Photo by Dave Hanon 2006

In this part, we will look at how Amtrak Cascades is funded and what it would take to expand service and possible new service including two new stations that will be coming online in 2009. Those new to this series, check out Part One and Part Two

Amtrak Cascades in Washington and Oregon are funded in totally separate ways. We have never had an ability to seek other funding with other high cost ballots, even if they were regional. Getting additional money to fund these trains will take work from the two governments to make these trains available. I had e-mail conversations with ODOT and WSDOT Rail Divisions on just what it would take to expand our local service and what other routes may be possible or even restored.

Washington State’s funded portion of the Amtrak Cascades covers trains between Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, BC. Funding comes from the Statewide Multimodal fund. This fund consists of a portion of revenues derived from the motor vehicle registration and weight fees, there is also a portion of the sales tax on vehicles and a portion of the surcharge on car rentals. It would be up to the legislature and governor to make any decision to increase taxes or move around existing monies in the Multimodal Fund for additional service.

In December, a draft mid-range plan will outline the possibilities of new service and improving on-time performance along the route. I have not had a chance to contact to discuss just what it would detail.

Currently, there is no resolution date with adding the second train to Vancouver BC. This solely rests on the hands of the Canadian Government. The good news however is the return of the Talgo equipment in spring 2009 between Seattle and Vancouver (Amtrak Trains 510/517. It should be worth mentioning that Vancouver BC does not fund any part of Amtrak Cascades. WSDOT provides this service at their dime.

Phase 2 of the Talgo cars will start shortly. Phase 1 which focused on the seats, passenger entertainment and information system has been completed. In the 2009-2011 biennium, WSDOT will focus on the overhaul of the bistro cars. Phase 3 around 2011-2013 biennium will focus on several behind the scenes mechanical overhaul items. It is best to keep an eye on the website for additional information as it progresses.

When the Point Defiance Bypass is completed, WSDOT is planning on moving the Amtrak Cascades and Coast Starlight to this route. While this would affect some of the vast scenery, there is a time benefit of an initial time reduction of 6 minutes. In the future when the line is increased to 110mph, the time savings could be as much as 10 to 15 minutes. If the Amtrak Pioneer is restored, it would follow this routing as well.

Two new stations will be coming online in 2009. Stanwood station, an unmanned station will open Spring/Summer 2009 for the Amtrak Cascades and just recently announced, Leavenworth Icicle Station will open Fall/Winter 2009 which will serve the Empire Builder and Alki Tours Leavenworth Snow Trains. Both stations will be served by transit when they open.

WSDOT is also examining the cost and options for adding wireless internet on the trains. Providing 100% coverage for the duration of the journey will be the most difficult aspect with the vast amount of tunnels, cuts, and local issues. A study with an experienced rail internet provider will determine in the next 6 to 8 months to find out the feasibility of mobile internet on the train.

The key for expansion of service is equipment. If Oregon were to purchase bi-level equipment, it would free up one trainset for use on the Seattle – Portland segment. Most equipment manufactures are pretty booked solid for the next couple of years as demand for rail service increases. WSDOT, Amtrak, and Talgo are working close together to figure out the best solution for our region. The 5th trainset would be in service between Seattle and Vancouver BC. The 5 trainsets if “locked” between Seattle and Portland would provide 8 to 10 roundtrips depending on scheduling. If it remains at its current level (1 trainset Eugene-Portland, 1 trainset Vancouver BC – Seattle) it would allow for only 5 round trips between Seattle and Portland.

Oregon State’s funded portion of the Amtrak Cascades covers a portion of Vancouver, WA to Eugene, Oregon. Oregon contracts with Amtrak on a year-to-year basis to operate two roundtrip Cascades trains between Portland and Eugene. The contracts coincide with the federal fiscal year so their term is October 1 through September 30. The current contract which began on October 1, 2008 calls for state payments of $4,773,492 plus fuel costs that exceed $3.09 per gallon (F59PHI holds 3000 gallons = $9270.00 if empty) the fuel costs are compiled on a monthly basis. Oregon pays for the trains with a combination of general funds appropriated by the legislature and by the revenue generated from extra fees paid by motorist to obtain “vanity” license plates. The vanity plate fees constitute a dedicated funding source that generates about half of the money needed to operate the trains, roughly $2.5 million yearly.

In order to expand increase in Oregon, the state will need to switch to a dedicated funding source rather than gambling every two years that the legislature will appropriate general fund money for the service. The Governor just proposed a new transportation plan for the legislature to consider when it convenes in January hat would create a dedicated funding for non-highway transportation but it is so far unclear if that would also include funding for Amtrak Cascades.

Upcoming service expansions are currently by Amtrak Thruway bus service that the state contracts with private operators to provide. Presently between the Eugene-Portland corridor, Oregon offers six southbound and six northbound schedules daily. Two of these are Amtrak Cascades, one is the Coast Starlight, and three are Thruway buses. On Friday and Sundays a fourth Thruway roundtrip bus is operated. The next service addition for the corridor will most likely be a daily fourth roundtrip bus that would fill a void for the morning southbound service from Portland and early evening northbound service. There aren’t any firm plans at this time for adding this new run. The Thruway service is not costing Oregon anything as, after years of needing a subsidy, the service has became self-supporting in the era of high gasoline prices. With the recent Amtrak bill, Idaho and Oregon would like to see the restoration of the Amtrak Pioneer service between Seattle and Chicago. Many other states have also been adding pressure for the return of the service, however, equipment shortages may make the return next to impossible.

Like many of Amtrak’s issues, Oregon has been disappointed with the timeliness of the Cascades service between Eugene and Portland over the Union Pacific Railroad. Recently, Amtrak announced it would seek arbitration with Union Pacific over its contract concerning poor on-time performance. The state of Oregon has provided money to assist with improving on-time performance with $15 million in capacity improvements back in 2000. Union Pacific has yet to finish spending this money some eight years later but it is expected to be finished next year. Union Pacific spent $10.6 million building a signalized run-through track in Albina Yard in Portland. Union Pacific is now turning their attention to track and signal by extending Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) through Eugene and building a new 15,000 foot siding at Eugene Yard. After the project is finished, Union Pacific will have continuous CTC from Klamath Falls to Albany whereas, today, there are “island” of Automatic Block Signals (ABS) and yard limits in affect at Eugene, Klamath Falls, Albany, and Salem.

Oregon suspects Union Pacific will ask for additional money for capacity improvements and so forth as the service is built out and expanded with more frequency. As of now however, there are no plans to add an additional track between Portland and Eugene but it would be a very expensive proposition should that time come. Up until the terrible Metrolink accident, Oregon was contemplating a cap of just 79mph but now with the congress mandated safety regulations that every passenger route must have Positive Train Control (also known as Positive Transit Separation, PTC/PTS) gives the possibility of increasing to 90mph. The Portland – Eugene route has almost 86 miles out of the 124 miles that would be suitable for 90mph. As it is now, most of the route that is currently 70mph could be increased to 79mph with changes to the crossing circuitry. Union Pacific does not “honor” the Talgo tilting equipment and operates at normal passenger train speeds. While this is not a problem considering the gentle curvature and flat nature of the route, it would be pointless to seek this option. However, Oregon is considering purchase of bi-level equipment, such as those ran in California (Amtrak Capital Corridor or Surfliner) If they were to buy California type cars for their trainsets, it would just operate between Portland and Eugene, freeing up Talgo equipment to protect more runs between Seattle and Portland where tilt-train technology does matter more. Oregon would also seek the purchase of new locomotives if and when the time comes.

This concludes Part Three – the last installment will be my opinion on what should be done on the service. This should be up Friday morning for the enjoyment of it all.

A big thank you to WSDOT Jeff Schultz and ODOT Robert Melbo for taking the time to answer the questions I had for them and explaining things out to me. It gives a much wider picture as to what exactly is going on, along with the struggles that our service is seeing. With the new administration coming on in a little over 2 months, both states have a lot of hopes for expanding service and accelerating projects.

As always, I look forward to your questions and comments!

18 Replies to “Amtrak Cascades Part Three: Funding and Expansion of Service”

  1. I am interested in the Leavenworth portion of your interesting report – has funding been secured to build both the Station and the platform?

    Do you know if there is a deadline for the second train to YVR from Seattle to happen and whether, if it doesn’t, WSDOT and Amtrak will just give up on the idea?

    I support a long term goal of hourly trains between SEA and PDX and between SEA and YVR.

    We can dream on, right?


      1. I stand corrected – thanks! At least I got the right city because the airport code for Vancouver (YVR) is very similar to the one for Toronto (YYZ) and making sure I don’t confuse these two is half the battle. The other half I guess is remembering when Amtrak uses airport codes for its stations and when it doesn’t!


  2. Tim,

    As of November 10th (I think) approval for construction of Leavenworth “Icicle Station” awarded and just needs to come up with the remaining amount of money. It is expected to open Fall 2009.

    As far as I am aware, there is no deadline but I could be wrong in that regard.

    Hourly would be nice now but that will be 10-15 years off give or take.

    1. Brian

      When you go to the Christmas Lighting in Leavenworth, perhaps you could update us on what is going on at the station site over there and if there are any signs of a newly developed platform. I keep meaning to do a buy a brick for Leavenworth’s platform but I keep thinking it is not going to happen.

      Because of the projected departure times of the Empire Builder from Leavenworth as it heads back to Seattle (6.30am)I think it is going to benefit Spokane travelers arriving for a weekend in Leavenworth on a Friday or Saturday morning than it is Seattleites who would be arriving on the outbound Builder at 8.30pm and have to leave for the return Builder early on a Sunday if they wanted to have a good chance of making it to work on Monday morning at a reasonable time. Also, it will mean early breakfasts for them in Leavenworth before they leave and hotels and B&Bs will have to accomodate this.

      These niggles apart, stopping the Empire Builder in Leavenworth is beyond a great idea and I can’t wait.


      1. The Leavenworth project is completely funded. They are still advertising for more people to buy bricks. But as of right now they are working on building the icicile station. I understand there will be radiant heating in the floor and possibly on the sides inside the station. Rob Eaton (major) is in charge of project and Rob has informed me that there will be a bus or something akin to this to pick up passengers at the station and take them to different motels in town and likewise to do a reverse to take people back to either connect with # 7 or # 8.

  3. Is there even any thought of electrification in this corridor? I’m guessing that nobody is even aware that it’s an option, which is a shame. Your typical electric locomotive offers 8000hp in a 99 ton package, versus 3200hp in 132 tons for the F59s, and thus can give vastly superior performance in terms of top speed and expecially acceleration, and would probably noticeably cut the SEA-PDX travel time. Plus, I bet cheap hydropower beats expensive diesel by an absurd margin, though of course putting up the wire is quite expensive, and you really need more trains before it becomes cost-effective.

  4. BNSF will not allow electrification on their mainline, period.

    It’s been studied several times, BNSF has declined to install wire over their rails because they operate high-wide cars. The pantographs would not be able to reach the height required to bypass the areas that need high-wide clearance.

    So while it is a good idea and a lot of this area USED to be electrified, we will never see a conversion to electric railway unless it is completely separated from BNSF.

    1. You can always order taller trains with higher pantographs. Provided there aren’t physical limitations on how high the wire can be put.

      There is a problem with *variance* in pantograph height — you can’t reach super-high wires and super-low wires with the same train design without quite a lot of work.

      And I’m guessing there *are* physical limitations, specifically through the rail tunnel underneath downtown Seattle. There is unlikely to be enough clearance to run overhead catenary through there and still allow all of BNSF’s current trains through; even if there is, it would require super-low pantographs with extra-tight clearance. This would conflict with the super-high wire needed further south (where the airplane parts travel).

      I suspect BNSF doesn’t run high-wide cars through the tunnel though. Perhaps if Seattle bought up the Union Pacific route from downtown to Tacoma, one of the two routes could be dedicated to high-wide freight and the other to passengers.

      If the problems with electrifying the tunnel under downtown could be solved, buying the UP track would probably allow for an all-electric Sounder, with a little extra work. An all-electric Cascades is another matter.

  5. If BSNF will not permit electrification, then perhaps an alternative to having a good service between Seattle and Portland is a dedicated two track ROW. This would perhaps allow 1 hour 20 minute express travel time down to Portland and to Seattle non stop (theoretically) if the train can travel at a sustained 150 mph. For Seattle-Portland, it would probably be best to establish a dedicated passenger corridor to attract those who use their cars.

    The problem with this is the capital cost, it would probably be around $4 billion dollars or so. However, if train service were to be at a service level like in Europe, would it perhaps sell better and promote more people to park their cars?

  6. “The pantographs would not be able to reach the height required to bypass the areas that need high-wide clearance.”
    False. All the electric trains in the US have high-reach pantographs, and can and do operate under wires that are high enough to clear double-stack cars. I’m too lazy to dig up the pictures, but you can find them, they show CSX double-stack trains running on the West Trenton Line, together with SEPTA electric commuter trains.

  7. Not false: the equipment I am talking about is MUCH taller and wider than any autorack or double stack that is typically ran. We do things differently out here =P

    I do believe even with 110mph travel time would only be 2 hours and 30 minutes. In order to achieve 1 hour and 30 minutes, the line would have to be Maglev or dedicated HSR at 186mph with limited stops (Vancouver, Everett, Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, Vancouver, Portland) but either system would be well over $8 billion dollars.

    I think the long range report actually stated that it would be cheaper to construct maglev between Van BC and Portland because of a smaller footprint and more capable of operating our grades out here without massive cutting or tunneling along with less eminent domain.

  8. Brian:
    Thanks for the update on what is, and isn’t, happening on the Cascades corridor, especially here in Oregon where it seems harder to find out. It was surprising to see Gov. Kulongoski include a proposal to purchase a trainset for the Cascades for $35 million but not include the recommendation to use the vanity plate fee increase to fund the service. (Although why it costs $35 million for one trainset is beyond me).

    What seems left out in the discussion, and perhaps this is in part IV, is any discussion of possible use for the money that could be available as part of the $13 billion rail package signed by Pres. Bush back in October. $1.5 billion (or so) is to go toward the HSR corridors and implementing projects. Hopefully WSDOT, ODOT and Amtrak have already figured out which project(s) they would like to submit to compete for those funds.

  9. Brian:
    I guess the only improvement for the Cascades in Oregon is the work around Eugene? That’s sad.

    Isn’t the Eugene-Portland corridor busy enough to merit some double-tracking? (or at least continuous CTC)

  10. I guess this is politics at it’s best.

    John Baird tells Miller to f off, Miller capitalises and it happens and streetcars worth $1.2 billion are bought. street politics at its best.

    Thankfully Toronto didn’t need any work done on parks, roads, bridges and sewers or anything else that could get unemployed folks off the EI rolls and working and help the city immediately.

  11. A potential disadvantage of doing it in general is that the subconversations would become more isolated from each other and it would be harder to discuss connections between them. ,

Comments are closed.