In late June, the City of White Rock announced that it was unable to make progress in convincing Amtrak to have its passenger trains stop in the city.
The issue drew some media attention, but as there have been no passenger trains stopping in the city for almost 40 years, few people gave it a second thought.
What was missing from this announcement and the earlier discussions with Amtrak was backing from the City of Surrey. Surrey, White Rock and surrounding areas have a population of about 600,000 people, and there is no doubt that Amtrak would be accessible to many more potential customers with a stop somewhere in the area.
In the spring, I gained an interesting personal perspective on this. A group of us, mostly from Surrey, travelled from Vancouver to Seattle on an overnight cruise. It turned out that one of the best ways to get back was via Amtrak, which now operates two daily trains in each direction between Seattle and Vancouver.
We boarded the evening train that leaves Seattle just before 7 p.m. Before booking tickets, we looked into travelling to Vancouver, or getting off the train in Bellingham, the last stop before Vancouver. It was a no-brainer.
By getting off in Bellingham at 9 p.m., we were all able to get home by about 10:30 p.m. The Amtrak train doesn’t even arrive in Vancouver until almost 11 p.m., and then passengers must clear customs and immigration. When that is complete, any passengers from Surrey face another 30 to 45 minutes travel back to an area the train already passed through.
Not too many Surrey passengers will be willing to do that. It’s easier to drive.
The trains have good passenger loads between Bellingham and Seattle, with fewer passengers travelling all the way to Vancouver. Undoubtedly, the added length of the trip and the need to clear customs keeps some people away.
That’s why a stop somewhere in the general Surrey area would make so much sense, and would boost ridership. However, as noted when White Rock Mayor Catherine Ferguson announced the lack of progress on making White Rock a stop, there are a number of contributing factors.
One is that Amtrak does not want to make the trip any longer. Another is that track conditions on the Canadian side of the border need improvement, and no level of government is interested in putting any money into that.
The third complication is the need to clear customs. It would be possible for Canadian customs officials to clear passengers while the train is travelling northwards, if Canada Border Services Agency were so inclined.
The train is only a viable alternative if the trip can be made in decent time. That’s why it made so much sense for our group to get off in Bellingham, and make arrangements to be picked up there. Our trip from downtown Seattle to home didn’t take too much longer than if we had driven that distance.
If all those details could be worked out, an Amtrak stop somewhere along the BNSF rail line between the border and the Alex Fraser Bridge could be a boon to Amtrak, and a real benefit to Surrey, White Rock and Delta residents.
It may not happen any time soon, but it is a very worthwhile long-term objective.