Amtrak Cascades Another Successful Example of Intercity Rail in America
I’m writing this post from my seat on Amtrak Cascades #508, just outside the small southwestern Washington town of Woodland. I’m on wifi and we’re running alongside the Columbia River. It’s a beautiful afternoon, after a nice weekend in Portland, Oregon.
Oh, and the train is sold out. According to the station agent at Union Station, this train, which departs PDX at 6:15 PM, is usually sold out on the weekends, and nearly sold out during the week. That echoes what the station agent at King Street Station in Seattle told me yesterday morning, that not only was train #501 south to Portland usually sold out on weekends, but so too was #510, the morning departure for Vancouver, British Columbia.
The stats bear it out. In 2010, 838,251 people rode the Amtrak Cascades service somewhere between Vancouver, BC and Eugene, OR. That’s a 10% increase over the 2009 numbers, which were themselves a small dip from the 2008 record, which was a 14% increase over 2007. The Cascades are now the busiest Amtrak service outside the Northeast Corridor and California. The system’s firebox recovery rate is now at 72%.
The trains themselves are unique in the United States. The Cascades use Talgo 200 tilting trainsets, with an operational speed of 110mph (though owing to FRA rules, the actual top speed in service is 79mph). It means the train can take curves that the Coast Starlight trains can’t, meaning the Cascades connects Seattle and Portland faster than conventional Amtrak equipment (outside the NEC, at least). These are the only Talgo trainsets in operation in the US – Wisconsin had signed an agreement with Talgo to use their trains on the Hiawatha, and Talgo would have built the trains in Wisconsin. But teabagger governor Scott Walker killed those plans earlier this year, and the federal government took the money back and gave it to, among other states, California.
The ride is comfortable and, with wifi, means someone like me can stay connected via my iPad or other digital device, whereas on Interstate 5 I couldn’t do it. And if I want another beer, the bistro car is just behind me.
Still, the Amtrak Cascades takes about an hour longer to get from Seattle to Portland than driving. Without traffic, driving time from SEA to PDX is about 2:30. On the Cascades, it’s scheduled at 3:30. Stimulus funding will help the Washington State Department of Transportation build some sidings and the Point Defiance Bypass, which will shave at least 10 minutes off the travel time. WSDOT’s goal is to get the trip down to 2:30, which would be exactly the same as driving.
And yet the ridership numbers show people are willing to pay a time premium already. Perhaps it’s because the Cascades serve two centrally located stations – King Street Station is in the heart of downtown Seattle, next to the light rail station and the soon to be under construction First Hill Streetcar. Portland’s Union Station is also near downtown, in the middle of the thriving Pearl District, right next to two MAX lines and the Portland Streetcar (soon to be extended across the Willamette to Portland’s eastside). So it’s an incredibly convenient way for people to travel between those two cities.
3:30 might just be at the outermost edge of travel time that can sustain Cascades ridership. Seattle and Portland are only about 170 miles apart, meaning that a California-style HSR plan would connect the cities in about an hour, depending on intermediate stops. A true HSR service of above 150 mph would require significant construction of new tracks, which is a good idea but not currently in WSDOT’s plans owing to the cost. They prefer to spend their money smoothing out some curves, adding sidings so freight trains can be passed, and adding more trainsets so more service can be offered along the route. That’s a good intermediate solution while plans develop for true HSR service. In California, however, even using Talgos at a top speed of 110 mph to connect SF to LA would not provide you any great savings over the car, and probably not much over flying (door to door). The SF-LA distance of about 420 miles is ideal for a TGV or AVE-style true bullet train system, which as we all know is exactly what California is planning to build. And such systems can carry a LOT more passengers, which will be needed on both the California and Pacific Northhwest corrridors as oil prices and the costs of flying and driving make train travel much more attractive. California is planning for that future, and the Northwest will need to do so as well.
The Cascades joins the Acela (which turns a profit) and the Amtrak California routes – particularly the Capitol Corridor and the Pacific Surfliner – as successful examples of intercity rail in this country. These routes prove that demand for intercity rail service is there. And if you can get much faster speeds, on dedicated tracks, serving city centers – precisely what the California HSR project will do – then there is every reason to believe ridership will be high.
HSR deniers may tell you that nobody rides trains in America. Try telling that to the riders who sold out the Amtrak Cascades this afternoon.