Friday, December 18, 2009

Transport: Cascades Corridor Retrospective

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - My trip from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington on Monday evening was one of the best of my trips over this portion of the "Amtrak Cascades" corridor. Arriving 16 minutes early, the trip took only 3 hours, 16 minutes, faster than the scheduled time time of three and a half hours for the corridor trains with Spanish-designed Talgo equipment.

This was my twenty-sixth trip over line between Seattle and Portland. My first trip was on Amtrak's now-defunct "Pioneer" (northbound train #25, which operated on the then-Burlington Northern as train #1798) on 24-June-1988. That train covered the 186.6 miles in 4 hours, 16 minutes for an average of 43.7 mph, sixteen minutes slower than scheduled.

My first trip on Talgo equipment occurred on 27-August-1994, when the original test set was running on the route as the "Northwest Talgo" on a trial basis. Southbound train #793 (#1793 to the Burlington Northern) handled the run in a time that would make even today's schedule, arriving 19 minutes early with a running time of 3 hours, 26 minutes and an average speed of 54.3 mph.

The slowest trip would not occur until 1-May-2006. On that day, I was on a late-running Coast Starlight train #14 (all Starlights were late in that era) that lost even more time on that segment because of severe freight train congestion at Willbridge in Portland. It took that train five hours, five minutes to cover the line, 40 minutes slower than scheduled, for a 36.7 mph average.

Four of the 26 trips have been on Amtrak Cascades train #508, the last train of the day (except when the Starlight is egregiously late) northbound out of Portland. On 9-February-2006, the train took 4 hours, 12 minutes to traverse the line (42 minutes slower than scheduled) mostly because of being held for a freight train at Clear Creek near Tacoma, Washington, and being briefly held while a car reported on the tracks was investigated in Seattle. On 8-May-2006, the run was similar, with a four hour running time (a half hour late) mostly because of a delay while the Columbia River Drawbridge was opened.

With freight traffic collapsed in the recession and the additional high-speed crossovers installed, it has been a very different experience this year. When I rode train #508 on 16-May-2009, it took only 3 hours, 12 minutes, arriving in Seattle 18 minutes early, the fastest I have ever experienced, a 58.3 mph average speed. With a few slow orders and crossing over between main tracks, my train on Monday didn't quite match that run, but was nearly as fast, being just four minutes slower for a very respectable average speed of 57.1 mph.

Those kinds of speeds are hardly considered high-speed, but they are competitive with driving and even flying (city center-to-city center), and the consistency shown this year represents the kind of reliability that makes corridor service attractive. If the rest of the Amtrak system were like the Cascades corridor, there would be a different attitude about rail transportation in general and Amtrak in particular in this country.

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