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For years, unknown thousands of would-be Amtrak Cascades riders between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., have been deterred by the amount of time spent on border inspections. A scheduled four-hour train ride (if it stays on schedule) is typically slower than a bus.

But the administrations of U.S. President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper this week signed an international agreement called “Beyond the Border” that would cut several minutes off the southbound Cascade trip, and affect other crossings, by the end of 2012.

Right now, the U.S. conducts agriculture and immigration inspections in the Vancouver station, and then stops trains on the trackway near Blaine — causing a delay of 12 minutes to 20 minutes to check baggage and Customs declarations. Evening inspections often make passengers interrupt dinner to file forms while dogs sniff items in the train.

In the new protocol, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol will finish all the inspections in the Vancouver station and summon Royal Canadian Mounted Police if necessary — similar to what has been done in the Vancouver airport since 1974, says Bruce Agnew, transportation director for the Cascadia Center of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. No more stopped trains along Boundary Bay.

“Anything that reduces travel times boosts ridership, and it’s a more pleasurable experience, right?” he said.  On the other hand, privacy advocates have raised alarms about U.S. homeland-security personnel and policies expanding into Canadian territory, the Huffington Post reports.

There are only two round-trip trains a day now, and Cascadia will prod the Legislature to find funding for a midday roundtrip, Agnew said. Besides the new deal to reduce inspections, which makes more efficient use of existing trains, Canada scrapped a proposed $1,500-a-train northbound inspection fee that Amtrak objected to paying. In addition, more than $100 million in federal stimulus is being invested in track improvements in Everett and Blaine. Another major obstacle remains, to reduce mudslides at Mukilteo.

A total 20,759 passengers crossed the border leaving or entering Vancouver on Amtrak trains this August, a 26.5 percent increase from a year earlier. In all, 91,464 passengers rode a Cascades train in August 2011 between Vancouver, B.C., Seattle, Eugene, Ore., and points between.