Politics

Pre-clearance deal advances Montrealer train

Amtrak service to Montreal could be back onboard in the not-too-distant future. Photo by Owen Byrne/via Creative Commons

Amtrak service to Montreal could be back onboard in the not-too-distant future. Photo by Owen Byrne/via Creative Commons

With the recent enactment of a federal law penned by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Vermont is one step closer to reviving Amtrak train service between Burlington and Montreal.

“Vermonters regularly talk to me about improving the travel experience between Canada and the United States,” Leahy said shortly after the law was signed. “We still have more work to do, but with President Obama signing this into law, we removed the biggest hurdle standing in the way of improved air and rail travel between our countries.”

The Promoting Travel, Commerce, and National Security Act will allow the U.S. to expand the number of pre-clearance customs facilities in Canada, including two potential projects that would streamline transportation between Vermont and Canada.

One project could be in Toronto’s Billy Bishop airport, and would facilitate easier travel between the Canadian metropolis and Burlington International Airport. The other preclearance site is expected to be built in Montreal’s Central Station, which would allow for rail travel between the green mountains and Quebec.

Pre-clearance, unlike typical U.S. customs procedure, clears foreign passengers before they travel to America. If passengers are cleared, they arrive in the United States and are free to enter the country freely. If a passenger is not cleared they are barred from traveling to America.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection currently operates 15 preclearance facilities in six countries, and officials say it both streamlines travel and enhances security. In 2014, CPB turned away more than 10,000 travelers through preclearance efforts, an effort the agency says saved approximately $20 million in detention and repatriation costs.

The new law, which passed unanimously by the Senate on the last day of the 114th session and was signed by President Barack Obama on Dec. 16, doesn’t deal directly with pre-clearance.

It sets up a prosecutorial framework for U.S. border agents accused of committing crimes while stationed in Canada. Under the law, U.S. officials cannot be charged by Canadian authorities, though the U.S. can investigate alleged crimes committed on foreign soil and bring charges, if appropriate.

(The Canadian parliament is expected to pass companion legislation in March or April, thus finalizing a pre-clearance deal forged by the two countries in early 2015.)

By effectively allowing U.S. officials to work across the border, the law is expected to quicken efforts between the U.S. and Canada to build new pre-clearance sites for air, rail and, even, ferry travel.

To revive the Amtrak train route between Vermont and Canada — known colloquially as the Montrealer — a good deal more work is required.

(A Leahy staffer said they didn’t expect the Montrealer to roar to life for a couple more years, but added that the pre-clearance project to facilitate air travel between Burlington and Toronto is expected to come together much quicker.)

First, a pre-clearance site must be built in Montreal that conforms to specifications of both U.S. and Canadian custom officials, according to Dan Delabruere, the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s Rail Program Director.

Delabruere added that while Vermont’s rail line between St. Albans and Canada was recently rehabilitated as part of a larger federal grant, sections of rail in Canada are in need of improvement before the train can run.

He also said there are a few union issues that need to ironed out regarding who will work the inter-country line before the line can be revived.

Delabruere added that no funding source for the rail improvements and the preclearance site have been hammered out.

“There is a lot to do,” Delabruere said. “But this recent step is going to allow both countries to start working on this, as we are now legally allowed to work in another country.”

Once the work is complete in Montreal, the customs routine will be fairly easy to navigate.

American citizens going to Canada will be able to board the train up until the St. Albans stop. The train is then expected to run from St. Albans to Montreal without stopping. Americans would pass through Canadian customs in Montreal before leaving the train station.

Canadians coming to Vermont would go through the U.S. preclearance site in Montreal, before taking the train into the Green Mountain Stop. They would then be free to exit the train on any stop, starting with St. Albans.

“This Act is key to the long term strategy of the United States and Canada to make cross-border transit more efficient, fostering economic development and improving safety and security of our shared border,” Amtrak’s senior Vice President of Government Affairs Joe McHugh said in a statement. “When implemented, Amtrak passengers can look forward to a more reliable, safer and more efficient cross-border experience.”

President-elect Donald Trump has promised to heighten security on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, but has not offered proposals for security on the northern border. Trump’s pick for the Department of Homeland Security, John Kelly, has likewise not commented publicly on northen border security, or preclearance measures.

Leahy spokesman David Carle said federal border and homeland security officials see pre-clearance sites as boosting national security, but added that as Trump prepares to take office, “there are a lot of big question marks.”

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Jasper Craven

About Jasper

Jasper Craven is a freelance reporter for VTDigger.

A Vermont native, he first discovered his love for journalism at the Caledonian Record. He double-majored in print journalism and political science at Boston University, and worked in the Boston Globe’s Metro and Investigative units. While at the Globe he collaborated on Shadow Campus, a three-part investigative series focused on greed and mismanagement in Boston’s off-campus student housing market. The series was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize.
He also spent two years at MuckRock, a news site dedicated to investigation and analysis of government documents. 

Craven covered Vermont’s U.S. congressional delegation for the Times Argus in the summer of 2014, and worked as a Metro reporter for the Chicago Tribune before joining the staff of VTDigger from 2015-2017.

Email: [email protected]

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