Photo by Dave Honan

Amtrak Cascades set another ridership record in 2010, boarding 838,251 passengers.  This represents an 8% increase over the previous record set in 2008 (774, 531).  Economic recovery, the 2nd daily train to Vancouver BC, and the Vancouver Olympics all drove the increased ridership.  It was also an active year on the policy front.  Washington won a battle with the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) regarding customs fees for the 2nd train, and the federal government increased Washington’s HSR stimulus funds by 32%, from $590M to $782M.

Directly gauging the impact of the 2nd Vancouver BC train is difficult. WSDOT only began publishing station on-off data in February 2010, so year-on-year comparisons will be possible beginning next year.  Rather, increased ridership must be inferred from ridership growth on Trains 513 and 516. The first graph below shows a clear spike in ridership when the 2nd train began on August 19 2009, and that this year-on-year growth sustained itself through August 2010. The 2nd graph shows Vancouver BC now assuming its expected place as the 3rd most popular station, overtaking Tacoma.

As a frequent Cascades rider and supporter, I should be elated by these ridership figures.  Yet my enthusiasm is muted by the fact that service levels remain too infrequent, on-time performance remains poor, and reliability in the winter is awful (service north of Seattle has been cancelled 14 of the last 39 days due to mudslides).  While I appreciate that living in a lush, rain-fed region comes with the risk of mudslides, it is disappointing that WSDOT’s Amtrak Cascades Long-Range Plan makes almost no mention of mudslide-related reliability issues.  Though I welcome our push for higher-speed rail, I propose a simple rule-of-thumb for project prioritization:  fix the bad before improving the good.

Still, long term, be bullish on Cascades.  When the stimulus funds have done their work, when King Street has been fully restored, when the Point Defiance Bypass has traded scenery for needed reliability, and when we start to see those extra frequencies, we will at last have some of the best rail services in the country.

60 Replies to “As Cascades Sets Another Record, A Plea for Reliability”

  1. The best way to handel the reliability between Seattle and Everett, is to re-build that bridge (Wilberton), and route south out of Seattle, and then along the ESR. May not help much with Sounder, but AmTrack Cascades, and Empire Builder would still get through.

    1. While the East Side routing would allow for a station in Bellevue, it would be as much as three quarters of an hour longer to Everett. Plus, you’d be facing the wrong direction to continue travel to Mt. Vernon and north in the Everett station.

      Plus, there wouldn’t be ANY scenery left on the Portland to Vancouver BC trip, except a few minutes along the base of Chuckanut Mountain.

    2. @Lor Scara, by doing that, you’ll increase the travel time by 2 hours. Even with Tilt capability, the trains won’t see above 40-50mph through the dense residential neighborhoods over there.

      There isn’t a lot that CAN be done about the mud slides unfortunately. It isn’t just Seattle – Everett that is affected but also Blaine – Bellingham in the canyon is just as bad for mud slides.

      It would help the Empire Builder but they would most likely re-route to Portland or via Stampede Pass before they would spend the money for the Eastside rail corridor.

      While I understand the reliability issue, there is far more into the issue than just track space. The Cascades biggest issue has been failing locomotive power or bad ordered cab cars (those ex-F40s)

      If anything at this point and time, Amtrak/WSDOT needs to start looking at new locomotives to maintain the relibility more than track improvements. While freight traffic is increasing, sitting dead on the main line doesn’t help matters either until a rescue BNSF locomotive can save the train. Another thing to also remember, those rescues also restrict the train to from Talgo speeds to regular passenger speeds since the freight locomoitves aren’t qualified for Talgo speed limits….

      1. Brian, I disagree. Look at all the possibilities in dealing with the slides that ST hasn’t even tried yet.

        I wish the ST board and BNSF would get together and go after the Feds on this screwy 48 hour rule. I guarantee that if a mandatory 48 hour rule were put into effect to not run ANY trains north of Seattle, that in such a short order BN and ST would have it worked out.

        Listening to an ST assistant conductor explain to me that this is all about safety is really starting to get to me as well. If the tracks are that important to our economy, then either make ’em or shut ’em down. I don’t understand the wishy-washy argument of letting freight go by, if one freight makes the slide worse, then we all have to suffer. He even brought up Wellington! What a crock, talk about comparing apples to oranges.

        No freights or passenger stuff, period. What really is crazy is that they’ve known about this for DECADES, yes that long. So this shows once again an nearly-inept ST top brass board unwilling to either subscribe to provide a functional public transit system by rail, or this is a complete and wholesale money grab for some administrators who got out of college and need to pay their school loans off.

        As for the power, you know it! All the F59s have done their fair share of work for sure….

      2. The intresting part of this 48 hour rule/law is that no one can seem to produce it on paper. Everyone points fingers, but no one can find it…

  2. I haven’t seen any good on-line tracking info on the D-to-M project. I’m really excited about that project as it both allows Sounder to go to its final, promised length, and it allows Amtrak to move up to the Bypass and both improve reliability and reduce trip times.

    I know the D-to-M project is just working on utility relocation right now, but…..

    1. If I can remember, I will take some pictures down there tomorrow and put them on Flickr for you. There is a lot of work going on between Pacific Ave and M Street at the moment.

  3. I second the infrequent service. Particularly the lack of a end of day train. The other day I had to go to Portland for an evening meeting and would have much preferred the train over the drive. But with the last northbound departure around 6pm that was not an option. Having a 9-10pm departure would allow people to enjoy evening events or dinner in Portland before heading North.

    Not sure what the overall demand for this time window is. But you can always take a later train (and have dinner while you wait). Have the last departure too early never adds flexibility.

    1. For me it’s the opposite direction. Sometimes I work in Everett and can ride the Cascades north in the morning, but coming home between 5-6 there is no reverse Sounder or Cascades coming down from Vancouver. Would be nice to have an 11:00am and 3:00pm departure from Vancouver to arrive in Everett at roughly 2:00pm and 6:00pm.

    2. One of the major problems with Cascades North remains Canada. If you look at the long range plan, a vast number of the speed and reliability bottlenecks are north of the border, and nobody’s figured out how to get them funded.

      I think Everett-Seattle simply isn’t considered high enough volume from the Amtrak/Cascades point of view to be worth making major service improvements, as long as it’s impossible to eliminate the Canadian bottlenecks.

      Perhaps Sounder has enough volume to justify improvements.

      1. The original master plan only envisioned four round trips between Seattle and Vancouver BC, so we are really half way there with two right now. Probably because of the bottle necks north of the border and the low population density between Seattle and the border on the US side. Compare that to the plan’s idea of 13 round trips a day between Seattle and Portland.

  4. I don’t understand what’s needed to fix the landslides. Often retaining walls will do the trick. But if it was that easy, presumably stimulus would have been requested for it, or it would have happened long ago. I know there’s also the issue of protecting shorelines, either by moving track or by letting earthwork affect runoff….

    1. The only fix for the landslides is a new mainline off the water’s edge, but that won’t happen. The cost of shoring up all of the exposed hills ( sandy glacial till ) is too high as well…

      1. Frankly the entire waterline route is very susceptible to sea-level rise, so it really should be moved inland. On the other hand, much of Seattle and Vancouver and Tacoma and Portland will flood, so maybe it doesn’t matter….

  5. For the record, “corridor hardening” — the improvement to the corridor to improve reliability and on-time performance — was included in the agency’s ARRA request to US-DOT. Unfortunately, the segments north of Seattle and anything relating to corridor hardening were not funded by US-DOT. However, it remains a priority for WA-DOT.

    On frequency, the ARRA grant will bring at least two more PDX-SEA round trips, and total build-out is currently planned at eight each way between those points, which will be very close to (if not actually) hourly departures. For north of Seattle, the matter is up in the air, as the Canadian matter was not settled, merely placed on a one-year repreive.

    For more information, pick up a copy of the April issue of TRAINS Magazine On the newsstand in about two months.

  6. How can they not have station-level on/off data? Don’t people have to pay for their rides based on what station they get on and get off at? That’s like saying McDonnalds doesn’t have data about the number of customers served.

    1. I was kinda confused by that. WSDOT has on/offs for a very long time. Just not for vancouver bc on the second trip…

      1. I should have said, “didn’t include on-offs in their monthly ridership report until Feb 2010.”. I’m sure they have the data, it just wasn’t in any reports I could find.

  7. If the EPA wasn’t so sensitive to shoreline extension, then you could have the track curves widened North of Seattle to avoid rock-slide prone areas. However, you also have Native American fishing areas to deal with so the chances of that happening are slim to none.

  8. There are other kinds of reliability besides schedule- like the expectation of especially enjoyable parts of the trip. The feature picture shows the only piece of scenery between Seattle and Portland I really enjoy. It’s worth the extra time it takes. It’s now due to be eliminated. I’ll miss it.

    I wonder if a generation of lifelong airline passengers is really more comfortable watching movies and working their laptops than looking out the window, especially if it makes the ride, which they don’t really enjoy for its own sake, faster. Fits right in with the current AMTRAK security videos informing us as we buy our tickets that we all need ID to prove we’re not fugitive sex offenders.

    If the concern is for the comfort and safety of the shoreline neighborhoods, why not send the freights straight south, and let passenger trains keep using the shore? They’re a lot quieter, and fewer, than the freights.

    Mark Dublin

    1. The concern is NOT for the shoreline neighborhoods. The real concern is the Nelson Bennett Tunnel, in Ruston. It is the only single track on the entire double track line between Seattle and Portland. The other problem is that the new trackage will be of less capacity than the coast line, but as it is currently being used by one or two local freights that is not an issue. There will be plenty of capacity for the passenger rail, but not the entire corridor’s worth of trains. Tillicum, et al are already up in arms about the Passenger rail service being rerouted their way. Think of the uproar if they instead rerouted all of the freight trains…

      I as well will miss the scenery, but oh well. I will take more trains and more reliability over scenery. If you want to ride for scenery, take the train north to Vancouver BC, there are some just as beautiful bits up that way.

    2. While I do enjoy the scenery when it’s still light out, I ride Amtrak to get me between Portland and Seattle without having to drive I-5, and not as an excursion train. I am positive that Amtrak will find increased ticket sales in trading off scenery for time reduction and increased reliability for myself and other “commuters.” If there is a market for the scenery, perhaps the Coast Starlight can be kept on the Pt. Defiance route to provide that excursion experience. Otherwise, let’s make the service improvements that draw people out of their cars and out of the skies.

      1. Steve, the Starlight is also programmed to be re-routed via Point Defiance Bypass; all passenger traffic will be removed from BNSF’s tracks between Reservation (Tacoma) and Nisqually.

      2. I thought the Coast Starlight would remain on it’s current route through the Nelson Bennett Tunnel due to steep grade on the bypass.

      3. I know for fact that the Bypass was designed to accommodate conventional passenger trains (superelevation, signage, etc.). The climb from Nisqually to Ft. Lewis won’t be an issue because the Starlight tackles the same gradient over a vastly longer distance while climbing through the Cascades in Oregon. Amtrak is going to have to find a way to run the Starlight up the hill from Freighthouse Square to South Tacoma because it would be pretty silly to maintain two station facilities in Tacoma just to have a place to serve two trains/day; and after all, if Amtrak can manage to run the Southwest Chief over the 3+ percent grades of Raton Pass with two units on a daily basis, surely they can manage a mile or so of 2.8 percent ascent out of FHS.

  9. I find the prospect of taking Amtrak frustrating; I always want to, but I can’t justify it. For a weekend trip for 2 to Vancouver, say from Feb 4th to 7th:

    – 4 hours there, 4:25 back.
    – $144 round-trip for coach seats for 2.
    – 2 times I can leave Seattle, 7:40am or 6:50pm; 6:40am or 5:45pm for the return trip.
    – Carbon: 24.1 kg / person

    – 4ish hours there, 4:20ish back
    – $96 round-trip for 2.
    – 5 different departure times.
    – Carbon: 13.5 kg / person

    Driving the two of us:
    – 3ish hours there & back (according to Google Maps)
    – ~$60 in gas/wear&tear
    – Leave whenever I want
    – 28.8 kg / person

    So, with these factors, for me it’s Car > Bus > Train. Maybe if I made the trip frequently enough to be sick of driving it, or I were traveling alone, it’d make sense…

    1. If you look at all the bus providers between Vancouver BC and Seattle, there are more than five departure times. I count at least 10 bus departures (with the five Greyhound) during the winter and around 13 during the summer. The other service is Quick Shuttle, which I perfer over the pooch.

    2. Funny for me, it’s the whole train experience that I love. In addition, no stress about dealing with other drivers whether in my car or on a bus. The train wins everytime. I’ve done all 3, including the ferry which was the longest travel time and I always arrive in Vancouver refreshed on the train. The love the whole experience and it wins me every time.

      1. I agree – when I am on the train, I am not on the highway and that is worth extra time and money. I’ve come to grips with losing the scenery on the Narrows; frequency and reliability are a must, the sooner the better.

    3. Driving also requires parking. An individual changing their habits won’t affect how much parking is built in the US, but when enough individuals change their habits…

      US parking demand greatly skews the cost of urban districts here. Below-grade parking is often over $40,000 per space. When buildings can have lower parking ratios they can be much more affordable.

    4. I used to do the same calculation, and took Greyhound because it fit my schedule better. And it did allow me to go to Van Friday evening and come back Sunday morning. But Amtrak has bigger seats, bigger luggage racks, sometimes an electric outlet for your laptop, better behaved passengers, staff who don’t get exasperated and grumpy, and they don’t bump you to the next bus if that one gets full. The minimum fare is around $20 each way if you book a month in advance or go on a weekday.

      I haven’t heard of any Chinatown buses in the northwest. There was one route in California for a while but it failed.

    5. The North route needs major improvements to be time-competitive.

      Unfortunately, most of those improvements are in Canada (I think if all the proposed Canadian improvements are completed it knocks some huge amount of time off the trip) and nobody seems to be able to get funding for them.

  10. Interesting: WSDOT Photoshopped the image of AMTK 467 passing the TNB to remove the construction equipment at the top of the new bridge’s tower. I just uploaded the original version to Flickr:
    Zach/STB, could you please replace the photo you used which was sourced from with the one at Flickr? Thanks!

  11. Zach – Where are you getting the station on-off data for 2010? I can only find the press release but not the data beyond the highlights that they include. Your graph seems to show that you have access to more data than I am able to find online.

    For what it’s worth, using 2009 data if you take the total ridership and divide by the number of scheduled trains per day then Bellingham and Eugene have higher ridership per train than Tacoma.

  12. It seems every article about Cascades ridership that I’ve seen this year strongly emphasizes the role of the Olympics (a one off event) and that extra Vancouver train. Whereas, the bulk of the Cascades ridership numbers on a month-to-month basis come from those 4 daily roundtrips Portland-Seattle and in between. I’d tend to think that even a small single digit percent increase there would still tend to swamp the doubling of capacity to Vancouver, and over all would be more interesting to long term operational sustainability of the service. How about a chart or number crunching that reveals what the bulk sustainable increase has been for this corridor in ’10 over the prior year?

    1. IF BNSF were to open an extra pathway south of SEA, and IF Amtrak would use Superliner coaches and the 5th Pacific Parlour car (if it is still extant) on 510/517, a Talgo set could be freed up to add frequency between SEA/PDX/EUG. Having that Talgo sit in VAC all day is an enormous waste of a very valuable resource.

      1. I believe that extra pathway south of Seattle is waiting for the Point Defiance Bypass to be completed. :-P

  13. I don’t think they should even mix the data from Seattle-BC and Seattle-Portland. Such completely different lines. I would even call the SEA-PDX line by another name, like “Columbia Line”. The track is much better, probably capable of some real HSR (American style) speeds.

    1. The data certainly shouldn’t be mixed! Seattle-Portland has made great progress and is making more; Seattle-Canada is stuck due to Canadian intransigence.

  14. As someone who signed up to get updates from Sound Transit on Sounder information, I have to confess to a certain ennui regarding all of the mudslides. Yet even more irritating is the fact that the trains have to be cancelled for 48 hours after a slide regardless of whether the line is cleared in five minutes or five hours. I think that this is overly cautious and the time delay should be reduced to the time it takes to clear the line. It seems like this is a power grab by the BNSF to poach sole track time from Amtrak.

    Yes, I too wish they could protect the line from slides but no one seems to have much of a plan for it and as January seems to be the month for these things and has been for years, not sure what anyone can do that hasn’t been asked of them already.

    Someone got engaged on one of the Cascadia trains last week – so two people must be happy at least.

  15. With all of the $ that other states are giving up, I hope that WA takes its extra monies and enhances the most-problematic, i.e. slow, stretches of its rail line. For one, the segment through Marysville is slow for trains and motorists alike. While it would be expensive to either submerge the rail line or, alternatively, put it above the roadway, the amount of time and fuel savings (and less pollution from idling vehicles, too!) would be enormous over time. I’m unfamiliar with the line south of Seattle, but no doubt there are areas like this in that direction that can be focused on as well. We obviously can’t afford to upgrade the entire line, but we can start by working in the segments that warrant the most attention.

  16. Could any of the future Cascades trains be Seattle-Tacoma-Portland expresses? When you look at the ODOT numbers, about 4/5ths of the Cascades ridership is from those three stations, and fully half of that missing ridership comes from Vancouver and Tukwila where there is good connecting transit and car access. You could probably knock 20 minutes off the trip, bringing it down to three hours — approaching the speed of driving.

    1. Don’t see the point. It’s not like there are actually a whole lot of stations on the route — you’re talking about cutting 5 stops. Dwell times are fairly short, and several of the stations are at locations where trains must currently slow down anyway (Vancouver, WA being the prime example). Station stops simply are not the main source of delay here.

      At the moment the single-track Nelson Bennett (sp?) tunnel appears to be controlling the entire schedule — I hope that after Pt. Defiance gets bypassed (saving 6 minutes) and the other current projects get done, the reliability will be high enough to remove a bunch of the slack time from the schedule, and that will probably get you near the three-hour measure.

    2. The crew seems to do a very good job keeping the dwell time on those three intermediate stops at a minimum. I think you’re talking just Olympia-Lacey, Centralia and Kelso. They permit boarding/exit for those stops at just a single point between cars 3-4, and each stop seems to be done within about 2 minutes. So, I believe your suggestion only amounts to about 10 minutes difference. On the other hand, I would unhappy if any more intermediate stops were added.

      1. Centralia and Kelso are my main gripes – boarding numbers for those stops seem terrible. The speed limit issue makes a difference I suppose. If trains have to pass at 35mph then the loss isn’t so great.

        My next gripe is Tukwila. Once S 200th St opens, there will be three Link stations in Tukwila, accessible for an extra 30 mins of rail journey time. That sucks for some people, but they amount to maybe 5% of the King St boardings.

        I’m not suggesting that these stops be abolished for all trains, BTW, just for some “Cascades Express” services.

  17. Anyone for a meetup on the last Cascades going to the Cascadia Derby matches against the Whitecaps and the Timbers? I don’t suppose an extra Cascade run to each is in the cards, as those trains are going to be crush-loaded before and after those matches.

    1. Does Amtrak have any plans for running extra trains for the Seattle-Portland-Vancouver games? I think they should but where would they get the capacity and trainsets from – do they have any spare ones yet?

      1. Oregon is getting two new trainsets because WDOT asked for theirs back (which are currently on loan to do PDX-EUG). So the corridor will be +2 overall.

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