Amtrak to Vancouver faces a bureaucratic hurdle
by C.B. Hall
An Amtrak train arrives in Bellingham (2008). Credit: 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.
Both VEDC’s Tylee and Tourism Vancouver’s Pearce said the daily fee was beyond their own organization’s resources. “We hope that a community-wide effort can be made to solve this problem,” VEDC’s Tylee said. That might involve some outside party — the provincial government, even — defraying the CBSA expense.
The other Vancouver train, which leaves Seattle in the morning, has been operating since the 1990s, and will not be affected by the change, except perhaps to take on some of the displaced riders.