January 31, 2021

Looking Down the Tracks: the State of Washington's Trains in 2021

A new year is upon us, and AAWA is already off to a busy start! Here is our beginning-of-year update for 2021.

Status of Cascades Service

Service has been drastically curtailed across the Pacific Northwest. Amtrak Cascades was cut from 4 Seattle-Portland, 2 Portland-Eugene, and 2 Seattle-Vancouver, BC daily round trips to just one daily Seattle-Eugene round trip, with all Cascades trains north of Seattle suspended. The Empire Builder and Coast Starlight have also seen service cuts, with each offering only three weekly departures in each direction since October. Thruway connecting bus services appear to be operating at or fairly close to normal frequencies. According to WSDOT, ridership on Amtrak Cascades is down roughly 87%. Long-distance network ridership has declined as well, but it also appears to have been the fastest to recover given the lack of transportation options in many of the areas it serves; tri-weekly service is likely stunting this recovery, though. Here is a link to WSDOT’s COVID-19 multimodal transportation system performance dashboard, as well as Amtrak’s reports page featuring Monthly Performance Reports for 2020 (near the bottom of the page).

Point Defiance Bypass

Restoration of Cascades service on the Point Defiance Bypass is steadily moving ahead. Positive Train Control has been installed along the full length of the Bypass. WSDOT conducted ‘dynamic testing’ (whereby trains made round-trip passes at gradually increasing speeds) on the Bypass with a Talgo 8 trainset on the weekend of January 16th-17th. This dynamic testing was part of Sound Transit’s process for the resumption of Cascades service, as ST is treating this as a ’new start’ that requires full certification of equipment, crews, and operating procedures. If all goes according to plan and ST grants its approval, WSDOT anticipates a late-spring/early-summer timeframe for resumption of service on the Bypass. We do not know if the Coast Starlight will require a separate procedure or timeline for Bypass use.

Infrastructure Improvements

Washington recently received two CRISI grants for rail infrastructure improvements, one for landslide mitigation in Cowlitz County and one for switch automation and siding construction near Elma.

East-West Service

In addition to these updates, AAWA is continuing its work to promote the restoration of daytime passenger train service between Seattle and Spokane via Auburn, Yakima, and the Tri-Cities. The 1993 legislature created a high-speed ground transportation (HSGT) program in RCW 47.79 which, among other goals (listed in RCW 47.79.020), called for the implementation of Seattle-Spokane HSGT by 2030. While we are far from being able to achieve that goal now, WSDOT has studied the possibility of implementing conventional passenger rail service between the state’s two largest cities via Stampede Pass. The first study was conducted in 2001, the second in 2020, and more steps remain before the service can begin, namely the performance of a cost-benefit analysis. Enthusiasm for East-West passenger rail is strong; according to the 2020 STEER study, the public support rate was 76%, one of the highest the firm had ever seen for any project it had worked with. A 2017 study, funded by AAWA and conducted by Central Washington University, also found high levels of support for East-West trains among Central Washingtonians.

AAWA is the chief supporter of East-West passenger trains providing daytime service to Central and Eastern Washington. We believe that a region-wide passenger rail network (including services to Walla Walla, Boise, and between Portland and Spokane) will ensure that most Washingtonians are within reach of accessible, sustainable, and high-quality intercity transportation. We are supporters of HSGT alongside Cascadia Rail, and we are working hard to strike an effective balance between addressing short-term climate and mobility needs and crafting a compelling, sustainable long-term vision for the future of the Northwest. This applies equally to our advocacy work for Amtrak Cascades. We believe that a full implementation of the 2006 Amtrak Cascades Long-Range Plan, in addition to a robust series of East-West rail routes, will give Washingtonians on both sides of the Cascade Range the sort of train network needed to create a broad base of support for HSGT.

We have a lot more information about Seattle-Spokane train service on our East-West page as well. As health and safety conditions improve, AAWA plans to expand its outreach in Central and Eastern Washington to organize local support for East-West passenger rail service.