Vancouver Province column: Metro Vancouver still missing out on proven benefits of rail travel

September 29, 2008

Whether you agree with her political philosophy or not, you have to give Elizabeth May full marks for making plenty of noise during this fall’s federal election.

The leader of the federal Green Party has made history — and headlines — by elbowing her way into the upcoming televised leaders debates.

More recently, May kicked off an old-fashioned, cross-country whistle stop train tour in Vancouver that attracted lots of positive buzz.

Her eight-province journey was the first of its kind since former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker traversed the country by train in the 1960s.

While May’s campaign adventure has captured the imagination of nostalgic Canadians, and a handful of rail geeks, it also put the spotlight on a previously ignored mode of transport.

The neglect of passenger trains is particularly baffling in Canada, since rail is in this country’s DNA.

May has rightly noted that Canada “urgently needs an overhaul of our passenger and freight rail systems.” The situation here is in stark contrast to overseas. In a rail industry report published last week, the London-based Financial Times pointed to two factors responsible for the rail travel’s global surge.

The first is that trains emit fewer carbon emissions per passenger than motor vehicles or airplanes. The second is that rail can provide an alternative to worsening road and highway congestion.

But while commuter rail flourishes in Europe, Asia and even pockets of North America, the same can’t be said for Metro Vancouver.

British Columbia missed a prime opportunity to run commuter train service from North Vancouver to Whistler in time for the 2010 Games.

At least the U.S. government-owned Amtrak runs a train between Vancouver and Seattle, though the service suffers from awkward scheduling and slow service.

Furthermore, the long-promised second train bound for Seattle has been delayed by bureaucratic roadblocks.

Talk about an opportunity lost.

Besides the glaring lack of financial investment and political will, there’s no good reason why commuters shouldn’t be whisked between the Lower Mainland and cities like Seattle and Portland on a fast, comfortable train service.

Ironically, the best hopes for revitalized rail links in Vancouver seem to lie not with our own elected politicians, but rather those south of the border, where passenger rail is enjoying a major upswing.

Train travel between Seattle and Portland, for example, has reached record levels, thanks to the high price of gas and highway gridlock in those cities.

And, as the Oregonian newspaper noted in a recent editorial, Amtrak could have a big booster in Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden, a long-time rail commuter himself.

A big political push south of the border could be the wake-up call that finally gets our federal leaders on the right track — the same one Elizabeth May’s green express has already travelled.

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