New Cascades locomotives (WSDOT)

In August Frank reported that “by the end of the year” the Pt. Defiance Bypass would open to Cascades trains, shaving 10 minutes off the trip to Portland and allowing a 13% increase in on-time arrivals. WSDOT is also using this occasion to deploy its new locomotives on two daily round trips to Portland. Now we have a date: WSDOT announced that service on the bypass would begin on December 18th.

The changes were funded by the Obama-era stimulus. There will be minor adjustments to the Eugene-Portland schedule to better accommodate through trips.

Now riders have more options for holiday trips to Portland. You can find the full timetable here.

33 Replies to “Cascades to Bypass Pt. Defiance Dec. 18th”

  1. Next step? How about upgrade most of the Tacoma to Vancouver, WA segment to Class 6 track for 110 mph speed service? Does that require separate tracks from freight, or just actually implementing PTC (positive train control signaling)?

    1. You would probably want just one Class 6 track and use the adjacent existing track for opposing trains to pass each other. Class 6 track requires a lot of extra maintenance and it would be more cost effective to focus that effort on one track.

    2. From what I have heard BNSF says they will allow up to 90 MPH on their track, but anything more requires separate tracks.

    1. Agreed. It is a much bigger savings, really. Assuming 170 miles for the trip:

      55 MPH — 3 hours, 5 minutes
      90 MPH — 1 hour, 53 minutes
      110 MPH — 1 hour, 32 minutes

      Diminishing returns, and all that. This doesn’t include the time spent at each stop, or the fact that the train probably can’t go much of the way at top speed. Still, it seems like you should be able to do a trip from Seattle to Portland in a little over two hours, and might be able to do the whole thing in less than two if you ran as an express, and stop only in, say, Tacoma. That changes the dynamic, as end to end trips become faster than both driving or flying.

      1. Ha, oh well, shows how much I know. Just to complete the table:

        55 MPH — 3 hours, 5 minutes
        79 MPH — 2 hours, 10 minutes
        90 MPH — 1 hour, 53 minutes
        110 MPH — 1 hour, 32 minutes

        Running at 90 MPH saves at best 17 minutes, but of course, it saves a lot less than that. Otherwise, the train would be arriving a lot sooner than the 3 hours, 20 minutes that is scheduled. I do wonder if an express would be much faster, or if the problem is due to too many twists and turns that prevent the train from getting up to speed.

      2. An express really wouldn’t save any time because the speed of the trains is limited by freight interference more than anything.

        You could do the same thing BoltBus does and advertise a much slower schedule and usually beat it. Today that is limited by having to hit each intermediate stop at a scheduled time, which adds to the freight interference.

        There’s also schedule padding at the Willamette River and Columbia River drawbridges. You could avoid some of that padding by going straight through and just leaving some trip padding for Seattle to Portland.

      3. If you look at the Amtrak schedule, Tukwila->Seattle seems to take quite a bit longer than Seattle to Tukwila. Similar with Vancouver->Portland. In reality, the train travels at essentially identical speeds in both directions, and the difference in schedules is purely about adding padding between the major cities. Most of the time, the northbound train arrive in Tukwila late, use the padding to make up time, and arrive in Seattle essentially on-time. In the rare cases where the train makes it to Tukwila on-time, it arrives in Seattle early.

        The BoltBus also puts a lot of padding in the schedule – it’s listed as 3:15 each way, but I’ve actually done it in 2:45 when traffic is light.

        The difference between the two is that, with Bolt, traffic delays mostly occur during rush hour, and can be avoided by avoiding the trips that enter or leave Seattle or Portland during morning/afternoon rush hour. For instance, when I clocked 2:45, I was taking a day-trip to Portland on a Sunday. Amtrak, on the other hand, freight traffic can be just as unpredictable as rush hour car traffic, only it happens at all times of day, rush hour or non-rush hour. A lot of the bottleneck happens from the single-track section around Point Defiance. Hopefully, the improvements will make things more reliable. Although, truth be told, Bolt will still likely win on both speed and reliability, at least when traveling on a Sunday.

      1. Probably not much of a change, there will be a few more grade crossings until the I-5 JBLM project is complete, where most of those south of Lakewood will get grade separated. There are a number still north of Lakewood however, all of them have been renewed so they are the most modern designs and tied into traffic signals, etc. Plus all the track is relatively new.

      2. The two crossings that are along the water are rather hazardous ones: the Stielacoom Ferry and the brewpub at Titlow Beach.

        There are far fewer curves on the Lakewood line so less derailment risk.

        There are so few railroad accidents per trains operated I don’t think it would be possible to measure an increase or decrease in safety.

      3. Glenn in Portland, you forgot about the Old Town crossing at McCarver Street, where two people have died in the last year. Removing the higher-speed passenger trains and leaving only slow freight trains will help a lot there.

  2. Has anybody here ever ridden, or even looked at, the track along the water north of Richmond Beach?

    And noticed how prone to slides around Mukilteo? This isn’t political or regulatory.

    Thought, though. Do we have any fall-back to underused straight track equivalent to the underused straight right-of-way from Tacoma Dome to the Nisqually River?


    1. No, none. Trains can’t even go around via Renton any longer because the I-405 crossing is gone. BNSF has sufficient backup for its transcontinental traffic by going around through Vancouver or over Stampede to Tri-Cities. They don’t need the old NP through Bellevue

      1. Thanks, Richard. Had the wrong Vancouver too. Though wouldn’t hurt ours to have a SkyTrain and all the police wear red coats and Smoky The Bear hats (like our Highway Patrol.)

        Also a good move to defeat bi-State legislative stupidity. We could have automated trains operable by humans all the way across the river and running express over the MAX yellow line. Before anybody in Salem (too busy trying witches) or Olympia realize that rail doesn’t have to be light for them to have to oppose it.


    2. No fallback route from Seattle to Everett *at all*. Once upon a time, there was the route now known as the Burke-Gilman Trail. After that closed, the route along the east side existed until it was severed at I-405. Now there’s no fallback route.

      This means eventually Seattle-Everett service will end, since the beachside route is hopeless in the long run. Hopefully Link will make it to Everett by then because the trains from Vancouver BC and Chicago will be terminating there. That’s a problem which will be faced in another decade though.

      1. “…Everett by then because the trains from Vancouver BC and Chicago will be terminating there.”

        What on earth are you talking about?

      2. Why would BNSF allow their only north-south railroad route to cease service? Yes, it requires routine, long-term maintenance. So do a lot of things. That line connects multiple ports, including Canadian ports. The Seattle-Everett rail line isn’t going away any time soon without construction of an alternative route first.

  3. Just in time for the holidays! I’ll look forward to the quicker trip and more options for visiting family and friends in Portland, though I’ll definitely miss the views of the Sound. Ultimately worth the tradeoff though.

  4. It sucks trading off the Old Tacoma, Narrows, and Ketron Island views for the dumpsters behind Taco Bells and strip clubs…and basically everything else you see from the freeway. It seems like a huge downgrade, but, oh well, progress I guess. I have to admit, those new late departures will be cool. Also, reliability seems of higher value than the meager time savings.

    I need to do a fall trip to Portland to get one last look in.

      1. That section of the line is straight and not owned by BNSF. That part could probably be 110 mph.

      2. Not safely, or at least not yet. Once the crossings are grade-separated, yes, certainly, but not until. It’s just way too squeezed between the freeway, tracks and the “service” type roads parallel to the freeway on the other side of the tracks from it. People are likely to be trapped occasionally. They may indeed “deserve” it because of their impatience, but a van with kids flying through the air will make terrible 11:00 news footage.

      3. It would be short, but would be worth it as advertising for the train. People will be more likely to consider it as an option when it blows by stop and go traffic on I5.

  5. Kindof amazing, but:

    – NYC -> WAS is 3 hr 25 min on Northeast Regional trains, for 220 miles
    – SEA -> PDX is now 3 hr 20 min on Cascades, for about 200 miles

    That’s not high speed rail, but really not bad.

  6. This is more about the new timetable – why does train utilization appear to be so low? Train 501 arrives in Portland at 9:20, but the next train northbound is at Noon; train 503 arrives at Noon but couldn’t logically leave until 3:20 (I’ll rule out the possibility of a zero-minute turn); train 517 arrives at 2:50 pm but couldn’t leave until 5:40 pm (the 3:20 pm departure is already taken by the turn from 503).

    Even if Japanese or German turn times are considered infeasible, the airlines in the US routinely turn airplanes in 30-60 minutes, including restocking the supplies, fueling, and servicing the lavatories.

    1. If the US had Japanese-style reliability, ridership and budget, trains could be turned in under an hour. Until then…

    2. Because 501 becomes 511 Monday through Friday, doesn’t it? Would make way more sense to have the train continue on than to use a different set for PDX-EUG so 501 can flip.

  7. I just earlier this week drove from O’Hare to Zion, IL, and vicinity. I crossed over the ex-MILW (now CP I think) double track mainline a few times during my visit. I remember reading that the Milwaukee Road Chicago-Milwaukee trains regularly ran at 100+ MPH IN THE 1930s on that line. It’s still good looking track.

    The 79 mph limit is because the BNSF mainline does not have cab signals. I don’t know if it is still true, but at one point the UP was supposed to have had cab signals between E. Oregon and Portland.

    1. It seems like once positive train control is implemented, cab signals would be a non-issue.

      1. That’s correct, insofar as what I have read in the trade journals has said. But alignment and track roadbed requirements get more critical as speed increases, and it’s not necessarily a linear relationship.

        I have been on the Coast Starlight in the Willamette Valley, listening to the trackside “talking hotbox” monitors when they announced the train speed as well up into the 80 pph range. (The UP ones give the speed, the BNSF ones don’t. I carry a radio most everywhere as I’m a communications engineer.)

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