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Once the current projects are completed, Seattle to Portland travel time via Cascades trains will drop.  The current published expectation is a decrease of 20 minutes from 3 hours and 40 minutes to 3 hours and 20 minutes.  10 minutes due to construction delays and 10 minutes from improved speed and on time performance.  The actual decrease will be even greater.

The Washington State Long-Range Plan for Amtrak Cascades from 2006 indicates three hour travel time is possible after the in progress improvements are complete.  Specifically page 3-4:

Current travel times from Seattle to either Vancouver, BC or Portland, OR will decrease by approximately thirty minutes each way.

The projects required to complete that kind of travel time are listed in the document and those projects are very similar to the ones already completed or in progress as part of the current WSDOT High-Speed Rail Program.  The 20 minute delta between estimates in the Long-Range Plan and the current planned reduction is significant and meaningful.  I have not yet found the cause of the delta.  One possibility for 5 minutes of the delta is the Tukwila stop, but this is only a part of the delta.  I surmise planners want to be cautious at first and see how the completed projects impact on time performance in practice versus their modeling.  Near 3 hour travel times are possible in the next couple of years.

The long term goal is a travel time of 2 hours and 30 minutes.  This has been re-iterated in multiple of the Washington rail plans.  For example in the 2014 rail plan:

Thirteen round trips between Seattle and Portland (1-hour frequency during peak travel times) with a travel time of two hours and 30 minutes (2:30).

The current projects will decrease delays and improve the average speed.  Currently, the maximum speed is 79 mph indicating a maximum track class of 4.  The long range planning documents indicate 110 mph speeds and class 6 track will be needed to reach the 2 hours and 30 minutes goal.

Many of the current projects, once completed, will allow for the track to become class 5.  Class 5 track allows for up to a maximum speed of 90 mph.  On page 4-14 of the Amtrak Cascades Mid-Range Plan on the WSDOT website:

This project will upgrade and maintain all existing main line tracks to FRA “Class V” standards. However, trains would still be limited to 79 mph maximum due to signal limitations.

The signal limitations, I believe, were addressed in some of the current projects.  The quote is referencing track between Blaine and Vancouver WA.  An associated cost increase in maintenance would occur if the track became class 5, from page 4-15 of the Amtrack Cascades Mid-Range Plan on the WSDOT website:

WSDOT estimates it will cost more than $200,000 per track mile. This equates to $97.4 million with delivery in 2014 (Exhibit 5A-8, Appendix 5). In addition, the cost of maintaining the tracks to the higher standard will be higher than today. This will take about four years to implement without severely disrupting existing service. BNSF estimates it will cost between $10,000 and $13,000 (2008 estimates) per track mile annually for ongoing maintenance at the higher track standard.

There are roughly 300 miles of track for the Cascades in Washington.  If being unkind with inflation and staying on the higher side of the BNSF maintenance estimate that brings the total extra cost in maintenance to $4.5 million annually.  Not all of the track needs to be of higher classification and if focused on the Seattle to Portland route the annual cost impact could be lowered.  It sounds feasible for at least some of the track to receive a class 5 rating.  I believe, based time estimates in the WSDOT plans, this would reduce travel time by another 10 minutes.

Basic internet searching for class 6 maintenance costs versus class 4 maintenance costs suggests the increase would be double the class 5 versus class 4 cost.  It seems class 6 track is an unreasonable expectation at this time.  The past couple of years WSDOT has named operating cost reduction as a goal.  It is also unclear how much if any track at this time is built for class 6 or if the existing engines are economical to run at class 6 speeds.

Aside from track improvements, the new Charger locomotives should also have an effect on travel times.  They are more powerful and more efficient.  Better acceleration will improve the average speed and the greater efficiency should allow for more use of the greater power due to lower operational costs.  There are hints in the various WSDOT plans and articles online that the new engines should help reduce travel time slightly, but I have not found any numbers to indicate how much of an effect they will have.

Over the next four years we should see a gradual decrease in travel time.  In 2017 travel time should be 3 hours and 20 minutes.  By 2019 I expect to see 3 hour travel times.  With a class 5 track rating, by 2020 I would hope for a 2 hours 50 minute travel time between Seattle and Portland.

Sources:

18 Replies to “Cascades Seattle to Portland Travel Time Improvements”

  1. By comparison, I rode the BoltBus for a day trip to Portland earlier this year, and travel time was 2:45 each way (the trip was scheduled at 3:30, but apparently, 45 minutes of that was traffic padding and at the time I went, there was no traffic).

    Of course, the reason I didn’t hit traffic was that I deliberately arranged the trip to leave Seattle on a Sunday morning and return on a Sunday evening. If the trip were on a weekday, I suspect the Amtrak vs. bus travel time comparison would have been more favorable for the train, especially if we fast forward to the future when all the track-related construction is complete.

    1. My next post should be addressing this actually :)

      Even with comparable times or slow travel times the Cascades seems to be able to command a premium at least for some riders. Comparing the different modes to travel between the two cities is interesting.

    2. Yeah, Bolt in my experience has a wider range of travel outcomes, running from 2:45-4:30 depending on traffic, with problems usually either getting out of Portland or near Olympia/JBLM. My last several train trips have all clocked in at 3:15-3:40.

      1. 3:15 is an exciting number. I think that really shows there is the possibility for reliable 3:00 trips by 2019.

      2. A conductor once told me that 3:15 was about the fastest possible trip time between Seattle and Portland. That meant no slow orders, on-track delays or problems at the stations. So, subtract the time saved on the Pt. Defiance bypass (~6 minutes) and a few more minutes thanks to the new–but unproven–locomotives and the fastest possible trip time should be less than 3:10. Add in the other infrastructure improvements that are currently being completed and the “perfect trip” should be more achievable than ever before.

      3. 3:00 will be possible once the upgrades are complete. However, it will never be scheduled for this. The 10 miles of track from Portland to Vancouver is too unpredictable, and they have to allow about half an hour of slop in the schedule for that. Take a look at the published timetable.

        Some noise in the letters section of the Oregonian by those who visit would sure be appreciated. They’re kicking around a $1 billion highway bridge proposal and improving that 10 miles of track could go a long way to solving local and regional traffic with far less money dumped into highways.

      4. Glenn;

        I will put your request for a letter to the editor of the Oregonian on my to-do list pile. I am against Trimet expansion to Tigard until Trimet gets its house in order, but fully support improving current light rail & heavy rail infrastructure.

        But then again, I really got some serious writing to do this month. Like pro-ST3 letters to the editor.

      5. Between Seattle and Portland Bolt doesn’t stop. Some of the buses are run through routed from Eugene or Bellingham.

  2. Listen I really hope there is a 6 AM train out of Seattle to Portland and vice versa. Considering Alaska Airlines tells people to be two hours early to both airports due to, well, TSA – a three hour Amtrak Cascades business class seat really gets competitive really fast. I mean light rail serves both Portland & Seattle’s airports and Amtrak stations too.

    I have a business trip to Portland 26 October. As it stands I have to fly to get to my morning & lunch appointments, but at least I can take Amtrak Cascades all the way home. Flying back would cost more but only save 90 minutes at most.

    I also have a winter vacation in the planning stages for Portlandia aviation museums & Trimet MAX photo ops. Getting in on the Amtrak at 11 AM after having to get up at 4 AM really doesn’t appeal to me – especially as the TSA at Bellingham International is all professional, no fuss.

  3. I love trains and have ridden them all over the world–except in the United States where the slowness and price have pushed them out of my mind whenever I travel locally. That said, can someone explain to me why people have to line up inside the stations before they board the train?

    Occasionally I walk through King Street Station from Pioneer Square to the International District for fun, and I’m always really confused as to why there is a line. Are you not allowed to pick your seat (or get it assigned) when you buy online and just board once the train pulls in? Or is this some form of ticket control (as opposed to, you know, having someone check tickets once the train is moving)? I’m really rather confused by this.

    1. They don’t have to line up. You can get to the station 15 minutes or so before and still get on. I’ve gotten on the Cascades trains with two minutes to spare and gotten on, though officially the gates close 5-10 minutes before departure.

      People do line up so they can get the seat they want.

      1. Hmm. Still a bit strange you can’t select seats online–and strange there are “gates” that close. Someday we will grow up.

      2. Maybe. Someday.
        We can hope.

        In the meantime there is a trade show group called “Secure Rail” that promotes paranoia, passengers going through airline security procedures before getting on a train, and various other things that, if implemented, will make things worse before they get better.

        Gotta keep all those well connected gate manufacturers in business, no matter how much it inconveniences people.

    2. I ride Amtrak regularly. It is a system. It clearly not an optimal system. In case you were wondering, someone does go through and check that everyone has their paper slip which they got at one of the two lines you need to go through to get on the platform. Now that I think about it. I should make comments on their feedback page. Might help get them to make a more sane system.

  4. http://www.rtands.com/index.php/freight/class-1/oregon-dot-approves-nearly-dol12-million-for-rail-projects.html?channel=

    qoute”Monday, August 22, 2016
    Oregon DOT approves nearly $12 million for rail projects
    Written by Kyra Senese, assistant editor

    The commission approved Union Pacific’s application for about $8.3 million to fund its Portland Passenger-Freight Rail Speed Improvement Project, which was the highest monetary award to any of the rail applicants.

    Union Pacific’s project proposal stated that the project is intended to reduce passenger and freight rail wait times by up to 21 minutes per train with the completion of track, signal and elevation improvements “at a critical BNSF/UP junction in the Portland rail network.” The proposal also said the project will remove the need for an existing 10 mph speed limit that currently causes delays for the 35 daily Amtrak, UP and BNSF trains that travel along the junction. …”

    1. What? Someone woke up the UP?

      It’s going to be interesting to see how they handle this.

      The junction in question is North Portland Junction. The track that wanders off to the top left goes to Port of Portland Terminal 6 and a few other industrial customers that generate some long trains for both the UP and BNSF.

      The track that goes down to the lower left is the main line that Amtrak must use to get to Union Station, and the track that goes straight down is the line that connects Seattle and points north with the UP main line.

      If a train comes off the branch to the industrial areas and has to get to the UP main line, it either has to follow the line all the way around the North Portland Peninsula (which would be bad because it would consume crew hours) or it has to go through this junction.

      Notice how close the branch to the Port of Portland and the UP are to eachother. This means none of the switches here are fast, and the junction is essentially unchanged since 1920. Those are some of the switches with 10 mph speed restrictions.

      The result is that UP trains that go through here from the Port of Portland and industrial areas to the UP main line wind up blocking the entire BNSF main line for about 20 minutes at a time – if everything goes well.

      If everything doesn’t go well, the UP freight in question gets stuck waiting for a clear signal at UP’s end of North Portland Junction with the rear section of the train blocking the BNSF main line and everything else.

      It will be interesting to see how well they wind up solving this problem. My hope is that the UP winds up with a routing that completely separates their stuff from having to cross the BNSF at grade anywhere.

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