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Amtrak to Vancouver faces a bureaucratic hurdle

Canada's border agency wants a daily fee for handling the incoming train passengers from Seattle and Western Washington at night. Washington's politicians, including Sen. Patty Murray, are raising complaints.

An Amtrak train arrives in Bellingham (2008).

An Amtrak train arrives in Bellingham (2008). Sue Frause/Crosscut Flickr group

Anybody got $1,500 tonight?

That's approximately the question being asked in Vancouver, B.C., as Amtrak's evening Seattle-Vancouver train faces an Oct. 31 termination, unless someone produces that sum daily sum to defray the costs of Canadian customs inspection.

The Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) has decided to effectively pull the plug on the train, one of two that serve the route, by imposing the charge on the so-called second train, whose 10:50 p.m. arrival at Pacific Central Station in Vancouver apparently inconveniences CBSA personnel. The Washington state Department of Transportation (WSDOT), which has sponsored the train since its introduction last year, expects the service to be truncated to a Seattle-Bellingham run should the CBSA threat become reality.

In a media release, a displeased WSDOT reacted with heavy political artillery, including U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee overseeing the state passenger rail program. “I am very disappointed to hear about this lack of commitment from the Canadian federal government,” Haugen said. “Washington has made investing in passenger rail service a top priority, but we need support from our neighbors.”

Tourism Vancouver spokesman Stephen Pearce said his organization was convening a meeting of affected local parties Wednesday morning (Sept. 22) to weigh a response to the CBSA decision. "We want to look at trains as a more environmentally effective means of traveling to Vancouver," Pearce said. "What can be done to support CBSA, if it's a resource issue?" He said Tourism Vancouver was "very disappointed in the decision."

Speaking for the Vancouver Economic Development Council (VEDC), John Tylee chimed in, saying. "It's a successful train. The idea of the second train is all part of a strategy we're working on with WSDOT in trying to build some high-speed rail for the future. This is a matter of great concern. We're all kind of scrambling here."

In an e-mail statement which did not answer direct questions posed by Crosscut, CBSA communications officer Sabrina Mehes countered, "It has always been clear that this temporary pilot for a second train was introduced to fulfill a need posed by increased travel volume during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. The CBSA has advised Amtrak officials of the coming conclusion of the temporary pilot project."

Reflecting the complexity of the situation, her statement referred to Amtrak as CBSA's negotiating partner, and ignored WSDOT, which in fact sponsors the train, with Amtrak merely playing the operator's role.

"The issue is between WSDOT and the Canadian government," Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham confirmed. She said Amtrak would not pay the fee.

"We obviously don't want that train to stop," she added. "It's been an incredible amount of business and it's been quite successful."

The train, which returns to Seattle in the morning, began service in August 2009, following years of effort on the part of WSDOT and citizen activists, who have already mobilized themselves in the wake of the CBSA decision.

In an e-mail to state transportation secretary Paula Hammond, Lloyd Flem, executive director of All Aboard Washington, the state's passenger rail advocacy group, said he was putting all hands on deck to help WSDOT keep the train. He pointed a finger north of the border, stating that "virtually all the investments that have made the trains a success have come from our side of the 49th. I would NOT support any consideration of having us pay yet an additional $1,500 per trip! The Vancouver business community ought to consider paying the money, if their federal government is unmoving on this issue."

Vancouver's civic and business organizations may indeed take up what amounts to a collection in order to keep the train. "We hope that a community-wide effort can be made to solve this problem," VEDC's Tylee put it, adding that the solution might involve some outside party defraying the CBSA expense.

In its first year of operation, the train brought 70 passengers to Vancouver every evening. The WSDOT release claimed that each of those passengers brought $462 in economic benefits to British Columbia. How many of those passengers will simply shift to other modes of travel, and how the arithmetic of serving the train will sit with the decision-makers, are among the questions looming.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Sep 22, 11:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Re. the wee-hours Greyhound buses: yes, the buses in Vancouver arrive at the depot next to the train station, but Border Services take place at the existing, 24-hour, truck/commercial USA/Canada border crossing. My understanding is that the night Cascades train requires CBSA to bring staff back to the Pacific Central Station for that train's arrival.

CBSA is under-funded, under-staffed, and expected to "pay it's own way". Per the Harper government.

JGP

Posted Thu, Sep 23, 12:13 p.m. Inappropriate

When I took the Amtrak across the Ontario/New York Border, they stopped the train right beside a road border crossing and we were boarded by customs, who performed all the regular checks with us sitting in our seats. Perhaps a similar thing could be done in BC and they won't have to send a crew of guards up to Vancouver.

Jon Sayer

Posted Sat, Sep 25, 9:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Possibly another factor in the Canadian government decision not to subsidize the second Amtrak train to BC is the Canadian-based luxury bus company QuickCoach. It runs 5 to 8 buses per day between Seattle and Vancouver depending on the season, and puts on extra buses to meet surges in demand.

The coaches head north from SeaTac Airport with a stop in Seattle near the Space Needle. There is a commuter price that beats Amtrak for those making a round trip of less than one week.

QuickCoach owners probably don't like the idea of tax-subsidies to their competition from governments. I know directly that their trade association, the American Bus Association, doesn't.

Although the QuickCoach buses don't have the wonderful waterfront view provided by the train on daylight runs, these buses can usually provide a faster, less expensive trip, with Wi-Fi on board.

Greyhound also provides bus service on the Seattle-BC run, as do buses contracted by Amtrak itself to fill in its sparse schedule.

jniles

Posted Sun, Sep 26, 2:08 p.m. Inappropriate

70 passengers per day on a 12-car Amtrak train? WSDOT considers that a "success"? What would they consider a "waste of money"? Anything? Just exactly how does that pencil out for Amtrak? What is the amount of money Amtrak loses each day to take those 70 people to Canada?

70 people would fit on 2 buses. What costs less to operate -- a 12-car Amtrak train, or 2 buses?

If the 70 passengers had to pay the $1,500 per day it is costing Canada to have that train operate, that would amount to over $20 per passenger. Just tack that onto the ticket price so the passengers pay the costs they necessitate.

Lincoln

Posted Thu, Sep 30, 1:25 p.m. Inappropriate

Lincoln, why not tack on $1.00 to the federal gas tax so motorists pay the costs they necessitate?

Read this and learn a bit about statistics:

http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/06/18/hurray-for-high-gas-prices/

Hoisted by your own petard!

p.s. Many people do not know about the other bailout--that of the federal highway trust fund:

http://www.gop.gov/bill/111/1/hr3357

andy

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