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.