New Cascades locomotives (WSDOT)

Amtrak Cascades, the Northwest’s intercity passenger rail service, will add two new trips between Seattle and Portland by year’s end, a spokesperson for WSDOT confirmed yesterday. WSDOT officials first unveiled the new timetable (PDF) at a rail advocacy picnic in Lacey on Saturday.

The new trips are being added thanks to $800M in federal stimulus funds, which targeted 20 separate projects along the Vancouver-Seattle-Portland corridor, including congestion improvement, expanded stations, and new Siemens Charger locomotives.   Just two projects remain: the Point Defiance Bypass and the Tacoma Trestle, in coordination with Sound Transit. Sound Transit expects the trestle project – which will accommodate another three Sounder trips – to finish “before the end of 2017,” the agency said via email.

WSDOT expects travel times to decrease by 10 minutes per trip, along with much increased reliability. BNSF, which operates the corridor, will be financially incentivized to ensure 88% or better on-time performance.  On-time performance has previously been in the 75% range, with some years better than others. Last winter’s performance suffered from a series of mudslides just North of Portland.

Cascades On Time Performance
Cascades On Time Performance

The new trains are being scheduled with a running time of 3 hours and 20 minutes, and will depart Seattle at 6:00am and 7:45pm and from Portland at 6:20am and 5:40pm. Factoring in the final 7:25pm departure from PDX, it will be possible to day trip from one city to another and spend 9+ hours in town before heading back. We at STB will continue to light a candle for a 3-hour Seattle-Portland express train.

You can read our full interview with the WSDOT rail team last year to learn more about WSDOT’s plans for the corridor and the efforts to improve the system’s ridership, farebox recovery, and on-time performance.

24 Replies to “Amtrak Cascades to Add SEA-PDX Service by the End of the Year”

  1. Great to hear more service is coming. Now while HSR gets studied, we ought to push for even more Cascades and Sounder Service in this corridor and have our state look into expanding inter-city cascades style Service east of the mountains too.

    Its time to reconnect our state.

  2. A few comments:
    First, kudos for unveiling the new schedule at a picnic. I can just picture the transit nerds congregating around a checkered red and white table cloth over a tossed salad and sandwiches. Wish I could have been there.
    Second, this would have been awesome about 7 years ago when I was forced to commute from Seattle – Vancouver WA three days a week during the recession in order to preserve my own job, and, a couple of years later when a family member was confined to a Portland hospital for several months following a car accident. I am glad we are giving improved options to folks who continue to do long commutes for work and family obligations, and for the tourists who choose to travel between Portland and Seattle.
    Third, I’m glad to see improvement on this heavily traveled corridor. I-5 is a mess and will only get worse, so we need to provide other options. This is a step in the right direction. Let’s keep up the good work.

  3. Bolt is still much faster and cheaper. I honestly don’t know how Amtrak manages to compete. The train is nice, but the bus still blows the train out of the water by almost every measure. Why does the train still take over three hours when Bolt does it in 2.5? What else can be done to speed up the trains and bring ticket prices down? I’d love to take the train instead of the bus, but I don’t want to pay twice the price as the bus and get there slower for it.

    1. Because Bolt doesn’t stop between Seattle and Portland; Amtrak makes six stops along the way to pick up and drop off passengers.

      1. Providing more service to people who also pay fares and taxes and who DON’T live in Seattle or Portland. Why has this been so difficult for “transit folks” to grasp for so many years?

    2. I’ve ridden Bolt from Seattle to Portland before, and it’s 2 hours 45 minutes, minimum. That’s 70 mph all the way, with no traffic. It is not possible to make the trip in 2.5 hours without gross speeding. The new improvements put Amtrak within 30 minutes of Bolt, possibly close enough to squeak out ahead on trips that enter or leave a city in the middle of rush hour.

      The intermediate stops are important for coverage, and one thing that trains do well that buses don’t is serve intermediate stops while keeping the time overhead to a minimum. A bus from Seattle to Portland that served all the Amtrak Stations in between, exiting and re-entering the freeway, waiting at multiple stoplights for every stop, would most certainly be slower than the Amtrak.

    3. Aside from trip time, what are the other measures? The train has more space, better amenities, and better scenery. I value the ability to walk around during the journey. I guess some people are content to sit in one place for 3+ hours.

    4. Cascades has always been more expensive than Greyhound but has managed to hold its own. A lot of tourists want to take “the train” because it’s exotic — widespread trains haven’t existed since before they were born or since they were a kid. Most parts of the US have no trains at all, or just sad daily Amtrak. Cascades is higher quality, so a treat. There are enough of these people and business travelers to sell out trains a month in advance.

      I used to take Greyhound monthly to Vancouver BC and occasionally to Portland, San Francisco, and LA between 1997-2006 because it was cheaper, and the Vancouver schedule allowed me to go up Friday after work and arrive in time for a show, go to a club Saturday night, and come back Sunday morning. Cascades would require me to skip Friday night, and either skip Saturday night or spend all day there Sunday.

      I stopped going to Vancouver for weekends in 2001, but I still rode Greyhound around the US. But in 2008 I got tired of it and started taking Amtrak instead, even though the price was higher. Because it’s better quality, more room, electric outlets, train meals instead of McDonald’s, better scenery, away from freeways and cars, nice train stations, better access to local transit, etc. Cost and travel time aren’t the only factor people consider, especially when the cost difference is only $20-40 dollars. And once I got a score on a last-minute trip to Chicago, $130 round trip the day before, when the airlines were charging $250 if not $400. This was in November when the trains are pretty empty (although it illed up completely in North Dakota).

      1. I have actually timed the trip at 2 hours 30 minutes a few times at night, so it is possible even if the bus is speeding. No one complained about arriving early, though. Still, for addition safety (and complying with the law), I could live with a 15 minute travel time extension. :P

        Good points about the intermediate stations. I’m embarrassed to have neglected them. I have often wished Bolt would add a stop in Tacoma to serve south Pugetopia. Maybe even a stop in Olympia would be all right. If provisions could be made to make bus stops more easily and rapidly accessible in the towns along the way, I wonder how much travel time could be shaved off. Even if the travel times would result in a wash, the cost would still be significantly less, especially if you’re paying for more than one person.

        In any event, I’m not a “choice rider” since I have to reply on public transport. Maybe that colors the way I see it. Being from a lower economic strata, it makes me glad I do live in a city served by Bolt. Amtrak tickets, to my wallet, are a luxury. $20 – $40 is a lot a money to someone like me, and I’m grateful for the discount choice of the bus rather than only having an expensive Amtrak option. If I were to spend the extra on the transport, that’s that much less I have to spend on actual activities at my destination. The few times I have a bit of extra cash for a small trip demands wise use of my cash. I’d prefer the experience of the train, but I’m willing to forgo it for the offerings of the town.

        Now if were to do something long like, say, Portland to Vancouver, BC, I’d probably try to save up and splurge for the train. An eight hour bus ride on Bolt’s coaches is not a very appealing prospect. I might do it on Amtrak’s coaches which are surprisingly comfortable. The best Bolt ride I ever had was actually due to a coach breaking down. They had a hire a coach from another company to fill in. They had people at the stop to inform passengers personally and help out. The bus was still on time and boarded normally. It was a very comfortable bus, and I really wish Bolt had coaches more likes those. I don’t know who choose the seats they use. They suck — but then you’re only going to be on the bus for around three hours, give or take 15 minutes.

      2. I certainly understand why you would take Bolt, and have done so myself.

        However, I’ve been able to get Amtrak tickets Portland – Seattle for $26 earlier this year. Bolt was $19, but there is an unadvertised surcharge that increases Bolt ticket prices. It would have been closer to a $5 ticket price difference.

        You should at least try to take the train once between Tacoma and Olympia and sit on the west side of the train. Best is right around sunset. The most scenic section will go away with this change.

    5. Try taking Bolt north out of Portland on a weekday after 2pm. Takes an hour just to get across the Columbia River.

      Try taking Bolt south out of Seattle on a weekday after 1pm. Good luck getting through Tacoma and the Nisqually Valley. Try the same thing northbound on a Summer Sunday.

      Bolt may be fine if you’re headed against rush hour traffic at an off time of the day. For the majority of the workweek, Amtrak still wins.

    6. I honestly don’t know how Amtrak manages to compete.

      Really? The train is a much more pleasant experience, and it’s much easier to get work done. I take Bolt occasionally, and I’d do it more if I were poorer, but it’s not at all difficult to figure out why many people would choose the train.

  4. Bolt schedule is 3 hrs, 15 minutes, so really not that much better than the train.

    It’s 180 miles, and for Bolt to do it in 2.5 hours it would need to average 72 miles per hour over the whole distance. That just isn’t going to happen very often. Seattle – Tumwater, Chehalis – Centralia and Ridgefield – Vancouver are 60 mph speed limits and Portland is 55 mph, with 50 in places.

    1. That was supposed to be a reply to the above comment, but there was a glitch when I posted it and after the page reloaded twice the comment wound up down here.

    2. The Bolt schedule is traffic-padded. If the bus doesn’t hit traffic, it’s 2 hours 45 minutes each way. Of course, most of the time, the bus will hit traffic, and not just during rush hour. You can easily hit a 20 minute delay near the JBLM on a Saturday afternoon.

    3. Yeah, I’ve been on Bolt probably a dozen times, and there were maybe a couple where the trip was completed in *just* under 3 hours, but 3.5+ because of the JBLM cluster**** or other traffic issues are far more common.

      If a Bolt driver is completing the journey end-to-end in 2.5 they’re doing it by breaking the law and endangering public safefy, and they should be fined and/or fired.

  5. The new schedule will be 20 or 30 minutes faster than the current schedule, which I believe still has the construction padding. Most trains currently are 3 hours and 40 minutes, but a couple have an additional 10 minutes. The Coast Starlight will shave off 15 minutes or so.

    Also, I find it noteworthy that the only two trains scheduled to meet within, or close to, the single track zone south of Tacoma are numbers 502 and 11 (Coast Starlight).

    1. The section is quite short, since the line is double-tracked to Lakewood now, and the trains will be going 79mph.

  6. It’s been a long time since I rode the train to Vancouver BC. Looking at the proposed schedule I see that the trip north takes 4 hours northbound, and 4.5 hours on the southbound run. 2 hours of that time is just for the section between Bellingham and Vancouver. That’s a distance of approx 58 miles via rail: an average speed of 30mph. I know that the road along White Rock is in terrible shape, but does that really account for all of this delay? What would it take to get that section up to standards capable of shaving an hour off of the timetable?

    1. Better track and another Fraser River bridge. Sometimes the train waits for a freight train to pass and cross the bridge.

    2. It is appallingly slow once you hit the Canadian border. They could shave an hour off the travel time with a new route and bridge, and even more time with an improved border/customs process.

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