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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Amtrak Cascades to Portland for Railvolution (Pt.2)

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October 16th was my first opportunity to ride the direct Amtrak Cascades train from Vancouver to Portland. Part one is here, read on for part two.

by John Calimente, re:place Magazine

For three quarters of an hour we had taken a route through the industrial areas of Vancouver, Burnaby, and New Westminster. Surprised joggers, a mist-covered Burnaby Lake, and the Saputo Dairyland Plant were some of the sights on the slow journey southward.

What struck me was the sheer number of condominium towers poking out behind the warehouses and railway yards. Since the route parallels SkyTrain lines as far as Sapperton, one could see clearly how transportation links have aided development along the line. With two daily trains from Vancouver to Seattle, not much is going to change along the route. But if frequent or, dare I say it, hourly service between the two cities ever comes to pass, it could transform life along the line.

Imagine being able to board a Seattle-bound train not just at Pacific Central but also Commercial Drive, SFU/Production Way, Sapperton, Delta, and White Rock. How much closer would communities north of the border feel to those south of the border? How would the station areas be transformed? And what would the economic impact be?

Train riders are already enjoying the benefits of one direct train per day. I overheard heard a couple a few seats in front of me talking trains. One of them said “It’s such a luxury not to have to disembark and change from the bus to the train.” It really shouldn’t be a luxury though.

Back to the ocean crossing. At the 45 minute mark the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Line (BNSF) makes a right and crosses first the Serpentine River, then the Nicomekl. Leaving the mud flats on a misty morning, it truly felt like we were headed out to sea. But soon enough we were passing by Crescent Beach and White Rock, with its still-intact heritage station from 1913. This is the only portion of the route on the Canadian side where the railway feels like it’s in the front of the community rather than the back. Crossing on the narrow strip of land between Marine Drive and the beach, we received many waves from the dog walkers and joggers up at this very early time of day.

Over the past few years the BNSF has been working to improve drainage along the tracks in the Crescent Beach area to prevent them from being undermined during rainstorms. Vegetation has also been cleared and a new railway bridge/pedestrian underpass added at Ocean Park. Safety has always been a concern along this section of track. While calls from residents to remove the line have died down in recent years, I’m sure there are still many who would be happy to see the tracks removed. But it’s a vital freight and passenger route for the region, and what’s more, the railway predated the beach community.

Only an hour after departure and we were crossing the border into the United States. At Blaine the train stopped for a passport check. I’m still not sure why this second stop is necessary, since passports are checked in Vancouver prior to boarding. My guess is that we need to have our passports checked by both Canadian and American border services.

Through the north part of Washington we stopped in Bellingham (where passenger numbers jumped significantly), Mount Vernon, and Stanwood. I was surprised to see that we passed through a few communities like Ferndale and Marysville with stations that are unused and deteriorating. If a bit of funding could be found to rehabilitate these stations and restore regular service, it would add a dimension to these towns that is currently missing.

But it was heartening after seeing these places that had turned their backs on the railroad to arrive in Everett, where the railroad is again becoming central to this town’s sense of place. (Part 3 upcoming)


John Calimente is the president of Rail Integrated Developments. He supports great mass transit, cycling, walking, transit integrated developments, and non-automobile urban life. Click here to follow TheTransitFan on Twitter.