The Province

Tourism leaders steaming over train holdup

- Jon Ferry

Now that the Gordon Campbell government is back on track, it must do all it can to protect B.C. jobs by helping one of our region’s main employers, our flagging tourism industry.

A great way to do this would be for three-peat Campbell himself to jump on U.S. President Barack Obama’s eco-friendly bandwagon and boost fast, frequent rail service between Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, Ore., . . . and possibly San Francisco and Los Angeles.

More trains would mean fewer cars lined up at the border, spewing out fumes, and more folks coming here by train to spend money in our region. But our mule-headed federal government has been criminally slow to grasp this — despite the fact that, in Europe and elsewhere, there’s a new golden age of rail, with people zipping around seamlessly from city to city in high-speed trains.

Ottawa, though, has been blocking steps to improve even our current low-speed, passenger-rail service. And I’m not just talking about the four hours and 20 minutes it takes Amtrak trains to travel from Vancouver to Seattle (mostly because of the sad-sack track on our side of the border). I’m referring to the fact that you still can’t go to Seattle and back by rail on the same day.

For some months now, Amtrak has been gearing up to double the number of trains. But the Canada Border Services Agency has wanted to charge the U.S. national rail operator for passengers on the extra trains to cover the costs of doing customs checks “outside of its core hours of service.”

Amtrak has said no to that shakedown. And the result has been a prolonged, petty standoff that’s frustrated everyone from provincial Transporta­tion Minister Kevin Falcon to B.C. tourism operators, already concerned about the loss of local cruise-ship business.

Responding to increasing pressure, however, federal Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan has finally agreed to waive the customs cash grab “immediatel­y before, during and for a short time after the 2010 Winter Games.” The only problem is the extra trains are needed right now for what will undoubtedl­y be a critical summer tourist season.

One of the main champions of improving cross-border rail service over the years has been Bruce Agnew, director of the Cascadia Centre, a Seattle-based think-tank. He’s currently in Vancouver with Amtrak officials talking to business types and folks in Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson’s office.

“The people who are up in arms about this are the Canadian tourism leaders,” he told me yesterday.

Agnew points to a Washington state Department of Transporta­tion study showing that Amtrak passengers currently spend nearly $16 million Cdn a year in the Vancouver area. With a second train on the Vancouver-Seattle run, that could soar to as much as $49 million.

Then, once there are two daily trains, we could think about four trains . . . and even high-speed trains. In the meantime, our premier should step in and convince Ottawa to get all the trains it can headed down the track.

jferry@theprovinc­e.com

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