Fred Frailey Blog

At last, good news for the Amtrak Cascades

  • Comments 9

Late this past week, Washington State, BNSF Railway, and the Federal Railroad Administration finally and at long last resolved all of their differences regarding the $1 billion project to increase Amtrak Cascade frequencies by 50 percent between Seattle and Portland, Ore. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago (see "One state's bad dream about fast trains," February 15), one of the sticky issues became that of whose data about train delays would be used, that generated by Amtrak's on-board conductors or that of host railroad BNSF? FRA and Amtrak had argued that the passenger train corporation had a well developed process for accounting for delays. The railroad said its data was more sophisticated than what a conductor could observe from aboard a train. In the end, BNSF got its way. For more on the agreement, go here. And for more on the development of the Amtrak Cascades corridor, see the excellent feature story by Alexander Craghead in the April issue of TRAINS.

I must say that I like the Washington State project. Washington DOT did an excellent job incubating the Amtrak Cascade service. The Talgo trainsets it bought for this corridor are a joy to ride. BNSF Railway has done its part, too, dispatching the four present round trips dependably. There is demonstrated public support for this service; just look at the steady increase in ridership along the Washington coast. So while expensive (about $1 billion in all, including the $590 million government grant), this is money well spent. And I should note that because of this investment, BNSF would reserve for its own freight trains all of the present unused train capacity.

So now we wait. The parties bickered so long over terms of this agreement that the money never got dispersed before the U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to take back all high-speed rail grants not already obligated. This was part of the legislation for financing the federal government for the remainder of fiscal 2011, which ends September 30. But the story isn't over. The U.S. Senate will have to approve that take-back and President Barack Obama will have to sign the final legislation. I have no way of predicting how this will ultimately end. - Fred W. Frailey

  • Fred,

    "So now we wait"

    The Federal Railway Administration have the legal authority to award the grant. Nothing that has happened in Congress has withdawn or amended it. So why wait? In deference to the misguided anti rail factions in the political soup? I do not think so.

  • The FRA may have the authority to award the grant, but if the money isn't there that won't help any. I do think it's better to support a proven commodity like this service than to back some of the high speed rail pipe dream that are floating around out there.

    The pro-rail factions have the same problem as the anti-rail, too much political motivation. If grants have to be given out it should be based on ridership demand or possibly lack of options. Sadly that is rarely the case.

    FWIW I think Washington has a good thing going there & wish them luck.

  • According to the FRA's own web site, the money has indeed been obligated:

    Apparently Congress will vote this week on a two-week extension of the continuing resolution that finances the government for this fiscal year. So House Resolution 1 that contained the "takeback" of unobligated high speed rail grants as of February 11 will not become law as originally passed. When the two weeks are up, what happens? There are many things in life I don't know, and how this plays out is certainly one of them.

    Fred Frailey

  • Fred,

    Is Illinois currently negotiating the same type of agreements with BNSF and IAIS for the Iowa City train and with CN for the Dubuque train? How far along are they?

  • Will this allow the use of the Prairie Line and bypass the circuitous Tacoma waterlevel route?

  • I'm not an expert on the geography of Tacoma, but my understanding is that yes, it will miss the circuitous waterfront route and avoid that single-track tunnel.

    Fred Frailey

  • David S,

    I apologize that it took all week to get an answer to your question. And the answer (from George Weber, head of the Illinois DOT rail bureau) is that similar negotiations with BNSF and Iowa Interstate in Illinois haven't begun. First, Weber says, Iowa's government needs to decide whether it's in or out. He expects a resolution of that matter by the end of this month. BNSF hopes that the agreement hammered out in Washington State can serve as a model for one in Illinois.

    Fred Frailey

  • Thanks for looking into that, Fred. I suppose they also haven't started talking to CN about the Dubuque train...

    David Streeter

    (I bought a book from you and you autographed it a few months ago.)

  • Fred. What good is all this work when there has been so many cancellations this winter due to the recurrent mudslides? Over 40 days of cancellations so far this winter. Granted most occurred north of Seattle but there were also some south of Seattle.

At last, good news for the Amtrak Cascades