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MV Olympic on Ketron Island (photo by the author)

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.

35 Replies to “Saying goodbye to the Point Defiance scenic route”

  1. Thanks Bernie, I enjoyed reading your article. It reminded me of when my wife and I would take the train to Portland for the weekend while her mother watched the kids. I probably haven’t been to Portland in a decade, and don’t really feel any desire to visit Portland these days, so what is the point of the trip on the train.

    There was always something relaxing once you were on the train, after the flurry of getting the kids and mother-in-law ready and getting to the train. We would usually head down Friday afternoon, and I enjoyed a beer in the club car.

    The one issue with Portland is first/last mile access from the train station. If you have luggage, and back then needed to catch a cab, it was a very, very long wait, and not cheap. If you rented a car overnight parking was $25.

    Mostly we would shop at the stores downtown and dine there so mostly we walked everywhere, and I always thought Portland did a better job than Seattle in maintaining it historic buildings and downtown charm, although I have not been there for a long time, and very likely will never go there again.

    1. Several car rental agencies will pick you up at the station. If I remember right Enterprise is one of them. They have locations all over Portland, and not just at the airport, so they have some flexibility and don’t have to store a car in the parking structure.

      Also, if you are wanting auto access from the train, Vancouver WA is just as good for a number of locations in the northern half of the region, and Oregon City on the southern end.

      Before and after each train arrival, there’s usually dozens of taxis waiting just outside Union Station. I’m not sure why you would have trouble getting one, but I think a bunch of people call ahead to reserve one.

      By far the biggest first/last mile problem in Portland is the homeless camp that has set up on the MAX platforms closest to the station. This has made it at best unpleasant to get to and from the station if you use transit.

  2. One minor nit:

    Longview into Portland is roughly the same distance as Seattle to Tukwila

    I think this is probably Vancouver, WA to Portland? Longview to Portland is in the 50 mile range.

    I’ve heard some people refer to the Vancouver, WA to Portland Union Station section of track as the “terrible ten” due to the amount of rail congestion there. North to south there’s:

    1. The junction between BNSF north-south and BNSF east-west main lines, plus the track for the Port of Vancouver industrial areas.

    2. The Columbia River drawbridge

    3. The junction with the Peninsula Terminal, which serves industrial stuff just south of the Columbia River.

    4. The junction with track going out to the Port of Portland terminal 6.

    5. The junction with the Union Pacific main line, where UP trains coming from terminal 6 to the UP main line going east will block all lines going all directions for the duration of whatever it takes for their train doing 10 mph over the primitive junction switch.

    6. The Willamette River drawbridge

    7. The junction between Portland & Western to Astoria and the BNSF main line.

    8. Portland Terminal Railroad Guild’s Lake Yard

    9. Union Station, which is on the same side of the main line as Guild’s Lake Yard, so that any freight traffic from the Steel Bridge to the yard blocks passenger trains to and from the station.

    1. Yes, that should have said Vancouver, not Longview. Interesting discussion with my son going through Longview about the Trojan nuclear plant. I was hoping to see the cooling towers as I can remember back when they were sending up clouds of steam. My son said there were never any operating nuclear plants in western Washington. He looked it up on his phone and we learned that 1) the plant was on the other side of the river and therefore in Oregon and 2) the towers were demolished in 2006. I knew it had been decommissioned but hadn’t been to Portland since then.

      1. You can only get there by driving or a very infrequent bus, but the Portland General Electric surplus store as well as a day use park are both still on the site. You can’t access the area where the tower was though.

        The service to the area used to be from Columbia County but that route got Covid19 Chopped, and it’s now provided by Sunset Empire Transit. However, I don’t know if the Prescott Beach stop (the closest stop to the park) is still active. None of these smaller agencies have especially good web sites.

  3. Thanks for the article. I’ve taken the Coast Starlight to California three times between 1986 and 2015, and Cascades to Portland maybe a dozen times in that timeframe. Most of my trips in the 1990s and 2000s were on Greyhound due to the lower fares, better schedules, areas without an Amtrak station, and unlimited monthly passes Greyhound used to offer. In the late 2000s I switched to Amtrak in spite of the higher fares, for the train experience and amenities.

    I don’t know the landmarks in Ruston and the west Tacoma/Steilacoom shore like you do, so I just thought it was beautiful. However, I’ll gladly trade that for the faster bypass. The coastal route would be good for excursion trains, like the former Woodinville-Renton dinner train. I’ve never seen the dinner train but my friend’s family took out-of-town guests on it and raved about what a great experience it was.

    The first few times I took the train to Portland and beyond, it only went fast in the central stretch, and for a few short stretches outside that. Otherwise there were disappointing slowdowns all over the place, like there still is on the north rail line (or at least was the last time I took it in 2009). But sometime in the 90s or 00 the south line became fast from King Street Station all the way to the Columbia River. Not HSR fast but closer to its 79 mph speed limit. WSDOT was incrementally improving it a piece at a time, and if finally all fell into place. That never happened on the north line. But then the train crawled from the Oregon border to Portland Union Station, showing that ODOT was investing much less in the corridor than WSDOT was. Both Oregon and British Columbia have notably worse Cascades tracks than Washington does. Then the north Portland speed improved somewhat, and it was fast the entire way from King Street Station to Portland Union Station. Again, in sharp contrast to the north Cascades and Empire Builder.

    I think of Portland as right next to the Washington border, and that it should only take five or ten minutes from the north Columbia shore to Portland Union Station, but it always ends up taking thirty minutes or more. It seems to take an inordinate amount of time to cross Hayden Island, and another inordinate amount in north Portland. At first I blamed it on the train’s crawling slowness in Oregon, but then it speeded up so it wasn’t noticeably slower than in Washington. Still it takes a lot of time between the north Columbia shore and Union Station. I guess it’s a longer distance than I think it is.

    I also want to get back to Tacoma, and see downtown again, and go to the museums, and the Tacoma Central Link terminus Troy suggested, and the Tacoma Mall area, and Point Defiance Park. Not all in the same day probably. That reminds me, I need to decide when to go.

    I’ve also thought about taking Cascades to Bellingham or Kelso/Longview someday and spending an afternoon there.

    “Union Station is impressive.”

    Union Station and the surrounding Portland area have done several things right. Union Station is a multimodal terminal for both Amtrak and Greyhound. The Greyhound part of the station is larger than the Seattle Greyhound station was or is, and better kept up than the atrocious old Greyhound station at 9th & Stewart. (The new station at Stadium Station is better kept up, like Greyhound’s other newer stations.) The neon sign outside, “Go By Train”, is a good urbanist touch. The copycat “Go By Streetcar” sign is, well, at least it’s right in spirit, even though the streetcars should get more exclusive lanes and signal priority if they’re going to build it at all.

    Daniel: “The one issue with Portland is first/last mile access from the train station. ”

    It is a longish walk from Union Station to MAX’s original east-west lines. That could have been better planned. But there’s a north-south bus stop a block or two from the station if you don’t want to walk all the way. And now north-south MAX stops closer to the station. As for last-mile access to somewhere else downtown, it depends on where you want to go to.

    “The interior, however, seems much more nostalgic, perhaps because of the neon signs”

    I don’t recall neon signs inside Union Station, just outside. Maybe they were installed after I was last there in 2015, or maybe I didn’t notice them. If I didn’t notice them, they must not have been that noticeable. King Street Station used to have a noticeable neon sign inside, “ELECTRIC STAIRS” pointing to an escalator up to the Jackson Street entrance. Both the sign and escalators are now gone, replaced by a stair.

    “I always thought Portland did a better job than Seattle in maintaining it historic buildings”

    I’ve always thought that about both Portland and Tacoma and Spokane. They all have more 19th-century brick buildings and early 20th century art deco buildings and other pre-WWII buildings, while Seattle seems to have torn down most of its counterparts and replaced them with steel-and-glass monstrosities.

    If you want to really see a preserved pre-WWII town, go to Aberdeen. It’s been depressed for decades, but the flip side of that is it escaped losing its pre-WWII buildings. It would be a great place for a group of urban homesteaders to live and build a more vibrant community in. The downside is the lack of transit access to the region. There are all-day buses to the neighboring towns, but service to Olympia seems to be peak-only weekdays. And if you can’t get to Olympia, you can’t get to Tacoma or Seattle, even if you only intend to go once a month or less. And Highway 101 is a four- or six-lane traffic jam through the center of downtown. That sucks. And some of the houses have excessively large setbacks from the street, so I wouldn’t want to live in those houses. It takes a longer time than it should to walk across wide 101 and then the deep front yards. And there aren’t many jobs or good-paying ones, so you’d have to bring your own business or work remotely or commute to Olympia or be financially independent. But there is a nice waterfront trail, which I assume was built in the 2010s.

    1. The Greyhound station across the street from Portland Union Station has closed, and Greyhound and Flixbus stop at the curb north of the station on a fairly narrow sidewalk between the tracks and the road. Tillamook Transit also serves the station, as does Oregon POINT buses to Eugene and Cannon Beach /Astoria.

      I guess it’s ok, but it’s not a true multi-modal shared facility like the Salem or Spokane stations, where Amtrak and Greyhound have offices and waiting areas in the same building.

      Seattle could do something similar with King Street if the road loop south of the station was turned into a bus access area, rather than the silly dead end street that serves buses now.

      1. Across the street? I thought it was inside Union Station but I may be remembering wrong.

        How often are the buses to Astoria now? Sometime I intend to visit somebody in… a town that starts with G near Cannon Beach, and I’ve been wondering how difficult it would be to get there. One of my favorite Greyhound trips was on the coastal route from Portland to San Francisco but it was deleted, and I’ve heard there’s on-again, off-again, hard-to-find bus service to the coastal towns now.

      2. During the King Street Station renovation planning, they offered space to Greyhound for a joint terminal, but it refused. saying it wanted to stay in its old location at 9th & Stewart. It only got a few years to enjoy it because the building was demolished for a hotel and Greyhound had to move, but it had already declined the offer to locate to King Street Station. So it ended up near King Street Station instead. And I assume the reason for that location was access to both I-90 and I-5, and because Link proximity would attract more passengers to Greyhound. That was a problem at the old location because I’d be returning home and other passengers would often ask me how to get to the bus to the airport or to the Amtrak station, and it’s hard to explain how to walk from there to Westlake Station or Convention Place Station if they’re unfamiliar with the area. Now it’s drop-dead easy: “Look around and you’ll see the Link station. Take it south to SeaTac/Airport Station, or north to International District Station or walk to King Street Station.”

      3. Bus or train. I thought I was directing them sometimes to Convention Place, sometimes to Westlake, but then I thought Link started in 2016 so I couldn’t have directed them to Westlake. But Link started in 2009, so I did direct them to Westlake, partly so they wouldn’t have to pay double fare for just one stop from Convention Place to Westlake since they didn’t have an ORCA card.

      4. Gearhart must be the town I’m thinking of. Good, it goes there.

        This reminds me of another issue I’ve had with Greyhound. When I went across the country to New York on the northern route (I-90/I-94) a few times in the early 2000s, I went to the Seattle ticket office and got a through ticket the whole way, even though some segments were on non-Greyhound Trailways carriers. I remember stopping in a nice-looking town Happy Valley in North Dakota, one of those tiny towns nobody got on/off, and the driver said he gets one on/off per year and that Greyhound was going to stop stopping there. I took this to mean there would be express runs stopping only at the larger cities. But what ended up happening was Greyhound withdrew between Missoula and Minneapolis. Sometimes the website would route me through Denver instead, and sometimes it wouldn’t offer any ticket east of Denver at all, and to get the northern route I’d have to ride to Missoula and see if there was anything further from there, which I wasn’t going to do in case there wasn’t. I think the service just disappeared and was then replaced by state-level carriers, but you couldn’t get a ticket through Greyhound, so how are you supposed to get a ticket when you’re several states away and don’t even know what the company is or whether any exist?

      5. Oh, and sometimes it would route me through Denver via Pasco and Boise, which I did, and it was a nice laid-back backcountry segment, and other times it wanted me to go to Sacramento and transfer there, which I refused to do because it would have added a day to the trip.

      6. Tillamook Transit also serves the station
        That would be a fun extended weekend trip. I’ve yet to see the Air Museum. Do they hold the bus for late arriving trains? Amtrak arrives at PDX at 10:55AM and the bus departs at 11:20AM. That’s a nice transfer but if Amtrak is late the next bus doesn’t get you to Tillamook until 5:50PM so you’ve blown an entire day. I’d plan that on Friday and then take the early bus back to PDX Sunday morning with the plan to spend the day in Portland and return on the 7:30PM Cascades.

      7. Yeah I know, people on here are used to complaining about coverage routes that run hourly, an that Portland- Tillamook bus is only twice a day.

        As far as I know, they don’t hold it for late trains.

        I think at one time they might have had four trips a day in the summer months.

      8. Mike, the town is “Gearhart” and the POINT buses go directly to it twice a day on their way to Astoria.

        Buses leave Portland Union Station at 8:20 AM and 5:30 PM. It takes two hours and forty-five minutes to Gearhart. It costs about $16 to Gearhart each way.

    2. Oh, and the neon signs on the inside of Portland Union Station:
      They’re not so very large but they’ve been there since the 1930s Art Deco modernization effort (Union Station was put in service in 1893, so a few decades older than King Street and a few modernization efforts happened over the years).

      1. I must be thinking of the Greyhound station then. I’m imagining red brick walls, not white. The sign looks nice. I must not have been in Union Station enough to remember it.

        Why are Greyhound buses boarding at the curb? Is the building under renovation or was it replaced by another use?

      2. I think Greyhound just found the area difficult to operate a building with a public entry. There’s a concentration of homeless “shelters” (several of which only provide meals) in the area, so that there’s been a significant homeless population there. Over the past several years it’s gotten much worse.

  4. Why does Amtrak stop at Tukwila? I get the desire for a suburban station somewhere between Seattle and Tacoma, but why Tukwila specifically?

    1. It seems to be political. Tukwila has political clout, or politicians see Renton Boeing and Southcenter as the star job centers in South King County, and a natural focal point to support the surrounding areas. South King’s ask in ST3 focused mainly on Federal Way, Tukwila, and Renton. Federal Way got a Link extension, Tukwila got BAR station, and Renton got two Stride stops and a new transit center. Other things South King asked for but didn’t get were a Renton-Burien Link line (an extension of the West Seattle line), a BAR Sounder station, and Renton-Bellevue commuter rail. Although it didn’t get them, much of the pre-ST3 energy was dedicated to studying them. In that context it’s easy to see King County politicians pushing WSDOT for a suburban Amtrak station at Tukwila. I think the Amtak station should be further south, in Kent or Auburn.

      Southcenter is a designated urban growth center, and there’s already some residential development on Baker Blvd just east of Macy’s. Residents there are right near the Southcenter transit stop, and even the Sounder/Cascades station is supposedly within walking distance via a new ped-rail bridge across the mainline that I think is open already.

      1. Uhhhh… Renton is in ST’s East King subarea.

        To be clear, all the expensive Kent, Auburn and Sumner Sounder parking garages are in South King. And those garages will be providing free parking for Sounder riders who don’t live in the ST taxing district — like Maple Valley and Black Diamond.

      2. My understanding is Amtrak put their station there first, and then ST added the other Sounder stations at a later time. Or was it meant to plug into some theoretical ST infrastructure that never materialized in ST2/3?

    2. I think that there would be value to create (or recreate) one station designated as the “South King Grand Central Station”. It should have direct HOV freeway access (405 or 167) and offer Amtrak, Sounder, Metro RapidRide BRT, ST Stride/ Express and someday Link. It should ideally have paid overnight parking and rental cars, and have mixed-use TOD there.

      The peanut butter approach by city has its political advantages, but it really pushes against what could be a better systems setup for South King.

      1. Yeah I agree there is value in a suburban station, for the access to overnight parking and rental cars. Just curious why Tukwila.

    3. It would seem to make more sense geographically to use Auburn. My guess was station ownership. I believe Puyallup, Auburn and Kent are all owned by Sound Transit. Is Tukwilla on BNSF property or owned by Amtrak? At Freighthouse Square Sounder and Amtrak have separate stations. I don’t know if the platform is set up to have two trains boarding at the same time.

      1. My understanding is Tukwila was pushed for by political entities because it’s the closest to Sea-Tac, and at the time there was a single bus route that connected the station to the airport.

        Considering the huge number of buses operated by the port as part of the parking lot shuttle, sending a few trips down the hill to Tukwila doesn’t seem like it would be such a problem, especially if it was the port that asked the station be used.

  5. I’m going to miss the Pt. Defiance Bypass. What little time is gained is more than offset by the picturesque scenery through this segment, from the Rustin waterfront to passing under the Narrows Bridge to sliding by Chambers Bay and Steilacoom.

    I would have much rather they improved the time elsewhere in the trip. It was interesting when I had a Speedometer app open to see how far more often the train approached 80 mph than I would have guessed before-hand. My top irritant speed-wise on the train I was on was, despite it being far above the roadways below, the train went at a snail’s pace through Vancouver, Washington (unlike in Marysville, which is in dire need of grade separation to avoid the necessary pokyness). Another area of slowdown was just north of Longview/Kelso due to there being a single track segment in that area.

    1. Routing Amtrak over the bypass wasn’t done to specifically for the improvements in running time.

      It allowed Amtrak to add 4 more trains to the (pre-covid) schedule, which would have made a total of 7 Portland-Seattle round trips.

    2. I’m going to miss the Pt. Defiance Bypass.

      That’s exactly what spurred me to take this trip. Obviously the scenery isn’t a big driver for ridership. “It’s great, I should do it someday”. I do hope there will be some excursion trains that take this route.

      Overall it makes a lot of sense for the bypass. Incremental improvements help increase ridership. Non BNSF ROW improves reliability Cascades is taking the long game to HSR and I think that’s the right choice. There’s still time to book a trip on the scenic route!

    3. There is no “single-track segment anywhere on the legacy coastal route except the Point Defiance tunnel.

      And the train tracks are at grade theough Vancouver, not elevated. The three major streets that at one time crossed the tracks now over-pass them.

      Recently over-passes were completed at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge and the main street in Ridgefield. There is only one remaining at-grade crossing between The Pearl District and Woodland, at a little-used access to a dozen houseboats in Felida.

      Were it not for the tight curve south of Ridgefield, Cascades trains could run at 79 all the way from 78th Street to Kelso with only the three crossings in Woodland and that houseboat access.

      It’s not HSR, but it’s very well-protected from cars.

      1. The train runs very slowly through Tacoma (25-30mph ?). Maybe because of switches. From the upper seating on the Starlight you might have a view but on Cascades it’s a wall of freight cars often on both sides. I suspect there is a speed restriction in the tunnel because Cascades doesn’t get up to speed until south of there.

        In Steilacoom there is an at grade crossing at the ferry terminal. And a lot of pedestrians crossing at Sunnyside Park. The by-pass is more direct and much more reliable by avoiding freight conflicts. The time savings isn’t huge, on the order of 10 minutes IIRC. But if you keep chopping away at travel time and increase reliability it’s progress. As a bonus, Sounder and Amtrak stations in Tacoma are side by side.

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