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.
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.
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.)