Photo by Mike Bjork

When stimulus funding for Amtrak Cascades was first announced earlier this year, it was unclear even to state leaders exactly what projects would be funded – just the goals the feds said they’d like to achieve. The state was asked to resubmit a full project list after the amount ($590 million) was awarded.

Our goals are relatively simple. Two more daily Seattle to Portland round trips should be added, and both speed and reliability should be improved – with on time performance aimed for 88%.

To do this, there are several bottlenecks along the route that must be improved. Trains should get out of the single-track Nelson Bennett tunnel in Tacoma and onto the Point Defiance Bypass, a bypass track is necessary to get around freight congestion in Vancouver, and new tracks are necessary around Kelso and Longview to keep freight trains out of the way.

WSDOT has finally submitted this full project list, broken down by when construction could start (as this is a stimulus package, after all), and we’re now waiting on the Federal Railroad Administration to give us the thumbs up.

Way down at the bottom of WSDOT’s press release is something else I’d like to make sure we all remember. There’s another $2.5 billion available for high speed rail from the 2009 federal transportation appropriations bill. We’ll be in the running for some of that money as well, especially if we break ground quickly on the “shovel ready” projects from this stimulus funding.

93 Replies to “Amtrak Cascades Stimulus Update”

    1. If they can make a profit on that service at $69 per passenger, $29 per 2nd guest, and free kids, God bless them. Since they are driving on a Federally subsidized road, I’d hardly call it a private sector option. Then again, Amtrak operates on, and pays track fees for, privately owned rails so both options could be called public/private. Same for Grayhound – heck, same for the airlines given all the Federal money in airport infrastructure.

      1. Federally subsidized by the Highway Trust Fund which comes from fuel tax plus all the tonnage, excise and special permit fees they pay.

      2. If they can make a profit, why didn’t companies like this build roads, and operate their service in direct competition with the Traction companies.

        Why did they need to be supported by broad based gas-taxes, paid for by the rest of us?

        They certainly don’t pay enough in all their fuel taxes, excise taxes a permit fees to cover the cost of building roadways for them to drive on.

        I do, and so does everyone else, by getting nickel-and-dimed with all the other taxes to support their business.

        In fact, if these trucking and transportation companies built their own facilities, they could actually sell off the excess capacity by letting John Q. Public use their privately owned and operated highways for a fee.

      3. For the most part the railroads were given the land that the ROW is on plus alternating one mile sections on each side of the track as an incentive to build the railroad.

      4. Other than it being Native American land, in the scheme of European-American expansion, the land had no value until it was developed with the railroad company money invested.

        Which goes back to my question, why wasn’t the same model used to create our road system? Why create a tax-subsidized scheme like we have now?

      5. Bernie,

        Dude, serious exaggeration! The NP got a land grant for its main line from Duluth to Sandpoint, ID. Henry Villard’s OWR&N got a land grant for the meeting track from Portland to Sandpoint along the south side of the river (the current UP main to Hermiston). The NP also got a grant for the Stampede line (the basis for the Weyerhaeuser holdings in the Cascades).

        The Oregon California & Eastern (now mostly CORP) would have gotten a land grant for the trackage from Eugene to Redding but failed to complete its line in the requisite time and so had to forfeit it. The ten-mile alternating sections are now mostly owned by the BLM and managed as the “OCE Lands”.

        The GN got no grants anywhere and the UP received none for the Green River to Hermiston section of the northwest extension. In fact, NO OTHER land grant was given for any track in the northwest, in particular including the Vancouver BC to Eugene tracks on which the Cascades run.

        It is true that the other pioneering lines, including the GN and UP northwest extension and the NP for its extensions throughout western Washington paid pennies for the actual roadbed. But that’s what the settlers paid, too.

      6. There’s RRs that were privately fund and there’s a history of turnpikes which were privately funded. The point is public subside to build transportation infrastructure was a well established practice long before the automobile. The Pacific RR Act to build the transcontinental RR not only granted land but subsidized the railroads per mile of track laid. The interstate system was built with public funds, it’s open for public use (unlike the railroads), it facilities commerce and it’s used by all those ST Express buses. It’s just ridiculous to try and say automobile use is unfairly subsidized when we all know that public transit is subsidized to a much greater extent and most of it is reliant on roads.

      7. “It’s just ridiculous to try and say automobile use is unfairly subsidized when we all know that public transit is subsidized to a much greater extent”

        You mean a much *lesser* extent, of course. I hope you don’t mind the correction.

        Of course, all sensible people with any economics training figure externalities (such as pollution) into subsidy amounts….

      8. “It’s just ridiculous to try and say automobile use is unfairly subsidized when we all know that public transit is subsidized to a much greater extent and most of it is reliant on roads”

        Well, then let’s lay out the plans for the AWV as we would for a ballot measure. Do the same for the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge.

        By paying as much as I do in gas tax alone, I subsidize these two facilities because I rarely drive on them. Forget the externalities for a moment, users of any multi-billion dollar infrastructure improvement should at least be paying a fare(toll) of some sort.

        The true costs would be obvious if every mode were run as a private enterprise.

      9. I agree with you Jim. But just because you rarely drive on a specific stretch of highway doesn’t mean you don’t benefit. The whole thing is a system. If you drive around the north end of the lake or use I-90 you benefit from the capacity of SR-520. Business in general benefit (customer and delivery access) and the highways act as a system. Say someone lives in Kirkland and drives 520 to Microsoft. That section of highway wouldn’t be getting the “corridor” funding if it didn’t continue into Seattle.

        520 is going to be tolled and for the first time in the State it will be “pre-tolled” to help pay the costs. I think the AWV should be using the same model. With the advent of electronic tolling I think we should greatly be expanding our tolling not just to help pay costs but to manage demand.

        The new Narrows Bridge was close to being a private enterprise model. We certainly should look at that (which seems to be a success) for 520 and the AWV. If private companies were building them might we see a suspended bridge across 520? Would they want to rebuild a viaduct instead of tunnel for Alaskan Way? I don’t know but the way both projects have been back room deals is bothersome.

      10. “I agree with you Jim. But just because you rarely drive on a specific stretch of highway doesn’t mean you don’t benefit.”

        Then any criticism of any transportation system because it might ‘subsidize’ someone else’s travel choices is a non-starter.

        That leaves two ways to resolve the issue.

        Either privatize, and let the free market decide,
        Have road projects go through the same process Sound Transit has to, with all the same constraints, (sub-area equity, defined projects, costs and benefit analyis, fare structure, etc.), and
        put it on the ballot!

      11. Um, you mean the empty highway trust fund being back-propped with income tax revenue?

        And you realize a lot of this right of way was purchased before the gas tax existed?

      12. Yeah, that’s the one. The one they take money out of to fund public transit and then replace it with general funds money. And the feds were giving away ROW to the railroads before automobiles existed, so what?

      13. Which means that any accusation of ‘subsidized’ transportation carries no weight in any discussion.

        However, I’d love to see the same critique of public transit applied to the road system, it would clear up a lot of things in the public’s mind.

      14. I often wonder how well road projects would do if they were subject to the same scrutiny and public votes as transit or rail projects.

      15. Quite badly. Look at that one mile of viaduct tunnel for 4 billion, imagine a rail project cost 4 billion for a mile, it would never be built.

        We complain about the cost of Central Link, and then turn around and buy a one mile stretch or road for two times the cost.

      16. Actually the cost of the tunnel is $2B, not $4B and it’s 2 miles long not 1 mile. The $4B is the project cost which includes rebuilding the seawall and surface street improvements; all of which would be done anyway. It’s the same cost as the Link tunnel to UW. I’m not convinced a billion dollar a mile four lane road is a great investment but if you’re going to carefully scrutinize please don’t exaggerate the cost per mile by 4X.

        Capacity and use are two different things. Central Link has lots of unused capacity. So do our road systems actually since they’re almost empty at night (but not shutdown). How much capacity will U Link have for freight? None, right. So we need roads and want light rail.

      17. So why do we have to vote on a ballot measure for transit?

        So far, I haven’t seen a local roads measure, specifically spelling out the projects, with their costs and user fees?

        How about an Alaskan Way Move ballot measure?
        An Evergreen Point Bridge Move ballot measure?

        All the I-405 expansion is happening without the rest of you voting for it. (I voted NO, at least for the 4 GP lane Alternative)


      1. Considering there is a trainset with the trial wifi on-board – it is coming, regardless of what you may believe.

        And FYI, they have not been saying that for years. It was only last year that they officially announced that it is coming to the trains. By this winter, all of the trains should be wifi equipped.

    2. Since you seem to be an advocate of the free market, you should be aware that the Wi-Fi and coffee provided are no less free than their free child policy. Every ticket includes the cost of wifi, coffee, and the subsidy for people with children. The single and childless Howard Roarks among us will not stand being penalized for not creating spawn for the government to tax into submission! (that last part was sarcasm I thought you’d appreciate).

      Also, I just went to the Amtrak website, and their services are only about $40-50, even for relatively last minute train service. All the trains for the rest of this weekend are sold out, suggesting that Amtrak should, in fact, add more service.

      1. Yes, Amtrak should add more service. However, it is not as simple as adding more trains. Amtrak really doesn’t have the trainsets to do it, which is why one of the things the state wants to do is buy another trainset. Oregon also wants to buy some trainsets. Then those trains need a time and space on the track to run, and to do that the tracks need to be upgraded and bottlenecks removed. At the same time these improvements will allow for faster speed and most importantly, better on time service. If those things happen, the new trains will probably be running full in no time.

      2. Does anyone know what the status of additional trainsets for Washington is? Any chance of piggybacking on the Oregon and Wisconsin order?

      3. It was mentioned elsewhere on here that we will not be able to piggyback on Oregon and… Wisconsin’s? order due to Washington being required take in multiple bids.

      4. Perhaps Talgo will bid. Given that it already knows it’s got an order, maybe its bid will figure that into its cost structure and give a better bid….

      5. The ironic thing is that Washington is requiring competitive bidding, it might actually cost us more as we aren’t able to get in with WI and OR.

      6. All the trains for the rest of this weekend are sold out, suggesting that Amtrak should, in fact, add more service.

        And sneak fares up a bit; summer surcharge like the ferries. Then you can run “specials” at the old rate when you bring the new service on line.

      7. “All the trains for the rest of this weekend are sold out”

        If you can travel midweek, you’ll find some good deals.

    3. Along with Greyhound, Amtrak, and the airlines, we have many public transportation choices to reach Portland.

      Ugh, Greyhound. After a rather horrible experience with them a few years ago, I’ll walk before I take Greyhound again.

      1. The last time I took Greyhound, we sat in the maintenance base in Seattle for half an hour and they never explained why. Never again.

      2. Are there any plans to raze/replace/do SOMETHING with Seattle’s embarrassing Greyhound station? It might be the single most unappealing building in Seattle.

      3. For me it was the rude behavior of the employees treating me as some sort of nuisance combined with a filthy coach and the smell of the chemicals in the toilet making me sick to my stomach for the entire trip. Never again.

        Oh, not to mention the coach left very late and was even later by the time I got to where I was going.

    4. Is there a bar and the chance to eat something? If not, I’m not interested.

  1. Or… a traveler could check out a book or audio from the “free” public library, and bring their own coffee. Or better yet, have a look at the “free” scenery outside the train along Puget Sound and through the countryside. Wi-fi schmi-fi – look up, out and around yourselves!

    1. For what it’s worth I believe the Cascades train sets have power at every seat now. If you have some sort of 3G card or tethering for your phone 3G will work most of the way between Seattle and Portland.

      The ride on the train is a bit smoother so it should be easier to get work done.

  2. I only travel on transportation facilities that pay property taxes!

    Also, 14-passenger vans are about the most dangerous ways to travel in the USA.

  3. The FRA is really playing catch up. They went from a “yea shall do” agency to one that has to administer contracts and projects.
    When I talked to Vickie Sheehan a month ago, they were still waiting for FRA to assign a Project Contact Person to WA State, so we could get going.
    I guess they hired someone.

  4. One improvement I’d like to see: espresso machines in the bistro cars. Understand from Talgo technicians that these are common on trains in Spain, where Talgo originated.

    Also, am conflicted about the Point Defiance bypass. Current line is old, slow, and complicated, but it’s also my favorite scenery on the trip.

    As for vans and Greyhound, I think both are excellent examples of the reality of privatized public transportation. Leather seats or vinyl, a van is still a truck, and rides like one. Both vans and Greyhound buses get stuck in traffic like any car.

    And right on about the interstate highway system, the biggest socialist project in history. Now that it’s coming to the end of its design life, maybe we ought to rebuild it according to its original purpose, for crosscountry military transport, avoiding cities completely. Leaving its urban right of way to be converted to rail.

    And give US passengers fast, comfortable train travel, which, like national health care, the civilized world has had for decades.

    Mark Dublin

      1. And excessive FRA regulations strike again!!!

        I can’t wait until Obama gets all rail put under them!

      2. I wouldn’t say they strike again. We don’t know if they’d have that problem!

      3. Saw a mock-up at King St. Station, and some artist’s renditions. The mock-up is in the back room near baggage. I suppose you could ask someone.

        I like the current layout, and so do most riders. It has a Northwestern ambiance. The new layout looks too generic.

    1. I think we can move military personnel and light equipment faster by train than by Interstate highway. As for heavy equipment, we can definitely move it faster by train….

      The “military” purpose of the Interstates was always a thin excuse, although their width does provide utility for some cases where train lines were never built to the correct widths. Contrast with the railroads of Germany, which were *actually* the linchpin of the entire German military strategy prior to WWI.

      1. Trains are much better ways to move military equipment and supplies long distances. Which is why the Army put a lot of money into building rail yards or ugrading rail yards at most bases in the 90’s. Avoids wear and tear on trucks and especially tanks. For major exercises at other bases, the soldiers fly in on airplanes and link up with their gear that came via rail.

      2. It’d be nice if we went to Yakima via rail. Few things are as cold as going through the pass in winter with your entire torso out the hatch of a Stryker.

      3. That reminds me of the wisdom of my decision to be an Army supply officer, travelling in a humvee with the heater on full. :) Unfortunately, Yakima is not quite far enough to rail to for military purposes.

        Maybe someday if the Pioneer is resurrected, then you can travel to Yakima via Amtrak (for non-military travel),

      4. Rail works great until someone blows up the tracks. Sure you can blow up highways and bridges are a problem but it’s much easier to rebuild and reroute trucks than trains. That’s why Germany built the Autobahn after WWI. That said, the chances of a conventional ground war on US soil is pretty slim. Any power strong enough to take on the US (and some that aren’t) have nuclear weapons. It may have made some sense back in the 50’s but the military purpose is just a history lesson now.

      5. Bernie,

        The military purpose of the interstates is to allow quick mobilization by getting units based at interior posts to the ports quickly. It has nothing to do with a land invasion of the US,

      6. That could be done with rail but if you’re under attack it’s easier to knock out rail than highways. A for quick mobilization it’s the C-17s and C-130s that win the day (what happened to all the Starlifters? Sitting in a desert or sold off). If you’re loading stuff on ships it’s not quick. And other than SAC there isn’t much in the middle of the country. It’s Fort Lewis and then a few mega bases in Texas and the Carolinas. I suppose the interstates would be useful if we needed to quickly redeploy along the 48th parallel but that just doesn’t seem very likely anymore since we lost both gold medal hockey games :=

      7. In the Cold War mob plans the heavy stuff was going by ship. You had tons of stuff at interior bases like Ft. Carson and Ft. Riley

      8. That is a good point. All that heavy gear like tanks and other armored vehicles don’t travel well on the highways. It ruins the tank and the highway. Which is why most Army posts have rail yards to load it on flat cars and send it to a port to get put on a ship.

      9. Bernie, I’m sure the 1st Infantry Division out of Ft. Riley KS, the 4th Infantry Division out of Ft. Carson CO, all the Artillery out of Ft Sill OK, might disagree with you about nothing being in the Middle of the country. :D

        Also while not in the middle of the country, but outside of Lewis, Texas and the Carolinas, don’t forget 10th Mountain Division out of Ft Drum NY, 25th Infantry out of Hawaii and Alaska, 101th Airborne Division out of Ft. Campbell KY, 3rd Infantry Division out of Ft. Benning and Ft. Stewart (both in GA)

      10. I had heard that the 16′ height required for bridges on freeways was to that we could move our nukes around the country quickly. Current train standards have much shorter tunnels than this.

        (does a quick internet search) Ah, this site says this requirement came from the need to move large machinery and lists the Atomic Cannon as one of these large pieces of machinery. We really had a cannon that fired nukes? “resulted in the successful detonation of a 15 kt shell (warhead W9) at a range of 7 miles” Crazy. We apparently had 20 of the things. Check out this picture. I sure wouldn’t like the job of atomic cannon operator.

      11. Actually, most 155mm guns could fire atomic shells, from what I remember. Is there a former artilleryman who can answer the question better? After the end of the Cold War we moved those from overseas locations and deactivated them.

    2. I worry about the future of Greyhound, especially their less popular routes. Ridership peaked quite a while ago. There are just two buses a day in the St Louis to Denver trunk between the northeast and west coast. (All funnel through Chicago. One goes to LA, one to SF, and transfer for Seattle.) They run two buses on each one but still, how is it possible in a country of 300 million people that only 200 per day are traveling from Chicago to the west coast? There’s 200 cars in fifteen minutes on I-5.

      The spotty service comes down to underfunding. Stations are neglected, they bean-count to avoid putting second buses on full runs (even when people have prepaid tickets), there’s little backup in case of breakdowns, and Greyhound has been abandoning the least populous runs (Billings-Minneapolis, Walla Walla). It makes me wonder how long Greyhound will last.

      1. A bus is a terrible way to travel long distances. When I was a lot younger I went from Seattle to Tulsa and back via Trailways. I had taken the Dog between the Bay Area and Seattle so I knew the trick was to ride all night and walk around/sleep in the park during the day. Since it was spring when I took the marathon, it worked to do that.

        Even so it was terrible.

  5. I consider my interest in public transportation to be rooted in efficiency (and the effect of efficiency upon mobility) above all else, including the romance of travel.

    But I was sort of surprised to read in the WSDOT link that bypassing the prettiest (Puget Sound) and most interesting (the historic architecture on the cliffs of Tacoma’s Stadium District) scenery will only shave 6 minutes off the trip. It seems an unsatisfying trade-off.

    1. (Hmm… apparently I’m referring to the northern reaches of Downtown Tacoma, and not to the Stadium District…)

      1. (…specifically the Old City Hall district. Gorgeous — although if Tacoma makes parsing their geography this hard for the casual internet tourist, how hard must it be actual tourists?)

    2. Efficiency has to be the trump card. Otherwise airliners would fly at 500ft across country for the better views:)
      I’ll miss the scenery too, but maybe a dinner train could make a go of it, going around the horn .

      1. I doubt it – that old warhorse needs all the help it can get to keep itself on time!!

      2. “Won’t the Coast Starlight still take the old route?”

        No. All Amtrak operations will be on the bypass. To keep the Starlight on the coastal line, they’d have to have two stations.

        The Starlight is doing pretty good, time-wise, btw. Has been for a few years now.

      3. I’m pretty sure that in the future if the Bypass route is closed and trains need to detour along the freight route (and it will happen every so often), Tacoma will simply be skipped.

      4. I don’t think so, I know there was some talk about the grade South out of Tacoma, but I’m pretty sure it takes worse grades in Oregon.

        Though Amtrak might decide for some reason to keep the Starlight on the scenic route.

      5. I’ve already spoke with Amtrak in regards to moving the Coast Starlight to the Point Defiance route. Yes, the CS is moving to the Bypass route.

        The Coast Starlight will not have any issues climbing the grade unless it operates with one locomotive. It will not depart Seattle without at least 2 operating locomotives. The MAX speed between Freighthouse Square and M Street will be 30mph due to the grade anyways (2.8%) The Cascades for example is 2.2% and only marches up the hill in Notch 5-6….

      6. Brian,

        The train is already moving when it rounds the reverse curve east of Oakridge and digs in to the grade. The Starlight will be at a standing stop just 1/4 mile from the inflection for the grade.

        There will be days when they just barely make it to M Street.

      7. Zeplins used to fly at just under 1,000 feet – they must have been awe inspirng to look at in their day and if it wasn’t for their unfortunate connection with Nazi Germany and their use of hydrogen gas to keep them afloat, I am sure lots of people would rather enjoy chugging around at 1.000 feet!

    3. d.p., it’s not “only” six minutes. Keep reading that page – it also kicks up on-time performance by 5-10%, and when we operate 110mph service, it’ll save us *another* five minutes.

      It’s the single highest impact project we have.

      1. Correct… BNSF and Tacoma Rail will continue using the Lakeview Subdivision to serve the military base and other industries along the route. Yes, there will be some delays but not as many delays and slow orders as the scenic route.

      2. Owning your own ROW is the way to go- that way the freight trains have to follow your schedule, not theirs. I’ve been in Amtrak trains stuck and delayed up to hours due to a slow moving freight train.

    4. It doesn’t just save 6 minutes, it also:
      (1) Creates reliability. The low-speed (20 mph?!?) single-track tunnels along the sound are the single biggest bottleneck on the entire route and the cause of a very large number of delays. So, 6 minutes *scheduled* trip time, but maybe 15-20 in *actual* trip time if you encounter a freight going the other way in one of the tunnels.

      This is the *actual* reason for the project. The 6 minutes is just a side benefit.

      (2) Relocates the Tacoma station to Tacoma Dome to join it with Sounder. Also just a side benefit, but one with a big payoff in network connectivity — and it saves money on operations.

      (3) Allows Sounder to reach Lakewood. Separate and independent justification for the project.

      1. Nathanael – Nelson Bennett Tunnel (and switches) are all 50mph now. The bottleneck there is fixed in that regards (I haven’t been delayed there since they installe the new switches and increase the speed in the tunnel for passenger and freight trains.

        Steilacoom is still the problem area. The ROW needs to be completely fenced off to stop the freight/passenger fatalities there (More recent one was 2 weeks ago)

        The major benefits of the Freighthouse Square station is becoming a large multi-modal network.

        The corridor will be a mixture of freight and passenger trains with some double track but mostly single track.

        I have already ID’ed several points of conflict with the corridor with it being mostly single track so I believe the benefits will actually be a wash until it is fully double tracked (Not in long term plans)

        The biggest bottleneck will be if Tacoma Rail heads up the hill and stalls on the grade there. If they have to double the hill, the nearest available siding is West/South of Frederickson, making for almost 2-4 hour delay.

        If you don’t think this won’t happen, I have a bit of a story to tell ya…..

      2. Since Washington State owns the trackage, can’t they just tell Tacoma Rail to “stay off” except at night?

  6. While you’re doing all this building, what’s the chance that you could extend the Interurban Trail — which runs alongside the rail corridor — for bicycles all the way down from Algona (where it seems to end) to Portland? Or at least Tacoma and then Olympia.

    Imagine and interstate bicycle highway up and down the pacific coast…

    1. I totally support that. It would be great to not have to switch to a major arterial to keep riding.

    2. We have one now. It’s called the STP race. All that’s needed is enough cycling nuts to take control of the pavement, then the cars go elsewhere.

  7. Let’s hope Washington State gets the PTC right.

    No screwing around with GPS-based systems, which can’t tell which one of a pair of tracks you’re on.

    Install ERTMS/ETCS, or if you really have some reason not to, NEC-style cab signals and ACSES. Do *not* screw around.

    Unfortunately I expect they’ll screw around, get a system which doesn’t work, and waste the entire $94 million. Hope they get a money-back guarantee.

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