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Archive for May 17th, 2011

Faster trains for Western Washington

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Amtrak Cascades at King Street Station Seattle

Amtrak Cascades at King Street Station Seattle yesterday - my photo

The Olympian this morning provides some more detail on what the stimulus funds from the federal government will mean for the Amtrak Cascades service.

It’s known as high-speed rail money, but don’t picture bullet trains zipping by at 200 mph. That’s what’s in the works for San Francisco and Los Angeles, at a cost of more than $40 billion. But here, none of the stimulus spending will move the Evergreen State any closer to true high-speed rail.

Instead, the money is aimed at making sure trains run on time.

Riding on the Cascades line through Western Washington, Amtrak passengers share the tracks with freight shipments. …

In 2010, trains were on time fewer than 7 out of every 10 times on the Amtrak Cascades line through western Washington. The department’s goal is to be on time 88 percent of the time, …

None of this money can be spent in Canada, of course. My recent experience of this service is that speeds north of the Peace Arch are noticeably slower. The Cascades does not presume to be a high-speed train – although the Talgo train sets it uses were designed – like the Canadian “Light Rapid Comfortable” trains of the same era – to provide more rapid progress through existing track. The locomotives have no such pretensions, but are simply freight locos with additional generating capacity for “hotel power”.

Service between Vancouver and the border has no intermediate stops but thereafter the stops are quite frequent. It is essentially a regional, stopping train  as opposed to an inter-city express. Despite passengers clearing customs in Vancouver before boarding, there is a stop at the Peace Arch. Why that cannot be eliminated, I do not understand. There is no such requirement northbound, but there is around 45 minutes of delay between the trains’ arrival at Pacific Central and the last passengers getting through the Border Service Agency’s inspection.

They aim “to reduce travel time between Seattle and Portland by at least 10 minutes” but that is on what is currently a three and half hour ride. Or over eight hours from here. I cannot see that changing the attractiveness of the choice compared to flying or even driving. The train is a better experience, in my opinion, than either, but the long delay on arrival back home, late at night really does take some of the shine off the overall impression. The train is comfortable, you can get up and walk around. The washrooms are clean and roomy – there is an oversized accessible washroom in at least one coach car – and there is a buffet/dining car which caters for the economy minded. One great advantage of a faster speed would be more civilised arrival and departure times: 6:40am for the train from Vancouver to Portland, and 10:50pm arrival are both somewhat extreme, I think.

I think that – based on what works in other countries – there is a much larger market potential for a true express intercity service in this corridor, with fewer stops, upgraded at seat service at least in business class, and less intrusive border formalities conducted while the train is moving. Of course if we really believed in free trade and all that entails we would eliminate border formalities entirely but that is not on anyone’s radar. And even if the Americans are willing to spend a lot to improve reliability, if speeds stay where they are now and the Canadian side remains the same, do not expect much in the way of modal shift from road or air. Which is pretty disappointing in terms of what rail offers in its ability to reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and congestion on the freeway and at airports.

Amtrak Cascades coach interior

Amtrak Cascades coach interior - my photo

Written by Stephen Rees

May 17, 2011 at 10:10 am

Posted in Railway

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