Cascades at King St Station
Photo by Jim Wrinn – Editor of Trains Magazine – Original Image HERE

2nd Quarter 2011 ridership on Amtrak Cascades set an all-time quarterly record, with 231,194 passengers.  Ridership was up 8% on Q2 2010, the next highest year.  Since 2007 Q2 ridership has grown by an impressive 25%.  As opposed to Q1 (mudslides, 2010 Olympics, etc…) Q2 ridership is broadly indicative of annual trends, so these numbers are solid evidence of the growing popularity of the service.  Good news!

Cascades has always drawn most of its ridership from Seattle and Portland, and as ridership has grown major cities have only increased their relative share of riders. Comparing May 2010 to May 2011, ridership is up 8% in Seattle, 9% in Portland, 9% in Eugene, and up another 24% in Vancouver BC. Smaller cities lost riders, however, with 5% fewer passengers in Tacoma and 15%  fewer in Bellingham.   It’s clear to me that Vancouver BC deserves a 3rd train. More below the jump.

Amtrak Cascades Q2 Ridership – 2007-2011

To put these numbers in context, a word about the capacity of Amtrak Cascades.  Though its theoretical capacity is an absurd 24,000/day or 8.7 million/year (number of scheduled travel segments x 250 seats, with 100% turnover at every station), it’s practical capacity at current service levels is probably something closer to 1.4 million annual passengers (as a very rough estimate, assuming 16 full train loads per day between major scheduled segments, 4 EUG-PDX, 8 PDX-SEA, and 4 SEA-VAC). By this estimation, Cascades would currently have an average load factor of about 70%.  So even without service expansion there is still room for growth.

WSDOT will be investing $781m in federal funds into rail infrastructure over the coming years, and despite passenger rail becoming a political football our funds are relatively secure.  Assuming the Point Defiance Bypass (PDB) avoids endless litigation and its environmental work is completed in the next couple years, we should still be able to double service levels over the next 10-15 years.

In the present, however, fleet underutilization is a problem that will be exacerbated when Oregon’s 2 new Talgo sets arrive in early 2012.  According to sources at All Aboard Washington, ODOT currently has no funds to operate or even maintain the new sets, and it will be several years before the completion of the PDB allows the frequencies that will make them useful.  In the meantime we will have 7 trainsets for only 11 scheduled trains!   We’ll likely have 2 spare sets sitting unused in the Seattle Yard, brought out only on holidays when extra service is added.  Such underutilization in the face of clear popular demand is very frustrating, especially when we could gain additional frequencies with only existing stock (such as interlining 500/517 and 510/509, instantly freeing up a set that currently sits idle 16 hours a day).

68 Replies to “Cascades Ridership Breaks Another Record”

  1. Thanks for the numbers. I see frequency as the weakest point in the SeattlePortland corridor. Speed is good, but frequency is just as important. If your meeting in Portland gets out at 4:30, you want to hop on at 5:00, not wait around for the 6:15 and get to Seattle at 9:45. And if your meeting runs late and you miss the 6:15? Well, then you’re getting a taxi to the airport anyway. Although airplanes take just as long from downtown to downtown and cost more, they leave nearly on the half hour.

    1. Being on time is important too. It is nice to know if you are on that 6:15 train that it will really get to Seattle at 9:45.

      1. I don’t know about numbers but in my experience on time performance has improved. Every single time I rode it (weekly) the Cascades was consistently 15 minutes late arriving. The one time we came into King Street Station 5 minutes ahead of schedule and I was amazed then we stopped next to the stadium and we sat for 20 minutes and let a southbound Cascades, the Coast Starlight and a freight train go by. LOL

        The last time I rode the starlight north we came into Seattle 40 minutes ahead of schedule! Yes 40 minutes. The last two times I rode the Cascades (in the last 30 days) we were dead on time.

      2. My train has arrived early almost every time in the last year. I think they may actually be padding the schedule to make sure any delays still fit within the 3h30m time.

  2. The plan is to take the existing 5 Talgos and re-configure them into 4, longer trainsets, so when Oregon’s Talgos arrive there will be a total of 6 available trainsets.

    1. That’s one (hopefully interim) solution, but leaves us short of adding many frequencies which we need per Matt the Engineer above. Of course, dealing with BNSF (and UP south of PDX) is always the major problem in adding trains.

      1. I’ll continue to lobby for an express Seattle/Portland train that leaves 10 minutes before the Starlight and lets the Starlight pick up passengers at Tacoma, Olympia, Centralia, etc. while the Cascades express goes non-stop to Portland. There would then be a return trip in the afternoon scheduled about 10 minutes before the Starlight’s northbound departure from Portland. The express trains would essentially be operating as a second section in the Starlight’s time slot, so hopefully, track capacity wouldn’t be a huge issue with BNSF. (The express trips would likely have to make one stop in Tukwila, because that’s a stop skipped by the Starlight.)

      2. What would be the purpose of coordinating the Express with the Starlight? Those going further south would have to wait in Portland for the Starlight, and those not going further south don’t care whether the Starlight arrives a while later. The wait would be 45 minutes (0:10 + (4:05 – 3:30)). That’s not long enough to do anything in Portland except get a fast-food meal and transfer trains.

  3. It’s funny watching the conductor explain to people when they board in Vancouver that the train is going to be nearly at capacity when it arrives in B’Ham, most don’t believe it until all of a sudden the train is packed once it leaves Fairhaven.

    Despite the B”Ham numbers being down(and I’m surprised) that lil’ station sure knows how to expedite passengers and get the job done, I wish the same could be said about King Street.

    As for the PDB, I’m in favor of it but really will miss the nice view once they switch away from the Sound.

    1. I’ve gone through there a lot and I’ve taken a lot of pictures and video because after it gets cut that’s it. It seems strange that we’ll only save 12 minutes total by going across. The train almost crawls along the water.

      1. In trip time terms, 12 minutes is an enormous amount. There’s often financial justification, for spending tens or sometimes hundreds of millions to reduce trip time by ONE minute, and highway projects justify such expensive projects with travel time improvements measured in SECONDS; 12 minutes is a lot.

    2. Maybe there needs to be an incentive to ride the train to Bellingham then so those seats don’t sit empty the whole time. Drop the ticket price from Seattle to Bellingham which currently costs $22. Maybe a $10 ticket to Mt Vernon and a $12 ticket to Bellingham would fill those seats which would then be filled again from Bellingham to Vancouver. Same for Tacoma. As much as they say there’s no capacity to allow Sounder passengers on the Cascades we almost always have two empty cars until we get to Tacoma where they fill up. Those two cars are always empty! Fill them even if people are paying $5.

      1. Isn’t Amtrak updating it’s ticketing software? Will such market pricing be possible in the future?

      2. I hadn’t heard about Amtrak updating it’s ticketing software. I know they currently use the same system as the airlines, will they still do that?

        It’d be cool if Amtrak Cascades could setup a codeshare program with Alaska Airlines or something.

      3. I think you have it backward. The train is full between Seattle and Bellingham, not between Bellingham and Vancouver. Anthony is talking about a southbound trip out of Vancouver, BC.

      4. Amtrak’s replacing a 70s-era airline ticketing system with a modern system (which won’t have hardcoded limits on the number of entries, which I think is the key for more flexible ticketing). It should still be airline-compatible.

  4. Thanks for this one, Zach. Based on overnight trip first night of this month, I’ve got the perfect use for extra Cascades capacity.

    Returning from week in Bay Area including priceless visit to San Francisco Muni, was determined to get home without jet fuel and body-searches. Amtrak Coast Starlight is unfortunately named for travel time, and also wanted dinner, breakfast, espresso and fresh air breaks en route.

    Embarcadero to Oakland, BART great as usual. Oakland to Sacramento, beautiful scenery, and trains. Dinner in Sacramento, delicious, espresso same. Eugene to Portland, Talgo a pleasure. Same Portland to Seattle.

    Sacramento to Eugene? Would have been beautiful night ride, credit to our country and Dwight Eisenhower’s Interstates. But thanks to Greyhound, or whatever evil thing it’s risen from the grave to become, experience was same as scene in Lord of the Rings where heroes fight their way miles underground to the Kingdom of the Dwarves and find everybody dead.

    Honoring Independence Day weekend, should have dug pocket-knife out of my pack and scraped our flag off the side of the bus, but desperate to escape.

    So let’s de-underutilize those trains! After Eugene, high-ball southbound for Sacramento. Seriously, what are political steps necessary to make this happen?

    Mark Dublin

    1. Interesting. Why did you get pushed onto an Greyhound?

      Northern California has a beautiful rail line running through it up to Oregon and it’s unused. I have family in Chico, and even though they have a cute little train station right in town, nobody ever uses it. The Starlate stops there southbound at 3:50am and northbound at 1:55am. It’s (seemingly) always hours late, and the one time my family used it there was a mudslide that added many more hours to their trip, which still would have been 19 hours if it followed the schedule. That’s an average of 39mph. It takes about 12 hours to make that trip by car.

      So, what kind of speed could a Talgo get on that route? Let’s imagine 80mph (no idea if that’s possible, and would depend on the number of stops, turns, freight traffic, etc.). That’s now a 10 hour trip from Seattle to Sacramento. Now you’re beating car travel by multiple hours, and it can be run as a sleeper car or even as a daytime trip. Sure, you’re still not competative with air travel on time, but I’d take it for the scenery alone.

      1. The Shasta Daylight of my youth left Portland around 7:30 Am and arrived Oakland after 11:00 PM and ran via Davis, not Sacramento for a 715 mile trip. Using Talgo equipment and with Union Pacific’s co-operation, you could about replicate these timetables today on a 725 mile trip with a stop in Sacramento, averaging about 47 MPH. Amtrak, OR DOT and CalTrans would make a ton of friends in southern OR and northern CA doing this; an overnighter from Reno to LA via Sacramento and Bakersfield would add substantially to the passenger count; the 2 trains could exchange passengers at Sacramento.

      2. Heck, to be more realistic, we need improved service between Eugene and Portland. Instead of two trains north out of Eugene in the morning and two trains south out of Portland in the evening, let’s shoot for some trains going both ways during each part of the day.

      3. DB (German Rail) just parked some Talgo night trains. They are very nice with over-night recliners, open sections marketed there as couchettes and bedrooms with en-suite showers. I’ll bet their available for a song. Probably still sitting in the yard at Berlin-Lichtenberg.

      4. An overnight train with couchettes is competitive with planes. I often fly to California for the day to work. I leave my house at 4:45 via car (too early for transit), arrive at the airport, board my flight, arrive in California at 9:15am. I get to work at about 9:45. I have to leave work at 5pm to catch the 6:30 plane (last one) north which gets me all the way home at 12:20. This makes for an incredibly long day and I can’t follow it up with any sort of productive day back in Seattle. An overnight train can leave in the evening and arrive at 7am getting me to work on time. It can then leave from there late at night again getting me back home (to work) at 7am again allowing me to get in a full days work preceded by a full day and followed up with another. The requirement would be that it have couchettes or sleepers so I can get a good nights sleep. I’ve spent many nights sleeping in coach on Amtrak and the quality of sleep needed to walk into work just isn’t there.

      5. “with Union Pacific’s co-operation”

        Widely believed to be the problem. Why do you think the Coast Starlight is late? The train’s quite capable of cruising at 79 mph. The track isn’t.

      1. I’ve often wondered if there wasn’t a way to flip the Starlight’s schedule so that it leaves Seattle late at night, in time to arrive in Northern California in the early morning. That would give us night owl service between Seattle and Portland, while opening up northern California in all it’s splendor.

        Yes, I know that would mess up all the connections. Still, one of the best treats I ever had on a train was being on an exceptionally late Starlight that was going through that area in Daylight. It’s not quite as spectacular as the Zephyr through the Rockies, but it’s still a sight to behold – and one you really can’t see from the highway.

      2. Actually, I think the California schedule and connections would be much better on your proposed 12-hours-off schedule. The problem is that it would go through Portland at ungodly hours, which is bad for business — the connections to the Empire Builder would become nasty.

        An overnight in Portland for Empire Builder connections (or a day walking around Seattle) is tolerable. But middle-of-the-night times at Portland really aren’t a good idea. There must be some way to tweak it around so that the Portland times are more appropriate while still maintaining the benefits of the resulting California schedule.

  5. They definitely need a 3rd train to Vancouver, BC. However, there needs to be some significant improvement north of the border. Such as an auto switch out of Pacific Central, that delayed us a couple of minutes. The Fraser River rail bridge needs to be replaced. White Rock tressles need replacement, that would add some speed, plus redoing some of the rail so we don’t tilt back and forth. I am thinking if there were significant improvements north of the border, the trip time could easily be reduced to 3 hours 30 minutes or 3 hours and 15 minutes. Also, a separate US Customs facility would have to be built.

    Even better news. Our lieutenant governor is considering bullet train plans.

    1. Agreed, north of the border Cascades is painfully slow. Fortunately it’s reasonably scenic. Unfortunately, those upgrades are massively expensive, although in the case of the Fraser bridge, are probably needed for freight, so will probably happen in the end regardless.

      1. There is a list of required upgrades north of the border in the WA high-speed rail plan, including a massive bypass. Unfortunately, precisely *zero* of the north-of-the-border projects have been funded by Canada or BC, and WA isn’t allowed to fund them.

    2. That would be more significant if the lieutenant governor’s position had any real authority or budget.

      1. Yeah, this reminds me of the Mayor of Vancouver’s flakey new love for high speed rail after being wined and dined in Seattle. I wonder if the impotent lieutenant gov. general of B.C. was on the same junket.

      2. My bad. I didn’t realize Washington State had its own lieutenant governer.
        My basic complaint about grandstanding still stands.

      3. The Mayor of Vancouver has some power, right?… and a little bit of budget?… surely he could have gotten a power switch at Vancouver Central station!

    3. A better trick is just taking the 510/511 to Everett then boarding the Cascades there. If you live anywhere north of the city it’s actually faster, you save $13, Everett Station isn’t a pit and you won’t have to stand in line.

      1. I’ve done that. If you have a PugetPass or U-Pass its even better, because you can buy a ticket from Everett north and get on in Seattle. I’ve done that more than a few times to get to Bellingham.

      2. Thank you, Grant. I do love a bargain.
        Here’s another one: The trip from Vancouver to Bellingham or vice-versa is only $14 each way in high season. Going just one more station to Mt. Vernon jacks the price up to $28 or higher. Crossing the border by rail is the most civilized way to go, IMHO. Just wish there was more service…

      1. Is the Burlington / Mount Vernon rail bridge really in need of replacement? I can think of about 5 other bridges and tressles of the top of my head that create more problems between SEA and VAC.

        Since youre from Skagit County, what do you think of DMU service that links MV, Burlington, Sedro, and Anacortes ? For some reason, I see that being really useful for people around there.

      2. Barman, the bridge is almost 100 years old and almost failed during the 1995 flood. It really needs to be replaced.

        It would be co$t prohibitive to do DMU service in Skagit County, very anti-tax and in need of other capital projects like more flood control & a new jail. Better to have some form of Bus Rapid Transit or just simply more bus service. Other than co$t, great idea.

  6. I would love to see a third train to vancouver….i ride it twice a month from Everett to Vancouver, BC

    1. Sigh…
      Everyone here at STB is so darn polite. It’s totally OK to be making comments like:

      What the H- E-double hockey sticks is going on up there in Canada??

      ‘Cause, take it from this long-suffering Canuck, the powers that be up here don’t just want to ignore passenger rail, they want to strangle it. After all the time, money and effort spent south of the border, you’re getting the finger, big time, from our train-hating pols. The Mayor of Vancouver “supports” cross-border rail while attending pricey junkets, knowing full well he can play no part in bringing it about. Those that can (in particular, PM Harper) loathe the very concept of public transportation.

      1. Which makes absolutely no sense. The Cascades train has the ability to bring 5 million people to Vancouver to spend money. If anything they should be building it.

      2. Does the Mayor of Vancouver have no budget at *all*?

        Admittedly, he can do nothing outside Vancouver, but half the upgrades needed are within Vancouver proper!

  7. Great news. I am sure Robbie McKenna, if elected Governor, will expand on this success. Hopefully, he will appoint Kemper Freeman as Secretary of the State of Washington State Department of Transportation. Europe and Asia, look out. High speed rail is coming to Washington State. ROFLAO.

    I am sure if this scenario plays out, we will be able to take Link to the Bellevue Square hub, and catch TGV type trains to all directions: East, West, North, and South. ROFLAO.

    1. Sir Robbert McKenna will make a fine leader indeed. Washington State will be thrust far into the future under his galant leadership.

  8. So basically after looking at the actual ridership numbers by station ridership in Washington we barely gained any and that’s because more people got on in Seattle. It seems that one train to Portland gained and Seattle to Vancouver gained but all other WA stations lost overall. Seems Vancouver BC is up by quite a bit though. Summary: Oregon is getting on board, Vancouver has become an Amtrak destination, Washington isn’t interested anymore or the number of people willing to take the train has been met.

    1. Well, it should be said that the guy who was in charge of the Cascades from the state was a complete idiot. Not even the most rudimentary knowledge of either trains or food & beverage operations. Luckily, he failed upwards: he’s now working for Amtrak’s high-speed rail office (which doesn’t give one confidence about Amtrak’s high-speed rail efforts)

      1. The WA DOT (and OR DOT, and Amtrak) are miserable at the basics of marketing. Sadly, they are bureaucrats, not merchants, and until the “Rail Office” and Amtrak have some food lodging, and marketing expertise, not much will change.

    2. I’ve long had the impression, on both Amtrak and Greyhound, that in Washington most people are travelling to or from Seattle, while in Oregon more people travel between the smaller towns. I meet more people in Oregon going from one small city to another than in Washington.

      1. Lloyd, I think the Cascades have had some very fun, clever marketing in the last few years. And the guy that Amtrak has running the Cascades is a real smart guy. Had his own deli for years in West Seattle (Stubby’s or something like that? It was right there in the junction, and incredibly popular) and he worked ran the concessions at Sea-Tac after that. He’s on-board quite a bit. You should meet him. I think his name is Lloyd also.

  9. Once the PDB is completed, I’m assuming that Amtrak is going to switch from its current Tacoma station to the Sounder platform at Freighthouse square. Aside from the logistics of the trains themselves, what about the station? Does this mean renovations are in the works? And what of the single-track trestle that connects the station to the mainline?

    (As an aside, I’m entirely in support of Amtrak trains at TDS. It’ll fix a strange gap in the transit system in Tacoma and create serious transit synergy by co-locating a major local and regional bus terminal, a commuter rail stop, a park-n-ride, and a streetcar stop, with an amtrak station.)

    1. Last I heard was that the Amtrak station will move to the Freighthouse square station.

    2. The station is proposed to get Quik-Trak machines, a ticket window, and baggage handling for Amtrak. I’ve seen no detailed proposals as to the physical layout or any renovations which might be needed. (I also don’t know anything about the current layout.) Amtrak is clearly not doing anything until Pt Defiance Bypass is completed, so they clearly expect it to be a quick project, not a huge renovation.

      As for the trestle, Washington State has been applying for HSR funds to replace the trestle with two metal/concrete viaducts with higher speed limits (one built next to the existing trestle, then tear down the trestle, then build the other on the site of the trestle), so that it will be two-tracked until just east of Freighthouse Square, which will remain one-tracked. This work can also be phased so that it can be a one-track line until they get the money for the second viaduct. This one is an unfunded project so far.

  10. Could interlining and lack of ability to add extra Cascades runs lead WSDOT to use the extra trainsets for a Seattle–Spokane day train?

    1. Somehow I doubt it since the time to Spokane would probably be about 8 hours one way, which is about how long the Empire Builder takes to get there. I’d love a daylight train to Spokane but it is going to happen any time soon.

  11. This route is a natural for true HSR — even if it’s only American-style 156 mph trains like the east coast’s Metroliner.

    A one hour train to Portland would revolutionize the Pacific Northwest.

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