Passenger rail service carries political freight

A little more than a year ago BC Rail ceased operation of its daily passenger service between North Vancouver and Prince George, as well as its luxury tourist trains. Today there are two private companies promising to respond to the request for proposals to operate a passenger train on the BC Rail line. A sign that private enterprise works? Perhaps.

In one corner there’s Whistler Railtours, led by John Haibeck who has been working for more than two years to tailor a package that includes the Nita Lake Lodge development, employee housing, a railway station in Whistler, and a luxury passenger train. As most people know, the rail portion of his plan focuses on the cruise ship industry as a primary source of passengers. Recently Whistler Railtours announced that it had partnered with VIA Rail to operate its passenger train.

Also vying for the right to provide passenger rail service on the CN-operated BC Rail line is the Great Canadian Railtour Company, led by Peter Armstrong. In 1989 Armstrong was the successful bidder for the Rocky Mountaineer service between Vancouver and the Rockies that VIA wanted to unload because it had been losing money. Armstrong turned the Rocky Mountaineer around, so to speak. The Great Canadian Railtour Company now makes money on the Rocky Mountaineer and Armstrong has won numerous accolades, including Canadian Venture Capital Association Entrepreneur of the Year, Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award for Tourism and Hospitality, and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal for contributions to Canadian communities.

Both companies propose to use special DMU trains built by the Colorado Railcar Company. Both see the cruise ship business as a primary source of customers, particularly with the new cruise ship port at Prince Rupert. Both proposals centre around providing a luxury rail service to tourists willing to pay for the experience. Commuter rail service is not at the heart of either proposal, although Haibeck has said adding a passenger car to provide service to communities along the rail line is very much a possibility. How often that service would be available is not clear.

By the middle of February one company will be awarded the opportunity to provide passenger service on the BC Rail line. The decision will be made by CN Rail, which last month won the rights to BC Rail’s remaining assets, and BC Rail. Interestingly, neither company can claim any expertise in passenger rail service.

Meanwhile the political manoeuvring is underway. VIA has announced it is interested in restoring the Vancouver-Calgary passenger rail route and notes its Skeena passenger train, between Jasper and Prince Rupert, could be co-ordinated with Whistler Railtour trains at Prince George. The Great Canadian Railtour Company has announced it is testing a Kootenay rail excursion through Cranbrook, Creston, Nelson, Castlegar and Trail.

The Liberal government in Victoria sees tourism as a big part of the province’s economic recovery in the years ahead. The Liberals have also stressed, repeatedly, the need to open up transportation routes and terminals to get the economy going. So the question, from the province’s perspective, in evaluating the Whistler Railtours and Great Canadian Railtour Company proposals should be: Which company is going to do the best job of generating tourism business?

The question for most communities along the BC Rail might, however, might be: Which company is more likely to provide a commuter rail service?

While the final decision is apparently up to CN and BC Rail, the provincial government could suggest that commuter rail service be part of the successful proposal. That might do a lot for the Liberals in the so-called Heartland.

By the purest of coincidences, the passenger rail service would start in the spring of 2005, the same time as the next provincial election will be held.

From the cessation of all passenger rail in the fall of 2002 to the start of a new, privately-owned passenger rail service, and possibly a commuter rail service, in 2005 would be a transformation worth campaigning on. Quite a way to run a railroad.

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