At last, good news for the Amtrak Cascades

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Sunday, February 27, 2011

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

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