Amtrak stop proposed for Blaine, WA

Blaine BNSF station

The topic of an additional stop for Amtrak trains between Vancouver and Bellingham, WA has finally caught the attention of local media.

The need has existed for a long time. People who live in New Westminster, Surrey, and Delta who want to take a train to Seattle or Portland have to either travel to downtown Vancouver in order to catch a train that takes them right back out to New Westminster, Surrey, or Delta, or get a ride to Bellingham and catch the train there.

A possible solution has come for for this because of a seemingly unrelated event. Burlington Northern Santa Fe owns the train station building in Blaine, WA. It's 100 years old, in a state of disrepair, and hasn't been used as a passenger stop since 1980. BNSF announced a plan to demolish it, and people in Blaine decided that this was a bad idea. Not so much because of heritage value of the building, but because they recognize that access to passenger rail service would be beneficial to the community.

The station is within walking distance of the Peace Arch border crossing, although it would seem to be further if you're carrying heavy luggage. It should be possible to arrange secure parking for those people in Surrey, Delta, etc. would would like to catch a train in Blaine, and leave their car there for a few days.

However, customs clearance of trains is an important related issue. Southbound trains from Vancouver currently get inspected twice; once before leaving Vancouver, and again next to this Blaine station that's under discussion. Bruce Agnew, the executive director of the Seattle-based Cascadia Center for Regional Development, is saying that the inspection at Blaine could be eliminated. The new Beyond the Border agreement between Canada and the US makes it possible for the US to put customs staff in Vancouver. (See U.S./Canada border agreement could improve Amtrak inspection times in The Northern Light)

Hold on just a minute here, Bruce. The “need” you refer to for custom clearances at Vancouver's Pacific Central Station was used by the Harper government (you know, those people that just negotiated this Beyond the Border agreement) as a impediment to increasing Amtrak's Vancouver service. Because Canada Customs has to move agents from the Vancouver airport or one of the border crossings to clear trains, they wanted to pass the cost of this along to Amtrak.

It's also a fact that there are already US customs staff at the Pacific Central Station. How has this Beyond the Border agreement changed anything?

The Pacific Central Station clearances have also been used as a justification for not having Amtrak stops at New Westminster, Scott Road in Surrey, and White Rock.

Would it not be more sensible to build a customs shed as part of the renovation of the Blaine station (which needs to happen anyway, if Blaine does indeed become an Amtrak stop), and just eliminate the customs operation at Pacific Central Station?

According to Agnew, having the custom clearance at the Pacific Central Station would give Amtrak Cascades travel times a greater degree of certainty. This contradicts my personal experience. I've had many experiences with trains that have been delayed for departure or arrival because of customs problems, and with one exception, the problem has been at Pacific Central Station, not Blaine. The important thing I'm trying to get across here is, let's do those cost-benefit analyses, and make the most sensible choice.

One additional related note: White Rock's station is now a lightly used museum, and it's likely to remain one. I've seen a plan by BNSF to relocate their tracks to bypass White Rock. If you have a vision of the future that includes high-speed train service between Vancouver and Portland, those high-speed trains won't be meandering through Crescent Beach.

Blaine Station Restoration site:

Story by Jeff Nagel in The Tri-City News: B.C. allies back Blaine Amtrak station

Story from News1130: Potential Amtrak stop in Blaine touted

Update on January 10: I'm typing this on train #516 from Vancouver, BC to Tacoma. This train left Vancouver 13 minutes late because of the customs clearance discussed above, so I'm providing more first-hand evidence that the customs clearance at the Pacific Central Station is a bad idea that should be discarded.

A potential passenger with a ticket showed up at 6:32 AM, and was turned away. Why? Because the entrance to the customs area closes at 6:30 AM. (The train leaves at 6:40.) He was turned away even though it was already 6bvious that the train would not be leaving at the scheduled time.

I hate it when things like this happen. This is yet another person who will probably be driving to Seattle next time.