New border deal boosts Amtrak’s Cascades service, but US economic crisis putting high-speed rail on hold

The Beyond the Border deal signed between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper last week should provide a major boost to the Amtrak Cascades service between Vancouver and Seattle by allowing pre-boarding customs clearance for passengers at both ends.

The new policy will cut 20 to 30 minutes from the trip to Seattle. Trains now sit at a siding in Blaine for at least this long while US customs officials do their duty.

Seattle’s Bruce Agnew, of the Cascadia Institute, hailed the agreement in a briefing note to many of the political and transportation leaders who have worked to build the Cascades service on both sides of the border. The Beyond the Border gains follow on the heels of Ottawa’s decision to waive customs inspection fees on the Seattle train that were putting the entire service in jeopardy.

Agnew noted that the agreement specifically provided that both sides “will conduct full pre-clearance of travelers and accompanying goods at Vancouver, BC, for passenger rail and cruise ship traffic destined to the United States. Negotiations to this end will be completed by the end of 2012.”

The Cascades gains are a rare bright light on the US rail scene. Just a few years after Barack Obama promised major investments in high speed rail to boost the economy, the rail modernization program is stalled by budget cuts and partisan wrangling.