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CN pegs September for tourist train announcement

Passenger rail service won’t start until at least 2006

Even if CN picks a company to run tourist train trips in and out of Whistler next month, people won’t be riding the rails until at least 2006.

Both Whistler Rail Tours and Rocky Mountaineer, the two companies short-listed to run tourist train service, are scheduled to make their final presentations to CN at the end of August.

Graham Dallas, director of communications, public affairs and advertising with CN, said their long-awaited decision would likely be announced in September.

"What that means is because of the lead time however, the proponents would obviously need to go out and have equipment manufactured and that manufacturing of tour train equipment does take some time," he said.

"You can’t go down to a store and just buy it off the shelf."

John Haibeck, of Whistler Rail Tours, confirmed that it would take 14 months to build the trains for his proposed service.

The year and a half lead time however will also give them time to get into the global market and promote their product.

"Who(ever) the winning proponent is would need some lead time to set up and develop marketing programs," said Dallas.

"You’ve got to make sure that the world knows of that new service."

CN delayed picking a proponent for the service until it had reached a consent agreement with Canada’s Competition Bureau regarding its long-term lease of the BC Rail line and facilities.

By mid-July however they had closed the $1-billion transaction.

This passenger rail service is just a small, independent component of CN’s huge freight business that stretches across Canada and into the United States and Mexico.

Though freight is their primary business, Dallas said the company has found ways to accommodate passenger rail as well.

They have relationships with Via Rail, Go Transit in Ontario and they work with Amtrak from Chicago to New Orleans.

Although freight traffic has seen a significant growth in the last few years he said that shouldn’t change the traffic volume on the Whistler line.

Currently three trains move north and three move south daily through Whistler.

"I would suggest the traffic there is fairly stable although there has been a significant increase over the last couple of years, particularly in forest products," said Dallas.

"Trains are such that you can essentially add volume to them as necessary."

This increase in freight traffic is however stopping their competition, Canadian Pacific Railways, from making any commitments to passenger service on its rail lines in the future.

"From CP’s perspective we’re a freight operation and given our capacity restrictions today, we really don’t have any room for passenger service," said Rick Poznikoff, community relations manager for CP.

"At this point with the recent growth of the Port of Vancouver and the world actually in rail traffic, we’re getting to the point where yes, we do need to look at how we can improve some of our infrastructure but that’s just to meet our freight trains.

"At this point it’s (passenger rail) not viable to us. Ticket prices would probably be a little higher than normal with fuel costs and what not and it’s slower then airplanes and automobiles."