U.S.-Canada border deal improves Amtrak service to Bellingham

Dec 15, 2011

The Bellingham Herald

By Jared Paben

December 15, 2011

Amtrak Cascades passengers will enjoy more reliable southbound service into Bellingham because U.S. border agents will conduct security inspections in Vancouver, B.C., rather than along the tracks in Blaine.

A recently released agreement between President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will require U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to screen passengers before the train leaves Vancouver.

Currently, southbound passengers undergo agriculture and immigration eligibility checks in Vancouver, but the train later stops on the tracks at the border for a security screening.

"Just as pre-clearance at the airports has worked so effectively, we think this will be a big boon both for passengers and customer service, as well as individual officers," said Bruce Agnew, director of the Cascadia Center for Regional Development, which has encouraged improved cross-border rail service. "I think ridership will continue to improve if you reduce southbound travel time for passengers."

The change could cut southbound trips by as much as 20 minutes, Agnew said.

More than 4,900 passengers headed south boarded Amtrak Cascades trains at the Vancouver station in October, a 6.4 percent increase over October 2010, according to the state Department of Transportation.

In Bellingham, more than 4,800 people got on and off the trains both northbound and southbound, a 5.7 percent increase over October 2010.

John Sibold, acting director of the department's rail and marine office, said that if border security inspections take longer than is built into the train schedule, service south to Seattle can be delayed. Trains can miss slots for passing other trains on siding tracks, requiring trains to wait for other passenger or freight trains to pass.

"It's not just the pre-clearance, it's really what it does for us in maintaining our schedule," Sibold said.

"We're extremely pleased to see this," he added. "Key to the success of passenger rail service is reliability."

According to the Beyond the Border agreement between the two countries, details of the new procedures will be negotiated and worked out by the end of 2012.

The U.S. doesn't currently conduct pre-clearance in Vancouver because Canada must empower the U.S. border agency to operate at the station, and it hasn't done that, Agnew said. In this case, after pre-clearance is implemented, suspects caught by U.S. agents would be handed over to Canadian police, he said.

Agnew credited Democratic U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, for working on a provision of law in 2008 that directed Amtrak to plan for pre-clearance in Vancouver. That laid the groundwork, allowing Obama and Harper to say it has been thoroughly vetted, Agnew said.