Mt Bachelor Trainset – ODOT Photo
Mt Bachelor Trainset – ODOT Photo

Despite spending $42m on two new trainsets just two years ago, ODOT might be forced to suspend Cascades service south of Portland on July 1. In the post-PRIIA landscape – in which states must fully fund rail corridors of less than 750 miles – Oregon needs $28m in the 2015-2017 biennium to keep the trains rolling. With $17.6m already set aside from a hodgepodge of sources including unclaimed gas tax refunds and custom license plate fees, a gap of $10.4m remains. Former Governor Kitzhaber duly requested the full $10.4m, but the legislature thus far has only proposed $5m. If the $5.4m gap isn’t closed by July, the service will disappear.

When ODOT purchased its trainsets, it also prioritized intra-Oregon travel, changing the schedule to enable day trips from Portland to Eugene for the first time and reducing daily Seattle-Eugene trains from two to one. The expected demand never materialized, and ridership has fallen by 9.1% since 2013. While the other train’s ridership is mostly flat, the added morning train from Portland to Eugene has been a disaster, with just 8,800 riders in 2014, or 24 people per train.

ODOT’s recent performance report to the legislature paints a similarly grim picture, with runaway costs, poor on-time performance, worsening freight interference, and dropping ridership:

On the route’s performance:

The change required passenger trains heading in opposite directions to pass one another three times daily between Portland and Eugene. Although where these passings were anticipated to occur was designed into the new schedules, the actual location of each interface is determined daily by the host railroad’s dispatchers and any resulting delay is recorded as passenger train interference (PTI). The amount of PTI being incurred far exceeds that contemplated when establishing the new schedules and has been a contributor to host railroad delay.

Delayed passenger trains cost the service through loss of revenue (fewer passengers resulting from discouragement from unreliable timeliness) and increased costs due to overtime and other expenses. Oregon has seen a 9.1 percent drop in ridership since January 2014. A drop in ridership was anticipated initially because of the schedule change, with the ridership rebounding over the course of several months. This has not proven to be the case.

On rising costs:

Amtrak operating costs continue to increase annually from $745,384 for the first full year of service (1995) to around $8.2 million in 2014. Additionally, costs for Oregon increased over the past three years as a result of Amtrak’s implementation of a new accounting system that better isolates and identifies Cascades service costs. In addition, a recent change in methodology changed how Oregon and Washington divide ticket revenue and shifted more of it to Washington. While fair, this change increased ODOT’s out-of-pocket costs.

In addition, ODOT purchased two new Talgo passenger trainsets. From the beginning of service in 1994 until 2013, service in Oregon was provided using trains owned by Washington and Amtrak—meaning Washington was subsidizing Oregon. However, Washington will soon increase the number of daily trains between Portland and Seattle and will need its trains to serve this portion of the Corridor. In order to avoid having to cancel service in Oregon, ODOT used federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to purchase two new trainsets that went into service in 2013. Owning these trains – while allowing ODOT to continue passenger service in Oregon – also requires ODOT to pay an additional $2.4 million for annual train maintenance costs.

On exploring non-Amtrak operators:

ODOT and WSDOT have taken efforts to control the rising costs of the Amtrak Cascades service. Several of these efforts are outlined below.

ODOT and WSDOT, with assistance from the states’ consultant, Interfleet, are pioneering efforts to build a passenger rail operating model from the perspective of a start-up service. By developing modeling that incorporates cost averages drawn from other rail passenger services, the states will better position themselves to understand, validate and negotiate future agreements with Amtrak or other prospective providers. This modeling will include feedback, development and testing from Amtrak, other states and eventually the FRA.

$2.4m in annual maintenance costs ($6,600 a day for two trainsets!) is an enormous burden, and this cost alone eats up the first $18 of each intra-Oregon passenger’s fare. And with Amtrak no longer pitching in financially, ODOT and WSDOT are absolutely right to explore other operators, if for no other reason than to try to win concessions from Amtrak . On maintenance, labor, and operations costs, Oregon needs a better deal.

With extremely high costs of entry, high capital and labor costs, and a uniquely difficult regulatory burden, economies of scale are passenger rail’s only salvation. Spending the money necessary to grow and sustain a successful passenger rail service takes dedication and a bit of faith, but it’s the only way to make intercity rail pay off. Go big or go home. In the U.S. we have generally pursued the worst of all worlds, providing very low levels of very expensive service, incurring all of the sunk costs and reaping none of the economies of scale.

As dire as this all sounds, the answer is still more investment, not less. While there is no sugarcoating the recent performance of the Oregon trains, that is no reason to cancel them. Poor performance can be remedied, but the loss of institutional and bureaucratic memory that would accompany the elimination of rail service cannot.

So write your legislator and ask both for full funding and an overhaul of the service.  Fight for capital improvements that free the trains from the bottlenecks of Union Pacific. Revert to the old schedule to match peak-direction demand into Portland. Aggressively pursue efficiencies. Explore other operators. Integrate as much as possible with WSDOT to jointly share costs. Let’s get back to the success stories of 2011-era Cascades.

164 Replies to “Portland-Eugene Cascades Service May Disappear”

  1. The question is do they invest in extending WES to Salem (29 miles) or invest in more Cascades train sets and improve the average 44 mph speed? Currently there are 6 Coach Buses running daily in addition to the 3 Cascade/Amtrak to Eugene from Portland.
    If they were concerned with Eugene to Seattle and beyond then definitely upgrade Cascade line but WES is more important to Oregon:

    WES 27 mins Beaverton to Wilsonville 3 intermediate stops 14.6 miles 1800 boardings
    Cascades 21 mins Portland to Oregon City 0 stops 13.3 miles < 100 boardings

    Maybe they could use WES extension money for upgrading the Amtrak tracks south from Oregon City and run WES down these tracks to Salem (is this politically possible? I'm not sure who owns the two sets of tracks) and then add a couple additional Cascade train sets from Eugene to Portland. 44 mph is not going to cut it! Must increase this if they ever want more riders.

    There would be ample ridership if Cascades was faster and more frequent.
    Oregon city 37,000
    Springfield 60,000
    Eugene 160,000
    Salem 160,000
    Albany 52,000

    1. Using Amtrak’s site it for PDX-EUG, on 1 May there is a Saver fare of $20 for a 600am to 835am trip, 155 minutes.

      Google says the trip is 111 miles by car and takes 108 minutes.

      On Amtrak there is also a “Bus Thruway” option listed which takes only 10 minutes more than the train (same price).

      However, on the same day Bolt Bus does the trip, leaving at 7am, for only $13 and takes 140 minutes.

      So, other than a nicer ride, the expensive “high speed” train performs (on a good day) no better than a bus, or a car! Although the car would be the most expensive (gas + standard depreciation).

    2. For the record, you can’t randomly report the population figures of a few smaller cities and then pretend that has anything whatsoever to do with potential ridership.

      That’s not how ridership models work. Those people are not vacating their home cities multiple times per day.

      You have to show demonstrable travel needs and timings, access and trip competitiveness on a variety of metrics, and then you have to balance the appeal of more frequency against the inherent cap in demand between places both so small and so decentralized.

      For the record, there are suburbs in the Bay Area as populous as most of the places you list combined, and they can barely put a few hundred people onto the frequent commuter trains that run all day into the nearby megalopolis.

      1. I can and i did. Note the word potential. Not actual. You’re going to spew your usual idiotic logic so no point in arguing with you.

      2. A bunch of (relatively small) population numbers separated by (relatively great) distances has no bearing on “potential” ridership, either.

        For “potential” passengers, you would look at the actual trips that are actually made by actual human beings, today. Between I-5 vehicle counts, Cascades boardings, and bus passengers, we have such totals. And sadly, they’re simply too low to justify significant expansion of intracity transit service. (That said, I join the author of this post in believing twice-daily public PDX-Eugene service is worth trying to keep running, its usefulness improved through better trip scheduling.)

        Unfortunately, LES, you are part of an faction that advocates the precise opposite of best transportation practices every time it pipes up on this blog. Trains that go hundreds of miles without stopping anywhere useful. Poor connections for terrible results. This blog needs to be more emphatic in shaming and shutting up unhelpful voices like yours, not less.

      3. d.p.

        Don’t forget air traffic statistics in numbers for “potential” passengers. While air always wins (or at least that is the way to bet) in longer trips trains can take market share from airlines for shorter trips. This can be most seen on the NEC with Acela where airlines have cut back shuttle service because trains and buses have taken many of their passengers. To a lesser extent it has happened on SEA-PDX as well (a not insignificant number of regular passengers used to fly).

        That said. I agree the potential for the PDX-EUG corridor is fairly low.

        There might be some call for a Salem-Portland commuter train but I’m guessing express buses are probably cheaper.

      4. The traffic counts on the Eugene-Portland I-5 corridor are essentially the same as Seattle-Bellingham.

      5. That’s probably why more than 2 trains daily to Bellingham will also never make sense, and only an improvement in SEA-VAC run times significant enough to make that major-market trip-pair competitive would ever provide reason to expand northern Cascades service beyond current levels.

    3. That’s probably why more than 2 trains daily to Bellingham will also never make sense, and only an improvement in SEA-VAC run times significant enough to make that major-market trip-pair competitive would ever provide reason to expand northern Cascades service beyond current levels.

  2. I have an acquaintance who actually commutes from NW Portland to downtown Salem on Amtrak. Guess it has been a pretty spacious ride so far.

    1. And unlike Olympia, that’s actually a viable choice, with the station being just a few blocks from the State Capitol, and the train taking less time from Portland to Salem (67 minutes) than it takes on Sounder between Seattle to Lakewood (72 mins). With proper investment, I think it’s a totally reasonable bi-directional commuter rail/DMU corridor, especially if SE Portland/Brooklyn added a commuter rail/MAX Orange Line transfer station.

      1. That’s true — and her commute is even closer than that, to the college right across the street from the station — but that’s also the total luck of the historic mainline routing.

        Zooming in, I’m a bit shocked by how many grade crossings there are getting into downtown Salem. Every single block at one point. There’s simply nothing like that on Cascades in Washington.

      2. Hmm… true. I was picturing the fairly ample grade separations at arterials in Tacoma and Centralia and elsewhere, but forgot about Kent.

      3. Regarding Kent, yes I complained several years ago to the Mayor (then Jim White) and also the local railroad company offices about the potentially disastrous combination of increased rail traffic, with increasing pedestrian, bike and auto traffic.

        At that time, I was on a Metro bus which was slow getting across the tracks and the gate practically came down on the back end of the bus, as the train was approaching! And since then too there have been several deaths from people walking along the tracks.

        I recently read in STB that our current Mayor Suzette Cooke presented separate grading as an issue to the ST3 community hearing.

      4. The more I think about it, the more I realize my initial comparison was entirely flawed.

        I think I biased myself by picturing the significant sections of SEA-PDX or SEA-VAC with no noticeable crossings. That seems to be because BNSF and WSDOT have put concerted effort into eliminating rural crossings — major rural routes are grade separated, while minor rural roads have simply been cut off at the tracks.

        Conflicts are mostly nonexistent in the major cities as well, thanks more to geographic circumstance and inherited infrastructure than to recent effort. I can’t picture any conflicts coming into Portland, the Steilacoom ferry dock is the only one that comes to mind in Tacoma, and Seattle’s only notable ones are the much-bemoaned Lander crossing and the three at the end of Alaska Way.

        But next to the historic centers of the small cities, they seem to remain more or less common, with their frequency dependent on whether or not the early settlement grid crossed the tracks or remained confined to one side. Mt Vernon and Auburn therefore have just a couple, Puyallup and Centralia have a few more, and Kent looks like Salem.

        So Salem is nothing out of the ordinary for a smaller, yet fully gridded, place. My primary mistake was in assessing it as if it were a bigger city.

      5. Boston-DC though ridership is approaching zero, Glenn.

        Ever been on Acela? The furthest I’ve taken a single trip was Philly-Boston. It was not worth it. The trip simply takes too long.

        95% of the passengers on any given train pulling into NYC disembark there, and are replaced by a mutually exclusive load. Any remaining “through” passengers get off in Stamford.

        Boston-DC total run time would have to be cut in half to seriously compete in any way.

      6. Would be curious to see what percentage of Boston-DC (and any stations near the respective cities) total ridership is on the overnight train versus the day trains. Wonder if it would be a significant portion of that ridership (which would suggest viability of short pair night services–leave one city in the late night, get to the other in the early morning).

      7. The “overnight trains” you refer to leave both Boston and DC at about 9:30 pm, and end their respective runs at about 7 am.

        Since you can take a shuttle plane that leaves later at night, or even one that arrives earlier in the wee hours, and sleep in a bed in either city — and for hardly any more money than the BOS-DC Amtrak fare, which is actually quite high — this trip almost certainly has no more end-to-end ridership than any other NE Corridor trip.

      8. Total cost would depend on cost of shuttle plane + cost of hotel, which may be more or less. The ridership on that train would probably be helped by the addition of cheap sleepers (hell, the ridership of a fair number of LD trains would be helped, but that one in particular). However Amtrak for whatever reason (maybe it’s unviable, maybe they think it’s unviable but it isn’t, maybe getting the necessary funding would be impossible) doesn’t want to pursue that market.

        I for one would hate to get up so early for an early morning plane arrival into city of origin (being basically awake for time to ariport + time in airport + time in flight), so I’d much more happily ride that train if I was actually in either of the target markets (I live in the middle in NY, where it does make more sense to just take an early morning train rather than an early flight in just about all cases). Not sure why the train can’t leave Boston say a half hour later (it sits a while in I believe NY), unless it’s to capture some market along the way.

        To bring it to the actual topic at hand, I think if there’s any case for an additional PDX-VAN train it’s as an overnight shuttle, since the two cities are pretty much the correct distance apart for a late evening departure and morning arrival. Not sure what plane prices are in that corridor, but I imagine PDX-YVR costs more than a flight BOS-WAS, simply b/c it’s international.

        Of course the crux of such a service would have be cheaper sleepers, but as I said Amtrak isn’t really interested in providing them (possibly b/c it’s unviable)

      9. I used to live in the NE and had occasion to travel around New England.

        There’s a nice Amtrak that goes up to Vermont.

        However, the issue is, even though it’s dense…it’s also dispersed in two direction!

        There are many, many origination points, and many many destinations.

        Plus, unlike airports, the opportunities for parking in the downtown areas where the city stations are located are somewhat limited.

        Basically, you’d have to take hours to get to the station, and when you arrive, then what do you do if your destination is another hour away by car?

        So…you just take your car and drive the 3 hours on I-95 so that you can use your car when you get there.

      10. I’m hardly a morning person myself, Farro, but if you ever have the occasion to need to drop someone off / be dropped off at any major airport (or at any major NE Corridor hub station) at 5am, you will observe as you approach the terminal a dramatic convergence of business travelers who would rather sleep part of the night in their own beds than leave the night before or attempt to sleep en route.

        Meanwhile, most non-youthful leisure travelers with any say in the matter would much rather arrive somewhere the night before, and pay a little more for an extra night in hotel, than lose days to travel fatigue in order to travel 7 hours via a mode that doesn’t cost all that much less.

        There’s a reason cross-country redeye flights are considered bitter pills. For trips of 300-600 miles, such last resorts are easily avoided.

        And while offering the late-night/overnight options on the core, successful segments of the NE Corridor (NY-BOS and NY-DC) makes some sense as part of an extensive and modeshare-dominant service, it should be notable that those trains remain among the NE Corridor’s emptiest and have an entirely different demographic aboard than the packed-full trains of the early morning. And even that other demographic doesn’t want to ride the corridor end-to-end.

      11. That’s why I said such a service would be impossible without an overhaul in the type of carriages they offer, specifically they’d need open berth sleepers or something similar–cheap but very comfortable. Like the liedown beds they have in long-haul business flights (which are apparently quite comfortable) but much much more affordable for the average person. I think there could be a market for that (as opposed to either the seat service there is now or Amtrak’s ‘first class’ sleepers). And I think if there were a market for any additional PDX-VAN service, that would be the only service that could succeed.

        I do take redeyes when flying coast to coast fairly often since it allows me to arrive home at a convenient time and spend more time at my destination, but I’m also pretty young (when I go to the West Coast about half the time I use Amtrak and the other half I fly)

      12. And yes I’ve been on those trains late night trains (never the overnight though). Not deserted but definitely not as full as others. Though anecdotally I’ve seen the 9-ish PM regional out of Washington seems to be fuller than the 8-ish PM Acela out of NY

      13. There are entire tour companies in BC that are oriented around providing overnight bus “tours” to various shopping malls in the Willamette Valley. Quite a number of these start arrive at these malls in the morning, having traveled overnight from BC.

        So, I remain unconvinced that nobody would ride overnight train service between Vancouver BC and the Willamette Valley, as it could be made vastly more comfortable than overnight bus service. The people that will fly it will fly it. Those that don’t have a time consuming drive on their hands, and this could be eliminated by taking an overnight train.

        Overnight train services are actually popular in places where it is designed to fit the needs of the market fairly well. For example, London-Scotland services.

        I would also point out that this could be an ideal time to test such a service. The heritage fleet from back east (including a number of sleepers) is being retired soon, as the new CAF Viewliner II enter service. The cars are old, but have enough life left to be used for a few months in such an experiment as this. The opportunity for an entire fleet of surplus sleepers to be available all at the same time might not come around again for another 50 years.

        I really don’t see any other way of adding ridership to a southbound 6 am departure from Portland right now, if they insist on having such a train. The only way to add riders would be to add to the population it serves, and the only way to add population centers served by such a train is to start it further north.

        (I think train 503 was a political move. I’ve heard a lot of people from the central and south Willamette Valley say they wanted such a train in order to try to get more visitors. It might work for a Saturday or something but it’s not like Seattle and Portland where there is so many business ties that a daily weekday train really makes sense – not unless you can start the train further north earlier in the morning and increase the overall number of people that could use the service. So, unfortunately, the desire to do something that doesn’t actually make sense but is politically expedient may wind up killing the entire service.)

        What would be really nice is if somehow the state could remove itself from all the detailed planning, and just pay Amtrak a fee based on the number of riders. There are people at Amtrak that know how to build a successful corridor service. Allowing them a more free hand in the actual scheduling decisions might work well.

        If Amtrak were to make the actual schedule decisions, I’m pretty sure the 6 am departure from Portland would actually be headed north, and be reasonably popular.

      14. But those lie-flat beds on red-eyes and long-haul international flights are a super-premium offering, and are only justifiable even to those who splurge on them in light of the lack of viable alternatives for arriving where they need to be when they need to be there.

        There is simply no situation in which an Amtrak service could make a similar case: any trip of a distance that might demand a full night’s rest (i.e. further than SEA-PDX or NY-DC can be accomplished faster by flying, and probably cheaper than any hypothetical train-bunk situation you could concoct.

        You’ll note that even on the best of the European/Japanese/Chinese bullet trains, which significantly extend the distances for which one can reasonably choose ground travel, sleepers are nowhere to be found. Because even in places with such superior rail, if your travel time would be long enough to demand a bunk, you’re going to fly instead.

        FYI: One of the things that makes Cascades interesting is that it is effectively a discount service. Coach tickets are reliably 1/4 the price of Acela and less than 1/2 the price of the Northeast Regional, whether bought well in advance or at the last minute. Sometimes BoltBus is even cheaper, but other times they run neck-and-neck. Cascades Business Class can be as little as $9 extra.

        This in spite of the SEA-PDX segment’s rarified status as the only non-Acela segment to legitimately compete with the time it takes to drive. It is actually quite a high-value train!

        But there will never be sleeping berths on a line whose primary selling point is its low cost and relatively high value.

      15. [Last comment was directed at Farro. Glenn’s intervening post is so full of what sounds like foamer-forum conjecture as to not merit engagement. Overnight 325-mile shopping bus? Yeah, links please…]

      16. You’ll note that even on the best of the European/Japanese/Chinese bullet trains, which significantly extend the distances for which one can reasonably choose ground travel, sleepers are nowhere to be found. Because even in places with such superior rail, if your travel time would be long enough to demand a bunk, you’re going to fly instead.

        Sure, the high speed trains don’t have beds, but that isn’t the market served by the overnight trains. However, that doesn’t mean that overnight trains are completely gone from Europe.

        Advice from RailEurope web site on the various overnight trains in Europe:

        City night line alone offers a fair number of destinations on a number of routes centered in Germany, which certainly also has high speed trains:

      17. Yes, sleeper excursion trains are still a thing. A limited tourist-market thing, representing a small portion even of elective travel, but a thing nevertheless.

        Sleeper excursions are not, however, a thing on long-distance routes with such low demand that only 42 passengers ride the daytime equivalents.

      18. If you had more granular data, you would be able to see that 42 Van,BC-PDX passengers DAILY, is actually a pretty healthy number.

        You would have to understand the overall traffic patterns for the year, which the WSDOT dataset doesn’t give you.

        When confronted with the lack of definitive data, or an understanding of the source, everything else is just an opinion (pro or con).

        Speaking of which, my source tells me the overall PDX-Vancouver, BC counts for 2014 show it as 8.8% of the 513/516 ridership.

      19. How foamtastic for you, having such “sources”.

        Sorry, but there is no “granular data” that is going to make 21 long-distance riders in each direction a “healthy” statistic primed for expansion. Not when seven non-stop flights will leave tomorrow in each direction, and take barely an hour in the air.


      20. Ah, the Cargo Cult argument, complete with public funding. I get it.

        So, yours is the OPINION that tax dollars are spent expanding airports to support air service, (assuming the flights themselves are not a subsidized service).

        I think otherwise.

        So I encourage you to follow your desires, and NOT take the train!

        See, it works out for everyone.

        But you still don’t have any grasp on the data.

      21. Plus you can travel with other men of great wealth, where you get to pay the extra baggage fees on top of the higher ticket price.

      22. The only Cargo Cult around here is comprised of those who think “RAIL!” brings miraculous benefits even when and where it makes no sense for anyone to use.

      23. There are a number of problems with that 42 number.

        One of which is that ticket prices dramatically increase as the seats sell out. Someone going from Portland to BC is competing against ticket buyers on two segments, so that the with Amtrak’s ticket pricing methods you quickly wind up looking at very expensive tickets (unless you use AGR points).

        The ticket price structure would be a bit like charging people twice as much to ride Metro buses at peak period, then cheering because the crowds are gone and bus service can be reduced thanks to fewer passengers. I don’t think we really know the demand for much of the Cascades corridor, other than tickets stop being sold very easily when the price gets above about twice the standard price.

        The numbers in the city pair article are nice, but one of the problems with the Cascades service is that demand is highly variable with the day of the week. I’m guessing those 42 people are actually something along the lines of 70 or so on Friday through Monday. Making things more cost effective would mean adjusting the schedules to reflect the highly weekend centric ridership that currently exists.

        Another problem with those 42 passengers is that they shouldn’t exist at all. BoltBus is cheaper, and flying is quite a bit faster, especially with the intermediate Seattle station stop. People do stuff based on a complex decision making process and only some of their reasons may be obvious.

        Also: frequency really helps increase corridor ridership anywhere. I know there is no capacity for hourly service, but the fact is service once or twice a day means appealing to only a very limited number of passengers.

        So, as good as it is to take annual numbers and try to turn them into daily numbers and try to convert that into actual demand, I don’t think those numbers tell us enough to say how much demand really exists over the entire corridor.

      24. Cascades is priced so cheaply that even a full-priced through ticket nearing the last minute is still a relatively low-cost item. I don’t believe BoltBus offers significantly reduced through-tickets either, and a PDX-YVR flight is similarly far more than Alaska’s PDX-SEA shuttle. This isn’t about price. Price is not why so few ride that way.

        Your Metro comparison is laughable, because we’re talking about low double-digit numbers here. Lower numbers than even the very worst Metro express bus from nowhere that makes a single trip per weekday! Negligible ridership. It’s absurd that we are even spilling digital ink over a number so low.

        21 average each way is “foamer ridership”, plain and simple. The people who will make any trip by rail that is possible to make by rail, no matter how much time it wastes. Because for them, the journey itself is a big part of the vacation fun. And good for them for existing. But their numbers are tiny and not scalable.

        Remember, the Northeast Corridor runs your frequent 7-hour through trips already, and no one rides them that way. DC-Boston ridership isn’t even a blip. Through usage has precisely nothing to do with the success of the corridor.

        If even the most successful rail corridor in the country has insignificant numbers riding end-to-end, why in the hell would you expect a corridor with less populous and significantly less transit-oriented endpoints to do any better?


      25. Basement-foamer forums ≠ “sources”. Deal with it.

        But way to not answer the question. Again:

        All-day through-trains exist on the NE Corridor. Ridership past the 4-hour mark is paltry.

        Why can’t you face that this is the upper limit for which large numbers will choose trains, because invariably the benefits diminish in comparison to plane travel past that point?

      26. “Would be curious to see what percentage of Boston-DC (and any stations near the respective cities) total ridership is on the overnight train versus the day trains. ”

        There’s only one overnight train each way (#66 / #67) and it doesn’t have sleeper compartments. Basically, right now Amtrak isn’t even trying for that market. #66/67, the red-eye, is mostly run as a cleanup train for missed connections, and a baggage / parcels shuttle.

        Since the train is already running, on a leisurely 10 hour schedule from DC to Boston, many people have wanted Amtrak to restore the sleeping compartments; they would be incrementally profitable for Amtrak. They were removed due to an equipment shortage which should be alleviated shortly.

        You are NOT looking at a similar situation in the Pacific Northwest. Not even close.

        First analysis showing that you’re not looking at a similar situation: Population of Boston Metro Area: 4.7 million; population of DC Metro Area: 5.8 million; distance: 438 miles. Population of Portland OR Metro Area: 2.1 million. Population of Vancouver BC Metro Area: 2.4 million. Distance: 315 miles. Using the standard “gravity model” of ridership, you would expect the Boston-DC market to be 4 times as large as the Vancouver – Portland market. This seems to be true even of tiny submarkets like sleeping car ridership. Furthermore, Boston-DC could get people connecting from the south (Virginia) or even the north (Maine)… whereas there’s nothing comparable north of Vancouver BC or south of Portland.

        Second analysis showing that you’re not looking at the same sort of situation: driving time. Driving time from Boston to DC is supposed to be 7 hrs. 43 min. with no traffic (which is basically impossible), and it’s on toll roads, too, so a full day’s driving through bad traffic, with tolls. If you’re not a maniac driver, add at least an hour to stop for lunch. By contrast, the slowest train is 10 hours.

        Vancouver BC to Portland is 5 hours with no traffic (which is possible), and the roads are free. Compare to the 8 hour train trip, and it does not look good. If the train can’t compete with driving, it’s hardly worth looking at whether it can attract passengers away from the airplanes (which it can’t).

        (As far as I can tell, the “will not fly if I can possibly avoid it” market is at least 20% of the population, so it’s big. The “will not drive” market is smaller, maybe 5% or 10%, but still significant — but most of them will fly. The percentage who won’t ride an intercity bus is very large… but most of them will happily drive or fly. The intersection of the three, the “trains or nothing” market, is miniscule. This means that a train which beats driving & buses has a decent market even if flying is faster, but a train which doesn’t beat driving or buses needs to beat flying by a lot to have any market at all — this only happens with sky-high airline prices or total lack of air service.)

        Finally, it wouldn’t be worth running sleeper service from Boston to DC except that there is already a train with coaches running for red-eye passengers at intermediate points (such as New York, Philadelphia, etc). And there’s not enough demand to justify that sort of red-eye coach train between Vancouver and Seattle, because there’s no intermediate population to speak of.

      27. I’m not sure that comparing Boston to DC travel to what goes on in the Cascades corridor really works that well because the demand mix is so different.

        For Boston to DC the primary alternative would be to fly. You can get a round trip ticket tomorrow for about $173, and drops to $149 if you alter your travel plans a bit.

        For Eugene or Portland to Vancouver BC the primary alternatives are to fly (from Eugene this is $453 tomorrow, or $273 if you fly out of Portland), but a huge portion of the people that would make this trip would otherwise drive if they didn’t absolutely have to be there immediately.

        Air is not the primary competition on the Cascades corridor. BoltBus is not the primary competition. The primary competition is driving.

        What you need to do if aiming at the average driver is different than if you are aiming at an air passenger. One wants speed and isn’t so concerned about ticket price. The limited market for that in the Cascades corridor is already saturated by several airplanes, and speed wise you are never going to get there anyway.

        In fact, you can’t really compete with driving on a speed basis. However, you can get some ridership if you aim at allowing passengers to do something they can not do while driving. Otherwise, neither BoltBus nor Amtrak Cascades would have much ridership at all.

      28. But as Nathanael ably points out in his most thorough and reasonable analysis in a while, someone who chooses to drive the whole PDX-YVR corridor can choose to time their trip to avoid the worst traffic — which is absolutely possible — and get there in 5.5 hours or less.

        This is the fundamental conundrum of a long-distance non-bullet train (and a long-distance route is precisely what Cascades becomes beyond the heavy-lifting segments). You cannot offer the scheduling flexibility that allows shorter corridors to compete for spontaneous travel and traffic avoidance. And at the same time, any flaws in the individual segments compound for anyone who attempts to ride through, and will do so just as that person starts to get fidgety.

        “Leaving the driving to others” can be fantastically appealing for the first few hours. But at some tipping point, the 3 hours you’ll save by driving yourself starts to look more appealing than spending an entire day with your iPod).

        Furthermore, a significant portion of the driving-inclined market involves trips with one or both endpoints far from the respective center cities. At 3.5-hour distances, you can accept the tradeoff of having to get to transit to the station on one end and probably have friends or family collect you on the other. But at all-day distances? Fuck that — you just want to take the closest exit to where you’re going and get there as directly as possible.

        Nathanael’s wonkery concurs with everything I said before: even where demographic distribution should demand should lead to higher demand (Boston-DC), end-to-end corridor ridership is paltry. Stop pretending that the special-snowflake PNW can somehow do more with circumstances that amount to so much less.

      29. Speculation is so much fun when you don’t really have the data, isn’t it?

        Probably because of the parochial view of those who regularly comment on the SEATTE TRANSIT blog.

        I’m surprised no one has even stumble upon the reason.

      30. Nathanael is one of you guys, Jim.

        He lives in upstate New York, he spends a significant portion of his time roaming the internet and opining from afar about particular pieces of rail infrastructure, and although he is technically knowledgable, he’ll bend over backward to claim that the most arbitrary rail corridors should offer some sort of passenger service for the supposed latent demand that might magically appear.

        And even he thinks the idea of large numbers riding PDX-YVR is stupid.

        Anyway, we have the data. Cascades long-haul ridership is paltry, and will continue to be paltry.

        When are you going to grow up and visit the world beyond this dumb little parochial raingarden? Maybe when you’ve experienced places where large numbers use public transit for its intended function — for going places and for getting things done, rather than for sexual gratification — it will dawn on even you that 42 foamers don’t constitute “mass transportation”.

      31. Thanks again for your OPINION.

        I find it very inspiring.

        The only disappointing thing is those on this blog who think you have a handle on any facts.

        Time to do real work.

      32. I do not think this word you keep using means what you think it means.

        Funny how foamers feel entitled to their own demographic math, their own pet exceptions to universal transit practices, and their own endlessly moved goalposts for claiming “success”. And then they claim trains with 0.001% modeshare are saving the world.

        Facts are facts, Jim. I’m a [needless self-promotion]. You’re a [needless ad hom].

        Ever wondered why I’m not as hostile to everyone with whom I disagree as I am to you, Anandakos, Lazarus, or LES? It’s because all of you guys actually advocate mobility failures, and when pressed for any evidence to back up your gallingly poor understanding of real-world needs, you claim “special knowledge”.

        You don’t even have “opinions”. You have [ad hom]. Every time you [ad hom].

      33. Matt and I mostly get along fine, even in cases of disagreement.

        Because he is fundamentally rational too.

      34. He’s the one who dissemenated that there are only 42 daily ether-direction Portland-Vancouver trips in the first place!

        [Full circle…. complete.]

      35. d.p.:

        Have you ever actually talked to any people on a Cascades train, or even better the Coast Starlight?

        In the past 5 years of riding these trains, I have met all of three people that are railfans. The rest are just people trying to get from one place to another. Would you consider those taking Greyhound long distance to be bus foamers?

        Unfortunately, if what is reported below is true, then this idea won’t work anyway. My original idea was that there were some 40 or so heritage sleepers from back east that were going to be retired from Amtrak service as the Viewliner II order was completed. My thought was that using those in this service before they are retired for good would be an economical way of trying this as an experiment before actually obtaining permanent equipment.

        However, there are those that are much more familiar with the currently active Amtrak fleet back east than I am. According to the statements below, the Viewliner II order will only be used to supplement the existing sleeper fleet and no sleepers currently in operation will be retired.

        So, that means no temporarily almost retired stock available, rendering all of this moot anyway. Without a cost effective way of getting sleepers here to use in experimental service, there’s no way to try it for a few months and see how it performs.

      36. I have used Cascades dozens of times. Unsurprisingly, all but a couple of trips have been on the SEA-PDX segment, because that is the only segment for which it can be truly competitive. The segment is also delightfully light on conspicuously-foaming passengers… again, because it is actually useful enough to sell itself beyond a single, minuscule dedicated-interest market share.

        The less efficient and enjoyable SEA-VAC ride is still somewhat able to compete among the general public, if only because SeaTac airport is a pain, SEA-YVR flights are expensive for such a short distance, and crossing the border by either car or bus can be a super pain. Nevertheless, the foamer contingent has been more obvious on those (overall emptier) trains. Invariably, at least a car’s worth of passengers is chattering the lingo and the internet-speak, and snapping copious photos of minor supporting infrastructure.

        I have never taken Amtrak Long Distance, because — non-foamer tipoff! — I would generally prefer to explore my destinations than to revel in the slowest possible journey. On the rare occasions when a piece of an A.L.D. service might even have been an option (Palm Springs – L.A., New Orleans-Houston, and Chicago-central Iowa all come to mind as past needs), just a quick schedule search has proven that the trains are too damned slow and the timings too damned poor to be worth any further consideration. I simply neither could nor desired to take that long on those parts of the trek. Didn’t make sense for work. Didn’t make sense for play.

        I do, however, have a couple of close friends who have done Coast Starlight or even further, for the experience and edification. They have invariably summarized the experience as follows:

        1) It was quite pleasant and at times offered amazing scenery; moreover, there was a zen-meditation quality to the enforced 24-hour buffer between your daily routines at either end.

        2) The train was entirely (and without exception) populated with people who chose the mode because of its slow and anachronistic qualities, rather than in spite of it. This includes both the rabid youth foamers and the wandering retirees, who might be called “soft foamers”. Everyone was there because they were intentionally warming the cockles of their hearts with an irrational journey; not a soul was present because the trip made sense on the basis of money or time.*

        3) They were glad they did it once. They would never do it again.

        *(Those golden-years “soft foamers”, if their preferences differed only slightly, might just as well have been taking a cruise. Somehow, I don’t see anyone expecting the federal government to become involved in mass subsidies for cruising.)

      37. I’ve used the Coast Starlight in the Cascades corridor when the timing of the Cascades trains didn’t work or when they were sold out. Quite a few others seemed to be doing the same thing.

        There is also the “won’t fly” crowd. I know at least one person who takes trains to avoid the TSA “freedom grope”.

        Still as you say not exactly something the Feds should be subsidizing over more useful corridor services that get some real passenger traffic.

        Europe does have non-HSR train services, including overnight trains that seem to meet with some success without relying on the foamer/retiree crowd. Still the bread and butter there are trips under 5 hours with the 3 hour or less trips having most of the traffic.

      38. “He’s the one who dissemenated that there are only 42 daily ether-direction Portland-Vancouver trips in the first place!”

        He would be the one who would be able to understand that data, and why that number constitutes a reason for MORE INVESTMENT in the corridor. I know he has access.

        I’ve just gotten use to the extremely weak non-automotive-transportation support from commenters on this blog, claiming to be transit supporters.

        It actually inspires me, to tell you the truth.

      39. Matt and Zach accessed and published the data, respectively.

        Neither of them has gone to bat for chasing market share for long-distance PDX-VAC travel. Much less for adding more through trains.

        Make of that what you will.

      40. Yeah, commuter DMU’s with packed seating and no restaurant cars make a lot more sense for Portland to Eugene, with the fancy Talgo trainset we just bought be put in long-distance service, say from Eugene north to Seattle everyday.

        There really is no need for a restaurant car on a short 100 mile trip, IMO.

        Otherwise, the state of the railroad infrastructure in Oregon desperately needs attention. Thankfully, ODOT finally lhas put together a ‘passenger rail’ dept, much like WSDOT had more than a decade ago.

      41. Yeah, commuter DMU’s with packed seating and no restaurant cars make a lot more sense for Portland to Eugene, with the fancy Talgo trainset we just bought be put in long-distance service, say from Eugene north to Seattle everyday.

        Or from Portland to Spokane. That’s already a fast trip on Superliners. It could be awesome on a Talgo.

      42. Portland has a TON of street reailroad grade crossings throughout the central city that cross major arterials. SE 11th and 12th between Division and Powell, for instance. Service runs across NW Naito Parkway, just north of downtown and separates the waterfront from the Pearl District. There are gates, but people still get killed, and traffic sometimes gets held up for 10-15 minutes or more (my record was 45 minutes stuck in the CEID when a freight train just stopped). Its an issue, and will get worse as more redevelopment occurs along the railroad line.

      43. I don’t get all the hate on the Cascades bistro car. I’ve used it many times on short trips to and from Olympia before. The real crime is the “snack bar” on the superliner trains. I’ve gotten better food out of vending machines.

        For that matter some commuter lines have “bar cars” which I’m told are quite popular on the afternoon trips.

      44. @Zack Shaner

        “Or from Portland to Spokane. That’s already a fast trip on Superliners. It could be awesome on a Talgo.”

        Make sure it’s a daytime trip.(Morning over, evening back)

  3. Any public transit that shares tracks with freights, without MANDATORY priority with strong enough penalties to deter the Class 1’s from thumbing their corporate noses, is doomed to fail.
    If you trust the BNSF or UP to ‘do the right thing’ then you are naive. The only reason Sounder can operate with such high subsidies is because ST can absorb the body blows every time they want to add another train in the schedule at $50 million a pop and subsidize trips for political gain like N.Sounder.
    OR/WA Cascades face the same dilemma of suffering at the hands of dispatchers, pissed-off riders, and watching costs soar, instead of dropping in response to higher ridership and fare revenue.
    Our system of public ROW being owned by the highest bidder is nuts, and will forever stifle any intercity rail, or God forbid, joining the rest of the civilized world in providing high speed rail.

    1. Trusting BN or not, freight and passenger trains simply do not belong on the same track. Not only do schedules suffer for both services, but freights damage tracks in ways that ruin ride quality for passengers.

      And term “freight delays” just does not belong in any First World passenger railroading communication.

      Any figures anywhere as to what passenger-only track along any corridor- like Seattle-Portland-Eugene or even Seattle to Tacoma would cost? To me, this is a national defense expenditure comparable to the interstate highways.

      But have never seen even approximate cost figures. Any help here?



      1. Lots of the bits and pieces are in place, but yes, it will take a large effort to truly have a separate corridor between SEA-PDX as the first step. Here are a few ideas to separate the traffic – all come with some teeth gnashing from various stakeholders.
        Seattle to Tacoma – Add another mainline to the UP, and run BNSF and UP freights there.
        Sounder/DMU/Amtrak and HSR would share the BNSF (purchased ROW)
        Tacoma to Nisqually – nearly a done deal.
        Nisqually to Olympia – New tracks to serve our capitol city – perhaps parts of the old ROW and I-5
        Olympia – to Centralia – Abandoned ROW south of OLY, a few mile connector to Tacoma Eastern at Maytown storage track that runs west of I-5
        Centralia to Portland – is the expensive piece of the puzzle – I-5 is getting pretty crowed along the ROW, but tunneling a short distance under the Columbia River, and coming in on the Oregon side may be a possibility near Kelso. There are tracks along there and not a lot of crossings, but I don’t know if it’s still in use. That would bypass Vancouver, but that station doesn’t generate a huge ridership now. I’m open to creative solutions along there.

      2. Tunneling under the Columbia sounds quite risky and expensive…. Is there some reason a bridge will not work?

      3. mic,

        Vancouver actually does have quite a few origins and destinations, typically 30 to 50 per train or about one Cascades car. It’s the third largest station in Washington behind Seattle and Tacoma, bigger than Olympia by a pretty wide margin. Folks from North Portland even come over to board here.

        So far as the west side tracks, yes, they are in regular service to an industrial district a few miles west of Rainier, across from Longview. But there are quite a few grade crossings through St. Helens and Scappoose and close-by structures. Trains wouldn’t be running Cascades speed through there, that’s for sure.

        In fact, you don’t need a third track between Olympia and Longview Junction. The existing two main track system works just fine. Sure, it could have a few more cross-overs, but there are actually not an overwhelming number of freight trains north of Longview.

        All of the grain trains coming down the Gorge on both BNSF and UP terminate in Portland, Vancouver, Kalama or Longview as do some of the coal trains from BNSF. UP stacks and “freight all kinds” plus BNSF California trains and east-west freight all kinds avoiding the Cascade tunnel were pretty much it north of Longview until recently. Now of course there are both the Bakken Bomb Trains® and some export coal runs headed for Ferndale, but there’s a lot of push-back against them. The relatively low capacity of the line north of Everett, which winds below Chuckanut Drive for a dozen miles at 30 mph south of Bellingham, is a major capacity bottleneck. So the expected explosion (pun intended) in trains headed for Cherry Point may not materialize.

        There’s plenty of room for a third track between 50th Street in Vancouver where the multiple tracks of Vancouver Yard end and Longview Junction, with the caveat that the Lewis River bridge would have the be replaced. In fact, there are several places where a lengthy third track already exists along there. About three miles from the south end of the Port of Kalama north to the Kalama River bridge is already three-main track and there are a couple of miles of little used siding through Ridgefield.

        The two and a half miles in the middle of I-5 would require that the third track be raised to the level of the northbound freeway lanes as is the rest of the railroad, but I think there’s enough room to do it without a major retaining wall, at least for most of the distance. And the curve just north of there is at the base of a bluff so that might be expensive. But with the exception of the two river bridges and those to complications third main tracking would mostly be grading, compacting and adding another track.

        So the cost to add another track between VAN and KEL would be much less than a tunnel or bridge plus the cost of upgrading the Portland & Western trackage from north of St. Helens to Willamette Junction. And, as always, adding a track to an existing line produces greater capacity than adding a bi-directional single-track alternate route. It certainly wouldn’t be worth doing when you add in bypassing Vancouver.

      4. Thanks Anandakos for the thoughtful reply. I like your solution to VAN-KEL better than mine, which may satisfy the separate but equal clause of my riddle. Let transit run fast, and let freights plod along as usual. I drove the Portland-Western route a couple of years ago, and it seemed like pretty unused territory.
        What are the prospects for DMU’s between PDX and VAN in place of a Max extension?

      5. Actually, we had a test of that market when the cable spool on one of the towers of the old bridge developed a crack and the bridge was reduced to 2 and 1 traffic. In order to reduce the expected carmageddon WSDOT contracted with Amtrak for a free shuttle three RT’s in the AM and 3 in the PM as I recall between VAN and PDX. I rode it all week and had a blast, but I was lonely, lonely, lonely. There were maybe a dozen folks on the four car trains.

        It was a quick ride, to be sure. And fun for a train lover.

        The problem is that VAN is in the relative boondocks pretty far west of downtown Vancouver, with poor accessibility. Even if they ran out to Ridgefield or Camas, folks would have to go to the edge of the populated area of Clark County to get the train, then transfer at Union Station to go most anywhere their work is. The only possible useful service DMU service is to spiff up the Chelhatchie Prarie out as far as Brush Prairie and turn WEST at Willamette Junction, go over Cornelius Pass and connect with MAX somehow around 185th or Cornelius Pass Road. That would be MUCH faster than the existing drive and, probably, a big winner.

        The tracks used to go there but they’ve been removed, so it’s hard to do for a reasonable price.

      6. The good news is that if such an effort happened right now, you might still be able to preserve most of the right of way. Some of it has been turned into parking lots and sprawl style roads, but most of the basics of the line are still there.

      7. Not knowing the territory very well, I cruised downtown Vancouver with Google Maps. It’s pretty small (less than 1 sqr mi) bounded by the tracks on the west, I-5 on the East, and the Columbia R. on the South.
        IIRC Max was supposed to come in just west of I-5 to a downtown station with ‘great’ ridership, but an RDC to the west side of downtown was an abysmal failure during a road closure.
        What’s with that?

      8. If it is the passenger train service I am thinking of, this Portland – Vancouver service was run in the mid-1990s. Interstate 205 had a lot more spare capacity then. Also, the service being offered was only a single train making a few round trips, so the schedule wasn’t so great in terms of being compatible with a wide variety of work schedules.

        Also, the Vancouver station isn’t so easy to get to, especially at that time as if there was a freight train headed from the BN Columbia River line to the Seattle line. At that time there was one way to access the station if a train is going through there, and was fairly convoluted.

        It would be a bit like trying to respond to a problem with a bridge on the ship canal by operating Sounder North once a day between King Street Station and the parking lot at Ballard Locks with no 44 or 17 serving the lot: wrong place, wrong frequency and far too limited in scope and points served, and too little (ie none) connecting transit.

        If it were me, I would take a look at ridership statistics of a service starting in downtown Longview (not Kelso as the station is right on the main line and difficult to use as a terminal, but instead upgrade the old line that goes towards downtown Longview, maybe try to get Ace Auto Wrecking to move elsewhere), and stopping maybe in Kalama, Ridgefield, and maybe Woodland. I would also look at what would happen if you ran trains somewhat further east to a large park and ride lot where the Fort Vancouver Fred Meyer is now. Turn the surface lot into a parking structure and you have enough capacity there for a park and ride lot, and it can come right of highway 14 for express bus and driving access.

      9. Kalama? Kalama? Seriously!?

        I can usually tell that you’re not as out-to-lunch as Jim and his ilk, Glenn, but it is this sort of overreach that does no favors for a neutral observer’s impression of your acquaintance with reality.

  4. Is there any sense of how much of the passenger decline is due to BoltBus? I haven’t taken the train to Portland since BoltBus started operations because it takes the same amount of time (or less, oftentimes) and is far cheaper. Could we be seeing something like this in Oregon? I’d love for trains to be successful, but at some point they have to be able to offer a better service in order to compete.

    1. Bolt Bus already serves Eugene, and I’m sure it is a factor in the ridership drop.

  5. It’s somewhat ironic that the point of rail vs. buses is to move people at lower cost (due to greater economies of scale), while providing more reliable service (by bypassing traffic jams on freeways).

    Yet, in reality, we have a bloated system in which intercity trains cost more per passengers than buses, even when full, running on tracks that are more delay-prone than the parallel freeway, making service both slower and less reliable than a bus. The only saving grace for the train is comfort.

    1. And that comfort advantage of a train over a freeway bus like BoltBus is pretty limited.

      1. Depends on quality of bus, maintenance, driver, and freeway in question.

        Have said at least a dozen times on STB that overnight Sacramento-Eugene could, and should, have been a fine experience. Like Greyhound used to be fifty years ago.

        What’s service quality these days on BOLT? And any ideas whether any quality will be maintained after novelty has worn off?

        Also wonder, how much pressure Cascades are keeping off Bolt. Suppose the Cascades were suddenly canceled. Does BOLT have the capacity to carry even one train-load?



      2. I took that train to Eugene just a few hairs ago. Am now on a return train going north.

        If BoltBus were a factor, there shouldn’t be anyone one this train, but it is maybe 50% occupied. It’s not great but it’s Eugene!

        There were two people at the BoltBus stop when I went by, not that really indicates too much but it wasn’t the crowd you see in the international district sometimes.

        Someone needs to ask the rides, but in my experience there were always at least 70 or so people getting off the northbound train in Portland, and there were more that stayed on going to Seattle.

        Eugene just isn’t a place people go to for short day trips. It’s a place people depart from to do day trips elsewhere.

        The 6 am departure needs to be a train to Seattle. I have heard many complaints that there needs to be an earlier trip up there.

        Eugene is a nice little place and I can see day trips to get to UO games, but for normal travel patterns this schedule just doesn’t work. There’s nice stuff here to visit, but the current Train 503 schedule just doesn’t meet the need of most travelers.

      3. Bolt Buses hold 50 people, and a Cascades train holds 250. So Bolt’s daily capacity to Eugene is 300 (3 roundtrips), and Cascades’ is theoretically 1,000 (2 roundtrips). 6 full Bolt buses is barely over 1 full Cascades train.

      4. Headed through southeast Portland now. After the stop in Oregon City we’re maybe 3/4 of a train load.

        So, there is certainly a market for the service, just not as a 6 am departure from Portland to Eugene.

  6. Every mode of transportation runs slightly different speeds on different days. But nothing I’m seeing above explains why these trains are just about empty. Maybe as yet, there are simply not enough passengers yet to justify rail service.

    One good metric: how many buses have to turn away passengers- or add buses to the same departure? If only one bus per trip is full or less, potential ridership question answers itself. And same for overloads.

    I visit the Bay Area a couple of times a year. Favorite trip:

    Leave Seattle on earliest Talgo- 7:30 AM Arrive Portland 11:20 AM.

    Leave Portland on bus- 11:20 AM Arrive Eugene- 2:05 PM

    Late Lunch and leisurely walk around Eugene.

    Leave Eugene on Coast Starlight 5:03 PM Arrive Sacramento for early morning espresso. Leave Sacramento on Amtrak Capitol Corridor after last coffee. Convenient BART stop. Embarcadero.

    Return trip? Would do same modes in reverse if Coast Starlight didn’t move at rate of beer can being kicked slowly up the coast.

    Greyhound schedule overnight to Eugene would fit perfectly. Last experience, bus not fit for livestock, drivers not fit for Department of Corrections. Late morning Talgo to Portland- prefer over bus.

    Any rush or annoyance, just fly. Cheaper. Hate flying, which Hates Our Freedom. But Greyhound hates people, and Starlight barely second world, some conductors pre-Post Soviet.

    Fix? Keep and improve Cascades between Seattle and Eugene- especially if it’s administrative inconvenience, interstate quarrels, or anything else unrelated to machinery that’s killing ridership.

    Let Starlight passengers fly. Cheaper and not missing any railroading. And give Eugene-Sacrament via I-5 to Turkish bus company. For me, trip by ground travel is best travel experience. Would recommend for visitors. When finally fit for humans.

    Non-leisure? For ride taking same time as Seattle-Olympia, Alaska Airlines has more bathrooms than ST 592.


    1. The first time I went to a conference in Santa Clara, I saw that Amtrak has a Great America station within walking distance, so I went that way. That involved a 1-hour southbound transfer and 2-hour northbound transfer in Sacramento between the Coast Starlight and the Capitols. I didn’t have a nice espresso but I did get to see Jack London Square, although it was mostly closed in the evening.

      After a couple days at the convention center, I realized that San Jose Diridon station was an easy half-hour ride away on the light rail, so if I’d just stayed on the Coast Starlight to San Jose it would have been faster and cheaper. No transfer, no half-dozen Capitols stops, no second-train fare, and a higher-quality train. (The Capitols trains I rode were not spiffy like Sounder; they were an old design and looked like they’d left to decay.) So the following year I went straight through to San Jose.

      I would take a bus from Eugene if there were northwest high-speed rail to Eugene, but not in the current circumstance.

      1. Have ridden excellent Capitol Corridor equipment Sacramento to the Bay. But since I usually head for Downtown San Francisco, change to BART gives me speed and flexibility.

        For straight through trip, if you’re already on the Starlight, no reason to get off if you’re headed through to San Jose.

        I’d better be careful about getting too identifiable by espresso on pages NSA can read when cat videos are slack. That would mean if I ever have to go seriously underground- other than Seattle Subway, I’ll have to drink nothing but decaf Nescafe ’til we win the revolution.

        But on STB, beverage stands for an attitude toward travel. If I need seriously fast, coffee breaks just fine at airports, But with any choice, travel itself is for enjoyment, knowledge, and experience. Will take time for what’s worth time.

        On this point re: Seattle to Olympia. Time-wise, best is driving to Tacoma Dome parking garage, which gives me choice between Sounder, ST 574 to LINK, and ST 594.

        And also removes sweat about constricted evening IT service. But morning, travel time? An hour between Olympia and Tacoma is ridiculous, as are the two hours it takes ST 592 to get into Seattle even with no Tacoma stop.

        Coffee nice custom, but main point is slower but more bearable trip than one that’s supposed to be faster- but reality includes rush hour I-5 traffic entering Seattle.


      2. Mark,

        The Starlight stops at Emeryville. You can get BART right there; you don’t have to ride the AmBus.

      3. Oh wait, Jack London Square is in Oakland. So I transferred in Oakland, not Sacramento.

    2. How full is that 11:20 am bus usually?

      The thing of it is that the 4:00 pm departure to Portland and Seattle seems to be reasonably popular. If that is to be retained, then there needs to be another southbound train to Eugene at some point, if the 6 am departure turns into a northbound train instead. That seems like that 11:20 might stand a chance of being popular enough to be a train.

  7. “In addition, a recent change in methodology changed how Oregon and Washington divide ticket revenue and shifted more of it to Washington. While fair, this change increased ODOT’s out-of-pocket costs.”

    Does anyone have details on this change? If this change was fair from ODOT’s perspective, it would stand to reason that WSDOT was getting less than its fair share of revenue until recently.

  8. Once the schedule changes were made, the viability of the Eugene – Portland trains were doomed. They should have spent the money in rebuilding the Oregon Electric line or improvements to WES by going to Salem/Eugene instead.

    The bulk of the issues steams from Union Pacific and their lack of caring about Amtrak. They’ll happily stab Amtrak for some lowly freight train any day of the week. If the service disappears, it will NOT be back, other than in the form of the Coast Starlight.

      1. I think Mr. Bundridge should do something about that.. (okay, maybe there’s one little sticking point).

    1. The ex-Oregon Electric line would actually be a better station location in Albany, and there is land along it that is for sale which would be an ideal station location.

      You’d want to do something a bit different in Junction City than the current route, as well as the River Road route in Salem.

      Unfortunately, from Salem north there are a number of political objections to overcome. The OE line south of downtown Salem has a lot of wealthy new homes along it, and any change to train traffic is going to be a political mess. The OE line through Salem has had any viable station location obliterated by a six lane highway on one side (business loop of Highway 99E) and a very popular park on the other side. The location of the Boise Cascade mill could have worked, but it has been turned into condos. You might be able to get a spot in the park but that would not be easy to pull over.

      North of Salem, the UP line goes through Woodburn, and this could be a popular station location if it were ever opened again. It was a station stop on the Willamette Valley Express trains that served the route in the early 1980s, but it was never thought of as a location for the Cascades. The OE line has Wilsonville, which might be just as good but it’s a more recent and much more sprawl oriented community. Woodburn has sprawl, but the downtown core is still there and could be a good center for a train station. Wilsonville has no such structure that would really work as well.

      North of Wilsonville, there are places where it would be really politically difficult to get the train speed up to a decent pace. However, much more important is how to get the trains into Portland from there. The old Oregon Electric route from Multnomah Village is now Interstate 5, and the route the Southern Pacific red electric service used is now Barbur Blvd. Neither would really work too well. You could use the ex-Southern Pacific line that runs from Tualatin through Lake Oswego and Milwaukie, but then you are fighting a lot of really wealthy people that have built homes along the line. Also, you have to add track at Tualatin or southern Tigard to get trains from the Oregon Electric line to the Lake Oswego line.

      The Union Pacific line is difficult to work with, but it has the advantage of having had large numbers of freight trains on it for a long time. This means the people that live near it expect train traffic, and it is politically easier to get stuff done along it.

      I’m not saying it is a good situation, but I’m pretty sure we are stuck with the Union Pacific main line.

      1. Maybe it would be possible to switch from the UP line (on the north end) to the OE line (on the south end) — perhaps just north of Albany. Or perhaps north of Salem. This still leaves large expenses on the UP line near Portland, but it improves things on the south end.

  9. It is worth at least asking the question what alternative service between Portland and Eugene $42 million could buy. For instance, perhaps the existing trainsets could be used for commuter rail just between Portland and Salem (where traffic on the freeway may actually be bad enough during rush hour to give rail a real time advantage), plus a sprinkling of buses running Portland->Salem->Eugene, with a couple trips running Portland->Eugene nonstop.

  10. People don’t take Amtrak because it doesn’t make sense in a lot of cases. In a world where most people (exclusive of those fortunate enough to have the money to live in Seattle or Portland) need a car to do daily activities like getting groceries or going to work, the cost of depreciation of a car does not factor into the cost of going from, say, Seattle to Portland. The only factors are time and immediate money spent, that is, train fare, bus fare, or gasoline. When we were making 3 and 4 trips per week to Portland from the Tacoma area to visit the CCU at a hospital where a family member was being treated, we looked into using Amtrak. It cost exactly the same as gas to fill up the car for one passenger and double if we both decided to go. Add onto that, it took longer to get there, and the departure and arrival times didn’t fit into our work schedules combined with hospital visiting hours. And, there is added fare, added time to figure out Portland’s transit system, and added time sitting on a bus or light rail to get to the hospital from wherever the train lets you off. So, we drove, multiple times per week, often on little sleep, from Tacoma to Portland. Besides the frustration and sleepiness while driving, why would we be willing to pay double to do a trip that takes an extra hour at a time that isn’t convenient and requires us to burn even more vacation/sick time, and potentially miss a valuable meeting with one of the doctors who are difficult to come by?

    I had the same issue when I was temporarily commuting to a work assignment in Vancouver, WA. The train did not depart or arrive at convenient hours, although my company paid for whatever means I chose to take. My personal time – particularly time at home with family – is valuable, so I wasn’t willing to waste it taking a bus down between the Amtrak station and the Vancouver office, nor sitting at an Amtrak station waiting for a train to depart long after I’m ready to go.

    I personally would like to take the Amtrak to Portland or Vancouver, BC, someday, for no other reason than the novelty of it. Novelty isn’t going to make it viable though. We need to invest in consistent, frequent, reliable high-speed rail for it to make sense for people to use. Unfortunately, a place as sparsely populated as the Pacific Northwest probably does not have the critical mass of population to make it economically viable, unlike, say, the Rust Belt, California, or the Northeast Corridor. We have three population centers – PDX, SEA, & YVR – that’s it.

    1. Germany has small towns with trains coming a few times a day, and many express trains bypassing them, and cities as small as 300,000 with streetcars that go underground in the city center and surface elsewhere. The Netherlands has electric trains (effectively commuter trains) throughout the entire country. So the problem is not population but political will. Europe doesn’t have is huge empty spaces like Spokane to Minneapolis, but it has regions comparable to the Cascades area. Even Eastern Washington wouldn’t be much of a stretch to add since all the major towns are already along railroads. The cost would be comparable to a freeway, or less where existing tracks just need minor upgrades. If only we hadn’t poured so much money into I-5 and I-90 and 405 and 520 and the airports, we could have had more basic roads and a comprehensive, modern, 90 mph rail network.

      1. The problem, as the commenter points out, is the lack of time-competitive connectivity for most people at most points of origin and most destinations.

        You’re right, it isn’t about population. It’s about density. Which makes the German examples just as irrelevant. And to the extent that it is also about political will, that will needs to be about making the local transit work as well as it can with the density we have, and about optimizing the regional service to be time-competitive on the trips for which it has a shot in hell of being time-competitive.

        That means scheduling Eugene-Portland and Portland-Seattle and Seattle-Vancouver trips when they’re most likely to work for the most people — especially on that middle trip, where the demand can support the kind of frequency that gives travelers options.

        It may means giving up the ghost on through-routes, especially when they deprecate the schedules of the main city pairs. No significant population is going to train from Albany to Kelso, from Centralia to Mount Vernon, or from Portland to Canada. So don’t mess up your other services by pretending they will.

      2. Ah, yes…. the old “Nobody Rides the Train from Portland to Vancouver, BC” argument.

        I’m still waiting to see the data to back that up.

        Maybe the Portland to Salem/Eugene segment has the same problem they discovered when Washington state tried to run an extra N/S train to Bellingham and back during the I-5 Bridge collapse – Nobody wants to go there for a day trip.

      3. Matt Johnson got the data on the PDX area to VAC.

        It was 40 people maximum per day. Combined. 20 coming, 20 going.

        Those are “irrational foamer”-level numbers, i.e. fundamentally not scalable for real transportation needs.

        Heck, it’s even lower than the number of irrational foamers taking 6x too long to go somewhere on Amtrak Long Distance.

      4. Jim,

        I posted that data here. There are indeed very very few people through riding between any of the “segments” (VAC-SEA, SEA-PDX, and PDX-EUG).

        Through-Segment Daily Ridership Highlights:
        Vancouver BC-Portland: 42
        Bellingham-Portland: 24
        Everett-Portland: 13
        Seattle-Salem: 21
        Seattle-Eugene: 24
        Tacoma-Salem: 6
        Tacoma-Eugene: 4

        Compare this to any of the anchor cities: Seattle-Portland (588), Vancouver BC-Seattle (264), or Tacoma-Portland (147).

      5. You don’t really understand the data, do you?

        It’s still 30% of the 513/516 ridership that take the full trip.

        You’d understand the numbers better if you knew the right people.

      6. If you know that the data WSDOT gave me is wrong, that’s postworthy and I’d like to know about it. Email with details. Otherwise, please tell me the source for your 30% number with references if possible. Which data points am I not understanding, and how?

        The 2013 report shows that Trains 513+516 had a combined annual ridership of 226,900, or 619 per day. The data WSDOT gave me shows that 42 of these were Vancouver BC-Portland through riders, or 6.7% of the total for those trains.

      7. Trains 513 and 516 are currently the only thru trains between Portland and Vancouver BC.

        That chart compares every boarding in the system. That’s not what the discussion is about.

        The Portland-Seattle segment is the most productive because Washington State (primarily) has invested in it.

        How many of you were even around when the Cascades service began?

        How do you think it got to where it is now?

        Bloggers nitpicking minutiae on the Internet? My bus is better your train? My Fast Bus is better than your Slow Bus? My house is better than your house?

      8. The chart compares boardings by city pairs only, not systemwide, but sure you have to know how many trains operate between each city pair to make a fair comparison. 42 people are riding the two daily trains between VAC-PDX, or roughly 21 people on Train 513 and Train 516. 264 people are riding SEA-VAC (or 66 per train on 510/513/516/517). That’s still a factor of 3 on a per train basis.

        But did you read the post? Despite the poor performance of Oregon trains I argued for more funding, not less. Relax.

      9. Oh, and let’s clarify some things.

        The statements I’ve made are that ~30% of the people BOARDING and DETRAINING in Vancouver, BC on trains 513 and 516 are making the trip to and from the Portland/Vancouver area.

        That does translate to just over 7% of all boarding for those trains.

        Maybe that’s the difference. I don’t think that’s an insignificant amount.

        I think it’s worthy of even more investment, such as making the trains 500 and 509 a full corridor service.

      10. Yes Zach, I read your post, and I agree with you. We’re definitely on the same page.

        I was too slow typing so my reply to d.p. came after yours.

      11. The problem with Portland-BC trains is there is only one of them each way. If you take any of the other combinations you change in Seattle and don’t show up on the numbers.

        I think it might be worth considering making it an overnight route. You have to spend the night somewhere anyway when you travel that far. If you are sleeping on the train you don’t care how many times you stop for freight, so long as you get to your destination on time.

      12. Given that PDX-VAC is (and will for the forseeable future remain) a practically all-day affair, the current 42 riders represent the absolute cap on the number of people who will be willing to choose this option.

        Add another through train, and there will still be 42 riders between them. But you’ll probably lose more riders than that elsewhere, because you will have to make the schedule worse for other riders in order to keep your precious 7.5-hour train within waking hours.

        That 7% figure, as impressive as Jim wants to believe it is, is destined to shrink as well. Make the Vancouver trackage fast enough to appeal to more Seattle riders, and your 7% will decline. Add more SEA-VAC trains to give passengers on this dominant trip pair more scheduling flexibility, thus raising the northern segment to the prominence of SEA-PDX, and your 7% will decline even more. (Your own numbers suggest that 70% of today’s ridership on the through trains is entirely south of Seattle anyway.)

        3-hour intercity ridership can scale, immensely. SEA-PDX has amply proven as much. The 87% modeshare enjoyed by Amtrak on all NY-DC travel proves that besting all other travel options in your corridor can reap incredible rewards.

        But your 42-foamer number cannot and will not go any higher.

        If 42 people and 7% of a single train trip impresses you, then you are too deep in your own foam to ever be rescued.

      13. I have to agree, the YVR-SEA, SEA-PDX, and PDX-EUG segments should be scheduled to maximize the convenience (and hence ridership) of the people in those segments.

        You aren’t going to see a lot of people willing to take more than about a 3 hour train trip for anything other than an excursion.

        It’s true there are some riders willing to travel further but the service should not be designed around them.

        Increasing frequency on each segment is likely a better idea and one that makes transfers at PDX and SEA less of a burden for those few through riders.

        Now for operational reasons it can make sense to run through-trains but that is for operational convenience and not because there is some huge unmet demand for riding the entire corridor.

      14. No. It represents an absolute ceiling on the number of people the current timetable appeals to.

        I’ve only met about two Portlanders who have made the trip to Vancouver, BC on the train. I’ve met dozens of others who hate the concept of arriving that late at night into Vancouver or leaving there that early in the morning.

        If you made Boston to DC into a single train, it would have terrible ridership too. At some point the lack of frequency is an obstacle to ridership.

      15. I do think there is room for a PDX-BC overnight service, but not in the way that Amtrak runs overnight service (too expensive in sleepers). Basically any reasonable expansion of non-long distance night service would need to be in the model of night trains in Germany or the UK, which would require a systemwide expansion to make the investments in new cars, etc worth it. (The only other city pair in the Northwest that could reasonably work for such a service would be Seattle-Spokane maybe).

        I had a conversation with a conductor on the night SEA-PDX train (which used to continue to Eugene) and he said that part of the reason for the schedule change was that the 9:30 departure to Eugene had abysmal ridership. I’m not sure how this bodes for service to Eugene at all, given that the new schedule is even worse.

      16. “You’re right, it isn’t about population. It’s about density. ”

        Which is why, to jump the conversation all the way across the country, the situation in Ohio and Indiana is so irritating. The density is there, all that is missing is the political will.

        Portland-Eugene always seemed a bit sketchy to me, just barely viable. I mean, someone printed the population numbers along that route earlier in the thread… and seriously? I can design a dozen routes with better population numbers in the spaces between Chicago and New York. Here in upstate NY, Susequehanna Valley route through Binghamton, Elmira, Corning, etc. is a better route in terms of populations and travel patterns, and we haven’t had train service along that route since the 1950s. There are four or five route expansions higher proiority than that one just within driving distance of me. So Portland-Eugene is on pretty shaky ground.

        Portland-Eugene would need very careful scheduling to be viable, and it seems that the scheduling was poorly thought out. A big schedule reversion might be advisable.

      17. Boston-DC though ridership is effectively zero, Glenn.

        Ever been on Acela? The furthest I’ve taken a single trip was Philly-Boston. It was not worth it. The trip simply takes too long.

        95% of the passengers on any given train pulling into NYC disembark there, and are replaced by a mutually exclusive load. Any remaining “through” passengers get off in Stamford.

        Boston-DC total run time would have to be cut in half to seriously compete in any way.

        Similarly, your PDX friends who “want” to ride all the way to Canada, but who “hate” the thought of losing so much of their day to the trip, were objecting to the uncompetitive speed for such a long distance, and not to the schedule, whether they knew it or not.

      18. (That the Northeast Corridor has however many dozens of through trains daily, and functionally zero through ridership, also fully supports the point that Chris was making.)

      19. Glenn,

        There aren’t any Talgo sleepers, at least here in North America. That means you’d have to have two trainsets which would sit still half of each twenty four hour period. Well, probably more than half, since it doesn’t take twelve hours to go from Seattle to Vancouver BC.

      20. The day trains sit idle most of the night, which is when they are serviced.

        I wouldn’t go through the expense of buying a separate fleet until the service has proven itself worthwhile.

        Amtrak will soon be retiring a bunch of sleepers in the east as the new Viewliner II cars are put into service. I would shift those out west and do a trail overnight service to see if it works. If it doesn’t work then no huge investment in new stock was made as the cars are headed for retirement from Amtrak anyway. If it does prove workable then it is time to decide what to purchase.

        You wouldn’t need Talgo cars for this. One reason you can’t add any more Talgo equipment is that BNSF has run out of space to put more passenger trains. If you run a train at freight speeds then it requires less effective track space. That’s also one of the reasons to run this as an overnight train: for a while at least, speeds will have to be slow if any additional trains are added between Portland and Seattle. If people sleep through it all, they won’t realize how much they have stopped in random locations to wait for freight traffic.

        Sleepers in the local fleet might also prove useful for such things as game day specials and the like. Going to Eugene for a UW-UofO game? Have a tailgaters special going down and a sleeping it off special coming back north.

      21. Aren’t people who manage to lull themselves asleep to the percussive sounds and undulations of a train famously disturbed when those sounds and motions cease for any period of time?

        You’re making a pretty long-shot case here, Glenn, for a trip that has next-to-zero demonstrated demand for downtown-to-downtown ground-speed travel at any hour.

      22. Glenn: factual correction. Amtrak will not be retiring ANY sleeper cars. The new Viewliner II sleepers are for expansion of service; all the existing Viewliner sleepers will remain in service. The demand for sleeper service between the NEC and Florida, the NEC and Chicago, and the NEC and Atlanta remains very high, so the number of sleeper cars is being increased by 50%.

        Amtrak is retiring its old *dining* cars and *baggage* cars, replacing them with Viewliner II dining cars and baggage cars. However, those old Heritage cars are completely clapped out, predating Amtrak, and nobody should use them for any sort of daily service.

      23. d.p. wrote: “Heck, it’s even lower than the number of irrational foamers taking 6x too long to go somewhere on Amtrak Long Distance.”

        I can explain this….

        Suppose, for a moment, that you really don’t like flying. (I have heard this from practically everyone on Amtrak Long Distance. I did some research and aversion to flying seems to be present among a nice solid 20% of the population.)

        So you compare the train trip to driving. Driving long distance, if you aren’t a maniac, you need:
        (1) driver change / stretching stops
        (2) meal stops
        (3) hotels
        Because trains keep moving while you eat or sleep, this means that the time comparison, and the price comparison, starts benefiting the trains more over longer trips. And not in a continuous manner, either.

        There’s a jump from “one day drive” to “two day drive with hotel stop” (the exact threshold depends on the insanity of the drivers, but it’s somewhere in the 8-16 hour driving range) which suddenly increases the effective length of the car trip by 9 or 10 hours. An overnight train — with sleepers — which is running at the same speed as driving — can suddenly be faster if it hits this trip time window.

        There’s a similar, but smaller, jump increasing total driving trip time when driving starts requiring driving across lunch — basically any drive over 5 hours. And another when it requires driving across two meals.

        So-called “long-distance” trains can attract a lot of traffic for trips which are just over these thresholds. The speed of the trains remains important. This is why Chicago-Denver remains an attractive train route.

        You simply aren’t hitting these thresholds, which I’d call “too long for an easy drive” thresholds, in the Pacific Northwest. Portland-Vancouver BC can actually be done without stopping for food.

    2. Do we have to keep reminding people (specially “Engineers”) that unless you stole the car you drove between Tacoma and Portland it costs MUCH more to drive than the cost of gas?

      A car with 4 people in it is cheaper than the train. A car with 2 people in it is 50% more expensive to drive than taking the train. If you doubt me drive the same route every day and after 5 years add up the total cost and divide it by the number of trips. There’s a reason why there’s quite a few business people on the train. Any accountant knows how much it really costs to drive.

      1. It depends on the cost of your vehicle and how fully depreciated it is. The marginal cost of adding mileage on your vehicle for a vehicle the median age of a car (10 years) is not that much. Depreciation is negligible and added maintenance factors in when your driving exceeds the duration-based intervals, so if your cars needs oil every 6 months or 7,500 miles, any mileage less than 7,500 miles in that six month period is essentially free.

      2. AAA, and most company/government reimbursement schemes, pay $.50+/mile.

        If you’re defending the driving option based on the incremental costs (AAA puts that around $.15/mile), then don’t apply for an accountant’s job.

        Of course, this statement:
        “Depreciation is negligible and added maintenance factors in when your driving exceeds the duration-based intervals, so if your cars needs oil every 6 months or 7,500 miles, any mileage less than 7,500 miles in that six month period is essentially free.”
        tells me you don’t work any where near the automotive industry either.

      3. Or maybe he just owns a car in the real world, and has experienced the wide fluctuations in marginal driving costs depending on a host of factors that rough AAA reimbursement figures aren’t intended to address, being shorthand-able averages.

      4. I’m sure he appreciates your support.

        Driving is always cheaper for those who choose to ignore the real $ costs by rationalizing major parts of it as ‘essentially free’.

        The auto industry counts on that.

      5. Believe it or not, I agree with you on your macro-policy-level mass-subsidy point.

        But the externalities that the auto industry counts on offloading onto society at large have nothing to do with the marginal cost to an individual in the context of an individual trip.

        When an individual chooses to drive for a trip because that particular trip is both easier and cheaper in a car, he or she is acting rationally, and it won’t matter to them if you think ill of them.

        Changing how the world functions will involve major shifts in energy policy and in how infrastructural priorities are assessed and ranked. It isn’t as simple as declaring rail “good” and crossing your fingers that if you build it, “they” will come.

      6. “When an individual chooses to drive for a trip because that particular trip is both easier and cheaper in a car..”

        They aren’t making the decision based on the numbers, they’re making the decision emotionally.

        Forget the externalities, that’s for granola-crunchers to worry about. Owning and maintaining an automobile is expensive, regardless of how you want to rationalize the costs.

        I’m sure you’ve figured that out from owning your car.

        I have no ill will, but I wouldn’t be hiring these people if they were accountants.

      7. I don’t own a car.

        And the decision of most to use an available sunk-cost automobile, for trips that said automobile will make far easier and marginally cheaper, is a rational one.

        You’re the one whose decision-making (“trains, no matter how slow or inconvenient”) is emotional.

        I should probably own a car. That I don’t is irrational too, although the existence of car2go and the availability of friends with cars has bettered the rationality metrics. Especially compared to pretending that entire lives in the pastoral and low-density PNW can be conducted without them.

      8. “I don’t own a car.”

        THAT’S IT!!!

        Now I know why you are the expert in this facet of transportation, too!

        However, buying that car would definitely be an emotional decision in your case.

      9. You can’t even figure out which direction you’re gurgling anymore.

        But it is pretty hilarious to be the rare Seattle resident pulling off an honest urbanist lifestyle — in one of the vanishingly few locations with pre-automobile density and no legal nearby place to store a private car — and then to get lectured by idiots about how the real solution to ending auto-supremacy requires Magic Trains To Orting.

        You love trains so much that you’re inadvertently anti-city and anti-transit.

  11. I think this article is almost exactly wrong. I am generally a transit maximalist, believing that we should spend more to provide higher quality transit; I buy “tipping point” arguments, that poor services get low ridership and so suffer service cuts and resulting lower ridership whereas quality services have the same cycle in the opposite direction; and I’m even a train lover, defending the first hill streetcar, despite realizing the silliness of that.

    But I think this is nuts. Exactly what advantage does a train have over a bus along this corridor? It’s not faster. It’s not more reliable. It’s not cheaper. Moreover, it doesn’t have the potential to be any of those things, not without massive, massive spending. There isn’t a lot of traffic on the freeway to bypass, so to be competitive, the train would have to travel over 65-70 mph, preferably about 90, to be better than a bus. That is impossibly far away right now, and those dollars could bring intercity bus transit to more rural areas, or subways to urban areas, or education or any number of government services that provide more value to more people.

    But the other thing, the most important thing, is that the existence of thresholds and positive feedback cycles changes how we should spend money.

    If we want to provide the maximum benefit to the maximum number of people, we should focus on getting individual routes/systems over that threshold and into to realm of virtuous rather than vicious cycles. We should cut the worst performing bus routes and spend the service hours where busses can serve more people more effectively; those routes will become cheaper to run, because fares will cover more of the cost, and then we can spend the savings trying to get other routes across the threshold where they start to get cheaper to run.

    The thing is, we have zero intercity rail in the PNW that is close to the threshold, because we have zero intercity rail (by which I mean, further apart cities than served by commuter rail) that is actually compelling. The most feasible section is clearly Seattle to Portland, because of the demand and relatively high amount of freeway delays between the two cities. I’ve taken the train multiple times along that route, but never do anymore; I can take a Bolt bus for ONE THIRD the cost, and get to my destination an hour earlier. That is an enormous gap.

    If we want to make the case for intercity rail, we need to focus our money and energy on getting at least one route where it is a compelling option, so the public doesn’t think it’s a waste. The side effect will be that ticket revenues can start to pay for a greater portion of the costs, and then we can give the same treatment to other routes.

    Dollars are not infinite, and the good provided per dollar here just doesn’t make sense. It is far, far, to far from making sense to argue that more spending will get it there; instead, we should cut the route and spend it making a busier route truly viable.

    1. WSDOT’s long-term plan has a series of rail improvements that will bring Seattle – Portland down to 3 hours or less, which is comparable with driving. It has been working on it gradually. So that’s one corridor with real potential. WSDOT has also been considering a separate set of passenger tracks from Seattle to Portland, although it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere with the current legislature.

      I don’t know if the Portland – Eugene segment in particular is worthwhile, but if you substitute buses for trains on the same schedule, it has long-term effects that aren’t immediately visible. It reinforces the priority of the road, which makes it harder to consider alternatives later, and it eliminates incremental upgrades which could themselves to a better train network later. So the question of the Portland – Eugene segment depends partly on whether Oregon is willing to do incremental upgrades over the years as Washington is doing. If it doesn’t, the accumulative benefit won’t happen, and in two decades the quality of service may be worse than now because of wear and tear.

      The other thing about running buses on the same road as cars, it’s making everything depend on a single road, or putting all your eggs in one basket. That breaks whenever there’s an accident, or when a truck pulls down a bridge support. (I was at the Skagit County Tulip Festival last weekend, and the recent bridge closure is still a significant issue the locals talk about.)

      1. I went to the tulip festival myself a couple weeks ago, but I didn’t take the train. Instead, I took the midday Amtrak bus north and the Skagit Transit 90X, followed by the 512 back south.

        Besides being way cheaper than Amtrak, the 90X offered better schedule flexibility than Amtrak, with a bus every hour during the late afternoon/early evening. Even though I got stuck in Everett for 25 minutes on the way back, waiting for a late #512, I was able to make the time back and then some by getting off the bus at 45th St., without needing to go all the way through downtown twice in stop-and-go traffic.

        In fact, my main reason for not taking the 90X both directions is that the last bus leaves Everett at 8:35, leaving the Amtrak bus as the only midday service to Mt. Vernon. The weather forecast was questionable, and I didn’t want to commit to being at Mt. Vernon for 8 hours if it was going to be solid rain.

      2. Yeah, I hear you. It sounds like the dollar value of incremental improvements is probably less than the dollar value of maintenance for the vehicles, though, so as long as nobody is tearing up the tracks, I’d say it’s wiser to go with buses. Plus I think the emergency bypass argument is a whole lot stronger for light rail than for Amtrak. Amtrak doesn’t have the capacity and problems are rare enough on rural freeways.

    2. We already have the “positive feedback cycle” in place.


      There is always a dedicated stream of revenue for ‘improvements’, and moving local funds to supplement those improvements is never questioned.

      Plus the results are immediate.

      1. Absolutely, I agree. I’m arguing that rather than try to wage war on all highways, everywhere, at the same time, we acknowledge that we have limited resources (be it money or political capital) and target our efforts. We should focus on things that 1) we can win, and 2) make a big difference. It is precisely because we work so hard to have some (terrible) service everywhere that we don’t have good service almost anywhere. It is because we don’t have good service that the public isn’t interested in spending real money on rail, with which we could maybe make service to Eugene good.

      2. I don’t have unlimited resources to keep spending on highways.

        I’m not looking for a war on cars, I’m looking for transparency.

        Have the highway projects go through the same public process, the same hand-wringing, the same voter convincing that rail projects do.

      3. The highway spending cycle is dying in parts of the country. NY is a good example. We really cannot afford to maintain all what we’ve got, let alone expand them; there’s too much already and usage is dropping. Upstate, the usage is too low, and dropping; downstate, the cost of maintenance and expansion is astronomical and rising. The highway bubble is ending.

        We’ll still maintain the rural roads as “essential services” but I expect serious cutbacks in the expressways.

      4. Not out west. Seattle is just now (institutionally) starting to embrace that.

        How the surrounding neighborhoods and cities will grow is the question.

        If you follow the logic of “No rail line before its time”, you won’t build any long term transit infrastructure until you satisfy the perceived traffic thresholds.

        2 lane arterials become 4 lanes (3 & 5 if you count the center turn lanes)
        4 lane arterials become 6 lanes (7 or 8), with the addition of BAT lanes.

        Freeways will build out to the limit of their existing state-owned ROW, which can be 10-12 lanes depending on location, with associated sound walls.

        Seattle and its environs are intent on creating North LA.

        Dan Ryan, and others who believe the higher cost Freeway BRT option (when compared to a rail use of the Eastside Rail Corridor, with the same ridership numbers) are happy with that scenario for I-405.

        Others who think 7 lane arterials, Hwy 99 with its BAT lanes for example, are the answer, are merely recreating LA ‘Santa Monica’ style boulevards up here.

        I think that makes this area look like shit, but then again, I’m just a foamer, right?

  12. What’s the official on-time performance of the Cascades and what direction is it going? I regularly travel between Portland or Kelso, and Seattle. It’s getting slower and slower. Most recent example: I arrived Wednesday at the Kelso station at 12:30 to get the northbound to Seattle (1:05). The 9:30 train was still there with a BNSF locomotive hitched to the front the the Amtrak locomotive. Disabled train. It was just about ready to pull out and I asked if I could board. I couldn’t without a change of ticket (Huh. Given Cascade’s record they should be more customer-friendly. But OK, no problem, the 1:05 was on-time. Then about 12:50 it was 2 minutes late. By 1:05 it was 16 minutes late. By 1:21 it was 15 minutes late. It finally pulled in at 1:46.

    Meanwhile, at 1:16 a BNSF coal train went through. I’d love to hear BNSF tell me with a straight face that their train’s appearance and the delay of the Cascades is a coincidence. It’s happened too many times. When the Cascades pulls to a stop between stations and the conductor comes on the PA to say we’re stopping for freight traffic….well nuf said.

    1. Yep, oil trains and coal trains are filling the track. When I looked at the Seattle-Portland schedule just now, the travel time is 3:50 compared to the 3:30 it used to be. If Washington really wants a lot of coal trains and oil trains, it should go hand in hand with building separate passenger tracks.

      1. The added running time is to accommodate track improvements that will get the train down to ~3:10 in 2017. It doesn’t have anything to do with coal/oil trains.

      2. That means the incremental improvements I mentioned earlier are further along than I thought. Hooray! I look forward to taking a trip to Portland in 2017. And lucky me, I do have an event to attend there then.

      3. Well, in a sense, added freight traffic is an issue that will be mitigated with the Pt. Defiance bypass project. Then there will be capacity to add the 2 extra round trips between Portland and Seattle.

      4. I wish the Point Defiance Bypass would solve everything.

        There’s a fair amount of traffic going to Aberdeen now, and I see trains waiting to get into that line quite a lot. Lots of those are auto trains that come down the Columbia River gorge, but there’s other stuff too that goes through that port.

        The UP is a huge offender. Their line at North Portland Junction can only take a train at 10 mph. Between the time it takes for a freight train to arrive off the BNSF main line, get the attention of the UP dispatcher, and then be approved to move into UP territory, they can keep the main line plugged for half an hour. It would be good for everyone involved if they could be convinced to run more southbound -> eastbound trains from the BNSF main line towards Port of Portland terminal 6, around the north Portland loop, and then into the UP Barnes Yard from the west and sort themselves out from there. They’d put another 5 miles or so on their trains, but it would be cheaper to move the trains where they need to go faster than let them sit on the main line.

        They’re doing work at Kalama too. That’s a big choke point due to the 7,000 foot grain trains that have insufficient siding space to handle them.

        They are making good progress on the loop track that gets east-west traffic to/from the Port of Vancouver (WA) on a new line going under the north-south main line.

    2. Kalama’s getting a third track to take the grain trains off the main. I don’t know of anything being done about UP interaction at Portland.

  13. WES and Cascades are two different markets. Cascades runs every day throughout the day. WES runs peak hours only. So if you travel middays or weekends, WES is useless and replacing Cascades with WES would be a major degradation of service. But if an extended WES moved toward all-day service, the situation might be different.

    1. With the University of Oregon being the core of Eugene, it also means that they have a stronger weekend travel pattern than weekdays. So, it could be a good mix.

      However, the WES cars are unsuitable for longer distance services as there are no restrooms on them. They would have to put a coach designed for longer distances between two of the WES cars.

  14. Large and long-view perspective annoying but necessary for action. Local decisions, meaning city, county, and State, are absolutely necessary.

    A country this big- after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia is same caliber- debatable whether China is really a country-cannot be governed from one place. Especially if it’s Washington DC right now, but as technology and communication modernized, there’s a limit to what brute force can hold together. As there’s a limit to what smaller units can do without larger non-brute coordination.

    USA’s main strategic advantage is 300 million of us all believing without thinking about it that we’re all in the same country, and also habitually from ‘way back, cooperating with the law and doing our own jobs without supervision. To hold this place together day by day, We the People are doing just fine.

    But worst thing about current political climate is the deliberately wide-spread idea that the Federal Government is either naturally tyrannical or useless, or both. Prevailing ideology is depriving us of what its actual use is: a powerful tool for accomplishing goals and projects that cross local lines.

    As natural divisions, regions can handle what cities, counties, and States can’t. But exactly like our Interstate Highways, a place this big requires a railroad system, freight and passenger, that needs National authority at the top of it.


  15. I took the Seattle to Portland segment a couple of years ago, and there are many, many, many fixes that can be made to improve the quality of this trip. That, in turn, would improve ridership. Some that I observed:
    (a) Improve speed along on the slowest segments (Vancouver, WA area was notoriously slow, despite being grade-separated; single track segment near Longview resulted in the train waiting for a freight train to go by, which side-tracked us from arriving on time…use of a speedometer app was very informative);
    (b) Get from intermittent to steady wi-fi;
    (c) Add friendly, welcoming customer announcements when one boards – on our train, some of those came after Tacoma(!), while there never was a promotion of their bistro car offerings-it was just mentioned that there was one when we boarded in Seattle, and there was no printed information, e.g. a map and a list of some of their offering$;
    (d) Add printed/verbal information as to where one can connect to other transit at one’s destination (e.g., in Portland, we were just dumped there, to descend down stairs without assistance and liability issues galore both there and as one navigated amongst tracks and other trains, following the hoard to their terminal, then having to figure out where the transit was (dark and insufficient signage);
    (e) Improve the interior experience at stations (Seattle’s was under construction, but the part that was open looked drab and turn of the last century);
    (f) Lighten their train interiors, change curtains from those that one has to pull back and hold to be able to look out; and
    (g) It wouldn’t hurt to announce some landmarks along the way (e.g., Discovery Park, Tacoma Narrows Bridge, Chambers Bay Golf Course…yes, I’m going to dislike it a lot from a scenery standpoint when they route it along S. Tacoma Way).

    1. My comments:

      A. I’ve never had a wait for a freight around Longview, mostly those happen further north near the tunnel in Tacoma or somewhere in the Kent Valley. I don’t think there is a single track segment near Longview unless it was due to track work. The slowness around Vancouver should be addressed by the projects WSDOT has underway.

      B. The problem is the mobile phone network is spotty in the areas Wi-Fi doesn’t work. As the train is essentially one big mobile hotspot there isn’t much to be done other than to get the carrier providing data service to fill in some of the holes.

      E. I think King Street is pretty decent after the remodel-restoration. Portland has a nice station too. The Tacoma station should improve vastly after the new one at freight house square is done.

      G. I have mixed feelings on this. A lot of times I just want to read or relax, having someone constantly yammer on the PA would get old really fast. I can see how this would be good for tourists, but there are plenty of locals and regulars on the train who want quiet.

      1. B. Might be solved when they get full PTC style signals. They require a data stream to the train anyway, and at least when they installed it on WES it meant they used that signal as part of providing WiFi. Interstate 5 is where the cell phone market is, and so that is where most of the cell phone tower capacity is. It worked really nicely (except, of course, in the Point Defiance tunnel) the first few months they had it, but now there are so many people using it they really need to increase the bandwidth.

        D. The Cascades trains are run with a fairly lean staff. There is a constant pressure to (and you can read some of the comments in response to previous articles here on this blog that urge them to) reduce the amount of staff required to operate the trains. That means not having one person at each door. They desperately need to have increased platform height at Portland. Almost all the other Cascades stations have somewhat raised platforms for easier boarding (Eugene I think is the only other station with low platforms). Anyone with complaints about the platform height I would ask to please write to the editor of the Oregonian. Maybe if enough pressure is put on the Portland Development Commission they might put some of the rent Amtrak pays for the station into some actual improvements of the facility.

  16. Could they elimate one round trip keep a trip on the rails with five million dollars? But I thonk ODOT should consider increasing bus service on the corridor unit funding is restored for passenger rail.

    But I think state of Oregon should call for an emergency referedum to bring funding to the require amount. Why doesn’t state of Oregon call for an emergency referdum to see if ODOT could start collecting more taxes to keep the train in service?

  17. The real problem with the current schedule south of Portland is that the same mistake is being made that was made with the Willamette Valley trains of 1980-81. Oregon has taken two of its four schedules and turned them into commuter trains between PDX and Salem – down on 503, return on 508. When you factor in 507’s evening run to EUG, and 500’s early morning return, It is the same pattern as the old Willamette Valley service. The 503/508 schedule pattern was proven to be a failure over three decades ago. It is selling a service that very few want to buy.

    1. Of course, we wouldn’t have had the level of entertainment if this had happened sooner.

      I especially like the quote:”There is no story here,” by Oregon State Senator Johnson.

      1. At least the legislator is clear that he only wants to see it function as a commuter rail for those with State business and coming from the Portland area.

        More than 24 people will use it if bumped an hour or 90 minutes later, which is fine by me, but that hardly implies a scalable service with multi-directional importance or any great need for future expansions.

      2. An hour and a half later or so might work better.

        Right now, for Portland – Salem service commute hour departures from Portland, there is Greyhound as well as a joint commuter express bus jointly operated by Cherriots (Salem transit service) and SMART (Wilsonville transit). Then, there’s the Thruway buses which add quite a bit of service as well. So long as you don’t need an on-board toilet you can get from downtown Portland to downtown Salem on SMART’s route 9x and 1x for $6 during the peak commute hours.

        Connections between the two are quite a bit more bleak a little later in the morning, and that is the service gap you might be able to put something into. I’m not sure it would be enough to fill a train though.

        When I got on train 508 last week in Eugene, probably half the passengers got on the cars dedicated to serving passengers north of Portland. Therefore, making train 503 a southbound out of Seattle around 5:30 or something and making it continue south of Portland around 9 am (too late in the day for the alternatives) might work. I’ve heard consistent complaints about the existing train schedule simply starting too late in the day for those wanting to travel between Portland and Seattle for a business day. Turning the existing 503 train set into a northbound train and instead making 503 a southbound train starting in Seattle at 5:30 am and continuing through Portland mid-morning might meet the needs of the corridor better since there are already other alternatives during the morning commute hours.

        There are certainly passengers on the current 503 train. There were about 12 that got on in Oregon City, and maybe 10 that got on in Portland. However, that quantity can be done with a Thruway bus.

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