Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

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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5 Responses

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  1. […] West Lifestyle [Miller-McCune] Why does Seattle have so many bleak public spaces? [Crosscut] Faster trains for Western Washington [Stephen Rees's […]

    re:place Magazine

    May 18, 2011 at 8:33 am

  2. Looking at the photo on this post and also the last photo, I think, on the post about the train trip it is obvious that the first or last coach is missing (In Europe and Japan’s fast trains and on the newer European regional trains the first and last coaches are 1/2 driver cabin and either 1/2 seating or 1/2 cargo)… that coach is missing likely because they don’t use electric locomotives here…

    In the latest issue of the UK magazine “Today’s railways-Europe # 184” there is an interesting article about the new regional trains “Regiolis” from Alstom.

    The Regiolis, along with the AGC from Bombardier–still a leader for the number of these regional trains built– along with similar trains built by manufacturers in other European countries, mark the end of the use of traditional locomotives–electric and diesel– for passengers trains, at least in Western Europe. Not just locomotives but also coaches that have a high floor, no room for wheelchairs and no wheelchair accessible washrooms.

    In the same issue–still available at Mayfair News and Chapters–there is an article on Tram-trains i.e LRT that can run in city streets and, in the suburbs, on tracks shared with regular trains.

    In a US magazine published a couple of months ago there was a whole section about fast trains around the world…so far fast trains are, to many Americans, especially Republican ones, another socialist plot…

    Never mind that many Euro governments have been/ are conservative, including French ones (the only socialist president since WWII was Mitterrand)

    Red frog

    May 18, 2011 at 12:44 pm

  3. I believe they had to use those massive locomotive to pass NA railroad safety standard in term of crashworthiness where they have a very different conception of safety from European…that is the main reason why tram-train has no chance to run on shared track like in Europe…unless to be buffered by heavy unit like the Talgo is…but that defeat the purpose of it.


    May 18, 2011 at 9:50 pm

  4. “to reduce travel time between Seattle and Portland by at least 10 minutes” on a 3,5 hour ride you can get with smoother processes (for example departing process, better acceleration, strictly operational rules in favour of passenger traffic) only. To save more time I think (without having a detailled knowledge of the route) they should invest in new rolling stock (tilting trains, more powerful engines) and in the infrastructure (reducing the curbes etc).
    To have a powerful offer you mus reach an aggreement between the infrastructure and the railway undertaker. It works only hand in hand. Amtrack can do what they want, they’re not succesful without the collaboration of the infrastructure owner.


    May 19, 2011 at 8:38 am

  5. […] mais: Faster trains for Western Washington « Stephen Rees's blog Postado em: Western   Tags: faster, rees's, stephen, trains, […]

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