With a temporary Skagit Bridge now in place, WSDOT discontinued the extra Cascades round trip to VancouverBellingham. The last trip was June 19th.

“Amtrak, Sound Transit and BNSF stepped up in the hours after the bridge collapse to help WSDOT quickly offer another mobility option for the traveling public,” said Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson. “I am grateful for these efforts, and that this partnership came together at a critical moment to find solutions for Washingtonians.”

Gus Melonas, BNSF Railway regional director of public affairs said, “BNSF was pleased to help provide assistance for travelers during this crisis situation.”

WSDOT spokesperson Laura Kingman told me the highest ridership of the round trip on any day was 55. She added that if the volume had been above 500, they could have run the trains longer.

I asked Ms. Kingman to reflect on lessons learned from the experience:

What we already know is that it takes time to build ridership because it takes humans time (and motivation) to change their habits. We like our routines. Our WSDOT highway engineers did a great job tailoring the detours to meet demand and people may also have chosen to delay non-urgent travel which kept volumes and delays down. Without significant delays, people were not motivated to use alternative transportation.

44 Replies to “Extra Cascades Train to Bellingham Concludes”

  1. I did make a Sunday daytrip to Bellingham on the ST trains. Total ridership was about 45 (roundtrip) on a 5 car train (only 1 car was open). Friends in Bellingham told me that it was really noticeable that fewer people were coming from Seattle, so I think people in Seattle or Vancouver mostly postponed trips that required crossing the Skagit River. There was traffic congestion in Burlington that we could see from the train, but it wasn’t gridlock like we can see in the Puget Sound area.

    if the volume had been above 500, they could have run the trains longer.
    That’s interesting. With the soon to be available extra Talgo trainsets, is that the threshold needed to regularly schedule a 3rd northbound Cascades roundtrip? The capacity of a Talgo is about 275, so the load factor would need to be very high.

    1. I’m guessing she meant 500 for the duration the train ran. I certainly hope they didn’t think 500 people would switch daily from their cars to the train overnight.

      1. I wonder what happened to ridership on the other, regularly scheduled roundtrip Cascades trains. Were they sold-out?

      2. As a matter of fact, I was on the regular roundtrip Cascades train today. Both the morning trip out of Seattle and the evening trip out of Bellingham were sold out today, with a lot of people actually getting on in Bellingham.

      3. I wonder if that is the norm to have the high ridership on weekends? It seems others have mentioned that during the summer in particular if you are planning weekend travel make plans well in advance. Maybe the extra train would have been more successful Fri-Sun than Mon-Fri. I suspect the ridership on the special train was largely cannibalized from the regularly scheduled service.

      4. “I suspect the ridership on the special train was largely cannibalized from the regularly scheduled service.”

        Only if said cannibals can subsist on cuticles scalp flakes.

        Let’s just say the ridership levels are instructive.

        As you said previously Bernie, when you spoke about the small turnout to your son’s concert (in a previous post, if I remember correctly), that most everyone heard the tales of ‘Carmageddon’, that they just didn’t take the trips.

        Apparently the people in Canada thought that the world ended at the I-5 crossing over the Skagit River, when there were numerous options available. And Bellingham didn’t mind their perception.

        I think that although the train was put together quickly, (and I’m presuming at the least possible cost,) that it didn’t (and probably couldn’t at this time), address the real issue, and that is that Bellingham and Mount Vernon aren’t destination cities.

        Vancouver BC is the correct terminus, but that wouldn’t have worked for the way they had to put this together. That needs a whole lot more work.

  2. I hope that WSDOT has traffic counts that will show how much travel dropped, vs. how much detoured.

    I remember initial news reports about people cancelling hotel reservations in Anacortes when they heard the bridge was out.

    As Bernie had observed previously, it appeared everyone just didn’t want to take the trips, which appeared to be the case on my forays through the area.

    Apparently Bellingham saw an increase in Canadian business, so it might be as simple as the train was going between the wrong destinations. It should have been an express between VancouverBC, and Mount Vernon!

    That, and we’re obviously wedded to our cars.

    1. I don’t know if WSDOT put tube counters in the field to detect volumes on alternate and primary detour routes, SR 9 and SR 20 near Swinomish Slough. In addition, you had other detours where traffic would have slipped through such as Big Fir to Best Road (where Trp.O’Connel was hit). That was not an official detour route.

      Many simply nixed trips through the area or dealt with the delay. An astonishing number took to SR 9 due to the number of incidents where oversized loads tried to slip through even though WSP and WSDOT forbade oversized loads on SR9 during the I-5 closure. There were also complaints in Sedro-Woolley about heavy traffic. There were also lengthy delays at the SR9 crossing into Canada on weekends.

      WSDOT has limited ITS resources in the Mt Vernon/Skagit Valley area. There are a few traffic cameras, but no traffic data stations to obtain lane occupancy and volume data. Plus, you’d have to have data collection at various nodes (before/after and during) to adequately figure the difference between local/detoured trips.

      Working with another poster on here who knew the delays related to the bridge closure (he’ll remain nameless for the time), trips north and southbound from Bellingham should still have been quicker via automobile, Bolt, or motorcycle. Most times the alternate detour route via Kincaid (SR 536) Avon Allen Rd and SR 20 had NO significant delays! The Cascades would have been a longggggg journey. Besides, Alaska Air also offered discounted fares to Bellingham from Sea-Tac!

    2. It also might have helped if it had gone the opposite direction, southbound in the morning and northbound in the afternoon.

      1. It also might have helped if the train weren’t slow as dirt, slower than any possible traffic delay along the detours.

  3. The problem is that its difficult to see a single scheduled train run as a reasonable replacement for a car trip up north. This is especially the case for those who were considering a day trip up north.

    Having to catch the train at an exact time, or having to wait long intervals between trains is a pretty big deterrent for people who often go to Canada or Anacortes on the spur of the moment.

    Getting more people to use something like Amtrack woud require the following:
    1) More frequent trains up north (one every 1-2 hours perhaps?)
    2) Easier access to the stations (that first 10 miles is a pretty big deal for people to get there when there is little or no overnight parking available at some of these stations). Lack of high speed transit to the stations is also a potential solution, but given the speed at which light rail is being built we are talking decades here.
    3) A change in public perception that trains are a “viable” option for long distance travel. This would probably be strongly effected by #1 and #2 as well as by faster trains in general.

    Really I think the biggest problem that stands out here is lack of infrastructure. If more people were used to taking trains within Seattle and between the suburbs, more people would consider using the amtrack runs to go further north and south. Then they could actually add more runs as they started to get towards capacity….

    1. Trains 512 and 515 were primarily a PR effort on the part of all involved and showed that the agencies could respond fairly quickly to a “non-disaster” (except for a few autophiliacs). There was never going to be any kind of ridership given the lack of a full timetable and the use of what is perceived to be “inferior” equipment. Th Amtrak Cascades service (which I dearly love) is still in its infancy and has to become far more frequent and reliable (on time), receive support from BC/Canada, easier to “show up and go”, and so much more before it will play any kind of significant role in our transportation future. This rwill require increased support to douyble and triple track the current roadbeds where needed and petrol at US$10/gallon. Will we be even remotely prepared? Not with only seven trainsets and only 50MPH average running speeds.

      1. Does anyone have inside information to the plans for how they will swap the new (costing $20million of hard-earned taxpayer money, mind you) I-5 span into place?

        Such as how long will it take, and will they try the train thing again?

        If it is a month-long operation, and they are going to experiment with the same train with the same routing (Seattle-Bellingham-Seattle), I would hope they’d tweak the schedule a bit. Leave Seattle at more like 9 AM-ish.

    2. The biggest problem is that it takes too long. I can drive highway 9 the entire way and get there faster than a train.

      1. Jim, you’re consistently hostile toward people that point out the real reasons people don’t use inter-city rail in this area. That’s not called for when most of these people would like to see it succeed! If we want inter-city rail to succeed we have to recognize why it fails today.

      2. The only reply to your perception that I’m hostile is to encourage you and others to correctly analyze the data.

        The popular perceptions the public has about driving are emotional, not analytical.

        What will bring clarity is to clearly explain the how’s and why’s of transportation planning, especially how the cost benefit analysis are a performed, and making sure you have an apples to apples comparison for what systems you are looking at.

        If you are using the marginal costs of driving to make the decision to drive, then you are making a rationization for that choice, not a pure analytical one.

        If a driver doesn’t directly pay the costs as in a toll, which is equivalent to a transit fare, then the driver doesn’t see what his costs are for that trip.

        If I get taxed more, via the gas tax, to supply more capacity for rush hour commuters who want an unfettered commute, or those who choose to live in rural communities who want a high-speed conduit to town, then I deserve to have the chance to vote on it.

        If you believe pavement base solutions are superior, then you need to be able to sell it.

      3. It’s not about whether pavement-based solutions are superior because most of the people you needlessly attack in every single inter-city rail thread don’t actually believe that. Most of us want inter-city rail to succeed. We don’t think rail is inherently inferior, we’re just pointing out the ways that it is inferior today in Seattle. That’s worth doing because it shows us what we need to address in order to succeed.

      4. Ah, I see the where the disconnect is, and how I’m missing transferring what I mean to others wanting better non-auto solutions.

        You need to learn how to make the argument for more SOV solutions, and what you would have to do to convince people that brand new pavement is of value.

        It sounds backward, but once you get your head wrapped around what that side of the argument is, as if you were trying to sell me the Interstate Highway system, based solely on its ‘farebox recovery’, then the case for better non-auto solutions becomes clearer.

        You need to ask the basic questions, and as far as I’m concerned, we don’t ask hard enough questions that challenge the basic road-based assumptions that are part of the popular culture.

      5. Al has, in fact, repeatedly made the case to you that what is keeping highways advantageous — and, regrettably, more efficient on a cost-per-user basis even with externalities considered — is lousy urban transit

        Diffuse populations with lousy access to intercity transit portals are inherently less efficient to serve with any form of fixed transit system. And the best train in the world won’t mean a thing with a severe access penalty.

        There’s a reason that Boston-NY trains provide a much stronger argument for their usage then Seattle-anywhere. It’s not because they’re particularly fast — they aren’t — but because they’re fast enough, easy enough, reliable enough, and CAN BE ACCESSED EASILY BY LARGE NUMBERS OF POTENTIAL USERS.

  4. So many questions. Were the regular northbound morning trips at 7:40 a.m. usually full? Okay, so I just had one question.

  5. Do you think we’ll see any new heavy rail lines in the puget sound in our lifetime? The line from seattle to everett is in a terrible location. Im sure bnsf has resigned themselves to dealing with mudslides permanently. What do you think a new high speed rail line would cost between seattle and vancouver bc would cost 100 billion? And endless legal action for obtaining the ROW….

    1. Just re-activate the Sumas branch (now the Centennial Trail) between Snohomish and Canada.

      1. That is indeed the correct route. To get to Seattle proper, however, you have to take the Burke-Gilman Trail route…

  6. “With a temporary Skagit Bridge now in place, WSDOT discontinued the extra Cascades round trip to Vancouver. The last trip was June 19th.”

    By the way, Martin. The extra trip was between Seattle and Bellingham, not Seattle and Vancouver.

  7. I rode the Cascades to Bellingham today to do some hiking on Chukanut Mountain. Turns out there are lots of good trails you can get to by walking right out of the train station, without having to mess with buses, cabs, or any other “shuttle” vehicles.

    Overall, it was a great trip. The train ran on time, both directions. The ride was relaxing. However, I can see why more people don’t do this.

    Ultimately, the three biggest issues are fares, schedule, and local transportation. The schedule of only 2 trips per day is very limiting. Local transportation can turn the trip into a huge time sink, especially if you have to deal with the skeletal Seattle transit system at 10:00 at night on your return trip. And the fares are way more expensive than driving for anyone who already owns a car. Even if you don’t own a car, 2 people traveling together could easily rent a car for what the Amtrak fares would cost.

    One thing I will say, time-wise, is that, except for a couple stretches near Mt. Vernon and Everett, I never felt the train itself was unreasonably slow. Where the time difference relative to driving really comes from is the time it takes to get from home to the station, and wait at the station for the train to arrive, and travel from the station at the other end to your final destination. For example, today, just over half of the door-to-door travel for my trip was actually spent on board the Amtrak train. The remainder was spent either waiting at stations, riding buses to and from a station, waiting at bus stops to get to or from a station, or walking between home and bus stops.

    This is why, it is impossible to have a long-distance transportation system that competes with driving without a local transportation system that competes with driving. A fully built-out Link network would have improved the travel time of this trip by far more than I can see ever happening via speed improvements to the Amtrak trains, themselves.

    1. This is a fair and through analysis.

      But Jim will jump down your throat anyway, because you dared mention the reality that most people have both cars and difficulty accessing King Street, and that marginal costs as a determining factor is a thing.

      Because STB is not a conversation. It’s just a bunch of people with singular obsessions trouble parsing reality yelling at each other.

      1. It is a conversation. I learn things from what people say, and sometimes it changes my mind. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.

    2. Driving will always be faster and more direct than any mass transit option, that’s not the problem.

      The problem is how much money do you want to sink into the highway system?
      How do you know if it’s worth it, or not?

      I have yet to see a thorough analysis presented to the public as to why even modest highway capacity improvements are worth it, let alone the other mega projects.

      I know what the numbers are, I could even make the highway argument.

      The choices make more sense when they are in context, and compared correctly.

      1. Funny, I’ve met Eric (asdf) before. We disagree on a lot of things, but I don’t recall him being made out of straw.

        No one here is arguing for highway expansions. I don’t remember anyone anywhere trying to piggyback a capacity expansion proposal onto the I-5 bridge replacement. It doesn’t need it.

        But the only argument you ever make on these pages is that we should ignore the present disadvantages of certain rail corridors and the great challenges of improving intercity transit functionality because TRAINS ARE AWESOME LET’S ALL GO OUT OF OUR WAY TO USE THEM!!!

        Driving has externalities often unaccounted for in the decision-making process at the moment one chooses the mode on which to make a trip. We all agree on that. But deny that time-competitiveness / ease / marginal costs are valid rationalizations at that moment is to deny every rational actor in the world who isn’t a railfan. As Al says above, when you insist on operating at the fringe of logic, you lose.

      2. And here’s the problem, d.p.

        The highway lobby is eating the transit lobby’s lunch.

        And no one realizes it.

      3. When the “transit lobby” (i.e. you) resorts to “EVERYBODY GET PLACES SLOWER AND IN AN INCONVIENT MANNER” as an argument, is it any wonder?

        You’re still thumping strawman, though, since no “lobby”
        has argued for capacity expansions on I-5, and no one here has argued for approaching macro-transportation policies without considering externalities.

        MOAR SLOW AMTRACKS solves no problems at all; as seen in the example of this post, very few people will ride them.

      4. “You’re still thumping strawman, though, since no “lobby”
        has argued for capacity expansions on I-5, and no one here has argued for approaching macro-transportation policies without considering externalities”

        That statement, my friend, speaks volumes about your level of understanding of transportation planning.

      5. No. It speaks volumes about my ability to read what people write, and to understand the context in which they write it, rather than reverse-engineer every issue to [ad hom]

      6. I hope you’re not inferring that the only true source of information is this blog.

        Yes, it’s moderated well, and a good source of lots of information, but it’s not the center of the universe.

        I suppose if it was renamed the “Fremont Transit Blog” it would be.

        [ad hom]

      7. Jim, in New York City driving is slower than any train option.

        And this extends out in a radius of nearly 100 miles from NYC.

        Driving is still more *direct*, but it’s slower — congestion makes the difference….

  8. Overall, it was a great trip.

    And that’s what counts most. A few years age, I remember seeing my new-age neighbors as they returned from a weekend meditation/yoga/relaxation experience in Eugene. “How was your trip?”, I asked. Everything was fine in Eugene, but the drive back home had been 7 hours of hell and frustration on I-5. So much for “relax…let all your tensions go.”

  9. I had a conversation with a couple posters on here about rail over the past week and here’s the consensus that I come away from this debate.

    What many of you fail to realize is that Amtrak runs on private right-of-way. On the I-5 Corridor, we are primarily talking BNSF. To run faster trains would mean more cost to FRA and BNSF who would be responsible for upgrading numerous at-grade rail crossings. ….many of them aren’t marked or have gates! These projects and more rail sidings will be needed to avoid conflict between freight and passenger trains.

    While I am more of a fan of electrified rail (less fuel, faster trains), improvements would all have to be funded by BNSF and Union Pacific (on the lines where faster trains would be considered).

    Plus, being on private R/W, Amtrak and the Sounder are at the mercy of BNSF/UP freight movements. How about advocating for a public investment in a separate rail alignment after a R/W lease has been obtained (rather than a rail/rail schedule lease), then anchored rail can be installed permitting faster trains? …just food for thought. In areas with wild curves along the shore, deviate the alignment to mitigate shoreline and environmental permitting. Many of the shoreline segments seem to be painfully slow.

    1. I agree with the view that in order to get good passenger rail, it’s necessary to buy or lease the tracks.

      And yes, the shoreline alignment is a serious problem.

      But getting a new alignment is hard in Washington State. You have a relative shortage of old railroad routes in Washington State, and you’ve put trails on most of them, and the trails are actually fairly popular.

      Out here in the East, we have hundreds of disused railway alignments and trails are not really popular enough to permanently occupy most of them.

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