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Last month WSDOT quietly released a Request for Information,

“to gather information from providers of rail services about service delivery options to provide more convenient, rapid, and reliable intercity passenger rail service between Vancouver, British Columbia and Eugene, Oregon.”

Noting that these submittals “are not responds to deliver the service”, WSDOT is nonetheless seeking input from the private sector (and presumably other governmental rail operators) about how to make Cascades more efficient and reduce its operating costs. If the responses sufficiently pique their interest, WSDOT may issue a full competitive Request for Proposal (RFP).

A little background: the Bush-era Passenger Rail Improvement and Investment Act of 2008 (PRIIA) forced Amtrak to cease funding operations of its most successful routes (state-supported corridors of less than 750 miles). It was a masterfully cynical bill, for though Republicans generally love to hate Amtrak, they also love once-daily legacy service in their districts, which just so happens to be colossally expensive to operate. So they wrote a bill that trimmed the muscle and left the fat, as it were.

Amtrak had been funding 20% of Cascades service, but from October 2013 onward Washington and Oregon have had to bear 100% of operating costs. Though Cascades farebox recovery is relatively good at roughly 66%, farebox recovery is a rate, not an outlay. As Cascades is mandated to add at least 2 more trips between Seattle and Portland by 2017 as a condition of receiving $800m in stimulus (ARRA) funds, it is important to remember that farebox recovery could continue to improve while total costs rise. With a stalemated legislature that loves to play politics with rail, it’s the total costs that matter. Ergo, Cascades has no choice but to seek ways to cut costs.

While I’m no fan of British-style privatization (I lived there in 2008-2009), even the most fervent Amtrak supporters can admit, at a bare minimum, that the superiority of Amtrak’s operating procedures is not self-evident. Anyone who’s watched the sharpie-and-sticky-note shuffle at King Street Station will attest to the wasted time and money that antiquated procedures cause.

This RFI seems to be a good faith attempt by WSDOT to step back and see how things could be different with respect to insurance, labor, food and beverage service, coordination with host railroads, etc. There is significant precedent in bidding out operations, but this mostly occurs in commuter rail corridors, such as Keolis operating Boston’s commuter rail, or Bombardier running the Brunswick and Camden lines in Maryland, or TransitAmerica running CalTrain. For intercity corridors, only All Aboard Florida – which plans to inaugurate service between Orlando and Miami next year – will operate independent of Amtrak.

It will be interesting to see what (if anything) comes of this, but as a frequent rider of both Cascades and long-distance trains I’d love to see things shaken up and solid funding secured. I dream of the day that we can:

  • Run modern software that allows for increased turnover, so that trains don’t always leave Seattle half-empty.
  • End unnecessary queuing procedures and assign seats electronically (if at all).
  • Have automated station and train announcements.
  • Break even or turn a profit on food and beverage service.
  • Reduce unnecessary staffing.
  • Design the schedule with performance in mind, with arrival times that make daytrips in both Seattle and Portland desirable while introducing skip-stop or express services.

How would you like to see things change on Cascades, if at all?

176 Replies to “Cascades Without Amtrak?”

  1. I’d definitely get rid of seating assignments in coach and do it electronically in business as an additional incentive to use it. I was surprised when I started taking Amtrak out here – growing up on the northeast corridor coach was always a free-for-all and it worked fine.

    I’d also change the snack bar. In my experience a key thing that keeps total sales down is the length of the line and how uncomfortable it can be to wait in it. I’d go to more of a self-service system like they have on the ferries with the attendant primarily ringing people up and serving the hooch.

    1. I would like to be able to get an assigned seat when booking, especially on longer trips, as is done when booking flights. This is also helpful for family members traveling together, as well as the elderly. I don’t like the time-wasting system of assigning seats when boarding, as is done now.
      Also, bikes should be allowed without having to be packed up. Many former Cascades riders are now using Bolt instead for that reason.

  2. All the above and:

    1. Bring California into the Cascades program, and run service between Eugene Oregon.

    2. Give express passenger trains their own track.

    3. If Government won’t run service, have it run by a worker-owned cooperative.

    4. Get a lot of new equipment.

    Won’t grieve the end of Amtrak, starting with the name, which always sounds like something headquartered in Kalamazoo Michigan selling soap products.

    Ever since its inception decades ago that railroad has been in competition with Greyhound for the transportation service that most needs to have the flag and colors of our country scraped off its equipment.

    So maybe do this:

    5. Open the search worldwide, and find the company that provides the world’s best service in any country. And have them advise the cooperative.

    Mark Dublin

    1. And 6: immediately put espresso machines in the bistro cars of every Cascade train- like they do in Spain, where Talgo comes from. With forbidding Starbucks by Federal law.

      Mark

    2. The thing is, Amtrak actually is a private corporation. The non-voting shares are owned by BNSF and a few other companies, with the largest shareholder American Premier Underwriters.

      So, simple “privatization” won’t solve any Amtrak problems. It is already is a private corporation. Reorganization of how that particular private company functions should certainly be considered, but the way Amtrak is structured currently shows that “privatization” for the sake of privatization doesn’t necessarily produce improvements in cost effectiveness.

      1. My understanding is that they are private in the way the USPS is private. They’re a private company, but they’re required by law to serve certain routes, etc. That’s pretty much private only in name.

      2. USPS does not have shares, as corporations do. Amtrak does, and common Amtrak stock is owned by private companies. The voting shares are owned by US Department of Transportation.

        Unlike the USPS, as a private corporation Amtrak doesn’t have quite the same government involvement in its operations. Possibly if it had been set up as a true government entity it would be better run, but right now it has elements of both.

        It also means that if Amtrak ceases to exist, the common shareholders will step in to try to obtain as much money out of the settlement as they possibly can. There are already issues with American Premier Underwriters suing Amtrak for causing the share value to drop. Abolishing Amtrak completely will involve quite a lot more court settlements than abolishing a true government only agency due to the shareholders.

        Perhaps the voting shares should be owned by the various states instead? That way, the states get a say in what service they get.

        I’m not sure how you go about replacing Amtrak with another private corporation without having the same problems. We’ve already seen how private companies run amok cause costs to increase with government services.

  3. DOT is on very thin ice here. While BNSF might have been amenable to agree to continue operating the trains between Vancouver BC and Portland five years ago, with the flood of expected coal and oil export trains they’ll be reluctant, to say the least. You can expect demands for complete state pre-emption of local objection to them as a part of any agreement. And of course Uncle Pete will kick the trains off south of Portland Union Station at the earliest opportunity.

    The mandate that the freight railroads host service specifically names Amtrak, and nobody has proven yet that it’s transferable.

    1. Continuing…

      The examples Zach gave of non-Amtrak operation in Boston and Cal-Train are very lightly used — or for some of the Boston lines, otherwise un-used — lines. The MARC Brunswick/Fairfax service is on a line used by Amtrak so that may be an example of “transfer” of the mandate to provide service I hadn’t remembered. But the Washington-Baltimore “Camden Line” service over CSX is over lines which had no passenger service at the time that the NRPC legislation was passed. Maryland had no choice but to pay whatever mordida CSX demanded. There are many more MARC trains on the “Penn Line” (owned by Amtrak) than the “Camden Line”, even though Camden Station is in a much better location for commuters.

      I will admit that there is one place where a regional commuter system operates over a very high-volume transcontinental main line and doesn’t pay an arm and a leg to do so: the METRA Orange County line and San Bernardino-Oceanside services on BNSF’s “Transcon”. That service was originally negotiated when the owner was the AT&SF which has always been America’s highest quality passenger provider. For some reason, the corporate DNA had a bit of public service consciousness. Go figure.

      Those two routes wouldn’t be established new today, though.

      1. Service on what is now the MARC Brunswick Line service has been continuous since before Amtrak (originally on the B&O), much like the service in Chicagoland on BNSF, UP-N, UP-NW, and UP-W. These are effectively grandfathered and the freight railroads can’t get out of the contracts. The freight railroads can be quite recalcitrant when it comes to *new* service.

    2. To be clear, the enabling legislation names the “National Railroad Passenger Corporation” which later renamed itself “Amtrak”. It’s the same corporation though and it bears the rights to the mandate.

      1. If you look at any of the official documents, including the copyright on the bottom of the web site, it says Natuonal Railroad Passenger Corporation.

  4. One minor correction here:
    Some state Amtrak routes are already privatized, sort of. North Carolina Amtrak is operated by Bombardier, I think. For a while it was Herzog.

    As to the “unnecessary queuing” in Seattle, the Oregon trains didn’t do seat assignments up until about 2007 or so. It worked OK, but once the trains started to get crowded enough there were problems with seat hogs, trying to cram all their luggage into a pair of seats without using the luggage racks, etc. The seat assignments force the issue with someone assigned to a seat that the first arriving passenger might otherwise consume with luggage.

    The process could be easier, but the current American traveling public is, for the most part, ill-prepared to deal with non-assigned seats thanks to decades of experience with airports and airline procedures. If you think Cascades trains require a lot of unnecessary queuing, count the staff required even for electronic ticketing at a typical flight.

    As for ways to reduce costs, by far the most obvious thing to me is the weight of the locomotives. The weight of the cab cars currently used plus the locomotive is almost 1/3 of the weight of the entire train, yet they have no useful income associated with them. They also severely limit the speed around curves because the BNSF does not want such heavy stock causing excess track damage. They are not the best example around, but TriMet’s DMU cars are only around 70 tons each, and when they were built there was an option for putting 1,500 horsepower under the floor of each (they were built with 1,200). Putting one of those at each end of a Cascades train would cut the weight of the motive power component by about half, reduce track wear, and should allow for higher speeds than currently operated due to the reduced track wear on the curves, while still giving them 3,000 horsepower.

    There are some trains that regularly sell out. Not being able to accommodate the total number of passengers that want to ride a particular departure is one of the limiting factors of total ridership right now. There simply isn’t enough track capacity to have all the trains that the market could support. Therefore, there really needs to be some adjustments made to the train length. Talgo stock can be reassembled into longer or shorter trains, and now that Oregon has added two train sets to the region there needs to be some adjustment so that those trains which could easily carry far more passengers than they currently do are lengthened.

    1. The lengths of the trains are often limited by the lengths of the platforms at the stations. This may require some investment into the stations themselves in order to support more passenger cars.

      1. Shorter platforms are an issue at the lesser used stations, such as Kelso or Centralia, but in those places there are few enough passengers they just open one or two doors anyway.

    2. Even the busy California trains don’t assign seats. Are you saying that Oregonians, as a rule, are both dumber and more selfish than Californians?

      1. How do they go about solving this particular issue there?

        In the east or in Europe it is easier to solve because those people groups are largely used to traveling by train.

      2. +1 d.p.

        Exactly. I ride the Pacific Surfliner, Amtrak’s 2nd busiest route, a lot. At busy Los Angeles Union Station, you can walk right up to the platform, wait for the train to arrive and get on, like Sounder. Hundreds of people get on and off there. How Cascades operates is just inefficient and plainly stupid.

        Most Surfliner trains are unreserved seating but even reserved Business Class seats are not assigned. Cascades needs more capacity (frequency and train size).

    3. I don’t think general admission seating is that hard to understand. Most trains throughout the world work that way. Just about every bus works that way. Likewise with movie theaters. lots of plays and sporting events. But somehow a rider gets on a train and thinks he is on an airplane and then freaks out? Oh, and Southwest Airlines has this type of boarding yet somehow it works for them (and their passengers).

      If anything, it is the other way around. I once rode a train in Italy and it was assigned seats, but most people ignored it. This was no problem until it got crowded. At that point it was hard to get a seat or convince someone to move. The language problem didn’t help. I ran into the same problem on a bus in Argentina. In other words, just because there are assigned seats doesn’t mean that someone won’t put their luggage on your seat. When they do, the situation is just made worse.

      Either way, the problem is solved with a public announcement (“We have a full train today, so please only use one seat per person”) and a few attendants (“Excuse me sir, please put your luggage somewhere else so someone else can use that seat” or “Hey buddy, get your bag off the seat”).

      1. Most of the time though, you never see the conductors on the Cascades coaches, especially if you are all the way up in 8 or 9.

        I’ve not had a problem with anyone arguing with a seat assignment and saying their suitcase requires the seat next to them when presented with the tag. It would be nice if they would make room otherwise but it just doesn’t seem to happen on its own.

        Also, suppose someone gets on the train in Kelso. If there are no seats in cars 3 or 4, the conductor can give them a seat in 8 o 9 or one of the other Seattle coaches and know that there should be an empty seat there because they have a tag for that seat. Otherwise, the passenger is on a wild goose chase, and may wind up in a car where they won’t open the doors for the particular destination they want to go to.

      2. Okay, but what actually happens is that cars 3-6 get crammed with SEA-PDX travelers, car 7 is reserved for a dozen or so Tacoma boardings, and then eventually everyone gets pissed off when they realize cars 8 and 9 are completely [redacted] empty and that they’ve been sitting in the loudest or sneeziest part of the train for absolutely no [redacted] reason.

        Cascades seating assignments import all of the unpleasantness of flying with none of the benefits.

      3. You also have to consider that the train is a more expensive alternative to the Bolt Bus (or driving!). As it is, there is just enough luxury to make it worth it for me. Part of that is that I get to spend a few hours hanging out with my husband, drinking a beer, maybe watching a movie together. I would be afraid that general admission on busy trains would make it more difficult to get seats together. If I had that experience once, it would probably be enough to make me give up on the train.

      4. Holy clucking spit, Pacific Northwesterners! Have you never heard of agency? Verbal communication? Human plucking interaction!?

        Do you think everyone everywhere else just sits separated from their parties for the duration of their rides, with arms folded and scowls on their faces, stewing in their lack of seat-assignedness?

        Yeesh! Layers of pointless procedure are no substitute for reasonable people figuring simple shlit out as it arises. Stop self-infantilizing! It’s no wonder this region seems to operate with no ducking social contract!

      5. Has anyone asked Amtrak why they do it this way on the Cascades service? What was the answer?

      6. The answer is that WADOT and ODOT like it.

        Insufferable clueless morons, the whole lot of them.

      7. Such as learning from Amtrak why they started doing it this way in the first place.

      8. WADOT and ODOT are on record as being the culpable parties.

        No other Amtrak routes, anywhere, share these procedures.

        [ah]

      9. Where did they admit their culpability? What reasons did they give?

        And it’s also a legitimate question: Why did Amtrak give in to them?

      10. I was actually wondering if someone had gotten an official response, suitable for a press release.

      11. Perhaps no one wants to explicitly associate their names with an irrational preference for unbelievably backward practices.

        But if multiple STB authors have been told semi-on-record, by all pertinent administrative entities, that “the DOTs like it this way, and Amtrak must obey”, that suffices as evidence.

        I’m sorry that [ah], Jim. Maybe you should work for WADOT.

      12. >> . I would be afraid that general admission on busy trains would make it more difficult to get seats together.

        Don’t be afraid. I go to the movies all the time with my sweetie and we somehow manage to sit together without assigned seats. We even go to crowded restaurants and have the same experience. On the other hand, with a plane* you are pretty much on your own. You buy the tickets and sometimes they are together, and sometimes they aren’t. You can ask someone to switch seats, but then it is as if (shudder) the seats aren’t assigned.

        * Again, Southwest Airlines has managed to be extremely successful following a general admission policy. The only time assigned seats make sense is for a ball game or concert when you want to reduce the number of people who camp out for good seats. Speaking of which, if you really, really want a great seat (by the window) or are afraid of getting a seat, then that option is always available.

      13. Let me chime in a second for Ross. When I was growing up, I was always glad when my parents chose to fly Southwest precisely because of their open seating. There were four people in my family. On other airlines, we’d sometimes be stretched out over one row, or three of us would be together and the fourth somewhere else in the plane. In other words, they gave us seats meeting the basic requirements: one adult sitting with the children, and maybe throw in one window seat because kids like that. But on Southwest, we could camp out early and always get four seats together – and almost all of the time, we’d find two sets of two, right behind each other, so my sister and I could both get window seats.

        TL;DR: Open seating lets people fill their own preferences themselves, without the seat assignment official having to keep up with them all.

      14. On the STB thread d.p. links to, the only reference I see is a post by Bruce Nourish that says “Some of the STB authors have tried to talk sense into WSDOT on the absurd seating arrangements at SEA, PDX and VAC, to no avail. The agency regards it as a feature, not a bug,

        What my question is, what are the reasons they give? This comment just says, in effect “We know better, why don’t you change to our way of thinking?”

        Do the nameless faceless posters here think any agency should take the opinions of a few transit wonks as gospel?

        Providing constructive solutions requires at least an understanding of what problems they see, and addressing them.

        It’s apparent no one wants to understand what those issue are.

      15. No, [ad hom]. They should take well-established global best practices “as gospel”.

        http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Best_practice

        Because instead of making arrival and boarding slower and less convenient, it makes it faster and more convenient.

        Which is objectively better. Everywhere. Including here.

        The DOTs’ logic boils down to, “Let’s make our trains like airplanes. In the pre-computing era. Because airports in 1960 were the greatest thing ever, right?” It’s indefensible.

      16. What are YOUR solutions?
        If you don’t know, or don’t care to investigate the stumbling blocks to your vision of the perfect system…. for ALL travellers, and have decided that since EUROPE DOES IT BETTER, how would you implement that here?

      17. I would eagerly investigate whatever reasons WSDOT puts forward for keeping the current system. As far as I know, they have not shared any.

        I have two solutions; I would be fine with either one. For either of them, I would sell a number of tickets no greater than the number of seats on the train, guaranteeing everyone a seat somewhere. Then:
        1) No seat-assignment system at all. Trust passengers to do it themselves, like Sounder. If there’s a real problem, they can ask a conductor who will have authority to make snap judgments for whatever reasons the seat-assigners currently do it, just like Southwest’s flight attendents do.
        2) Alternatively, let passengers cue up in the stations just like they Southwest does. The conductors would still have the same authority as above.

        My system could be accused of having three stumbling blocks:
        1) It is possible that arguments over seats could lead to violence between passengers. However, experience from local bus systems – which have unassigned seats and at least as many likely-to-be-violent passengers – shows this will be extremely rare.
        2) It is possible that certain persons who need to sit together might be traumatized for personal reasons by having to ask other passengers to move. However, psychological studies show this is extremely rare.
        3) It is possible that persons who need to sit together might not be able to do so, despite asking passengers. However, experience from other Amtrak routes, as well as Southwest Airlines, shows this will be extremely rare.

        I believe these very unlikely stumbling-blocks will be outweighed by the efficiency gain in saving crew and not making passengers wait at the station in advance.

      18. Seriously, William.

        Issue tickets. Let ticketed passengers onto the platform. Train arrives. Passengers board.

        WTF is so complicated about this, Jim?

      19. It goes right back to the question:

        What (Official) Reasons are either Amtrak or WSDOT giving that precludes implementing all, or some of the changes suggested?

        Statements from Geraldine might not be the correct source.

        If you understand their issues (and I don’t know what those specifically might be), then the argument for change becomes more convincing when the real (or perceived) roadblocks are analyzed and questioned.

        Your whining about it without any factual information isn’t going to change anything.

      20. When they implement a system contrary to the rest of the world in a way that so visibly disadvantages passengers, I think they bear some responsibility to explain why.

        But, Jim, you do have a good question. Why don’t you ask WSDOT? I’m going out of the country for the next couple weeks (or I’d do it myself), but I’ll be interested to see if they give any answer before I’m back.

      21. Who are you, Sam?

        Hey guys, whine away, it’s all in the PNW spirit.

        Right up there with the SOV’ers whining about traffic.

      22. There are no conceivable rational reasons, Mr. Brainwash.

        If there were any such reasons, those reasons would also apply somewhere else in the world. The Pacific Northwest is not a special snowflake. Other places have steep hills. Other places have weird silt. Other places have rain.

        Sometimes a stupid policy is just that: a stupid policy.

        Until two years ago, we had a “front door only” bus system for decades. This region is no stranger to stupid policies.

      23. The problem with the Southwest Airlines model is that they don’t have intermediate stops. Centralia, Kelso and Olympia are insignificant, but Tacoma is the 3rd busiest station, and Vancouver, WA can sometimes add quite a number.

        You say they shouldn’t sell more tickets than there ate seats, but at the conductor ticketed stations they currently use the seat assignment system to prevent doing this.

        There are definitely better ways of doing it, but a sheet of address labels with seat numbers printed by an office photocopier on them can be had for pennies. Switching to any sort of electronic seat assignment system would be less labor intensive, but means actually spending money on a software product that would belong to who? Amtrak? Even if WashDOT and ODOT pay for it? Furthermore, for the few trains that currently operate, would developing it be cost effective?

        That is not to say the existing system could be improved, but I really don’t see the occasional standee solution as used on the Northeast Regionals to be a satisfactory solution here.

      24. You were wrong when you claimed people get stuck standing on the Northeast Corridor. Really, that doesn’t happen. And there dozens more gradual-turnover intermediate stations on that corridor than we have.

      25. Northeast Corridor tickets are departure-specific, and they do enforce getting on the right train to >99% effectiveness.

        Standees. Don’t. Happen.

      26. Glenn, you’re right that transitioning to a software-based model would be difficult. But you don’t need one. Keep the existing ticket sheets, but simply replace the term “Seat Number” with “Ticket Number.” The number will stay for inventory control, but passengers won’t have to bother lining up for seat assignments anymore.

    4. Not all stations are built to accommodate a lengthier train set so while in theory it works, in reality it doesn’t.

      1. OK, I’m just going to put this out there: Amtrak runs something like a dozen regional trains in each direction between Washington to Boston, with non-reserved seats, every day. About half (that being a total guess) of those trains stop in Aberdeen, Maryland, which has (I believe) a 2-car 8″-ATOR platform (definitely the 8″ part—possibly it’s actually longer than that, since it’s a MARC terminus). Hence, I am familiar with the exact language used by the conductors of those trains: “Our next stop will be Aberdeen Maryland—passengers leaving the train at Aberdeen, please proceed to the café car. Doors will open only at the front and rear of the café car in Aberdeen.”

        Yes, Aberdeen is a nothing stop with no passengers, it’s true. OK, Metro-North commuter rail, which makes on average a 30-second stop at each Connecticut station when anything other than crush loaded, stops at 4-car and 6-car platforms with 8-car trains every day, and they say “front two cars move back, last two cars move forward”, and people pretty much seem to survive.

        I haven’t been on Cascades yet (in that I have not needed to get where it goes when I’m in Seattle), but unless the aisles are remarkably deficient, they’re probably not narrower than the ones on an M8 or an Amfleet.

      2. People also regularly wind up standing on the northeast regionals. I don’t think that would go over too well on the Cascades service.

    5. the process could be easier, but the current American traveling public is, for the most part, ill-prepared to deal with non-assigned seats thanks to decades of experience with airports and airline procedures.

      This is ridiculous. Is there any reason to believe PNWers uniquely incompetent in this regard compared to denizens of the Northeast? Because they do fine. We also seem to avoid catastrophes caused by confusion about where to sit on the busier Sounder South runs.

      1. PNW’ers aren’t quite there yet, although Sounder passengers are a different animal than Amtrak riders.

      2. Really?

        This native PNWer moved to California and found their procedures made way more sense. Many people have moved to the PNW from California and other places.

        I’ve taken way more trips on the Surfliner than I ever have on Cascades largely because it is convenient and affordable in ways that Cascades is not.

      3. Okay, that’s 1.
        But Transit Wonks like you don’t count. ;-)

        We’re still wedded to our cars in the Northwest.
        Once we get like California, things will change.

      4. Sounder is a commuter service. People expect a higher level of service when traveling longer distances. I certainly don’t see anyone on a Cascades train tolerating being forced to stand, but that is a normal expectation of commuter service.

      5. My how things have turned around. And I thought cars were king in Southern California. What the hell does being wedded to cars have anything to do with lousy boarding procedures? The last thing anyone wants is the worst parts of flying. People take the train because it is not like flying.

        I’d rather stand on a train than be stranded. And yes, I have stood on a Surfliner train for over an hour on a Sunday night, when every college student is returning from their weekend trip. If I didn’t want to stand, I could buy a reserved Business Class ticket.

        This isn’t even a Seattle-only problem. Chicago and the Northeast also have silly boarding procedures. It seems that Amtrak California is the only one in the US that gets it.

        http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2013/07/10/_.html

      6. Taking transit, be it buses or trains is too much trouble for most of the people in the PNW. It’s too rainy. They would have to get their nice new Gore-tex all wet if they had to wait outside for any length of time.

        Yes Oran, you get train travel.
        The transit wonks that post here get it.

        STB’ers don’t represent the general public.

      7. Questionable delays in accessing the platform aside*, at least no one in Chicago or New York or D.C. is wasting time and adding stress with Post-It notes and Sharpies. With the Northeast Corridor’s passenger volumes, you would create the concourse bottleneck to end all bottlenecks if you tried the Cascades approach!

        Jim: Neither you, nor the DOT bunglers responsible, have even attempted to suggest why you think transit-naive Northwesterners would somehow be enamored with slow queues and restricted choices, or with sitting in the crowded car while another is kept vacant for half a dozen hypothetical Centralians.

        *(Also, for the record, Yglesias is wrong. China HSR platform access is exactly like Penn Station. That doesn’t make it ideal in either place, but it does align Acela with its peers far more than Yglesias implies.)

      8. Sorry Jim, I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or not.

        I am only 1 out of the 7,600 daily or 2.8 million annual passengers who ride the Pacific Surfliner, which actually follows a sensible approach to boarding trains, unlike Cascades. They’re number 2 in ridership after the NE corridor. Surely they must be doing something right.

        Why can’t we learn from them instead of being so defensive?

      9. They’ve invested more in their passenger rail system.

        If you would just learn what the Amtrak/WSDOT reasoning is by a bit of investigation, then you could affect the changes here.

        and yes, in some ways I am being sarcastic, but it’s more directed at the perception of the general public in the Pacific Northwest towards mobility. That’s the root of the problem.

        The STB needs to get out of it’s comfort zone and really understand how and why the “anti-transit” folks think the way they do. They are not necessarily as “anti-transit” as you might think, but probably just uninformed about things transportation.

      10. Typical “uninformed anti-transit” folk:

        “Public transit is a pain in the ass to use. I can’t see myself bothering with that hassle.”

        Jim’s solution:

        “Let’s make it even more of a pain in the ass. That makes sense!”

      11. There was a time in the 1980s when the Coast Starlight was routinely overbooked, and they had to use the lounge car as overflow seating. Overbooking is far less common now, probably partly because of the number of people willing to come back as a repeat customer after that is very small.

        So suppose this were instituted on the Cascades, and someone winds up standing for an hour or so on the train. You will find the vast majority of the Cascades passengers will not tolerate this. Then what? Refund part of their ticket? At the very best you risk making the train have an even worse reputation than it currently does, thanks to the frequent freight interference.

        Next time you take acCascades train try seeming if any of the other passengers would be willing to take the train if it meant the possibility of having to stand part of the way. I just don’t see passengers here willing to accept that.

      12. Dude. This isn’t the 1980s. The Northeast Corridor has something like 30 times the passenger volume of Cascades, and IT DOESN’T HAPPEN!!. Give it a rest!

        What is it with this part of the country busily solving imagined problems, while actively creating real ones?

      13. The only reason Oran might wind up standing on the Pacific Surfliner is that, unless I’m mistaken, they still allow unrestricted “same date ticketing”, more like a commuter rail than a normal guaranteed-seat Amtrak run.

        Northeast Corridor tickets are departure-specific. Standees don’t happen. They don’t happen. They don’t happen.

        They wouldn’t happen here either.

      14. Jim, who are these “anti-transit folks” and how are they related to the way Cascades operates? The boarding problem is small compared to what I want most from Cascades: faster and more frequent service.

        With that said, I will investigate what the deal is with boarding policy just like I have done with Metro’s “exit front door only after 7 pm” rule. [1, 2, 3, 4] (Coincidentally another exiting/boarding the vehicle issue)

        Yes, d.p. I can actually buy a ticket on the train though Amtrak’s mobile app or phone number. The conductors let you do this! I think that’s a feature, not a bug. The other thing is if I’m not mistaken that Surfliner trains have way more seating capacity than Cascades trains so they can afford to do that. Only rarely do they make certain trains all-reservation-only to deal with demand.

      15. Oran,
        What’s going on here and how it differs with California has to do with my previous statement: “They’ve invested more in their passenger rail system.”

        The problem is a whole lot deeper than you perceive.

      16. and statements such as this:

        “Typical “uninformed anti-transit” folk:

        “Public transit is a pain in the ass to use. I can’t see myself bothering with that hassle.”

        are a worthless part of the argument.

      17. Makes sense to me, Oran, especially since the Pacific Surfliner seems to function more as an L.A.-S.B. and L.A.-San Diego ultracommuter rail than as a “regional corridor” like Cascades or even the Northern Cali trains.

        If I’m not mistaken, tickets between NYC and Albany also allow flexible boarding, for much the same reason. There’s even a non-negligible number of monthly passholders on that route.

        As a general worldwide rule, the longer-distance the trip -> the more advance planning is anticipated -> the closer the experience is to flying.

        The SNCF locals that ply the Côte d’Azur all day, though technically on an “intercity corridor”, allow fully flexible fares. But if you’re traveling up to Lyon, chances are you’ll need a ticket for a specific departure. And the TGV, like China HSR, will have airport-lite security and an assigned seat printed on your ticket.

        Cascades is in that middle category, and should act like it.

      18. Jim, “uninformed”/”anti-transit” were your own words.

        And “public transit is a pain” is the most common prejudgment espoused by those your were categorizing.

        [ad hom]

      19. Yes, speed, reliability and frequency require investment but don’t tell me they can’t do low or no-cost fixes that benefit the customer.

        Tell me, Jim, how much do we have to invest to be able to say exactly what Amtrak California’s boarding information says? They even explain how boarding a train is different from boarding a plane. Compare that straightforward message to Cascade’s Rider’s Guide which bombards you with border crossing information that’s irrelevant to most passengers. Maybe they should start investing in their website and basic communications. It doesn’t take a multibillion dollar state transportation package to fix that.

        Yeah, d.p. I think that’s pretty much what the Pacific Surfliner is. The train schedules are even coordinated with Metrolink commuter trains running in the same corridor and monthly pass holders can ride each others’ trains. I have to plan more in advance for any trip that requires an overnight stay like trips to northern California.

        Seattle to Vancouver BC or Portland (but not Portland – BC!) are borderline acceptable drives for a day trip. So I think Cascades at least should function well enough to compete with driving/flying in those markets.

      20. You seriously want that to be your last reply? You’re the go to guy for that, I suppose.

      21. “With that said, I will investigate what the deal is with boarding policy just like I have done with Metro’s “exit front door only after 7 pm” rule.”

        Excellent, Oran.
        That’s exactly what you want to do, and I hope the answers you get will help clear things up and provide some intelligent dialogue with less speculation.

      22. “Yes, speed, reliability and frequency require investment but don’t tell me they can’t do low or no-cost fixes that benefit the customer.

        Tell me, Jim, how much do we have to invest to be able to say exactly what Amtrak California’s boarding information says?”</i"

        Some of those answers I'm hoping you'll find out when you talk to the right people.
        Good luck, I'll be looking forward to see what the responses are.

      23. “Tell me, Jim, how much do we have to invest to be able to say exactly what Amtrak California’s boarding information says?”

        Oran, I certainly don’t want to come across sarcastic with you, but there are so many obvious things that are different about what California has done.

        The Pacific Surfliner service has a 25 trains servicing 35 stations.
        All of the platforms are of modern design, that just like the Sounder platforms, allowing for (almost) level boarding. At least not necessitating the use of the step stools the crews have to at certain stations in Washington and Oregon. Edmonds and Centralia are two I’ve been to that are not up to the same specifications, along with (more notably) Portland Union Station and King Street Station.

        When people describe the ease of access to European trains and other high usage corridors in the US, and compare that to stations (especially busy ones) that have boarding processes that restrict access, it is because the platform heights do not provide the separation necessary for safety.

        At King Street Station, the remaining problem is Tracks 2 & 3 at the area around the station building itself.

        Amtrak, Sound Transit, and BNSF do not want the public crossing active RR tracks just anywhere and anytime.

        If WSDOT would invest in upgrading all of the Cascades (Wa) stations to be able to serve all trainsets, have all doors available without having to place the stepstools, then you could eliminate the reason for most of the queing for seat assignments.

        Then you can get a bit creative, without getting involved in any programming changes, by offering additional classes, possibly for an extra fee.

        One that comes to mind is that groups wanting tables (where the 4 seats face each other) might book at TB ticket upbrade (similar to the BV bike space, wheelchair space, or GX space like some midwest trains), and people with regular coach tickets would be restricted.

      24. “Jim, “uninformed”/”anti-transit” were your own words.

        And “public transit is a pain” is the most common prejudgment espoused by those your were categorizing.”

        At first, I was going to reply that you are totally mischaracterized my statement… until I realized … that’s your whole point.

      25. Since passengers with unassigned seating tend to naturally space themselves out, there is approximately zero chance whatsoever that the door you open at a minor stop will lead to a full-up car.

        There. Problem fixed. $0. Wow.

        As for “your own words”… You opined that we need extra-stupid procedures in deference to an extra-ignorant population. (Projection… clearly!) But since our stupid procedures confuse and delay everyone, while helping no one, you failed even to achieve “flawed logic”. What you presented met no definition of “logic” at all.

        Then you attacked me for using your own words to point out your own nonsense.

        [ah]

    6. (1) Amtrak says they use the stupid boarding procedure at King St. Station because WSDOT wants them to.
      (2) WSDOT agrees that they are the cause of the stupid boarding procedures.
      (3) WSDOT has offered no actual reasons for the stupid boarding procedures. Because there aren’t any.

  5. High Speed and Priority for passenger trains over freight!

    When I talk to people about taking the train from Seattle to Portland they always say “but I can drive there in about the same amount of time.” Couple that with frequent delays over freight priority and it becomes a barrier that a lot of people can’t get over. A lot of people I talk to would never ride the Cascades as it is right now, and I can’t really blame them. I love the experience of riding a train, but the last time I went to Portland on the Cascades the train was stopped on the tracks north of Olympia for 3 hours for unexplained reasons. This delay in the schedule caused three more delays on the way to Portland because of the messed up schedule. Half of the people on that train swore to never ride it again. The Point Defiance Bypass will reduce times and delays a bit, but until we can get Cascades up to 110+ MPH and eliminate ALL delays, it’s not going to pull people off of the road.

    ((More Speed + Fewer Delays = More Passengers) – Lower Operational Costs) = Everybody wins

    1. I would like to see a Cascades Trailblazers and Cascades Canucks train…similar to the Seahawks/Mariners Sounder Service.

      This would take people to the game early in the day in Portland or Vancouver, BC, and then pick them up within a reasonable time after the game. Such a train would make all the local stops to pick people up in stations like Kent.

      Sports venues have been a big driver of trains for Seattle destinations…why not access these nearby teams north and south of us?

      1. I guess that was a little confusing, but now that I re-read it, it could mean two things.

        Cascades trains from Seattle for us to see Portland/BC teams.

        Cascades trains to Seattle for them to see Seahawks and Mariners games.

      2. This is something the teams should already be doing with their own fleet of cars, or get a charter company to do it for all the teams (including OSU, UO and UW). Look up AAPRCO. Privately owned railroad passenger cars are not a new concept.

      3. If anything that will increase the demand for this type of service, just like the Sounders vs Timbers games do (or could, if this type of service were actually offered).

      4. Several years ago when I lived in Portland, there were billboards around town actually advertising the benefits (and availability) of taking the Cascades to Seattle for Mariners and Seahawks games. I don’t know how well that translated to people in seats, but the effort was there.

      5. You could see afternoon Mariners game, by leaving Portland on the 8:20am, getting in at 12:10pm.

        http://www.amtrakcascades.com/Schedules.htm

        The games begin at 1:10pm and will go about 3 hours so you can easily make the 5:30pm back to Portland.

        You could go from SEA to PDX for an evening Trail Blazers game but you’d have to wait until 8:20 A the next morning to return with the current schedule.

      6. If you were to do this as a privately owned train, you could outfit many of the cars to be rooms. Make it so you can spend the night in a hotel room while on your way back.

        This also means that you could have the train take 6 or so hours to get between Seattle and Portland, which BNSF might actually be able to deliver.

  6. Re: The blockages that most need to be removed:

    1. In addition to the wider damage fossil fuels are doing to the world, these firms are run by slobs who won’t even put lids on their coal cars- like every garbage hauler has decency to do.

    And given the extra flammability of oil our of Dakota, we’re having mile- long mobile napalm bombs rolling through potential mass casualty places. On tracks in same shape as our highways.

    2. I’ll miss the shoreline scenery between Tacoma and the Nisqually, but this Spring’s list of Sounders canceled over ‘slides show that two new railways are needed:

    One, a freight-only line inland through places dry, flat, and unpopulated.

    Two, a high speed passenger-only line between borders, going through Seattle and Portland in deep ‘quake proof tunnels.

    Both electrified. Much better than what brought our country out of the last Great Depression. Call it The War For Independence From the 19th Century.

    Mark Dublin

    1. this Spring’s list of Sounders canceled over ‘slides show that two new railways are needed:

      No, what this Spring’s list of Sounders (and Amtrak!) cancelled services proves is that idiots that build houses on the top of a steep hillside and dump drainage water over the side should be charged with cleaning up the mess they make at the bottom of the hill.

      The line runs at the bottom of some hill or other in many, many places between Vancouver, WA and Seattle. The only places where this problem seems to be significant are places where careless development at the top of the hill has taken place.

      1. Oh please, that hillside has bee sloghing off for eons and will continue to slough off no matter how many trains run down those tracks. Get over it.

    2. Mark,

      The tracks on which the coal and oil export trains run are in far better shape than Washington State’s highways with the exception of the branch north from Everett to Ferndale. Yes, there are potentials for disaster in Bellingham, Mt. Vernon and Burlington, but as the oil trains increase BNSF is pouring money into upgrading that line. In a couple of years it will be up to their mainline standard: 156 lb CWR with modern CTC throughout.

  7. I’m a broken record on this, but I don’t think efficiency or cost reduction are all that important. They are nice to have, but should not be the priority when making decisions about how to operate passenger rail service (or buses for that matter). Keep in mind that as far as Republicans are concerned, government should not be providing any funding to rail at all. If we reduce costs, that means Republicans will argue that we can reduce the amount of money government spends on rail. We don’t get to keep the savings, we don’t get to use it on anything else.

    That said, there are certainly improvements worth looking at for their own sake, in terms of generating more riders, faster trips, or creating a better passenger experience.

    • Simplifying check-in. There has got to be a way for people to check in at the station and get a seat assignment without having to wait in line.

    • Add options for on-board food and beverage service. These don’t need to break even, but better on-board offerings would help generate more revenue.

    • Improve announcements in the station and on the trains, whether automated or not. Perhaps a real-time arrival info on an electronic board?

    1. >These don’t need to break even, but better on-board offerings would help generate more revenue.<

      'We operate at a loss, but we make up for it through volume.'

    2. Robert, I’m with you on the fact that efficiency buys you zero votes from Republicans, and that their cynicism and doublespeak on rail issues is self-evident…they’ll enact policies that make things worse, then blame Amtrak for worsened performance.

      But I’ll always believe that irrespective of politics, efficiency matters greatly. Serving more people in better ways and making them happier with their service is a core mission of transit, intercity rail included. I’ll never be so naive to think that a more efficient Amtrak (or Metro, or ST, whatever) would suddenly change conservative hearts and minds on transit issues, but to me it’s self-evident that serving as many as possible as well as possible is an end unto itself.

      1. But Zach, we could just keep shaking the money tree harder, and then it wouldn’t matter that we were somehow managing to sell microwave hot-dogs at a loss.

    3. And, Amtrak needs to be ever so slightly nicer than the bus or driving, which will be cheaper because Republicans are happy to pay for highways. Doing things that decrease costs at the expense of passenger experience should be avoided. Some things will decrease costs and improve passenger experience though.

      1. This. Keep the quality above that of bus, driving, and flying. This can still be done relatively cheaply… but it matters a lot for revenue.

  8. -Express service between Seattle and Portland, with maybe a Tacoma stop.
    -Outside vendor for food and beverage service (sbux)?
    -Private vendor for operations (Virgin Rail?)
    -Automated station announcements

  9. Electrically operated switches at King Street Station are a must. It doesn’t add a huge amount to the delays, but having to toss a conductor off the train in order to hand throw switches (which has happened every time I have taken the train to Seattle in the past two years – before that it didn’t happen very often) means that there is surplus staff on the trains to accommodate this potential need, as well as adding two short but obnoxious stops to the process.

      1. Maybe I should have been clearer when I said “funds it.” There’s a difference between identifying where the money is expected will eventually come from, and the when of actually writing a check to contractor. Some of the money was “approved” pursuant to federal ARRA recovery act passed in 2008 to help the American economy emerge from recession and then “awarded” to a particular Cascades project in 2009 or 2010. Some would say that the project was then “funded” even though congress may not even yet have approved a federal budget that actually approves transferring the fed money for this funded project to an account at the WSDOT. Similar story for Washington state appropriations. What this all boils down to is the carpet can still get yanked from under the quote funded project by a cost cutting, train hating legislator. The last couple federal budget cycles have threatened exactly that.

      2. The ARRA money and the FY2010 HSIPR money are obligated; Congress can’t claw it back. When the work gets done, the bills will be paid. The money could be ‘lost’ if WSDOT didn’t follow the terms of its funding agreement with the FRA.

      3. How on earth does it take FIFTY-ONE MILLION DOLLARS to slap a few powered turnouts in?!?

    1. When Bolt bus came to compete for the segment, this is exactly the route that it chose to cherry pick. Probably the majority of bolt bus riders would never use the service if it also stopped 7 times along the way.

      1. I don’t know about that. The majority of the people I have talked to on the two times I took BoltBus were in the same situation as me: either could not afford the Amtrak tickets (due to the trains being nearly sold out and thus the peak demand prices hit), or not able to take Amtrak because of needing a different schedule than offered.

      2. I haven’t actually taken Bolt. But have been bused by Amtrak when Cascades got canceled. On those occasions, it made considerable difference to me whether I got put on the no intermediate stop bus to Seattle, or got put on the bus that also made even one or two of the intermediate stops – each of which added about half hour. The no stop service beat the usual Cascades trip time, whereas even a single stop ended up worse.

        Yes, lots of Bolt riders may be extremely price sensitive and would have no choice but take the cheapest mode even if the bus added intermediate stops stretching duration to 4.5 or even 5 hours.

        My point was simply Bolt smartly decided not to be a Greyhound route that serves intermediate stops along a route, and serves the one pair of destinations with the most demand.

      3. Trains. They go in straight lines.

        Deleting all five intermediate stops would save 7-10 minutes at most.

      4. Not sure about the 10 minutes or so part.

        The problem is that it is best for the train to be on the east main when it is in Kelso, the west main when it is in Centralia, and east main again for Tacoma and Lacy. They can board on the other main if they have to, but not if there is a freight train going through so they have to time when they actually stop to not interfere with freight movements if they wind up on the wrong track.

        A through train would not have this portion of freight train interference anyway, and thus at the very least it may be possible to add a through train without some of the difficulties of the intermediate stations.

      5. I believe there was a plan for an east-side platform at Centralia. The project is not funded, though.

  10. Do frequency, reliability, electronic biz class reservations and announcements about cover it? I just had a couple of rides on the NE Corridor between DC, Philly and Newark – it isn’t lovely (the way we can and ought to be in the NW) but runs efficiently and smoothly if gruffly on the part of all staff.

  11. 1) Try to remove at grade crossings — increase speed.

    2) Electrify everything! We can at least start to try and transition away from diesel to renewable sources of transportation energy. Also, on a more macro level, so we can save the humans. A species that really needs our help, they’ve made some bad decisions.

    1. Those are both major capital projects that would be funded by the state, not operational improvements that could be implemented by a contract operator.

  12. Can I add “fix the mudslides” to the list? Not a small problem, or a cheap one to fix, but until we do all of these ideas of priority express trains, frequency, and “reliability” don’t add up to much.

  13. Modify schedules to offer single-day round trips that allow passengers 8 hours of time in Seattle or Portland. Yes, if I’m lucky, I can drive to Portland faster than the train can get there, but I sure don’t want to drive back that night. Schedule the trains so a person with business in Portland can get a full working day in PDX without having to spend the night. The construction projects currently underway are supposed to deliver a 3:15 run time with close to 90% OTP in 2017. After 2017, we need to look at adding some 110mph track in selected locations.

    Electronic, Express check-in (or is it still 1982?)

    Express trains. The Coast Starlight is still going to run between Seattle and Portland and it can make all the milk-run stops. If the Starlight leaves Seattle at 945am, a Cascades Express could leave at 930am and operate (more or less) in the same slot. The express would likely stop in Tukwila, Tacoma, Vancouver and Portland.

    1. There are trade-offs, but I would scratch Tukwila and Vancouver from that list. Local bus service should move people from Sea-Tac to Tacoma and Portland to Vancouver. It is tempting to just remove Tacoma as well, but it is bigger than Vancouver and further away from the bigger city.

      1. I think the politics would require Vancouver for several reasons. Modern local transit between Portland and Vancouver stuck in a political fight. WSDOT is subsidizing the trip cost, so why penalize WA residents with a reverse trip? There usually is pretty good ridership at the Vancouver stop. Tukwila may be unnecessary, but it does serve the airport and a large suburban population base. If Sounder becomes an all-day service between Seattle and Tacoma we could drop either Tukwila or Tacoma. Also, the Starlight does not stop at Tukwila.

      2. Tukwila is a worthless stop for Cascades. I have seen, at most, 3 people get on or off. it does not “serve the Airport”, the airport is 3 miles away and nobody wants to ride to Tukwila and try to fight transit from there when they can get off at Tacoma and take one bus or take Link from King Street. If nothing else, they are going to take a Taxi. Auburn would be a much more logical stop for Cascades if ridership is considered. Tacoma is a major population center. Vancouver maybe, Clark County has enough people I think who don’t want to fight traffic into Portland.

      3. Tukwila is basically useless. When coming from the south, it is faster and cheaper to get off in Tacoma and ride the ST express bus to Seatac. From the north, it makes more sense to get off in Seattle and take Link. I have used the ST express + Cascades combo to get to and from Seatac several times, and it works fairly well. It will be even easier when Cascades moves to Freighthouse Square.

      4. Vancouver could make a lot more sense if it actually had some sort of transit service that served the station. It is a much more convenient station than downtown Portland from a number of locations in east and north Portland. It also has more convenient parking than the mess at downtown Portland.

        I always use the Portland station, but can well understand why Vancouver would be preferred by many.

        All together I think we need a new post about the failures of transit to connect with Cascades trains in far too many cases. Portland -> Olympia? Portland -> Anacortes requires spending the night on a bench in the Mount Vernon station since there are no hotels anywhere near the station, and no transit service when the train gets there?

        I would have made use of the Tukwila station but the hour it takes to get from the SeaTac Airport to the Tukwila station would have made me miss my train, and the SeaTac -> Tacoma express was going to take longer and I would have missed the train too. I wound up going to downtown Seattle and getting BoltBus. I was at least able to convince Amtrak to give me a refund of the ticket I wasn’t able to use.

      5. Kent or Auburn would be better than Tukwila because they’re more evenly spaced between Seattle and Tacoma, and they both have downtowns and several bus routes at their stations.

  14. One improvement I would love to see is to speed up the service to Vancouver, B. C.. As I understand it, the border security process occurs at the border (with a stopped train). This is nuts. It should occur while the train is in motion. That right there would save a lot of time and make the train really appealing.

    1. Northbound, there is no security stop at the border. Southbound it is mandated by Border Patrol because Al Qaeda. Changing train operators is not going to fix that.

      1. I don’t see how stopping at the border makes things any better from a security standpoint. If the U. S. doesn’t trust the Canadians to do their job, then we are in deep trouble. If they screw up, you have a train that explodes at the border. If that is a concern, then we should cooperate with them and send officials to work with them in Vancouver.

        Meanwhile, checking for smuggling should occur while the train is in motion. You can spend a huge amount of time on each passenger or each piece of luggage. In general, like a lot of things, it is counter productive to do it this way. This just pushes people to drive their car, which means that border control for drivers has to deal with more vehicles. It is far more likely that someone will try and sneak across the border in a car than a train.

        But yes, changing train operators wouldn’t change things. I’m speaking more in terms of improvements to our train system that would make it worth using.

      2. But the folks that check you before you board are US Border Patrol agents. Then the same they board the train at the border and check everyone again. I suppose they’re worried the train stopped and someone hopped on?

        That being said, the train slows considerably on the Canadian side due to track conditions, and I found that to be the much more of a problem than the border check on the way home. And neither would be fixed by a new operator.

      3. They split the check in half, customs in Vancouver BC and immigration at Peace Arch, with USBP agents at both. It makes no sense.

      4. Its like the airport, where you go through immigrations, get asked twenty questions, (or three if the guy ahead of you got extra attention), and when you walk through the doors at the other end there’s ANOTHER customs guy, collecting the slips showing what you are claiming. Odd thing is though, why when you go through the border on train or plane (never crossed by bus yet), you get the twenty questions, and have to fill out that slip, but when I drive across, the vehicle as a whole gets asked a couple of questions and maybe a verbal declaration and on you go?

      5. “I don’t see how stopping at the border makes things any better from a security standpoint. ”

        It doesn’t, but almost none of the ******* which has been done by the US government in the name of “security” actually makes things any better. The entire TSA is pointless. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were counterproductive. The NSA spying on everyone was counterproductive. The torture camp in Guantanamo Bay was counterproductive. All done in the name of “security”.

        Rational thinking isn’t going to stop security theater which is being done for irrational reasons. I don’t actually know how to stop it. I tried voting for the opposition party, but Obama seems to be a Bush clone when it comes to security theater ********.

  15. A few thoughts as a regular Amtrak user:

    a) Since the act passed in 2008, can’t “Blame Bush” without blaming Pelosi & Reid too.
    b) It would be nice if there was a train in the late afternoon (5 PM or so) heading north on the weekends.
    c) Amtrak needs to have stable, high-quality WiFi – it’s iffy between Mt. Vernon & Everett when I’ve used it.
    d) Amtrak also should have an early morning dash from like between 5 and 7 AM from Bellingham to Seattle & vice versa.

    Wish list, but there you go.

    1. An early morning trip from Bellingham to Seattle has been discussed as part of a restructuring of Sounder North service. If an early train left Bellingham at 530am, it would arrive in Seattle about 730am and could be used to replace a Sounder trip. A reverse trip would run in an afternoon peak slot.

      1. If budget cuts force one of the Vancouver trips to be truncated to Bellingham, giving the Bellingham train a commuter-train schedule should be a no-brainer, as it’s the only way a route like that could get reasonable ridership.

        We also may as well take advantage of Stanwood station, while it’s there, and use the opportunity to let the train replace a Stanwood->downtown Seattle express bus trip.

  16. I’d agree with some of the big picture solutions mentioned here. Still, unless the reliability and speed issues can be effectively addressed, the best strategy for a private operator in a contract is to reduce expenses or generate additional revenue. I would also note that the user experience is what is important, because the service will always be slower than driving and generally the Bolt Bus.

    Ways to reduce expenses or increase revenue?

    1. Perhaps integrate station and train food services and have each station be anchored by a quality restaurant (or two or three) that has ticketing, real time arrival and on-board food delivery services. That would increase station activity in general, provide tenant income, increase interest in the train, give riders more food options, and grow the per passenger dollars spent. Imagine someone like Tom Douglas as a partner in a train+multi-restaurant vendor contract! Suddenly, something like taking the train for a gourmet meal in Centralia and riding back can become viable. Imagine ordering your food ordered while on the train, and then getting off and walking into a café with a table waiting for you and your food being prepared.

    2. Make the train more seamless with ultimate origins and destinations. I have met people who have tried to go to or from the train and the ferries or the airports, and it’s not a well-publicized and easy link. Things like partnering with businesses in SeaTac airport, the Ferry terminal or in major attraction centers (such as Downtown Bellevue) or hotel districts to provide integrated baggage check, ticket purchase, real-time arrival and shuttle services could be strategic ways to both increase ridership and dollars spent per passenger.

    3. Consider supplemental “theme” trains, which would be attractive to those who are not in a hurry. Highly time sensitive people are going to fly, drive or take Bolt Bus until track improvements and fewer stops are introduced. Meanwhile, making the user experience an attraction — food or wine tasting, parties (like a singles train or a gay singles train), sporting events or attractions (hikers, bicyclists, soccer fans or skiers), child-friendly trips (imagine a Thomas the Train Engine event), celebrities on-board combined with charity fund-raising — could familiarize more people to riding and generate supplemental income for the operator. To do this, publicity and naming is a critical as the event itself.

    1. 1. No… people don’t really want to be bothered with it. Having convenient food does not sell train tickets, and some of the things you mention (like pre-ordering) are customer service nightmares waiting to happen.

      2. Yes I agree

      3. For the love of all that is good and holy NO. People who want a theme train can go to Mount Rainier Scenic or Northwest Railway Museum.

      1. 1. Wouldn’t would make more sense to have food prepared at stations than on the train? There could be a wider variety offered to riders. Also, one objective should be how to increase revenue per passenger. I realize that you might not want to take advantage of it, but a successful vendor will be looking for ways to increase revenue. People bring food onto the trains all the time so that’s not going to go away. Do you have a more strategic way to increase revenue per passenger?

        3. You missed the key word “supplemental”. I’m not suggesting it as a change to normal service, but as a periodic way to familiarize new riders with the experience. I once heard a transit advocate say that if you can teach a child how easy it is to ride, they will be a potential customer for life, as an example why “get acquainted” services are so important.

    2. Consider how some of the great cross-country railways got passenger service in the first place! They planned destinations along the route and created an entire experience with lodges as opposed to just getting people on and off. It’s a reasonable profit-making strategy to a creative vendor.

  17. Adequate, no-reservation-required bicycle capacity. Charge more for it if you have to.

    Bicycles + trains are a natural combination all over the world, bringing your own last-mile solution with you. But Cascades service has such limited bicycle capacity that riders often find a reservation isn’t even available for their trip, so they’re forced to spend less and travel faster on Bolt, or check their bike as baggage which limits them to staffed stations.

  18. Move away from the assigned seats, and to a proof-of-payment system. I never once had a ticket checked prior to boarding a train in Europe, and this is how it should be done. This way, they can sell the train to capacity for all segments. People aren’t stupid; they will find a seat. This would save probably 10 minutes on the boarding process in SEA and PDX, reducing layover time. If it weren’t for the bike/baggage cars, I would be tempted to say that we should do away with checked baggage altogether. I suppose they could have a check in process for disabled passengers, or those checking luggage. The train rolls up, the conductors assist them while the baggage car is loaded, everyone else just shows up on time and loads themselves. They could probably turn the trains in 5-10 minutes tops.

    Equipment utilization is going to be critical if we want to add Cascades service. Every minute that train sits with a full crew is money down the toilet.

    1. We have the train sets we need now, the scheduling can be rewritten to make better use of them.

      1. I know we have sufficient rolling stock, but it could be better utilized. This will allow Cascades to expand service without having to purchase additional equipment, and it will reduce total operating costs. This is why higher speed trains make sense. The faster you can get your passengers from point A to point B, the more you can charge, and the less you pay your employees for each trip (because they are hourly). If we can improve speeds and reduce dwell times, we will save money.

  19. OK, so this is an issue I need to work on at my end of things, but it would sure help if you guys (in the generic sense) up north would lend your voices:

    Having ground level platforms at Portland really sucks in terms of deboarding time and having to have hand placed step boxes at all the doors. Staffing on the trains could probably be cut if it were not for this nonsense in Portland. Amtrak is paying a lot of rent money to the Portland Development Commission (the owners of the station). PDC needs to provide some services to Amtrak as a part of being a landlord, and keeping the decaying asphalt ground level platforms is certainly playing the part of an absentee slumlord.

    Oregon City, Vancouver WA, Kelso, Olympia all have a tiny fraction of our passenger count, but they all have modernized their station platforms to an appropriate level.

  20. My points may have been covered by others however:
    1) All doors open at stations, with European style boarding zones (i.e. if your ticket says you’re in seat Y in car X, a sign at the station will tell you that car X will be in sector 3). The Train pulls up to the station, all doors open and you’re on your own to board and alight. Train leaves two minutes later, not after sitting for ten minutes for everyone to board and alight through one door while the conductor helps you on and off and checks your ticket.
    2) Electronic seat assignment. ARROW (the reservations system for Amtrak) can do this, Why not? End the stupid queuing system and one door open at each stop.
    3) More thruway connections in general, connecting cities not on the system to the trains. Either using motor coaches for longer runs, or simple transit style vehicles for shorter runs
    4) Stop f***ing around with a station at freight house square, the scope creep and proposed station are way beyond what was originally envisioned. Move the primary Amtrak stop to Lakewood, where a proper station with waiting room, baggage facilities, Short/long term parking*, and platform space can be built. Keep freight house square for a “suburban” cascades stop.
    5) More Trains, the service should be Hourly, and I’m sure if this were Switzerland there would be express trains at least every hour, probably every half hour, with local overlay.
    6) Eliminating Corridor “puddle jumpers” operated by Alaska, etc. Not only are these an inefficient use of resources (fuel, airport terminal and runway capacity) we could eliminate some noise pollution, and air pollution and reduce the need to expand our airports by getting rid of these 50+ flights a day. With strong partnerships, and connecting services connecting the Airports to Amtrak it would be beneficial for all involved. This could be achieved with through ticketing, and baggage transfer services, plus single check in (check in for the train and plane at the station)
    7) BNSF improvements:
    7A) Columbia River Bridge, the ancient swing span needs to be replaced with a modern lift bridge capable of cycling faster than the swing span, and reconstructed in a way to reduce openings (higher elevation, in the main channel vs. over to the side)
    7B) Kalama. Need more through tracks to free passenger trains from the clogged up terminal
    * I am of the opinion that parking for Sound Transit, and even Amtrak when provided should not be free. It should not be horribly overpriced as to be a detriment to riders, however Airports, and other cities P&R lots get away with charging modest fees to park there, and so should we. If a station were ever to be built at Lakewood, I would suggest a small parking structure be built (one that could be expanded for Sound Transit someday – if anyone remembers this when the time comes) and modest fees get charged (say $5/24 hr. period) to cover operations. Capital cost of build the facilities I think is an acceptable cost to be borne by the public, however the rest of the service should be charged at a modest price.

    1. For items: 1 & 2, all stations would need European style level platforms (or close enough to not need the additional step stools, and for #2 in particular, you could modify (but not necessarily eliminate) the assigned seating. Trying to change Arrow wouldn’t be worth the IT time and money, better to be spent on more/better equipment.

    2. 6) – not going to happen. Most of those planes are for connecting/through routed passengers. For the last published month the O/D (origin/destination) number for SEA-PDX was 290/day. In other words, only 290 of all the passengers traveling between Sea-Tac and PDX/vice versa were traveling between Seattle and Portland (or v.v.). Every other passenger flying on a plane between the two cities were either originating in another city or traveling from SEA/PDX to some other destination.

      IIRC, Portland is only about the 15th most “popular” destination for people originating their air travel in Seattle. The federal DOT publishes these numbers; someone on airliners.net usually posts them monthly in a more easy-to-read format.

  21. Seat assigning at King Street Station is so ridiculous that I won’t have any part of it. I pay the extra for business class where the seat assignments are done at the ticket window where there is usually not a very long wait. Still not optimal but a lot better than the slow, snaking line through the Great Hall.

  22. I would like to see an assignment system akin to Deutsche Bahn’s non-HSR segments. You can purchase a ticket with no reserved seat or pay a little more for a reserved seat (electronically assigned). If you choose not to reserve a seat, you risk not finding a pair of seats with your group (or you may have to sit on the ground in between cars if no seats are unreserved).

    On a slightly unrelated note, I’d like to see Europe’s dorm-style cars (“couchettes”) on Amtrak’s overnight trains. Each room has 4 or 6 beds that can be reserved for less than reserving a private room. I hate Amtrak’s choice of sleeping in the seat or paying an extra $300 for a private room (or laying down in the Sightseer car, which is what I do).

    1. Great ideas. Anyone that has traveled on trains in Europe already knows how Amtrak Cascades should be run. We are wasting so much time and money with inefficient seat assignment and loading/unloading policies.

    2. +1 to Mark’s suggestion. Although it’s the ‘modifying the computer’ part that’s the most troubling.

  23. It is the state who mandates the “sharpie sticky note shuffle” and most of the other time consuming operating procedures of these trains. They do this so passengers are grouped together by destination and to reduce carry-bys. Amtrak would prefer to unassigned seating.

    1. The result, of course, being three packed SEA-PDX cars and an otherwise empty train.

      Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

      1. You must be particularly lucky. For the past two years or so I always seem to get trains that are nearly or completely sold out by the time departure happens.

        This is what I mean about rationalizing the train length. We know certain trains are frequently sold out, while others are not as popular. The 1995 trains need to be combined onto shorter sets for the less popular trips, and longer trains for the more popular runs. The 2013 sets owned by Oregon are one car longer, so that train length at least could be shot for on he most popular trips.

    2. These problems can be fixed, it all has to do with the amount of investment the state is willing to put into it.

      It’s not an insurmountable problem.

      Well, now that I think about it,… the State Transportation Package….

  24. Indiana is making similar enquiries to the private sector about operating the Hoosier State service.

  25. I didn’t read every comment but one problem is that the Cascade Train Sets do not have the ability for all doors to open without having an individual at each door. There is no “master” button to open all doors at each stop. That is why individuals going to certain stops are placed in certain coaches.

    1. Do the Series 8 trainsets have the ability to open all the doors? I know they can close them. Also, once the train gets under way, they all will close.

      Smokers beware.

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