More trains for NW may mean no more service

The historic Boise train station opened in 1925. Credit: 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.”

The Amtrak consultant performed the work Rynerson mentioned for a study on restoration of the Seattle-Boise-Denver Pioneer train, which Amtrak killed in 1997 and has no plans to reinstate. In an e-mail interview, a spokesman for Boise Mayor David Bieter stated that the city, which owns and maintains the Boise depot as an event venue, “supports the re-establishment of the train service through the Boise Depot because it would put Southern Idaho back on the passenger rail map and would be tremendously beneficial to our state’s economy. We have joined with members of our congressional delegation in support of bringing the Amtrak Pioneer line back.”

Sen. Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican, has worked with Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden in support of the Portland-Boise service concept, and Crapo’s thinking accords with Leap’s and Rynerson’s proposal. “The request made by Senators Crapo, Wyden and others for Amtrak to examine a return of the Pioneer Line remains active,” said Lindsay Nothern of Crapo’s Boise office in an e-mail. “The possibility of minimizing costs for a potential test train on the Pioneer route is exciting and may eventually provide some of the answers that Amtrak says it needs to determine a return of service to the region.”

Speaking for Wyden, Tom Towslee of the senator’s Portland office was more inclined to see the glass as half-empty, stating that his boss “has always supported restoring passenger rail service east out of Portland, but the availability of passenger cars is the least of the problems facing this issue. The biggest issue is the willingness of Amtrak and the Union Pacific to restore passenger service from Portland to Boise and beyond.”

Rynerson also suggested a daytime train between Portland and the passenger rail hub of Sacramento. In Washington state, a service linking Seattle and Spokane via Yakima, which hasn’t seen passenger service since 1979, has its backers.

Kingman had heard the arguments for a new Spokane train occasionally “just from people writing in,” but said, “we have to maximize revenue in the area that we’re currently working in before we look at anything else.”

”We don’t have the money to do that currently,” referring to the Spokane idea, or even the drafting of a business plan for such an eventuality.

In Oregon, ODOT’s Snow wrote in an e-mail follow-up, “no proposals [for service outside the Willamette Valley] have been proffered by any entity (Amtrak, WSDOT, ODOT, Idaho or California) that we know of — we do know neither Oregon nor Washington have financial resources to support passenger rail service outside the Cascades corridor.”

Her statement contrasts with the views of, among others, Bruce Agnew, director of Seattle’s Cascadia Center for Regional Development. “Having them [the new train-sets] sitting around unused is going to cause a public backlash,” he said. “You gotta use the equipment. If it is in fact available, then we ought to look into, with our congressional delegation, operating it between Seattle or at least Portland and Boise, as a case study for east-of-the-mountains use of the Talgo trains, with lessons that can be applied to our proposal to add a second, daylight passenger-rail service to Spokane from Seattle. We’re pushing for that in the new revenue package.” He alluded to his own organization and Washington’s passenger rail advocacy group, All Aboard Washington, and to their position on transportation funding talks under way in Olympia.

Agnew stressed that he didn’t favor diverting the new equipment from eventual use west of the mountains, “but if they’re sitting there, we should use them on a pilot basis. If we can do it [a Boise service] operationally without endangering the Cascades, we’ll get political support for capital and operating funds for rail in the legislature from the east side of the mountains.”

WSDOT’s Kingman emphasized the fluidity of the situation. “We’re working with ODOT to develop a fleet management plan that will look at both the short term and the long term to reduce costs and maximize service. I don’t know exactly which equipment is going to go where. That’s part of what the fleet management plan is going to determine.” Completion of the plan, she said, is expected within a couple of months. Still, given how well the Talgos have performed to date, it seems that the new trains will be little more than extra equipment for several years.

One can perhaps ascribe the situation to a lack of coordination between the two states that has existed in spite of their being coupled to each other in an HSR corridor designated as such 19 years ago. As late as 2009, the year before Oregon finalized the Talgo order, “WSDOT was predicting it would add two additional Portland-Seattle round-trips by 2012 or 2013,” Snow said, elaborating on ODOT’s reasoning in a phone interview. “So there’s only five train-sets available for that, none of them owned by Oregon. So we had to step in to protect the Portland-to-Eugene route. We were using borrowed equipment. That’s when we decided to buy the two train-sets and add them to the corridor pool. So WSDOT can do their expansions as they want and it will not endanger the Oregon [Portland-Eugene] round-trips.”

The purchase, she added, “puts Oregon at the table in discussions about passenger rail service in the Northwest. We were something of an outsider before this.”

“WSDOT is excited ODOT is taking this step to acquire equipment for the Amtrak Cascades fleet,” Kingman responded in an e-mail. “We look forward to continuing to work together.”

While discussions between Olympia and Salem proceed, a lot of hopes are still standing in the station — waiting for a train.

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