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?