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Obama high-speed train link for Vancouver?

April 20th, 2009 · 18 Comments

One of my sharp-eyed phone buddies noticed that President Obama’s plan for high-speed train links throughout the States also includes a couple of stops north of the border. One of them is, you guessed, the Terminal Lotus City itself, Vancouver. The link is here.

That would be pretty exciting for those of us who like to travel down the West Coast regularly and desire to spend something less than a lifetime getting there. (My son recently travelled down to Los Angeles to visit friends and it was a 40-hour trip, including a half hour of grilling and Googling from a suspicious security guard who thought he might be on his way to put on an unauthorized art show.) I know I would take the train if it weren’t geared entirely to day trips for people coming up from Seattle.

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  • Chris

    The train to Seattle (and on to Portland) should have had a second trip added almost a year ago, but wrangling from the Canadian border guards and a lack of political will in Canada and BC has stalled it.

    If our provincial government was serious about climate change they would have made this happen a long time ago.

  • Wayne

    On the Easter weekend I talked to a group who drove to Seattle for a festival. It took them 6 hours to cross the border. I took the train which took about 20 minutes to clear customs.

  • MB

    A dedicated high speed rail service between Vancouver and Portland (and I would hope to California’s future HSR system) makes ultimate sense. The N-S geography, though challenging, would be much easier to confront than that between the B.C. coast and Alberta, but sooner or later an E-W Canadian link must be analyzed.

    One day our senior governments will have to plan for the deleterious effects of the oncoming higher fossil fuel costs to the economy (they choose to ignore the issue as usual) and address the huge contribution our mid-20th Century transportation infrastructure makes to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

    Ironically, it appears a U.S. president will stimulate the dialogue in Canada with this initiative.

  • nick

    This is a project that I think TransLink would likely have to get involved with – they have a great website that is quite active in discussions around future transportation plans for Vancouver – so if you want to be heard, check out

  • Marc

    The plan is only for service from Vancouver to Eugene, then there is a hole between there and Sacramento. And high speed in the US jargon is more than 90 mph, not French TGV or Japanese shinkansen speeds.

    So don’t get too excited about blasting down to LA any time soon. Still, it is progress …

  • The State of Washington is applying for $692 million in stimulus funding for upgrades.

    Unfortunately, most of this looks like it is for Seattle to Portland. Probably because both the feds and the province have been pathetic regarding improvements from the border.

    While after years of delay, the BC government did make a small investment to allow two trains a day, this service has been delayed due to Canadian Border Services wanting $535,000 a year to handle the second train.

    Just as bad, there are no plans to reserve right of ways or station space for dramatic future increases in service. For example, the plan to build a hospital next to Pacific Central Station could limit the ability to expand platforms or yards.

    It is shocking that there hasn’t been a peep from the candidates from any of the parties regarding this in spite of Obama wanting to making HSR his legacy. Politicians of all stripes in the states are tripping over themselves to try and get rail improvements in their states.

  • Canada is the only G8 nation without high-speed rail.

    In a June feature, The Walrus magazine will explore how it is that Canada went from global leader to laggard in the development of high-speed rail.

    In Japan and in France, high-speed lines have a powerful impact on development patterns. As I reported the ‘Walrus article, I kept thinking about how a Vancouver-Seattle line might reshape the Fraser Valley.

    Consider, for example, a line that might start in downtown Vancouver, stop once somewhere near Langley, then continue south to Seattle. The same stations and tracks could be used for a high-speed commuter run between the valley and Vancouver. Such a line would in effect create a new near-downtown neighbourhood out in the valley. If new valley transit were to treat that station as a hub, the net effect could put a whole lot of $225K townhouses within 20 minutes of downtown. Interesting, no?

  • DMJ

    Vancouver isn’t going to get TGV or Bullet trains, rather a faster service. What constrains speed on the Vancouver to Seattle BN & SF right-of-way is dated speed limits in Vancouver & Burnaby (45 MPH); the Fraser river Rail Bridge (10 MPH); 18th century speeds in Whiterock (15 MPH) and the Marrysville Everett section with three ancient lift spans (10MPH).

    Added to this is an American law (except in the American North East Corridor, forbidding passenger trains from exceeding from traveling faster than 89 MPH.

    If the Everett Marrysville section was updated with more modern bridges and track rebuild (about $1 billion USD); Whiterock’s rail line fenced off ($1 million) and track speeds increased to a maximum of 110 mph, journey times could be reduced by 45 minutes to 1 hour.

    Sorry Monte, unless there is 30 minute service from Vancouver to Seattle, it will be the existing BN & SF route.

  • gmgw

    One of the principal reasons we’ve seen no serious efforts mounted to bring high-speed rail to Vancouver is that it would require a substantial, and therfore expensive, upgrade of the existing rail infrastructure between here and Seattle. High-speed trains, by their very nature, put a great deal of stress on tracks, bridges and so forth. This is, of course, crucial at TGV-level speeds, but even routine, ongoing runs averaging 100+ MPH would place dangerous stresses on existing infrastructure. And until corporate and/or government transportation mavens can be convinced that HSR to Vancouver would be financially rewarding, I wouldn’t get all excited about its arrival anytime soon, great boon that it would be.

  • Joe Just Joe

    We might be the only country in the G8 w/o HSR, I’m not sure but I’ll take your word for it. I can assure you though that we are the least dense country in the G8. We do not have the population density to make HSR work across this country, there are a few corridors though that it could work and we will see them materialize within a matter a years. Cal/Edm, Ott/Mtl and maybe a couple of others. As much as we would all like to see HSR in Canada we need to be realistic about it.

  • A really great thread, and I can’t wait to read Mr. Paulsen’s piece in the Walrus.

    Still, based on the following, from DMJ above:
    What constrains speed on the Vancouver to Seattle BN & SF right-of-way is dated speed limits in Vancouver …..

    I can’t help but wonder why the Glimmer Twins haven’t blamed Gregor Robertson yet.

    (smiley face would go here if I didn’t hate ’em so)


  • gmgw

    If and when HSR arrives, it won’t be via the existing Burlington Northern route. The safety issues raised by the mingling of an active rail route and pedestrians in White Rock, and BN’s ongoing pressure for permission to increase the speed of their trains, are chronic points of contention in White Rock. Honestly, can anyone here seriously visualize 110+-MPH trains zipping along the White Rock waterfront, around Kwomais Point and through Crescent Beach? Just the slipstream created by the train’s speed would be dangerous enough that the promenade would have to be evacuated every time one of the things went by. It’s dangerous enough as it is. We were strolling the WR promenade last weekend and as a southbound train approached at its usual speed (about 25?? MPH), just in front of us a couple came up from the beach, crossed over the tracks, and clambered over the protective railing, all with less than 100 feet to spare. The woman seemed quite startled to look up, mid-crossing, and see the train bearing down on her; I overheard her say to her partner “I thought it was coming from the *other* direction!” Had she stumbled and fallen while crossing the tracks, we might have been witness to a fatality. It’s people like that that give train engineers and public safety officials conniptions; unfortunately, there’s a lot of them out there (I mean the world in general, not just Surrey and environs).

    All of which raises the question: Where would the new route run? Let alone who’s going to build it…

  • Darcy McGee

    Train to Seattle is the absolute best way to go. I drove last October, and regretted it. Amtrak will take a bike for $5. From Seattle to Portland they have a bike car…you don’t even have to box it.

    Joe makes valid points about the lack of density, but mass transit can be both a response too and an encouragement for density. While it’s not necessarily true that if you build it, they will come…it’s absolutely true that if you never build it, they’re never going to come.

    North American transportation policies have been so full geared to the automobile for so long, people can’t imagine anything else. Try sometime. It’s worth it.

    GMGW: silly pedestrians aren’t a reason not to build this either. High Speed Rail would require grade separation anyway, and pedestrian crossings would be below grade.

  • Darcy McGee

    Monte: can you fix The Walrus for me? It’s broken, and I miss the version we had.

  • Denis

    If you wait for the density, the next problem is finding the property, suddenly much more expensive to run a train. When Bc is bragging about a new bridge to be built for 3 billions( and their estimates are usally low balled) maybe it’s time to get serious about trains. The old E&N on the Island goes the wrong way for passengers, so guess what? A shortage of passengers, so let’s not spend money changing the direction of the train so it comes into town in the morning, or fixing the track.

  • gmgw

    “GMGW: silly pedestrians aren’t a reason not to build this either. High Speed Rail would require grade separation anyway, and pedestrian crossings would be below grade.”

    Excuse me? At no time did I say the line shouldn’t be built. I think it’s a fine idea, as long as it’s done properly. I was merely pointing out that for a number of reasons (not merely those pertaining to “silly pedestrians”) it would be highly impractical to use the existing BN route. And I think any White Rock and/or Surrey Mayor and Council who agreed to allow HSR to run along the Surrey Riviera- assuming higher levels of government were to give them a choice– would likely be lynched en masse in front of their respective City Halls by angry mobs.

  • Nathanael

    A peek at a map suggests running the high-speed line across the border at Sumas, crossing the river between Abbotsford and Mission City, and joining the CP mainline west to Vancouver. If CN rebuilds the Fraser River Bridge, it would work just as well to run on the south side of the river until there. Either route avoids the outrageous curves and riverfront property on the coast line.

  • Darcy McGee

    Monte’s article is out, and I note that it focuses on high speed rail for Calgary-Edmonton and Toronto-Montreal. A comment is made about a rapid trip from Toronto-Vancouver but often when people think of high speed rail and Vancouver (or any rail, indeed) it’s easy to overlook a major constraining factor: geography. Tracks are twisty, and unless you’re willing to blast right through mountains you have no choice.

    People often lament the demise of rail from Vancouver to Whistler. I did this a couple of times, and while it was pleasant it took a LONG time. There’s one line hanging off the raggedy edge of the mountains and its twister.

    High speed rail means (broadly speaking) straighter, grade separated track. It’s my view that government SHOULD be investing in it…where possible. I’m not sure there’s much possible outside of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia (but am far from an expert on this.)