U.S./Canada border agreement could improve Amtrak inspection times

Published on Thu, Dec 22, 2011 by Jeremy Schwartz

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Inspections of southbound Amtrak trains on the tracks in Blaine could soon be a thing of the past now that a cross-border security screening agreement has been finalized.

As part of the Beyond the Border agreement between President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents will be stationed at the Vancouver train station and conduct security inspections of southbound passengers. The agents will be in place by the end of 2012.

“It would be delightful if this happened by the summer,” said Bruce Agnew, the executive director of the Seattle-based
transportation advocacy group Cascadia Center for Regional Development.

The roots of the Beyond the Border agreement started in 2008, and Obama and Harper formally agreed on the accord earlier this year, Agnew said. Permission from the Canadian government to allow U.S. customs agents to operate in Vancouver was one of the final pieces of the agreement, which the Cascadia Center and Washington’s congressional delegation had been pushing for.

Agnew said person-by-person inspections conducted while the train was stopped near Blaine would often delay Amtrak Cascades service south to Seattle. The new agreement will allow for inspections in Vancouver before the train leaves the station, which is how inspections on Vancouver-bound passengers are conducted, he added.

“Most of the agencies involved agreed that customs officials having to meet the southbound Amtrak passengers on the tracks in Blaine was a big hassle,” Agnew said.

The pre-clearance decision is important because it will give Amtrak Cascades travel times a greater degree of certainty, which will most likely lead to more people taking advantage of the train, Agnew said. The Cascadia Center hopes improved train ridership will create the political will for federally funded track improvements along the rail corridor from Seattle to Vancouver and possibly a third daily Amtrak Cascades run.

When it comes to rail service in Blaine, and the possible renovation of the historic train depot, Agnew said it’s too early to tell whether or not the pre-clearance agreement will help or hinder that effort. He said pre-clearance would prohibit a train from stopping at any proposed stations in White Rock, due to the need for an additional inspection, but would not negatively affect the possibility of Canadians south of the Fraser River crossing the border and taking a train from Blaine to Seattle.

Agnew said there has been some talk about the Cascadia Center working together with the cities of Blaine and White Rock to figure out a way to get people across the border to take a train out of Blaine. Enough community support and available funds could create the political will necessary for such a train stop.

“It’s going to take a community effort,” he said.