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Rail-Lovers Determined Service Will Survive

SEATTLE — There’s an unusual coalition of train lovers here determined to ensure at least some passenger rail survives along the American West Coast even if Amtrak dies.
What is interesting for British Columbians is that some of the strongest proponents of passenger rail on the U.S. West Coast are trying to “internationalize” the rail corridor. They want fast, efficient passenger trains running from Vancouver all the way to Los Angeles and they want the U.S. government to cough up the money for some of the upgrades that would be needed here.

Of course, it would still likely mean British Columbians would have to pay some of the substantial costs. But it may be a way for us to solve some of our own transportation problems without paying the full cost.

There is a but to all of this and it’s a big one. It’s difficult to make an economic case for passenger rail.

Amtrak has never made a profit in its 31 years. In the past 20 years, the U.S. government has paid annual subsidies ranging from $772 million to $2.2 billion US. Despite that, Amtrak is billions of dollars in debt and has mortgaged virtually all its assets. To survive the rest of this year alone, it needs $1.2 billion US.

In fact, rail experts can’t point to a single country with passenger trains that doesn’t provide some subsidy.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of people who believe passenger trains are a model for the future and not one of the past. There have always been train lovers battling with arguments more romantic than realistic. Environmentalists came on board later, arguing that trains could help reduce carbon emissions and global warming, as did younger, wealthy urbanites tired of gridlock and aware of the public transportation options in places like Asia and Europe.

But for the past seven years, a Seattle-based, centre-right think tank has been trying to make the economic case to politicians of all stripes including the various premiers of British Columbia. As Discovery Institute president Bruce Chapman says: “We love passenger trains. We just don’t love Amtrak.”In fact, Chapman despises Amtrak. He says the way Amtrak has kept its financial statements secret is appalling.

Chapman is one of 11 people on the government-appointed Amtrak Reform Council, which figures that, on average, every Amtrak rider gets a 30-cent-a-mile subsidy from taxpayers. By contrast, less than a penny goes to subsidize each American driver or airline passenger.

It’s also important to note that the 30-cent estimate was made before the committee knew the full extent of Amtrak’s dismal debt situation, which has only been revealed in the past three months.

What groups like the Discovery Institute, the right-wing Heritage Institute and many others will be pushing for between now and October, when emergency funding runs out and the fate of Amtrak could be decided, is simple. Privatize Amtrak and pay subsidies to the freight rail companies that own the tracks to improve the track infrastructure, so that new companies rising from Amtrak’s ashes could run high-speed trains in the heavily populated corridors.

Chapman believes routes like the West Coast’s Cascadia train will easily be able to survive if they don’t have to subsidize dogs like the Sunset Limited train that runs between Florida and California. The subsidy for each passenger on that route is $347.45 US.

The Discovery Institute’s Darwinian solution is tempered, however, by its support for U.S. government subsidies to the freight companies that own the tracks to upgrade them to the standard necessary to run high-speed trains like those already in service in Europe and Japan.

Chapman draws a parallel with airports and airlines. The government should own the infrastructure or help out with airport authorities and ticket surcharges and the private sector should deliver the service, he says.

Imagine what would happen if governments ran airlines, Chapman mused. “Air Canada,” I answered. Chapman rested his case.

But what’s interesting about the Discovery Institute’s case for passenger rail is that it is just one piece of a larger economic development for that made-up region called Cascadia that is sometimes defined as including Alberta, British Columbia, Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California, and sometimes more narrowly defined as B.C. and everything south.

The Discovery Institute wants to “internationalize” the corridor between Everett and Vancouver with a massive investment that would include diverting freight through Sumas and limit the trains going through White Rock to passenger only. The proposal also includes replacing the single, aging railway bridge across the Fraser River and upgrading dozens of grade crossings to make them safer.

On the B.C. side alone, the costs would be in the order of $600 million Cdn.

In the coming year, proposals to spend buckets of money are going to be voted on in the United States. Federal legislation ordering spending on transportation infrastructure, border defence and national security will be voted on. (It’s worth noting that the $205-million Amtrak bailout approved in late July by Congress and the Senate was part of legislation ordering $28.9-billion worth of spending to fight terrorism.)

Depending on who’s counting, there’s going to be somewhere between $4 billion and $75 billion US available for improvements to things like railways, airports, connections to airports and building alternative routes so that a single bomb on a single bridge can’t paralyze the national transportation system.

To put this in perspective, the U.S. federal government spends $30 billion US a year on interstate highways and arterials. It also gave a $15-billion bailout to airlines in the days following Sept. 11. (The Canadian government paid out $160 million Cdn.)

The case that the Discovery Institute is making and has been making for the past seven years is that because of the enormous economic ties between the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, any consideration of the West Coast transportation system has to include B.C. and specifically Vancouver.

Bruce Agnew, the institute’s transportation expert, says it will argue that U.S. law already allows for American taxpayers’ money to be spent on transportation improvements within 500 miles (800 kilometres) of the U.S. border. Most of that money has gone into Mexico. But why not spend some of those billions on improving links to Canada?

“We’ve always argued that as long as a U.S. company runs trains on tracks owned by a U.S. company [Burlington Northern-Santa Fe] taking people to Vancouver, there should be federal money available to it,” says Agnew. “But we’re not really getting any real attention from the Vancouver business community to help get the money to improve the tracks.”

What the Discovery Institute and politicians like Washington Governor Gary Locke have argued is that to free up U.S. money, there should be some money from Canadian governments as well.

So far, the B.C. government has agreed it would be great to get some of that big pile of money. But neither it nor Ottawa has been willing to make a contribution.

Yet.

However, the National Post recently reported that the federal government is considering spending $3 billion over the next four to eight years to build 50 bridges and tunnels in major cities to prevent trains from snarling road traffic, as well as to reduce both border traffic snarls and greenhouse gas emissions from all those cars and spur regional development.

Vancouver would certainly be in line for some of that, especially if it is host to the 2010 Winter Olympics.

If Vancouver gets the Games, Agnew and others hope there will be money for passenger rail improvements that would speed Americans not only to Vancouver, but to Whistler.

The case being made in Ottawa for using passenger rail as a redevelopment tool is exactly what the Discovery Institute has been saying for years.

Inter-urban trains can spur more logical, efficient and ecologically friendly urban development. Downtown stations help revitalize cities bypassed by highways and they bring new life to others.

If people can hop on a train in White Rock, Bellingham, Mount Vernon, Centralia or Everett and easily get to Vancouver or Seattle for work or pleasure, it makes those towns more attractive. It also limits the amount of car usage and the number and size of paved roads.

But if Americans are reluctant to bail out Amtrak, it’s fair to assume that few would agree to subsidize track improvements in Canada unless Canadians cough up money as well. Even taxpayers in Washington, who would stand to benefit the most.

Washington taxpayers are already unique in their support for passenger trains. They’ve paid out more than $125 million US in the past five years for upgrades that Amtrak couldn’t afford (or wouldn’t afford out West, so far from Amtrak’s East Coast headquarters.)

Some of that was for two Italian-built Talgo trains that ring in at $11 million US each for the Amtrak Cascades service that links Vancouver to Seattle, Eugene, Portland and California.

The rest was for track improvements to allow the Talgo trains to reach speeds of up to 120 kilometres an hour (still well below the 200 km/h the trains are capable of.)

Without state money, the Amtrak Cascades would still be a clunky old train with rundown cars grinding along aging tracks from Eugene, Ore., to Seattle, taking hours longer than buses and cars to get to the same destination.

During the first three months this year, ridership grew 14.3 per cent to 131,747 passenger trips.

The Amtrak Cascades’ success hasn’t gone unnoticed. Many in President George W. Bush’s administration think the way to “save” Amtrak is to restructure the subsidies and download costs on to states.

(So, don’t be surprised if Prime Minister Jean Chretien links any $3-billion rail package to matching money from the provinces.)

In Washington state, Bush’s suggestion makes people like U.S. Senator Patty Murray of Washington furious that her state may get saddled with even more costs, while others like Massachusetts and New York already have a high-speed corridor and trains without those states having ever put up a nickel.

But there are others including the Cato Institute (a conservative, free-market proponent) that say there’s no economic or environmental imperative for passenger rail. Even if Amtrak’s popular high-speed train on the East Coast disappeared, the institute says the volume of passengers could easily be accommodated by airline shuttles using bigger planes, and each lane of the New Jersey Turnpike would only have to accommodate 47 additional cars per hour.

Still, there’s no real answer to the question of whether passenger rail is worth the cost, since it’s almost impossible to do a true cost-benefit analysis because of the stunning lack of public information.

Amtrak doesn’t make its financial statements public. Nor, for that matter, does Via Rail or even provincially owned BC Rail, which last week announced plans to shut down passenger train service between the Lower Mainland and Interior communities.

We already know that the over-all cost is skewed in both the United States and Canada where hugely uneconomic, transcontinental routes are retained because politicians are loath to have their constituents left without rail service in countries where rail travel has been mythologized as part of the national dream. They’re reluctant even though the percentage of citizens who travel by train is in the single digits in both countries and the vast majority of trips subsidized by taxpayers are taken by foreign visitors. We also don’t know other basic information, such as how much Amtrak pays to rent track time from the freight companies. Like Via, Amtrak won’t disclose that information, although both national monopolies are believed to pay something well below the rate charged private-sector passenger train operators like the American Orient Express or the Rocky Mountaineer.

While the U.S. government will make its calculation this fall when it deals with the restructuring of Amtrak, Canadians and British Columbians must make their decisions over the costs and benefits of passenger trains.

Here’s a comparison of the cheapest return fares and one-way travel times to the major cities served by Amtrak Cascades. The comparison is based on an early-morning departure and an evening return.

Vancouver-Seattle:

Amtrak: $46. Travel time: four hours.

Greyhound: $40. Travel times range from three hours, 40 minutes to 12 hours, 35 minutes.

Airfare (Air Canada or Alaska Airlines): $272.71. Travel time: 50 minutes.

Seattle-Portland:

Amtrak: $58. Travel time: three hours, 30 minutes.

Greyhound: $36.50. Travel time to Portland: four hours, 30 minutes. Portland-Seattle: three hours, 15 minutes.

Alaska Airlines: $195. Travel time: 49 minutes.

– The fares were obtained using Expedia.com and the fare information on Amtrak’s and Greyhound’s Web sites for travel within the next 10 days.

– The airline travel times do not take into account that all airlines advise passengers to be at the airport at least two hours before any flight — domestic or international.