At the recent WSDOT Public Transportation Conference, WSDOT Rail Operations Supervisor Kirk Frederickson offered a thorough update on WSDOT’s Intercity Rail Program. While STB’s readership will be familiar with many of the current projects – Point Defiance Bypass (PDB), the King Street Station upgrade, Cascades Trainset Overhaul, other ARRA/HSIPR improvements, etc – there were many new ideas and projects to pass along.
Perhaps the biggest news is that under federal law, Cascades must be financially independent of Amtrak by October 2013. Thereafter, the governments of Oregon, Washington, and (perhaps someday) British Columbia will assume all operating costs. This presents short-term funding challenges, as Amtrak currently provides 24% of Cascades’ funding, but this independence may also offer a measure of long-term protection against hostile Republican administrations. In response, WSDOT and ODOT will complete their joint corridor management plan by January 2013, and WSDOT is also developing a new State Rail Plan.
Because of inertia, precedent, and due to the fact that the Coast Starlight and Empire Builder will remain under Amtrak, Frederickson said Cascades will likely retain Amtrak under contract as its operator. Interestingly, however, Frederickson left open the possibility of choosing another operator:
“There have been discussions all around the country, particularly in Congress, [and] Republicans would like to see more free-market [principles] brought to intercity rail, as it’s a monopoly right now. So we’ll never say never, and we will look at different things that we can do as we try to get different operators. Are we completely wedded to Amtrak forever? The answer is absolutely not.”
- Fares will become even more dynamic. Top prices will increase in 2013, but in order to compete with BoltBus, more aggressive discounts will also be offered for advance purchase tickets.
- After significant delay apparently related to wi-fi, Oregon’s trainsets will arrive in December 2012 after being tested and certified in Pueblo, Colorado. They will enter general rotation in Spring 2013.
- The new trainsets will not have rotating seats, but they will continue the push-pull operations with which we are familiar, meaning most passengers will be seated backwards in one direction of travel.
- WSDOT is considering new scheduling options, even before the Point Defiance Bypass is complete. Frederickson cited Train 509 as an example, which arrives in Eugene around midnight and often runs nearly empty south of Portland. As all southbound service to Eugene currently arrives in the evening (5:03 on the Starlight, and 8:50 and 11:45pm on Cascades), officials are considering replacing the PDX-EUG section of Train 509 with bus service to allow for a new early morning train from Portland to Eugene, likely timed to become Train 504 (9:00 am departure from Eugene).
- After the Point Defiance Bypass is complete, Frederickson reiterated that one of WSDOT’s main scheduling priorities is to add early morning departures from both Seattle and Portland, with the goal of arrivals in both cities between 9:00-10:00 am.
- There are no plans to add additional stations, despite numerous requests from municipalities. However, WSDOT has begun developing criteria by which cities can qualify for stations in the future.
- When asked about underperforming stations, specifically Stanwood, Fredickson said, “We are going to take a good look at what we’re getting for those stations, and what we’re losing there. If, say, we’re only picking up one person, we will have to be mindful of the big picture. When we have stations that are underperforming, we will take a look at possible changes.”
- 73% of current ridership is either under 35 (43%) or over 55 (30%). Riders are 86% white, and average household income is $76,000. Frederickson indicated a desire to grow ridership among minorities and adults aged 35-55, but he also confirmed that marketing campaigns will continue to cater to the established rider base.