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No, Not Really, But…

Thanksgiving Weekend extra service Amtrak train
Typical northwest Amtrak service on Thanksgiving weekend might mean Amfleet Cars along Puget Sound, as seen on this four car train near DuPont Wharf on November 24, 2012. Photo by Glenn Laubaugh (“Glenn in Portland”).

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.

21 Replies to “A Plea for Sounder Service to Portland”

  1. By October 3rd, the Rocky Mountaineer train operating out of Vancouver BC to Calgary, Jasper and other points has also wrapped up its service. While its equipment would be good for long distance riding, it is doubtful it would be available for use in Amtrak service as there is typically heavy maintenance performed over the winter shutdown.

    Also, while some of the cars would probably be usable by Amtrak, some of the others have issues that would prevent Amtrak from being able to use them. It would be a process to inspect the cars to make sure they are suitable for regular service on this side of the border.

    Thus, while the nearby presence of those cars is very tempting to suggest, the fact is that particular car fleet is probably out of reach for the temporary Thanksgiving capacity boost right now.

  2. Glenn;

    This sounds like a good idea but five questions buddy…

    a) Will the density support the operating cost?

    b) Will this mean better connections to the state capitol to/from Seattle? Good grief if only more transit advocates could, you know, lobby for transit in person?

    c) Will there be customer support for a lower quality of creature comforts for this? You and I might support this, but others?

    d) Can we at least get a pop & water & candy and coffee vending machines, a sandwich vending machine, and all cars with WiFi please?

    e) How will you handle more than just carry-on baggage?

    If the answers are yes to all or most of the above… Heck yeah, I’d trade Sounder North to get this! Damn I’d love to visit Olympia. Damn I’m starting to plan a 1Q or 2Q trip to Portland and I sure would like more frequent rail service.

    1. For now, it’s basically just a way to get a boost in capacity during the occasional extraordinary demand period. Thanksgiving weekend is Amtrak’s highest demand period.

      The fact that ticket prices for certain days are nearly double the standard ticket price tells me there is far more demand than is currently being met.

      1. Back in 2004 I made the mistake of going to see my then girlfriend in Salem over Thanksgiving. At that time the southbound evening Amtrak service was a bus.

        The bus took nearly an hour just to climb the Interstate 5 hill going south out of Portland. You’d have thought a city wide fire alarm had gone off.

        Not sitting in that mess would be worth a lot to some people. At least some of the Sounder cars have wifi and there are restrooms.

  3. If extra capacity is needed between Seattle and Portland for the Thanksgiving holiday, there are 2 extra Talgo trainsets in the system that could be used for extra runs. Usually the extras are operated with cars from California, but there should be enough extra trainsets available to handle the holiday extras without importing cars from CA. So far, however, I don’t see any extra runs available on the schedule. Maybe when the existing trains fill up, a few extra runs will be added.

    The fact that there are only $63 tickets available for Thanksgiving holiday travel means that the lower priced tickets have sold out. And that’s a good thing. I don’t know what the break-even point is for a Seattle to Portland trip, but adding extra trains and selling the tickets for $26 when the market will pay $63 doesn’t seem like a smart way to build and sustain service.

    I’ve been wondering if WSDOT/ODOT could profitably add a few extra trains regularly on the weekends. Friday and Sunday afternoon trains seem to sell well and with the extra trainset(s) available, could extra runs be added at those peak times? I know BNSF would need to be involved, but it sure looks like there is plenty of demand for seats at those peak times.

    1. The problem is those two “extra” trains wind up in places that they aren’t needed as much (eg: Eugene). By ticket price the biggest demand seems to be leaving Seattle in the evening. There’s already some Sounder equipment on hand there.

    2. Oh, yeah, and in terms of breaking even or making a profit:

      Last time I read the annual reports, a Seattle to Portland trip cost about $6,000. One of the things about railroads is that it costs a lot less to add cars to an existing train. A 16 car Sounder train would cost a bit more in fuel and probably staffing over a Talgo, but probably not add to it a huge amount, depending on what SoundTransit would charge to use the equipment.

      Sounder equipment would not have to be moved here from California by deadheading it in the Coast Starlight, so for a short term boost this is one way to do it.

      Thus, financially, you may wind up better off with a long train with cheaper tickets than a short train with more expensive tickets. 100 people x 10 cars x $36 (standard ticket price) = $36,000. Assuming everyone pays the highest ticket price of $63 (and they don’t because you have to sell the cheaper tickets first) on a 250 seat Talgo only gets you $15,750.

      Railroads really are a business of volume, no matter if it is freight or passengers. Sometimes you are better off with lower prices and more demand.

      1. On a longer train there are some other costs to consider. At what point does a 2nd locomotive have to be added? Also, ST has minimal on-board staffing; how many additional crew members would be needed for Amtrak-type service?

        Sounder trains would also be slower and less comfortable than the Cascades’ Talgos. How much would people be willing to pay for a less comfortable and slower trip to Portland? On a commuter trip of 60 minutes that costs $5 the Sounder equipment is fine, but extending the trip to 4 hours and charging $36 seems to be pushing the limits of the demand curve.

      2. Adding a second locomotive can actually make things more economical.

        You will notice that freight railroads very seldom run with the minimum number of locomotives required on their trains.

        This is because there are situations where adding a locomotive can actually reduce costs. Certainly, for the four Amfleet cars shown in the photo, the locomotive is more than enough.

        However, when trains start to get longer, a second locomotive makes economic sense at a point that isn’t that obvious, because the fuel consumption hits a more economical part of the horsepower curve at something a bit less than full horsepower. You wind up putting a bit less strain on each engine with two locomotives operating at less than full horsepower. So, the freight railroads (who are after all in this for the money) assign a bit more locomotives than what is really necessary, and besides that way if one fails then they aren’t terribly impacted by losing one.

        In terms of staffing, I see no reason to staff the trains with anyone other than the crews that have been operating the normal Thanksgiving extra trains. This isn’t the Coast Starlight we are talking about, where every seat has to be counted and carefully taken care of due to the tight number of passengers to seats available, and things pretty much require a single attendant per car. The Cascades trains have been working just fine with a no car attendants and a conductor and a couple of assistants at most, plus a bistro server. That’s probably about what they assign to the extra service Thanksgiving weekend trains that use MARC commuter equipment.

        Yes, the Sounder equipment would have to operate at standard passenger train speeds. However, so do the normal Thanksgiving weekend trains operated with Horizon and Amfleet cars. So, you should be able to take a four car Amfleet plus locomotive Thanksgiving train and plop in its place in the timetable something using Sounder equipment.

        If I remember previous timetables correctly, the Thanksgiving trains aren’t terribly fast anyway. To a point, the slower the train, the better it matches the freight train speeds and the more slots open up in the BNSF freight traffic that is already there.

    3. “adding extra trains and selling the tickets for $26 when the market will pay $63 doesn’t seem like a smart way to build and sustain service.”

      If Metro can fill buses with $10 fares, does that mean fares should be $10? The purpose of transit is to move the population at prices they can afford, not to charge a first-class price like it’s a visit to the Space Needle. If Amtrak is full, and presumably Bolt Bus and Greyhound are full at the same time, then people will have to drive or stay home, and that’s what we’re trying to minimize. $63 fares is the natural result of a shortage of supply. If water goes to $10 a bottle, you don’t tell people to drink less water, you try to increase the supply.

      1. A $26 ticket doesn’t cover the cost of the service provided. The shortfall is covered by a limited amount of money generated through taxes and fees (the state’s subsidy). I’m pretty confident that a $63 ticket does cover the cost of the service provided and that ticket doesn’t require any depletion of the subsidy account. So the net result is that if Amtrak lets willing customers pay $63 for a ticket at peak times, there will be more state money available to subsidize $26 tickets at other times.

      2. A $2.50 Metro fare doesn’t cover the full cost of service provided either, and neither do the ferries or driving on the road. The point of the subsidy is so that everybody can get around, not just the well off. Letting Amtrak fares rise to $63 means that people who want to travel can’t at all, whether because of price or because there’s no space. Obviously Amtrak can’t put on a hundred extra cars for one week a year, but we should look at what Cascades’ ideal capacity should be to serve most people, rather than just assuming the current capacity is the ideal capacity.

      3. Currently, it is only the peak-of-peak trains that only offer $63 tickets. There are plenty of $26 and $35 tickets available for Thanksgiving week travelers who have flexible schedules.

      4. When they are added, these Thanksgiving weekend trains are already having their expenses paid for by someone.

        What makes the most sense? To use Sounder equipment that is already here, or instead cart a bunch of Amfleet and Horizon cars from California to Seattle that are far less compatible with our station platform height, use them for a four day weekend, and then cart them back?

        This Amfleet and Horizon equipment, by the way, could be just as easily put to good use in California if it stayed where it is normally assigned.

        This Amfleet and Horizon equipment, by the way, winds up restricting what can be done here over that weekend because there isn’t that much of it to be spared.

        Would you pay for running an extra train with four Amfleet / Horizon cars as shown in the photo (which you are paying for already using some method or other), or if the ticket sales show sufficient demand would you rather see a slight increase in operating cost pay for twice or three times the number of people moved?

      5. The problem with the $63 tickets is that people quite clearly are not willing to pay for them in significant numbers.

        That means the rest of the trains wind up with a shortage of passengers because one particular day (Wednesday before Thanksgiving) has a severe shortage of seats, and thus people can’t purchase the round trip tickets to increase the ridership on those other days.

        You wind up driving down overall corridor income due to limited capacity on one day.

      6. But the Sounder equipment wouldn’t be available on Wednesday, so that’s not a solution for the problem. (There still are $35 coach seats and $54 business seats available on Wednesday’s first train.)

      7. The Sounder equipment is not used after the evening rush.

        Sounder maintenance is performed in Seattle, which means that for the trains to overnight at Lakewood and Everett there is extra equipment at Seattle undergoing the regular maintenance cycle, and swapped out during the day when the trains are in Seattle during the day.

  4. I endorse the spirit of this idea, but what I really want is to bump up the mandate of Sound Transit’s heavy real program and turn it into Washington State Intra-City Rail. (WSICR).

    WSICR would have a mandate to create regular rail service between all the cities of Washington State along existing N-S and E-W corridors.

    Initially this would be really long Sounder runs and then working with Amtrak to resuscitate a line linking Tacoma-Yakima-TriCities-Spokane.

    Long Term the vision should be MSR or HSR….like with the LA-Vegas system we should work with Japan or China to get the tech built for us.

    1. I’m not sure how much help the eastern part of the state will be.

      There is a regional organization that is involved with the Cascades coorrider. They are in the process of deciding what standards to have for any additional stations.

      Maybe the group needs to be more than an advisory group?

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