January 26, 2009
Last week’s inauguration of Barack Obama has not only raised the hopes of those looking for a major shift in United States foreign policy, it has also changed expectations for that country’s urban and transportation policy.
The president-elect, the thinking goes, will be looking to stimulate the economy by investing in major infrastructure projects in cities — including those devoted to public transport such as railways. Canada’s politicians would be wise to follow that lead.
Rail travel — while long neglected in this country — is now being recognized as a smart alternative to worsening road congestion. Compared to automobile or even air traffic, it also makes good environmental sense, producing less carbon emissions. Which makes it hard to understand the sorry state of inter-city passenger rail in this region.
An Amtrak-operated passenger train operates between Vancouver and Seattle, but the service has a reputation for awkward departure times and slow service.
And a long-promised second service between the two cities, which would have at least improved the scheduling problem, is stuck in bureaucratic limbo because of demands from the Canadian Border Services Agency.
Questions about the Lower Mainland’s mediocre passenger rail situation are now being raised by international media.
Elisabeth Eaves of Forbes.com recently wrote about a Vancouver-bound train that got stuck in the snow en route from Washington State, forcing passengers to endure a five-hour wait — inside Vancouver city limits — before being allowed to disembark.
Which, laments Eaves, “is remarkable in a city that plans to host the Winter Olympics in just over a year, in the sometimes snowy month of February, when it will be visited by foreigners who think trains are a viable means of transport.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. Last winter, during a vacation in Japan, I had the fortune to ride the Shinkansen bullet train between the cities of Osaka and Hiroshima. The journey was not only a revelation for its speed, but also for its stunning convenience and comfort.
And that’s why more cities around the globe are embracing passenger rail.
Shouldn’t a supposedly forward-thinking city like Vancouver be doing the same?