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Deeply troubling issues behind Seattle-Vancouver train expansion

It is astonishing that a long-awaited second passenger train connecting Vancouver to Seattle is still in serious limbo.

It is astonishing that a long-awaited second passenger train connecting Vancouver to Seattle is still in serious limbo.

Why the hold-up? The Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) wants $1,500 per day from Amtrak to serve this train. Not surprisingly, the U.S. rail operator refuses to cave to their financial demands.

British Columbians should be furious. Afterall, $3 million of their tax dollars helped provide extra rail capacity for this initiative.

In addition to the B.C. government and Amtrak, the train has support from Tourism B.C., the State of Washington, and the Vancouver Olympics Committee.

Word that the CBSA will provide service for the train during the 2010 Winter Games does nothing to sort out this matter in the months leading up to the Olympics, or the period after.

What kind of post-Games legacy is that?

Last month, I wrote to John Baird, Canada's Minister of Transport, to find out more about Ottawa's role in this. I have yet to hear back from him.

But I have heard back from Quebec-based Harry Gow, a tireless rail advocate and government watchdog who is the founding president of the group Transport 2000.

Over the past year, he and Transport 2000 colleagues have chased down politicians and bureaucrats connected to this saga. And what they have uncovered is deeply troubling.

According to Gow, documentation returned from Access to Information requests shows the CBSA took two years to respond to correspondence from Amtrak about arrangements to clear international passengers.

Given this pathetic episode, it would be hard to blame British Columbians for feeling they are better served by American officials than by their own federal government.

It’s high time for Minister Baird and Peter Van Loan, the Minister of Public Safety who is responsible for the CBSA, to come forward and explain Ottawa’s position.

There’s a cruel irony to all of this.

Rail travel is hailed by economists and environmentalists as a progressive alternative to road and air transport. South of the border, U.S. President Barack Obama is looking to high-speed rail to transform America's cities and usher in a new era of smart transportation.

But don’t expect that philosophy to fly north of the 49th parallel. “The CBSA is no friend of the passenger train,” says Gow.

Asked about high-speed rail eventually reaching Metro Vancouver, he laughs about the border agency’s potential reaction.

“I shudder to think what they would charge.”

– Derek Moscato is a writer with a focus on urban issues, transportation, architecture
and economics; dmoscato@yahoo.com.

 
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