Cascades at Kelso (WSDOT Photo)
Cascades at Kelso (WSDOT Photo)

Until its peak year in 2011, Amtrak Cascades had been an unqualified success story, with strong and growing ridership and ever-higher farebox recovery ratios. It seemed like exceeding 1 million annual passengers and achieving near-profitability was right around the corner.  Well, new challenges have arisen and Cascades has begun to struggle modestly, resulting in a small but growing funding problem.

Despite being showered with nearly $800m in capital money by the 2009 stimulus package, the federal contribution to operational funding was cut in 2013 as mandated by the Passenger Rail Improvement and Investment Act of 2008 (PRIIA). In a feat of brilliantly backwards federal thinking, PRIIA committed the feds to divest from the most successful Amtrak lines (corridors under 750 miles) while continuing to fund the least successful (those over 750 miles). Such a mandate placed operational funding primarily in the hands of an even more recalcitrant body, the Washington State Legislature, which has shown little interest in achieving anything beyond what is mandated by the stimulus funding (two more Seattle-Portland trains), much less the Long Range Plan.

Cascades Farebox Recovery
Chart from WSDOT’s 2013 Amtrak Cascades Performance Report

Over the past two years, farebox recovery has fallen from 66% to 59%, with the squeeze coming both from stagnating revenue and operating costs that continue to rise by $1m per year despite no added service. Ridership has declined in each of the past 3 years, albeit modestly, from an all-time high of 848,000 in 2011 to 807,000 last year. The lost ridership can likely be attributed to competition from Bolt Bus in the Seattle, Portland, Bellingham, Vancouver, and Eugene markets, and also from worsened speed and reliability from construction that is intended to address both issues.

So what to do? I’d humbly suggest that WSDOT and ODOT focus more on the core Seattle-Portland market. 85% of current revenue comes from those traveling either to or from Seattle and Portland (from any station), and 30% of all revenue comes from trips just between Seattle and Portland.  Yet today, Cascades is unable to fill a train leaving Seattle or Portland because of passengers boarding at intermediate stations and because of a baffling software inability to turn over seats more than once. Each mid-line passenger is taking a shorter trip and bringing in marginally less revenue, and while there is definitely strong value in connecting rural cities and counties to our major cities, it doesn’t follow that all trains must always serve all stops. Bolt Bus is catering exclusively to these longer-haul passengers and offering shorter travel times, and Cascades needs to better compete with them.

Cascades Revenue By Station
Chart from WSDOT’s 2013 Amtrak Cascades Performance Report

After a public records request to WSDOT, I put together a matrix of revenue by all origin-destination pairs.* The results are clear: the intermediate stations drag down the financial performance of the line, and their ridership and revenue do not necessitate the current 5 trains per day (including the Coast Starlight).  An express Seattle-Portland service could make the run in 3 hours under current conditions, and would instantly become the best way to travel between the Emerald City and the City of Roses. Converting one or two of the current Cascades runs to express or ‘limited’ service would reduce running times, reduce costs, increase ridership, and allow a better financial return per passenger.

Consider train 507, which travels from Seattle to Eugene, leaving Seattle at 2:00pm, arriving in Portland at 5:50pm, and Eugene at 8:40pm. Consulting the chart above, almost no revenue is generated from trips from any point between Tukwila and Kelso and any points south of Portland. In other words, almost no one is riding from Centralia to Salem ($8,000 in revenue per year), or Kelso to Oregon City ($1,000 per year). The combined revenue of all trips either wholly within the Tukwila-Kelso corridor, or from stations between Tukwila and Kelso to points south of Portland, is only $850,000 per year, less than 3% of overall revenue.

Running train 507 either as a true Seattle-Portland express, or a ‘limited’ with stops only in Tacoma and Vancouver, and then local from Portland to Eugene, would hurt almost no one. Approximately 1 person per day is riding Amtrak between Seattle and Tukwila, and those riding from Tukwila to Portland can use Seattle or Tacoma instead. Riders from Lacey, Centralia, and Kelso would still have more frequency than Vancouver BC, with local trains departing Seattle at 7:30am, 9:35am, 11:25am, and 5:30pm.

The same could be said for Train 506, which travels only between Portland and Seattle, with another train (516) 2.5 hours later. Those headed from Portland to intermediate stations on the way to Seattle would still have two morning (8:20am and 9:35am), an afternoon (4:12pm), and evening options (6:50pm).

The political case for express trains will obviously be far greater after the Point Defiance Bypass is complete, permitting an express train to be added without cutting service from any intermediate stations. But in the event that the current cost/revenue slide becomes more severe, WSDOT should consider express trains as a means of providing better service to its core customers while boosting revenue. Selling 225 seats for a Seattle to Portland express at $40 each way would bring in $6.5 million per year, or about 50% more than the current SEA-PDX trains (501 and 506) bring in today. (And as a bonus, there would be no need for the current check-in theatre. With all passengers headed to the same destination, passengers could just walk on.)

I urge WSDOT to do what it needs to do to sell more high-value tickets, to find ways to lower costs (including considerating new operators), and to provide the premier intercity travel experience in Cascadia. The goal should always be faster service, more reliable service, and fuller trains. In the face of a do-nothing legislature, Cascades should call their bluff and operate more like a business by proposing express service. When suburban/rural legislators demand continued levels of service at the expense of Seattle and Portland, they can put money behind it, and then everybody wins. But failing that, WSDOT should give Seattle and Portland the service they deserve and will pay for.

(*I asked for ridership between all city pairs, but WSDOT is still collecting that data and will make it available soon. This post will be updated when it becomes available.) says that only revenue by city pair is available, and that ridership data is unavailable due to the peculiarities of each funding partner’s reporting processes. That’s right, WSDOT doesn’t know who is boarding and detraining where, but it knows how much money it is making from each city pair. Bizarre.)

125 Replies to “The Case for Express Cascades Trains”

  1. It makes a ton of sense to add additional trains to the Cascades route and have some of those be express runs, rather than cut off people who currently have service by converting existing local runs to express. Passenger rail, like all transit, should not be operated like a business. Doing so leads us to serve an ever-shrinking number of privileged people at the expense of those outside the biggest cities and those who make less money.

    Cascades’ growth appears to have hit an upward limit for now, but I don’t blame the local stops for that. Add additional trains and that will enable renewed ridership growth, just as has happened on the Capitol Corridor route in California.

    As to the state legislature, this post seems to imply that the legislature is fundamentally hostile to the Cascades line. In reality, Cascades is just one of many victims in the transit world of the Republican takeover of the State Senate. With a restoration of a Democratic majority it seems much more likely that the state will come through with new funding for improving Cascades operations, including new trainsets that can enable new express service.

    1. Robert:

      1) I agree, “It makes a ton of sense to add additional trains to the Cascades route and have some of those be express runs, rather than cut off people who currently have service by converting existing local runs to express.” But it’s running it like a business to me. But that’s me.

      2) Democrats haven’t exactly been there for transit either. On the other hand, Island County Republicans have put it on the line for transit time & again. Oh and…… they’ll have to do it again with Island Transit on the brink: http://www.whidbeynewstimes.com/news/268664722.html . Let’s keep this from getting too partisan.

      1. I agree that there are Democrats who are not very good on transit issues, and some Republicans who are fantastic. My comment was focused on the state legislature, where taken as a whole, Democratic majorities would do a better job for transit than would Republicans. And the only reason I mention that is to suggest that the current difficulties in the legislature are due to partisan politics and not to any inherent legislative hostility to rail. Even if the legislature is not quite as pro-rail, especially intercity rail, as they need to be (Dems included).

      2. I would not necessarily characterize the legislature as hostile. It’s more like that, and especially from looking at the literature from my representatives, that it’s not even on their radar.

        There is a bipartisan Rail Caucus that you should encourage your local representatives to engage with, since the word from down there is that most don’t even think about our rail infrastructure, unless in involves flaming oil trains, and gazillion mile long coal trains.

    2. “Passenger rail, like all transit, should not be operated like a business.”

      Tell that to any politician in any level of government, certainly state or federal, anywhere.

      1. Sure. Operate rail “like a business”, like air travel and automobile travel–That is, subsidize the hell out of it. it can not work any other way.

        Sue S

  2. A few thoughts on Amtrak Cascades:

    *I think it’s important to provide at least one train northbound and one train southbound

    *It might be worth considering privatizing Amtrak Cascades – might.

    *I am boarding Amtrak Cascades today to go to FHC Skyfair in part because of the luxury of business class and because unlike Greyhound (it’s only MV-Everett competitor) it’ll be on-time, have capacity, have coffee and have Wi-Fi. Oh and it’s safer. It would be nice if Amtrak Cascades could stick up for itself and advertise a lot more.

    Gotta run!

    1. Privatization hasn’t worked very well in Britain. The Cascades currently are a thriving route, but there are clearly some growing pains to be worked out. A large part of the problem is political and that can be resolved this November.

      1. Agree, privatization is not the answer, it may make some things better but other things much worse (namely this service is not in going to make a profit anytime soon so why should the public taxpayers fund private profits?). Seems like what should be a short term solution is WSDOT should mandate that their contractor, Amtrak, implement software that allows for seat turnover. This would eliminate the need to hold as many seats for stops further down the line and allow higher turnover and more revenue. Better yet, open up all of the seats for all passengers on the trip on a first come first serve basis and use the improved software to essentially expand capacity. Lastly allow people to pick their seats and thus the insane boarding process is also eliminated, for how many hears have airlines been able to pick their seats? Small technological upgrades for massive improvement in rider experience and significant farebox growth.

    2. Yeah I wouldn’t advocate for privatization either, but I am at least open to either directly state-run service, a regional public body being created to operate service (jointly run by WSDOT/ODOT/BC?), or the states contracting with a private operator.

      1. What specific problem would privatization solve?

        Nationalization; privatization.

        State; market.

        Some things you buy at QFC; some things you buy at Fred Meyer. Depending on what makes sense for that particular item, at that particular time.

        So feel free to advance a privatization argument, I would just ask people to explicitly and directly link that proposed solution to an identified problem.

      2. For one thing, privatization might solve this stupid problem:

        “a baffling software inability to turn over seats more than once”

        What kind of outdated software is Amtrak using? It’s bad enough they handwrite their seat assignments, but this? This is ludicrous.

      3. To Barman:

        I’m not saying you’re wrong, but the ask is to make an explicit link between the two:

        1) Privatize Amtrak
        2) ?
        3) Software improvements are made

        Are you making the case that privatization will attract-and sustain-investment? The evidence is probably against that one.

        Are you saying that privatization will incentivize a reprioritization of existing investment, towards software improvements that will bring in greater passenger revenue? Well maybe you’re right. The question would be: what is the blocker for doing that now under current ownership, and would that blocker be removed with privatization?

      4. Seems like the software problem could be overcome. Iarnród Éireann in Ireland had a pretty robust system of seat assignments where A. the seats would be turned over during the duration of the journey, and B. the seats had first letter of name + plus last name spelt out of the passenger permitted to sit in the assigned seat. That made it much more efficient for conductors of course, increased passenger satisfaction, and made greater efficiency of seat usage. Amtrak is full of it. The nominal cost to retrofit the system would be a boon for the organisation.

      5. Again, how are you coming to the conclusion that the seats aren’t being turned over?

        With Dan Carey’s observation below :
        ” Having taken the train between Seattle and Portland a number of times, it seems that by Olympia, the train is close to full. “, which implies that a full train from Olympia, for only one stop to Kelso, means there are no seats available for sale for any trip that starts and/or ends beyond those 2 stops.

        Is Amtrak.com showing something different?

      6. Well, for one, I’d like to see a better advertising effort by Amtrak Cascades. They could do a way better job raising awareness of the service, although today on the train back it was noted a lot of Mariners fans were using the train. I don’t care how we get there and up the ad budget, but we should.

        We also need way better software for Amtrak Cascades too. But that’s blatantly obvious.

        Finally I would like to see the option of buying an upgrade to business class on-board the train. Why? Because I want to sit in the new trainset business class when it rotates through.

    3. Is the business car nice again? It was raunchy on the 516 on July 6. I would never go on the train again if that’s the “New Cascades”.

      Sue S

  3. We shouldn’t assess this question in isolation. The Pacific Surfliner tried express service from LA to San Diego two years ago and the results were dismal. The predicted ridership didn’t materialize. So that’s a big warning sign here.

    Cascades aren’t the only state Amtrak service that has plateaued in terms of ridership. The Capitol Corridor in Northern California has stalled out since about 2010. The Surfliner has seen increasing ridership, as has the San Joaquin, though the Surfliners are nearing capacity and will plateau soon until the new cars authorized 8 years ago are finally delivered beginning next year. The San Joaquin has more room to grow.

    So this all suggests to me that the “problem” on the Cascades isn’t the intermediate stops, it’s that another round of rolling stock investment is needed to enable new ridership growth, that express service isn’t a panacea, and that there may be deeper reasons why rail ridership is not growing as fast these days as it had been in previous years that go beyond the particulars of an individual route.

    1. This.
      It’s easy to look at the on-offs and say that since 441,000 people traveled through Seattle and 440,000 people traveled through Portland… almost everyone is traveling between Seattle and Portland. That’s bad logic. If you remove the intermediate stops you take a hit at the boarding station but also at the destination station (likely Seattle or Portland). If you remove the intermediate stops ridership will take a hit.

      1. I accounted for this, noting that 85% of revenue comes from Seattle and Portland, but only 30% from trips wholly between SEA-PDX/PDX-SEA.

    2. Thanks for the Surfliner info, that definitely dampens my case. One thing I noticed about the Surfliner, however, is that it runs a decent amount of skip-stop service. I know that it’s an apples/oranges comparison because there’s a nearly continuous commuter rail corridor running parallel that allows those at the smaller stations to transfer, but skipping the stations between Solana Beach and Oceanside saves 10 minutes per run, and occasionally bypassing Camarillo or Moorpark saves up to 5 minutes. Similar opportunities may eventually exist for Cascades in Edmonds, Tukwila, etc.

      1. Good points. I’m not an absolutist about this, so having Cascades skip Tukwila (for example) is worth exploring since they do have another passenger rail system serving them.

        Another example that gets at your overall point is the Caltrain Baby Bullet service. But that’s an example where they have enough daily runs so that having a few peak hour express trains doesn’t wind up screwing the local stops. Ultimately Caltrain has figured out that to survive financially they need to electrify, which is finally, at long last, happening.

      2. The skip-stop situation on the Pacific Surfliner is due to the complexities of sharing track with the regional railroads. Amtrak doesn’t really want to make those stops.

        In San Diego county the NCTD is responsible for the trains along the corridor. NCTD gives Amtrak money to make those extra stops… But, if Amtrak had not accepted the money they may have ended up losing some of their slots so that NCTD could add more local Coaster trains.

      3. The ridership and revenue generated at Kelso and Centralia don’t justify adding more service at those stations. Plus, add in the lost ridership and revenue caused by stopping at those stations on the trip between Seattle and Portland and it seems that the existing 4 stops (in each direction) is more than sufficient to serve those stations. It might make sense to skip Kelso and Centralia when the 2 new trips are added. Tukwila doesn’t currently generate tremendous ridership, but I’d like to wait a few years before skipping that station. Until now, the Tukwila Amtrak station has been a plywood shelter. Let’s see if the new station generates more ridership: it will have good transit connections, better parking and a more passenger-friendly environment.

        Once the Seattle to Portland trip time gets down to a reliable 3 hours, the Cascades service will be much more useful to many more people. The Horizon Shuttle is faster airport-to-airport, but it’s also much more expensive (flights Monday morning cost $187, Amtrak costs $34) and there is the time and cost to travel from the airport to one’s final destination.

        The bus may be cheaper, but it’s a bus. It’s less comfortable; the sidewalk pick-up and drop-off may save money, but that’s not that’s not great service.

        Driving can usually beat the existing Cascades trip time and it offers more flexibility, but driving is exhausting and while it may seem cheaper, it’s usually much more expensive once all the extra costs are added in. Also, cars and buses don’t pay the full cost of building and maintaining the roadways they use, only the train covers the full cost of its operation through fares and direct state subsidy. Driving is also the most dangerous way to travel between Seattle and Portland.

  4. Great initiative!

    What you’re proposing is a Metro-style rationalization applied to the dogma of traintracks, and I’m sold. It would be nice to think we could add more trainsets to the existing framework, but that option is ruled out by the change in federal funding you mention in the first sentences of your write-up. Your points on both the business, and the politics of it, are sound.

    I used to drive Seattle to Portland regularly, and as a railfan was frustrated that the Cascades option wasn’t more compelling. Part of that is a last mile problem, but anything that can shorten the trip and enhance the experience…this route should be the gold standard for distance rail in America.

  5. Go look at the SEA-PDX Horizon/Alaska schedule. Go ahead, I’ll wait. See how often you can have an express flight? That’s the problem. Cascade’s advantage is ruined buy bumbling down the corridor. Cascades isn’t for people who would have driven, it’s for people who are flying between the two cities. They want to get up, walk around, have a drink, get some work done in peace. But they are held back by the limited schedules and slow service. One needs to be able to leave every hour or so in the morning 5-8 am and return from 5-8pm.

    1. Good luck getting those slots. I generally agree with what you’re saying, but that is NOT going to be a cheap proposition. That said, you could probably use the additional round-trips in 2017 or thereabouts to load an extra trip or two into those general times, but getting an extra 3-4 round trips per day is going to be a few hundred million more.

      1. As many have said in other places, hourly clockface service ala Switzerland would be ideal (0500-2000), but there need to be trains with larger capacity in the AM and PM “Peak” periods. The Talgos can be re-configured, but we’d lose the flexibility we have now of most trains be approximately the same capacity. After 2017, we’ll pay dearly for more slots on BNSF; Warren won’t be giving them away.

      2. It might be an interesting thought exercise to consider whether or not is it possible to seize usage of the tracks as eminent domain to serve the public interest. Would the government try to seize ownership of the tracks too? Is there even a case?

        What happens if BNSF tries to make it too expensive just to run the trains that already exist, does that get into potential anti-trust violations? What about a competitive bid for track usage from the other railroad in town, Union Pacific? Local trains on the BNSF line, express on the UP line (with, duh, new stations)?

      3. The UP does not have other tracks except between Tacoma and Black River Junction. It used to have separate tracks north of there but about twenty years ago the operation was rationalized into a single three-track railroad dispatched by BNSF.

        There would be no need for new stations; the only skipped would be Tukwila, and you’re trying to add expresses. They would not stop at Tukwila.

        In any case, more slots require a third track on BNSF between Black River and Tacoma or doubling the UP (probably considerably cheaper) and sending BNSF through freights that way.

    2. Now go look at the schedule for BoltBus. Go ahead, I’ll wait (you waited for me after all). Greyhound’s introduction of BoltBus came at the same time as the big drop in ridership on the Cascades. They offer a similar service, with a faster travel time and at a lower cost. I don’t know how the Cascades would be able to compete with that.

      But you bring up a very good point… I think WSDOT & ODOT could improve ridership by focusing on business travelers who want to be productive during the trip between Portland and Seattle and Vancouver, BC. That starts with offering an improved business class product with things like business class lounges and free WiFi at stations.

      1. Are there ridership numbers available from Greyhound? Did Bolt Bus cannibalize their local service at all?

      2. No Greyhound does make its ridership numbers publicly available. But I actually took Greyhound down to Portland on wednesday (BoltBus was sold out and Amtrak was too expensive for a last-minute trip) and the bus was full of most of the trip. A good number of people got on and off in Olympia (proof there is a need for better transportation options between Seattle and downtown Olympia), some were going to Portland to connect to a bus to Eastern Oregon and there were a few passengers who were riding the bus down to Los Angeles or Fresno.

      3. Okay Ricky,

        “No Greyhound does make its ridership numbers publicly available.”

        So I would then ask where we get those numbers, or did you mean “No, Greyhound does NOT make its ridership numbers publicly available.”

      4. Sorry, Jim.
        I meant to say that Greyhound does NOT make its ridership numbers publically available.
        Also as a private company there’s no way to force them to reveal that information. So we are stuck with anecdotal evidence (like buses frequently appear full or display as sold out online).

      5. Has anyone experienced a “New Cascades” train that has been added to the system? Three weeks ago, I took business class in train 516 from Portland, hoping to get to Kelso. “Business Class” consisted of narrow,plastic seats, which reclined maybe 10 degrees, very faulty, virtually no air conditioning(it was 90 in Portland), toilet doors that were extremely difficult to open and close, and that would not lock(I got walked in on), smelly toilet and toilet area–and this was business class! I asked the conductor what happened and he said the state of Oregon bought two “pieces of junk” from the state of Maryland to replace the Sunset and the Bachelor. He,and everyone else on the train,was upset and hot. Then, about five minutes out of Portland, we ended up sitting on the tracks for a half hour waiting for another Amtrak train. We finally pulled into Vancouver, Washington,where it took the attendants more than a half hour to get the wheelchair ramp down for a wheelchair-bound passenger there. That’s where I ‘detrained’, and asked my husband, who was already sitting at the station in Kelso waiting for me(it’s usually a 45-minute trip to Kelso). We later learned the train arrived in Kelso one hour and forty-five minutes late. This is not acceptable.

        I have written to the various Amtrak representatives, have spoken with ‘Customer Relations” and the ODOT train person, and can’t get any information out of them about whether or not these trains are now the norm for the Cascades business class, which I have used for years. Is this the “New Cascades”? because if it is, they’ve lost a loyal, NARP customer.

        Anyone know?

        Thanks,

        Sue Skinner
        Astoria, Oregon

      6. From Maryland to replace the Bachelor and the Sunset?

        Was it an actual Talgo train, or was it more conventional equipment?

        The Mt. Bachelor and Mt. Jefferson are the two ODOT owned trains. I don’t know what they are like inside. If they replaced these with something, then it sounds like (“Pieces of junk to replace the Sunset and Bachelor”) that they may have brought in something as a temporary substitute for one of the ODOT Talgo trains. However, not knowing if you were in conventional equipment that might have been brought in from somewhere else temporarily if they found a problem with one of the trains, or if you were in a Talgo train, it is hard to say.

        If you were in one of the new Talgo trains, then that is what ODOT bought from Wisconsin. If it was purchased from Maryland, then it was something else. I do know that Maryland did sell of some cars not too long ago, so it is possible ODOT bought something like that as backup. I’ve not heard about it though.

      7. I have been on those new ODOT cars, they are huge downgrade from the prior models. I was shocked how much worse they were.

        They look nice in the photos, but the photos are deceiving.

      8. It would not surprise me much. The Hiawatha trains operate on a much shorter route, and the state of Wisconsin isn’t so great about train services. That’s the problem that comes with buying an add on to someone else’s specification.

    3. One big problem with Amtrak’s schedule is that it doesn’t work for daytrips. If you don’t want to fork over the money for a hotel, driving and flying are really the only options.

      1. This problem should be solved when the two new trips are added. With an early and late evening trip.

  6. PRIIA wasn’t backwards thinking, it was designed to kill off Amtrak, and it’s one of those instances where both political parties really are to blame.

    Regardless of what you think about Amtrak (and I happen to think its amazing, given what it has to work with, and the deep well of political enemies it contends with), Amtrak is better than no Amtrak.

    As far as the Cascades are concerned, I have always liked the idea of express trains – or maybe trains that alternate the smaller stops. I’d also like to see a night owl between the two cities, so that you could go see a show or a game without having to get a hotel room.

    1. I too love Amtrak, but their problems are likely unsolvable. I recognize that almost all of their failures are due to legacy costs, peculiar history, and insanely politicized operational mandates that make it difficult to do things better. Amtrak is better than no Amtrak, but figuring out a way to free ourselves of legacy costs without privatizing service would be the real game changer. The silver lining of PRIIA is the potential for states to develop competence and tinker with the service provided, and California’s experience makes me hopeful in that regard.

      1. We’ll soon be seeing how the PRIAA mandates play out on Chicago to Indy service. Illinois is Indiana’s BC in the current scenario, seemingly unwilling to pay a penny for improved Chicago-Indy service. Corridors of 750 miles that cross state/international lines are going to be complex.

      2. Why should Illinois subsidize a Red State train? It makes no stops in Illinois. The train exists solely for the benefit of Indiana patrons.

      3. Right? Indiana keeps putting up billboards asking Chicagoans if they’re “Illinoyed” with their taxes, so if they want faster service to Indy, they can pay for it.

        Meanwhile Illinois is working on faster service between Chicago and St. Louis.

  7. I think you’re missing a key part of the picture. The last few years have been toxic for ridership because of the recurring mudslide disruptions more than anything: A large number of trains simply haven’t run, resulting in plenty of cases where not only aren’t those tickets sold, but neither are the return tickets. Additionally, mudslide disruptions affect reliability…and unreliable service hurts ridership, too.

    As evidence of this as the issue, I would point out that the Cascades, Capitol Corridor, and Surfliners have generally been the outliers lately. The former has been affected by several bad years in terms of disruptions. The Capitol Corridor has run into pricing-related issues (not to mention inflated ridership figures that Amtrak has had to acknowledge this year), while the Surfliners dropped in response to about a 25% hike in fares before recovering. The only other corridors to take similar-scale hits in recent years have generally been those knocked sideways by disruptions. The Wolverines, Lincoln Service, and Vermonter have all had issues at one time or another in the last few years.

    This isn’t to say FY14 isn’t about to stink: We can add disruptions to the Empire Builder in particular and much of the system in general over the last 8-9 months to the woes bedeviling the Cascades.

    As to express service, while I agree that it is worth a shot, I would point out that express-style service has been attempted not only on the Surfliner (with awful results) but also on the Acela (with lousy results as well; a schedule between New York and Washington stopping only at Newark and Philadephia in between was attempted, if I’m not mistaken, and it was quickly abandoned). While I agree that a semi-express (adding Tacoma, WA and Vancouver, WA) would definitely work better than a “true express”, either might have issues. Given the dearth of traffic Seattle-Tacoma or Vancouver-Portland, an the boarding theater could probably be ignored in general (with a “soft direction” to certain cars at the originating station and to the other cars at the intermediate one).

    Still, I do question if this isn’t a concept/experiment best left for a few years from now, when additional frequencies become available Seattle-Portland. If I’m not mistaken, there’s a major “peak flow”, and one of the two additional round-trips could be made express to “vent” that flow.

  8. I wonder about the impact of the degradation of Seattle traffic in the last three years on this. The train to Portland is pretty good but getting to it can add up to two hours if you take a bus to it. Driving to it is impractical because parking is exorbitant. Asking a friend or relative to drop you off puts them in traffic for a long time. In other words, you have to look at the access to the station. My valiant efforts when I lived in West Seattle were to try the bus, have to walk a half to a sketchy bus stop on my return trip or to use a rideshare service. The rideshare service was better but added cost. The Bolt bus is definitely faster but small seats and lack of mobility on the trip make it a second choice. Getting to Bolt bus causes same issues. Now I live on the east side again. I could drive to a local station outside Seattle but it still adds travel time. In any case, I don’t think access to the train is being considered.

    1. Access to the train is about as good as it gets. Nearly in the city core and frequent transit to nearly anywhere in the region within 2 blocks. How does it add 2 hours to get from West Seattle to King Street? Access on the Portland end is great as well. Agreed asking a friend to pick you up from Amtrak can be a bit scary. Who knows when the dang thing will actually show up.
      .
      Now access to the airport, that’s no picnic unless you live in a couple places around here or drive.

      1. I agree. I have driven to the station and parked, as well as taken a bus from the east side. In neither case did it take two hours to get there.

      2. Well that’s not true. On the Seattle side you have only one Link line running, and several tedious bus routes.

        On the Portland side the rail connections are much more established, yet A) slow as Seattle buses and B) there is still much of Portland that is not served, as in the entire length of Barbur, from downtown to the outskirts.

      3. The solution to solving the station access problem is the same as the solution to improving mobility in the Seattle region in general – more buses, more Link service. The Link extensions already under construction should make a huge difference in this regard.

      4. Perhaps he meant one hour from West Seattle and one hour on the Portland side. Depending where in West Seattle you start from, it could be a three-seat ride and a long walk, especially with the transfer in midtown. I could see it taking 30-45 minutes, and that’s close to an hour with the incidental walking to the station.

      5. Ever tried getting to King Street Station from anywhere outside the city core without a car? It takes long enough that it negates any positive you gain from taking the train.

        I drive to a park and ride (15 minutes) wait for a bus (10 minutes) ride an ST bus to 5th and Jackson (30 minutes if I am lucky) then wait however long until my train departs (could be upwards of an hour.) Already I have wasted 1-2 hours just waiting and riding to the train station. That is half the drive if I am coming from Snohomish County (which I am in my case.)

        The other option is driving to the station, which drastically cuts down on travel time, but you pay for it in parking costs. Most of the time taking the train to Portland just does not make financial sense. Ultimately, this stinks, as taking the train is my preferred choice when going to and from Portland.

  9. Before adding express service to increase ridership and improve financial performance, I’d try boosting capacity on the most popular trains first.

      1. Whatever will sell, Jim. Adding cars, even a couple new train sets with higher capacity than the existing ones, would be a lot cheaper than buying additional slots on BNSF.

      2. I’ll drink to that, especially with my $3.00 off coupon.

        I would hope they order the new Series 8 cars with plusher accomodations, like the Washington state trainsets.

        Can you still get the Series 5 cars?

        Do we need to call the “Wheeler Dealers”?

  10. I agree in form, as the Metroliner route in the Northeast — jumping between cities — is the most used and profitable of all Amtrak.

    However, that route has trains approaching 155 mph and the distances between cities are shorter in some cases than Seattle-Portland.

    So, what’s really needed is medium speed rail on a Portland-Seattle-Vancouver, BC corridor (and I mean, real medium speed, 150 mph, not 92 mph).

    1. It seems a medium speed train would almost have to be an express. Otherwise it would spend most of its time speeding up then slowing down.

      1. Yes, it would be more like taking a plane than a train.

        In fact, I wonder if we would be better having the main terminal for rapid intercity rail be the airport rather than downtown, as airports are far more interconnected with transit that services the entire region, and hence would make the train more useful for more people.

        You could take advantage of all the waiting areas, baggage handling and so on that already exists for air travel.

      2. I strongly disagree with your premise. Downtown Seattle is far better-connected than the airport. Seatac has Link, the 560, 574, 180, and 156. Even if you add in Tukwila International Blvd, there’s just the F, 124, and 128. Meanwhile, downtown has just about every ST route in existence and dozens of Metro routes. Think of the ease of getting to downtown from Issaquah, Redmond, Woodinville, or any part of Seattle compared to getting to the airport. With peak expresses, you can get there quickly from almost any part of the region. I’m afraid your living in Kent, right next to the 180, has probably biased you – but there are very few other places from which the airport is more convenient than downtown.

    2. The biggest bang for the up in improving the average speed of virtually any transit corridor is not increasing the top speed, but focusing on the slow areas. Slow areas include areas with tight curves, freight interference, and station stops. The time savings from skipping stops at Kelso and Centrailia alone, is probably in the range that would require tens of millions of dollars in capital improvements to achieve the same time savings.

    3. Metroliner?? I assume you refer to the Acela Express, in which case you should probably take note of the fact that it runs over the same tracks as the Metro-North New Haven Line and the New Jersey Transit Northeast Corridor line, each of which has more than 100,000 riders every weekday, which is roughly 10 times the number who ride the Acela (also, the more-local Regional service that shadows the Acela carries roughly two to three times as many total passengers, though still far fewer than the commuter lines). It’s certainly a profitable route for Amtrak, and it competes well with DC/NY/BOS air shuttles, but it’s a bit of an odd point of comparison.

  11. So if 85% of revenue is from trips with one end in Portland or Seattle, but only 30% with both ends, that makes 55% of revenue from trips with only one end in Portland or Seattle. BoltBus is not competing with those trips. It seems to me that if there really is a “baffling software inability to turn over seats more than once” then that is the first thing that needs to be fixed. Then maybe Amtrak can reconsider whether they have room for people with Sounder tickets between Seattle and Tacoma.

    As for express/limited service, maybe the politically palatable way to do this is the “express trains for everyone!” approach. There are 6 stations between SEA and PDX; if you had 3 different limited schedules that each stopped in two of these stations, then there would be a few faster trains between SEA and PDX, but also every intermediate station would gain at least one fast trip to each of SEA and PDX with at most one intermediate stop. This might be an acceptable trade for the loss of local trains, since they’re mostly using the train to get to SEA or PDX anyway.

    So what else could Amtrak provide that BoltBus can’t? They can drive 110 MPH if we spend a few billion on the tracks. Otherwise, the best thing about a train is how easy it is to get up and move around during the trip. Business class lounges are the right idea, but they could also try making the train a more appealing option for families.

    This would be awesome: http://gondolaproject.com/2011/11/08/childrens-playground-on-commuter-train/

    But if we can’t have that, a designated “family car” with any kind of play area where it was understood I could let my kids run around would be nice. Business travelers with work to do could avoid that car, and then I wouldn’t have to worry if my kids were being too loud. Also, more seats arranged in facing rows with small tables between them would be nice; I don’t know if the Cascades trains have that, but they were completely absent on the northeast corridor while being very common in Europe.

    1. +1 to all you wrote regarding station and on-board services. And get that software re-jiggered immediately!

    2. The more I think about the turn over problem, the more I wonder how big of a problem it is. Having taken the train between Seattle and Portland a number of times, it seems that by Olympia, the train is close to full. There really is no turn over. I guess with better software maybe Amtrak could sell a few seats for the Seattle to Tacoma or Olympia segments. Most riders don’t start getting off until Kelso, with most getting off at Portland.

      1. If a train is scheduled to operate from Vancouver BC to Portland and someone buys a ticket from Vancouver BC to Bellingham, does that mean that no one else can buy that seat south of Bellingham? Incredible.

      2. As I understand it, there’s a finite number of “segments” in Amtrak’s system, and no two riders can book a seat inside the same segment. Seattle-Vancouver is one segment, and Seattle-Portland is another, and Amtrak’s vintage reservation system can’t handle too many more.

      3. How would a software change change the availability of the seats?

        Doesn’t Amtrak.com show availability from Seattle to Olympia on trains even when Seattle to Portland seats aren’t available?

      4. I could be wrong, but here’s how I see an ideal reservations system working. it. There are 17 inter-station segments on Cascades, such as Vancouver-Bellingham and Bellingham-Mount Vernon. There are roughly 250 seats per train. There are thus 4,250 theoretical person-segments on a theoretical train that operates the entire corridor (250 slots for 17 segments, or notated 250:17). The first person books a ticket from Vancouver BC to Mount Vernon. They have taken up person-segments 1.1 and 1.2. The second person books a ticket from Vancouver BC to Seattle, taking up person-segments 2.1, 2.2, 1.3, 1.4, 1.5, and 1.6. The third person books Mt Vernon to Seattle, for person-segments 2.3, 2.4, 2.5, and 2.6. Amtrak’s current reservation system, as I understand it (and would like to be corrected if I’m wrong) would treat those three bookings as three seats between the Vancouver and Seattle ‘segment’, but there is never a time when more than two of those passengers are on the train. A modern reservation system should be technically capable of selling all 4,250 person-segments, even though in practice it wouldn’t get that close.

      5. Nobody in their right mind would book a ticket on Amtrak between Seattle and Tacoma when the 594 exists as an alternative.

      6. Ridership on the Sounder shows there’s demand for train service. I agree Amtrak’s pricing is an obstacle, but opening more capacity would hopefully allow the Rail Plus program to be extended south.

      7. The booking system Zach outlines, that could sell all segments, certainly seems better, especially for the longer trains, i.e., Eugene to Seattle, or Vancouver to Portland. It would still help sell a few seats on the Seattle to Portland run.

  12. i think they need to keep chipping away at the run times as they have been doing. In 2017 there should be a significant boost in travel time and service, but I’m not sure what would be next to speed up service. I know the political climate post stimulus has been toxic and that has to change. I also think the long haul routes give amtrak a bad name. Like postal and internet service rural services need to be subsidized otherwise our farmers, miners and what not will be left to fend for themselves which isn’t right. They feed us, fuel us and pay a lot in tax revenue so subsidies are justified.

  13. Another thing that could help with express service, would be to make the Oregon electric line operational. Allowing a couple of the cascades trains to bypass heavier freight area’s

    1. Again, double tracking, fencing, new stations, grade crossing elimination, etc – you’re talking multiples of billions before you even settle with the NIMBYs.

      1. The 15 miles between Beaverton and Wilsonville were essentially ripped out and rebuilt as a new railroad for WES service, and it was around $140 million in track work, with a fair amount of double track added. So, about $10 million per mile.

        The route you would need to rebuild is about 110 miles (part has already been rebuilt as part of WES). So, maybe about $1.1 billion total.

    2. Zach- for many, many reasons the Oregon Electric alignment is NOT a feasible alternative to the UP alignment.

      1. Yet, either is preferable to the idiotic routing selected by ODOT as the preferred route. Their preferred route parallels I-5 over the Ankeny Hills south of Salem, filling the route with steep grades and sharp curves.

  14. I think the impact of BoltBus is being under-appreciated. Why pay twice as much to ride the train? It’s not *that* much more comfortable. For heaven’s sake, you’re only traveling three hours between Portland and Seattle. The level of comfort a train offers is only worth so much for such a short trip. I’ve never bothered to use Amtrak, instead always opting for the bus because it’s a lot cheaper. I’d prefer to take the train because it is comfortable and more interesting, I’m sure, that boring-ass I-5. I’m just not willing to spend that much extra cash for such a short jaunt. It’s not worth it, and I think a lot of people are making the same decision.

    It’s also frustrating that there are no evening runs. Bolt used to have an evening bus but got rid of it, I think. Having to leave by 17:30 or so is quite vexing, which means day trips are largely out of the question. If I have to get a hotel (actually, a hostel bed, as hotels are highway robbery in Seattle), I’m definitely going to skimp on the transport costs. When you don’t have a car and have a relatively small budget, decisions like these make all the difference. If Amtrak wants my money, they’ll have to lower their ticket prices. Even if they offered a 90 minute trip between the two big cities, I’d still use the bus because it’s cheaper. As much as an advocate for trains as I am, I have often found bus transport much more useful and affordable for short trips than trains. For most people, I think cost will always be the primary factor. That’s my two cents anyway (which aren’t actually worth the coins themselves at all).

    1. Even more so with families or groups, where every bus or train fare gets multiplied by the size of the group. It is group travel, especially, where people are quick to point out how much cheaper driving is than alternatives. For example, I once took a day trip to Bellingham by train with one other person. At $23 per person, each way, that worked out to $92 for two people to make the round trip. By contrast, the same $92 could have paid for a 24-hour Zipcar rental that would have gotten us there and back in about half the time. Fortunately, for Amtrak, I was a die-hard enough rail fan to ride the train anyway, but for the average person in a similar situation, the train becomes an extremely difficult sell.

    2. A few years ago, I took MegaBus from Washington DC to NYC. The trip took under 4 hours and cost me about $15. Ridiculously cheap. It was a double decker bus with some club seating, wifi and electrical outlets and movies. While there was enough room to move around, it’s not like on a train. You’re being jostled around on the bus.

      At the time, there were at least 2 other cheap competitors including BoltBus on the same route. They all left from the same DC park and people used a nearby Starbucks as the waiting lounge. [Brilliant symbiotic relationship]. The traditional bus lines (Greyhound, PeterPan) had fares in the $40-60 range and Amtrak was about $90.

      I hate to say it, but I think the key for Amtrak growth in that corridor is in providing frequent competitive bus service on the I-5 corridor or at the very least, code sharing with private operators.

    3. Bolt Bus still have a 6:45PM departure daily with additional run at 8PM on Thursday-Sun from SEA to PDX. At the same token the last departure is 6:30PM from PDX to SEA daily with additional run at 7:30PM on Thursday-Sun.

    4. I had my Greyound era in the late 90s and early 00s when I took Greyhound because it was cheaper than Amtrak, or sometimes because had a better schedule (I used to go up to Vancouver Friday after work and come back Sunday morning). But I got quite tired of it, and for the past ten years I’ve taken Amtrak exclusively. Partly I go south more now rather than north, and partly as I get older comfort becomes more desirable.

    5. Without ridership data from Greyhound, it’s a guess as to how much Bolt Bus affects the Cascades service.

      It would also be interesting to see how the price of gas relates to ridership and operating costs.

      Also, whether Amtrak/WSDOT’s tweaking of prices also has a correlation.

    6. BoltBus probably helps some and hurts some. It gives Amtrak competition, but it gives people an alternative when the trains are sold out, or are close enough to sold out that the ticket prices are past the point of being reasonable. If I had purchased today’s trip it would have cost me $54 week ago. (I used AGR points instead.). There is no southbound 8 pm departure on Amtrak, but BoltBus has one on some days.

      So, if I have to I can use BoltBus going one way and Amtrak the other. It gives people the flexibility to do what they need to do to travel without driving.

      1. When the ticket prices get high enough or my schedule requires it I fly to Portland or Vancouver BC rather than taking the train. The way it works out is I mostly take the train to Portland and mostly fly to Vancouver.

        The situation is likely to get worse for Cascades with Delta Connection entering the SEA-PDX and SEA-YVR markets. The competition and additional capacity is likely to bring airfares down.

  15. As I current write this on train 501, we have been delayed three times by other train traffic.

    Express service would be great if it would actually lead to increased speeds but under the current crowded nature of this line, I don’t see the intermediate stops really being that big a problem.

  16. Zach,
    I still don’t understand this statement:
    “Yet today, Cascades is unable to fill a train leaving Seattle or Portland because of passengers boarding at intermediate stations and because of a baffling software inability to turn over seats more than once.”

    How do you figure there is an inability to turn seats over more than once?
    Or maybe I’m not understanding the statement….

    If someone boards in Olympia, and even if they only ride to Kelso-Longview, they’ve effectively knocked anyone else out from booking from any point beyond those two stops.

    Unless you think that someone should be able to ride outside the train, like they do in India, for that one segment.

    How does the software come into play in that situation?

    Given that you couldn’t get the on-off boarding data, it doesn’t make sense that you could come to a conclusion that it’s the software vs. people’s travel habits.

    1. That would seem to be a problem. I guess Zach is trying to say with good software, Amtrak could still sell a Seattle-Tacoma or Olympia ticket or a Kelso-Portland ticket. That would be the ideal case, even if it did not happen often.

      As for people riding outside of the train, the Cascades version of that is to make them sit in the bistro car’s cafe area. That is the overflow area. I doubt though that the software takes that into account.

      1. I think it would be wise to not draw conclusions when there is an obvious lack of information.

      2. I did ride in the bistro area of a Cascades train on a trip to Mt. Vernon. It was a nice business class seat, even though I only paid a coach fare, but it was annoyingly busy with the door opening and closing all the time.

      3. Car 3, the Coach car next to the Bistro car, on the original WSDOT trainsets is also the Accessible Coach, with the wider aisle and 3 across seating,hence why it seem like a Business Class car.

        If you had your ruler out, you might have found that the seat dimensions weren’t the same.

        Fooled me once, too.

    2. In order to keep things moving, the door is only opened between cars 2 and 3 at most of these small stations, and cars 2 and 3 kept in reserve for those that have to purchase tickets from the conductor when boarding as there are no ticket purchasing facilities at those stations. These seats are turned over pretty well.

      This isn’t a huge number of passengers we are talking about.

      I would love to see us get a modern ticketing system that would give the passenger’s name above the seat and all that. However, I am not sure it is a solution to the current problem.

      There are some trains that are in the habit of selling out, and others that aren’t quite as popular. Take a few of the cars from a couple of train sets and create a few 10 or 11 car trains and a few 8 car trains, and maybe a 6 or 7 car train set. This maximizes the ridership for those particular trains.

      There is NO REASON AT ALL to have a 10 car train in daily Portland to Eugene service. Nobody would notice if a few cars were taking off of the daily Portland Eugene train. However, that train has to run every two days to Seattle for maintenance, so trimming its length too severely can’t be done, unfortunately.

  17. It seems to me that the important thing to do is to find out why those that aren’t riding have decided not to ride – the decrease in ridership number.

    Everyone I have asked has said that the ticket price is the primary problem. It isn’t necessarily the first tier that is the problem but once you start looking at the $54 or $65 price for a Portland to Seattle ticket this turns a lot of people away.

    I paid using AGR points, so it wasn’t a problem for me. However, I also wonder how this shows up on the revenue map since I don’t actually buy a ticket with actual money. Those that have figured out there are advantages to doing it this way due to the high cost of last minute tickets mean it could be showing up as a lack of revenue.

    1. How are you getting your AGR points? I haven’t really looked into ways of earring other than by buying train tickets.

      For me when the cost of business class between Seattle and Portland gets high enough I just take the Horizon shuttle instead. The added cost is a bit more than the ticket differential as I typically use a car service between home and the station or airport. On the other end i use MAX or my hotel’s shuttle service.

      1. Before they merged, Continental allowed free transfer of their points into Amtrak. With Newark as their hub, there were a fair number of cross ticket agreements between Continental and Amtrak. With the merger with United, all that was phased out. However, not before I dumped 15,000 points into to create the AGR account.

        It only costs 1,500 points for one trip on the Cascades trains. So, that is enough for a few trips to Seattle. As long as you buy an Amtrak ticket every two years, the points don’t expire, unlike airlines.

        Then, a bank who shall remain nameless thoroughly pissed me off with a policy change, so I looked for another option. I don’t buy much with a credit card, but enough to want one. Chase’s AGR card wasn’t such a bad deal, and converting the points earnings to a cash value the points earned are a better deal than many card rewards programs. 1 point for every $1 spent means I would actually earn enough points to do something with the points even with my meager use of the card.

        Then came the signing bonus: for getting the card Chase dumps 30,000 points into your AGR account.

        You can buy AGR points, and as it works out the regular price SEA-PDX tickets mean it’s cheaper to buy the ticket based on the value of the points spent. However, the more expensive ticket classes or longer distance Cascades tickets are better off using points.

        So far, I’m still chewing through the initial pile, but you can also buy points. Sometimes they have specials where you can buy 30% bonus points for the price, and if my points ever drop low enough I will probably do that and hold the points in reserve for those cases where I need to buy one of the higher priced tickets. It winds up being more expensive than the base price ticket for Portland – Seattle, but it’s less than the upper ticket prices.

  18. Rather than rearranging chairs on the deck, we need to focus on some of the underlying causes of why passenger trains (and freight!) do not fulfill the role for which they are best suited. Rail is the only form of transportation in this nation which is, generally speaking, expected to rely on private investment to acquire, develop, maintain, signalize and police nearly all of its right-of-way. AND rail must pay taxes on that right-of-way and the improvements thereon. Because of this, railway companies are forced to be extremely conservative in developing capacity, and the freight companies carefully protect what little capacity they have.

    ALL other modes of transportation rely in part or in whole on taxpayer dollars to acquire, develop, maintain, signalize and police their TAX-FREE right-of-ways and the TAX-FREE improvements on those right-of-ways (And those tax dollars received from railway companies help cover the costs).

    Until we begin to correct the distortion of transportation economics, including the many and varied indirect costs of driving, rearranging the chairs will not have adequate impact on getting us where we need to go.

  19. Express trains are a logical next step in the evolution of many rail corridors. The Caltrain Baby Bullet was introduced not only to make a faster trip but to maximize track space. With Sounder adding trains to the south sound there is going to be a huge crunch of track capacity, before even mentioning that this is an extremely active freight line as well. There will have to be expresses or skip stops so trains can be positioned to arrive at the most congested stations in time for platform space.The Caltrain baby bullet shaved off about 30 minutes from SF-San Jose increasing ridership about 40%. That is something worth emulating. The UP tracks from Tacoma to Seattle are perfect, you could even install a platform at on the UP ROW at Tukwila for Airport connections.

    The freight issue is worth digging into as well. BNSF is limited to 28 trains a day with the Cascade tunnel, so any expansion plans must either run longer trains or rely upon the Columbia River route or Stampede pass. If the coal terminal goes into Bellingham or other points north that could have implications. There is little utility in added trains to an unreliable congested freight corridor. Already I get impatient when we are delayed almost every time I ride near Vancouver, WA.

    Also, I have taken the Cascades about 4-5 times now and every single time the WIFI was down. That is some low hanging fruit if you want to attract business travelers.

    1. The WiFi only works in certain locations. Getting the rest of the locations to work isn’t such low hanging fruit, as it means cell towers to cover 10 trains a day wig little other cell phone traffic. You learn where those fear spots are and learn to work around them.

      Once the PTC signal system is installed, they might be able to use the carrier frequency for better train to ground signal. It still won’t be the capacity of a hard wire link, but better than allowed over a cell link.

  20. There are some great points in this. A corollary: WSDOT needs to quit taking bad advice on revenue management from Amtrak. Amtrak stupidly sells fares like an airline, with a few seats really cheap, then a higher “bucket” with the next batch of tickets when those sell out, then a higher “bucket” with absurdly high fares.

    I live in Bellingham, and if you book way in advance, you can get BEL-SEA for about $24. Reasonable. Great. Competitive with the cost of driving. The next bucket up is about $31. Not great, but ok. Then it jumps into the $43 and above range.

    If my husband and I get handed Mariner’s tickets for tomorrow’s game by a buddy, it’s likely going to cost us $172 to get two round trip BEL-SEA tickets. Compare that to about $40 for gas and parking. WSDOT thinks they’re making money because they can garner a higher price at the last minute, but they’re not. They’re really losing money because people see the absurd price of last minute tickets and just decide to drive.

    WSDOT needs to stop taking bad pricing advice from Amtrak and selling these high fare buckets like an airline. Think of the Cascades as a public service that’s there to get cars off Interstate 5 and reduce our state’s carbon footprint. Charge a rock-bottom price for tickets booked long in advance, and slightly higher but reasonable fares for last minute bookings.

    BEL-SEA should be capped at $25. $100 R/T for two vs $40-50 to drive is worth it for the convenience factor, and the green factor. $172 vs $40-50 is ridiculous.

    They think they’re making money on these higher tickets but they’re not. People are just driving or taking Bolt Bus when WSDOT and Amtrak put them in a higher fare “bucket.”

    1. Totally agree, even if it was capped at the 30$ per ride rate, ridership would be higher, reducing WSDOT’s own I-5 congestion and bringing in more revenue. This is how Amtrak operates nationally so would be curious to know if Amtrak would even accept WSDOT’s advice, I’d presume if forced they would since technically WSDOT is the client and Amtrak is the contractor.

      1. That is exactly what happens on some of the other corridors. The problem is that even with those high ticket prices, some of the trains are still quite crowded. Sunday’s 501 had maybe 6 or 8 empty seats that I saw.

        To me this says that the problem isn’t the system that charges more as trains sell out, but that trains are selling out too frequently so that those highest prices appear far too often. Yet, there are enough people who are willing to pay that price that the trains are still quite full. Increase the number of seats on the trains that are regularly sold out and the price drops.

    2. “If my husband and I get handed Mariner’s tickets for tomorrow’s game by a buddy, it’s likely going to cost us $172 to get two round trip BEL-SEA tickets. Compare that to about $40 for gas and parking. WSDOT thinks they’re making money because they can garner a higher price at the last minute, but they’re not. “

      and therein lies the problem….

      $40 for gas and parking….
      That’s how you calculate driving costs?

      That statement is at the root of the problem, and the hardest nut to crack.

      I know one solution that would put the driving costs into perspective,

      do away with the gas tax.

      Or, at the very least, refine the state’s 18th Amendment to read “For Highway repair, and upkeep purposes only.”

      I’m tired of getting taxed in excess at the pump to fund capacity enhancements.

    3. Of course, you realize the Mariners went to the same Demand-pricing scheme that the airlines, hotels, Amtrak, etc. have been using for years.

      Maybe that’s the problem, one needs to be GIVEN Mariners tickets to make the trip worth it… Just wait until they’re in the World Series… You’ll see.

  21. I have been a regular commuter on the Cascades for 10 years, traveling weekly between Portland and Seattle (typically riding northbound on Friday and southbound on Sunday or Monday). Three years ago, after Amtrak prices skyrocketed, I began riding the Bolt Bus at least once a month if not more. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the schedule change out of Portland northbound at 6:50 PM (instead of 6:15 PM). Since this train comes from Eugene, it is almost always late. I (and a small group of Portland commuters) fought the schedule change, only to be told that the southern Willamette Valley needed to be “represented” and a large number of daily commuters were the reason for the need to amend the schedule. Not surprisingly that train #508 ridership continues to drop. Most business commuters don’t want an arrival in Seattle after 11:00 PM at night (not to mention weekend vacationers to Seattle). It makes tons of sense to send at least two “express” trains to Seattle/Portland daily and perhaps one each weekend day (perhaps more for Seahawk or Mariners games). The bucket system that ran several airlines completely out of business is in deed harming Amtrak. Three years ago, I could travel round trip for just under $48. Now I am lucky if I can get a one way seat for under $50. Why would I not seek alternate transportation. The problem is that Amtrak, ODOT and WSDOT will not listen to anyone but themselves. They are bullies. Zach, I hope that this article was sent to as many Amtrak, ODOT and WSDOT managers as possible (it was very well written), but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Over the years, many people have made smart, logical “suggestions” to Amtrak, only to be told that….it is what it is.

    1. That southern Willamette Valley nonsense is a microcosm of what is wrong with Amtrak in general. That ridership demands that there be more trains in the southern valley, while providing ridership that could be met by bus, and providing state legislators that demand that these trains be operated at a profit, wih no investment in the UP mainline to improve capacity and reliability. Amtrak, ODOT and WSDOT are not the ones that need to hear your voice, but the idiot legislators that have demanded this situation be created.

      Since our legislature is on vacation this year, your next best option is the Oregon Association of Rail and Transit Advocates, or Joseph Rose at the Oregonian.

  22. I’ve been a Cascades regular from 2010 until this year. With the travel times extended (ostensibly due to construction) from 3:30 to 3:50, traveling SEA-PDX via Cascades has lost a good part of its appeal. I’d happily pay premium price for express service like proposed here. This is a great proposal, and one I’d have written myself if I thought I could put it this persuasively.

  23. The trains don’t make sense unless they make a profit and are self sustaining, all the while still being affordable. Therein lies the problem. The cost to operate the train is higher than the cost of running a bus. That’s why it’s more economical to ride the Bolt bus over Amtrak. And I do, all the time. The days of reasonably priced train tickets is long gone. You can legislate Amtrak fares, unless you want to subsidize the ride.

    What’s needed is radical thinking on how to make trains operate more efficiently and to lower the passenger costs while improving the time it takes to get to PDX or YVR. Barring that, buses win.

    1. BoltBus requires highways, and highways don’t make sense unless they are self sustaining while still being affordable. Gasoline taxes at state and federal levels have not been increased for over a decade, so that highways require increasing sacrifices of other programs to pay for them.

      What’s needed is radical thinking on how to make highways more affordable and supported by user fees, while returning gasoline taxes to the point they used to be, so higheays don’t continue to be the huge drain on society they are. In the meantime, nobody wins.

  24. OK, Interesting insights about the express Cascades….Not going to work with the level of service out there today. Unless you have a big network of trains, AKA the NEC where you have a variety of trains at various price points and stops, forget it. Acela and NEC regionals provide a reasonable variety and more importantly FREQUENCY of service. Until the PNWRC gets up to hourly service, you all are just wasting electrons writing about the value of an express train.

  25. Good information here, and good debate.
    The underlying question was, How can the Cascades do better?
    Seems like the answer is to hunker down and wait.

    The $800 million or so from the Stimulus is being spent, and
    until all those funded projects are finished and come together,
    not much can happen. Then all at once: Shave 5 or even
    10 minutes off the schedule. Improve reliability and on-time
    arrivals from the current dismal levels to something at least
    tolerable if not actually good. Provide 6 daily trains (plus the
    Coast Starlight) each way on the core Seattle-Portland route
    where today the 4 Cascades trains (and the Starlight) have
    little or no spare capacity.

    Meanwhile the two new Talgo train sets that ODOT bought
    (ordered for the Milwaukee-Madison extension that Scott
    Walker killed) are not adding capacity, but they are allowing
    the older sets to be rotated out of service and overhauled
    to return in like-new condition.

    The other two Talgo train sets from Wisconsin (intended to
    upgrade Hiawatha service Chicago-Milwaukee until Gov Walker
    fouled that up too) are probably going to be leased by and used
    by Michigan DOT to upgrade service on the Wolverines route.
    By 2017, Michigan could be getting new bilevel cars as part of
    the multi-state order, and those Talgos could perhaps migrate
    to the Cascades after that.

    Of course, hundreds of millions more will need to be invested in
    the BNSF route (with its “hundreds of curves”). Only further
    upgrades to the core Seattle-Portland route will provide more
    slots for additional frequencies beyond the 6 Cascades + 1 Starlight.
    By then other tweaks might allow a higher count of Talgos to be
    put to use providing more frequent service south of Portland or
    north to Vancouver, B.C.

    At the current scale of the Talgo Cascades, even small additions
    can have large impacts. Saving 10 minutes isn’t much, but still,
    10 minutes out of a 3 hr 50 min schedule is almost 5% reduction.
    And check my math, but if we’ve got a potential 18-hr ‘train ‘day’
    between King St Station and Union Station in Portland, with 5 trains
    a day there’s an average interval between departures of roughly
    3 ½ hours, and with 7 trains it’s only about 2 ½ hours. It’s not an
    hourly schedule, but it’s a solid improvement.

    1. Sorry but I don’t see how it could be Amtrak’s fault if the Cascades can’t turn over seats between Seattle and Portland. Amtrak’s software allows selling seats multiple times on every other route it operates. So I think this claim is an error. Seems more likely, as Comments above put forth, that the trains simply sell out Olympia-Seattle.

      As for dynamic pricing or lack thereof, I’ve read that Congress in its micromanaging wisdom has limited Amtrak’s ability to manage its fares. The Congresscritters may have feared too much competition vs private airlines and bus companies, or feared giving too many bargain fares to the undeserving, I know not what. But there are limits to how many discounted tickets can be sold, or how steeply discounted, whatever. So Bolt Bus can sell its first ticket for $1, but Amtrak, no, no, no.

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