High(er) speed rail update

Amtrak's Talgo trains can travel well over 100 mph but are limited to 90 by US law. Modest changes to border crossing arrangements and some track upgrades could result in much higher speed travel between Cascadia cities, a stepping stone to true High Speed Rail.

Amtrak's Talgo trains can travel well over 100 mph but are limited to 90 by US law. Modest changes to border crossing arrangements and some track upgrades could result in much higher speed travel between Cascadia cities, a stepping stone to true High Speed Rail.

Only two Canadian cities — Montreal and Vancouver – stand to be winners in the battle for benefits from President Barack Obama’s $8 billion high speed rail development program, but so far Ottawa won’t let Vancouver get in the fight.

As state and city officials from Oregon and Washington prepare their bid for hundreds of millions of dollars to develop passenger trail travel from Eugene, Ore., to Vancouver, they remain stymied by Ottawa’s demand that Amtrak pay the customs and immigration costs for a second daily train to our city.

Yes, Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan has agreed to waive the $1,500 daily fee during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, but after that anybody seeking to bring up an estimated 35,000 additional visitors to BC annually, as the Amtrak train would, should expect to pay.

It’s a penny wise, pound foolish policy that Mayor Gregor Robertson could only express embarassment about and promise to raise with Ottawa when he talked to US officials during this week’s Cascadia Rail Week. The event was organized to focus and co-ordinate the bid for new funding on the Pacific Northwest route identified as a candidate for support in Obama’s April announcement.

US state and municipal legislators made it clear during the two-day rolling seminar, which traveled from Seattle to Portland and back on Amtrak’s modern Spanish-designed trains, that the Obama announcement is viewed as a turning point in American transportation policy on a par with the creation of the national freeway system.

The economic and environmental benefits are obvious.

BC could be a ground floor beneficiary of this massive new investment, but Ottawa so far seems unaware of the possibilities.
The House of Commons Standing Committee on Transportation held an urgent meeting on the high speed rail issue earlier this month, but federal officials were mute on the BC possibilities, focusing instead on Ontario and Quebec.

Fortunately, US officials like Portland Mayor Sam Adams, Washington State Senator Mary Margaret Haugen and Oregon Congressman Pete De Fazio are pulling together make the Pacific Northwest bid a reality. Adams and Robertson signed a memorandum of understanding to create a cross-border collaboration in support of rail development.

This is not about billions of dollars for bullet trains. Very simple improvements in customs clearance policies on both sides of the border could dramatically cut travel times from Vancouver to Seattle, a route that has seen dramatic growth since service resumed 12 years ago.

Modest track improvements, like the new Delta siding that received provincial government support last year, could cut the current three hour and 55 minute trip to something closer to three hours, about equivalent to a road trip that includes a quick border crossing.

All these changes would lay the foundation for true high speed service in a corridor where even moderately higher speeds – well within the 120-km per hour capabilities of the current Amtrak train sets, never mind the superfast times achieved in Europe and Asia – would transform intercity travel.

All that’s missing is a clear, unequivocal statement from Ottawa that says “yes” to laying the groundwork for a sustainable, 21st century passenger rail system in the Cascades corridor.

Clearly, that Canadian response needs to be built in BC, crafted by the region’s municipalities, Victoria and the business interests, including our railways and the tourism sector, with the most at stake.

Until that happens, our friends in Cascadia will be fighting in Washington with one hand tied behind their backs, proposing an enhanced rail system to a destination that wants them to pay for the privilege.