While Vancouver seeks to secure second Amtrak train, Montreal builds case for high-speed rail to New York

Communities up and down the Cascadia corridor from Vancouver, BC, to Eugene, Ore., are humming with the news of record increases in ridership this year on the Amtrak Cascades, the passenger rail system that will see $600 million in improvements as part of Barack Obama’s high-speed rail initiative.

These investments could generate tremendous benefits here in Vancouver in the long term if we can maintain current service between our city and Seattle. Similar interest in north-south rail travel is growing in Montreal, where Quebec officials hope they can secure investment south of the border to slash the 11-hour rail travel time from New York to Montreal with a high-speed train.

Thanks to the addition of a second Cascades train between Vancouver and Seattle before the Winter Olympic Games, city tourism businesses saw an additional 35,000 visitors between September and April, on an annualized basis. This is equivalent to several cruise ship visits and generates an estimated $16 million in additional business, possibly much more. (The numbers come from an Amtrak study.)

But the benefits of the second train — and access to the improved US rail corridor — could be in doubt if Ottawa decides not to continue special arrangements made to secure the additional Amtrak service last year. Those arrangements expire in mid-September.

The second train requires additional border services at $1,500 a day, a cost the federal government waived for an Olympic trial. With the economic benefits now clearly established, Mayor Gregor Robertson is joining Tourism Vancouver and the BC Board of Trade to urge that the arrangement be continued.

Among their arguments: the decision by Amtrak to fund improvements at Pacific Central Station for travellers headed south. These investments and the new business more than justify continued support for the second train, and hopefully, a third.

Although the current rail trip to Seattle takes a bit longer than by car, modest improvements in border clearance on both sides could cut 20 minutes from the travel time. In the longer term, more investments are required in Canada, possibly a whole new alignment. But the trains that could slash travel time to between two and three hours are already in service. They just need much better rails and alignments.

Securing the second train will do more than maintain current tourism traffic. It will also demonstrate to backers of higher speed rail in the Cascadia Corridor that Vancouver and BC are solid partners and a worthy destination for passenger rail.