The Pacific Northwest's pool of passenger-rail equipment will get a boost next June, when the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) takes delivery of new trains purchased from the Spanish-owned Talgo company. The two trains, built at Talgo's plant in Wisconsin, will complement the five Talgos that already ply the high-speed rail (HSR) corridor between Eugene, Ore., and Vancouver, B.C. There's just one problem: the arrival of $37 million worth of rolling stock won't translate any time soon into any increase in service.
“No new schedules will be added,” stated ODOT spokeswoman Shelley Snow, in an e-mail interview.
ODOT is receiving two entire Talgo train-sets — sets of cars operated as single, articulated units. The Talgo equipment has played a key role in reviving the corridor's passenger rail service, branded as Amtrak Cascades. Oregon and Washington are the national provider's state partners for the service, furnishing funding, marketing, and strategic direction while Amtrak supplies operational expertise, the locomotives, and some funding of its own.
Because the Talgo cars tilt inward in curves, they can negotiate those curves with reduced centrifugal force for passengers, and thus at higher speeds, than conventional, non-tilting equipment. This feature translates into a Seattle-Portland trip 25 minutes faster than it would be in a conventional train, such as Amtrak runs elsewhere.
When the train-sets enter service next year, they will do so as part of the existing pool, allowing the other Talgos more down time but not occasioning any new “frequencies,” or scheduled services. They will allow flexibility for better scheduling — Oregon “may be able,” Snow stated, to shift one Portland-to-Eugene train to a more appealing morning time slot. But beyond that, passenger rail advocates, taxpayers, and travelers will not see much of a return soon.
The new train-sets will essentially act as spares, confirms Laura Kingman, spokeswoman for the Rail and Marine Division of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). Whether the corridor needs that much spare equipment is debatable: the existing pool of Talgos is highly reliable. Only once last year, Kingman said, did a Talgo have to be removed from service. A Talgo technician travels on every train, watching the equipment for any possible trouble.
WSDOT's plans call for expanding the Portland-Seattle Cascades service from its present four round-trips to six. However, those plans aren't slated to become reality until 2017, when a new alignment through the Tacoma suburb of Lakewood, among other improvements, will be completed. That planning has proceeded more or less independently of what Oregon might be doing. The new train-sets would be available to cover those new round-trips, but 2017 is a long way off. Even those new round-trips, however, will only represent 12 to 14 new hours of service time daily, a good bit less than what the train-sets could in theory provide.
Among people who ponder such issues, no shortage of ideas exists as to where the new equipment could fill a need. The Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates (AORTA) backs WSDOT's plan for new frequencies between the Emerald and Rose cities, but some ask why the thinking remains stuck in the box of the existing Eugene-Vancouver corridor.
“It wouldn't hurt my personal feelings if one of those trains were used to develop a pilot service between Boise and Portland,” AORTA president Donald Leap put it. "We've got to think beyond the Willamette Valley.”
“These train-sets could be used on a Seattle-Portland-Boise run,” wrote Robert Rynerson, expanding on Leap's thinking in an e-mail interview. Rynerson, a Portland native and longtime passenger-rail advocate who worked as a transportation planner at ODOT back in the1970s, crunches schedules these days for Denver's Regional Transportation District. “Some preliminary work regarding improvements to the Union Pacific line east of Portland was done by a consultant for Amtrak, but a serious follow-up to get reliable cost estimates would be needed.”
On a 2008 tour, he added, he was “amazed to find so many stations ready to serve passengers.”
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