Where to begin after the troubling news that was brought forward to us recently? Washington State Department of Transportation reorganized the passenger rail division during a critical time when federal funding is available for key improvements along the corridor. These improvements would wildly benefit thousands of passengers who take the Amtrak Cascades daily. Read on below the fold.
WSDOT’s press release regarding the restructuring of the department says the following;
“Rail, both passenger and freight, is a critically important component of the state’s transportation system”, said Scott Witt, State Rail and Marine Director. “We don’t take these moves lightly. But we believe this restructure allows us to combine and focus all of our assets in support of Washington’s rail program”.
While the press release tries to lessen the blow, the damage has been done. WSDOT has reorganized and removed the rail office along with key members who have brought the service so much recognition throughout Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration. This move was not covered by any of the news channels, except for at Seattle Transit Blog and Trainorders.com. Far too little coverage for something that could impact a significant amount of passengers, including the business market.
In a time where we need to look at many ways to reduce our regional congestion, we also need to look at alternatives. While I do drive and understand the importance of it having an automobile, I also believe strongly that we need alternatives to our mobility. With the Amtrak Cascades service, I haven’t had the need to drive to Portland or Vancouver. Transportation in both cities are world class and easy to get around thanks to the vast bus and rail networks.
Business travelers are yearning for alternatives to expensive air travel. A simple trip to Vancouver or Portland from Seattle can easily take the same amount of time by rail or plane once you factor in security, flight delays, the occasional go-around and then taking a taxi or some other form of transportation to get to your final destination. At the same time a plan trip plane costs anywhere between 119 dollars to 400 dollars, one way. While the train, especially in its current format, isn’t free of delays, that can change and the service can become more reliable and moderately faster than its current model. Imagine less stress dealing with airport security and the ability to conduct your business on the train: no longer having to wait hours in line and sometimes, in the cold or sweltering heat. Imagine the service expanded what what the ripple effect would be. You may think this would be an impossible feat, it would be several tens of billions of dollars, like California’s future $40 billion dollar system. Think again and at a fare that you wouldn’t think of neither.
Washington State DOT has spent nearly $8 billion dollars in the last five years on road projects along the Interstate 5 corridor with several billion dollars to go. Some of these projects have been extremely helpful, others could have been preventable for at least another 10-20 years or if the state was more aggressive in transportation as a whole. People drive because there isn’t any viable alternative or the alternatives do not mesh with their schedule. Will everyone hop on a train? Certainly not! But it would create a huge shift and a change in the way people do business, travel for leisure, or just taking a trip to get away from it all. With the $1 billion dollars spent on I-5 projects between Olympia and Napavine, the Amtrak Cascades could be operating nearly 8 to 10 trains daily trains between Seattle and Portland with travel times just under 3 hours and with nearly 95% reliability that the train will be on time or early. Another billion dollars would bring us within 2 hours and 30 minutes either to Vancouver or to Portland by rail, beating driving and flying and taking you to the core, the heart, the City Center while increasing to nearly 14 trains a day between Seattle and Portland and 4 trains between Seattle and Vancouver BC.
Imagine being able to travel by train from Vancouver BC to Eugene, Oregon in 6 hours? This is exaclty what is prescribed by the WSDOT Mid-Range Plan. While we keep referring to the European model of train travel, we have built up and sprawled out so much that speeds of the nature of 186, 200, 220, or even 250mph, just is not realistic for our region. All of our efforts can be done at a simple, cost effective, 110mph. Will we see anything above 110 or 125mph? Not in my lifetime and mind you, I am only 24.
Airlines will easily beat any transportation solution, medium distance (greater than 700 miles) however Transrapid Maglev would increase that distance out to 1000 miles with its capability of fast acceleration, high speeds and ability to climb steep mountainous grades. Its still new technology makes the system prohibitively expensive and unrealistic…for now.
Intercity rail travel has been expanding worldwide for years. Every few months, we see articles coming out with news of a new high speed rail route opening or announced some where. A few months after its opening, it is common to see something like “High Speed train has taken marketsare from airlines”. This is common worldwide, except in the United States. Canada has been studying and envisioning a high speed rail link between Calgary and Edmonton and may start construction on its route in 2010. While we in the States have talked, for several years, we have only sat and continued to envy the world. As they grew, we studied and talked, debated and talked some more. The only action, though limited, is the California HSR project which won a stunning approval in November 2008. California has grown in a different fashion, the government has finally realized that building roads is no longer a sustainable option. It only took 50 years for that realization to hit. It isn’t a surprise though that current HSR operators, such as SNCF, are interested in the program. The world is finally watching the United States rail system begin to grow and prosper, one state at a time. Most questions however remain – Will California get the funding to fill the gap ($30 billion) or will it sink?
The Amtrak Cascades program has been looked at by many states who wish to model the success of the program. The Midwest High Speed Rail is a huge backer of our program. The unique Spanish tilting equipment has dramatically helped our region reduce times while improving comfort over the standard Amtrak equipment. Travel time for standard trains is 4 hours between Seattle and Portland and with the Talgo tilting trains, we are now capable of doing the run in 3 hours and 30 minutes. Since we have increased our service to 4 trains a day, WSDOT’s passion for the train does not seem to follow in its birth steps and aggressive campaign for the train. The lack of trains and service improvements have been slim at best, though the new leather seats and recently introduced wi-fi on the trains are a huge boost. The lack of service increases may be in part of BNSF Railway, the owner of the railroad tracks between Seattle, WA and Portland, Oregon, we still should be much further ahead of the curve than we are at currently.
The federal stimulus package contained $8 billion dollars and the President’s budget included an additional $1 billion dollars a year for the next five years for high-speed rail. With $13 billion available, this gives the 11 designated corridors, which include the Amtrak Cascades corridor, ample cash to compete for. I recently went over what WSDOT has submitted for funding, which was just under $700 million. What this money will go towards are several new train sets, key track improvements to increase train service, speed and reliability, installation of Positive Train Control on an accelerated schedule, along with reduction in travel time throughout the entire 480 mile corridor. The current route, if it was capable of end point to end point travel, would take 10 hours and 30 minutes. To this day, there isn’t a single through train between the ending terminals (Vancouver BC, Seattle, WA, Tacoma, WA, Portland, OR, and Eugene, OR). One is expected to begin by 2015, if the state gets the funding, and that the travel time will be no more than 7 hours. While it isn’t a huge improvement, it goes a very long way and meets driving time, as long as no traffic is encountered but flying, even with the 2 hour layover at Sea-Tac or Portland International, would still beat the train, if from Vancouver BC to Eugene. Only a dedicated high speed rail (HSR) would be able to compete if needing to go between these destinations and only at a speed of 170mph or greater with limited stops.
This is what I believe needs to happen in order for the program to continue its success and to have a proper future.
- Fund the projects that will benefit the program the greatest and fastest. Reliability and sustaining speeds should be the focus.
- We should not have a system without some sort of maintenance facility, not a open shed like we have currently.
We should not have to send our equipment to Los Angeles or Illinois for service. That is our jobs being “shipped out”, though I know, unless we acquire a large heavy duty facility, that not everything can be done here. The maintenance and reliability of the F59PHI’s are pathetic. We should not have so many frequent equipment failures on the road that we are having now. Something simple like blowing the horn should not put the train into emergency…..
- Start increasing the trains in the corridor, 1 or 2 trains a year, until we reach our end goal, which should be no less than 18 trains by 2030.
- Procure equipment that is easy to work on and with: Talgo 21 DMU for example would be a great model to use with Detroit Diesel or Cummins engines. Both companies have a large workforce in our region. Several community colleges also offer diesel engine classes, incorporate these classes with the project.
- Stop relocating funding to other projects! This is how projects end up several years out or eliminated.
- Focus on the passenger amenities, make passengers feel welcome. The refurbishment of the 5 train sets which included new leather seats, along with the new addition to wireless internet is a great first step.
- Better food and beverage selections. I’m not asking for a full chef meal but something other than a rock hard bagel.
- Look at how to expand East/West trains, even if it is tri-weekly. I know people in Eastern Washington would love to have the ability to come over here without having to worry about pass closures and not wake up at 2am to do so. These trains would most certainly benefit Eastern Washington on either line, not to mention tourism. There are currently no passenger trains on Stampede Pass and there is a daily Empire Builder on Stevens Pass via Wenatchee but the schedule is unattractive for daily local use.
- Keep the stations clean and upkeep. No station should be allowed to go into such a dysfunctional state such as King Street Station.
- Most importantly – Keep the citizens informed of happenings of the trains, on or off the train. Start a blog when the major projects start or train delays. Let passengers know that it is NOT Amtrak’s fault for the delays they are having, unless it is actually their fault. People are much more cooperative when you are honest with them and not finding out the truth on the 5pm news.
- Address areas prone to flooding. Twice now, freight and passenger rail services have been halted due to flooding in the Chehalis valley. Amtrak would have played a very critical role transporting people between Seattle and Portland had this been addressed sooner. The billions of dollars lost in freight revenue is also very unacceptable for any agency or railroad.
From my standpoint as a person whom only hears what is going on in the background, I am still very much troubled by the prompt reorganization of the passenger rail department. I am even more worried about the lack acknowledgment from WSDOT since passenger rail is no longer listed, except for Cascades link. Very little is known what the state is doing when it comes to rail projects and what they are doing. Unless you search for the projects, you have to separate information from the 300+ other roadway projects vs. the 30 or so projects for rail. This is troubling to me because the United States Department of Transportation wants to see stability, viability, visibility and a strong backing of the states rail department. An office in the verge of a collapse or reorganization will show the federal government that we are in a state of disarray. This is one of the many variables that USDOT will look at in examining what state will get funding and how much funding each state will get.
I can, of course, be over-analyzing all of this but the voices within WSDOT give me more of a concern with the direction of the department entirely. The decisions from the Washington State Ferries to the Alaskan Way Viaduct all show an influx in the department as a whole. I can only hope that my gut is wrong, which it can be wrong though I hope for the sake of many people, that I am wrong.
I can only hope for the best of the Amtrak Cascades program and its future expansion. I, along with the nearly 800,000 people that have boarded the trains to various locations, all would agree that we yearn for more, we want more service and we want it sooner than later or not at all, as it is viable to our state and our economy. At its current status, it is a weak offering to what should be available to us when compared to other services, like the Amtrak Surfliner or Capital Corridor trains. We have had the Amtrak Cascades service for 10 years now as we are now celebrating its anniversary of service. As we look and hear that other trains have expanded, we should have some comfort that we at least haven’t downgraded service.
Call me cautiously optimistic about the future of the service but until the State of Washington restores faith in me and thousands of others that voice their same concerns, don’t expect the state to change its position until the government changes itself and prove itself that it actually cares about the program. While this is all easier said than done, that is the underlying problem, we just talk, we don’t ever act. Now, is the time to act.