Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak Cascades

Friday round up

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Three tabs are open in my browser right now. All about transport and relevant to this region. But none actually qualifying for the full blog post treatment since I have nothing much to say about any of them, other than my readers ought to be aware of them.

The Auditor General has released a report about the Evergreen Line

Moody Central Station, Evergreen Extension

In his audit, Doyle said that the business cases developed by the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, TransLink and Partnerships B.C. and reviewed by the Ministry of Finance omitted information needed to understand the costs, benefits and risks when comparing SkyTrain, light rail and bus rapid transit options; did not explain ridership forecasts were based on assumptions that placed them at the upper end of the estimated range; and did not describe the risks from changes in complementary and competing transit services.

Actually no-one is going to be very surprised by the report. The idea that Translink might actually consider different options for the technology based on actual data seems to be quite foreign to the way things are now done in BC. The line itself was part of the regional transportation plan for years, but the NDP decided to only build the Millennium – which served Burnaby – but not the long promised link to the TriCities. Of course, in places where they do these things rationally, the line would have been built before the area was opened up for massive population growth, so of course it has been, up to now, car oriented. And there have been significant expansions to the road system – including the expansion of Highway #1 and the replacement of the Pitt River bridge. The Evergreen Line was the highest priority for the region, but the province decided to build the Canada Line instead and tied that to the Olympics.

“Meaningful consultation with the private sector and significant due diligence is required and we are taking the time to get it right,” the province said.

Which seems to me to be an admission that it was not done right, and that consultation with anyone other than business is not important.

Crosscut takes a look at High Speed Trains between here and Seattle as result of Jay Inslee (the Washington state governor) announcing a budget request for a $1m study in response to pressure from the private sector.

Freccia Argento

This one happens to be Italian – they developed the Pendolino tilting trains after British Rail abandoned the Advanced Passenger Train after attacks by the press on the “vomit comet”. BR did build a very successful 125mph HST forty years ago which did not tilt and runs on conventional tracks unlike the French TGV or the Shinkansen which need purpose built rights of way – fewer curves but can cope with quite steep grades – to achieve higher speeds. Indeed the current Cascades Talgo sets could run faster, if they did not have to fit into slots between slow freight trains.

Unid GWR HST through Exeter St Thomas

And of course the cost of a new railway is going to be the biggest issue (“$20-$30 billion to build and equip the system”) but that does not mean that much better passenger train service is not entirely feasible at lower cost, and hopefully some kind of incremental strategy will be identified, rather than blowing the budget on the unachievable “best” when “good enough” is going to win plenty of people away from terrible traffic on I5 and appalling inconvenience and discomfort of short distance international air travel.

Needless to say, others think that self driving cars are going to be the answer, although realistically are probably further off into the future than self driving trucks  as this graphic piece makes clear.

As for the hyperloop, that seems like science fiction to me and even more claustrophobic than space travel. How do you get to your seat? Or use the bathroom?

HyperLoop 2

UPDATE Feb 21 The Seattle Transit blog has taken a long hard look at what a high speed rail line might look like – the link takes you to the first of four parts

Written by Stephen Rees

February 10, 2017 at 1:32 pm

Passenger Rail in Whatcom County

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Amtrak Cascades Mud Bay Surrey BC

Yesterday I went to a meeting of All Aboard Washington “a consumer transportation advocacy group, comprised of nearly 500 people who have a goal of preserving and expanding passenger rail service in the state of Washington”. They had invited Transport Action BC to attend the meeting, as much of it concerned the operation of Amtrak Cascades. They meet monthly and the meeting at the University of Western Washington in Bellingham had around 50 people, I estimated. Invitations had also gone to BC officials but only one attended, Councillor Grant Meyer of White Rock, who gave a short presentation on the proposed real relocation project. Surrey MLA Marvin Hunt had been expected to attend, but he sent his apologies. Speculation was that he had been instructed not to appear, and certainly speaking of a looming election here (next May) when one is happening next month in the US seemed inappropriate.

I have managed to find some of the materials from the presentations, so that you will not have to rely on my rather rusty note taking.

Lloyd Flem AAW’s long serving Executive Director opened the meeting with a short history of Passenger Trains to Bellingham. Much of this will be familiar to readers here, so I will just mention some highlights. The Washington State talks of an objective of 4 trains a day between Seattle and Vancouver BC by 2035, but 13 between Seattle and Portland OR. The challenge lies in the capacity of the single track line from Everett through Mount Vernon to Blaine, and the lack of investment north of the border. BC did spend $7m on a slip at Colebrook as a contribution  to get the second Cascades service in time for the Olympics. Unlike Washington and Oregon, BC provides no operating subsidy for the service. Considerable work was achieved on the line due to the reallocation of High Speed Rail funds after Florida decided not to proceed. The route between Vancouver and Portland is identified by the US as part of its desired HSR initial network, and that has been endorsed by both the BC Premier and WA State Governor.

The Asia Pacific Gateway was cited as an example of Canada’s commitment to infrastructure spending. Nine rail overpasses were built over the Roberts Bank corridor as part of the billions spent on port expansion. The use of P3 funding was also mentioned. The future of the passenger rail is that there will be no further HSR money, and no capital funds from Olympia but it might be possible to upgrade the capacity and provide some overpasses through the colocation of utilities such as water mains and fibre optic cable in the right of way.

Bruce Agnew of Cascadia Academy and Bob Lawrence of AAWA spoke about the possibility of a third train to serve the line between Bellingham and Seattle. This would replace the current bus and would increase the utilisation of existing equipment. Ridership from Bellingham is currently 51,000 by train, 13,000 by bus and is the 6th busiest station on the service, and the 7th highest revenue. There has been a decline in travel in recent years on the bus service.

Laurie Trautman, Director of the Border Policy Research Institute (WWU) spoke about the proposal to introduce pre-clearance for passengers in Vancouver. There is a pdf of the study as a research brief. Currently there is pre-inspection for immigration only as the result of an informal agreement: pre-clearance requires legislation. This is mainly about protection and liability issues affecting armed TSA staff operating in Canada and requires Congressional approval. [Nothing specifically was said, but I was left with the impression that this is highly unlikely.]  The five border crossings between Point Roberts and Sumas are some of the busiest crossings on the border, but travel has been much affected by the exchange rate. 80% of the cross border trips are made by Canadians, with shopping the primary purpose of 31% of them.

There was a presentation on student travel at WWU which I think is of little interest to readers here. Essentially, use of transit has been increased by the introduction of a UPass which has also seen increases in local transit services to meet demand. There is an identified need for a better connected passenger rail system across the state to better meet the needs of post secondary students – and others.

Students at WWU have conducted a feasibility study of adding an additional stop at Blaine station. There is a pdf of their report on the AAWA site. 

There is a population of over 1m living south of the Fraser River who have a shorter drive time to Blaine than Pacific Central Station in Vancouver, shown by the red line on this map


The train schedule time is currently 4 hours 25 minutes compared to 2 hour 50 drive time. The train departure time of 6am is also unattractive to people facing a two hour drive and the need to arrive early for immigration inspection. Train departure time of 8am from Blaine would be more attractive and parking would be easier and cheaper. SkyTrain does not provide a service which integrates conveniently with Amtrak. The students used an on line survey which had 1,000 responses. 70% of Canadian respondents said they had not used the train as it was too far to the station in Vancouver, too expensive and inconvenient. Unfortunately this was a self selected sample and therefore cannot be held to be representative of the broader population. [It made me wonder if there had been similar issues with stated preference surveys used to support the case for tolled road bridges in the same area.]

BNSF 4463

Relocation of rail in White Rock has long been a discussion in the area, but now seems likely to move forward. The cities of Surrey and White Rock have agreed to make an application to the federal government under the Railroad Relocation and Crossing Act. [This article in the Peace Arch News gives some insight into the provincial attitude and is fairly recent.]

The current shoreline route is vulnerable to sea level rise and more extreme weather events due to climate change. There have been landslides (4 to 5 a year) and erosion along the route and the increasing number of trains, between 16 and 20 day some with 120 or more cars, gives concern for pedestrian safety. The carriage of dangerous goods is also a concern in the light of the Lac Megantic disaster. The community in Crescent Beach gets physically cut off when a train stops on its crossing, and an overpass there is both cost prohibitive and would have a huge impact.  Trespass on the railway is frequent but may be reduced by the extension of the walkway from its present 2.2km to 3.3km: a lease amendment request has been made to BNSF.


The four possible routes shown here have three options which would require rail relocation in Blaine, which may be a significant issue there. The fourth, westernmost alignment, while requiring expensive tunneling would avoid the need to relocate track in Washington. While the initial studies have been done more work is required to produce the full cost benefit analysis required by the CTA. Prime Minister Trudeau’s interest in increased infrastructure spending was cited as a reason for optimism.

The relocation of the track would produce at least 15 minutes of travel time savings on the passenger service. The loss of the scenic ride along the current route seemed a reasonable trade off.

UPDATE  December 10, 2016

The Bill to allow preclearance has now passed both House and Senate


Written by Stephen Rees

October 9, 2016 at 3:42 pm

Posted in Railway

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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

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Amtrak live blog

Train 513 was 15 minutes late leaving Pacific Central this morning. But that was OK, since, if it had been on time, I would have been in  the washroom. I have been watching the Cascades for some years but this is my first time on the Talgo. And I have to say that I am very favourably impressed. Free wifi, for instance, is something you do not get in most airports – and certainly not on planes. The coach class seat I am currently occupying offers more knee room and greater seat space – and is leather. I have more room than the equivalent accommodation in economy on Air Canada – or United.

We did, of course, have to get up at what my sister calls “stupid o’clock” to get the trolleybus to Pacific Central. The passenger information system was out at that stop – but the  bus mercifully on time, since before 6am there is only 20 minute service. It would have annoyed me greatly if the whole trip had gone sideways due to someone “running sharp”. There was no line up at the station, where ticketing and preliminary customs and baggage scanning takes place. My companion was grumbling that in our haste to get on board we had neglected to pick up coffee. She thought I was going off the take pictures. I was – but the dining car was open before departure to I returned to our seats with a cardboard tray not just with coffee but a choice of oatmeal or yogurt “parfait” (fruit and granola). About $12 US.

It takes about an hour to get to the Peace Arch, where the train is stopped and everyone has to turn off their electronic devices. US border staff board the train and interview passengers in their seats – using their outdoor voices. I get to know where the people in this car come from – the “old geezers” across the  aisle come from Camberwell, South London.

I cannot fathom why – given that the train does not stop between Pacific Central and the border why all the formalities cannot be conducted in Vancouver – or even while the train is moving, as used to be the case in Europe. Of course there now borders are largely meaningless: NAFTA is not at all the same thing as the EU Customs Union.

The gadget that allows me to transfer data from my camera is in the bottom of my bag – in the rack above my head. But Amtrak Connect is not exactly speedy, and there are warnings about not overloading the connection. Bellingham 8:49. So I think I will wait to illustrate this piece until I get to the hotel. (See next post) Anyway the train windows are far from pristine and have reflections so I have stuffed the camera in the seat pocket for now.

There is also cell phone coverage on board. Irritatingly WIND mobile send me a message welcoming me to the US. While we were still in White Rock! WIND coverage in Greater Vancouver seems not to extend very far south!

At Bellingham passengers have been kept off the platform until the train stopped. 60 people are joining the train here so all the seats are going to be used. Amtrak seems to be doing well at capacity utilization on this route.

Everett  10:19 – seventeen minutes behind schedule – extra delay since leaving Vancouver would be the maintenance of way check just before this stop

The wifi connection can be a bit spotty and has to be reset every so often. Having a connection at all is remarkable – having a free one even better, so I am not complaining. On the other foot, the position of the power outlet means that every so often I have to put the big white box back into the wall by my left foot, where inevitably it has either fallen out or I have nudged it out.

There are screens up by the ceiling and aircraft type controls and a ear phone jack in the seat arm. They do not seem to be functioning. I do not miss seat back entertainment. But I do have an idea that I think Amtrak should consider. The view from  the train is necessarily sideways. But a camera on the nose of the leading “cabbage” (unpowered control cab converted from a loco – we are being pushed from the rear) with a feed to each car – no sound needed – would be nice, to see where we are going.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 12, 2011 at 8:55 am

Posted in Railway, Transportation

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Federal government extends Amtrak train for another year

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Breaking news from the Vancouver Sun

It is only a reprieve – not an admission that the Border Services Agency is doing anything wrong.

I imagine that in a little less than a year from now, I will be revisiting this story.

This will give time to Amtrak and the hotel association to analyze the business and see if there is enough volume to continue the service.

There is enough volume to continue the service: it is unlikely that there will be enough volume to enable Amtrak to shell out $800,000 a year for additional border service fees.  That is what the argument is about. There is a significant benefit simply in terms of the amount that gets spent here by people using the train to visit Vancouver. There is also a significant benefit in having a train that allows Canadians to have an alternative to flying or driving. The second train is the one that leaves here in the morning and is thus more appealing to people here than the one that leaves in the afternoon.

Of course, in enlightened countries, getting people out of cars and planes and on to trains instead is recognized as good public policy. Vic Toews has not the slightest idea what the words “good public policy” mean.



Written by Stephen Rees

October 14, 2010 at 5:35 pm

Posted in Railway

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