Saturday, July 2nd, my son and I took Amtrak Cascades from Seattle to Portland. Train 503 was scheduled to depart King Street Station at 7:25AM. We opted to take ST Express from Mercer Island P&R into Seattle. Our goal was to arrive at 6:30 a.m. to catch the 6:36 a.m. bus. We ended up making a big circle to find the entrance to the P&R and got to Bay 1 just in time to watch our bus pull away at 6:35. Our backup bus was the 554 scheduled to leave Mercer Island at 6:48 arriving at 4th and Jackson at 7:02. The bus didn’t show up until 7:00 which was going to make it really tight to catch our train. Fortunately there’s no traffic at that time on a Saturday morning and we boarded the train with 5 minutes to spare.
We took seats at the very back of the train facing backward. Normally I’m not a fan of facing away from the direction of travel but this gave us leg room and an unobstructed view of an entire window facing west. The train departed on time and after a peekaboo view of Boeing Field we were at Tukwila Station 12 minutes later. The ride from Tukwila to Tacoma was uneventful. I did notice that the speed and quality of ride was far superior to the experience I’ve had riding Sounder on the upper level. I’m also left to wonder why Amtrak Cascades stops at Tukwila but not at Puyallup or Auburn.
It’s sad that Tacoma wasn’t able to retain passenger service at its Beaux Arts inspired Union Station, but it certainly has more daily visitors in its current use as a U.S. Courthouse. And it’s served by Tacoma Link. The current Tacoma Amtrak station has all the charm of a 1970’s Greyhound building and it’s not very convenient to other transit connections. This will change when the Point Defiance bypass is reopened and service will be moved to Freighthouse Square. Even so, nearly as many people boarded at Tacoma as in Seattle.
Leaving Tacoma we were treated to a terrific view of the redevelopment along the Ruston Way waterfront. Near the north end we spied a vintage ferry which we thought was another restaurant, but later found out that the Point Ruston Historic Ferry is in fact a “moving showroom“. Only one of many reasons it’s time to plan another trip to explore Tacoma!
After Ruston Way we plunged into darkness; the single track tunnel around Point Defiance is a huge reason the bypass route was built. Emerging on the other side, we were treated to a fantastic waterfront view. This was the motivating factor in making this trip before the bypass makes this a bygone era. I had no idea there were so many floating homes, homes on piles and small marinas along the University Place waterfront. The first point I recognized was Steamers Seafood Cafe, which sadly closed its doors on April 11th.
The next place I recognized was the Town of Steilacoom. The old railway station is still there but still unused and may not survive much longer. We also saw the Anderson Island and Ketron Island Ferries in service. On Ketron Island, we saw an old ferry beached along the shore. It’s visible on Google Maps satellite imagery. It looks about the right size to be the Rhododendron but seemed too decayed for a vessel that was in active service until 2012, and Wikipedia says is now a support vessel on Vancouver Island. It turns out it’s the MV Olympic.
South of Dupont, the tracks turn inland to follow the Nisqually River. It’s amazing how much of the route runs along creeks and rivers. It must be somewhere near here that the bypass route ties in, because we were soon pulling into Centennial Station (Olympia/Lacey). Blowing through the small towns of Tenino and Bucoda, the next stop was Centralia with its rather impressive historic train station: “It evokes Centralia’s pioneer spirit and a time when steam locomotives rumbled into town over 40 times a day“!
Continuing south, it’s a long haul to Kelso/Longview and another historic train station. The view improves as the tracks follow the Cowlitz River and then the Columbia. This stretch is the first time the tracks parallel I-5 and you can appreciate that the train is running faster than the 70+ mph automobiles. And in all the years of driving I-5 I’d never realized that the train tracks actually travel in the I-5 median for a stretch.
Longview into Portland is roughly the same distance as Seattle to Tukwila, and if anything even more industrial. After crossing the Columbia, there is nothing but scrap yards and chemical plants until you are literally within walking distance of Portland’s Union Station. Union Station is impressive. The architecture is similar Seattle’s King Street Station including a massive clock tower. The interior, however, seems much more nostalgic, perhaps because of the neon signs
The first part of the adventure completed successfully, it was off to find the MAX Orange Line and tour the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation. Our experience with using TriMet and the return to Seattle will be in subsequent articles. As a teaser, our transit luck went from Good to Bad to Ugly.