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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

How NOT to Take a Train to Portland

Posted by on August 23 at 10:40 AM

Yesterday Seattlest had a post about the pleasures of the train to Portland. I concur with Mr. van Baker on all points, but had to point out that the Coast Starlight is the route that is always, but always, late. Never take the Coast Starlight.

I don’t know if NPR is reading Seattlest or what, but today they had a story about the Coast Starlight and its egregious delays. (11 hours!) According to RenĂ©e Montagne (side note: what is with radio names? Norr Rom? Remember KUOW’s Spritz Arbegast?), it’s the fault of Union Pacific. More from the Mercury News and a wire story reprinted in, I kid you not, the North Korea Times.

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one can reliably take the starlight southbound TO Portland, as it begins in Seattle; one should not depend upon the starlight to travel northbound FROM Portland, as it begin in LA.

Corey Flintoff? *Mi*chelle Norris? Steve Inskeep?

They probably generate names the same way one generates their porn name... the street they first lived on and the name of their first pet...

lately it has occasionally been late even southbound, due to maintenance problems. they need better funding.

It's news items like this that make me miss taking the TGV and TGV2 from Paris to Nice in 3.5 hours, or Paris to Nantes in 3 hours.

Makes me realize I'm living in a country heading down to second world status, where the ultra rich live in gated mansions and the middle class is destroyed.

And some people say y'all don't link to other blogs.

It's also true that tracks suitable for freight aren't necessarily optimal for passenger rail. If Amtrak had its own upgraded tracks to use, top speed could more than double. The Talgo cars it uses operate in Spain at top speeds between 150-180mph -- making the train much faster than a car and easily competitive with air travel. But you need dedicated tracks -- you don't want to run into a 40mph freight at 150mph.

I'm with the Mercury News: we need a regional passenger rail consortium.

Yep, won't be long before we have people hanging out the windows and sitting on top of the train.

I took the train to Eugene once. Was great to Portland, but then on to Eugene was *constantly* stopping - even for an hour just 1/2 mi. from the station!

I've never understood why this is such a problem in the USA. Most places in Europe, freight and passenger trains share the same track and it works fine, because - get this - they communicate. Both parties run on the same exact schedule every goddamn day, so the least they can do is coordinate so the timing works.

It's a Catch-22. America isn't laid out for train travel, and so we don't ride the train, which means the train can't carry the volume to justify spending enough money on it to make people want to ride it more.

Face it, without high-speed track, there's no way a train to Portland is ever going to be feasible for business. And there just isn't enough business for Seattle-Portland. Paris-Lyon is only a little bit longer than Seattle-Portland, and those are major, major cities, with many other significant places in between. Seattle-Los Angeles MIGHT be feasible in terms of potential traffic and intermediate stops, but that's a thousand miles, as far as Paris to North Africa.

Note also that the rail systems in Europe are underutilized while there has been massive growth in ultra-cheap no-frills airlines like Ryanair, who can fly you from city to city for insane fares like 9 Euros.

That said, it would be nice if the rail system could attract some more of the subsidies given to highways and air travel. Rail freight is overall more important than rail passengers, though.

Recently the southbound Coast Starlight I rode to Portland departed late out of Seattle because it arrived 10 hours late THE NIGHT BEFORE and the crew needed to sleep.

I tried taking Greyhound down to San Francisco, and the Coast Startlight back. I heard about these delays from another passenger on the train who said she takes it regularly - the biggest problem seemed to be, from my vantage point on board, that there were many places where only one track served both directions, and we had to stop and wait while a freight train passed in the other direction. There were other times that the train just inched along for probably an hour or more, and I could've gotten out and jogged faster. I boarded the train two hours late at Emeryville, in the Bay area, and it was supposed to be a 23 hour trip to Seattle, arriving at about 9 PM the next day. Instead, it arrived around 3:45 AM the day after that, conveniently after Metro stops running. Part of the reason I wanted to take the train ride was because it seems like intercity passenger rail is dying in the US (at least for now, until the petroleum hits the fan). Apparently on the west coast it's already dead - you're essentially riding on the lowest-priority freight train. But, you get big seats with tray tables, running water, room to wander around, 120V outlets, the observation/snack car, and a restaurant. Greyhound is cheaper and was a reasonable approximation of on time, but you get a small seat, a noisier ride, no heat, and a chemical bathroom that hasn't been cleaned in weeks (at least on the bus I was on). Reasonable high-speed passenger rail that had the same government subsidy structure as highways and airports would be nice... but if that were an option, how would they keep us scared of terrorism? In the meantime, the west coast could use something like the Chinatown buses, which anyone who's hopped around East coast cities in the last five years should be familiar with - cheap, only go to major cities, questionably aggressive driving, questionable organized crime links, ruthlessly on time, cleaner and more professional than Greyhound.

Damn, I did not know about the Chinatown buses. That's crazy! Fifteen bucks from Boston to NYC or back, round the clock? 4-5 hours is nothing when you count the airport hassle time at both ends, and did I mention fifteen bucks?

The Coast Starlighter has been late as long as I can remember. I spent all day in Portland's train station one Sunday in the early 90s. The train was supposed to have arrived at noon. It arrived 7 hours later. No one would tell us where the train was or when ETA was, so we had to stay in the station all day and wait. I didn't get home until midnight. The Cascade's performance is remarkably better because it manages shorter routes. However, it still takes longer to get to Portland or Vancouver, BC via Amtrak Cascade than it does by car. The route between Seattle and Portland is maddening. Until the train has passed southward through Olympia, it galumps along like a kiddie car. You can look out the window and see people cycling past you and disappearing into the horizon.

Alas! How is this ever going to compete with the car or an airplane? Also, 36 hours (SEA to LAX) is an awfully long time to be sitting upright in a seat in coach. Want a coke? $3. Breakfast?Lunch? Dinner? $10-$20 a pop. The onboard staff isn't very gracious either. The lady next to me asked for a pillow (it was around 7 PM) and was told, "Oh. It's not time for pillows yet." After which the steward did a 180 and walked the other way. On that same trip rain washed out some of the tracks in southern California. So, they dumped our asses at the train station in Santa Barbara where we waited two hours for busses to bus us the rest of the way south. Northbound, you can always hear a collective sigh of relief when then train finally pulls into Seattle.

Sleeping car arrangements might be better if you have the time and money. But for what you pay for fare and sleeping car accommodations on Amtrak you can fly to you destination in business class. In fact, I know a couple in Los Angeles who did have the time and money and booked deluxe sleeper accommodations for their family on a three-day train ride to NYC. By Phoenix, they'd had enough. They got off the train and flew the rest of the way.

I'd love to keep the train travel option open, but they need to start investing in improvements....pronto.

Megabus is about to expand in the US. With fares starting at $1.00, CLEAN coaches and a great ontime record. Can't wait.

FNARF, just had to call you on your incorrect statement "Note also that the rail systems in Europe are underutilized while there has been massive growth in ultra-cheap no-frills airlines like Ryanair, who can fly you from city to city for insane fares like 9 Euros.".

Wrong. If you had the guts to read the Wall Street Journal this week, or follow any of the Yahoo News links, you'd see that European train travel has DOUBLED this year. TWICE the prior year passengers on a month to month comparison.

Even they have impacts from the air hassles (just ask the 12 passengers arrested by the Dutch) and the cost of air travel has skyrocketed, while trains still use 1/10 the energy of a car, and a heck of a lot less than an oil-guzzling plane (yeah, I know airline fuel is a lighter more refined mix, but it came out of a well).

So, face facts, jets don't work for many people now.

As someone who rides the train between Seattle and Portland for business frequently (and between Seattle and Chicago at least once a year for pleasure) I have to concede that the Coast Starlight cannot be trusted to run anywhere near on-time. This is truly unfortunate, as it is a lovely ride.

And yes - 99.9975% of the fault - as well as the delays on the Talgos south of Portland - are due to the Union Pacifc.

I'll try not to get too wonkish, which I can easily do, but here's the gist: UP purchased the Southern Pacific (operators of tracks between Portland and LA), when it was on its last legs. Southern Pacific had always run the Amtrak trains on time because they needed the incentive payments to meet payroll (seriously. that's how bad off they were)

UP doesn't need that money at all, and doesn't really care for passenger rail in general, and Amtrak in particular - even though it was formed in 1971 at their request to get them out of the burden of providing passenger service. It is a prime example of corporate welfare, but it makes sense in the big picture of transporation - if only the big players like UP would play by the rules they agreed to.

Contrast the Starlight's performance with the Amtrak trains that run between Seattle and Chicago, and LA and Chicago, which are run over the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks, and you will see how this can work. They are usually on-time to their final destinations, or even early.

Passenger rail has a definite role to play in the national transporation system - It just has been ignored for the last 60 years or so. Since rail is, by the government's estimation, 18% more fuel efficient than the airlines, and 17% more fuel efficient than automobiles, it's something we should definitely be investing in.

In the meantime, the regular Amtrak Talgo service between Seattle and Portland is regularly sold out, despite increased service between the two cities. Ridership on the entire Amtrak system, and particularly the routes in the Pacific Northwest and in California (where they have made a significant investment on the state level) continues to climb, showing that there is a market for it in the United States. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration is too tied to the oil, auto, and highway lobbies to notice this.

I'm not all that impressed with the Cascades line to Portland either. I take it to Portland every couple of months, and the last several times the trip, supposedly 3 1/2 hours, has taken 5 due to conflicts with BNSF trains.

I commute everyday between Baltimore and DC. The trains are full. The ride is (usually) reasonably on time. The system has been woefully starved of cash and subsidies, although billions have been wasted to build roads and airports.

We have to think of rail the same way we think of roads or airports. We don't mind speding money on those issues, but damn if we'll put in excellent track or signalling for our trains.

There is no question that rail makes sense between Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. The distances are right, the density is right.

It just needs some serious political will.

Another thing, those Amtrak delays (been there myself, but at least springing for a sleeper to SF makes those delays a little bit better, since the sleepers come with a door and private window) are also related to the Sounder trains not having enough runs. Seems like not enough track to go around.

One thing that makes me wonder though, the Federal Rails-to-Trail program contains provisions for going back to rails. Wonder how the hard it would be for the Seattle/At-large car-free public to swallow if those walking trails across the Cascades or Burke-Gillman Trail and other federally funded walking/bike trails were returned to use for a public transportation system rather then bicycles.

I did the Portland to Seattle route once. To Seattle the ride was great: Better than fighting Christmas traffic, cheaper than a weekends worth of gas, relaxing, and at least half-scenic.

On the way back, there was no train. They sent us all back to Portland on Greyhound buses. Not sweet.

Lesson learned. No more trainrides for me.

Well, we get what we pay for.

It's, what, $30 to get from Seattle to Vancouver by Amtrak Cascades? Wouldn't the same distance on the east coast cost around $75 or so?

Baltimore-Washington is FORTY-FIVE miles. And one of those cities is the national capital. That's a commuter route.

Seattle-Portland would never in a million years bear that kind of traffic.

Ryanair is currently offering flights from London Stansted to Berlin for EUR 0.01, Barcelona EUR 0.79, etc. etc. Yes, there are other fees that drive the cost up to about $15 Euros but that's still less than $25. How about Glasgow to Riga for fourteen cents? Even their undiscounted fares rarely exceed EUR 99.00. These fares are a small fraction of the train. Leaving aside the question of whether cheap flights between places that can easily be reached by train, it's hard to see how this is "skyrocketing". Not everything in the WSJ is true.

@Fnarf: yes, airfare is dirt cheap in Europe (I flew Amst. to Budapest for $20 or so), but trains get used a lot as well. Just more people travelling.

@Noink: "you're essentially riding on the lowest-priority freight train." Good point! Maybe if we all dressed as a sack of potatoes, we'd get there faster, huh?

While I'm a train freak, and as such my comments should regarded suspiciously, I wouldn't dream of flying Ryan Air. When I go to Europe, I want to see the scenery, not sit in yet another damn airplane. Plus, I think the people on trains tend to be more sociable.

I've never understood why this is such a problem in the USA. Most places in Europe, freight and passenger trains share the same track and it works fine, because - get this - they communicate. Both parties run on the same exact schedule every goddamn day, so the least they can do is coordinate so the timing works.

The freight conductors and personnel, coming from someone who's encountered many of them, are mostly booring, dirty, drunken degenerates. They operate on one schedule and one schedule only: their own. And they're not gonna let some little Amtrak tell them when they can and can't run their train.

Bunch of assholes. They'll stop the train in the middle of a busy street during lunch hour for 45 minutes just to be assholes.

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