Amtrak 90253 Pacific Central Vancouver BC 2005_0112
An Amtrak Cascades train in customs quarantine at Pacific Central Station in Vancouver, photo by Stephen Rees

Amtrak Cascades has wanted to run another daily train from Seattle to Vancouver, but Canada’s customs agency has been asking Amtrak Cascades to cover the costs of Canadian customs service on the new run – around $1,500 a day – and Cascades doesn’t have the money. Because that money isn’t budgeted, the new service has been delayed. Thankfully, the Canadian Government’s hold-up has continued to get press from our northern neighbours (that’s the way they spell it, anyway), and the hold-up is going to go away, though only briefly ” before, during and for a short time after” Vancouver’s 2010  Olympic games. Here’s Jon Ferry in the Province (H/T to Lloyd):

Responding to increasing pressure, however, federal Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan has finally agreed to waive the customs cash grab “immediately before, during and for a short time after the 2010 Winter Games.” The only problem is the extra trains are needed right now for what will undoubtedly be a critical summer tourist season.

[Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center Director Bruce] Agnew points to a Washington state Department of Transportation study showing that Amtrak passengers currently spend nearly $16 million Cdn a year in the Vancouver area. With a second train on the Vancouver-Seattle run, that could soar to as much as $49 million.

Saying they plan to temporarily waive the border fee may be a way for the Canadian Federal Government to save face and pray for a successful Olympic Games despite the worst economy in generations, but I’d take the Canadian Government’s position at face value. Anyone who dreams about Vancouver-Seattle-Portland high speed rail needs to pay attention to this topic: the US Federal Government is going to take a look at this customs issue before to making any long-term investments in high speed rail on Amtrak Cascades. If the Canadian government isn’t willing to chip in $1,500 a day – at most $547,500 a year – to make a second daily run possible, what hope is there of several daily runs, or anywhere near enough runs to make an investment by the federal government on this side of the border worthwhile?

This hard-line stance may have earned political points in Canada during the Bush administration, but I can’t imagine this is popular today. I’d hate it if Ottawa’s stinginess over just the customs fees on a second run jeopardized our chance of regional high speed rail. Come on, Ottawa, the train is going to get you guys millions in tourist dollars and you only have to pay the customs fees. Get on the ball.

27 Replies to “Amtrak Customs Hold-up Temporarily Disappearing”

  1. Good News, at least for the short term. It’s harder to impose the fee after service has been running for a while, than to get agreement between Vancouver, Ottowa and WSDOT over who pays for what up front. Maybe CBSA will drop the crossing fee, or at least acknowledge they don’t charge airplanes, buses, bikes, cars or pedestrians to cross the border after ‘normal’ hours.
    US customes charges $6.00 a head for all Canadian Visitors without NEXUS, SENTRI, or FAST ID, so maybe turnabout is fair play.

    I don’t think this will impact our HSR corridor chances, as the stimulus money can only be spent in the US. That would make the HSR corridor run from Bellingham to Eugene, and anything north to Vancouver BC would have to be done by our neighbors.
    I think from a practical matter, WSDOT and ODOT will concentrate our share of the ARRA funds between SEA and PDX first.

    1. It is good news. I don’t think that the Bellingham spur is really all that worth while without reaching Vancouver.

  2. It’s quite possible that it’s not Ottawa being stingy about this money, but rather Victoria. The government is much more decentralized up in Canada, with Provincial government taking on much more of a role than the feds. So, there’s a good chance the guy who’s being stingy is the Premier of BC. Hopefully they will understand that with the lion’s share of investment taking place south of the border, they would be wise to chip in for the extra border guards…

    I’m confused though… If they have X number of border crossings (X = car + plane + train + whatever), is that number going to change because of the train? Wouldn’t an increase in train traffic show a corresponding decrease in car or plane or whatever traffic? The only thing I can think of in that case is that interviewing people on the train is waaay more time consuming than interviewing people at a drive-through window.

    1. From what I understand, it’s the issue of CBSA personel get off shift by the time the 2nd train would arrive in downtown Vancouver. They want to be compensated for having to add another crew to check in the late arriving train.

      Some suggestions are to check the train at the border on a siding track, or let the agents ride to town on the train, and shuttle back, or bring in a crew from the airport.

      Good point I hadn’t thought of. Same people, just a differnt mode! Thanks Colin.

      1. I was actually rather surprised on the train up that we didn’t stop at the border for Customs (since we pass right next to the Peace Arch crossing). Instead, you walk through customs upon arrival at the station in Vancouver.

        I agree with other folks. Why not just move it?

        Possible drawbacks, however:

        1) Currently, passengers go through U.S. Customs prior to leaving. Would the train have to stop in both directions?

        2) Currently, passengers exit the train and line up for Customs upon arrival, like at an airport. Would agents have to board the train at the border and walk through requesting documents? Or would everyone have to exit the train, walk through a line, and then reboard to continue on (as, I believe, buses currently do at the border)?

      2. Unless the BC government and Amtrak wish to re-establish service to White Rock and/or New Westminster, the inspections should occur at the terminal in Vancouver, just as at an aerodrome. There are few things more gratifying (transportation-wise) than being on that train as it glides past Peace Arc without stopping as all those saps are sitting in their cars at the frontier!

      3. Back when more European countries had restricted borders, it was pretty common practice for a bevy of passport control officers to board a train at the last stop in one country, and check everyone’s passports en route to the first stop in the other. That way there was no time wasted at all by passport control. If there are no stops between Bellingham and Vancouver this would be fairly easy to do – I’ve seen it done for much shorter legs than that, but then a lot of personnel are needed to get the job finished in time.

    2. You are right to point out that Canada is a confederation, but in this case, the CBSA is a federal agency and is thus controlled and funded by Ottawa. Only Quebec pretends to have a separate immigration service, but one must clear Canadian Customs and Immigration (now CBSA) before having to visit with “Immigration Quebec” who are really only interested in attracting certain professions and workers to Quebec and don’t concern themselves with tourism (Quebec lost a ton of people to Ontario and Western Canada when the whole French-only and seperatism movements occurred in the 1970’s).

      As for this funding, the farce is that Ottawa just gave a buch of funding for some airports’ CBSA operations, including a CBSA operation at an airport in Deer Lake, Nfld. where they have a once-a-week non-stop vacation charter flight to Cuba in the wintertime.

      Yup, THAT gets money but SEA-VBC does not.

  3. Do airline companies, ferries, or busses pay for border crossings? I guess I just don’t understand why Amtrak is responsible for paying. Customs agents at all international borders are a necessary service that the BC/Canadian governments should be responsible for.

    I haven’t passed through the Canadian border by train since I was very little, so I don’t remember how it’s done, but are passengers interviewed upon leaving the train at Vancouver station or does the agent board and sweep the train? What about coming back into the states? Seems like if an agent boarded in Bellingham and swept the train en route, some time could be saved.

  4. I think they should transfer funding from the Peace Arch crossing to add another shift to Pacific Central Station.

    1. Nope, they only need to bring over some agents from YVR (much closer than the Peace Arch in Blaine/Surrey) or staff from the even-closer docks who are also available 24/7.

      1. Northbound, “inspection” by Canadian Customs and Immigration officers occurs at Pacific International (formerly Canadian National/Great Northern) Station when the train arrives. It is locked in a cage (see photo) for the day until it departs for Seattle in the late afternoon. Southbound, US “inspection” happens twice, once in the station prior to loading the train, and then again at the international frontier at White Rock/Blaine, just to make sure nobody or nothing was missed.

        In days gone by, when I was a college student at Western in the 1960s, and there were 2 trains a day each way, the Canadian inspectors rode southward from the frontier to just past Chuckanut Drive where they jumped off the southward train and onto the northward train to do their interviews. The US Customs and Immigration officers joined the northward train at the frontier and rode up to Vancouver; the train spent only an hour there in those days, and as soon as the train left Vancouver they US crew came through the train – anyone deemed inelligible for entry into the US was detrained in White Rock into the hands of the RCMP. For the morning departure from Vancouver, the US inspectors were driven to the station, and dropped off at Blaine on the way south. Interestingly, Great Northern’s trains also called at White Rock and New Westminster, the latter station is today almost directly beneath SkyTrain – will there one day be an intermodal station there?

      2. It’s not “twice”; they’re just separating the immigration and customs inspections which in most places are done simultaneously or right after each other. The check in Vancouver is for immigration; the check on the train is for customs.

  5. This is an extremely pesky issue that needs to go away. Didn’t Olympia recently budget for a third train to Vancouver next year as if all the recent hang ups over a second train were nothing? At least that is what I remember from an earlier post wrap up on achievements going on in the Legislature. If they have the budget for a third train, who would pay for the border crossing on this one?

    Perhaps Senator Murray could provide some input to Canada on this one. I am sure this is resolvable and if it isn’t right now, it needs to be because the issue is a no brainer to my way of thinking and needs to be pursued to the fullest extent possible.

    Let’s work from the premise that even three trains is too few a schedule on this route, so maybe if we demand four or more trains, it will make getting two or more an acceptable compromise for now. If we ask too much, maybe there is a better chance of getting more than too little and right now, asking for two trains is too little but seemingly too great a wall to surmount.

    1. More than about 3 passenger trains a day each way will require extensive double tracking/sidings to accommodate both the passenger and freight services. Not to mention un-raveling much of the curvature and updating older bridges along the way

      1. Lloyd,

        There isn’t enough traffic to justify double tracking the Everett – Vancouver BC corridor. There is only 2 to 8 daily freight trains, excluding Amtrak.

        A single track railroad with decent length sidings can easily accommodate 40 to 60 trains a day. Stanwood and Mt. Vernon sidings are/will be upgraded 35mph from its current 10mph this year. English and Bow sidings have already been upgraded and extended in early 2000/01.

        Seattle – Everett isn’t much of a concern since the MP 7-8 bottleneck is addressed and soon the Interbay yard bottleneck will be fixed late this Summer. The remaining one mile single track sections will be finished by 2012 except through the tunnel at Everett.

        You are right however that some of the curves and bridges need to be addressed to reduce delays and increase speed along the corridor but other than but at least 70% of the line is 70mph and above for the Talgo’s…at least in Washington State. Everything else hinges on White Rock, BC to Pacific Central Station.

      2. Hi Brian-

        Thanks for the update – was not as aware as I should be of the improvements north of Everett and south of Blaine – good news.

      3. Can you give us any more details about upgrading the Seattle north Sounder route? I assume the tunne is the one that goes from Everett Station under downtown Everett to the coast? Does most of the commerical train traffic end at Everett? If the upgrades are completed will ST be able to field more thatn 4 trains? What is the current speed allowed for Amtrak and Sounder trains? What would it take to get above 100mph? I appreciate all the time you spend on feeding us info-starved people!

      4. Lloyd, no problem!


        Please, let me know if I need to break this down anymore. The railroader in me gives more of the direct answer instead of the easier to understand terms.

        The work remaining is finishing up the double track project at Interbay yard. The BNSF commuter construction crew is about 70% completed with that project. Following that, installing several new 50mph crossovers between Richmond Beach and Everett along with double tracking at MP 27-28 (North of Mukilteo) and Edmonds. Grading work has started for the Edmonds and Mukilteo projects but both won’t be completed for some time (2011-12 time frame)

        With these projects completed, the next project will be to upgrade the Bayside Yard (The line that continues straight, following the waterfront instead of up the grade and into the tunnel) This project, while it won’t be used by Sound Transit, unless the tunnel were to collapse, will improve freight congestion and give BNSF some more room for RCO (Remote Control Operated Locomotive) switching within Bayside Yard. It would also be a faster route for freight trains that can bypass Delta Yard altogether.

        Only 2% of commercial freight traffic starts and ends in Everett. 98% of the rest of the freight movements are from Vancouver BC to points East or South and run through intermodal trains to Seattle or Chicago. Everett is more of a hub to distribute freight cars to other trains and local freight for delivery to Sumas, WA for example.

        After all of those upgrades are completed, Sound Transit may be able to come to the table and request for more trains. They can’t do that however until several key things happen first.

        1. Speed is improved upon (which is not easy along the waterfront)
        2. Ridership is improved (also, not easy)
        3. More parking is made available at all stations, especially Everett (Phasse 2 should be opening soon?)
        4. WSDOT builds parking garages at Kingston and Clinton ferry terminals and walk-on passengers can take the train to Seattle instead, saving time and money.
        5. A Broad Street station platform is built and transit is provided from Broad Street station into the City Center. (a lot of logistics, such as closing 2-3 grade crossings there)

        Amtrak/WSDOT already has an agreement from BNSF to run upwards of 8 trains between the Seattle – Vancouver BC corridor (excluding Empire Builder) There is no reason why Sound Transit couldn’t do the same with minimal impact on freight.

        The maximum speed is 65mph for standard non-tilting passenger equipment while 75 (I think) is the maximum speed for the Talgo trains along the Seattle – Everett corridor.

        What it would take to make it more than 100mph? A very, very, very costly and long fill cutting through the Puget Sound (seriously) the track hugs the coast line from Ballard to Everett. It does the same from Chuckanut to Brownsville, BC. Tilting equipment is really the only way to go along the corridor. The longest piece of straight track is between Broad Street and Galar Street in Seattle (around 2 miles) once your on the coast, your lucky to stay straight for even a half mile.

        If you have anymore questions, feel free to field them here or e-mail me!

      5. Brian,
        I would think there would be some long stretches of straight track between Marysville and Silvana.

      6. There also some fairly long stretches of tangent (straight) track between Stanwood and Mt Vernon, between Burlington and just before Chuckanut Drive, and again between Ferndale and Blaine. All in all, however, this is one twisty railway for having almost no elevation gain at all. There is no way the Feds (Shoreline Mgmt Acts) would ever allow any fill or cliff cutting in Puget Sound or along Chuckanut to unbend the ROW; to get even to 110 MPH, those stretches of the railroad will have to be moved inland. That said, with effective dispatching, some more sidings and double track, travel time using Talgos could come down close to the 3.5 hour range I would think. Brian can tell us for sure. It is one beautiful trip on a nice day!

      7. Whoops, I should have been clear, just on the Seattle – Everett section is no faster than the mentioned speeds.

        After Bridge 37/Marysville the track speed is 79mph as it parallels I-5. There are some slower segments of 60-70mph along the way but remains consistent until around Samish where the speed drops between 30 and 60mph as the railroad hugs the coast again.

        Through Bellingham, I believe the speed is no more than 25mph as it goes through the Georgia Pacific plant (another future improvement)

        After Brennan (North of Bellingham), the speed increases to around 70mph. The last time I rode the train, it was still jointed rail for a huge segment in this area and REALLY rough on the Talgo.

        After the US/Canada border crossing and entering White Rock, the speed drops to 20mph and is jointed rail. I don’t foresee this increasing more than 40mph just on the safety aspect regardless of whatever upgrades were made. Along that route, it hugs the waterfront and crosses several bridges. The train joins the ex-BC Rail/Canadian National ROW at Colebrook (which was the required siding and only condition to start the second round trip at the time)

        Now if you want to follow the route, load up your favorite map program…I’ll use Google Maps.

        Zoom out a little bit and follow the rail line up CA 91. The line will turn right in Delta into Brownsville Yard. This is all 30 to 50mph.

        The line will continue onward to the Fraser River Bridge (the bridge on the right, the bridge on the left is SkyTrain) then diverge to the right following Columbia St E. The route will then follow CA 7 to the waterfront. You’ll come up to a huge set of tracks that is a mixture of SkyTrain and the rail line. All of this is no more than 10-50mph.

        This is one of several reasons why WSDOT has examined ending the route at Scotts Road SkyTrain station instead of waiting for the Canadian government to try to upgrade the ROW. Too much traffic and such going on that doesn’t make Pacific Central a viable station and building the new station at Scotts Road would save nearly an estimated $2.8 billion dollars and the ride would only be 27 minutes long. While it isn’t exactly city center, it is better than having to wait 2+ hours for various freight trains, slow orders, etc.

      8. Thanks, Brian, for all that great detail. One question – if I’m reading you right, even *if* the Canadian governments (province and federal) decided they wanted to get 110mph service into Vancouver, you’re saying the stretch from the border through White Rock would be substantially slower than that?

  6. It is embarrassing that our federal government does not provide the funding related to providing CBSA services for a second Amtrak train. The federal government spends billions on roads. Amtrak have very clear plans to upgrade the line. You can see those plans on our website
    thanks, Paul Langan, Founder High Speed Rail Canada

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