Amtrak leaving Seattle by Brian Bundridge
Amtrak leaving Seattle by Brian Bundridge

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 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.

Amtrak Cascades at King Street Station
Amtrak Cascades at King Street Station

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.

  1. Fund the projects that will benefit the program the greatest and fastest. Reliability and sustaining speeds should be the focus.
  2. We should not have a system without some sort of maintenance facility, not a open shed like we have currently.
    Seattle Maintenance Facility.....
    Seattle Maintenance Facility.....

    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…..

  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Stop relocating funding to other projects! This is how projects end up several years out or eliminated.
  6. 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.
  7. Better food and beverage selections. I’m not asking for a full chef meal but something other than a rock hard bagel.

    Amtrak on a special charter to Yakima
    Amtrak on a special charter to the Yakima Fair
  8. 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.
  9. Keep the stations clean and upkeep. No station should be allowed to go into such a dysfunctional state such as King Street Station.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.

48 Replies to “Opinion: WSDOT and Amtrak Cascades”

  1. Great piece on a subject from an author that knows quite a lot about but also doesn’t claim to know everything.

    It is educated, reasoned opinions like these that form the foundation for good decisions in government – so long as there are seasoned professionals there to receive same and not grandstand to the uneducated.

    On train sets – as you all know current Sounder sets are only used twice a day, a single trip in the morning, a single trip in the afternoon. Somehow this seems a horribly inefficient use of capital and labor. Expanding regional service to Bellingham and Olympia could likely be done at very little additional cost – a couple of hours of labor only and a small amount of additional maintenance.

    Maglev is long term and it will be built elsewhere in the U.S. first. However if we are throwing billion dollar chunks of change around to upgrade the system to the 110-125 mph range then we also ought to be planning for maglev ROW.

    We shouldn’t forget that we are home to an airplane maker. Boeing should definitely not use their clout to interfere with this legitimate competitor, however a close corporate review of costs to make sure these projects are fiscally sound in construction and operation is very much needed.

    1. Which reminds me… Why doesn’t Boeing make trains again? Why, given the state of our economy, are we buying trains from Québec and the Czech Republic when we could be making them here? Might keep them from laying so many people off and if even half of the trains in this country were supplied by Boeing… well they’d be a lot richer.

      If we had a smart governor or state transit department, we’d build a new Amtrak Cascades line with Boeing built (or at least designed) HSR trains.

      1. Boeing-Vertol built light rail cars for San Francisco Muni and Boston MBTA and they turned out to be very unreliable products. With their reputation tarnished, I don’t think they want to get into that business again.

    2. Do I need to write a “Why Maglev is pointless” post? It can’t go any faster than conventional rail, but it costs arms, legs, and small countries more.

      1. Thanks, Ben – I was just about to write what you wrote, almost word for word. Plus, one of the advantages of rail is inter-operability. Most standard gauge trains can operate on most standard gauge tracks anywhere. Keeping it simple, keeps the price down and allows for greater flexibility as systems grow.

        Brian’s post is as good a piece of writing as has appeared here in a while – should be required reading for all legislators and Kemper Freeman; all who are interested in the growth of transit should re-read it 2 or 3 times.

      2. If a real high speed (150 + mph) train is added, it will have to be either elevated or tunnel; and Maglev does not cost more to build than rail. As a matter of fact, it’s operation and maintenance and noise is far less than steel to steel rail units.


  2. Amtrak has recently announce its plans for the new maintenance facility in Seattle, thanks to the ARRA funding.

    PRJ Number PRJ29116001


    Two new buildings will be constructed at Seattle King Street Maintenance Yard in Seattle, WA to facilitate current and future Cascade and other long distance train maintenance operations in the region. The first, a 75,000 +/- square foot building (750 feet long by 100 feet wide), will be a service and inspection building. The building will contain train maintenance facilities which will include a wheel truing machine, 200 feet of inspection track, welfare facilities for employees, and material storage. The second building will be a multi-story, 60,000 +/-
    square foot (450 feet long by 60 feet wide) building. This building will contain material control facilities and employee welfare facilities for the entire yard operation.

    Total Cost $35,000,000

    This funding will go towards what is already allocated. Construction will start this April.

  3. Great post. I have always wondered why its nearly impossible to get a train ticket to Portland or Vancouver unless you are leaving wednesday afternoon.

    1. Yeah, for now at least, it is impossible to go either direction with the schedule. When the 2nd train starts, it should be possible to go either direction though the arrival into Vancouver BC or Portland, OR will be late. Still, better than nothing!

      Since I finally caught up with my e-mail, I got a note from Scott Witt regarding the future of the service that has brightened my day.. I’ll have another post next week, which will highlight what has happened this week, including Senator Mary Haugen, D-Camano Island, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, removed ALL rail projects, thinking that the stimulus funding is for freight and passenger rail.

      1. Grrr … to Sen. Haugen. For a majority of the rail projects Federal funding won’t pay 100% of the cost. Besides the Feds are really big on seeing some form of local funding match with most transportation grants.

        The Pt. Defiance bypass needs to get done, the sooner the better. If the state had its shit together we’d be starting Sounder service to Lakewood this year.

        A real commitment to improving both freight and passenger rail between Vancouver and Portland as well as East/West service via the 3 cross Cascade lines (Stevens, Stampede, Gorge) will be far cheaper than expanding highways and airports.

        $600 million to widen I-90 over Snoqualmie pass? What could that buy if it was spent on rail instead?

      2. That TNT article is infuriating. First we’re told, “What would not be funded in the Senate budget are any more work on the Cross-Base Highway ” and then later it goes on to say, “There is only $591,000 in the 2009-11 budget for the Cross-Base Highway.” In other words $600k pissed away on ramps to nowhere. Think about what that could do if leveraged with Federal funds for rail. Does Sen. Haugen really think the stimulus money is going to do 100% of anything or is she just blowing smog to try and placate voters?

        How come tolls are expected to cover half the cost of the SR520 do over and little or none of the equally expensive and virtually same length viaduct replacement tunnel? Is it because not enough people really want the tunnel bad enough to pay to use it? I think the deep bore tunnel has taken on legacy status for Mayor Nickels and Gov. Gregoire but they may be digging their political graves asking the state to fully fund this big dig project during a time falling revenue and budget cuts.

  4. Wonderful, well developed article Brian. Lots of food for thought.

    Just as ST’s Link isn’t a solution to congestion, but an alternative to it, the same logic applies to I-5 and the airline routes along the Cascade Corridor.
    What our previous Passenger Rail office has accomplished, with the direction and support of key governors, legislators, and heads of the DOT in the last 15 years is really impressive. And for not much money!

    Talgo HSR first generation tilt trains have transformed the corridor with more than twice as many travelers choosing the train over flying between Portland and Seattle. And that’s with 125mph capable train-sets limited to just 79mph, and only being on-time about half the time, due to conflictions with freight traffic.
    The projects to be submitted to USDOT/FRA in the next few months for 100% funding will add 4 next generation train sets, eliminate many of the bottleneck along the route, raising on-time performance to 95%, AND allow our fast trains to really go fast over much of the route with safer grade crossings and positive train control.
    Even more impressive, is that the trains will get twice the fuel economy and pollute half as much as either cars or planes for the same trip per person.
    If this isn’t in everyone’s best interest to get ‘on board’ over, then I’m at a loss as to how we reverse the trends of a society that has been self indulged with a car culture for way too long.

    Farebox recovery is currently in the 60% range, and expected to be self sustaining(100%) by the time our states adopted HSR plan is fully implemented.

    I’m assured by Scott Witt, Freight Rail Manager WSDOT, and several key legislators, that our rail program is moving forward, and will continue to do so. Everyone is holding their breath (and fire) to see if they walk the walk, and not just the do the talk.

    1. Mike, please don’t refer to the current Talgo trainsets as HSR. It’s misleading, since the corridor doesn’t operate at anywhere near HSR speeds, and by most standards even 125 MPH isn’t considered HSR. Also, I’m not so sure that you can really attribute the growth in ridership to the Talgo trains, although I’m sure they’ve played a part.

      However, I am excited about the future of the Cascades line and look forward to the day when I can actually get a ticket for a weekend trip (more trains!)

      1. Thanks Eric, you beat me to it. I think it’s clear that the Talgos can do 125, which by FRA is considered HSR. In practice, they’ll be limited to 110, with all the improvements – which is a big jump over the 79mph there limited to now – nearly as good as the NE Corridor trains.
        But, with the Senate zeroing out all rail improvements, and WSDOT eliminating all references “passenger rail”, this may be a moot discussion.

      2. Talgo XXI (also known as the Talgo 7th generation) is a high speed diesel-powered train, that operates in push-pull with one or two locomotives. They have been built to North American standards — in compliance with United States FRA regulations — rather than to European UIC standards. It has travelled at 256,38 km/h on the Olmedo – Medina del Campo high speed experimental line on 9 July 2002.

        This has given it the world speed record for a diesel train.

  5. Thinking about Amtrak can get exhausting to say the least. I can’t think of anything else that has so much of the fraught and anxious nature of a difficult childbirth.

    Like Brian, I am an enthusiast for additional train service in Washington State and I agree with all of Brian’s points on the subject. We need through connectivity on the trains through from Eugene to Vancouver so that it becomes a straight shot between all of the cities along the line. We need way more trains that we have to bring ourselves up to comparable European standards – one an hour at least between SEA and Vancouver, BC and the same again between SEA and PDX. To my mind, these both seem projects that should be funded sooner rather than later.

    We also need more train service to Spokane from Seattle and from Portland to eliminate the current unsociable connection times at stations along this route. At present, Spokane is served in the late evening or early morning hours on both the in bound and out bound Empire Builder trains to and from Seattle/Portland to Chicago. This should be corrected by some daylight hours train service across Washington State. Those vacationing in Leavenworth or the Wenatchee Valley should not need to get up in the early hours of the night or the late evening to make return trips to either Spokane or Seattle.

    Increasing track speeds and times on the Amtrak Cascades between Seattle and Vancouver and between Seattle and Portland also seem top objectives and whether we do it by building a dedicated track for Amtrak trains grade separated from BNSF trains, we improve sidings (such as the Vancouver, Wash. switching yards) or we build bypasses around Point Defiance matters little so long as the goal here is to do or complete one or all of these things.

    Here at the Seattle Transit Blog, I really think we need to provide the engine behind the train of these ideas and really push WSDOT and the State to ramp up both their funding and committment to these ideas. And we need to capitalize on the current federal government’s commitment to expanding high speed rail in the United States. This is a grabable moment and we need to seize it before that life raft hope floats out of sight on a fast flowing river of change.

    Brian is right about the stations falling into disrepair. King Street Station is currently being renovated but we are a long way off from calling this complete. The roof and the clocks and the tower all look nice now, but the front, the windows and the interior are dreadful still. We need to fund the ceiling restoration project asap and complete the front of the station as it looks out on to 2nd Avenue South – the area with the ‘grand staircase’. This area has fencing that is falling apart and stinks of urine and other smells.

    Tacoma needs a nice new Amtrak station too although I believe that Amtrak will be moving to the Sounder Freighthouse Square platform at some point. Anyone know if this is so?

    Olympia needs something better than what it currently has – this after all is the closest station to the State capitol and needs something a little grand, don’t we think?

    lastly, we need to think about adding Amtrak and/or Sounder stations to Broad Street and Ballard in Seattle and to Monroe on the Empire Builder Line. Having a station at both ends of the Empire Builder going into and coming out of the Cascades at both Monroe and Leavenworth would be excellent I think. It should not have taken five years to get Empire Builder trains to stop for two to three minutes at Leavenworth! How silly is this as a negotiation?!! Someone clearly has not been forceful enough with the BNSF, commited enough at Amtrak or frustrated enough at WSDOT or whatever agency has been helping with the negotiations. Thanks to Rob Eaton at Leavenworth, this project has some likelihood of coming finally to fruition.

    OK, now back to looking for a job for me, but let’s use the power of the blog to keep the pressure on WSDOT and the State to stay on track with Amtrak’s needs.

    1. I consider the fact that King Street is getting any attention at all to be a huge improvement. Hopefully the money to finish the renovation/restoration will be forthcoming soon. Transferring ownership from BNSF was a big step forward.

      As far as I know the plan is to move the Tacoma Amtrak station to Freighthouse Square when the Pt. Defiance bypass is finished. Hopefully Amtrak will get its own space within the building, though even sharing with Sounder will be a big improvement over the current station.

      The current Olympia station is a huge improvement over the old “East Olympia” flag stop which simply had the train stop at the Rich Road grade crossing. No platform, passenger shelter, or parking. Olympia never really had a grand passenger depot even back in the heyday of rail, so Centennial is the best station the city has ever had.

      I agree about Broad St. at least for Sounder service. For getting full utility out of the station I think the South line trains need to serve it as well as the North. I’m not sure if that would be possible though given capacity issues on the BNSF line North of King St.

      1. The focus on King Street is part of a multi-step plan to make Seattle a rail destination, something that evokes images of old-timey trips through the Rockies to an exotic coastal city or the current VIA Rail system in Canada where you can zip to and fro comfortably without waiting 2 hours at the airport.

        I think ultimately, when we start to relax from this Post-9/11 tension, there may be a new consideration of fare options and the possibility of faster check-ins and daytripper check-in to make the experience as efficient and comfortable as possible. This is why King Street’s upgrades are so perfect right about now.

      2. [comment edited, ad hom]

        I’m not sure that you noticed that VIA Rail has been as much if not more starved for funds than Amtrak over the course of its history. That it, like Amtrak, is reliant on mostly old but refurbished passenger cars or hand-me-downs (like the Nightstar leftovers). That it doesn’t have any high-speed service on even the Acela level. That most of its service and spending is lavished on one particular corridor. That its boarding procedures at large stations are remarkably similar to ours (if not even a bit more restrictive). Heck, the Canadian (basically VIA’s version of Empire Builder) is three times a week rather than daily.

        That Vancouver has been forward thinking about intracity rail does not mean that Canada has been forward thinking about intercity rail even as a touristy thing.

        But I guess Canada is sort of exotic so uh, yeah.

      3. That the only daily VIA Train in Western Canada does not exactly connect with the Canadian or Amtrak Cascades, that little problem of the Georgia Strait being in the way. The Malahat runs between Victoria and Courtenay on Vancouver Island. Supposedly VIA tried out Superliners on the prairie when they were still being built, but budget cuts eliminated it. One thing that was eating at their budget, was how the trains were heated. They were still using steam heating as late as 1993! When VIA was being formed in the late 1970s, Amtrak was beginning to upgrade the inherited equipment to HEP.

        TRAINS Magazine did a good story a few years ago on VIA’s 25th anniversary, it included a map covering all the additions and subtractions over the years. There was a once extensive network in the west, that was cut over the course of the 1980s, and I do not just mean the Canadian vs. Super Continental, but branch line trains, a few connecting major cities, like a Calgary-Edmonton route, many of the branch-line services were mixed trains and BUDD RDCs. THere is one rural branch-line route left in Manitoba, off the Hudson Bay’s route, Mixed Train 290/291, a couple combines on a freight train. It runs alternate directions, alternate days, connecting with the Hudson Bay at The Pas, Manitoba.

      4. Personally I believe that we should do the same kind of work that we’re doing for the tracks in the Point Defiance Bypass to the tracks that go into and out of Downtown Olympia and have a station there. That would greatly increase ridership and make it a lot more convenient.

  6. A recent question on a test got me thinking about taking a rail trip this summer. This is a timely blog post for this. Looking at the Cascades schedule, it is deplorable that there is no way to rail from Olympia/Lacey to Vancouver. All connections are via Bus. However, I think that a trip to central Oregon or California would be a great trip/adventure. A flight would entail at least 3 hours of waiting around in a sterile airport (round trip) about 2 hours road travel to and from the airport, and 4-5 hours stuck in a tin can in too-small seats and no way to stretch your legs out.

  7. I took the Cascades from Vancouver, B.C. to Seattle on Tuesday and it took an hour just to get to the border. Leaving Pacific Central Station was awful with a single track in poor condition. The “platform” was an asphalt path without a curb! They actually had to get off the train to manually switch the track while I sat there and watched the Skytrains zip by like bullet trains on both sides. WSDOT can only do so much without cooperation from the Canadian side for the Seattle-Vancouver run.
    Forgot to say great post! Looking forward to reading the next post!

  8. Tim good comments except about Olympia. You either have never been in our station or you are ignorant!! Our station is the only station in the United States that was built entirely with volunteer funds. People by the score use our station and comment on how beautiful it is and what was done here. Please e-mail and I’ll personally escort you thru the best station in the country. Our station is operated by 63 volunteers from 8:30 am to 8:30 pm every day.

    I’ll forgive your comment as long as you do more education!!

    Richard DeGarmo
    Chairperson Centennial Station Volunteers
    Olympia, Washington

    1. Well no, I have never been in Olympia station, only through it and so I stand corrected. I only go by impressions in cases like this when I have gone through the station area, I concede you have more experience and knowledge of the station than I do and so I stand corrected. Is there some reference in the station to the fact that it serves the state Capitol? I am going to be down in Olympia a week on Monday so I’ll check it out. Can I get to the city center from there?

      We can nitpick on some other station then – what if anything can we celebrate about the station at Vancouver, Wash.? Kelso and Longview? Actually their station seemed to be OK last time I checked, but my main concern is making sure some momentum is kept up for King Street. Portland seems to have done a great job with their one and even Los Angeles has a great station.

      1. Tim,
        Intercity Transit does serve the station with two routes that get downtown eventually. I don’t know how well they synch up with train arrival though.

        The Vancouver, WA station is actually a nice historic depot, as is Kelso. Centralia has a nice historic depot too.

        Between Seattle and Portland Tukwilla is by far the worst depot, followed by Tacoma. Tacoma used to have a really nice old station but it now houses the US District Court.

        I’m not sure why Tukwilla gets an Amtrak stop and Kent, Auburn, and Puyallup don’t.

      2. WSDOT did a study in the mid 90’s on adding either Kent or Tukwila. The ridership was about the same for each… so the Mayors of each city essentially flipped a coin to see who got it. Mayor Rantz won.
        (level 3 planning!)

      3. I’ll go down the list, I’m sure people would be interested in this!

        Vancouver Pacific Central Station – Not sure if it has been remodeled yet but it looks incredible. Opened in 1919, Rebuilt in 1993.

        Bellingham/Fairhaven Station – Opened in 1995. No scheduled remodel

        Mt. Vernon/Burlington Station (also known as Skagit Station) – Opened in 2005, No scheduled remodel

        Stanwood Station – Under Construction, Opens Fall 2009

        Everett Station – Opened in 2002, No scheduled remodel

        Edmonds Station – Opened in 1956, tentative construction date of new station, 2012.

        King Street Station – Opened in 1906, has had 2 renovations done to the station in its lifetime, the 3rd, underway, should be finished in 2011.

        Tukwila Station (Cascades/Sounder Only) – Opened in 2000, permanent station funded by ARRA funding and ST2

        Tacoma Station – Opened in early 80s? (No info available) Moving to Freighthouse Square when Amtrak service is moved to Freighthouse Square (dependent on WSDOT)

        Olympia/Lacey (Also known as Centennial) Station – Opened in 1994. No scheduled remodel.

        Centralia Union Depot – Opened in 1912, Rebuilt in 2002.

        Kelso/Longview Multimodal Transportation Center – Opened in 1912, Rebuilt in 1995.

        Vancouver (WA) station – Opened in 1908, Partial rebuild in 1988, full restoration to be completed in 2009.

        Portland Union Station – Opened in 1896 – Rebuilt in 1988. Minor work to be in 2009.

        Oregon City Station – Opened in 2004 as a platform only, City of Oregon City has future plans to move ex-Southern Pacific Depot to location.

        Salem Station – Opened in 1918, Rebuilt in 2000 by ODOT

        Albany Station – Opened in 1909, Rebuilt in 2004 by ODOT

        Eugene Station – Opened in 1908, Rebuilt in 2004 by ODOT

      4. What you might want to do is when you go inside the station, ask one of the station volunteers to show you around the station. I would be most happy to meet with you on a Saturday or Sunday and show you our station manual and give you the tour outside and give you a chronology.

        Unfortunately, because the main BNSF line is east of the city of Olympia, there is no direct route. We do have bus service from the station (Intercity Transit) which comes by every 50 minutes to downtown Lacey and Olympia. We also have taxi cab service.

        Would be my pleasure to show you around. Let me know.

        Richard DeGarmo

  9. Richard! Good to see you buddy! I couldn’t agree more that Centennial Station is truly a wonderful station. The volunteer staff are by far some of the best I have met. Any chance of getting the webcam(s) going again? =D

    Intercity Transit, if they could afford it, could have dedicated buses to serve that station. There just isn’t enough service (rail that is) to justify it.

    If they were to run a bus, the most direct route from the Capital building to the station is 20 minutes. I’d say the bus could do that in 25 minutes. The current offering is 30 minutes and 50 minutes, give or take via the Intercity Transit Route 94 or 64. Both buses combined serve the station about every 15-20 minutes.

    1. ahhhh, good ol 64

      I have taken buses from Ocean Shores all the way in to Centennial a couple of times to take the Cascades up to Seattle or down to Portland a few times. It seems like the 64 sure takes its time to wind around before shooting out to the station. Straight shot buses to meet the trains would be cool. Of course, they would be subject to delay as the trains are delayed. Tie them into the train schedules for connections at the Olympia TC and you have service made of win.

    2. I have never understood why either Mason County Transit Route 6 or Grays Harbor Transit Route 40 (or both) couldn’t be extended to serve Olympia Centennial Station, with the condition that passengers could ride on these non-Thurston County providers even if their journey was solely within Thurston County.

      Give the drivers a snackbox off of the train as bait? Surely Centennial Station is a nicer place to lay over than the Olympia Greyhound Station?

      Perhaps make these routes into Amtrak Thruway services like the Monterey Salinas Transit Route 55 which runs from Monterey, CA to San Jose, CA and attempts to connect with Amtrak trains there (with joint ticketing) but can also be used by non-Amtrak travellers:

  10. So could one of you please explain to me exactly why we will never see real HSR in our lifetimes? The only reason you give is that we have “built up and sprawled out so much.” California is going to have 220 mph trains in 10 or 12 years, and it practically defines sprawl. There are no real barriers to having high-speed rail here; once we get out of this recession and the economy picks up again, I can see a lot of people voting for 220 mph trains from Vancouver-Eugene and Seattle-Spokane.

    1. The only realistic way I can see how HSR will be built here is by demo’ing at least 4000+ homes and businesses. The Seattle to Tacoma corridor would be next to impossible since it is developed from water to water (Puget Sound to Lake Washington) There isn’t any room in the valley that would handle HSR.

      From Tacoma to Centralia I could possibly see 150mph here and if shared with the BNSF ROW after Nisqually. From Nisqually to at least Centralia would be good for 125 to 150. Anything above that would require a vast amount of relocation’s or displacing home and business owners.

      Centralia to Winlock would be hit and miss but again, several hundred homes would need to be displaced.

      Winlock to Vancouver would be only place, if there was room with the river traffic, that may be possible for anything about 150mph. I can not see anything above 186mph however. There just isn’t the space, again without displacing hundreds or thousands of homes.

      As it is, the full build out of Higher Speed Rail, according to the Long-range plan would be nearly $8 billion dollars and I believe those figures were 2003 numbers.

      1. I’m not a ROW expert, but I do know that there always is a way. I’m not talking about just widening the BNSF ROW; most of the CAHSR track will be brand new (and on the Peninsula between SF and San Jose it will share tracks with existing rail). Once you get south of Tumwater, density is very low, with the exception of your occasional burgeoning metropolis like the Centralia area with a population of 30,000. All along I-5 between Tumwater and Vancouver, you could easily take 30 feet on one side of the highway and put in tracks and get 200+ mph. You could even put them in the median in some places. From Tumwater north, it will take some creativity, but in some places we can share tracks with BNSF, in some places we can put new tracks in some extra space in the I-5 corridor, and in other places we can put it on an elevated guideway.
        My point here is, don’t just brush something off because you can’t think of a way to make it work; there is a way and if we work to get some studies done and build up momentum, it can happen not just in our lifetimes but in a couple decades.

    2. The really high speed sections of the California High speed rail are mostly out in relatively empty areas of the Central Valley. CHR is going to have to slow quite a bit in the LA basin and between San Jose and SF simply because of the difficulty of fitting track into an urban area.

      As it is if the long-range plan is fully implemented and the corridor electrified we’ll have a mostly 110 MPH line and higher average speeds than Acela in the NEC.

    3. California is going to have 220 mph trains in 10 or 12 years, and it practically defines sprawl.

      I will bet you an enormous sum of money that, no, California will not have 220 mph trains in 10 or 12 years, certainly not going from NorCal to SoCal. Their proposal is one of the most dishonest rail proposals I have ever read.

      The top speed, trackage, and cars– The only reason that they proposed 220 mph trains is that that was the requirement in the state legislation authorizing the bond proposal. (Technically, the legislation placed limits on door-to-door transit times; see Senate Bill 1856.) But the CAHSR proposal actually suggests going along existing trackage in several areas, sharing it with Caltrain and even freight. If you share trackage anywhere, then the FRA regulations are going to be much more onerous. The FRA requires a much higher level of safety for trains than for automobiles, or than anywhere else in a world. That’s a different discussion, but the end result will be heavier cars than in Europe and Japan, less able to reach top speed (or be as energy efficient.)

      The average speed– Despite that, they’re claiming an average speed that exceeds that achieved anywhere in the world, whether on the shinkansen in Japan or the TGV in France, of 197 mph from Gilroy to Palmdale, for example. Nobody comes close to that on any line throughout the world. The top speeds might be possible, but there’s no way they achieve the average speeds promised. Look at Cascades– the biggest amount of time lost is where the train slows down to 10 mph (!) in some urban areas. But CAHSR proposes blazing through urban areas at 100+ mph.

      The passenger load– The CAHSR proposal suggested that, judged by load (passenger-mile per route-mile), the CAHSR will have the highest load factor in the world, again exceeding the shinkansen or TGV, despite the higher population and higher population density in the regions served by the shinkansen. (And that fact that more people travel via other transit means in Japan, lower car ownership, etc.) They’re predicting a load factor of 85%.

      The cost– The $9 billion in bonds won’t come close to constructing it. Even if CAHSR got all of the $8 billion in the stimulus, leaving none for the other corridors, it still wouldn’t do.

      Community opposition– The NEPA requires community involvement. People are going to say that “they’re in favor of the train but…” they don’t want local roads closed, loud construction, houses demolished, higher density transforming their neighborhood (see complaints here in Seattle in Roosevelt about density), or fast trains. The Interstate Highway System construction ran roughshod over community wishes; the NEPA was one of the results. We all like paying attention to the community, but that means that the plans will be delayed and will not escaped unscathed. Another legacy of the IHS.

      The timeline– It will slip, both because of not enough money being appropriated yet (hello Port Defiance, on a larger scale), and because of environmental obstacles and mandatory community consultations, among other things.

      1. As I read the proposal the shared right of way was grade separated along the same corridor, not sharing the same tracks. I don’t understand the can’t do attitude on technology. One thing we affirmed with the space race was that if American sets it’s mind to it we can achieve the “unachiveable”. Looking at speed to weight ratios how did trains of yesteryear compare. I’m thinking the Southern Pacific Daylight wasn’t a light weight and able to achieve over 100mph.

        Metropolitan Tokyo-Yokohama is roughly the same population as California. Almost all of California’s population is within San Francisco/San Jose service area of the proposed HSR. Distances between cities compares favorable with short hops by air which sets up HSR ideally to compete. What’s more California is still growing where the population of Japan has leveled off or is actually shrinking so 20 years from now HSR in California looks pretty good.

        The distance from San Francisco to Los Angeles is similar to London to Paris. Compared to building a tunnel under the English Channel (shared with freight) the challenges in California seem fairly tame.

  11. Well, the main issue I can see is getting BNSF to agree with using catenary in our region. They run those Boeing high-top cars which are, if I remember correctly, taller than an autorack or double stack car.

  12. Well, let’s see if this will work…

    All Aboard Washington remains deeply concerned with this “reorganization” of the WSDOT Rail Office, as announced on Friday the 13th. While we continue to believe the release and reassignment of those whose superb efforts, for many years, have been primarily responsible for Washington State’s rail passenger program’s being considered the “National Model” WAS A SERIOUS MISTAKE, our focus now must be on making all efforts to help ensure that Washington receives a just share of the unprecedented Federal stimulus money for passenger rail corridors like ours. Equally important, All Aboard Washington is working with State legislators, remaining staff at the Rail Office, and other highly-interested parties to help ensure that our passenger rail program is not downgraded, but takes full advantage of the rising demand for more and still better passenger train service and the unique opportunity to secure more trains and improved rail infrastructure.

    AA WA’s Olympia-based Executive Director suggests that communication with State legislators, members of our Congressional delegation, top management of WSDOT, and other important public decision makers must emphasize the need to move forward with securing the maximum Federal Stimulus dollars and continuing to expand and improvement our existing Amtrak Cascades service. Efforts to discover or to assign blame for what is near-universally seen as a bad decision within the WSDOT are not productive at this time. All Aboard Washington’s primary mission must remain promoting passenger rail as an integral part of Washington State’s transportation solutions.

    And as an example, I provide the e-mail I sent to my legislators-

    “I am concerned that Washington State Department of Transportation is not aggressively seeking federal stimulus funding to upgrade rail passenger service in the Cascade Corridor. The Obama administration has announced their interest in funding passenger rail and we have two Democratic Senators It seems the only way we can possibly not get this funding is if Governor Gregoire and Washington State Democrats allow WSDOT to fail to apply.

    I encourage you to make a phone call and express your frustration to our transportation chief about the failure, to date, to apply for hundreds of millions in Federal funding that should be readily available to us.”

    The Washington Democrats may make this a safe state for Democratic presidential candidates, but my question is, do they make it a safe state for us?

  13. 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.

    You’re giving Canada a little bit too much credit. I mean, all over the USA we’ve been “studying and envisioning” high speed rail links and had plans to “may start construction” in various places. There’s a difference between studying and envisioning and doing it.

    Your article also ignores the important impact of the National Environmental Policy Act. It takes 7-10 years of EISes to get a real megaproject started. Look at the timeline for the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor. Environmental review just takes that long. It’s a little less for upgrades to existing roads or rails, but still substantial.

    The big difference with roads is that there’s a pipeline of existing projects. While it takes years to do an EIS for a new project, while that’s going on there are other ones ready to go whose EIS work has already been completed. When stimulus funding is available, those plans are done and they’re “shovel-ready” projects.

    The current environmental regulation perversely makes it really difficult to switch our national strategy to incorporate new HSR tracks. You’re faced with telling voters, “Well, we can build some roads that we’ve already studied, or we can wait seven years until we finish the environmental impact studies for this new rail, and then start construction, which will take several more years.” Luckily some projects, like Cascades or even SEHSR, have studies that are largely completed, and would be able to use money soon for at least incremental upgrades. But it’s taken a long time to get there.

  14. John Thacker – thanks for a very good and much needed dose of reality! We simply cannot do it all by tomorrow or next week – medium speed rail (110 MPH) is at least a decade away from Nisqually to Vancouver, WA and even further out north of Nisqually and south of Vancouver, WA.

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