Transport Minister Kevin Falcon’s March 1 announcement that British Columbia will provide the last required block of funding for a new rail siding that will allow a second daily Amtrak passenger train round-trip between Seattle and Vancouver is great news indeed.
The agreement represents a truly pan-Cascadia effort that brought together divergent public and private entities sharing an overarching commonality: A concern for the economic well-being and sustainability of our region.
The province’s commitment — the keystone of the effort — was strongly endorsed and promoted by Canada’s industry and transport ministries, Tourism Vancouver, the Vancouver Board of Trade and TransLink. Along with leadership in Washington and Oregon, this group’s work will handle the demand for both this second passenger round trip and for future growth in freight rail traffic that will take trucks off of I- 5. We owe a debt of gratitude to them all.
Another train will help meet the increasing demand for service between cities along the route, especially during and after the 2010 Olympic Games. This is notwithstanding what we hope will be a workable resolution of the contentious Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative requiring passports or “pass cards” for Canadian-U. S. travel.
An important feature of the new service is that it will allow for sameday travel between Vancouver and Portland. Passengers will be able to leave Vancouver at 7 a. m. and arrive in Portland at 3 p. m. It has taken a long time. In 1994, Amtrak, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Washington and Oregon, created Amtrak Cascades service in the Pacific Northwest. That service (which as of 2005 had a 330 percent increase in riders since its inception) has been valuable for the entire region, including B. C.
Studies by the Washington State Department of Transportation, Amtrak and Tourism Vancouver estimated economic benefits to the province from additional riders of about $11 million. And that was in 1999 and based on 47,000 riders. Its expected that this second train would increase the number of annual inbound riders to Vancouver to 90,000, with a commensurate increase in benefits to the region. One remaining challenge: Southbound Amtrak trains now are inspected for immigration and agricultural purposes at Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station, while Customs is handled separately at the Blaine border crossing, delaying the train for up to 30 minutes.
A combined inspection — similar to that at Vancouver International Airport — would reduce travel times. In our view, the solution to this problem lies on the U. S. side of the border. We shouldn’t really be surprised that B. C. has played such a vital role in bringing this regional goal to reality. Victoria has set the standard for public- private partnerships — not just for the region but for the entire continent. The railway infrastructure project is the latest in a long string of thoughtful efforts by the province such as the Sea to Sky Highway, and in partnering with TransLink on the Golden Ears Bridge over the Fraser River, and the Canada Line to Vancouver International Airport.
In total, the province will be contributing up to $4.5 million to this vital project and BNSF and Amtrak will foot the rest. Washington state has been working with railways and Amtrak to make improvements along the north-south line. Looking forward, the state’s total outlays for planned capital improvements and operations between 2005-2015 are programmed at $310 million from all sources.
Tourism Vancouver leaders recently hosted their Seattle colleagues to discuss potential future joint ventures like hosting the World Cup and the Olympics in 2028. Last year, Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts and Whistler Mayor Ken Melamed led a delegation of 35 mayors from throughout the Northwest on the newly inaugurated ( and spectacular) Whistler Mountaineer. The mayors pledged their active support for expansion of passenger rail service from Whistler to Eugene, Ore.
A great next step might be to see a company like the Rocky Mountaineer, which operates the Whistler Mountaineer and is led by the indomitable Peter Armstrong, inaugurate a Cascadia Mountaineer train to serve the burgeoning cruise ship market in Vancouver and Seattle. Next on the agenda should be more and faster transportation connections and hassle-free border crossings. This second Amtrak train is a big step on this exciting journey.
Bruce Agnew and Tom Till are co- directors of Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center based in Seattle.