U.S. President Joe Biden signed a bipartisan infrastructure deal last month — a significant domestic achievement for an embattled president that will flow hundreds of billions of dollars in federal money to infrastructure projects nationwide.
The plan is aimed at repairing crumbling U.S. infrastructure that has been ignored for decades. A failing Civil War-era bridge in Maryland, for example, is one of the many 100-year-old-plus structures slated for reconstruction with the $1.2 trillion in new money.
The bill will fund 32,000 kilometres of new roads and 10,000 bridges. It will supercharge the nationwide rollout of broadband internet and climate-friendly initiatives like electric vehicle charging stations.
Buried in the 1,039-page bill are provisions that might also mean new roads and railway service for Canadians.
The infrastructure deal offers a multi-billion dollar cash injection to rebuild a 561-km stretch of the Alaska Highway that travels almost exclusively through Yukon — an investment that Congress has pitched as a “necessary reconstruction” with “benefits that will accrue to the state of Alaska and to the United States.”
That project demonstrates just how close — and unusual — the Canada-U.S. relationship really is. Washington will pay for road reconstruction on Canadian territory to make the trip from Haines, Alaska to Beaver Creek, Yukon a more pleasant driving experience for Americans. But Canadians — Yukoners in particular — will also benefit from the new pavement.
Parts of this road through a permafrost region — the only land connection between Alaska and the lower 48 states — are severely degraded after years of neglect by U.S. authorities, who are responsible for construction under a 1977 agreement. One Yukon official said recently that driving on certain patches feels like “bounces on a roller coaster.” The bill stipulates construction can begin after an agreement is reached with Canada on some of the finer points.
The infrastructure bill could also be a boon for Canadians who live much further south. It allocates new money to expanding the limited rail options in and out of the U.S., including new routes in the East and better service in the already well-served West.
Toronto-Detroit-Chicago rail service planned
But American officials are warning these planned service improvements will never materialize if Canada continues dragging its heels on expanding facilities like the pre-clearance sites that would make cross-border rail travel a more viable option.
Under a binational deal signed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former president Barack Obama in 2016, and subsequently ratified by Parliament and the U.S. Congress, Canada can build border facilities on U.S. soil to allow Canada-bound travellers to clear customs at American airports and railway stations, easing the flow of travellers and reducing wait times.
But the Canadian government has been sitting on its hands so far — prompting frustration among some American politicians.
One of the big beneficiaries of Biden’s new infrastructure spending is Amtrak, the government-owned passenger rail service that has long been neglected by lawmakers in Washington.
Biden — nicknamed “Amtrak Joe” because of his frequent travel on the Washington to Wilmington, Delaware line during his time as a senator — secured $22 billion in direct funding and up to $44 billion in grants for Amtrak in the infrastructure bill. It’s the biggest boost to Amtrak’s federal aid since Congress created it half a century ago, when private rail companies gave up on passenger service.
Amtrak already has published its proposed new route expansion map as it looks to aggressively expand into under-served areas to shift travellers from cars and planes to trains — which would reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and congestion in the air and on the nation’s roads.
The map, released as part of the railway’s “Amtrak Connects Us” plan, includes a number of notable additions to the railway’s Canadian service.
“Until now, we’ve never received the kind of funding to really talk about growth rather just sort of getting by,” Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari told CBC News.
“The stars have never aligned until just now — we’ve never had these funding opportunities — and we believe that cross-border routes, where we can be driving-time competitive, are a natural fit.”
‘There’s got to be a better way’
One new route the railway wants to introduce this decade is a connection between Chicago and Toronto via Detroit. Amtrak is proposing an extension of its existing Wolverine service — which connects Chicago and Detroit — over the border through Windsor and southwestern Ontario into Toronto.
An existing stretch of railway along this route is frequently used by freight trains — the Michigan Central Railway Tunnel, which connects Windsor and Detroit through a line under the Detroit River. That tunnel, owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway, could ferry Canadians to Detroit and beyond.
“Anyone who’s driven back and forth between Toronto and Windsor and Detroit, surrounded by trucks or people who are putting on their makeup or people shaving or brushing their teeth while driving, has looked out their window and said, ‘There’s got to be be a better way than this,'” Magliari said.
“There ought to be a way to make this happen and, on the U.S. side of the border, there’s interest,” he said, adding that infrastructure, station and routing challenges will still need to be addressed before service can start.
While the railway may be newly flush with cash, U.S. authorities also need to see interest from VIA Rail, provincial leaders and Transport Canada before it can proceed as proposed, he said.
In a statement, VIA Rail said it’s committed to an “integrated and interconnected network for its customers” but it hasn’t brought up the idea of cooperating with the Americans on new routes.
“At this time, there have been no formal discussions between Amtrak and VIA Rail regarding the route between Toronto and Detroit or the other routes you mention,” a spokesperson said.
While there could be stumbling blocks, Amtrak estimates it would need little in the way of new public funds to build out the infrastructure and initiate the Toronto-Detroit-Chicago service. It also says the new route could bring in tens of thousands of new passengers each year by connecting three of the continent’s largest cities — urban areas that already have strong business and cultural ties.
Amtrak plans new service to Montreal, Vancouver
Amtrak has other ideas for more frequent train service into Toronto. It’s proposing an extension of its long-standing Empire route — the line that carries passengers from Manhattan to upstate New York — past its current terminus of Niagara Falls, N.Y. all the way to Toronto.
Amtrak also wants to reinstate long-defunct service on the Vermonter train from St. Albans, Vermont — a small town on the Quebec border — up to Montreal.
The route was discontinued in the early 1990s. Outgoing Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy and other state officials have been pushing for its reinstatement ever since.
This route would provide a direct connection between Quebec’s biggest city and destinations throughout New England, New York City and Washington.
Amtrak says that this new Montreal service would be one of the proposed projects requiring the least amount of “public operating funding per new passenger” — meaning it’s expected to generate sufficient returns to justify the route expansion.
On the West Coast, Amtrak wants to double the number of daily round-trips between Seattle and Vancouver on its Cascades line, giving passengers two more departure options.
The railway says the Pacific Northwest is an “emerging corridor” that already has captured “significant passenger market share.” Further enhancements, it says, would lead to tens of thousands more travellers and possibly create the conditions for “a dedicated high-speed rail corridor between Vancouver, Seattle and Portland.”
Canada non-committal on pre-clearance sites
To move these proposed rail enhancements from paper to reality, the bill requires that U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Amtrak and state officials meet with the Canadian government sometime in the next year to prepare a progress report for Congress.
According to the infrastructure bill’s text, U.S. lawmakers want Buttigieg and his team to “identify challenges to Amtrak operations in Canada,” including “delays associated with custom and immigration inspections in both Canada and the United States.”
While U.S. officials — including D.C. power brokers like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who represents New York — are eager to build out rail and boost cross-border travel, plans to ease transportation have been stymied by Canadian delays in establishing pre-clearance facilities at railway stations — which would allow travellers to skip the cumbersome current border process.
Most Canadian air passengers clear U.S. customs at the airport before heading south, but U.S.-bound rail travellers have to stop at the land border for processing by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers — a process that adds hours to a trip. The same is true for trains travelling into Canada; border officers come on board those trains and check passports row by row.
These delays have made cross-border train travel an unattractive option for many. Pre-clearance facilities would process passengers in Canada or the U.S. before they even start their trips.
“We need to be driving-time competitive,” Amtrak spokesperson Magliari said. “If it’s hours and hours longer to take the train — and it’s just that much more inconvenient — people might ride it once or twice but eventually the car will win.
“I can’t speak to where folks on the Canadian side are at with this, but we’d certainly like to do more pre-clearance on the U.S. side.”
Schumer has blamed Canada for inaction. In a January 2020 letter to Canadian officials, the Democratic leader said the U.S. has upgraded train stations throughout upstate New York in recent years while Canadians officials have ignored “the luxury and convenience of a brand new, pre-clearance-ready space that meets all modern IT and spatial requirements.”
“Despite the available infrastructure and a willingness on the part of local officials and United States Customs and Border Protection, pre-clearance is still not available for rail passengers entering Canada,” Schumer wrote.
Buttigieg and Schumer will have some hurdles to clear if they’re serious about jump-starting Canadian service.
A spokesperson for Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) said a Canadian pre-clearance facility isn’t planned for Niagara Falls, N.Y. — or anywhere else south of the border.
“Canada continues to explore the potential for Canadian pre-clearance operations in both the traveller and commercial streams. There are no specific timelines or locations at this time,” Rebecca Purdy said in a statement.
Montreal travellers are also in the dark about the upgrades that could be coming to their city’s central train station. A pre-clearance facility would allow travellers to do their border checks before boarding in Canada, speeding up train travel between Montreal and points south.
“A specific timeframe for potential U.S. pre-clearance services at Montreal’s Central Train Station has not been set. The Government of Canada has invited local and regional stakeholders to submit a proposal to the U.S. and Canadian governments for consideration,” said Magali Deussing, a spokesperson for Public Safety Canada.