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Private sector passenger rail proposal unveiled



Whistler Rail Tours aims for cruise ship market

Passenger rail service between North Vancouver and Whistler ended Halloween night when BC Rail’s Budd cars ran for the final time, but a new company hopes to get into the business by the spring of 2004.

Last weekend Whistler Rail Tours, a company largely financed by Cruise Ship Centers but with some backing from the Nita Lake Lodge Corporation and Whistler-Blackcomb, showed off what it believes is the future of passenger rail service.

The company brought a brand new self-propelled passenger rail car – something BC Rail claimed wasn’t available – to Vancouver. Built by Colorado Railcar, the $3 million US diesel multiple unit (DMU) is powered by two 600 horsepower engines, has seating for approximately 95 passengers and is capable of pulling other passenger cars.

Whistler Rail Tours hopes to use the self-propelled passenger car to bring some of the 1 million cruise ship passengers who pass through Vancouver annually to Whistler as part of a cruise package. Currently, less than 10 per cent of cruise ship passengers spend even one night in B.C.

Whistler Rail Tours is not proposing a commuter rail service, at least not initially.

"The cruise ship business is what we are focusing on," said Dave Willetts of Whistler Rail Tours.

The cruise ship industry has close ties to the passenger rail business. In Alaska and the Caribbean, cruise ship lines have been running passenger trains for years.

And the principals of Colorado Railcar are two former executives with Princess Cruise Lines. Tom Janaky and Tom Rader founded Colorado Railcar to build dome cars, and now self-propelled cars, to meet the needs of the cruise ship industry. Rader also introduced the Midnight Sun Express train that travels to Denali National Park in Alaska.

Whistler Rail Tours’ plans are linked with the Nita Lake Lodge Corporation’s proposal to build a new train station and 80-room hotel at Whistler Creek, which is one reason why members of Whistler council were invited to see the self-propelled unit. The Nita Lake Lodge proposal is expected to go before Whistler council in January.

Willetts said Whistler Rail Tours’ proposal is not dependent on a new train station, but a new station would obviously be beneficial. The service would leave from North Vancouver.

Willetts used to be with BC Rail, where he was responsible for development of the Whistler North Winds luxury passenger rail service, which was introduced in March of 2001. BC Rail recently sold the Whistler North Winds train to VIA, which will run it on the Prince Rupert-Prince George-Jasper-Edmonton route.

The Whistler North Wind dome cars were built by Colorado Railcar.

John Haibeck of the Nita Lake Lodge Corporation said developing the summer cruise ship business is the first priority of Whistler Rail Tours, but that could lead to convention business in the shoulder seasons and tour business during the winter. If that proves to be the case, it might be that the self-propelled rail car could also provide commuter rail service along the Pemberton-Whistler-Squamish route.

Whistler Rail Tours is currently in negotiations with BC Rail and the provincial government for a track access agreement, but it is not the only passenger rail company looking at the BC Rail line. It’s believed another company is interested in running luxury passenger rail tours from Vancouver, through Whistler and up to Jasper and Edmonton, possibly with the addition of some new track. As well, the cruise ship industry is interested in a rail connection between Alaska and Vancouver. The BC Rail line currently stops short of Alaska but the company owns rights of way almost to the Alaska border.

While BC Rail certainly has capacity available on its rail line, union contracts governing the size of crews on passenger trains may be an issue.