Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Screw the NEC, look to the Pacific Northwest for progressive rails

It seems like whenever anyone from the mainstream press talks about Amtrak, they bring up the Northeast Corridor as a ray of light for our favorite troubled railroad. “The density is right! (it’s always right when the station is in a city) It can fund itself! (debatable) It has high-speed rail! (even more debatable)”

Well, British national and Guardian writer Michael Tomasky is doing what Americans seem hesitant to do.. looking to our fellow citizens in the Northwest for an example of good rail road policy.

Now this is more like it. After days of airplane flights, I ditched the nightmare of security lines and uncomfortable seats for a lovely, state-underwritten, socialistic-type ride aboard the rails from Portland to Seattle.

East coasters will be stunned to learn, as I was, that a business-class seat for this trip — duration three-and-a-half hours — is…ready…$42! And that comes with a coupon that gives you $3 off any purchase in the cafe car.

How can they possibly make money on this? They don’t. They make their money on schmucks like me, riding between Boston and Washington. A business-class ticket from Boston to New York, a ride of similar duration, is north of $300 most days. I support Amtrak wholeheartedly, but I have to say I don’t mind taking advantage of the super-discount fare this once, since I have in essence subsidized my own trip a hundred times over down the years by using Amtrak exclusively on the east coast.

The Amtrak Cascades route is jointly funded by the states of Oregon and Washington as well as the Canadian province of British Columbia. Is it socialism, as Tomaski suggests? Perhaps. But I find it hard to disapprove when government is able to transcend territorial and international borders in order to bring safe, convenient, and efficient transportation to its citizens.


Filed under: Amtrak, Regional USA Passenger Rail, , , , ,

13 Responses

  1. Gabe says:

    Not only is everything Tomasky says true, he neglects to mention that Amtrak Cascades service runs 4-5 times each day in each direction. That may not seem terribly unusual to NEC frequenters. But by the standards of much of America, whose only rail options are long-distance lines that run only once per day even in populated corridors like Twin Cities-Chicago, it is a fairly isolated example of rail service that is both cheap and truly convenient.

    The popularity of Amtrak Cascades for both Northwest residents and tourists represents yet more proof that the only thing holding middle America back from inexpensive, efficient rail travel is lack of political will. It’s a shame that our federal government can’t get their act together to fund Amtrak, but to see our Northwest state governments stepping in for them is heartening. Minnesota, take a lesson!

  2. EvergreenRailfan says:

    I would like to see more Amtrak Cascades run, including to points East of Seattle, and the Cascades. We have a populated corridor in Eastern Washington that could use the service, via Stampede Pass. I am for the right rail mode for the right corridor. I would never suggest a Light Rail line on a Long Distance route, or have the LD frequency in a populated corridor. At least two trains a day Seattle-Spokane would be for it. Keeping communities connected as fuel price woes affect the airlines, should be a priority.

    This state has a long running East-West divide that has been getting only worse the past few years, and it is not just Liberal Seattle doing it, but an initiative guru in Mukilteo(outside Everett) that is giving us an even worse name. He convinces them that transportation is bad, has his own ideas, and even rural counties approve it, even though it might lead to those counties tax money being used where the congestion is, which is in the urban areas. He is on track(pardon the expression) to do it again next week. The good thing is, his voter-approved measures often don’t meet constitutional muster.

  3. Loren Petrich says:

    The Cascades Corridor is a great up-and-coming corridor, but it’s not quite at the level of the NEC, or even Amtrak California.

    It’s at 4 trains per day between Seattle and Portland, with the Coast Starlight being counted as a 5th southbound train, but not as a 5th northbound train in the schedule (delayed enough to make it the Coast Starlate). By comparison Amtrak California’s San Joaquins are at 6 trains per day with a few more riders, and its Capitol Corridor and Pacific Surfliner trains at even more.

    And as to the Stampede Pass route (from Auburn, along I-90) be much of an improvement over the Stevens Pass route (from Everett, along Hwy. 2)? The distance is rather similar, about 281 mi (I-90 distance) / 311 mi (Spokane-Everett Amtrak distance), and the western part is very mountainous. Furthermore, BNSF had reopened Stampede Pass a decade ago, so it’s not likely to be eager for more passenger service without additional trackwork to accommodate such trains — perhaps even reopening nearby Snoqualmie Pass.

    By comparison, Seattle-Portland is 175 mi (I-5 distance) / 187 mi (Amtrak distance), and not nearly as mountainous.

    Now for the populations of these destionations. Seattle: 4,039,000, Spokane: 459,000, Portland: 2,160,000 (metro areas). So Seattle-Portland is a more worthwhile route than either city to Spokane.

    Sources: Amtrak schedules, Google Maps, and Wikipedia, like

  4. Jon K. says:

    I try to take the train every time I go to Portland. Several times, the train was full and I had to drive. I think there is plenty of demand in the Cascades corridor for more and faster service.

    High-speed between Spokane and Seattle/Tacoma has tremendous potential. By serving Ellensburg, the Yakima Valley, and the Tri Cities, you serve nearly all of the major population centers outside of the I-5 corridor. There is a significant amount of traffic between city pairs like Ellensburg-Yakima, Yakima-Tri Cities, and Tri Cities-Spokane. The large distance between city pairs makes rail an attractive alternative to driving, especially in bad weather, creating higher demand than the population totals would suggest.

    Snoqualmie Pass is a unique obstacle. I-90 was closed for days at a time last year, requiring a 400-mile detour through the Gorge. Several years ago, it took me six hours to drive back from the Pass to Seattle because of a mid-day snowstorm. A rail line over the mountains would be a huge selling point in the winter time as the sole reliable way to get between the Seattle metro area and Ellensburg, Yakima, the Tri Cities or Spokane. Even when the pass is open, the train offers lower stress travel. There will be no stopping to chain up on the train!

    The opportunity is there for a comprehensive state-wide rail system that would be the model for other Western states to follow.

  5. EvergreenRailfan says:

    I have often been thinking and suggesting some kind of Pullman-Spokane service, but not high-speed, at least 79MPH. The state owns most of the right of way, and on certain weekends in the fall, ridership would go up. Right now, Northwestern Trailways does a good job serving this market, but that can change, depending on fuel costs. Current track conditions probably preclude even running a DMU on this route. The main reason the state bought it was to prevent abandonment, and putting thousands of grain trucks on the roads.

    The only delay on the pass for a train would be to call out a rotary if needed.

  6. Brian says:

    I recently heard the Seattle – Pasco route will start in 2012 if the Evo program works.

    Supposedly, WSDOT will purchase 5 P40’s from Amtrak and rebuild them with the Evolution engine, a separate gen set, and purchase and refurbish 17 cars and purchase 2 new colorado railcar low level dome cars.

    After PTC is installed and track is upgraded to Class 6 or 7, we could do 90/110mph here as well. When the Point Defiance section is done, Amtrak will be allowed to increase to another 5 trains. Unfortunately, the Seattle – Vancouver corridor sees anywhere between 70-110 freight movements a day which makes expanding the corridor difficult. Without a separated corridor, i believe we will be capped at 10-15 trains a day. The good news, by 2015 we’ll have at least 10 trains a day and hopefully 2 hours and 45 minutes between Seattle and Portland.

  7. Brian says:

    Oh, the socialistic part is that it is very easy to start a chat with somebody on the train. Everyone is very friendly.

    I forgot to also mention that by 2010 King Street Station will be fully remodeled. They are working on this part currently, starting on the roofing. The interior will start next Spring-Summer. I am totally thrilled when it will be finished.

  8. EvergreenRailfan says:

    I’ve been passing by the station a few times lately, and they are already working on the exterior, with scaffolding going up, and it looks like the aerials on the tower have been removed, and the clock tells time again. I believe $20 million to $30 million is going into fixing the station up, and the city only paid about a $1 for the station. It was a really low amount.

    Who knows, maybe even Lewis County will get more supportive of this, they are a bright red county on this route of mostly blue counties.

  9. EvergreenRailfan says:

    Oops, meant Lewis County legislators would get more supportive of Amtrak Cascades, not King Street Station refurbishment, with all the success the service has had. The station in Centralia has already been refurbished, I believe.

  10. Brian says:

    It indeed has been refurbished a few years ago. The Vancouver Amtrak Station is currently being remodeled and should be finished up next year.

    Tracks 6 and 7 at King Street Station are slated to be extended once the D Street to M Street work is done which will support the extra trains.

  11. EvergreenRailfan says:

    To think there are some that still think the $5 million spent on crossovers, and other funds going into Amtrak Cascades is wasteful social engineering. I would love to see both I-5 and the BNSF line elevated out of the flood plain near Centralia after last year’s fiasco. Perhaps the train line would be cheaper, because for the most part, I-5 rarely gets down to less than 3 lanes in each direction at least South of Seattle, I think there are portions up North where it is 2 lanes in each direction. A sign of faster suburbanization North of Seattle, is when the DOT recently dropped speed limits on I-5 from 70MPH to 60MPH, as they were no longer “rural”

    As for the D street to M street connector, even Sound Transit has got upset it is taking so long, with special bus routes connecting the new Lakewood Station and South Tacoma Station with Freighthouse Square. I would love to see possible commuter trains on some of the other stretches of track in that area, where possible. Rather than see one more branch rail line get taken up and made into a trail. The trails preserve the corridor, but the ugly fight to get them re-railed will make trains running on them next to impossible.

  12. Loren Petrich says:

    Here’s a railroad map from the Washington State DOT:

    The Stevens Pass route is the northernmost BNSF route, and the Empire Builder uses it. The Stampede Pass route is the one in the middle; the Snoqualmie Pass route follows I-90 westward from where the Stevens Pass route diverges from that freeway, and could become a second track for the Stevens Pass route there.

    As to the D-street-M-street track connection in Tacoma, what’s holding it up?

  13. EvergreenRailfan says:

    Final Design work, mainly. They had to get public input as this is a new track, not an upgraded track on existing right of way, or doubling an existing right of way. The Tacoma Rail Mountain Division needed a new connection with the Lakeview Subdivision.

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October 2008


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