No, Not Really, But…
Most years, around Thanksgiving Amtrak operates extra trains between Portland and Seattle. As this is Amtrak’s busiest travel weekend, usually this means grabbing several extra Amfleet and Horizon cars from California, or other places that could make just as good use of those cars.
Is the service provided by these trains sufficient? There is no way to know right now, since having a constrained number of seats means Amtrak’s yield based ticket price structure forces the ticket prices into an unattractive price range before the trains truly sell out. All it tells us is that far fewer people are willing to pay $63 for a ticket that normally sells for $35, which we knew already and is basically the point of yield based ticket prices. Based on the significant road traffic problems seen up and down the Cascades corridor every year, I’m guessing the seating capacity could afford to be increased.
By brining in several leftover cars from California, train length is severely limited due to the limited availability of additional cars out of California, which has its own severe travel needs during Thanksgiving weekend.
Such single level cars are not particularly well suited for service along the Cascades corridor anyway. No stations anywhere along the entire corridor have high level platforms level with the floor on these cars, so that detraining means a steep, narrow staircase. It is a slow process even for the most able-bodied.
In the Northeast, it is not unusual at all for Amtrak to make use of existing commuter cars from local agencies. In one example, Maryland Area Rail Commuter Service (MARC) winds up with a fairly significant portion of its fleet in Amtrak service over Thanksgiving weekend. Some I have talked to say the proportion is somewhere close to half of the MARC fleet.
The Sounder cars aren’t intended for long distance service but the seating isn’t especially uncomfortable. SoundTransit purchased its cars with comfortable benches and tables, rather than the hard plastic seats certain other commuter agencies have ordered. Arguably, they are more comfortable than some of the Amfleet and Horizon cars that appear in the northwest during Thanksgiving weekend. Let’s not forget that Oregon’s two Talgo trains were actually designed for the 90 minute Chicago to Milwaukee trip, which is actually in the commuter railroad range and have comfort levels to match.
While not completely platform level, Sounder cars have somewhat lower floors than the Amfleet or Horizon stock and reasonably wide doors, which allow them to have somewhat better boarding and detraining at the typical Cascades platform. The upper level means that the cars maintain reasonable comfort while having considerable seating capacity per car.
Most Cascades platforms are not directly wheelchair accessible from the floor of these cars, but the cars were used on emergency Amtrak service between Seattle and Bellingham after the Skagit River Interstate 5 bridge collapse. Many of the Cascades stations already have backup wheelchair lifts at station platforms. Therefore, in reality wheelchair access doesn’t appear to be an issue and in fact due to the wider and multiple doors per car would probably be better with Sounder equipment than with the Amfleet or Horizon cars.
None of the Sounder cars are equipped for food service but there are ways of solving that problem. As the Sounder cars have end doors that are compatible with standard equipment, one possible solution would be to only move a couple of lounge/cafe cars to the northwest and have them serve on these trains. There are also privately owned passenger cars that are maintained to Amtrak standards for use in special tourist service at the end of Amtrak trains, and some of those cars are equipped with food service. They are a hodgepodge of car types and colors, but to be legal for connection to Amtrak trains they have to have passed a certain set of safety inspections to make them as safe as Amtrak equipment. If the train gets long enough, it would probably be a good idea to have one car equipped with food service capability at each end of the train, which also saves some platform space since dining cars really don’t need platform access during passenger boarding.
In theory there are some political obstacles because Federal Transit Administration funded equipment is normally excluded from use by Amtrak. Other areas of the country have managed to work this out. Witness, for example, MARC.
As of late September, already Thanksgiving weekend had all trains on November 25th from Portland to Seattle in the $63 range. A few $53 seats remained for Seattle to Portland on that day, but only on train 501. The 27th was somewhat better, but the 29th was back up in the $63 range for most trains. With almost two months to go, the trains for that weekend were already showing signs of needing a bump in capacity. As of this writing (October 14th), conditions have changed a little bit: for the 25th prices on train 504 were available at $35. Train 501 also had tickets available at $35, but all other trains that day from Seattle to Portland only have $63 tickets available.
These ticket price levels drive people away from using the train at a time when the potential for first time riders is extremely high.
These high ticket prices are basically influenced by insufficient seats to meet demand on certain travel days.
For the most part, the equipment to accomplish a short term capacity increase is already in the region.
While Sounder equipment is in use until the evening of November 25th, it isn’t needed for commuter service on Thanksgiving day. SoundTransit could probably get away with reduced length trains on the day after Thanksgiving. I’ve seen 14 car Coast Starlight trains with two privately owned cars on the rear, so coupling two standard 8 car Sounder trains together to quickly make up a 16 car train should be able to fit in the longer King Street Station platform, and Portland has handled 18 car trains in the not too distant past. Sure, all of the seats may not be sold, but once you are operating a train to Portland adding extra cars really doesn’t add too much to the operating costs. Food service cars may or may not be available, but if they are not at least make a note of it on the reservation system so that people know what they are not getting.
Such a train, departing Seattle for Portland on Wednesday evening just after train 509, would not only provide some badly needed capacity increases but would also allow for some gauging of the actual demand for tickets when capacity isn’t constrained by seating capacity and yield based pricing.
For the rest of the weekend, the train could be broken into smaller pieces and provide a Thanksgiving weekend service that is typically seen with the extra cars, only with considerable flexibility in the length of the various trains as the number of cars available wouldn’t be as limited. There is only so much that can be done with four Amfleet cars, but 16 Sounder bilevel cars is a different matter in terms of flexibility to create long and short trains as needed. Some of those could return to Seattle as needed to provide service on the day after Thanksgiving, with the rest returning to Seattle as continued weekend specials wind up their service.
Another possibility would be to use some of the Sounder North equipment for this service. By 5:30 pm the first two northbound trains have completed their runs. At one time those trains were operating as three car trains, but recently have been two car trains. Turning them back into three car trains for a single day, then converting some of the equipment into a southbound Everett to Portland train would leave some equipment in Everett for the day after Thanksgiving service.
Eventually, there should be a reckoning over the inefficiency forced on passenger train operations by requiring Federal Transit Agency funded equipment (paid for by federal tax money) to not be used for Amtrak service (paid for by federal money). This essentially requires that “commuter” equipment, once paid for, spend a huge portion of its time laying over between peak periods when it might be used for regional train services when not needed for peak periods. When a German friend looked at Sounder service hours, his first comment was “Why would you spend a hundred million dollars on equipment and then let it sit around for 80% of the week?”
In reality, it shouldn’t. It particularly shouldn’t when there is a significant demand for its use in regional services. The fact that such a waste is cast in concrete as a matter of federal requirements of Amtrak and commuter operators is a battle for another day.
In the meantime, we need to figure out how MARC and Amtrak back east are able to temporarily boost Amtrak service on Thanksgiving weekend despite this requirement.
Glenn Laubaugh (“Glenn in Portland”) is employed in Portland in the field of specialized electrical equipment for the railroad industry. Typical commute: TriMet #10.