How political differences are killing a train

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, October 13, 2010

You want my opinion? Of course you do. Unless something big happens (and I don’t count on it ), Amtrak’s second state-supported round trip from Washington state to Vancouver, B.C., will be history in just over two weeks. And the reason will be that Canada takes a very different course toward paying for its transportation-related services than do governments in the U.S., and we Yankees don’t understand that new fact of life.

I give credit to Christine Gregoire, the governor of Washington state, for putting the full nelson on the Canadians. The Canada Border Services Agency is demanding $1,500 a day, or almost $550,000 a year, from Washington state to clear passengers from the two state-supported Amtrak Cascade trains (numbers 513 and 516) at Pacific Central Station in Vancouver. Gregoire is saying not just no, but hell no. She argues that Canada, like her state, profits enormously from the tourism made possible by these trains. Why is it seeking to kill that golden goose, she asks?

To see a clip of her remarks yesterday in response to a reporter’s questions, click here.

Very impressive the governor is, but she may as well be baying at the moon. The Canadian government some years ago made a tactical decision that transportation-related services such as border protection, airports and the like shouldn’t be its responsibility to pay for. That’s why air fares to Canada are far higher than to places a similar distance away in the U.S. Passengers pay to keep those airports open. And it’s why the Canada Border Services Agency decided long ago to institute cost-recovery on new services it renders. Existing Amtrak trains in and out of Canada weren’t affected, but when Washington state announced that the second round trip to Vancouver would start in August 2008, wham! Starting in August 2009, for almost 15 months the agency allowed the train to operate without imposing the fees. But now it is saying enough is enough. Unless the Prime Minister Stephen Harper weighs in (and why should he?), I don’t see the Canadian agency budging this time. It is deaf to arguments that the Amtrak Cascade is being singled out when travelers arriving by car sail right through.

But how’s this for irony: John Gillie, who writes about airlines for the News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., noted last month that Canadian authorities have put Vancouver International Airport on sale to airlines flying in from other countries. They are exempt from the provincial fuel tax of two cents a liter, and landing and terminal fees will be frozen for the next five years. It seems that the high cost of using Vancouver International has been hurting that city, while Sea-Tac Airport on this side of the border benefited. I guess it’s a case of one hand not knowing what the other is doing.—Fred W. Frailey

One day later: Why was I such a pessimist? Only a few hours after I publicly buried the second Amtrak round trip to Vancouver, the Canadian government caved again. Give a lot of credit to Christine Gregoire, the governor of Washington state. She really poured it on this week when questioned by a reporter; if you haven't clicked on the link above, you should. The second Amtrak Cascade into Canada now has another one-year reprieve. But Canada Border Services Agency is nothing if not stubborn, so don't be surprised if we go through this all over again next October.—Fred

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