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Whistler Rail Tours paving the way for passenger service



VIA Rail expresses interest in operating Whistler Rail Tours service

Developer John Haibeck said people may think he’s "blowing hot air" proposing a passenger train service between Whistler and Vancouver but he insists it’s very real.

Less than three weeks ago, Haibeck, who is the chief executive officer of Whistler Rail Tours and president of the Nita Lake Lodge development, received a very promising letter from VIA Rail Canada, expressing an interest in the Vancouver-Whistler passenger rail line.

"VIA Rail Canada is prepared to enter into an agreement to act as rail operator for Whistler Rail Tours, on terms to be negotiated between us which, in principle, will be based on VIA’s eventual cost of operation, plus an administrative fee," wrote VIA Rail’s Chief Strategy Officer Christena Keon Sirsly.

This would mean VIA would provide the train crews and maintenance of the equipment as well as insurance coverage and negotiation of track access fees, among other things.

Whistler Rail Tours would be responsible for providing the train cars.

Haibeck said VIA has a proven track record in passenger and commuter rail service.

"That bodes well for the future," he said after Monday’s meeting where Whistler council moved the Nita Lake Lodge development ahead to fourth reading.

The Nita Lake Lodge development includes a multi-million-dollar train station at the end of Lake Placid Road in Creekside, where the old station used to sit.

With the train station in place, Whistler Rail Tours proposes to revitalize train travel between Vancouver and Whistler.

Currently VIA Rail operates the Skeena rail line between Jasper, Prince George and Prince Rupert.

"We recognize that your primary interest is rail service between Vancouver and Whistler," wrote Keon Sirsly.

"VIA does have an interest in extending this service to Prince George, to link with the Skeena..."

Haibeck said another plus is a new cruise ship terminal is being built in Prince Rupert. If VIA serviced both areas, these cruise ship passengers could travel east and south throughout the province.

"(It) really bodes well for tourism," he said.

Tapping into the cruise ship industry is the heart of the Whistler Rail Tours proposal.

Throughout the ’90s the number of cruise ship passengers travelling through Vancouver increased 171 per cent to just over 1 million visitors per year. Predictions point to a continued four per cent annual growth so by 2010 there will be 1.5 million cruise ship visitors in Vancouver.

Haibeck said Whistler Rail Tours could bring some of that market up to Whistler, particularly in the shoulder seasons. This would boost the resort economy during the slower seasons.

Haibeck also pointed to letters from two cruise ship companies, Royal Celebrity Tours and Holland America Line, which lend credence to the idea of tapping into the cruise ship market.

Both companies operate cruise ships between Vancouver and Alaska and both have a potential guest base of more than 100,000 passengers who could stay in B.C. before or after their cruise.

Whistler Rail Tours would offer these passengers a luxury touring train with state-of-the-art domed train cars. These self-propelled DMU cars are faster and more environmentally friendly that the old BC Rail Budd cars. The idea is that cruise ship guests could take a jaunt up through the breathtaking Sea to Sky corridor in the domed cars and spend a few nights taking in the Whistler scene.

In a study prepared by the Nita Lake Lodge Corporation, Whistler Rail Tours could spin off almost $40 million in economic benefits to Whistler in its first year or two of operation.

Keith Lambert, a Creekside neighbour who is threatening to take legal action over the Nita Lake Lodge development as a whole, is concerned about the viability of the rail project. He called on the municipality to do an independent review of the private rail proposition before moving the Nita Lake Lodge development ahead.

He said it would make more sense to first establish the rail passenger service or clientele before building the train station and an 80-room boutique hotel.

But in offering his support to the project at Monday’s council meeting, Acting Mayor Nick Davies said it is not the municipality’s role to prepare an evaluation of a business model.

He said there is little in the way of an untoward business risk and Whistler Rails Tours is using a proven business model, executed successfully in Alaska, with some of the best talent in the industry.

In the meantime the provincial government is entertaining offers to operate the freight rail service on BC Rail tracks with a proviso that: "third-party passenger train operators must be accommodated through access to the BC Rail network on reasonable commercial terms."

Ultimately Whistler Rail Tours could offer a commuter service at a reduced rate as part of their passenger service package.

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