All aboard: a tale of two trains leaving the Lower Mainland. It should be a no-brainer for anyone wanting to travel from Vancouver to Seattle: Take the train and avoid hassles at the border or the long wait at the airport. But as The Sun's Daphne Bramham reports, the Amtrak service currently available leaves much to be desired. The struggling rail line has said it may fold if it doesn't get financial assistance from the U.S. government.
Daphne Bramham Vancouver Sun Monday, September 16, 2002
The Amtrak Cascades train is capable of hitting 200 kilometres per hour but never gets the chance to go over 120 kilometres per hour on the Vancouver-Seattle trip.
ON BOARD AMTRAK CASCADES -- It's tough being an Amtrak employee. Not only is there the question of how much longer the trains are going to run, Amtrak employees spend an inordinate amount of time apologizing.
On a Vancouver-Seattle round-trip, the apologies started moments after the train's scheduled departure time of 6 p.m. The Via Rail train was late leaving and that meant the Amtrak Cascades couldn't pull out of the station.
The next apology came in the dining car Sorry, we're running out of food. Forget the five different entrees on the menu, there are only two choices. Scrambled eggs left over from the morning run into Vancouver and a pasta with grilled vegetables that the conductor had warned me against. Leftover eggs? Pasta? (I chose the pasta, which wasn't as bad as the conductor suggested.)
From what the waiters said, Amtrak runs out of food all the time. On the return trip in the morning, they ran out of eggs even though there were fewer passengers than usual -- 115 out of a possible load of 240.
On the return trip, the train left 30 minutes later than after its scheduled 7:45 a.m. departure. Apologies all around. The engine needed some overnight maintenance.
Just outside Everett, the train stopped The conductor said: "We're stopped because of freight traffic. As you know we're not the owners of the tracks. That's Burlington Northern. But we do apologize for the delay."
The delay is about 15 minutes. That's 15 minutes added to a four-hour trip that on a good day with little traffic at the border, you could make in about three hours in a car.
The frustrating thing for Amtrak employees and travellers is that this isn't supposed to happen. By law, Amtrak has the right of way. In reality, the freight train operators have goods to move and, hey, they own the tracks. So, while we waited on a siding, a Burlington Northern-Santa Fe freight train rumbled past.
By the time we crossed the border, the train had made up some time. The Italian-built Talgo train can hit 120 kilometres per hour in parts of Washington where the tracks and rail beds have been upgraded. That, by the way, is still well below the train's maximum speed of 200 kilometres per hour on dedicated tracks.
But then the apologies started again. The one and only rickety, narrow rail bridge across the Fraser River at New Westminster is a drawbridge and there were barges going through. We sat and waited 15 minutes.
Just into Burnaby we slowed to a crawl. More apologies. Again, not Amtrak's fault, the conductor said. Burlington Northern-Santa Fe, which owns the track, was doing maintenance.
Finally, less than a kilometre from the station, we heard what should have been a private conversation between the trainman and the conductor. It was no doubt broadcast for the passengers to hear to avoid yet another apology.
Seems Amtrak couldn't get the Via Rail people on the line. "They don't seem to want us to come into the station," one said.
The train arrived in Vancouver an hour late, five hours after leaving Seattle. Could we get out? Nope. The Amtrak crew apologized. Canada Customs takes only one carload at a time. Business class goes first.
The crew apologize so often, you'd almost think they were Canadian.
If this were Europe, it's unlikely there would be anywhere near these problems -- nor should there be. Even with Amtrak near bankruptcy, even with a ridiculous schedule out of Vancouver that makes it impossible to go to Seattle in the morning and back at night, this is one of Amtrak's best and most-travelled routes. Imagine what it could be like if it were well-organized, well-financed and well-run.
It seems almost impossible to believe that someone can't run an efficient, economical service from Vancouver to Portland with connections to Chicago and Los Angeles. The lineups at the Peace Arch border crossing alone indicate there are lots of people who go back and forth.
There certainly seems to be the population -- just under two million people in Greater Vancouver, 3.5 million in metropolitan Seattle and 2.3 million in metropolitan Portland -- and all three continue to grow.
But right now, there's no incentive to take the train from Vancouver. The schedule is simply stupid. The single Vancouver departure is at night and the lone Seattle departure is in the morning.
It means if you want to take Amtrak, you must stay at least two nights there. And while it may seem that the Seattle Hotels Association is running the service, at least some of this is British Columbia's fault.
For nearly a decade, Amtrak has wanted to make a deal to run two trains a day, with morning and evening departures. But it wanted some help with the costs, since Washington, Oregon and California all pony up considerable sums each year for everything from track upgrades to buying the train cars.
B.C. has refused. What makes it worth even considering? You don't have to wait in hot, exhaust-choked lineups at the border. At Blaine, U.S. Customs officers board the train, check for proof of citizenship and collect customs declaration forms. All told, on that particular night, it took just seven minutes.
At $60 US round-trip, it would be much cheaper than flying if you didn't have to stay two nights in a Seattle hotel. Even pre-Sept. 11, taking the train was a lot less hassle than flying. I booked my ticket on the Internet for the 6 p.m. train and picked it up at 5:20 p.m. in the beautifully redone Central Pacific Station near Main Street and Terminal Avenue. At another counter, I got my seat assignment and went directly to a waiting U.S. immigration officer.
Security is tighter now than before Sept. 11. But again, there was no lineup -- a blessed relief from the hour-long wait in April at Los Angeles Airport for a short-hop flight from there to San Francisco.
I didn't have to take off my shoes or prove my laptop computer really works. The security guard didn't confiscate the tweezers and nail clippers in my bag -- but then Amtrak also lets you eat dinner with a metal knife and fork.
Another advantage for people who simply must travel with 15 pairs of shoes or seven daily changes of clothes is that there are few luggage restrictions on the train. There are no raised eyebrows here if you show up with a trunk. There are even red-capped porters ready to help.
The scenery is spectacular.
If you've ever taken Chuckanut Drive, extrapolate that to travelling kilometre-after-kilometre right along the water's edge without worrying about the blind curves or approaching cars. In fact, you can just enjoy the scenery while you sip on a glass of wine
Washington state officials say the old NDP government was close to signing an agreement. But that's fallen apart now that the Liberals are in power. Passenger rail is not the government's priority, at least not now. However, there is a possibility it could be linked to the Vancouver bid for the 2010 Olympics.
On the other side of the border, there's a possibility that passenger service might be linked to improving homeland security following last fall's terrorist attacks.
But here's the reality check. Cost estimates for improving passenger service from Vancouver to Eugene, Ore. range from $4 billion US to $75 billion US.
On the Canadian side of the border, the upgrades start at $20 million and could cost as much as $600 million over 17 years for upgrading roadbeds, sidings, tunnelling through residential areas and replacing the bridge over the Fraser River.
It's a huge amount, and it may very well not be worth it.
Daphne Bramham can be reached at email@example.com
TODAY: Train lovers battle to save Amtrack
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Thread: Amtrak Services
09-17-2002, 03:56 PM #1
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Amtrak ServicesIf you don't do it RIGHT today, when will you have time to do it over? (Hall of Fame basketball player/coach John Wooden)
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10-03-2002, 03:41 AM #2
It all comes down to Training I guess.
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Look at three of your friends, if they are ok, your it.
10-03-2002, 10:56 AM #3
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AMTRAK Bureacracy is it's own worst enemy. I could take up a large and valuable portion of your life with horror stories of trying to work with these people on anything. I've worked on a number of bridges that go over the Northeast Rail Corridor and trying to coordinate work with this agency requires the patience of St. Francis. If they approach their day to day operations with the same attitude, it's not a mystery why they are having financial problems.Chris Minick, P.E., Firefighter II
Structures Specialist, MD-TF 1
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