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Making Tracks

Published in The Oregonian

OLYMPIA — Increasingly popular passenger trains rumble between Portland and Seattle four times a day as the upgraded Amtrak Cascades service continues to attract business travelers, sightseers and Mariners fans seeking an alternative to airports and Interstate 5. Ridership has risen sixfold in the past eight years, turning the 466-mile Eugene-to-Vancouver, B.C., corridor into one of Amtrak’s fastest-growing services. Rider satisfaction surveys suggest the people piling into these modern, European-style trains love them.

The fanfare continues despite frequent delays as trains routinely get slowed by chronic track maintenance or stuck behind sluggish freight trains. And the passenger trips are slow and infrequent enough to be inconvenient for most people on tight schedules.

But that’s what makes the trains’ popularity so encouraging to regional rail advocates. In fact, the current service, and its 600,000 annual riders, is little more than a clumsy preview of the inter-city rail dream that has been bouncing around the Northwest for 20 years.

That dream calls for tripling the number of Portland-Seattle and Eugene-Portland trains during the next 10 to 15 years with trip times cut by a third as trains hurtle at up to 115 mph. British Columbia is part of the dream, too, with the Canadian province warming to the idea of improving its own tracks as a way to boost its bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The Cascadia Project, a Seattle-based think tank, envisions a seamless, rail-united Northwest with an international draw: “Cascadia, the two-nation vacation.”

The Cascadia Project is trying to help line up money and politicians to make the regional rail dream happen. Director Bruce Agnew sees the politics aligning as soon as next year. He points to Washington state’s November ballot measure that asks voters for $170 million in rail improvements and a U.S. House subcommittee that advocates spending $59 billion to boost passenger rail nationwide.

“We need to develop a rail system that is a real alternative to I-5 for everyone,” Agnew says, suggesting passenger rail could ultimately become as essential to linking Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., as it is to connecting New York, Boston and Washington, D.C.

Possible derailments

Yet, there are so many obstacles.

If Washington voters reject Referendum 51 in November, the state can’t proceed with a long list of pricey projects that include laying more than 40 miles of new track and providing a quicker route through Vancouver’s train yard. The state also loses $800 million in potential federal matching money.

Although Congress, by some accounts, appears to exhibit unprecedented bipartisan support for a massive rail investment, the issue is mired in a complex debate over how much money to give Amtrak, which reports large annual losses despite ongoing federal and state subsidies.

Congressional members from Washington and Oregon say they are fighting to ensure that at least some rail improvement money is sent to the Northwest later this year. But they also admit it is too early to predict how much, if any, will make it.

Until federal money comes to the rescue, which now appears unlikely until at least next year, it will be difficult to increase train speed or relieve track problems south of Portland that continue to restrict and slow Amtrak’s service.

There are at least two main tracks throughout Washington’s I-5 corridor — with plans for a third track along some stretches — but most of Oregon’s north-south corridor is a single, high-maintenance track belonging to Union Pacific. The result? Daily delays.

On a recent Portland-bound trip, the train fell behind a slow freight heading north from Eugene, slowing to 30 mph — the corridor speed limit is 79 mph — through stretches of track that needed work. By the time it left Portland for Seattle, it was about 40 minutes behind schedule.

One harried Portland passenger vented that the delay was forcing her to miss her flight out of -Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, but most travelers appeared unfazed.

Lynn Auch, a Portland marketing consultant who rides the Seattle train once a month to visit clients, says it’s been late three of her last five trips. But she says the train is less stressful than driving or flying, and she enjoys the Puget Sound views where the train glides along the beach for 20 miles between Olympia and Tacoma.

Auch says she’d appreciate the Seattle train even more if it was faster and more frequent. The grand plan calls for 13 trips a day between Seattle and Portland, with trip times cut by an hour to 21/2 hours each way — faster than the distance can be legally driven.

“If they manage to do that, it’ll be incredible,” Auch said. “I mean, why drive?”

The trains’ attractions

Some of the trains’ popularity has to do with the Spanish-designed Talgo train sets themselves, which were bought by Washington state and Amtrak three years ago.

The trains are clean, modern and quiet enough for casual conversation. They offer large windows and roomier seats than most buses or commuter planes. There is a “bistro” and lounge on each train, credit-card activated telephones, movies in the coach cars and outlets for laptops.

A round-trip coach ticket from Portland to Seattle costs from $46 to $56, depending on when it’s reserved. The nine-car trains carry as many as 288 people and are often sold out both ways on weekends or whenever there is an afternoon Mariners game.

Amtrak surveys show that riders consistently rank the Cascades trains in the low to mid-90s on a scale of 1 to 100, says Dennis Kuklis, business operations director for Oakland, Calif.-based Amtrak West.

Kuklis says the trains score as high as any of Amtrak’s 40-plus rail services in the country, although the customer satisfaction numbers are considerably higher for comfort and cleanliness than for food and punctuality.

Kuklis says the Cascades corridor is the only one in the country with double-digit ridership increases for each of the past eight years.

“That’s probably unprecedented,” he said.

Bad stretch of track

Yet until federal money is released for track improvements, the growth may be stunted by its weakest link: the Eugene to Portland track, where passenger trains often roll along at 20 mph to 40 mph.

“We’re stuck in place,” said Claudia Howells, director of the rail office for the Oregon Department of Transportation. “People say, ‘Lets’ go 115 (mph),’ and I’m just going day to day.”

There was just one day in April and the first three weeks in May in which both Eugene-to-Portland trains arrived on time.

Howells says she had high hopes that Congress would finally send Oregon a big check for rail improvements this year, especially after Sept. 11 triggered a campaign to revitalize the nation’s passenger rail.

Oregon’s wish list of about $80 million in rail projects includes creating an express route through the Eugene rail yard, lengthening pullouts for slower freight travel and helping Union Pacific replace some of its deteriorating rails between Albany and Eugene.

The goal, Howells says, is not only to get the current trains on schedule, but to build a system that is capable of tripling the number of daily trains between Eugene and Portland. However, for now, she says it will be hard enough to keep the two passenger trains rolling on tracks that were in better condition a century ago.

“What is remarkable is that we continue to have strong ridership,” Howells said. “The riders we’ve lost are the regular business travelers. And they tell us they would love to take the train, but they clearly need a higher level of reliability.”

In Washington state, rail officials are pushing ahead with environmental analyses and other groundwork to launch upgrades.

“We are doing everything possible to put ourselves in a position such that if the federal money comes, we are able to deliver,” said Stephen Anderson, director of Washington’s rail program. “As we improve the product, people in Oregon and Washington are going to want it even more.”

But Anderson winces at Oregon’s track problems and the routine delays they create for Washington trains. He also is discouraged to hear how forecasts for federal money have soured.

The joy of trains

Wally Fisher can’t understand the holdup. He’s so gung-ho about passenger trains that he volunteers at the Olympia station — one of the few stations in the country run entirely by volunteers.

“All aboard!” Fisher tells a southern-bound crowd, then wonders aloud why Uncle Sam pours so much money into airlines and highways and is so stingy with the railroads. “Everyone knows this is the best way to move people,” he said.

Plus, Fisher says, trains are fun, especially when compared with getting stuck in traffic.

“It’s such a joy to just get on a train, no matter how (behind schedule) it might be, to just sit down and you’re going someplace,” he said. “We see families come in here just to take a ride to Seattle or to Portland. You can get up and walk around and enjoy the scenery. It’s just a laid-back atmosphere.”