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Seattle and Whistler commuter links are on the wrong transportation track

By: Timothy Renshaw
Business in Vancouver
March 6, 2006

The great Sea-to-Sky bellyaching session over Lower Mainland transportation connections to Whistler in the run-up to 2010 underscores again how far rail travel has been shunted off B.C.’s transit agenda mainline.

To many, that’s a shortsighted outlook, from both a transportation and tourism perspective.

Count Washington state among the more rail enlightened.

Rather than dismantling rail’s people-moving capacity as B.C. has done following the Liberals’ 2002 decision to kill mandatory passenger service on BC Rail and the subsequent privatization of the province’s railway in 2004, Washington has been sinking millions into freight and passenger rail improvements.

That investment, were it to be paralleled in B.C., could yield multifold opportunities to showcase some of the world’s most majestic rail routes to commuters between this province and Washington and, in the longer run, international tourists.

Bruce Agnew, program director at Seattle’s Cascadia Center, has been thumping the soapbox of late about improving rail connections between Seattle and Vancouver.

He deserves a round of applause on this side of the border, because those connections now couldn’t be much less attractive to train enthusiasts, let alone anyone seeking practical alternatives to navigating chronically clogged highways and border crossings.

One four-hour train trip per day between the two booming port cities is, to be polite, inadequate. It’s also shortchanging the province on numerous business opportunity fronts.

The potential for rail to tap tourism traffic from Seattle’s booming cruise ship trade alone is huge.

Oh, and that 2010 event could also benefit. A lot of people wanting to get to the Vancouver-Whistler Winter Olympic Games will be arriving at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. An efficient rail connection from that transportation hub would be an extremely attractive alternative – especially considering that major accidents on the Sea-to-Sky highway routinely bring traffic to a halt in both directions, sometimes for hours.

Aforementioned infrastructure improvements in Washington have increased rail connections between Seattle and Bellingham. Cascadia is pushing for another US$7 million to establish a siding just north of the border to allow Amtrak to run a second train between Vancouver and Seattle.

Apart from improving Olympic Games transportation efficiency, adding Whistler to that expanded itinerary would expose more visitors to the natural appeal of B.C.’s heartland.

But the province’s transportation ministry and far too many other British Columbians have little appreciation for the province’s world-class rail routes and the appeal they hold for train aficionados, many of whom are in the affluent demographic tourism enterprises covet.

The province’s passenger rail potential was elegantly showcased at the turn of the century by BC Rail’s Whistler Northwind. The inspired mix of vintage and new rolling stock was launched in May 2001 and delivered a luxury rail service on a matchless route from Vancouver to Prince George.

But, in a run that sparkled all too briefly, the train was derailed by the global tourism slump, a stronger Canadian dollar and assorted corporate organizational challenges.

Rocky Mountaineer Vacations plans to launch its Whistler Mountaineer tourist service between North Vancouver and Whistler later this year.

But a Whistler commuter service, even for 2010, is still not in the cards.
Vanoc, instead, will rely on buses.

Train travel, commuter and other, continues to be sold short in this province. Too early 20th century, apparently, for the smart set.

But when done right, there’s little that can compare with rail. It’s one of the few travel experiences in which the trip can equal the destination.

Trains need to play a part in B.C.’s Olympic transportation plans, and, in the long run, they need to play a major role, not a bit part, in moving commuters and tourists between Vancouver and Seattle.

Timothy Renshaw ( is the editor of Business in Vancouver. His column appears every two weeks.

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For More Information: Cascadia Project — Bruce Agnew
208 Columbia St. — Seattle, WA 98104
206-292-0401 x113 phone — 206-682-5320 fax