Monday, October 10, 2005

Amtrak Cascades to Portland

My friend Andy and I had to get up very early on Saturday to make the 7:30 train. We arrived at King Street Station around 6:45 and wandered around gawking at the newly rebuilt doors and retouched plaster moulding - the restoration project is well under way, with some of the columns already marble clad once again, and harsh temporary lights where chandeliers will soon be replaced. I peeked around the edge of the false ceiling in the main lobby - the second story will probably be uncovered soon.

We avoided the ticketing line and picked up our tickets from the QuikTrak machines - $45 round trip for each of us (paid earlier), even booked only a couple of weeks in advance. $90 for two is a bit more than fuel for the truck, but certainly worth it when considering maintenance. We were first in line for seat assignments, and ended up in car 8 - nearly at the head of the train.

From the look of the crowd lined up to board, the train was fairly full. We overheard a conductor discussing this - every seat was sold. This is normal for a Saturday morning, people headed down for the weekend take this train to get the maximum amount of time in Portland. Unlike a trip to Vancouver, this run sells the dining car seats as well - and still fills up.

The train left exactly on time, and we sat back. Short stops in Tukwila and Tacoma, and no slowdowns until a couple of holds for freight traffic close to Kelso/Longview, and one more near Vancouver, WA. This happens less every year - and work is planned to eliminate both of these bottlenecks. We pulled into Portland about twenty minutes late.

We hopped on a bus for the few short blocks on the transit mall to downtown, and got on a Red Line MAX light rail train to go see the airport extension. It's pretty nice to go at highway speed along I-205 - apparently the light rail originally went faster, but there were complaints because people were speeding to keep up with it. Whatever. It was a nice ride, overall - I had never been past Gateway Station east of town, and the tight loop to get on the freeway alignment was probably the tightest rail turn I've ever been on.

Back in town, we hopped off in the Rose Quarter and walked down the floating pedestrian path along the Willamette. It's amazing to me how well Portland has connected their path network - we even saw an intersection where a bike path has its own lights, based on a special bicycle sensor in the trail. I need to take my bike on the train next time and ride around town.

We walked back across the Steel Bridge and were heading toward the pedestrian crossing at Union Station when we saw a train that looked like it was heading for the bridge - so we hurried back toward the bridge to see if it was. I'm glad we did, too! The Coast Starlight crossed the bridge from the other direction while we watched.

The rest of the afternoon was spent getting food and going to Powell's over in the Pearl District. The redevelopment of that area is beautiful - condos over shops make for an extremely pedestrian-friendly area. Powell's and Whole Foods are only a block apart, and the streetcar takes people right downtown.

We took the 6:15 Cascades train back to Seattle and got in a bit before 10. The entire trip from the U-district to Portland was done with public transportation. Assuming we didn't have bus passes for King County Metro (which we did), the trip would have cost $45 for Amtrak tickets , $2.50 for the two Metro runs, and $3.75 for a TriMet all day pass - a total of $51.25. The Amtrak tickets at the time we purchased them were normally $60, but we used the Portland Big Deal 25% discount. My employer-provided FlexPass and Andy's UPass both provide a 15% discount, but the Portland Big Deal was better.

Comparing $51.25*2 people to the standard 40.5c/mile IRS vehicle reimbursement rate - we saved about $40 (not counting travel in Portland), while retaining over 7 hours of nap/reading time.


At 2:47 PM, Anonymous EvergreenRailfan said...

I was looking at a TRAINS Magazine news story from last year about the 10th Anniversary of the service now known as Amtrak Cascades. In 1994, except for the Coast Starlight and the Tri-Weekly Pioneer, there was just one short-haul passenger train between Seattle and Portland, and nothing North of Everett. That one train, called the Mt. Ranier, had an anual ridership of 94,000 people, while the region was in the middle of phenomenal growth.

That year the State of Washington stepped up to the plate, working with Burlington Northern(this was before they took over the Atchinson, Topeka, and Santa Fe), the State of Oregon, and Amtrak. Service to Vancouver on the Fraser started in 1995, as well as one new round-trip to Portland. The service began to use a new trainset using proven technology, the TALGO. 11 years later, we now have 3 round trips Seattle-Portland, 2 North of Everett(one calls at Vancouver, the other at Bellingham), and an anual ridership of nearly 600,000!

Interesting how the article points out that BNSF operates the train as if it was there own. Also, the author mentioned in this article that there is one missing funding partner in the equation, the Federal Government(not exactly Amtrak, they are trying there best). Washington is putting up most of the money, even Sound Transit has added some money, especially since some Amtrak Cascades trains(Seattle-Everett) double as extra options for Sound Transit passholders that have a pass equal to the Seattle-Everett SOUNDER fare($3).

In California, what is now Amtrak California started with the state subsidizing the San Diegan, and funding restoration of San Juoquin valley service in 1974. Now the San Diegan, since renamed Pacific Surfliner has multiple round trips betewen San Diego and Los Angeles, and some continuing up to Santa Barbara and Goleta, and 2 terminating at San Luis Obisipo, with many screaming for the Northern Terminus to be San Francisco.

At 3:00 PM, Blogger Ben Schiendelman said...

Yes - I'm very familiar with the Cascades - I've been maintaining the Wikipedia article.

Sound Transit doesn't do much to fund Cascades service - as far as I know, the RailPlus partnership is funded indirectly by Sound Transit's track upgrades rather than charging for trips.

What's interesting is that Cascades is expected to operationally break even by around 2020.

At 3:16 PM, Anonymous EvergreenRailfan said...

Hopefully calls for reform will not hurt the ability for Amtrak Cascades to break even, like the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act did to the National System. It mandated self-sufficiency by 2003, and thought that Amtrak already doing 80% cost recovery would only mean an easy job. Amtrak executives no longer with the railroad now made several decisions that made things worse, not better. As long as Oregon and Washington are involved, with the calls for Performance Audits only getting louder, there will be people watching over Amtrak Cascades to prevent that other Washington messing this up.

Also, I think there are a few Eymanites that will think Amtrak Cascades under a Performance Audit, will show it is a waste. 600,000 riders a year shows it is not a waste. In fact, it takes traffic off of Interstate 5. The Pt. Defiance Bypass which most of it will be on track Sound Transit now owns will shave 6-10 minutes off of the the schedule between Seattle and Portland.

One interesting thing about WSDOT and CalTrans when it comes to funding state supported trains? They buy some or all of the equipment, making it hard for Amtrak to mortage them too, as they have had to do with other assets to get by since ARAA passed.

At 3:22 PM, Blogger Ben Schiendelman said...

It's a good point that since WSDOT owns the trains, Amtrak can't mortgage them. I am concerned about the whole 'performance audit' mess, but it doesn't sound like it'll pass.

Note that '04 ridership was over 600k, and that we're starting one more Portland-Seattle round trip in '06.

At 4:25 PM, Anonymous EvergreenRailfan said...

The WSDOT already uses them. Performance Audits were put in place as part of the compromise that got the Nickel Package through a Republican State Senate.

As for Amtrak Cascades, I think it should be extended to Yakima, with at least two Round trips. There are choke points where the Stampede Pass Line will be constrained, including Yakima River Canyon, but it could be made up by making improvements to trackage East of Pasco, to allow the trains to run at high speed.

At 4:29 PM, Blogger Ben Schiendelman said...

I think we should have good passenger rail service from every city to every other city in the entire country. I wouldn't call it Cascades, though - if you're going to run over Stampede, I'd call it something else.

At 7:49 PM, Anonymous EvergreenRailfan said...

Inlander, Columbian Basin Express, Expediter, or perhaps resurect a variation of an old Great Northern train name(although Stampede was Northern Pacific), the Cascadian. Call it the Cascadian Star.

At 8:56 PM, Blogger Ben Schiendelman said...

I wouldn't mind a GN name for an NP line - King Street was GN/NP, after all.

We'll get DMUs on extensions from Sounder stations first, though.

At 12:53 AM, Anonymous EvergreenRailfan said...

I like the DMU Colorado Railcar puts out, but would be nice if they cleaned up the single-level design. I have heard some on railfan boards saying the CRC DMU was too ugly, but then again, they were measuring it against the old BUDD Rail Diesel Car. There is an image in their latest brochure of a design that is a little more streamlined. I like how it can pull up to two conventional coaches.

At 10:56 AM, Blogger Ben Schiendelman said...

Did you see their concept images of painted DMUs? They look a lot better when they're not red.

At 12:13 PM, Anonymous EvergreenRailfan said...

Yeah, and the one of the Prototype set that was sold to the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority. It has a spectacular paint job, different then what their conventional loco-hauled coaches from Bombardier wear.

The potential for this DMU is improtant. Although the Alaska Railroad has not purchased any, they tested the prototype on some of the steepest grades up there, passed. The Alaska Railraod uses RDCs on the
Hurricane Turn, and just rebuilt them again. They do have a working relationship with CRC equipment. Besides hauling cruise trains for the cruise lines that use CRC equipment, they bought a few Ultra Domes of their own.

Also, one thing I like about CRC is get this, they broke the mold. For over 100 years, passenger cars have always been 85ft long on the main lines. CRC has cars that are 89ft. Probably one reason their commuter cars can carry ore than the others, besides a superior design.


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