2013 will be a volatile year for Amtrak Cascades. In October, WSDOT and ODOT must assume the full operating costs for the service, as Sec. 209 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) requires that the feds divest from all state-supported corridor trains of less than 750 miles. Without additional funding from the legislature, losing Amtrak funding will mean a 23% hit to the operating budget, or $9.8m annually.
But in the 2012 State Transportation Budget, the legislature largely tied WSDOT’s hands, mandating that Stanwood Station be served in perpetuity, that Amtrak Cascades runs may not be canceled outright, and that WSDOT actively plan for a 3rd Vancouver BC roundtrip. Alternatively, WSDOT is actively looking at truncations to make up the shortfall. At the State Rail Plan meeting I attended on October 31, WSDOT staff said the most likely victim would be trains 513/516, which could revert to terminating in Bellingham instead of Vancouver BC. In the context of the nearly $1B in capital grants received between Seattle and Portland, WSDOT is rightfully committed to adding a minimum of two more SEA-PDX trips; in any funding shortfall, service north of Seattle would have to take the hit. While highly regrettable, truncating a Vancouver BC train would be the least worst option.
Lastly, while mostly overlooked at the time, lawmakers included an earmark in the 2012 budget to study the costs and benefits of adding an Amtrak Cascades stop in Auburn:
5) $300,000 of the multimodal transportation account–state appropriation is provided solely for the department to conduct a study to examine the interconnectivity benefits of, and potential for, a future Amtrak Cascades stop in the vicinity of the city of Auburn. As part of its consideration, the department shall conduct a thorough market analysis of the potential for adding or changing stops on the Amtrak Cascades route.
Until now there has been no process by which cities could appeal to WSDOT to add their city as a stop. Several cities have informally expressed interest; Blaine has long wanted a stop to draw potential riders from Surrey and White Rock for whom neither Vancouver BC or Bellingham are convenient. Lakewood officials have held out the possibility of a stop as one means of getting them to drop their opposition to the Point Defiance Bypass. Auburn’s study will likely set criteria by which cities may apply for stops in the future.
Amtrak Cascades is a huge success story, with annual ridership of nearly 1 million and farebox recovery at 65%. With greater frequencies, new rolling stock, a more direct route, and improved running speeds in the next few years, the future for intercity rail between Seattle and Portland looks bright. But with dozens of annual mudslide-induced cancellations, British Columbia’s lack of investment, and plans for truly massive freight expansion north of Seattle, the future for Vancouver BC service is grim.