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.
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).