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Interior communities worry about passenger rail service



Two-person selection committee doesn’t inspire hope for regular passenger service

B.C.'s new tourist trains might be stopping in Whistler but could be blowing by other communities en route from Vancouver to Prince George.

That prospect does not bode well for the future economic development of Lillooet said Mayor Greg Kamenka, not to mention all the other communities along the rail line.

"If you're going to develop, (people) have to be able to stop, get out, see the communities and see where they can perhaps invest in the future," he said.

And so, just before BC Rail and CN closed the request-for-proposals for third-party passenger tourist trains, Kamenka and other representatives from the Interior were in Vancouver on Thursday, Feb. 12 to plead their case.

In a last ditch attempt to make their point they delivered a "report card" to InterVISTAS Consulting Inc., the company managing the RFP process.

The report card highlights their concerns about the proposed service in the RFP.

Their keys points are that a new passenger service should allow people to get off in communities with train stations as well as offer a basic train fare rate for people travelling between towns. They are also looking for year-round, regularly scheduled service between Vancouver and Prince George.

"What we're trying to ensure is that we're not getting basically a cruise ship on rails," said Mark Nichiporuk, executive director of the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast Tourism Association, who also delivered the report card.

"We're just saying that if (the selection committee has) different proposals and one (proposal) is saying ‘we will have a service that stops at all these communities along the way and that people will be able to buy point to point transportation,’ then that's the one to go with."

The report card came out of a rail symposium in April 2002 that was attended by more than 100 people in 100 Mile House. BC Rail stopped providing passenger rail service in October 2002.

Nichiporuk said tourism operators in the Interior are nervous about a rail service that will not stop along the way and which will not allow the guest ranches and fishing resorts to market their products with a passenger rail service.

"We've got one shot at this," he said.

"We want a passenger/tourist style train that has the option to stop in communities, that has the option that operators within this region can package."

When the province first announced that there would be a passenger rail component to the $1 billion package deal to lease the BC Rail lines to the freight rail company CN, many were excited about the chance to revive passenger rail in the province.

"Everyone had great expectations," said James Chase, CEO of B.C. & Yukon Hotels' Association.

But when the passenger RFP was made public Chase was worried that there was no chance for the B.C. government to provide any input in the final decision. The selection committee is a two-man board made up of Paul Brent, BC Rail vice-president, and Francois Lemay, CN Rail executive.

"If there's no involvement of the government to basically represent the people, it's pretty clear the outcome will be obviously the least amount of interruption to freight," said Chase.

Kamenka said he was devastated to learn that there is a two-person selection committee who will choose the winning bidder or bidders with no real government input.

"I can't believe this," said Kamenka.

"One is from BC Rail and the other is from CN and ultimately CN is apparently trying to make the final decision back in Montreal and I just don't see where we've had any input at all."

In the RFP it states that one of the key considerations in evaluating the submissions is economic development of communities along the BC Rail and CN lines, "through increasing tourism in B.C., improving rail access to the 2010 Olympic facilities in Whistler, and creating railway and associated jobs to build and operate the new train service."

At the same time the bidders must "provide a passenger/tourist train schedule that will protect the level of service required by freight trains."

"If it's a company that's only looking at the bottom line, scheduled rail passenger service may not be a viable option," said Kamenka.

"But as far as their perception in the communities and the overall benefit of the province, especially the rail corridor, this should be considered because it is very, very important to our development needs."

Neither bidders nor the selection committee can comment about the process at this time due to confidentiality agreements.

The committee is expected to chose a winning bid or bids by March 1 and complete negotiations by April 23.

"Unless someone intervenes from the government (CN) will do their thing and they will basically look out for the financial interests of CN because that's what their job is," said Chase.

"It's not to help economic development in British Columbia."