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Tourist train contract awarded to Great Canadian Railtour

Whistler Railtours loses bid but pledges to work with proponent



Though Whistler Railtours lost the bid to bring a tourist train to Whistler, developer John Haibeck said there’s a silver lining in every story.

"The good news is that there’s going to be rail service to Whistler and beyond," said an upbeat Haibeck this week.

"Council made the right decision, and the community as well, in supporting it (passenger rail service) because it’s going to be a whole new economic driver. We would have liked to have been the operator but that’s OK."

Last Friday morning CN announced the Great Canadian Railtour Company, which already operates the highly successful Rocky Mountaineer, had won the right to operate a tourist train through the Sea to Sky corridor and up to Prince George. They had ultimately beaten out Whistler Railtours in a lengthy bidding process.

The decision marks a one and a half-year countdown until passenger rail service, in the form of a high-end tourist train, is operating in the corridor.

Two routes will be offered.

The Whistler Mountaineer will be a three-hour scenic jaunt once a day from North Vancouver to Whistler. The second route will be an expansion of the GCRC’s Rocky Mountaineer, running from Whistler to Jasper, Alberta with an overnight stop in Prince George.

By May 2006 both services will be operational.

That’s the news that tourism operators throughout the province have been waiting a long time to hear.

"It’s an enormous opportunity for the tourism operators in British Columbia," said Graham Gilley, vice president, marketing and communications with Rocky Mountaineer Railtours.

"The response has been enthusiastic… and everybody’s excited."

Donna Barnett, mayor of 100 Mile House, said the decision could have an enormous impact on her community.

"It’s very important," she said.

"We don’t have many means of transportation here. We have the Greyhound bus, we have rubber tire traffic and of course, we don’t have an airline service. So in essence it’s very crucial for us."

Now she said GCRC and the tourism operators in the province must come together and generate some new tourism opportunities.

The rail company has already made a commitment to set up some product partnership workshops in seven locations throughout the province, including Whistler, Squamish, Lillooet and 100 Mile House.

"It’s going to be an opportunity for us to be able to meet with the industry, the tourism operators, the chambers and so on and so forth and really identify those tourism products that would warrant additional stops along the route," said Gilley.

The finer points of the GCRC’s service, such as pricing and train stops, have yet to be determined.

"We’ve really got to sit down, now that we know we have been selected," said Gilley.

"We need to finalize some of our operational costs, station locations and staffing requirements, those sorts of things, so we’re not in a position to be able to declare what the pricing is right now.

"What we’ve said is it… only makes sense that as we launch the product it will be consistent with what we’ve offered on our other routes and that is a price that will be acceptable to the market. It will be competitive and it will be in line with the level of service which is offered to our guests."

There are two potential train stops in Whistler that GCRC are examining.

One is at the Mons Crossing north of the village. The other is the brand new train station, which will be built with the Nita Lake Lodge development in Creekside.

Haibeck’s company owns that train station and he’s confident rail passengers will be using his station to embark and disembark, with GCRC paying a fee to use the station.

Both companies have already met to discuss the future, not only with the train station itself but also in promoting the rail/tourism industry in the province.

"We’re moving forward with a positive approach to assisting Rocky Mountain Railtours and the tourism industry in the province and Whistler, and all the other communities, to create a more comprehensive marketing and tourism experience," said Haibeck.

Indeed, Haibeck said the province encouraged Whistler Railtours to meet with GCRC soon after the contract was awarded in order to foster a working relationship, which would ultimately benefit both companies and tourism in British Columbia.

With the contract for passenger rail lost, Whistler Railtours has decided to focus on marketing.

Whistler Railtours is partnered with CruiseShipCentres, a Vancouver-based company, which books more than 20 per cent of all cruise vacations from Canada.

CruiseShipCentres buys large volumes of cabin space from cruise lines and then repackages that space with other deals.

By doing this Haibeck said they can offer a price that nobody else can touch.

The company is also affiliated with an e-based electronic company, which designs and manages the Web sites for all of the major cruise lines.

"It’s a huge reach," said Haibeck.

"We also do the same thing for American Express, Air Canada, and many others, so it’s a very powerful medium."

Another huge asset Whistler Railtours brings to the table is its relationship with First Nations, namely the Squamish Nation and the Mount Currie band.

The company had committed to create jobs for First Nations as well as provide job training in the hospitality sector in their rail proposal to CN.

In addition, they had made a deal to buy tens of thousands of tickets to the First Nations Cultural Centre in Whistler, which they could include in their package deals.

Haibeck still envisions upwards of 200,000 people riding the rails from the cruise ship industry alone, and the economic spin-off from that will be enormous in Whistler and throughout the province.

"Why would we want to throw all that away because we lost?" he asked.

"It’s better to jump in there and say ‘hey, let’s help make this better, let’s make it stronger’"

Gilley said the cruise ship business will certainly be a part of GCRC’s plan but the company won’t be solely focusing on the cruise ship passengers.

"It’s definitely part of our plan," he said.

"We’re not putting all of our emphasis on that particular segment but it’s certainly a piece of the puzzle, there’s no question."

Another valuable segment to market this new product to will be the 650,000 customers who have already taken a trip on the Rocky Mountaineer.

"We expect to have a tremendous response from those who are familiar with Rocky Mountaineer," said Gilley.

The decision on the passenger rail proponent is the culmination of long months of waiting as CN tried to reach a consent agreement with Canada’s Competition Bureau regarding its long-term lease of the BC Rail line and facilities.

By mid-July they had closed the $1 billion transaction.

In the meantime the passenger rail proponents had been narrowed down to the two companies, GCRC and Whistler Railtours.

Both worked extensively with the communities along the rail lines to convey their business plans.

100 Mile House Mayor Barnett said there were merits to both proposals.

"If they could both work together, we’d probably have the best railway system in the world," she said.

For more information on the new train service to Whistler go to