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Whistler Rail Tours, Via Rail partner in Sea to Sky route

Via Rail has jumped on board a partnership with Whistler Rail Tours that is set to bring back passenger rail service in the Sea to Sky corridor.

Via Rail has jumped on board a partnership with Whistler Rail Tours that is set to bring back passenger rail service in the Sea to Sky corridor.

The operating agreement was signed the night before the Chamber of Commerce lunch meeting last Thursday, where representatives from Whistler Rail Tours and Via Rail talked passionately about the prospects of their joint project.

"We at Via Rail are very excited about this newfound partnership," said Ali Macaraeg, manager of market development west for Via Rail Canada.

"It is a great idea for tourism."

At the heart of this "great idea" is the Whistler name brand he said, which is synonymous with world class skiing and a successful mountain resort.

"Capitalizing on Whistler’s fame is key to this," said Macaraeg.

Macaraeg used passenger rail examples in Alberta to illustrate his point.

Rail trips to Banff are not hard to sell he said. On the other hand trips to the lesser-known Jasper are a little harder to market. But with the right programs, marketing and branding, Via Rail has been able to draw people to Jasper via train.

‘Christmas in November’ is a program designed to bring people to the Jasper Park Lodge to learn about new ideas for Christmas crafts and presents. Last year 800 people participated in the program. This year that number has more than doubled to date.

Another initiative was the Winter Touring to Jasper train which was designed to promote the Marmot ski resort as well as market Jasper as a winter wonderland. About four years ago Via decided to revive the program and re-brand it as the Snow Train to Jasper and since then ridership has increased 300 per cent.

Macaraeg said these are just some of examples of what Via Rail and Whistler Rail Tours can do in the future, particularly in light of the fact that there is currently an "unstoppable renaissance in passenger rail," he said.

Under the new operating agreement Via Rail will provide the train crews and maintenance of the equipment and Whistler Rail Tours will provide luxury touring rail cars.

Their goal is to target the 1.125 million cruise ship guests who begin or end their cruise in Vancouver. Almost 750,000 cruise ship guests either embark or disembark in Vancouver.

Less than half of those guests (about 42 per cent) extend their visit in Vancouver by two nights, spending $150 a day.

One the other hand, 12 per cent of passengers extend their cruise in Alaska for almost six days and they spend on average $278 per person each day. Currently only one per cent comes to Whistler and seven per cent visit other areas in B.C.

Whistler Rail Tours wants to target that 42 per cent market visiting Vancouver and bring them up to Whistler.

They estimate a $391 million annual spin-off in the economy if they can capture the entire market.

Whistler Rail Tours has formed strategic partnerships to help them realize their goals.

They plan to market their rail tours through an Internet marketing firm called One to One Interactive, targeting the cruise ship customers.

Through a Web site and e-mails, cruise passengers can check out some other travel options that are available to them on their holiday.

Another ally in their project is CruiseShipCenters who have 23 per cent of the cruise market share in Canada. Four big names in the cruise ship industry, Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises, have also committed to feature Whistler Rail Tours packages in their Alaska Cruise brochures.

Along with One to One Interactive and CruiseShipCenters, there is also a Whistler-based component to the whole rail tour package – the Nita Lake Lodge Corporation.

The Nita Lake Lodge project will see a boutique lodge in Creekside and attached to the hotel, on the site of Whistler’s old train station, will be a brand new multi-million dollar train station.

The project has been waylaid in recent weeks after a neighbour threatened to file a lawsuit against the municipality, calling into question the land rezoning.

The bylaws are currently sitting at third reading.

Nita Lake Lodge developer John Haibeck, who was at the Chamber of Commerce lunch meeting, said he is hoping to start construction on the project next month, after council adopts the building bylaws.

But the vision and potential for this service doesn’t just stop at Whistler.

One of the reasons for striking a deal with Via Rail, in addition to their expertise as a major rail operator, is because there is a potential to join up with another Via Rail service if Whistler Rail Tours is successful.

Via Rail operates the Skeena rail line between Jasper, Prince George and Prince Rupert.

"(That) adds to the potential to build business and attract customers who will eventually come to Whistler," said Jennifer Beresford, director of business development for Whistler Rail Tours.

A new cruise ship terminal is being built in Prince Rupert, which will be operating next summer.

In the meantime, Whistler Rail Tours must wait until the provincial government decides which company will operate freight rail service on BC Rail tracks. That contract should be awarded by the end of the year.

Within that contract there is a proviso stating that third-party passenger train operators must be allowed to use the tracks. Whistler Rail Tours should know by the spring if they will be allowed to operate their passenger rail service between Whistler and Vancouver.

If successful there could be a commuter train component to Whistler Rail Tours at a different fare rate for residents in the Sea to Sky corridor.