision, I would obviously favour the issue of security, but I didn’t have to make that choice in this case.”

But he also credited cabinet colleagues including Industry Minister Chuck Strahl, noting he did not expect he would have been able to get out of B.C. without making the announcement. “I am always persuaded by cogent and concise arguments, and I can tell you that Minister Day and others brought those arguments very forcefully to my attention.”

Mr. Day said regional mayors and tourism leaders made “compelling cases” for keeping the train, and noted that he was pleased it could be saved without new money. “This had to be done without new funding.”

Washington’s governor hailed the announcement as good news for the region – “especially for the businesses that have benefited from the increase in trade the second train has generated” – and noted she had worked on the issue with such allies as B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell; Gary Doer, Canada’s ambassador to the United States; Mr. Jacobson and Ms. Napolitano.

“I’m thrilled the Canadian government understood the economic risks that losing this second train would have created,” Chris Gregoire said in a statement.

The government subsidy had been slated to run out at the end of October, which roused regional mayors and leaders in the B.C. tourism sector to make the case that the second train is a boost for the Metro Vancouver economy. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson called renewing the support a “no-brainer” for Ottawa.

Mr. Robertson was early in line Thursday to salute Ottawa’s decision.

“The Amtrak train has been a big success and has delivered tourist visits and dollars into our economy, both in Vancouver and throughout the region,” he said in a statement.

Stephen Regan, president and chief executive officer for the Council of Tourism Associations of British Columbia, said he hopes for further train service.

“The announcement is great news because we’re confident the second train will prove to be very viable and that a second train will lead to a third and hopefully a fourth.”

Mr. Toews noted there will always be one train between the two cities. “This is the issue of whether, in fact, it is critical or necessary to have that second train,” he said. “In this period of time, the residents of British Columbia and Washington State primarily will demonstrate whether, in fact, this is a necessary service.”

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