Pacific Central Station (wikimedia)

[UPDATE: In one of my more egregious posting errors, I failed to properly read the blockquote, which includes the feds, therefore defeating the whole thesis of the post. I suppose it didn’t really matter, because you all just wanted an excuse to argue more about this issue anyway.]

It’s odd to be arguing on behalf of the Canadian Federal Government, and I suppose I’m editorializing about the use of taxes I don’t pay, but I don’t think this factoid makes the point the writer thinks it makes:

The economic benefit to British Columbia in its first year of operation is estimated at $11.8 million…

Is Ottawa so short-sighted that it cannot see the idiocy of putting this service in jeopardy in order to collect $550,000 a year? A recent study by the Border Policy Research Institute of Western Washington University in Bellingham determined that Canada’s federal, provincial and municipal governments collect an extra $1.9 million in sales taxes and hotel room taxes from the additional tourists the second train delivers.

If the study is correct, then funding the border inspection is absolutely a positive-sum enterprise for the public sector. The issue, though, is that the governments that benefit are not the ones that are laying out the cash.

[update: the editorial is right.]

To me, it seems straightforward enough that “provincial and municipal governments” should turn a 300% profit by coughing up the money themselves. That’s not to say the federal government shouldn’t be subsidizing passenger rail more than it is, but in the absence of that subsidy replacing it with a local one should be a no-brainer.

41 Replies to “The Amtrak Border Fee”

    1. They actually get only about 70 passengers per day on that 2nd Amtrak train. If this is true 365 days per year, that would be about 26,000 passengers per year. So, that actually comes to about $21 per passenger ticket price increase. Of course, the tickets don’t come close to paying for the cost of operating the trains, either.

  1. I always have to laugh about articles like this. Those figures mentioned assume that NONE of those 70 train passengers per day would go to Canada if those trains were eliminated. Does anyone belive that is actually the case? All 70 of those passengers each day went to Canada just so they could ride that train? Not one of them would still go to Canada on a bus, or in a car, if those trains ceased to operate?

    Isn’t that sort of like saying that the few thousand people per day who ride Link to SeaTac airport would not go to the airport if Link stopped operating (as it is not operating at this moment, due to another accident on the line)? Wouldn’t most, and perhaps, all, of those people taking Link to SeaTac still be going to SeaTac by bus or some other mode, if Link had not been built?

    So, Martin, or someone else, how many of those 70 passengers per day who take the 2nd Amtrak train into Canada would still go to Canada by some other means if that train were eliminated? What is your estimate? And, from all those who would still go by some other means, Canada would lose zero revenues, because those people would still go to Canada and still spend their money in Canada, even if they had to take a bus, or drive. Right?

    1. You make a fair point, but at least in my case the train option does affect my behavior. I’m in Vancouver usually twice a month, and when I take the train I typically spend more time and money while there, usually staying 2 nights. When I rent a car I’m much more tempted into a daytrip in which I invariably spend less money. Since I know you love ridership anecdotes, in my limited experience the CanTrail buses Amtrak runs are usually mostly empty, despite being 30-60 minutes faster than the train, reflecting a pretty convincing modal bias toward rail by tourists. No one is arguing that the skeletal Amtrak service we currently have is a slam-dunk in terms of absolute passenger volume, but its relative growth in load factor over the last year is pretty impressive. It’s popular despite its poor scheduling and it deserves enough investment to reach its near-term potential to carry 1,000/day or more, which would be pretty good for an intercity service, equivalent to 10 Horizon flights.

      1. So, you consider 70 passengers per day going into Canada on that 2nd train “popular”? By what standard? How many people per day go into Canada by other means?

      2. Again, popular not by the standard of total passenger volume but by the ridership’s sensitivity to increased service levels. Comparing July 2010 to July 2009, for instance, the availability of the second train significantly increased demand on 513 (36.6%), 516 (33.4%), 510 (26.8%), and 517(25.2%). Of course the total volume is still a pittance compared to auto travel, but it’s not an adequate basis for comparison. The added service has been popular insofar as its ridership has increased beyond baseline expectations, clearly indicating demand for more service. 70 people isn’t much, but a 250-seat train isn’t much either.

      3. “demand for more service”? You mean the trains are completely filled? If there are empty seats, then clearly there is not enough demand for the service that is currently available.

      4. The second train option almost influenced me. I had been planning to go to Vancouver because of the times offered by the second train, but I won’t have time to do so before the end of October.

    2. “Those figures mentioned assume that NONE of those 70 train passengers per day would go to Canada if those trains were eliminated. Does anyone belive that is actually the case?”

      Yes. The majority of trips seem to be tourism trips and other discretionary trips — without the train most would probably just stay home or go somewhere else.

      This might be very different if the route was significantly faster — and the speed issues are practically all on the northern side of the border.

      70 people per train doesn’t sound that great, but it’s worth noticing that the train hasn’t been running very long (no time to build up ridership), and that the schedule is non-competitive thanks to the poor track conditions north of the border. Unfortunately there’s a chicken-and-egg problem: nobody is willing to improve the tracks north of the border until there’s more than one train running….

  2. I read that study by WWU and noticed a lack of mention of two areas where Canada would take an economic hit from more Amtrak service — (1) Canadians riding the train south to spend their dollars in the U.S. rather than in Canada, and (2) diversion of travelers from the two Canadian-owned intercity bus companies on the Seattle-Vancouver run, QuickCoach and Cantrail. (Our Greyhound is the third provider, a lower quality ride than provided by the Canadian companies.) (Cantrail operates to Seattle under a relationship with Amtrak to fill in schedule gaps in train service.)

    While I think Canada subsidizing trains providing benefit to USA is a perfectly fine idea, I understand that our northern friends might not feel the same generosity given the issues in my previous paragraph.

    What really upsets me is a completely broke State of Washington subsidizing a potentially luxury, scenic service that I believe should be fully covered by fares. Relatively wealthy tourists from around the world would be happy to pay higher fares for riding along the Puget Sound shore on the Amtrak Cascades to Canada, especially if they could order meals not wrapped in cellophane and heated by microwave.

    We ordinary blokes looking for a more affordable transit ride could take one of the daily 15 or so inter-city buses in a competitive market that Canadian Border Services Agency processes at the “Truck Crossing” every day. It totally torques me off when I cross there occasionally on a bus in the evening to think that this agency should divert personnel from that busy crossing up to the Vancouver train station to meet a single evening train from Seattle.

    I’m not anti transit overall; I’m anti transit that costs taxpayers too much for what it delivers.

    1. What about all the Canadians driving to the US to spend money here? The Canadian government has no problem with spending money to provide customs services to support that behavior.

      1. The issue is not the 24 X 7 staffed road crossings dealing with massive flows of travelers in cars, buses, and trucks, but rather the incremental special coverage at the Vancouver train station for one daily evening train arriving.

      2. John,

        The CBSA staff for the train station are taxi-cabbed over to the train station from either the YVR Airport or the Port Metro Vancouver piers which are both staffed 24/7 by CBSA. It is not that far from the Pacific Central Station from either locales.

      3. “The issue is not the 24 X 7 staffed road crossings dealing with massive flows of travelers in cars, buses, and trucks,”

        Yes. Yes it is. The train could perfectly well stop at the border and demand that Canadian Border Services check them right there (the train tracks are very close to the road crossing). But noooo, Border Services insists on doing something else. And then insists on charging an outrageous fee for it.

    2. While I oppose the fee on principle because I believe it reflects a modal bias exclusively against rail on the part of CBSA (do they charge the once-daily Anacortes to Sidney boat?), I think you’re right about two things:

      (1. We should recognize that diverting border guards to Pacific Central at 10:50pm represents a legitimate staffing hardship, and we should work to either bring arrival times closer together, facilitate customs checks at the border itself, or expand the service sufficiently that CBSA deems it worth their while to have dedicated staff at Pacific Central.

      (2. I also agree, begrudgingly, that the quality of the service would be able to absorb the higher fares. Almost anyone with extensive experience on intercity rail abroad will tell you that $50 for a 250km trip is reasonable. Meals, wifi, leather seats, clean and larger bathrooms, alcohol, films, and scenery will beat Cantrail/Greyhound/QuickShuttle every time. When I lived the same distance from London as Vancouver is from Seattle, a $50 train would have been a bargain. Incidentally, a $50 base price would be cheaper than Quick Shuttle’s current pricing for its 5-hour ride.

      1. QuickShuttle’s current round trip commuter price, Seattle Space Needle to a Skytrain station in downtown Vancouver, come back within a week, is $51 US or Canadian money.

      2. I think the train times can’t be adjusted much without getting Canada to improve the track north of the border, if I remember the studies rightly.

    3. The idea that the train should cover all its operating costs presumes that automobiles and buses currently cover all their costs, which we know is untrue. Cheap bus fares may be covering the direct cost of paying off the bus, buying fuel and paying the driver; but the cheap fares aren’t covering the cost of building and maintaining the roadways, the cost of policing the roads or the environmental costs of pollution. Demanding that passenger railroads be unsubsidized while continuing to subsidize the cost of driving is unsustainable and foolish.

    4. I’m anti transit that costs taxpayers too much for what it delivers.

      What about other things, like the deep bore tunnel?

  3. Are they charging people a fee when driving over the border?

    Last time I went across, I didn’t pay the customs officials.

    And speaking of subsidies, the ‘ridership’ of I-5 and other border crossing routes surely isn’t covered by ‘gas tax’ portion of fuel they burn.

    It’s covered because I’m taxed $300/yr in gas tax to support maintenance and other infrastructure improvements, of which I rarely use.

    Toll the roads, and eliminate the gas tax, and then we can see who pays for what.

    There are other ways to do customs checks at the border on the train, so why the bias against rail?

    1. I would imagine that the U.S. and Canada both feel that the amount of commerce provided by I-5 is worth what it costs for customs at the border on that highway.

      At the same time, Canada clearly feels that the amount it costs for customs for 70 Amtrak passengers per day is not worth it.

      Maybe you should try to figure out the customs cost per person on I-5 vs the second Amtrak train. There may be a hint there.

      1. Based on ridership 50 years from now?

        The highway crossing has been subsidized for years.

        But I’ve come the conclusion that rather than ‘saving money’ by supposedly not supporting the second train, (and therefore not subsidizing the first year ridership,) you’re just fine with the rest of us getting taxed enough to support the road crossing.

      2. Just wondering, why does the State of Washington build and maintain an interstate-standard highway north of Bellingham? There aren’t that many trips from the rest of the USA or Washington State to Blaine,WA with Blaine as the final destination. Even Point Roberts does not justify the investment.

  4. The GST is a federal sales tax, not a provincial or municipal one. A large portion of that sales tax is GST, and thus goes to the feds. So it’s not a 300% increase to those governements, and it’s likely nearly revenue-neutral for the Canadian feds.

  5. As others have said, the modal discrimination is what annoys me most about this move. Funny enough, the US government has its own form of modal discrimination against airline travelers. Fly from Canada to the US, and you’ll cough up a $5 US Dept of Agriculture fee, and a $7 immigration fee, neither of which are levied to passengers who arrive by road or rail.

  6. Washington State has spent a few hundred million dollars on the Amtrak Cascades, which includes not just the Seattle to Vancouver route but the Seattle to Portland route. How much money has the BC Provincial government spent to improve the route in BC? While I would argue that customs and border expenses are a federal expense for either government, why doesn’t BC pay the $550k itself? Has anyone suggested this idea in Vancouver or Victoria?

    1. “How much money has the BC Provincial government spent to improve the route in BC?”

      Practically none. This is actually a sore point — WSDOT reports have been sounding more and more irritated about it as the years go on. There’s a list of improvement which need to be made north of the border, in priority order (just like there is south of the border). Half of them are higher-priority than a number of the improvements already built by WSDOT south of the border. None of them have been funded yet by BC or Canada; they remain unbuilt so far.

    2. Respectively: very little, the dysfunctionality of transit planning at the provincial level and probably not.

  7. BOTH governments have just spent plenty of money to build new border crossings at the Peace Arch, and the train runs right past them…

    IS it really so difficult to have the train stop there and have border agents walk through?

  8. OK… Here is an example of penny wise and pound very foolish. For more than 25 years agri-tourism in the Skagit Valley has been pushed by the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival. State, county and city have all investing is bringing guests to the region. The 350,000 to half million visitors are a huge fiscal shot in the arm in April to the region. Weather plays a huge factor in the success of the event, so every good weather day counts big.

    So you can imagine the frustration when folks found out two years back that more than 60 tour busses, each with eager-to-spend groups of about 45 to 50 Canadians TURNED AROUND AT THE BORDER and NEVER CAME ACROSS due to multiple-hour long waits and lines.

    Thats 2,400 admissions, 2,400 lunches purchased, 2,400 dinners, and that does not include sales tax on purchases…

    Now before you respond with they were too impatient, remember that a bus driver can only drive so many total hours in a day. If they had 2 hours from Hope to the Border, then lost 2-3 hours waiting, they would run out of time to legally drive back. SIXTY coaches that we know of had to turn around.

    Boarder crossing is good business for BOTH sides. Money lost on one side or the other is eventually balanced out. Anything that impedes it costs far more money.

    There should be a full cross board train in BOTH directions first thing in the AM and at the end of the day. I see need for 4 trains, not just 2. Until they are offered (and without the BUS connector) it just slows the inertia.

    The second train is still not enough. And shifting to the bus is just another hurdle. Better than no service at all, but takes more time and the added change is a dis-incentive, especially in bad weather or if traveling with luggage, children etc.

    There IS truth to the old cliche, if you build it, they will come…

    1. Absolutely true. And the plans for four trains require major north-of-the-border track improvements. And Canada simply hasn’t been willing to build any of them.

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