By: El Cobrador

When I last wrote to argue for express service on Amtrak Cascades, I used revenue by city pair because that was the best data to which I had access at the time. As I noted in the post, using city pair revenue as the basis for analysis was suboptimal, both because it unnecessarily privileged longer trips and also because it is vulnerable to distortions due to Cascades’ dynamic pricing. Ridership data would have been a more intuitive and human-focused metric, favoring “How many people travel between x and y every day?” as opposed to “How much revenue did trips between x and y generate?”.

Responding to the previous post, WSDOT graciously sent ridership data between all city pairs, allowing such a comparison to be made.


Even this data is a bit too abstract, however, so I converted it to daily ridership and created 4 ridership categories: High (green), Medium (yellow), Low (red), and Very Low (black):

Daily Ridership

A few things stand out from this:

  • Seattle-Portland has more than twice the ridership (589 daily) of the next highest city pair, which is Seattle-Vancouver BC (264 daily).
  • The highest demand city pair that involves neither Seattle nor Portland? Tacoma to Vancouver WA, at 38 people daily.
  • 42 people through-ride between Portland-Vancouver BC daily.
  • With the exceptions of Stanwood, Oregon City, and Centralia, all stations have at least one destination in the top 20 city pairs.

Considering this data as a whole, the supremacy of Seattle and Portland is undeniable, but I now think that the current service pattern of all-local service should persist until after the Point Defiance Bypass is complete. Stations such as Centralia may generate only 55 riders per day between all destinations, but there is unnecessary political risk and complexity in removing service only to potentially add it back 2 years later. Instead, I think that before we add 2 trains in 2017 we should have a robust discussion about how to optimize the service pattern to maximize ridership and revenue. Cascades’ biggest flaw isn’t its running time or even its low frequency, but rather its disregard for business travel or same day trips. It is still impossible to arrive in Seattle before noon or Portland before 11am, and same day trips are limited to 5-6 hours. But once Amtrak consolidates Tacoma service into Freighthouse Square, we have a painless opportunity to change that.

Imagine a new morning southbound train from Seattle to Portland leaving around 6:30am, stopping only in Tacoma and Olympia before arriving in Portland at 9:15am. Tukwila riders could transfer via Sounder at Tacoma (with added RailPlus ticketing), Kelso and Centralia riders would retain their local service one hour later, and Vancouver WA riders would already be taking C-Tran anyway.  Conversely, imagine a train leaving Portland for Seattle around 6:30am, but instead stopping only in Vancouver WA and Olympia, as Tacoma and Tukwila riders would already take Sounder.  After adding that limited-stop service, you could still add a 5th fully local service and meet the ARRA requirement for 2 additional roundtrips.

If implemented, everyone would get something, no one would lose anything, and all of a sudden both business and same day travel between Seattle and Portland would become a reality. What’s not to like?

115 Replies to “Amtrak Cascades Ridership By City Pair”

  1. I love the idea, however, this is a catch all to this; What will BNSF want for those express trips? You would have to dive into the outdated mid or long-range plan for the Amtrak Cascades to figure it out.

    The things I can see just working for BNSF would be adding an additional main track between Nisqually to at least Tenino – Yes, it is 20 miles of adding an additional track but with the planned increase in traffic (expecting a very large jump in traffic) but that would be the only way to get 2 more additional trains, express or not. The upside is if WSDOT does do it, they could seek to make it 90 or 110mph, which truthfully, they have seemingly backed out of doing.

    The only other bottleneck I can think of is Centralia. Adding an additional 6 miles of a new main would allow trains that do work there to do so without disrupting any Cascades service.

    I hated to be “that guy” but sadly, when you see how things operate with freight and passenger, there definitely needs to be more separation between both, that way freight customers and passenger users aren’t negatively delayed.

    1. Brian, the idea presented here is a service pattern for the already planned 2 additional trips. Aren’t those already funded and even required as a condition of accepting the $800m in ARRA funds?

      1. The work currently being funded by ARRA money is designed to allow 2 more round trips between Seattle and Portland. It isn’t clear if BNSF imagined the trips as express trains or 2 more milk-run trips. If WSDOT asks for express trains, BNSF might say “wait a minute, we thought you wanted milk runs” and demand more infrastructure work. But it might also work to WSDOT’s advantage to have express trains, as they would make the trip faster.

      2. Yeah, given sufficient passing track and scheduling, the very thing the ARRA money was awarded to address, I would imagine it’s to BNSF’s advantage for Cascades trains to clear their tracks as quickly as possible.

      3. Maybe, maybe not. The problem with fast trains is that they catch up to slow trains more quickly. If BNSF is running a slow coal train between Portland and Seattle at a top speed of about 50 mph and there is a fast moving passenger train following it and another fast passenger train southbound from Seattle it can be difficult to find sidings and mains for all the traffic. Add in another slow freight train or maintenance work and things get real complicated. That’s why dedicated high speed tracks are really the best solution.

      4. Passenger trains are 7 miles long, as far as a dispatcher is concerned.

        Also, removing choke-points is the cheapest, and quickest way to higher speeds, the ‘low hanging fruit’ as it were.

      5. That’s why dedicated high speed tracks are really the best solution.

        Yes, as this chart shows that the biggest gain comes from quick inter-city transit.

        At some point, it would be faster to take a speedy train between major destinations like PDX, SEA, YVR, and then “backtrack” using a regional Sounder train, to local stops. 155mph is standard on the East Coast, and near Chicago. That’s a 1 hour trip, so add 20 minutes to get to Kent and it’s faster than having a medium speed train make all the local stops.

      6. They are working towards 110 mph near Chicago. One small section in the northeast is good for 150 mph, while far too much of the northeast is in the 110 to 120 mph range, and quite a lot near NYC is slow due to track congestion, and the fact that Metro North really only wants to maintain their track to commuter train standards.

      7. Yes but BNSF as it stands now, only allows for local service. Because of the reduced travel time for an express trains, the padding/schedule/time slot for the trains would have to be different. With the dwell times at the stations, allows the spacing. At least this was how it was explained to me.

        Now me personally, it shouldn’t matter if it is an express, semi-local, or local train, the time slot that it has should be 4 hours and some change. An express could easily do a 3 hour or less run (As it is, with padding soaked up departing Vancouver, it can be done in 3 hours today)

    2. I’d like to see a bypass around the current Oly station, through downtown Olympia and down to Centralia where it would rejoin the BNSF. There is existing, mostly abandoned, railroad right of way for most of this except for a couple miles.

      Yes, it’s a pipe dream (especially in our current political climate), but direct service to downtown Olympia would be much more useful than the current situation. Plus it would be a large increase in the amount of the line dedicated to passenger rail. That would certainly improve reliability, but someone would need to engineer it to figure out the travel time (and cost!) ramifications.

      1. At the very least, a connecting bus service would be nice. There have been times that Intercity Transit and Amtrak Cascades schedules allowed for maximum frustration, with their connecting bus leaving the Olympia station 5 minutes before the Cascades train arrives.

        Since TriCities Tranist has eliminated their Centralia to Olympia bus anyway, I think maybe it is time to reconsider making that a state route and making it part of a guaranteed connection to Amtrak at Olympia.

        Later maybe put a DMU from the Oly station to downtown that is a bit faster than the local bus.

      2. That would probably help a lot. I’ve been told that the place that sells out first is Cenyralia to Olympia – the only section of the main part of the Cascades service that had no parallel public transit.

    3. I am persuaded that addition of ‘express’ service would enhance the customer base for the Cascades. What leaves me puzzled is how the idea of ‘fast’ or ‘faster’ passenger trains would articulate with the growing heavy freight traffic of BNSF and UP. The new cut-off bypassing the Point Defiance line will clearly save time, but existing speed limits and the Napavine grade, may inhibit operating speeds for all trains–hence the probability that a Cascade express service might have to dawdle behind a coal train.
      Segregated HSR may be the answer, however my observations of the political process in Olympia and occasional reading about the push-back on the current HRS project from London to Birmingham, lead me to find scant hope for major accomplishments here.

      1. Every time I cross the tracks on Jefferson Street, think those signals could really use passenger service to the port, with a station a block from City Hall which is half a block from Olympia Coffee Roasting.

        Which a great cafe with the world’s best coffee and whole roasting factory in the back room- where they keep a large wheeled table especially for customers who need some serenity for writing.

        Station could also serve brewery a block or so closer to I-5.

        Also often see freight trains coming out of the tunnel a few blocks downhill from the capitol, and crossing the inlet and Deschutes Parkway on their way out of town. Catenary overhead on both of them….

        Am suggesting to Olympians of longer residence, including Intercity Transit and my state legislator, that the Route 94 bus that serves the Amtrak station on its way to Yelm shouldn’t take half an hour from downtown. Since distance is only 8 miles, service might be faster on a straighter route.

        Answer is generally that for the few passengers using the station either direction, 94 serves more people on present route. My counter-suggestion is to run a special express to serve every passenger train- which right now would not take very many buses, and doesn’t need a triple artic.

        I think if any serious number of people started petitioning for the above, cost might be as well within range as Olympia is should be from the Amtrak station.

        Whole subject will also be easier to address the sooner Olympia comes into Sound Transit, as it definitely should and eventually will.

        Mark Dublin

      2. An express bus from the Centralia station could do it in half an hour, so those from the south would be served faster there.

        From the north, it might make more sense to establish DuPont as a station, once the service is there.

  2. Great research, great presentation Zach, this is really valuable.

    I’m still a little ginger about express service, as I think the politics of funding Cascades are far more tenuous than, say, Metro. Moreover, we’ve not yet reached the service frequency where the speedup from express service exceeds the effective speedup from adding more frequency. This feels a bit like arguing for stop consolidation on an a bus service that has great potential but is still running hourly. Do we want to have this fight at this point? I’d probably prefer to have to later, when we have twice as much frequency and twice as many riders.

    Completely agree on the sad lack of morning service. Also surprised that as many people do OLW SEA as OLW PDX. OLW isn’t particularly well located, and there exist vastly cheaper and more frequent bus or bus+train connections for that trip.

    1. The point of the post is to forego the argument now and instead integrate limited-stop service as a natural consequence of the post-2017 service pattern. Lesser stations go from 5 daily trains to 6, and the major stations from 5 to 7. When everyone is still gaining net service, I think that’s an easier sell. And it keeps a business-friendly arrival time from requiring a pre-6am departure.

      1. To best serve business riders, the 2017 schedule should have express trips in the morning and the afternoon/early evening in both directions. WSDOT should maintain the 4 local Cascades trips (plus the Coast Starlight) and schedule the additional roundtrips that will be added in 2017 as express trains.

        When I drive to Portland for business, my expense report for mileage comes to about $220. If I can take the train, the fare is usually about $60; but taking the train (with the current schedule) requires staying overnight, the cost savings quickly evaporate. A new schedule that allows train riders a full day of work in Seattle or Portland would be popular–even if there is a premium fare required for the express service.

      2. Loss-aversion is a thing, but I think rural legislators are smart enough to realize that not adding service is mathematically the same thing as taking it away.

      3. It’s easy to make the business case for express trains between Seattle and Portland. A round-trip airfare for a day trip tomorrow would cost about $375 (cheaper fares are available with pre-purchase, but a single day roundtrip to PDX is usually in the $250 range). A round-trip train ticket for tomorrow would cost $68. The full cost of driving would be about $220. Driving would require about 7 hours of completely unproductive time and flying would require at least 3 hours of semi-productive time. A train trip would need 8 hours of time, but that time could be spent productively (although I doubt that all 8 hours would be spent on company business). If we allow $25 per hour for the value of time, the cost of the trip would be $450 to fly, $395 to drive and $268 to travel by train.

        If the train journey can be made faster, the cost of the train trip becomes even cheaper. Given that the train is already at least $100 cheaper than the other options (and in many cases, more productive) it should be possible to increase the ticket price of the express trips and make them less subsidized.

      4. The cheapest SEA-PDX r/t airfare every single day in October (single day, depart AM return PM) is $145. That makes the current train schedule, where a hotel stay is required for a full business day, not as competitive price-wise. An AM/PM express would change that calculus, as you point out.

        Actual value of time is considerably higher than $25 for most people who would be frequently traveling for business. That’s about $50k/year, but does not include any benefits etc., nor does it include overhead (i.e. “billable” hourly rate). If self-employed, maybe that would work as a low figure, but the self-employed typically have somewhat more flexibility in their schedules. At any rate, changing the value of time in your equation dramatically changes the cost benefit to either the shorter duration trip (air) or the trip where work can most easily be done (rail). Driving is simply not competitive under those circumstances.

        I used to take the train most times I had business in PDX simply because back when I was doing so the airfare WAS higher, and was roughly equivalent to train+hotel. In addition, it was much easier to work on the train…or have a beer or two…. ;-)

      5. It’s funny, but everytime Express service has been tried on the San Diegan/Surfliner corridor, it has been a flop.

  3. Good data, really good data.

    I concur that converting any of the locals to express before 2017 is a political impossibility. Most discussions regarding Amtrak are already politically charged enough, but try cutting local service in favor of express service to the big cities and you will create a political firestorm. You don’t have to be very creative to imagine the charges of “Seattle bias” and sloganeering around “We pay taxes too!, Seattle is stealing our tax dollars!, etc.”

    But when new service gets added, that is a great opportunity to potentially add that service in the form of express Cascades. SEA-TAC-PDX is a no-brainier (I’d skip Oly), but VAC-SEA-TAC-PDX would also be good. And adding Eugene might also make sense, but until Oregon gets its act together and starts increasing its average track speeds its hard to take their routes too seriously.

    And your comments about departure times to support business commuters are also correct, and could also be addressed at the time of service additions.

    1. “until Oregon gets its act together and starts increasing its average track speeds its hard to take their routes too seriously”

      The track in BC is even worse…

    2. Ohhh but I wish there was a decent way to commute between Oly and Seattle! If I were planning this express route, I’d skip Tacoma, since they already have lots of Sound Transit options.

      1. Everyone has their favorite city pair, which is why these discussions almost always go nowhere. I think you have illustrated very nicely by personal action just how difficult it will be to get express service implemented.

        Think of it, from a purely data driven POV, how does the data support retaining Olympia while simultaneously deleting B-ham and VanWA? It doesn’t really. And if you retain all three, then how much “express” is in your express service?

        And, from a political POV, do you really think it would be possible to delete the other stops while retaining the one stop where all the politicians reside? Wouldn’t that be seen in a bad light by the citizens? You know, politicians protecting their own service while cutting everyone elses? Do we really need to go there?

        And does it make sense anyhow? Maybe a better option would be to somehow extend Sounder to Oly and in the process move the station to somewhere more central. You know, like maybe in DT Oly next to Fish Brewing? Ya, lots of hurdles, but….

        It’s at least worth thinking about extending Sounder south to Oly before we commit to sending Express Cascades off the rails. Because that is what you are suggesting.

      2. It would be appropriate to note that even the most express-of-the-express Acela trains stop in suburban Boston, and nearly all stop at Metropark, New Jersey.

        The additional stop is seen as a worthwhile trade for the sake of capturing more of the origin metropolitan area, regardless of mode of station access, and is not seen as contrary to the “express” nature of the journey to the next primary metropolitan destination (New York or Washington).

        Vancouver, WA seems to fit this mold, reliably boarding Seattle-bound passengers who consider their trip inter-major-city, but who might not be bothered to backtrack to Union Station.

        Tukwila could function similarly, but its crappy location seems to undermine such effects. (TUK-PDX is half of VAN-SEA on the chart.) Perhaps a slightly faster train could shift the access-penalty calculus.

      3. A bit more about what dp is talking about: every train serving Boston South Station also stops at Back Bay, which is one track mile away. This is because Back Bay is also a fairly busy subway station, and thus stopping there can be extremely important to many passengers.

        This could happen in Vancouver, Wa as well, if there were better ties to the rest of the region. The numbers you see for Vancouver are true even though there is NO transit service at all at this station.

      4. ST Express 592 now skips both the E-3 busway and Tacoma for Olympia travel. But a 60mph Interstate should put travel time closer to one hour than to the present two.

        Bus loses about five minutes pulling off the freeway by several blocks to the transit center at Lacey, and then at least ten minutes through another parking lot a mile from the freeway at Hawk’s Prairie, and then five or ten minutes through Dupont again due to distance of transit center from freeway.

        The bus leaves the freeway again at Bridgeport Way- some use to me since I’ll often transfer to the Sounder at Lakewood. But the 592 loses over five minutes serving SR512 park and ride. These route deviations all add up. If those turn-outs are that critical, ST should be making plans and finding money for either moving those facilities closer to I-5 or building express bus-only ramps to them.

        If I don’t take the Sounder- the 592 really is excellent for the really early ones- I much prefer to ride IT to Tacoma, which features coffee and bathroom, and then Sounder out of Freighthouse Square- easy streetcar or 594 ride- or get 594 across street from Anthem Cafe. More travel time- but would rather lose a little more time for cheer and comfort, and less time doing empty park-and-rides.


      5. That’s true, Glenn. Although as the western fringe of Vancouver proper falls squarely in the “outer ring” of the Portland metro area in both feel and access-shed, the 128 and Metropark stations remain the relevant comparisons.

        You can build all the transit you want across the Columbia, but suburban stations will always be — objectively and legitimately — about suburbanites getting dropped off for intercity travel, just as they would at the airport.

      6. Thanks to traffic congestion on the BNSF bridge (and that won’t get better any time soon, as they are looking at running 30 or so more oil trains to Rainier every month) Amtrak is scheduled to take half an hour from Vancouver to Portland. If cross river transit connections weren’t so awful, Vancouver could be a very time competitive station for much of north and northeast Portland. Even Beaverton could be had pretty quickly via St Johns and Germamtown Road, if a small bus were used.

        Such connections may be necessary at some point anyway thanks to capacity issues at the Columbia bridge.

        Sadly, Balkanization at the river also means people would have to get pretty demanding for anything to actually happen.

  4. For those unfamiliar with Amtrak’s city codes …

    VAC = Vancouver, BC
    BEL = Bellingham, WA
    MVW = Mount Vernon, WA
    STW = Stanwood, WA
    EVR = Everett, WA
    EDM = Edmonds, WA
    SEA = Seattle, WA
    TUK = Tukwila, WA
    TAC = Tacoma, WA
    OLY = Olympia / Lacey, WA
    CTL = Centralia, WA
    KEL = Kelso / Longview, WA
    VAN = Vancouver, WA
    PDX = Portland, OR
    ORC = Oregon City, OR
    SLM = Salem, OR
    ALY = Albany, OR
    EUG = Eugene, OR

    1. The Starlight and Builder are not included. I’m awaiting similar data from Amtrak to integrate that in. I’m not sure if WSDOT’s data included thruway buses, and I should have clarified that in my data request.

      1. Speaking of the Starlight- likely named for the amount of time light from closes star besides the sun ever gets to Earth- and Bolt Bus- and also Greyhound, which should never be named outside of zombie movies:

        Challenge to Bolt Bus: if you wanna be a real bus line and compete with all above, do a run a night each way between Eugene and Sacramento. Outdo yourself and compete with, say, the Turks. Refreshments served by stewardesses, clean comfortable coaches, drivers who wouldn’t be fired by the California Department of Corrections- the works.

        And charge for it. After a night aboard the Busline of the Rolling Dead, and a couple of flights from SF to Portland on prop-jets with seats that didn’t recline, I’d pay at least Coast Starlight fare for fast, comfortable ground transportation, leaving Sacramento after supper and arriving in Eugene for morning coffee and breakfast.

        In time to continue of the Cascades northbound. Some of us still like highway bus service fit for actual passengers in and advanced country. Whether everyplace merits rail, or till it does, places on the order of Spokane and Eugene still deserve first-rate ground travel.


      2. If California HSR becomes a reality, I’ll be looking for something between Eugene and Sacramento, and I won’t want to wait 12 hours for the next Greyhound or Coast Starlight.

      1. Ha!

        Actually, you can probably ignore the Empire Builder. The few time I have been on it, it mostly picks up as it heads out of Seattle. People really don’t start getting off until Leavenworth and such, east of the mountains.

      2. That’s pretty arrogant of them. I’ll keep it in mind the next time I see a Surfliner or Cascades locomotive pulling the Starlate.

      3. Actually it isn’t too surprising. BoltBus didn’t appear on the scene until enough passenger train service existed to prove the corridor could work. Greyhound and Megabus won’t even publish system maps on their web sites as they consider that proprietary information.

        The other problem is these types always seem to prefer communication by paper rather than e-mail.

      4. Try asking for any data they’ve provided NARP about the Starlight; it’s included at least some ridership data in order to make NARP ridership statistics for it, and by law they’re required to release that to everyone once released to one non-governmental agency as I recall.

      5. ” Greyhound and Megabus won’t even publish system maps on their web sites as they consider that proprietary information.”

        This is why people don’t ride Greyhound or Megabus. I mean, seriously, if you can’t put up your own system map, you’re not a real operator, you’re a fly-by-night.

      6. Thanks. That could be useful, and I have looked for such a thing on their web site several times when people have asked to get places without driving, and not found such a map. I was then told by a Greyhound middle manager type that they consider it proprietary information and therefore don’t make it public.

        In this case it is nice to be proven wrong.

      7. Problem with that Greyhound map is that it is accurate as of 2010. There’ve been just a few service changes since then.

  5. I wish the WSDOT would stop dragging its feet in the sand and actually get a true HSR corridor between Seattle and Portland. Fixing bottlenecks like slow bridges, curves, and all is one thing. Having a grade separated corridor is another. If the corridor could also support light-fast, freight, it would do more than adding extensions of state highways to I-5 by providing a redundant link to Portland for time-sensitive goods. This could also support faster Sounder service and I would hope the goal for Seattle-Tacoma is a 45 minute trip. All day frequency and trip times of 45 minutes would hopefully entice drivers to ditch their vehicles.

    This is the core we need and would especially help on long weekends.Two more round trips will put a slight dent but hourly and half-hourly service would put a significant dent in traffic.

    1. I think part of the problem is that the biggest destinations are outside the state (Vancouver BC and Portland). If we fund it all, Portland gets a lot out of it, while paying nothing. Asking them to chip in could help, but my guess is Oregon wouldn’t chip in much. This is why the federal government should pay more. There are a handful of lines (e. g. San Francisco to L. A.) which are completely within a state, but by and large, most popular lines cross borders.

      1. Congress explicitly took itself out of the business of funding regional rail with the passage of PRIIA in 2009, leaving federal dollars in play only for the shitty >750 mile routes. Since then, the House has only become more nutty, to the point where we now can’t even fund highways. I don’t see a reason to expect the feds will get back into this business in the foreseeable future.

        The achievable way to expand Cascades is with a tripartite compact (OR, WA, BC), where each legislature commits to funding an agreed quantity for operations, and then scheduling is done with a view to maximizing utility over the whole line (EUG-VAC), and capital improvements are coordinated with the same goal.

      2. It’s actually worse than that. See

        “The Amtrak Board of Directors, in consultation with US DOT, the governors of each relevant State, and the Mayor of the District of Columbia, or entities representing those officials, is required to develop and implement a single, nationwide standardized methodology for establishing and allocating the operating and capital costs of providing
        Federal Railroad Administration intercity rail passenger service among the States and Amtrak for the trains operated on designated high-speed rail corridors (outside the Northeast Corridor), short-distance corridors, or routes of not more than 750 miles, and services operated at the request of a State, a regional or local authority or another person.”

        So, if you happen to be a member of congress that uses the Northeast Corridor, then you don’t need to worry about that 750 mile thing.

    2. “High-speed rail” would have to be a joint project between the major cities and their states. But what is HSR? There are several speed levels, 79mph (current), 90mph, 110mph, 125mph, …, each a quantum level more expensive than the last. If WSDOT builds separate passenger tracks to the border (regardless of whether Oregon does anything), they’d probably be at 110mph because that’s the value/cost sweet spot and is plenty for Pacific NW service (and Sounder would use it too). It wouldn’t make sense to build lower if we’re building new track. Conversely, 125mph would probably be too much cost for too little added benefit, and HSR to California is so far away we can’t be spending money on something that may or may not be useful then (especially since we don’t know what speed or technology it would be).

      1. 90 mph shouldn’t be that much more expensive than 79 mph. The only requirement there is cab signals, and there is a bunch of expensive signal work anyway required as part of the Positive Train Control by 2015 requirement. In 1971 a test train operated on this route from Seattle to Portland at speeds as high as 85 mph.

  6. i think ridership has peaked for the given configuration. Additional train sets and express service for business travelers will be the only thing to entice more riders. Adding speed would help but the political will for such is nowhere to be found these days. And to wait for higher ridership before implementing express service would be foolish. 2017 would be spot on.

  7. 19 people a day between Seattle and Tacoma? And who are the 2 riding to Tukwila? Standing in line to get your seat assignment takes almost as long to walk up the stairs and to either the 150 or the 594.

    At least there is the RailPlus program to explain the Everett and Edmonds to Seattle riders.

    1. I’m guessing its folks who want to ride a train for fun, especially families. Take your kids on a short train ride and then visit the big city (or town) and be back before dinner time.

      1. With today’s transit network, Amtrak is the only transit option to get between Seattle and Edmonds on a Sunday. Granted, one could probably combine the 512 with a short hop on Uber for less than Amtrak would charge, but some people might not know that.

      2. Standard ticket price between Seattle and Edmonds is $7.50, and AAA or5 NARP discount gets that down to $6.75. I don’t see Uber + 512 being cheaper than that.

        If someone needs to do this regularly, I think the Multi-Ride ticket program reduces the price a bit as well, but I’m not sure as I have never had the need for Multi-Ride.

    2. My guess is that those few are transfering to long-distance trains in Seattle. If you rode from Tacoma to Leavenworth, say, or Tukwila to Wenatchee, you’d be captured in this Cascades data as a TAC-SEA or TUK-SEA trip, respectively.

      1. I guess that’s possible but the only Cascades train that meets the Empire Builder requires 4.5 hours in Seattle between trains. The only benefit I could see to that is that you would avoid any potential delay if there was an accident on I-5 but getting to King Street that early seems like overkill.

        I’ve taken SEA-TAC once but 1) it was before Sound Transit existed and 2) I got 2 free tickets because I was participating in the state Geography Bee.

      2. M, you’d still have to get to King Street Station and many people wouldn’t take the 594 – especially if they’ve got luggage or are traveling as a family. Parking in Tacoma is a lot easier and not to mention *free*.

      3. It should also be noted that when Sounder isn’t running, using Amtrak to go between Tukwila and Tacoma is an order of magnitude faster than any competing transit option, enough so that a few people might be willing to cough up the money, at least one direction, if the schedule happened to work out. Alternative transit options including taking the F-line to TIBS, following by Link to SeaTac, followed by the 574 to Tacoma. Or taking the 150 all the way north to SODO, then backtracking south on the 594. Both options are terrible.

    3. Everett/Edmonds to Seattle riders don’t show up if they’re using RailPlus. I used to use it all the time and I only had to flash my U-Pass. I’d ride free from SEA to EVR and buy a ticket from Everett to Bellingham (at student discount) for a $9 one-way fare. It was nice while it lasted…

    4. Likely riders when there isn’t any Sounder service. Your best alternative is to walk all the way over to the 150, but that is next to busy roads. The only other alternatives take an hour or more. After 8:30 at night it becomes especially attractive due to the infrequent alternatives.

    5. Also people doing points runs for Amtrak Guest Rewards – soemtimes where there is a triple/quadruple points opportunity it can be worthwhile. Or they have to do a short train trip every other year in order to keep their points active.

      1. I’ve ridden to TAC and back from SEA to get extra (2x and 3x) points for the Amtrak Rewards program, several times.

    6. I was on the Cascades from Tacoma to Seattle on Sunday afternoon and saw a surprising number – at least 25 – people get off at Tukwila. It looked like at least a few were heading to SeaTac. So that’s kind of an interesting angle here – using Tukwila as a de facto airport link.

      1. It’s hard to tell where these people are headed to once they get off the train. A few may be headed to SeaTac. Many more are probably just visiting Grandma’s suburban house and being picked up from the station by the family they’re visiting.

      2. I would be willing to do that, if it didn’t take an hour or more to get between the two by bus + Link.

  8. I can’t WAIT for express service. I do the SEA-PDX round trip about four times a year…and hate that I can’t leave PDX early to come back to work the next day…

    The thing that hasn’t been brought up in this discussion…and something I keep thinking about…is BOLT bus. It has to be impacting the ridership on Amtrak, and if not yet, it will in the future. I am planning on using it next time to see the difference, but even it I don’t like it, I’m sure other must…all this work to get more train trips maybe for not if the ridership doesn’t increase…

    1. BoltBus has typically 5 round trips a day. Their buses hold about 46 passengers. So, at most, they are taking away 460 people per day.

      1. Not true…many days there are eight round trips…additionally…it’s not hard to add more trips…way less infrastructure costs. I want the train to succeed, so just pointing out that an express schedule could compete with Bolt better.

    2. There is a vast pool of potential customers that take airplanes or cars. Make service fast, frequent, and reliable enough and filling seats will not be a problem. As it stands, including security and travel to airports, trains are almost competitive on travel time. It’s frequency and reliability that put them out of the running for most customers.

  9. This is exactly the opposite of what most people argue when advocating for more infill Link stations. Yes Westlake/Sea-Tac is by far the most popular trip pair on Link but if you cut out the intermediate stations the line’s utility is significantly reduced. The same can be said about Cascades.

    There is so much work to be done on Cascades that would improve service to every destination on the line without wasting it on express trains that will never be faster (or cheaper) than BOLT bus let alone driving.

  10. Bolt Bus gains it speed by doing exactly what you profess to believe is some sort of a problem — by cutting out all the intermediate stops! Bolt Bus provides exactly zero service to any of the intermediate cities.

    And Bolt Bus doesn’t serve local micro-brews……

    1. I don’t think express service is a bad idea at all but the service quality and infrastructure will need to be vastly improved first. What this chart ACTUALLY shows is fair demand along the entire line between Seattle and Eugene, except for a few obvious pairs. The line between Seattle and Vancouver suffers for many of the same reasons as Sounder North – lower frequency, more difficult to access stations, bad service due to mudslides, etc.

  11. Interesting information!
    As a regular rider of Amtrak service my preferences if funding was available for improvements to Amtrak Cascades would be 1) more trips/increase frequency to BC and PDX, 2) improve travel speeds, 3) consider express trips.

    In WA state, I would be interested to see 1) new morning trip via Empire Builder route Seattle – Spokane, 2) new routes connecting the states urban centers.

    Any chance we could see Amtrak Cascades City-pair, Per trip? That way Seattle – BC route is not penalized by fewer trips per day compared to Seattle – PDX.

    1. “Any chance we could see Amtrak Cascades City-pair, Per trip? That way Seattle – BC route is not penalized by fewer trips per day compared to Seattle – PDX.”

      This was one of the first things I thought of as well so I created this table. It assumes all trips are on the same train – no connecting trains in SEA or PDX. It also assumes the two trips per day from south of PDX up to SEA, but if I remember correctly that didn’t start until earlier this year.

      Also, I created this hypothetical table to match Zach’s – adjusted so that all city pairs have 8 trains per day. Just to satisfy my own curiosity.

      1. Hey Winchester, thanks for creating the table. Awesome!!

        If I am interpriting the info correctly. Other than Centralia, Kelso, Vancouver, it seems that most city pairs between SEA – PDX have steady ridership considering their populations each trip. To me, it seems that there are more downsides to focus on new limited-stop service than simply adding more service frequency. Where all markets win!!

        Another consideration. Add more service during peak times: weekends when trains are frequently sold-out, events, holidays, etc. This is already successful on limited scale during Thanksgiving holiday and Hawks games.

  12. We need to think of this like a business if we want to expand service and create a sustainable future for Cascades. To me, the most compelling cases for express trains are by gaining higher-value customers, and improving equipment utilization. The biggest issue with Cascades right now is the low equipment utilization. An express train between Seattle and Portland, stopping in Tacoma along the way (and using the Point Defiance Bypass) could easily shave the trip time from 3:50 to 3:30. With improvements on station dwell time, minor track improvements, we could see something closer to 3:15 or even 3 flat.

    This means that a 6:30am departure from Seattle can get to Portland by 9:30/9:45am, and turned to depart for Seattle by 10am. This 10am departure fits nicely in between the two early trains from Portland, and would get you to Seattle by 1pm or 1:15pm. You can now turn this train and depart for Portland at 1:30, getting you there by 4:30 or 4:45pm. Turn this one for a 5pm departure (also fits nicely in the schedule and picks up the end-of day business crowd), and you’re back to Seattle by 8 or 8:15pm. You now have two extra round trips using one trainset, and you’ve just sucked a huge amount of business from the Horizon shuttles. 3 – 3:15 travel time from downtown to downtown would be very competitive with flying, so you can expect to more high-revenue business travelers. Enough to potentially add more business class cars to the trainset. If they can get buy-in from BNSF, the other political aspects should not be difficult. This express train full of business customers would likely see a farebox recovery in excess of 100%. It’s hard for politicians from the smaller cities to make much of a case against this, although they probably will try.

    1. Before the current round of freight troubles, 3:30 or better was normal (I was on a few trains that got through from Vancouver to Portland in 10 minutes rather than the allotted 30).

  13. Add up the daily ridership between all these city pairs, and the number comes to 1777. Strikes me that’s a mighty small number, maybe about the same ridership as one middling Metro bus route?

    We know the travel demand is there, and we need to get the infrastructure in place to serve it — the equivalent of taking a regular bus route and making it into Rapid Ride. Too bad that base number isn’t bigger; it would make the political argument more convincing.

    1. If your bus route only operated 4 times per day as the Cascades trains do, what would the ridership be?

      1. Metro and the Cascades service have a very different type of rider.
        One is for everyday use, with the bulk of the numbers coming from.workday use, the other is heavily used on the weekend and higher in the summer than winter.

        Better comparison:
        How many daily SEA-PDX auto and plane commuters are there?

      2. No idea on intercity car traffic, but between Seattle-Portland Amtrak offers a theoretical* capacity of 2,500 per day (250 x 8 trains), which sits squarely in between the theoretical capacities of Bolt Bus (550 per day, or 55 x 10 buses) and Alaska Airlines (2,600 per day, or 72 x 50 flights).

        *BoltBus only offers nonstop express, so that 550 is its true daily capacity. For Amtrak, given multiple intermediate stations and through-service patterns from Seattle to both Eugene and Vancouver BC, the true capacity between just SEA-PDX is dynamic and not really knowable, but likely just a bit higher than today (maybe up to 1,000?). For Alaska Airlines, many if not most of those passengers are transferring to/from other flights, not traveling strictly between SEA-PDX, and I don’t have the data from Alaska to know how many are making just the short-haul trip.

      3. I was not trying to compare Cascades service to bus service! I was only making a reference to the volumes of riders. Every time I’ve ridden the train, there have been lots of empty seats. If they have a “rush hour” I don’t know when and where it is.

      4. Sometimes there are empty seats, and sometimes there aren’t. Last train I was on was a Sunday morning in July, and there were perhaps 4 seats left. Tomorrow’s train 507 has sold enough seats that the cheapest price is $51, and the web site says there is only 1 seat left at that price.

        You may not have been comparing bus service to Cascades, but the two are very comparable. To attract riders, you need to have flexibility to travel when people need to travel. People can’t ride a train that isn’t there, just like they can’t take a bus that isn’t there.

        There was a very significant change in philosophy in Europe from the 1970s to the 1990s in how train services should be operated, and operating service at least hourly between significant city pairs was found to make a huge difference in how many people use a particular service.

        You will, I think, find that the hourly service threshold also holds true for bus service.

        It may be necessary to consider a few more local stops to really draw the vast ridership potential along I-5 (and have express service to complement it), but there certainly is never a time that this highway is vacant. The traffic map shows some 85,000 + vehicles a day at Centralia.
        Even 1% of that would provide a decent amount of passengers on an hourly train.

      5. Zach said “between Seattle-Portland Amtrak offers a theoretical* capacity of 2,500 per day (250 x 8 trains), which sits squarely in between the theoretical capacities of Bolt Bus (550 per day, or 55 x 10 buses) and Alaska Airlines (2,600 per day, or 72 x 50 flights).”

        That is a great example of a complicating fact we should pay attention to. One of the key advantages of rail often works against it. I’m talking about vehicle capacity and the effect on trip frequency (with impacts to actual travel time, connections, market potential…). Amtrak and Alaska air offer almost the same capacity, but Alaska air offers 25 flights in each direction matching the Hourly service Glenn says will really improve ridership on the Cascades. Amtrak has the same capacity, but with only 4 trips each way. So, which is the more useful service based on departures alone (not cost, speed, etc…)? In a robust market like the NEC, the capacity and efficiency of rail vehicles is essential and the impact to frequency is minimal, but it looks like, in the PNW, capacity is working against good frequency. Infrastructure constraints aside, because each new train trip added on the route can carry so many people, it takes a substantial change in demand to show sufficient justification for a new trip. The bar is effectively set higher than for adding a new flight or a bus trip. I’m not saying we should stop using trains and invest in some other mode. I’m saying we should account for the fact that there is an intrinsic impediment (mathematical, not political) to adding frequency on rail routes that aren’t bursting at the seems. We should be aware that air and bus don’t face that impediment because of smaller capacity vehicles. They have other impediments. We should acknowledge that even though the cost of new trips *per passenger* will be much less on rail, the operators cost for an additional trip will be a substantially bigger increment than what it is for other modes of travel. Frequency can improve the efficiency of equipment and labor use dramatically and this means rail’s cost per passenger advantage is weaker when it operates at a less efficient frequency than competitive modes. Regardless of technology, high-capacity/low-freq is less attractive to customers and has a pricing disadvantage when compared to low capacity/high-freq. To be fair, rail has advantages in terms of customer perception – it’s the low frequency creating challenges. Adding trips to a lower freq (but well-used) service is likely to generate ridership increases in excess of service cost increases. That makes it a good investment if service was the only cost. Improving speed should also increase ridership while decreasing cost, but adding either trips or speed would probably incur capital costs. An express that didn’t require any capital expenditure would be worth considering, but it would be near impossible to justify even a simple capital project benefiting only 1 or 2 trips a day. Theoretically trips could add span rather than frequency and so long as there is track availability no capital expenditures would be incurred. Accommodating business schedules certainly is needed. I really like the express idea here but, until we have at least 10 trips in each direction, I lean toward advocating for more trips and general speed improvements.

        This capacity-frequency tradeoff is little discussed, but it possibly played a role in the decimation of rail transit that happened in the mid-twentieth century. Automakers that bought up transit companies were able to provide their own rolling stock at marginal cost. They could placate the unions by keeping employment steady or growing (reductions in the scope of systems were offset by changing to low-capacity vehicles) and they could boost wages because road infrastructure costs are socialized unlike the track they previously maintained, The biggest deception was to give the appearance of improvement (in frequency) because any rail line still carrying people had to be replaced with many more buses. In subsequent years, as they reduced frequency, connections failed, network effects diminished and the lines died completely or worse, became so useless to the vast majority of people that they became the sole possession of small interest groups advocating for service to meet specific costly desires that often preclude providing a more broadly useful network meeting the general need for mobility.

      6. @ RDPence

        “If they have a “rush hour” I don’t know when and where it is.”

        Not so much a rush hour, as “Rush Days”, that being Friday and Monday, where the cheap seats never seem to be as available.

        Except maybe the early morning trains.

        People don’t like to wake up that early.

  14. I’m all for express service along the corridor, just not at the expense of any existing service. I also think that there is basically no advocacy from the public for improved intercity rail happening in Olympia, that there is actually a more receptive audience than we believe, and that we should get much more aggressive about calling for more frequency and more service on the corridor.

      1. Not everything happens on the blogosphere, guys.

        However, this blog helps to do the run-around on the media, who seem to all but ignore passenger rail issues.

        Then again, it’s the car companies that pay the most in adverting dollars.

        What should be encouraged is that anyone who visits this blog and is an advocate for better intercity passenger rail service, should be contacting their legislator.

        Rail issues are hardly a blip on their radar, unless it’s a dramatic issue like coal or oil trains.

        Skagit County Joe, your work is cut out for you.
        Bailo, you need to rally the suburban crowd!

  15. I like the data, but I don’t understand your proposed service patterns.

    These are the possible sane express service patterns given the data:
    (1) Seattle-Portland
    (2) Seattle-Tacoma-Portland
    (3) Seattle-Tacoma-Vancouver WA-Portland

    Of these, #3 is clearly the best; it hits the top ridership pairs while allowing for a very long stretch of uninterrupted running.

    (Portland-Eugene and Seattle-Vancouver BC have too few trains per day to consider express service at all. All other cities have too few passengers to consider using them in an express service.)

    Now, there’s another principle of express routes: they are most beneficial for the people coming from farthest. So the actual desired service pattern should be:

    Vancouver BC
    – local all stops to Seattle
    – express to Tacoma,
    – express to Vancouver WA
    – express to Portland
    – local all stops to Eugene

    The hope would be that this would improve “cross-Seattle” and “cross-Portland” ridership — if you could get it fast enough to get the timings right.

    This would of course be best done after Pt. Defiance Bypass and when there are additional frequencies between Seattle and Portland.

  16. What is the actual cost of serving the intermediate stops. Intuition would suggest that if not very many people are using a particular stop, the dwell time, and hence, the time that could be saved by skipping that stop, would be less. Yes, There is always some overhead of decelerating and accelerating again, but trains being trains, don’t need to pull of the freeway, make a bunch of 90-degree turns, and wait at a bunch of stop lights.

    A big reason why Amtrak serves the intermediate stops and Bolt doesn’t is that it would be far more costly in time for a bus to serve the intermediate stops than it would be for a train to do so.

  17. What’s most depressing is that less than a thousand people a day are making use of this very expensive service. It would seem more of a market aversion than market demand. This isn’t NYC -> DC so maybe it’s time to throw in the towel and focus on Seattle to Everett?

    1. If you want large numbers of people to use it, it needs to run hourly. To do that, you need to dump more money into the track to get better capacity.

      Just in the last few years I’ve counted about $1 billion in highway investment at highway interchanges between Portland and Seattle. If the Columbia River crossing gets built, it will be $3 billion more.

      Can we really afford not to have better alternatives?

  18. Funny, I didn’t see this yesterday because I had to drive to and from Portland to attend a conference. The first session was 10am and I stayed to mingle until 10pm. I would have gladly paid for a train, local or express, that could allow me to get in and out in one full work day. I like the blended express idea since EDM is close to my home, it would be great if Cascades operated local VAC-SEA, express SEA-PDX, local PDX-EUG.

  19. Excellent post.

    So, what would an ideal north end express train look like? As a BEL resident, I’ll confess my bias that it shouldn’t hop past us between VAC and SEA. However, this isn’t only for my own selfish purposes. In addition to the 200,000 people in Whatcom County, there are over a million Canadians living south of the Fraser River.

    Spend 5 minutes at the BEL station, and you’ll see that many of the cars in the parking lot have BC plates. Parking is free on the street for 24 hours at BEL, and $6 a day for longer trips. Not only is the BEL station closer for many BC residents, if a car trip is needed to get to the station it is far cheaper to park in BEL than VAC.

    So, I suppose my ideal northern route would be VAC-BEL-SEA. There are already convenient BEL-MVW bus options on Skagit Transit and WTA. And EVR-SEA is covered by Sounder. And don’t get me started on Stanwood. Nobody boards there anyway.

    Have I made a convincing enough argument for BEL to be on a northern express? What would your ideal northern express train look like?

  20. It would be useful to add the number of trips by amtrak bus and now the Bolt bus to get a fuller picture of possible demand between these destinations since these riders would likely take the train if the service were comparable.

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