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Multi-month Nexus backlog holding up Canada-U.S. cross-border travel flows

Meanwhile, restored Amtrak train service expected to help renew cross-border tourism
Vancouverites can now day-trip to Seattle by train from Vancouver's Pacific Central station

Vancouverites can now day-trip to Seattle by train. 

Amtrak announced last week that it has fully restored its Cascadia corridor train service, once again connecting Portland, Seattle and Vancouver by passenger rail. 

It is the first direct service to operate between all three cities since the pandemic-induced suspension of rail service across the Canada-U.S. border began in the spring of 2020. This is a welcome development for B.C.’s tourism industry in particular, since Washington state represents the province’s biggest tourist source.  

Before the pandemic, the train from Vancouver to Portland – with a stop in Seattle – was one of the most popular, according to Janet Matkin, communications manager for the Washington State Department of Transportation’s rail, freight and ports division.

Until recently, Amtrak ran one round-trip service between Seattle and Vancouver. The train travelled to Vancouver from Seattle in the morning and returned at night. This meant that British Columbians could not train to Seattle for a day trip and were unable to get to Portland by rail at all. 

Matkin says the reason the Seattle-to-Vancouver train was restored earlier was not because of lower customer demand, but rather the result of equipment and labour shortage issues. Matkin added that market demand for those travelling south to Seattle and those travelling north to Vancouver was roughly equal.

Amtrak had increased its bus service through the corridor to make up for lost train service. Matkin said that Amtrak will continue the increased bus service for now and will re-evaluate in the future to determine whether there is sufficient demand to support increased bus service along with added train routes. 

In terms of long-term planning for rail transportation in the Pacific Northwest, B.C., Washington state and Oregon are all working towards developing a high-speed rail option. Last year, the provincial government invested $300,000 in the next phase of the Ultra High Speed Ground Transportation Project, which is being led by the Washington state department of transportation, in partnership with B.C., Oregon and other regional and local agencies.

“Now, in our vision, it will coordinate with Amtrak Cascades, not necessarily displace Amtrak Cascades. So it would be very high speed, up to 250-miles-per-hour trains that stop at fewer stations. Amtrak Cascades will service more stations, but at slower speeds,” said Matkin.

As for adding rail destinations south of Oregon, the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration is looking at possibly reinstating long-distance services that were discontinued in the 1970s, including service to areas like Northern California and Los Angeles. 

But diminished train service is not the only thing slowing travel south of the 49th parallel. Backlogs with Nexus, the travel program that allows Canadians and Americans to cross the border through an expedited process, are contributing to slower border crossings. 

According to a written statement to BIV from the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), it can take up to 12 to 14 months for new applicants to complete the Nexus registration process. 

Backlogs have increased because enrolment centres were closed during the pandemic. This delayed some applications by up to 24 months. CBSA highlighted that processing times may vary based on the complexity and thoroughness of the application, and the overall volume of applications that have been received. New joint-country enrolment centres opened along the Canada-U.S. border in New York state and Maine, and on Jan. 25, eight Canadian airport enrolment centres reopened.

Both countries are working to shorten wait times and increase capacity at enrolment centres, according to the CBSA. This includes the introduction of split interviews at two Ontario enrolment centres, where people can interview with Canadian and American border officers during the same visit. 

CBSA said the new split interview option may be expanded to additional land locations along the Canada-U.S. border.

B.C. handles a disproportionate amount of Nexus enrolments and Nexus-based travel. More than a quarter of all enrolments are finalized in the Pacific region, which includes the West Coast, Yukon, Okanagan and Kootenay, as well as Metro Vancouver. 

In 2019, more than half of all Nexus land crossings – 56 per cent – happened in the Pacific region, along with 19 per cent of air traffic.