WSDOT Photo – Flickr

Next year is a big year for Amtrak Cascades. The 2009-era stimulus projects will complete, Seattle and Portland will get two additional trips, and those trips will be faster and much more reliable. Since it’d been a while since we’d done an update on heavy rail projects, last month I sat down with Janet Matkin (Rail Communications Manager), David Smelser (Cascades HSR Program Manager), and Jason Biggs (Rail Operations Project Manager) to discuss the next year and a half for the Cascades program. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

What is the Rail Division working on for Amtrak Cascades over the next 6-12 months?

On the capital side, our federal program had 20 different projects in it. 12 are complete and 8 are still in construction. The Point Defiance Bypass is obviously one of them, and other well known ones are Freighthouse Square, all the track and signal improvements, and the Tacoma Trestle project that’s being administered by Sound Transit. There are 3 projects in Kelso that are all under construction with BNSF. Those 3 projects involve a bypass track to the Port of Longview and essentially a third main line to the east of existing tracks near Kelso, freeing up a lot of capacity there. There’s a new bridge across the Coweeman River, and there’s a lot things that go along with it. All Kelso projects will be done late next spring.

What’s your statutory deadline for all these stimulus funded projects? September 2017?

September is when the money disappears, but you’ve got to back off that a ways. Functionally, we need all the bills in by the first of June 2017. We need to get those paid and invoiced to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), so the work needs to be wrapped up by April/May 2017.

Beyond Point Defiance, Tacoma Trestle, the Kelso projects, etc, what are the remaining projects?

One is the “Corridor Reliability Upgrade-South” project, which involves replacing rail, ties, and ballast, cleaning up areas of slow orders. That one is almost complete. Slow orders frequently limit trains to 25-30 mph, and each of these is intended to upgrade those sections to run at maximum speed of 79mph.

The new Siemens Charger locomotives are still on their way, and we just got word that the steel has been cut for the first one going into production. We’ll be getting 8 of those total, with the first one delivered in mid-December. They won’t go into service right away, there’s a whole bunch of testing they have to undergo. The 8 will arrive about 2 weeks apart, and they’re more powerful (4400hp vs 3200hp), more fuel efficient, and they have the top tier in terms of EPA emissions testing. Each of them will have 30 days of corridor testing, with the goal of putting them in revenue service in the first half of 2017.

Then there is the slide prevention work up north, which will close out in 3 months or so. We’ve repaired 6 locations, and since we’ve had them done we’ve not had a single track-blocking incident in an area where we’ve worked. We’re still having slide impacts in areas we haven’t been able to work, but the actual work has been very successful.

What is the operational impact of the King Street track upgrades? Will there be a 7th platform, or just improved switching?

The westernmost track (Track 7) will be developed for use – it’s currently used only for storage – but the biggest deal is the automation of the remaining hand-thrown switches approaching King Street. We’ve already replaced several of them, but there are many many more left to go. When complete, trains won’t pull in a 5-10mph anymore, but will approach must faster than that.

What can we expect from the Point Defiance Bypass over the next 12 months in terms of actual construction? Any construction closures we should expect?

A new section of track was just laid a couple weeks ago, and we’ve been doing the track work on weekend evenings. We’ve been making 2400′ of track per weekend, proceeding south, and the newest section of track is between JBLM Main Gate and the Pendleton bridge near Dupont. We’ll soon be raising the Pendleton bridge to increase clearance for military trucks. Track construction for the bypass will be done by late October 2016, and then signal and PTC work has to go in.

How much of the Point Defiance Bypass corridor will be double tracked?

There’s no doubletrack between Tacoma Dome and S 66th St, then there will be continuous double track from South 66th Street, through Lakewood Station, and south to Bridgeport Avenue.

Is it projected that trains will have to hold for passing?

If everything is on schedule all trains will go through cleanly. Once a train’s out of slot, it’s up for grabs of course. But they will be scheduled to pass through without stopping.

Which part of the Tacoma Trestle project is WSDOT paying Sound Transit for?

The trestle is a Sound Transit project, but they’re doing much of the work on our behalf. We need a platform long enough for the Coast Starlight, which is twice as long as Cascades trains when in its longest configuration. The effective platform is 800′ currently, but we need 1,400′ for the long-distance trains, so WSDOT is funding the platform extension portion of the project. There will be 2 platforms, and the north platform will be 1,400′, but the south platform will remain 800′. So Sounder and Cascades could use either platform, but the Coast Starlight will only use the north platform.

When will the new Tacoma station begin construction?

Groundbreaking will be July 13th. Sound Transit requires the platform remain operational, so there won’t be any closures. We anticipate completing the Tacoma Station in April 2017.

When will WSDOT publish the official schedule for the new roundtrips?

The new roundtrips will start in fall 2017, and they will wait until all 20 projects complete. The two new roundtrips will be designed to enable same-day business travel between Seattle and Portland, with 6am departures and 7pm departures from each city. Other trips will shift as well to rebalance the schedule. We have a draft schedule, but to make those work we need approvals from Sound Transit, Amtrak, BNSF, Union Pacific, and the Oregon Department of Transportation. That will take the better part of this year, and we’ll officially announce those early next year.

What other service improvements can riders expect?

Well we have the Pets on Trains initiative that started back in April, and we’ve seen some very good numbers on those. We’re also looking to expand our bicycle storage on the train. We have limited bike space before you have to box it, and I’m not a fan of boxing your bike. Some options include retrofitting our baggage cars, or adding a second baggage car for bikes, either by leasing cars from Amtrak or retrofitting baggage cars from our spare sets.

Has there been any conversation about new service patterns, such as express or skip-stop trains?

Moving forward with the new service we’re going to keep the same stop pattern. But we’ve heard a lot of feedback and there’s been a lot of interest for new stops. Auburn was the first, but there have been others. So Washington and Oregon needed a way to evaluate new stops on the corridor. We’ve just published our new Station Stop Policy, a product based on a consensus achieved with local cities, BNSF, stakeholder groups, and more. The policy lays out quantitative criteria for adding, skipping, or removing stops. The base fundamental is that you have to show demand, and you have to have a financial plan for the proposed service pattern. Cities such as Blaine have complained that they don’t have the resources to do those things internally, that’s where we come in and work with the proponent to perform those analyses on their behalf.

Running the two new roundtrips is a requirement of the stimulus funding. Are the two new roundtrips fully funded through the State Legislature, or could they use the threat of returning the funds as a means of extracting concessions?

It’s always at the Legislature’s discretion, but certainly we have been very proactive with the legislature. We are very confident that the funding will materialize for the reasons you mention, some of the risks associated with it, but more for the positive benefits the service brings.

We put in our budget request to the Governor, and those will go in early before session meets, and we will get an approved transportation bill usually sometime around April 2017.

What about your partners in Oregon and British Columbia? Is there any movement on funding and service, or is it status quo?

Status quo. Oregon hasn’t indicated any concerns about next year’s service. With Vancouver BC, we’re engaging various entities for cost considerations and planning purposes, but there has been no change in their level of funding. They have a Regional Transit Advisory Committee, TransLink, etc, and we have talked to them to try to gauge their level of interest, and while there’s some traction, we’re still formulating proposals and no one has committed to being a new funding partner. The biggest success we’ll have north of the border is the Preclearance status, which will remove the customs stop that southbound trips make in Blaine. We can’t say when that will happen, as that really depends on cooperation between Canadian Border Service Agency and the U.S. Border Patrol, but they have indicated it could be within 12-16 months.

A couple years ago WSDOT issued an RFI for best practices in rail operations, with the possibility of selecting a non-Amtrak operator. Has WSDOT seriously considered taking operations in house, or selecting another 3rd party? If not, what was the purpose of that request?

The request was required by the legislature, actually. There was a proviso in legislation, but we think it was a wise request. We published an RFI for service enhancement from any interested party, and we invited them to comment on all aspects of service. We got quite a few themes out of that, and while we want to encourage competition and cost reductions, it was enlightening for us in that we recognized that there would be significant challenges new operators would have to overcome to be successful in taking over the service. Those challenges included insurance, track access, working with BNSF, etc. But Amtrak is our operator, and Amtrak will be our operator for the new service.

Amtrak has gone through unique change. We think they recognize that the state service is not the same as the long-distance service, and that they have to be more innovative and dynamic with state service. As a contractor to the states, it’s slow, but they are making innovations to be more competitive and get their costs down.

Has there been any discussion of integrating Sounder South with Amtrak Cascades once both share the Tacoma station? 

No. Part of it comes down to the rider profile, and part of it is technical. Amtrak controls the ticketing system, and we’ve explored partnerships with services such as Victoria Clipper, and right now Amtrak’s Operating Agreement provides limited opportunity under their current system. Eventually they’re going to have to upgrade what is now quite an old ticketing system.

Ridership and farebox recovery have dipped a bit since 2011. What’s your competitive strategy going forward?

Farebox recovery was better when we were sharing costs with Amtrak, but when costs shifted to the state our internal operating costs rose. We’re still around 60% farebox recovery, and that’s some of the highest around, especially for rail. Our strategy, and the reason we sought that RFI, was to recognize that we needed to innovate and that we needed to focus on the 3 primary ridership drivers (Vancouver, Seattle, Portland).

After the stimulus projects complete, we will continue an incrementalist approach to performance monitoring and improvement. We’ve modeled ridership and revenue, but we need to see what happens in practice before making other changes.

Is the 2006-era Long Range Plan still the vision? Is there a plan that supersedes it? What’s the current long-term vision?

We’re going to be updating that Long Range Plan. The 2006 plan had 13 Seattle-Portland trips, but we need to reevaluate if that’s really where we’re going to be in the next 20 years. We’ll soon be embarking on a Service Development Plan, which will start over and update ridership modeling, revenue forecasting, and planned capital projects.

92 Replies to “Amtrak Cascades Looks Toward 2017”

  1. “There’s no doubletrack between Tacoma Dome and S 66th St” – but, man, there sure should be

    1. But is it needed? This isn’t serving light rail frequencies. In the AM, 6 trains every 20 minutes doesn’t require double tracking. The Cascades doesn’t come through until after Sounder is done, so there’s no conflict between ST and Amtrak. PM, 1 Cascades jumps ahead of Sounder near Sumner-Puyallup and heads up the single track going the same direction as and between Sounders.

      1. It seems comparable to running Link at grade. Before it’s built, people say “it really won’t make that much of a difference, and we can save $X”. Then, once it’s open, people say “oh, it actually really makes a difference.” Now it costs $XXXX to solve the issue.

      2. @RR,

        Actually, in,regards to Link in the RV, it doesn’t make a difference. Link is performing pretty much exactly as predicted. In fact, if anything, it is performing better than predicted. So there really isn’t a problem other than that ST didn’t gold plate the line, but that was a design decision that there really isn’t any need to reverse.

        Regarding the bypass consisting of mainly single track, there just really isn’t any need to do more. The volume of passenger trains just isn’t high enough to justify double track over such a short stretch, and there still is a directional nature to most of the traffic.

        Single track is just fine. But if the need ever arises a second track could be added later. Railroads do such things all the time and it really isn’t that big a deal.

        Trust the experts on this one.

      3. You double track so you can do Link frequencies, at least south of the dome since ST owns it.

      4. It’s performing better than predicted but it’s still slower than it would be if it were grade separated. And every time there’s an accident the speed goes to zero. Grade separation would allow the train to go 55 mph like it’s designed and would eliminate collisions.

      5. No, this is not comparable to running Link at-grade. Undergrounding an at-grade Link requires throwing away the entire at-grade investment. Upgrading a single-track to double-track can be done at some future date, and the second track can be installed alongside the existing single track which can be left in service. The double-track is not needed right now. Just like additional lanes can be added to freeways (which is done all the time), a second track can be done when it becomes necessary. Our money right now should be spent on things that cannot be upgraded in the future and needs that are immediate. It isn’t like we have any shortage of immediate needs.

      6. “what they really need to do is electrify the rails and use rail cars that run on overhead electric wires.”

        So, just to dream, how expensive would this be, what would its speed or other benefits be, and how much would it interfere with a heavy freight load? I understand the Netherlands has electrified its entire passenger rail network (all three hours long of it), and Caltrain is implementing electrification which will allow higher speeds and frequency. So what are the possibilities between Seattle and Portland?

        And why are electric trains faster than diesel trains? How fast can they be? And they don’t have problems falling off the wire as the trolleybuses do?

      7. @Mike Orr,

        Yes, everyone would like 55 mph and full grade separation, but money doesn’t grow on trees. Tunnel or elevate within the existing budget and the line wouldn’t get much past Columbia City or Othello Station. Central Link wouldn’t even be able to run the full length of the RV.

        And if ST had proposed building a line that short we probably wouldn’t even have LR today. Raise the price or shorten the line and the voters wouldn’t have approved it.

        And remember CLinbk was derided as a “Train to Nowhere” back when it ended just short of the Airport. End it in the middle of the RV after just a few miles of distance and the critics would have had a field day. ST would have been a laughingstock and we would still be riding buses everywhere.

        But, ya, if budget’s didn’t exist and money was no object, then heck ya build it grade separated and fully underground. And put a darn personal station in my basement,

      8. If we are going to dream, let’s get our dreams in order:

        1. Allow for modern trains to go around existing curves at speeds that are possible with modern equipment. In other words, eliminate outdated safety requirements for slow speeds around curves.

        2. Allow equipment meeting International Union of Railways safety standards to operate in the USA if PTC signals are in place. This was done on CalTrain some years ago under a waiver from the Federal Railroad Administration.

        3. Then see what is available on the market to meet the new profile of the line. Some Light weight tilting DMUs may be the best solution.

  2. I’ve got no patience with any non-technical reason any public transportation project can’t be done. Passenger profile? What’s that supposed to mean? Terrorists? And fare systems are supposed to be about attracting passengers to pay them- not excuses for not carrying them.

    Victoria Clipper? A new Waterfront Streetcar can give passengers a boat and rail ride to Sea-Tac airport. Once the clerical reasons for not doing it are out of the way. But having Clipper as part of any new plans is welcome.

    But every time my 603 or 592 is stuck in traffic for an hour because somebody bent a fender either end of the Nisqually River Bridge, fact that in 2017 Sounder’s south terminal can’t be a fifteen minute bus ride from Olympia is downright personal.

    Gentrification-driven blood-clot is now blocking I-5 past SR 101. Maybe time for another vote about bringing ST into Thurston. Possible grounds for compromise and cooperation with the anti-transit right: car traffic is now giving people unparalleled incentive to ride transit.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Technical merit is often irrelevant in the world of transportation; politics rule the land. Passenger profile = daily commuter vs intercity traveler.

      Amtrak Cascades uses Amtrak’s national’s ticketing system because that’s the way it is. Amtrak’s ticketing system, despite being one of the first transportation groups to use smartphone readers, is obsolete. Welcome to using a federal system.

      We’re not getting a new Waterfront Streetcar. That ship sailed years ago as political meddling messed with a technical document investigating the feasibility of building a new WFSC.

      As for getting Thurston County into Sound Transit, the best time was a year ago when Olympia was looking into it and we were starting the ST3 planning process. That was the golden opportunity.

      1. Now that Amtrak doesn’t contribute to Cascades, but are just contractors, why can’t we get a modern ticketing system?

      2. Integration into the national rail system but I question the importance of that in the overall scheme of things. WSDOT could go it alone a la Bright Line. However, their selection of private vendors to handle money has been poor at best.

      3. OK, Mike:

        Politics rule every land in the world. Just like even automated vehicles have controls, including steering. Especially ticketing systems. Which, like every obsolete component, owners can replace.

        Federal systems? As form of government, anything larger than Sweden needs one. As agency by which We the People run our country? See “owners” and their duties above. BTW, thanks for the welcome, but I already let myself in.

        For anything size of transit, we never “get” anything without the word “go” in front of it. Everything on rails or rubber, we had somebody build and bring in for us. A ship brought the Melbourne cars from Australia. Rail and trucks work too.

        But even in the days of the Clippers, any ship could change course. Well understood maneuver, but needs competent crew. Any ship that’s sailed can “come about.” Only one that can’t is if it’s been cast adrift and sunk by artillery.

        From any agency deciding on the Waterfront or any other streetcar, I haven’t yet heard the order to fire, let alone a detonation. An extensive report commissioned by the Stadium Authority is in the archives on tenth floor of the Downtown Library. Not only unshredded but still legible.

        Judging by how far past Olympia I-5 is still a parking lot starting 6AM, Thurston County could gain enough voters to join ST between now and next time to pour an opportunity into the a casting mold. Likely last gold came out of a spray-can.


        As for getting Thurston County into Sound Transit, the best time was a year ago when Olympia was looking into it and we were starting the ST3 planning process. That was the golden opportunity.

      4. I’ve asked this before, and still haven’t seen any responses to what they want from a new ticketing system?

        What features are lacking?
        Being able to choose your own seats?
        You do realize that the equipment doesn’t care if it’s rolling forward or backward, or that you might have one of the ODOT trainsets and not the WSDOT ones.
        Totally different seat configurations, and which equipment will be used might not be known until just before train time.

        What else?

        Travel systems at their heart are all pretty much the same.

    2. What does “integrating Sounder South with Amtrak Cascades” mean? What is a modern ticketing system like? When I’ve taken Metra and NJT and Caltrain they’ve seemed as old-fashioned as ever, and when I took national trains in Ireland and Britain they didn’t seem much different. The trains were certainly more frequent and high-speed and newer, but the ticketing wasn’t much different, although Victoria had ticket vending machines for Gatwick (which Germany has long had for S-Bahn and regional trains).

    3. “Passenger profile? What’s that supposed to mean?”

      I assume it means that Cascades and Sounder are mostly different transit markets. People are mostly traveling one or the other and aren’t very interested in substituting one for the other.

      1. Mike Orr, what if my schedule works to take Sounder to Olympia, pick something up or meet somebody for dinner, and then go down to Portland in a couple of hours?

        One of many reasons people massively shifted to cars was so they could profile themselves according to their own purposes, which could shift by the minute.

        If I want my profile on a train ticket, I’ll draw it myself. Also know there’s an APP for my own little profile. Since tickets more and more electronic, it doesn’t even have to be a profile. I can even use a cute animal, which with my general appearance, anybody would.


      2. Sounder equipment really isn’t vastly worse than Cascades equipment. It’s not like Sounder chose to use hard shell plastic seats in its equipment or something.

      3. Mark, that’s two separate trips, and I doubt hardly anybody does that. By “same profile” I assume it means the person would take either Sounder or Cascades, whichever comes first, like the Amtrak Rail Plus in the Sounder North corridor, which already exists. (And I can’t use because you have to have a monthly pass for the amount of the Sounder fare.) Sounder is so infrequent now that the likelyhood of transferring between Amtrak and Sounder is practically nil, and Sounder doesn’t go to Olympia yet (for your scenario). If Sounder becomes hourly in the future, then possibly somebody in Portland or California might want a through ticket on Amtrak+Sounder to say Kent or Mukilteo, but is that a reasonable expectation? Or should they just get a Sounder ticket when they arrive in Tacoma or Seattle?

    4. I agree, ST should terminate at Olympia. I bet they’d handle a lot of Thurston and Pierce County passengers.

      1. A lot of us have been asking for Sounder to Olympia. Mark lives in Olympia so that’s the background to his scenario. But the station is in the outskirts of Olympia, a 50-minute bus ride from downtown. There was a track to downtown Olympia but apparently it was neglected for a log time and now has houses encroaching on the right of way or something. So it’s not just as simple as extending Sounder. It may be easier to extend ST Express. There already is a route 592 partnership but it only runs northbound in the morning and southbound in the afternoon so it’s useless if you live in Seattle (unless you want to spend the night in Olympia).

      2. The 50 minute bus ride from the Olympia Amtrak Station to downtown Olympia is less than 5 miles, which means the 50 minute figure is the bus’s fault, not the train’s fault. A timed shuttle bus connection taking a direct route would do wonders. But, until that happens, taking a bike on board the train for $5 extra each way works pretty well. Last time I did it, the streets did have bike lanes.

      3. @Mike Orr: We could also use the rail tracks into downtown Olympia for Sounder, Cascades, and Coast Starlight. Just need some money to restore the tracks.

      4. Olympia is outside thenST taxing district. It would be great if it went there, and I would use it, but such a large capital investment would require a contribution from either the State or Thurstan County, and I don’t think either is going to happen.

      5. @Lazarus, agreed completely. It’d be great, but it’d need money from some source outside ST.

        In the meantime, a single bus could perform a point-to-point shuttle between Olympia TC and Lacy Amtrak, meeting every train. I wonder, would Thurston County be able to afford that? Perhaps if they cut back a bit on commuter traffic? Or maybe the state could, since it’s currently paying for the 592 connection?

      6. We could also use the rail tracks into downtown Olympia for Sounder, Cascades, and Coast Starlight. Just need some money to restore the tracks.

        The problem is that Olympia isn’t in a straight line to the south. That’s why the loop through Olympia became off the main north-south line about 100 years ago. The line through Olympia and ending out at the industrial park is actually the remains of the east-west route to Aberdeen.

        It would be a really bad idea to have such a large diversion for relatively few riders.

        It would be really difficult to do anything with Cascades through trains there due to there not being any way to keep them going south without rebuilding a LOT of track.

        As best as I can tell, the track from downtown Olympia to the turning wye just south of the Lacy station is Class II, which is 25 mph. Typically, all you need to get to Class III (40 mph freight, 60 mph passenger) is a lot of tie replacement. There are lots of curves on the line, but none of them are exceptionally sharp.

        Even at the current 25 mph, it still would only take 24 minutes to get from the Lacy station to downtown Olympia, but if you get the line up to 60 mph you could probably do it in 12 to 15 minutes (parts of the line would remain slow due to crossings, etc).

        There is a single freight train on the line every day.

        To me, this would be an ideal place for light rail + freight with temporal separation, just like the New Jersey RiverLINE and a few other “light rail” lines that are operating on freight tracks with relatively small amounts of freight traffic.

      7. If you’re talking about meeting trains coming from both directions, I’m not sure a single bus would be able to do that. It depends where opposite direction trains happen to cross paths. Then, there’s the problem that the buses would have to wait for late trains in order for the service to be usable.

      8. @asdf2, I checked, and with the current schedule it’s very doable. You’d even be able to wait ten or fifteen minutes for late trains.

  3. This is so interesting, thank you! We have often wanted to use the train to get to Portland, Kelso, or Vancouver BC and for one reason or another the train wasn’t the best option for each trip. I think the work you are describing here might be just what is needed in order to make it work for us. Please keep us posted on the progress.

    I agree with Bruce, this is one of the reasons we send money to STB – I don’t know how else we would have learned about all this. Thank you!

  4. Great interview. Disappointing though to hear WSDOT recognize that they need to focus on Portland, Seattle and Vancouver but then say they aren’t considering skip-stop trains and in fact are evaluating adding stops. No!!

    1. Amtrak tried limited stop and express Surfliner trains between LA and San Diego. The ridership ended up being low and the travel time savings weren’t all that significant over the regular train. Skipping stops on Amtrak Cascades could save maybe 10 to 15 minutes on a PDX-TAC-SEA run while limiting the trains’ overall usefulness. It turns out a lot of people use the intermediate stops and not just major cities.

      1. A couple of years back I saw data that indicated that the bulk of Cascades’ trips involved city pairs that included a minor city (i.e. Not Seattle Tacoma or Portland). So you certainly couldn’t eliminate those stops because they represent a valid service. The trick is to serve those intermediate destinations while still being competitive on the larger destinations, and that takes higher average track speeds.

        The small government conservatives love to point to Bolt Bus as a cheaper, private alternative to Amtrak. But follow that model and a lot of people won’t get served, and the people in those smaller destinations tend to be more conservative-the exact people the small government conservatives pretend to represent.

    2. It’s disappointing the WSDOT representative didn’t mention travel time impact as a factor. The Tukwila station should have been in Auburn or Kent in the first place; that’s more equidistant between Seattle and Tacoma, and closer to the outer suburbs which is the purpose of a suburban station, because they have longer to travel to get downtown. Adding an Auburn station is probably OK; the overhead is the excessive Tukwila station, which is not Auburn’s fault. But we need to resist giving every little hamlet a station as happened with Stanwood. Because benefitting the town is not the only factor; there’s also the impact on the other passengers.

      1. I agree. Tukwila is terribly located. Auburn or Kent would be better. We need to decide: are we happy with a Tukwila location, or does it need to move to Kent or Auburn? But, no, we can’t “add” Auburn. That’s idiotic. And I live in Auburn and would love to see a stop close to my house. But we can’t add personalized service for me at the expense of everybody else. We need a South King Station. Not two. Not three. Just one. Right now it happens to be in Tukwila. Perhaps we can move it. But, probably not. The politicians won’t allow that.

  5. As a long time rail fan for intercity passenger trains and High Speed Rail, I’m puzzled why there was no mention or discussion about what travel times will be after 2017. The stimulus money was all about HSR when first envisioned, and now it seems as far away as ever. When asked about “What other service improvements can riders expect?”, the reply was about pets and bikes.
    With the Bypass and Kelso 3rd main, what’s the schedule going to look like?

      1. Current travel times are 3:15-3:40 (scheduled for 3:40 with 25 minutes of padding.) My guess is that the new schedule will be 3:30 with 25 minutes of padding, with travel times as low as 3:05 but usually closer to 3:15.

      2. Zach,
        Once all this work is completed, what are the lowest hanging fruits when it comes to travel time and reliability?

        How much more can be done before it becomes more productive to just increase frequency?

      3. IMO, skip-stop or express trains. An SEA-PDX express could do the trip in less than 3 hours under post-stimulus track conditions. I’d love to see a schedule in a couple years where the new 6am train is an express arriving at 8:45, followed shortly thereafter (7:00?) by a local arriving at 10:15. Given the ridership data I’ve crunched elsewhere, it’s obvious that not every train needs to stop in Tukwila, Lacey, Centralia, and/or Kelso.

      4. “Current travel times are 3:15-3:40 (scheduled for 3:40 with 25 minutes of padding.) My guess is that the new schedule will be 3:30 with 25 minutes of padding, with travel times as low as 3:05 but usually closer to 3:15.”

        I’m amazed that we’re maybe only getting 10 minutes of improvement out of all this. I ride the train for the exquisite scenery, not because it’s cheaper or faster, because it isn’t. If the Pt. Defiance Bypass was going to get us to time-competitiveness with Bolt or driving that would justify it, and express trains would probably do the trick. But the though of another milk run travel route with stops in every podunk town and without the world-class views along Pt. Defiance makes me doubt I will use this train much after 2017.

      5. You also have to look at what is a reasonable travel time between Seattle and Portland. “Faster is always better” is true in some sense but there’s also the point of diminishing returns. For two cities 120 miles apart and no peers south of Portland, 3 hours is good and competitive with driving, 2:30 is excellent, and below that is just gravy. We aren’t positioning Portland for a daily commute, but for weekly trips at most. And HSR to California is so far in the future that it’s not worth preparing for now when we don’t know what technology will be available then. When they initially looked at medium-speed rail, it comes at the 90, 110, and 125 mph levels, and each level is exponentially more expensive because of the details required. The state decided that 90 is worth doing now, and 110 later, but 125 was too expensive for its benefit, because 110 would still get you into Portland in two hours and isn’t that fast enough.

      6. Seattle and Portland are much farther apart than 120 miles. It’s closer to 170-180 miles depending on where you’re going, which makes a 3+ hour trip by train much more reasonable.

      7. It’s not just a matter of an express being faster. An express could make the trip straight through but having to stop at intermediate stations means that if the train gets through other traffic faster it has to wait to catch up with the scheduled arrival time.

        It’s one of the big advantages BoltBus has with its non-stop service: nobody complains if they arrive early on a Seattle to Portland trip.

    1. A look was taken at building higher speed tracks for Amtrak to operate on, but the cost was significant as land acquisitions would be significant to uncurve the line. The decision was made to spend much of the money on improving reliability then worry about speed later. On the plus side, nearly all crossovers have been replaced with swing-nose frog turnouts which allow for higher operating speeds when passing trains and several more have been added to improve .

      Adding third mains and bypasses enables Cascades trains to get around slow freight trains and congested areas that cannot be expanded (Pt. Defiance Tunnel). Tukwila area has been triple tracked so freight trains can get out of the way as they wander between yards.

    2. Ever since the construction started, I have grudgingly acknowledged that if I am able to plan my trip to avoid rush hour, the freeway (e.g. bus) is usually both faster and more reliable than the railroad tracks. Once the track work is all done, I look forward to giving the train another shot.

      Evening departures from Portland to allow for day travel will also be most welcome.

    3. You shouldn’t have to ‘Guess’ at the answer Zack, if someone from the rail office would chime in here and give the real answer.
      Also, Mike mentioned 90mph. Is that the new speed limit from 79 after the improvements in certain areas? How many miles of higher speed rail can we expect?
      And lastly, all that existing padding in the schedule (25 min) should be diminished after 2017 as one of the primary reasons for spending a billion in the corridor was to improve reliability and reduce conflicts with freights. I shudder to think all we have accomplished is to give BNSF a ton a money to run more oil trains.

      1. Any questions, comments, or most to the point demands about higher speed service should start with: “When do passenger trains get their own tracks?”


      2. Nah. The ton of money given to BNSF also gives them a lot of capacity to serve the Port of Seattle and the container ships too. There’s also all the coal traffic headed to Vancouver BC. So, it’s not just about adding capacity for oil trains.

  6. Regarding farebox recovery, I would guess that bus service has siphoned off some of the price-sensitive riders. Although the bus is not always cheaper than the train, it often is. The intermediate markets aren’t subject to much if any bus competition though.

    Anyone know what the maximum passenger capacity is on the existing trainsets? I was passing through King St Station earlier this week and 75-100 people were already there for an afternoon southbound Cascades 1hr before departure. Seemed like a lot of people there so early.

      1. Thanks – that’s fewer than I would’ve guessed. Amtrak tends to run longer trains in the Northeast. Demand may be higher there, but Amtrak also benefits from greater operating leverage spreading fixed costs over more fares.

        Not sure if platform length is a constraint in the Cascades corridor, but longer trains would increase revenue in peak times for relatively little incremental cost.

    1. Many people are willing to pay a little more for the additional space on the train over the bus. I looked at doing a trip not too long ago but the ticket price was already up into the $65 range, and I was looking more than two weeks into the future.

      The current ticket price formula just doesn’t work on shorter distance trains. It leaves too many tickets unsold due to the price at the highest tiers.

      1. There’s also the electric outlets at seats, and some Cascades trains now have USB charging jacks. The extra space is nice, both in the seat and in the overhead luggage rack. Two large carryons and two checked bags, no problem.

        Weekdays are the best time to travel for cheap tickets. And in the off-season (mid January to mid May, mid October to mid December except Thanksgiving week) there are often midweek sales.

      2. The bucket yield management method that Amtrak uses is a rather blunt instrument. I feel like it works better on routes with more last minute purchasing from price-insensitive (usually business) customers. $200 for New York to Baltimore is expensive, but missing an important meeting may be much worse. On Seattle-Portland I feel like the business travelers are still flying or driving mostly.

        The good news for the service overall (though bad for you) is that higher fares ($63 appears to be the highest bucket) imply that the train should be theoretically filling up well in advance of departure.

      3. I just did a ow from sea to portland for 24.00 and I’ve never paid more than 36.00. you can’t wait until last minute otherwise cheap tics are gone quickly.

      4. Well over two weeks in advance isn’t “last minute”.

        The current situation only discourages people from traveling by train. There is more demand than is being met due to the ticket prices.

      5. I consider the bus when its $20 or under. I have no problem paying $35 for the train when the bus is cheaper, when the train gets a lot more expensive then I might consider the bus again. Then again I paid $53 during the July 4th weekend for a one way on the train which was about $20 more than the bus which was about 45 minutes faster.

  7. Love to see what Washington is doing. Here in Oregon, our state is BARELY keeping this service alive, and could end next year (just when these improvements are done) if the funding is not renewed. Which would be so short-sighted and stupid since the Washington section improvements would help riders from Eugene to anywhere north of Portland.

    Ridership has been up here in Oregon so far this year, and I expect that to continue. But it’s frustrating to see our state not take this as seriously or proactively as Washington does. Definitely jealous.

  8. I usually ride the Cascades from Tacoma to Portland so I’d hate to see the train skip that station.

    I like hearing about all the small improvements to signals through Seattle (and the Lander overpass). When I have boarded at Seattle it feels like the train crawls on the way to Tacoma and then picks up speed as it heads further South. The speed limit for manual signals through SoDo probably contributes to this.

    When I compare drive time and the train schedule it doesn’t appear the train actually does any worse on this stretch than elsewhere on the route. The train is consistently just a bit slower than driving. It would be great if the various improvements brought it up to parity.

    1. When I came back from Portland last month it was 20 minutes from Auburn to King Street so that’s not poky. The train southbound takes a while to get to full speed but it still manages to get from King Street to Tukwila in ten minutes, and then it flies through Kent and Auburn. It may slow down in the Puyallup curve, but my imporession nowadays is it runs full speed from Seattle to the Oregon border and then slows down.

  9. I ride the Cascades south at least monthly. The ride around Point Defiance is nice, but I understand the utility of the bypass. I’m not impressed with the express or skip-stop suggestions. Tacoma and Vancouver have good ridership and I think you’d still want to serve them, so at most you’re saving 10 minutes by skipping Olympia-Lacey, Centralia, and Kelso-Longview. Big deal.

    I hope Oregon stays in the program. I think their poor ridership is caused, in part, by a lousy morning schedule. The early departures M-F (5:30am NB and 6am SB) are brutal, and unnecessary for one-day out-and-back trips between Portland and Eugene. The cities are not that far apart. I wonder if the weekend 9am departures are better patronized. I often ride NB from Albany on the afternoon train and it has good ridership.

    Is there money for renovating the older train sets? They’ve been run hard and it shows.

    1. Didn’t Glenn say something recently about Salem getting worse, either in changing the train schedules or eliminating bus service?

      1. They’ve got this really stupid plan to try to put a new main line in and it would be routed next to I-5 between Salem and Albany. This is Ankeny Hill, and short of an 8 mile tunnel this thing is completely unsuitable for a railroad line. The hills are steep enough I-5 wouldn’t go that way if it were built today as it wouldn’t meet modern grade standards.

        In the meantime, the old Oregon Electric main line uses a route that is flat, broad curved, and has two or so freights a day.

    2. Reliability is a huge deterrent. They need to get it to the 3h 20m that it should be without the padding and with delays beyond that very very rare. Its tiring when more often than not the train makes unscheduled stops, and/or rolls in at 4+ hours.

  10. The 6AM train departures are a lot better than a 6AM flight, since you actually have a prayer of getting to the station with regular bus/train service. During the week, I can take the first E line and get to the station by 5:20, plenty of time to check bags if I need to. I’d have to take a night owl and two other buses to get to Seatac for a 6AM flight, or just sleep in the airport.

  11. Super happy to hear that they are adding earlier and later trains for day trippers!!! I’ve been wanting these runs forever.

  12. I’m not happy about the Charger locomotives. They are too heavy. Lighter weight locomotives would allow a better time improvement than pretty much any other investment. The current speed limit around curves is largely based on the locomotive weight. The Talgo tilting mechanism barely has an impact at the current limits.

      1. What new locomotives? GE Genesis and F59 are both fairly old at this point.

      2. Are you taking about the ODOT trainset’s control cabs?

        They are not separate locomotives, but part of the ‘power’ car.

    1. Yeah what they really need to do is electrify the rails and use rail cars that run on overhead electric wires.

    2. Definitely the unspoken issue – they’re still 120 tonne locomotives – 30 tonne axle loads smashing around the track, when the European model Siemens diesels are closer to 90 tonnes IIRC

    3. How can you be “unhappy” about the Charger locomotives? They are not in service and you have no idea of their performance characteristics. No, its not based on the locomotive weight, its based on the center of gravity at 6 inches of unbalance and the unloading at the rail.. The charger locomotives will need to be tested to determine their limits based on their performance. Jury is out.

  13. A lot to say, but a very busy day and I have twenty (20) minutes to make a comment.

    First, looking forward to now sleek locomotives – see page 3 of http://www.highspeed-rail.org/Documents/NGEC%20305_Presentation_Multi%20State_21616-update.pdf

    Second, hope if ST3 passes Sounder South will also get Siemens Charger locomotives. :-)

    Third, as to:

    Then there is the slide prevention work up north, which will close out in 3 months or so. We’ve repaired 6 locations, and since we’ve had them done we’ve not had a single track-blocking incident in an area where we’ve worked. We’re still having slide impacts in areas we haven’t been able to work, but the actual work has been very successful.

    Good news, if true. I do think the only way Sounder North will ever justify itself is if the run can be reliable all 12 months of the year, which is the #1 beneficiary of this slide prevention/slope stabilization work.

    Fourth, Mukilteo desperately needs an Amtrak Cascades stop. Perfect place to stop and link to Whidbey Island. Also better for Mukilteo to get tourists to go through downtown and yes, Paine Field.

    I’ll stop there. I’ve had a personal project (and the news) keep me going well past my bedtime.

  14. Please please please get rid of the stupid checkin process at King Street. We stood in line for 45 mins the other day. This is the only place I’ve ever seen this system in place.

    1. YASSSS…. the fact that you have this beautiful station and a line that snakes through it all to get a little stub of paper written by the conductor by hand seems ridiculous…honestly, I wish they would just run coach un-reserved like the surfliner…and many east coast trains… With our frequency (esp post-2017) it seems completely unjustified except for the international trains and the eugne trains…It is getting to the point where I would rather fly now that I have status on alaska than deal with the train.

      1. I agree. The line is a nuisance and on my last business class trip, I got assigned as a solo passenger a seat facing another male passenger. I hid out in the dining car from Seattle north to Everett chimping at ST3 ratification photos.

        That said, I do the math and train versus flight to/from Portland – counting time to/from home & security lines meaning be there two (2) hours early – means Amtrak Cascades and Alaska Airlines have similar times. Now if you live in/near Seattle – like within ST2 light rail range – the math is a bit different…

  15. With more trains available from Eugene to Seattle in 2017 the schedule could be tweaked to help commuters from Vancouver Washington to Portland. For example: Cascades 509 arrives in Portland on weeknights for cleaning and servicing. It does not move out of Portland Union Station until 6:00 AM going southbound. I advocate that 503 move north to pick up commuters in the morning from Vancouver before going south.It is a 15 minute trip from Vancouver to Portland. If the added trains pass through Vancouver,Washington southbound closer to the peak commuter travel time this would reduce I-5 corridor congestion. Ridership on the trains would increase in volumes if commuters were added from Vancouver Washington and Portland.

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