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More trains for NW may mean no more service

Oregon will soon receive more Talgo trains, made in an American plant. But advocates fear Northwest states will miss the chance to open new service.

An Amtrak Cascades train in Portland (2005).

An Amtrak Cascades train in Portland (2005). Ajbenj/Wikimedia Commons

The historic Boise train station opened in 1925.

The historic Boise train station opened in 1925. Trent Cutler/Wikimedia Commons

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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Comments:

Posted Fri, Nov 11, 6:02 a.m. Inappropriate

The demand for Amtrak passenger rail service is increasing nationwide due to the rising fuel costs of short-hop commuter airline and congested highway travel. Nevertheless, passenger rail service still requires significant ridership levels to achieve profitable operation.

GOP Senators like Mike Crapo, from the sparsely populated western states, excel at insisting Amtrak devote resources to maintain or resume unprofitable service to their outlying destinations. Yet they march lockstep with their partisan delegation in obstructing subsidized service for such unprofitable operation.

If Senator Crapo wants passenger rail service to Boise, he needs to step up to the plate and put some money where his mouth is.

Posted Fri, Nov 11, 8:11 a.m. Inappropriate

As usual, Mr. Agnew spaketh the truth.

The public will look poorly at the Federales/Cascadia spending money, just to have stuff in "reserve" when no reserve seems to be needed.

Howcome I suddenly feel all stimulated, but more broke?

Oh, and the realignment through Lakewood is only a sop to Sound Transit, to have someone else pay for upgrading the rail line, so they can get from Tacoma to Lakewood.

Can you imagine "high speed" trains crossing the bazillion city streets, with much activity along the whole line? Nothing wrong with the six or so crossing on the "sound" route that exists, not a thing. What a nutz thing to do.

The Geezer

Geezer

Posted Fri, Nov 11, 10:04 a.m. Inappropriate

I disagree, Mr. Geezer. Reserve rolling stock is necessary for the passenger rail system, both to accommodate maintenance rotation with other trainsets in the fleet and periods of peak seasonal demand.

With the long trend increase in passenger rail ridership, Mr. Agnew would more wisely advocate acquisition of trainsets additional to the two that were just received. These two cost "only" $36 million... or $18 million each (with each trainset comprised of 13 cars). This is actually quite a bargain considering that the economic lifespan averages 20~25 years.

The additional rolling stock could be utilized to evaluate potential ridership on proposed expansion routes. And if the situation arises where there really are too many trainsets in the fleet, then there should be little difficulty recouping most of their cost by reselling them to a different regional passenger rail authority. Afterall, passenger rail travel IS a growth market, and the demand for trainsets, both new and used, will continue in the forseeable future.

Posted Fri, Nov 11, 10:18 a.m. Inappropriate

More frequent passenger service is key to attracting more ridership, as has been demonstrated with local & regional bus transportation systems. This has to do with convenience as well as reliability.
Another concern is competition with freight traffic, which always seems to take precedence. That is one of several concerns Bellingham residents have expressed in regard to the proposed huge coal export terminal at Cherry Point.

jwatts

Posted Fri, Nov 11, 11:41 a.m. Inappropriate

It is good that Amtrak in Oregon is getting more Talgos. They make for a very pleasant travelling experience. At the same time we need to keep in mind that these are a fairly ancient design by now. I travelled around Europe by train in 1 9 7 5. At that time Spain had just recently introduced some new equipment. Yes, it was the TALGO. So the pride of Amtrak's new trains is a 40 year old design. Still works ok, but perhaps an indicator of how far behind the times North American rail travel really is.

ronrich

Posted Fri, Nov 11, 2:23 p.m. Inappropriate

Willie, during what timespan have "fuel costs" been rising? we all pay just under $4 per gallon for normal 90% gasoline. As I remember I have paid more than that within the last two years. Crude is bouncing around near $100 (up from $85) and it was over $120 just six months ago (all time high was around $150). So, OK, fuel cost are higher than they were ten years ago but the trend is not relentless. By the way, what is the fuel efficiency of a diesel passenger train with a full load of passengers? how about half full? would I save the planet by driving my Prius instead?

kieth

Posted Sat, Nov 12, 7:29 a.m. Inappropriate

Keith... Passenger rail service was abandoned by the major RR companies and Amtrak was formed in 1971 when the global price of oil was at its historic minimum. And the global price of oil has been (with fluctuations) continuously rising ever since the Yom Kipper War / Arab Oil Embargo of 1973. Expressed in 2010 dollars, we are now paying $90+ /bbl compared to approximately $17~$18 when Amtrak was formed. So in constant 2010 dollars, we are paying roughly 4~5 times more for oil than we did back then. Oil is no longer "cheap".

We are no long living in an era when Jed Clampett could strike a gusher with a stray shot from his hunting rifle. Production is now shifting to what once was considered very low quality low yield resources: tar sands and oil shales. The Oil Industry is touting this development because it is so bountiful, but they are absolutely mute about the fact that, no matter what technology they use, these bountiful resources will ALWAYS be much more costly to extract and convert to usable form than the "easy oil" that we've been consuming for the last century.

Posted Sat, Nov 12, 7:42 a.m. Inappropriate

Keith...
Here is a chart to support my previous comment regarding the historic trend in oil prices: http://www.wtrg.com/oil_graphs/oilprice1947.gif
With the shift in production from traditional wells to "unconventional" oil resources like tar sands and oil shales, the trend will indeed be "relentless".

The US Transportation Energy Data Book also provides us a comparison of the energy efficiency of different modes of transportation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuel_efficiency_in_transportation#US_Passenger_transportation

Amtrak is roughly 20~25% more energy efficient per passenger mile than airline or automobile travel. Although that can vary depending on distance, number of stops, number of passengers, etc. etc.

Posted Sat, Nov 12, 12:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Willie, you can pick your time frame to help support many trend arguments. For example
crude was (inflation adjusted) at over $102 per barrel in 1980, something of an anomaly but my point is that the commodity does bounce around. See

http://inflationdata.com/inflation/inflation_rate/historical_oil_prices_table.asp

Is that a relentless chart? I don't see it that way.

Also, without doing all the arithmetic (a lot of the units are unexplained in your link)
I did find the easy comparison at the end of the linked article "US PASSENGER TRANSPORTATION" and the following is listed (your link):

AMTRAK: 2935 btu per passenger mile (I think this is with actual passenger load)

"EFFICIENT HYBRID AUTOMOBILE": 1659 btu per passenger mile (1.57 passengers)

Tell me if I am misreading something.

kieth

Posted Sat, Nov 12, 4:57 p.m. Inappropriate

keith... a "trend" is not defined by the price for any single year. Nor is it defined by year-to-year price volatility. The inflation-adjusted chart that you cite appears to be in agreement with the graph that I cited earlier. Both show the history of the price of oil in the post WW-II era. For the first 25 years of either chart, yours or mine, the "trend" up to 1973 is relatively "flat" or stable... perhaps even slightly declining prices. After 1973 the price of oil is much more volatile, but predominantly higher than the long term average. It is "relentlessly" increasing. And the shift from traditional oil supplies to "unconventional" tar sands and oil shales will only magnify that relentless trend.

=====
Yes keith, the fuel efficiency of those new hybrids is quite impressive. Although many people are still clinging to their gas guzzling SUVs and pickup-trucks, I'm sure hybrid sales will also increase due to the relentless trend in fuel prices.

Nevertheless it is also impressive that Amtrak is so efficient compared to the current US fleet of airlines and automobiles. And that is despite the condition of Amtrak's older rolling stock and deteriorated track conditions. East Japan Railway Company achieves the equivalent of 540 BTU/pasenger-mile! So just like automobiles, there is plenty of opportunity to improve our passenger rail energy efficiency by upgrading the track and rolling stock.

Americans are multi-modal travelers. We travel by cars, trucks, buses, trains, subways, planes and boats, easily transfering from one to another to get whereever we're going. Regional passenger rail travel is not going to eliminate automobile or airline travel. But all of these methods will have to become much more efficient due to the "relentless" trend of global energy costs.

Posted Sat, Nov 12, 9 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm not so much concerned about the fact that a couple of more Talgo trainsets will be scattered along the Cascades corridor in a few years. The existing service has been using the same equipment for a couple of decades now, so a little fresh blood is a good thing. They will be used, if not as spares then for new service in a few more years.
Of bigger concern to me is the corridor itself. At the beginning of the last century, it was not uncommon for 100 passenger trains to arrive in Seattle on a single day. We now have only a handful. Passenger rail can be an energy efficient mode for intermediate distance trips, like Seattle to either Portland or BC.
Will our nation have the political will to decide that rail is a mode worth doing right, or should we rely on rubber tires or jets to keep the masses moving? Passenger trains have had to beg, steal or borrow every minute of time they get on the privately owned Class 1's. Moving coal from Wyoming to Beijing is becoming a higher priority than any passenger movement.
The railroads are getting pretty good at raiding local tax sources to pay for every inch of rail those new Talgos will ride over.
It's time for a national debate on railroad rights of ways, before we worry too much about a couple of new engines and a few coaches hitting town soon.
Mike Skehan

007

Posted Sun, Nov 13, 6:16 a.m. Inappropriate

I agree, Mike.

Long term economic trends mandate that regional passenger rail service WILL grow in market share as part of our overall transportation infrastructure. There is absolutely nothing that naysayers and detractors can do to avoid that. And it really doesn't matter whether it is publicly or privately financed or publicly or privately operated... we're all going to pay for it one way or the other.

The real political debate is whether we plan in advance to implement this transition smoothly, or wait until the "free market" determines that we have a transportation "crisis" and tries to respond with minimal steps along the path of least investment?

In a densely populated region, there are simply too many obstacles to overcome for the private sector to pursue large scale infrastructure projects without government participation. We certainly do need to realize that as a nation so that we can adapt to the economic challenges of the 21st Century Global Economy.

Posted Sun, Nov 13, 7:36 a.m. Inappropriate

Eloquent, Mr. Green.

007

Posted Sun, Nov 13, 3:14 p.m. Inappropriate

~ LRT?

Well yes, I believe that LRT is also a growth market,,, although I tend to think of it more for local metropolitan area commuters rather than regional travel between cities. But some interurban LRT can travel up to 90 mph, so I suppose it could be an alternative for shorter regional travel up to 100 miles distance or so.

I tend to think of "regional" travel as trips between 150~450 miles in distance, requiring somewhat sturdier grade-separated infrastructure and a little more comfortable passenger accommodation than what you might find on a typical LRT. The longer trips would also require more provision for luggage/baggage than a local LRT commuter.

I personally would like to see Amtrak begin to employ "Diesel Multiple Units" (DMUs) for regional travel rather than traditional locomotive + passenger cars.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diesel_multiple_unit
But right now it's politically difficult advocating our broader passenger rail needs without getting involved in deciding which passenger rail technology may be better than another in different situtations.

Streetcar/trolley, LRT, subways, monorails, high speed rail, maglev... different technologies with different capabilities. Picking the "right" one depends on what you're trying to do.

Posted Mon, Nov 14, 9:49 p.m. Inappropriate

Coda to WillieGreen & Kieth dialogue: WG is correct because Peak Oil will inevitably drive prices up; the marginal cost of producing the next barrel cannot trend down. For some sources on this and related subjects:
• http://scholars-stage.blogspot.com/2010/07/peak-oil-and-eroi-understanding-concept.html
• http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/3/11/2129/ ("Predicting the Psychological Response of the American People to Oil Depletion and Declining Energy Return on Investment")
• http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2011/11/keystone-xl-game-over/ (some implications of extracting the remaining oil)

louploup

Posted Fri, Nov 18, 10:52 a.m. Inappropriate

The railway that dominates the rail corridor is BNSF, now wholly owned by Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway company. Last year in 2010 BNSF earned a net income of $2.5 billion. By relocating freight rail traffic to a separate corridor away from the landslide prone shoreline from Seattle to Vancouver one could greatly increase passenger rail trains and traffic. South of Seattle one needs only to double track.

BNSF makes a good return from transporting hazardous materials along this corridor. Rates for transporting hazardous materials by rail is extremely high and provide rail companies with profits. Shipments of toxic and explosive materials along the corridor have increased dramatically in the last decade.

BNSF likes to state than less than 1% of their total freight is toxic and flammable materials. What they don't state is 1/2 of the insurance premiums they pay is for transporting these hazardous materials. Insurance companies must know something BNSF is unwilling to disclose.

pwlg

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