Challenges for Amtrak

As we all know, Amtrak’s ridership has been booming all over the United States. Corridor trains are selling out more often, while long distance trains are a hit among college students with school coming back into session soon. With the recent surge in fuel prices, people are looking at new ways to beat the pump and Amtrak has been hugely popular as a clean and friendly way of getting around.

In recent weeks, there has been several articles about Amtrak now hitting its upper capacity limits, including in the Wall Street Journal. This is a big problem for several reasons:

1. Turning somebody away because there is not enough room should not be an option. The exceptions are our own Amtrak Cascades and the Northeast Corridor’s (NEC) Acela train, which can not add cars as easily as say the Amfleet (as pictured above), Horizon, or Superliner cars.

2. To have the Government take Amtrak as a serious mode of transportation, Amtrak needs as much exposure as possible.

3. Higher ridership figures will benefit studies of and proposals for High Speed Rail, such as the California High Speed Rail Project (which is a good thing, we need HSR).

4. Overcrowding leads to delayed trains because baggage is lost, people have fallen asleep past their station, etc.

What’s most bothersome is that there shouldn’t be any capacity issue. Amtrak has 70+/- serviceable Amfleet passenger cars stored in the Delaware and Bear shops in the Northeast Corridor. Along with these cars are an additional 20+/- serviceable GE P40 locomotives. Amtrak should be talking to Congress on getting these cars and locomotives either rebuilt/refurbished as soon as possible to reduce the overcrowding on trains.

The Amfleet cars are good for at least 80 passengers per car and most corridor trains run between 3-5 cars. This would be an additional capacity of upwards of 400 passengers per train. At 5 car trains each, Amtrak has enough cars for an additional 14 train sets. Realistically, it would be more like 11 or 12, keeping a car or two at each of the terminal locations as a spare. If Amtrak does have more than the 70 cars however, 14 train sets is easily possible. 14 train sets times 400 passengers each train = 5600 potential passengers for these train sets a day, or 2,044,000 passengers a year – And this is only assuming the train is one way at maximum capacity. Make it a round trip and it doubles. Also, trains can be utilized on a corridor several times over.

Amtrak as it stands now is doing excellently in terms of ridership, but it could be doing even better. If Amtrak was granted the money to rebuild these cars and locomotives, Amtrak could start adding service to these strained corridors in less than 6 months time. This would also give Amtrak a cushion with these spare train sets for new service, including the once talked about Seattle – Pasco via Stampede Pass route. Another example use of these extra cars is to replace a broken-down dedicated train set. The Acela and Cascades service have been both pulled for serious mechanical issues. When this happened, Amtrak had to cut services of other trains to provide coverage. This should absolutely never happen.

Amtrak’s corridor trains, excluding the NEC, operate on freight railroad tracks, which is the other major hindrance to Amtrak. Signal issues, or freight trains that are moving slowly or stalled, or just freight congestion period can easily slow a passenger train down by hours. Long-distance trains suffer from this even more.

In order for Amtrak to establish high speed rail, the State and neighboring freight carriers would need to come to a better agreement on how trackage rights work. All of the freight railroads claim that new rail construction is required and would be used for passenger movements only. The maximum speed would be 90-110mph. At a maximum speed of 110mph, it is fast enough to cut travel times by upwards of an hour and a half depending on curves in the corridor. Our Amtrak Cascades corridor could achieve speeds up to 110mph South of Olympia, which would reduce the travel time between Seattle and Portland from 3hr 30 minutes to 2hr 23 minutes (assuming use of the Talgo Tilting equipment).

And finally, the most important thing to any passenger operations is the maintenance of the track. The video below shows the Amtrak Cascades at speed going over a very rough grade crossing. This is one of many issues with aging infrastructure that face these passenger trains all around America.

Amtrak Cascades going over rough crossing in Kalama, WA

FRA and High Speed Rail

From Railway Age:
FRA grants eye grade crossings, rail-flaw detection

The Federal Railroad Administration has awarded grants totaling $5.87 million for rail-flaw detection research and grade crossing warning systems in higher-speed territory. Seven states with federally designated higher-speed rail corridors–California, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin–will share $5.64 million to make safety improvements at 25 highway-rail grade crossings on freight rail corridors that host passenger trains. The funds will support the installation of grade crossing warning systems, crossing closures, and other engineering projects to help prevent motor vehicle/train collisions on these corridors, where higher-speed (110-125 mph) passenger trains may operate in the future. The grants are jointly managed by FRA and the Federal Highway Administration.

I don’t know why but the fact that Washington State wasn’t mentioned as one of the many high speed rail corridors has me quite bothered if HSR will actually come to this region. It doesn’t seem likely now.

Thoughts on the Amtrak Funding Bill

Frank over at Orphan Road has been keeping track of the $15B Amtrak bill that just passed both the US House and Senate with a veto-proof majority. A lot of this bill is for grants, so this could mean something for Seattle.

The first thing the bill does is ensures Amtrak can operate for the next five years without fear of losing funding. Amtrak wasn’t designed with a consistent funding program, so they’re unable to issue bonds like Sound Transit does – they’d have no way of paying them back, because they can’t levy any taxes. Basically, this means Amtrak service gets worse every year as their equipment ages and the small portion of track they actually own slowly becomes the worse for wear. This bill will buy Amtrak some new equipment, and it funds some capital upgrades so they can improve service in the Northeast Corridor, the high speed line between Washington DC, Philadelphia, NYC, and Boston.

Some background before we go further: In Washington, we have a partnership between the Washington State DOT (WSDOT) and Amtrak to provide more service than Amtrak would normally be able to fund. I’ve never been clear on exactly how the costs are split up (Brian might be willing to comment to that), but the state owns most of the trains themselves and pays for most of the service we have. This partnership service is a route called Amtrak Cascades.

Cascades currently runs four daily round trips from Seattle to Portland, one Seattle to Vancouver BC, and one Seattle to Bellingham – although that last one will be extended to Vancouver as well sometime in the next year. The Oregon DOT also funds two round trips from Portland to Eugene. In 2007, the Washington State routes got more than 675,000 riders, the vast majority of those riding between Seattle and Portland.

When there’s bad traffic or a big border delay, this service is already often faster than driving. It takes 3h30m from Seattle to Portland, and 3h55m from Seattle to Vancouver. This really isn’t consistently competitive, though – so WSDOT has a nominally 20 year plan of incremental upgrades to get Seattle-Portland down to 2h30m, and Seattle-Vancouver down to 2h45m. This comes from a lot of small projects, and a few big ones, like building some new segments of passenger-only track on which we could operate at 110mph, instead of the current 79 (and often slower).

Back to the bill: There are two types of grants this bill offers that could affect our service very positively. The first is that it offers grants to develop state passenger corridors. Guess what Amtrak Cascades is? This bill provides $2.5 billion in matching grants, where the federal share can be up to 80%, for state corridor projects. The other type of grant is for the 11 corridors in which the federal government thinks high speed rail is a good idea – these total $1.75 billion. Guess what kind of corridor Amtrak Cascades runs in? Now, we might not get a penny of this money, because the California High Speed Rail Project has a $10 billion bond issue going before voters this November, and their plan is very competitive, but there’s a good chance we’ll get some of this money to improve intercity service.

Cost of Doing Nothing is Not Zero

The California High-Speed Rail Blog, a relatively new blog, devoted to the California High Speed Rail project. The site is mostly specific interest, though some of these posts, like the one above are general interest to any transportation discussion.

The post points to this article in the Fresno Bee about the cost of doing nothing. This bit is particularly interesting:

Opponents of the high-speed system often sound as if this is a choice between spending the $40 billion or spending nothing. That notion is just dead wrong.

Take just one instance. Expanding existing highways and airports to meet the transportation needs projected to come with growth in the state’s population would cost two or there times as much — and would make air quality and congestion even worse. In some cases — San Francisco, Los Angeles — existing airports can’t be expanded. Bigger and better freeways? Expanding Highway 99 in the Valley to an eight-lane interstate would cost as much as $25 billion alone — and that’s just to serve the Valley, not the entire state.

We have a similar effect here, replace “high speed rail” with “transit” and “airports and highways” with just plan old “highways”. Adding one lane each direction to I-5 was projected in the late 90s to cost $25 billion, just within the city limits. The I-405 widening is an $11 billion project, and increasing capacity on I-90 would cost more than SR 520, and just that will cost about $4 billion.

We can’t hope to pave our way out of congestion, and if we tried, we might end up worse off, with a sicker economy and a less healthy region. Transit in general, and light rail specifically, is the cheapest way to move people around this region. We can’t afford to do nothing.

President Bush isses FY 2009 Budget for Amtrak

Same ole song…

Taking Steps to Rationalize the Nation’s Intercity Passenger Rail System
Curtails Federal subsidies. $800 million for Amtrak, which represents a significant but
necessary cut to the railroad’s Federal subsidy.
Requires that Amtrak control its operating losses and focus on services that offer the most
Reserves the bulk of funds for capital investment so improvements may continue along the
heavily trafficked Northeast Corridor.


Reflects that Amtrak has taken few steps to and that it consequently continues to hemorrhage taxpayer
Provides State matching grants. $100 million for State matching grants for intercity passenger
rail capital projects to empower States, not Amtrak, to address their transportation goals and

President Bush continues to starve the Passenger Railroad of the critical funding Amtrak needs to return to a Good State of Repair. Thankfully, the Senate and House will allocate the 1.3+ billion needed.

Another thing that should be noted. Nothing on assistance for Freight Railroads to relieve congestion, nothing on High Speed Rail or Maglev projects. Really seems as if these people don’t care about alternatives that are readily available.

Horizon Air vs Amtrak Cascades! Read on…

I received an interesting message on just how long it took 2 of my friends to get to Portland. Cindy took Amtrak since she hates traveling by plane and Jeff took Horizon Air from Seattle to Portland cause he thinks the all of the problems with the trainset will eventually just fall apart. They both agreed to meet at the Starbucks on Broadway and Morrison. Walking distance from Portland Max or the Portland Streetcar. Neither one had checked baggage this time.

Let’s start off with Jeff’s story. His flight was scheduled to depart at 7:30am. He took Shuttle Express from Kirkland around 4:00am after I gave him a heads up to Airport Construction for the light-rail and new expressway. He ended up waiting only 5 minutes for traffic at the unloading zone. The problem was the line for security which was 2 1/2 hours for the puddle jumper 50 minute flight to PDX. His plane left 43 minutes late due to terminal congestion and excessive planes on taxiway according to the pilot he had a bottle of water and you guessed it… peanuts. On approach to PDX, thanks to strong crosswinds forced them to go around which added another 10-15 minutes. When they finally landed, a hard one at that, they were stuck another 10 minutes for their gate to clear up for another late plane that was supposed to be long, long gone. He walked to the Portland MAX to Downtown Portland for a 40 minute ride to meet the misses.

Cost: $107.74 after taxes round trip

4am Departure
Shuttle Express 30 minutes 4:30
Unload delay 4:35
Security 2 1/2 hours 7:05
Onboard the plane at 7:25
Flight Delay 43 minutes – 8:18
Flight Delay 10 minutes – 8:28
Flight Delay 10 minutes – 8:38
Max to Downtown 40 minutes – 9:18

Total time: 5 hours, 18 minutes…for a 50 minute flight….

Onward to Cindy – She opted to sleep in after Jeff took off, her daughter was going to drive her to King Street Station. They left their house at 7:00am arrived at the station at around 7:15am and the train was just pulling into the station. Normally they would load Business Class passengers first but because of the time constraint, they loaded all at once and departed at 7:36am, nearly sold out as she described it. The bistro car opened up just before Tacoma where she got coffee, sausage egg and cheese sandwich, they played A Christmas Story on the monitors. The only delay was 5 minutes while waiting for the Vancouver Rail bridge to close. They arrived into Portland at 11:09am, 9 minutes late. She walked 3 blocks from Union Station to the Portland Streetcar. She got lucky as the car was just a few blocks down dealing with a truck that was trying to pull out of a tight space or something otherwise it would have been a 20 minute wait for the next one and could have walked it in that time. She got off the streetcar and walked 3 blocks to meet Jeff and continue the shopping.

$66 after tax

Delayed Departure: 6 minutes
Delay Bridge – 5 minutes – 11 minutes total delay
Schedule padding – Unknown – Arrived 9 minutes late

Total time 3 hours 39 minutes…scheduled 3 hours 30 minutes

While this isn’t one of those great “Trains are better than Planes, blah blah” postings, I do find it incredible that it took damn near 6 hours for a 50 minute flight once you add everything in. Even the drive time added to Cindy’s trip would have only bumped it up another 15 minutes.

Myself, I look forward to the day that we get semi high speed rail here and bump the scheduled time to less than 2 hours and 30 minutes between Seattle and Portland. Sure it might not be a while but it is coming, when the government gets off it’s rear here and get serious about it like California. The question is, would us in the corridor (Eugene to Vancouver, BC) take the train more… WSDOT says it could do less than 5 hours between Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, BC in it’s high speed rail draft….2016-2020 should be interesting.