May 21, 2009

The Two Train Tango: What Will It Take To Get A Second Train To Vancouver?

Mike Wussow

It seems simple enough. Trains carry passengers between locations such as, say, Vancouver, British Columbia, and Seattle, Wash. When those passengers disembark, whether for business or pleasure, they spend money. When money is spent, those receiving it benefit.

Would you dish out $500,000 a year if someone would then send you $33 million?, Miro Cernetig, The Vancouver Sun, "Ottawa's lack of vision may derail dream of fast-train service," May 19, 2009

So, it would also seem then, if all the stars were aligned to have Amtrak begin running a second daily train between Vancouver and Seattle, that officials would do what they could to make it happen -- that bureaucratic hiccups could be managed, addressed and not hold things up. But as in life, in governance and regulation oftentimes the simple becomes unnecessarily complex.

Click below to read the extended post.

The goal is simple: increase more train service between the two cities and ultimately along the entire Cascadia Corridor from Vancouver to Eugene, Ore. The roadblock is equally straightforward: a dispute about money and time. (Canadian border officials say Amtrak should foot the bill for the cost of inspecting another train.)

That cost, as reported in The Vancouver Sun today is "about $1,500 a day, or a little over $500,000 a year." As Miro Cernetig points out, that doesn't seem like very much when estimates show that "a second train will bring another 35,000 visitors to the city annually, creating $16-million to $33-million in spending." Jon Ferry of The Province newspaper made similar arguments. And just this week, the Honorable Ujjal Dosanjh, Member of Parliament for Vancouver South, voiced his views in a letter to Minister of Public Safety Peter Van Loan and Minister of International Trade Stockwell Day.

As I reported two weeks ago, Cascadia Center is part of a coalition that has been urging action to accelerate a second Amtrak Cascades service to Vancouver. The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver is certainly the most imminent reason to do this, but more broadly (and long term) is the idea of building a true high-speed rail corridor in the Northwest. (For it's part, Cascadia is focusing on that broader issue next week during Cascadia Rail Week, May 27-29 in Portland and Seattle.)

It remains to be seen whether Ottawa will take steps to accelerate the second train. But if you live between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, it's beginning to get difficult to turn around without reading, hearing or seeing someone talk in favor of the idea. And you're probably also wondering if, with all the favorable facts aligned, Ottawa would really throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Let's hope not.

11:52 AM |


While another train between British Columbia and Seattle is a good thing from many points of view, a closer calculation of payments may reveal that more trains mean more Canadian shoppers paying Washington State sales tax on purchases (non-refundable), in addition to Americans coming north paying Canadian GST (refundable upon application).

In other words, the extra money from American train passengers contributing to the Canadian economy may be washed out by Canadians riding the train to shop and contribute to the American economy. As I say, this is a good thing, but maybe not something the Canadian Federal Government wants to pay for.

Background explanatory point of what the extra $500,000 is about: it's for Canadian border security officers traveling to Pacific Train Station near downtown Vancouver after hours for a short period of time to meet the second late evening train; this is an isolated location from all other international access points. Right now, the bus that serves the Amtrak passengers from Bellingham in that time slot goes through the Pacific Highway crossing in Blaine/Douglas manned routinely 24 hours per day. The all-day volume of bus passengers crossing the boundary now average ten times more than train passengers.

Time for Plan B to find the money to get that second train in motion?

A mere 1/2 million bucks per year should be chicken feed for a Puget Sound regional body politic that recently upped their daily sales tax payments for the most extensive light rail subway system in history from one million dollars per day to two million.

The outfit that collects the two million daily is Sound Transit, which has bragged about Link light rail from SeaTac to downtown Seattle being in support of the Winter 2010 Olympics. Let that be Canada generally, in the name of regionalism!

If those light rail passenger had a doubled chance of catching an Amtrak Cascades within a block or so of the International District Link station it would add to region rail connectivity.

For this amount of Sound Transit's loose change, Amtrak Cascades could in turn be contracted to make announcements on the trains from Canada about the easy availability of light rail connections from King Street Station to downtown Seattle hotels. In other words, the ST money would provide some promotion of light rail patronage, as well as supporting a feeder train from the north.

As a Canadian public servant who lives in Surrey, I will me writing some letters to politicians.

If the Minister responsible for the Canada Border Services Agency is not up to the job of providing Customs services at Vancouver (BC) station, then he should resign and let someone else step in.

Furthermore, one of the ideas behind having Customs is to collect taxes for the government. You can make money at it! They could very well recover several times the half million it costs to operate it. Or maybe training and experience are a problem there?

And it also sounds as though the CBSA is not exactly ready for when the Olympics happen, less than a year away now.

Also, our government is in a minority position (there's 5 parties) and could have the rug pulled at anytime, sparking an election. The current government's popularity is fading and it might be time. In other words, maybe the party-in-waiting would make proper funding this cause an election promise.

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(The views therein do not necessarily reflect those of Cascadia Center)