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Passenger rail decision expected by summer’s end

Competition bureau approves deal for CN to take over BC Rail operations

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Passenger rail travel in B.C. is one step closer to becoming a reality.

On Friday, July 2, the Federal Competition Bureau sealed the billion-dollar deal between CN and the province, which allows CN to take over the freight operations of BC Rail under a renewable 60-year lease.

Part of the deal calls for a third party passenger rail service to operate on the lines.

CN spokesperson Mark Hallman said they expect to be in a position to announce the operator of that passenger service later this summer.

For Donna Barnett, mayor of 100 Mile House, the decision cannot come soon enough.

"Hopefully (that decision) happens very, very quickly now that the competition bureau has made their decision," she said this week.

"This is something that has hurt our community in the South Cariboo economically."

Since the last BC Rail passenger train passed through the province on October 2002, Barnett said business has been down for some of the tourism operators in her area.

"I mean, we’ve had a decrease because of last year’s forest fires and SARS and you name it but the railway has been a very big player in some of our businesses numbers being down," she said.

"The sooner that decision is made, the better."

At least two main companies are vying for the opportunity to operate on the lines. They are Whistler Railtours, which is associated with the Nita Lake Lodge Corporation, and the Great Canadian Railtour Company, which operates the Rocky Mountaineer.

Both companies submitted proposals in February. Originally one proponent was to be selected and awarded the contract by the end of April.

David Ehrhardt, a principal in the Nita Lake Lodge Corporation, said he believed the decision by the Federal Competition Bureau was holding up the third party agreement for the passenger rail.

He hopes now the passenger rail decision is "one step closer."

"I’m sure once they get over this hurdle they’ll be communicating (with us)."

Now that the decision has been announced, the province and CN must undertake all the necessary legal action and paperwork to make the deal complete. That is expected to take until mid-July.

"This is great news for British Columbians and communities all along the BC Rail corridor," said Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon.

"I am pleased this billion-dollar investment can proceed as the Competition Bureau’s review has now concluded. It has taken a little more time than originally anticipated, but I am confident the bureau’s process provides the assurances British Columbians need that this partnership provides improved services for shippers and communities."

The decision was welcome news for the B.C. Chamber of Commerce.

John Winter, president and CEO, called the decision "long overdue" and said the partnership will "unlock the full economic potential of northern B.C."

In the meantime, Barnett explained just how the delay has effected tourism operators in B.C. to date.

She said most companies have their marketing brochures out and are marketing their products for 2005.

"They can’t sell that part of their product and so it puts us another year behind," she said.

"And we were hoping that 2005 we’d be up and running, and hopefully it still is up and running, but unfortunately it will take longer for the tour operators once again to get the word out and get packaging done.

"Sometimes things don’t move as quickly as rural B.C. needs them and sometimes we feel that the bigger centres are on the front burner and we’re on the backburner. And rural B.C. communities just want to ensure that their issues are taken care of as quickly as possible."

She’s not holding her breath however for the announcement of the passenger rail service any time soon.

"I’ve heard so many timelines that I will believe everything when it happens."

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