Passenger Rail in Whatcom County
Yesterday I went to a meeting of All Aboard Washington “a consumer transportation advocacy group, comprised of nearly 500 people who have a goal of preserving and expanding passenger rail service in the state of Washington”. They had invited Transport Action BC to attend the meeting, as much of it concerned the operation of Amtrak Cascades. They meet monthly and the meeting at the University of Western Washington in Bellingham had around 50 people, I estimated. Invitations had also gone to BC officials but only one attended, Councillor Grant Meyer of White Rock, who gave a short presentation on the proposed real relocation project. Surrey MLA Marvin Hunt had been expected to attend, but he sent his apologies. Speculation was that he had been instructed not to appear, and certainly speaking of a looming election here (next May) when one is happening next month in the US seemed inappropriate.
I have managed to find some of the materials from the presentations, so that you will not have to rely on my rather rusty note taking.
Lloyd Flem AAW’s long serving Executive Director opened the meeting with a short history of Passenger Trains to Bellingham. Much of this will be familiar to readers here, so I will just mention some highlights. The Washington State talks of an objective of 4 trains a day between Seattle and Vancouver BC by 2035, but 13 between Seattle and Portland OR. The challenge lies in the capacity of the single track line from Everett through Mount Vernon to Blaine, and the lack of investment north of the border. BC did spend $7m on a slip at Colebrook as a contribution to get the second Cascades service in time for the Olympics. Unlike Washington and Oregon, BC provides no operating subsidy for the service. Considerable work was achieved on the line due to the reallocation of High Speed Rail funds after Florida decided not to proceed. The route between Vancouver and Portland is identified by the US as part of its desired HSR initial network, and that has been endorsed by both the BC Premier and WA State Governor.
The Asia Pacific Gateway was cited as an example of Canada’s commitment to infrastructure spending. Nine rail overpasses were built over the Roberts Bank corridor as part of the billions spent on port expansion. The use of P3 funding was also mentioned. The future of the passenger rail is that there will be no further HSR money, and no capital funds from Olympia but it might be possible to upgrade the capacity and provide some overpasses through the colocation of utilities such as water mains and fibre optic cable in the right of way.
Bruce Agnew of Cascadia Academy and Bob Lawrence of AAWA spoke about the possibility of a third train to serve the line between Bellingham and Seattle. This would replace the current bus and would increase the utilisation of existing equipment. Ridership from Bellingham is currently 51,000 by train, 13,000 by bus and is the 6th busiest station on the service, and the 7th highest revenue. There has been a decline in travel in recent years on the bus service.
Laurie Trautman, Director of the Border Policy Research Institute (WWU) spoke about the proposal to introduce pre-clearance for passengers in Vancouver. There is a pdf of the study as a research brief. Currently there is pre-inspection for immigration only as the result of an informal agreement: pre-clearance requires legislation. This is mainly about protection and liability issues affecting armed TSA staff operating in Canada and requires Congressional approval. [Nothing specifically was said, but I was left with the impression that this is highly unlikely.] The five border crossings between Point Roberts and Sumas are some of the busiest crossings on the border, but travel has been much affected by the exchange rate. 80% of the cross border trips are made by Canadians, with shopping the primary purpose of 31% of them.
There was a presentation on student travel at WWU which I think is of little interest to readers here. Essentially, use of transit has been increased by the introduction of a UPass which has also seen increases in local transit services to meet demand. There is an identified need for a better connected passenger rail system across the state to better meet the needs of post secondary students – and others.
Students at WWU have conducted a feasibility study of adding an additional stop at Blaine station. There is a pdf of their report on the AAWA site.
There is a population of over 1m living south of the Fraser River who have a shorter drive time to Blaine than Pacific Central Station in Vancouver, shown by the red line on this map
The train schedule time is currently 4 hours 25 minutes compared to 2 hour 50 drive time. The train departure time of 6am is also unattractive to people facing a two hour drive and the need to arrive early for immigration inspection. Train departure time of 8am from Blaine would be more attractive and parking would be easier and cheaper. SkyTrain does not provide a service which integrates conveniently with Amtrak. The students used an on line survey which had 1,000 responses. 70% of Canadian respondents said they had not used the train as it was too far to the station in Vancouver, too expensive and inconvenient. Unfortunately this was a self selected sample and therefore cannot be held to be representative of the broader population. [It made me wonder if there had been similar issues with stated preference surveys used to support the case for tolled road bridges in the same area.]
Relocation of rail in White Rock has long been a discussion in the area, but now seems likely to move forward. The cities of Surrey and White Rock have agreed to make an application to the federal government under the Railroad Relocation and Crossing Act. [This article in the Peace Arch News gives some insight into the provincial attitude and is fairly recent.]
The current shoreline route is vulnerable to sea level rise and more extreme weather events due to climate change. There have been landslides (4 to 5 a year) and erosion along the route and the increasing number of trains, between 16 and 20 day some with 120 or more cars, gives concern for pedestrian safety. The carriage of dangerous goods is also a concern in the light of the Lac Megantic disaster. The community in Crescent Beach gets physically cut off when a train stops on its crossing, and an overpass there is both cost prohibitive and would have a huge impact. Trespass on the railway is frequent but may be reduced by the extension of the walkway from its present 2.2km to 3.3km: a lease amendment request has been made to BNSF.
The four possible routes shown here have three options which would require rail relocation in Blaine, which may be a significant issue there. The fourth, westernmost alignment, while requiring expensive tunneling would avoid the need to relocate track in Washington. While the initial studies have been done more work is required to produce the full cost benefit analysis required by the CTA. Prime Minister Trudeau’s interest in increased infrastructure spending was cited as a reason for optimism.
The relocation of the track would produce at least 15 minutes of travel time savings on the passenger service. The loss of the scenic ride along the current route seemed a reasonable trade off.
UPDATE December 10, 2016
The Bill to allow preclearance has now passed both House and Senate