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.