I’d like to first say that I’m thrilled that Prop 1 passed by a comfortable margin. I’m also very pleased that the California High Speed Rail passed. It’s been covered already by various folks here on what should be done next locally, however I will be taking it a step further by going into detail what needs to be done to the Amtrak Cascades to make it a viable alternative to the shuttle airlines, Greyhound, and driving. Part one of this series will cover what is being done currently, how the Cascades is funded, and what projects are being done to increase the frequency of the trains.

In order for Amtrak Cascades to be competitive to this market, the trains need to achieve a 3 hour travel time between Seattle and Portland. Washington State DOT has a long-range plan which will bring SEA-PDX travel time to 2 hours and 30 minutes but not until at least 2020 if funding holds up. Before we get to ahead of ourselves, let’s look at the projects being worked on now which will increase the frequency and on-time performance of the Amtrak Cascades.
More below the fold.

King Street Station:

A multi-joint venture project has recently been completed at King Street Station. This project realigned the main line 300-700 feet East between Royal Brougham and Lander Street. This allows freight and passenger trains to operate without little to no delays to either. With the relocation also came the new third main line which extends from Royal Brougham to Tukwila (just behind the Family Fun Center in Tukwila) and a speed limit increase from 20mph to 50mph for passenger trains and 35mph for freight trains through South Downtown Seattle.

Amtrak and Sound Transit will now proceed on a final design for the new Coach Yard, where passenger trains are cleaned, serviced, and light-repairs are made. The new coach yard will turn Seattle into a medium sized maintenance center for Amtrak saving money on having to transport locomotives and equipment to Los Angeles, CA, Tacoma, WA, or Beech Grove, IL. New storage tracks will also be built where the old main lines were located at. You’ll see this construction increase next year along with the new building springing up.

Tacoma – Point Defiance Bypass

Construction is slated to start this Fall for the Point Defiance Bypass which will reroute passenger trains from the more scenic but heavily congested waterfront corridor to an inland route that follows Interstate 5. Currently, only BNSF and Tacoma Rail operates on these rails with a local freight jobs which works Ft. Lewis (BNSF) and South Tacoma (Tacoma Rail). The plan calls for upgrading track, ties, installing new signals, upgrading grade crossings, and upgrading track speed from 10mph to 40 to 79mph. Part of the DOT plan eventually calls for 90 to 110mph on this same corridor. While not official, there could be a possibility of the Cascades stopping at Lakewood Station, the nearest stop to Ft. Lewis and McChord AFB.

Vancouver, WA Rail Project:

The Vancouver Rail project which started construction this Summer will help reduce freight congestion in Vancouver, WA. Most of the BNSF and Union Pacific freight traffic runs between Seattle and Vancouver and heads up the Columbia River Gorge to Pasco, WA ( BNSF) or Hinkle, OR (Union Pacific) and points East. The plan states that the tracks will be realigned to the East side of the Vancouver rail yard. This move will allow trains to hold at Vancouver to change crews without holding up passenger operations. While not part of this plan, the Vancouver train station is in the process of being remodeled which also started this Summer.

Portland Union Station:

Union Pacific and Amtrak will be working together to replace the bolted rail with welded rail. This will allow faster departures and arrival from PDX.


Once all of these projects are completed, estimated currently at 2012, WSDOT will be able to add additional trains. The Point Defiance route for example will allow WSDOT to add 2 more daily round trips, the Vancouver Rail Project another 2 or 3 round trips.

However the biggest item that WSDOT needs to focus on besides adding trains is reliability. The Amtrak Cascades is averaging about a 67% OTP, mostly due to freight congestion, the rest are due to locomotive failures en route. This needs to dramatically increase to at least 85% to 90% before adding more service otherwise the ridership, while it continues to grow at a decent rate, will eventually detract users back to other modes of transportation because they can be on-time, regardless of how comfortable, fast, or clean it is. As most people know in France, Japan, and Spain, punctuality is key to excellent service.

How is Amtrak Cascade funded?

The operation of Amtrak Cascades is funded by passengers, the states of Washington and Oregon, and Amtrak. Funding from the state of Washington comes from taxes collected from the sale of new and used motor vehicles, car rentals, and vehicle weight fees. These funds are directed to WSDOT’s intercity passenger rail program by the Governor and the state legislature.

Some federal grants are also received by WSDOT for rail projects. It should be noted that no state or federal gas tax dollars can be spent on rail construction projects or Amtrak Cascades operations. State and some federal funds go toward rail construction projects that allow Amtrak Cascades trains to run safely, reliably, more frequently, and with reduced travel times between cities. State funds are also used for day-to-day operation of the trains.

While this is a good way to fund the current trains, we need to look at what would be best to expand Amtrak Cascades, including new service, expanding service, making the service safe, and making it a reiable, viable alternative.

In Part 2 on Monday, I will give a break down on Amtrak Cascades service to Vancouver BC, the delay to adding a second train and the current projects in Washington and British Columbia which will reduce the run times nearly 20 minutes. I will also go into some detail on what to expect for the upcoming Vancouver 2010 Olympics.

In Part 3, I will give my opinion regarding Amtrak Cascades from on-board the train. Live blogging from Amtrak Train # 501 and my experience with Portland MAX, Streetcar, and the tram and live blogging again from Amtrak Train # 506. I’ll also plan on stopping at Powell’s Bookstore for a while (I need to rebuild my Dean Koontz collection) and a possible tour of United Streetcar to see the progress of the new 10T3 Streetcar under development. I will give my thoughts on what the DOT should do in terms of funding for new equipment and improving train service, along with much, much, more.

Until next time, hope you enjoy this series.

21 Replies to “Amtrak Cascades – SEA-PDX Part One”

  1. In-cab signaling is needed to improve speeds in this corridor, too, right? (Specifically, it’s needed in order to rise beyond the 79mph limit mandated by the FRA for line-of-sight signaling.)

  2. Admittedly, manyof your improvements that are currently underway also serve to increase reliability. :)

    If your departure/arrival time is near the rush hours in either city (7:00-9:30 am/4:00-6:30 pm here and 7:30 am-9:30 am/4:30-6 pm there) then the train is already competitive in terms of speed of journey. Really the main place that commuter airlines and driving beats the train is the plethora of departure times available – so well, I’m basically agreeing with you except I’d put the frequent service stuff at the beginning!

    1. What cjh said.

      Oh, and I appreciate posts like this. If we’re going to find ways to make trains really work the we need to know the roadblocks in our way. Have fun in Portland.

      1. Just to put a fine point on the frequency issue, if I wanted to run down to Portland for a quick meeting, then I’d have the following options:

        1. Take the 7:30–>11am, and catch the 6:15–>9:45pm back (hoping my meeting doesn’t go long).
        2. Take the 7:30-11am, and catch the 2:50->6:20 back if my meeting is really short (and hope it doesn’t go long).

        And that’s it, short of having some strange evening meeting or getting a hotel room.

        If I do the same thing for Vancouver, I only have one option: 7:40–>11:35am then the 6:20–>9:05pm. And we’re spoiled – the poor Vancouverites don’t have an option that doesn’t involve a hotel room.

  3. Great post. I think Amtrak Cascades is a great resource and it’s nice to see that improvements are being made. It’s hard to track all the small projects along this route and understand their service impacts. I look forward to your next several posts on this topic.

    However, I do have a slightly off-topic question related to KSS. I know that work is (finally) getting underway on refurbing this facility, but I’ve been having trouble finding on-line info tracking the progress. Do you know of any sites that are currently doing this?

    Many thanks.

  4. This is excellent info, I’m looking forward to this series. I ride Cascades about once a month and am thrilled to see this already pleasant travel option improving!

  5. In-Cab Signaling is required for speeds above 79mph, that would be installed as Positive Train Control is installed in our region.

    Strangely, nobody is covering the remodeling of King Street Station except for me on my photo site. You can view that at http://macster.smugmug.com

    I’ll be posting another update tomorrow afternoon since I need to pick up my tickets for the trip.

    I forgot to mention a couple of other projects – There are 3 more new crossovers and rebuilding of an old cross over in Chehelis. 95% of the new crossovers are new or have been upgraded to 35mph or 50mph crossovers.

    I should also mention that with the installation of PTC may encourage high speed freight trains as well. What I mean by high speed freight trains is 70mph for intermodal (container trains) 60mph for general freight..over-tonnage freight, like unit grain or coal trains will still be restricted to 45mph.

    I hope that while we may never be like Amtrak California, we’ll at least get to a point where people heavily rely and depend on the train to get between Vancouver, BC and Eugene, OR.

    The hope of less than 6 hours between Vancouver BC and Portland, Oregon would be an incredible feat for us!

  6. I wish we (some public sector entity) could buy the UP right-of-way, double-track it and lease it back to the freight users, leaving the BN for commuter rail all day, and letting Amtrak use whichever route is faster. High speed rail needs a lot more than cab signals; it needs protected or grade-separated crossing everywhere. That’s hard to accomplish on the BN line, which runs right through every community in the valley (which is exactly where you want commuter rail to be).

  7. It would interesting if you took a GPS unit to compare the speed of the train with the posted speed of the track. I’d be interested in determining how much time each stop adds to the schedule and comparing that to the average boarding for the stop.

    Is Tukwila or Oregon City or Kelso worth the X minutes it takes to slow down, stop, and then get back up to speed?

  8. You should check out the bike network and culture while your down there as well. Something they have been doing lately is replacing street parking with big bike box parking. Its awesome!

  9. Well, Tukwila Station on/off’s as of 2006 was approaching 18,000 passengers while Oregon City Station was seeing 6500 passengers.


    Josh, is there a place where I can rent a bike down there near Portland Union Station?

    The average station stop for Amtrak Cascades is about 2 to 5 minutes. I’ve timed this several times. Even with a handicap/wheelchair, it’s still no more than a 5 minute station stop which is included as padding at each station.

    1. re: station stop time
      What is the acceleration of the F59phi?

      A stop is 2-5 minutes, and then tack on the X minutes to slow down/accelerate back to the “cruising speed”. Say 5 minutes total on top of the stop. So each “minor” stop adds 10 minutes to the travel time.

      A ‘Limited’ (P-V-T-S) would save four stops (K-C/C-O-Tu) for 40 minutes (which seems like a lot of time). So with the current schedule, and lots of other assumptions, that would get you to 2h50m.

      I’ll leave it to others to shot this down, but I’ll advocate for hourly service between PDX and SEA, with service on the even hour being “limited” and otherwise all stops.

      Part of the reason Oregon City has lower boardings is the number of trains that stop there. Perhaps when ODOT finds that pot o’ gold to provide four trains like WSDOT the numbers might increase (of course if the Tukwila station provided a direct shot to SeaTac …).

      re: bike rentals – Don’t know of any myself, and since AMtrak isn’t DB, they don’t offer it. (Another future service improvement – ZipCar and bike rentals at all stations).

  10. Brian, this is great — it’s really neat to have insight into what’s coming.

    Will you go in detail into what will increase OTP in the future? Are delays usually conflicts with freight? Or are they other things (equipment failure, signalling, etc.)?

  11. Brian, do you still plan to discuss the possibility of extending Sounder to Marysville, English and Standwood? I sure hope so. It would be nice to identify the hurdles involved in this. Is it possible to extend Sounder north without the north cities being in the taxing district.

  12. Steve,

    In Part 3 I will be going into detail on OTP, how and why the delays are happening (expect odd graphs) and other items like what you mentioned.


    I responded to that question but in short, ST can only operate within the taxing district. Thankfully though, it is easier to extend the district already a part of the county than add a new county into the district (Thurston for example)

Comments are closed.