Amtrak must restore Cascade rail service for a credible rail future

Amtrak must earn trust in this region and across the country if growing its rail service is a fundamental part of America’s transportation future.

Amtrak’s repeated and summary pushbacks regarding the permanent restoration of Cascades train service between Seattle and British Columbia have undermined that confidence in that region. Without it, it’s a farce to call the service a national carrier if its priority is to keep East Coast commuters happy and give the rest of the country a lower priority.

Rail service north of Seattle and across the border was shut down when the pandemic hit. It was supposed to restart when the border reopened, Amtrak’s planning page claims.

It happened last August. The trains did not pass. During the winter, the Facebook page of the Cascades line promised a reboot “later this spring.” Still no train. And now, two months into spring, Amtrak says running trains across the border is a December goal, sending a letter blaming staffing issues.

After passing so many promised start dates, why think Amtrak wants to stick with this one? Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner is set to act on demands for better service from heads of the Washington and Oregon state transportation departments by a letter of May 12. U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., brought the message to Gardner herself on May 25 and reported that the message seemed to resonate.

“He assured me that Amtrak was working on aggressive solutions to quickly restore service to Vancouver after it was interrupted due to the border closure due to the pandemic,” Cantwell said in a statement.

Actions must follow these assurances. The series of empty promises Amtrak has made previously is no way to run a railroad.

About 290,000 travelers per year, before the pandemic, took trains from Seattle to Vancouver and among points in between. Western Washington University students who no longer have train service from Bellingham must now fall back on the bus provided by Amtrak. Almost every other mode creates more carbon emissions than rail travel, among other concerns that functioning rail service can alleviate, such as traffic on Interstate 5.

Across America, Amtrak has restored its premier Acela service between Boston and Washington, D.C., just three months after the start of the epidemic in 2020, with the reasonable measure of starting with a limited service and then increasing the frequency. The Chicago-Seattle Empire Builder intercountry line is return to daily service. Still, Seattle’s King Street station remains the northernmost end of the line for the Cascades race. Even a few paltry trains a week would make things better.

State and federal officials have invested large sums of public money in the vision of having fast, reliable trains connecting Seattle to the other Cascadian metropolises of Portland and Vancouver. Specifically, $150 million in this year’s state transportation program has been set aside to study the much-vaunted federal high-speed rail in this corridor.

The federal infrastructure bill committed $66 billion to growing passenger rail, with an explicit goal on the White House website to “bring world-class rail service to areas outside the northeast and mid-Atlantic”.

And what do we have to show to back up this fancy language? A train that hasn’t run north of Seattle in over two years and a bunch of empty promises about when it might happen. Passenger rail is supposed to be an essential part of our future. It has to start by becoming a believable part of the present.

About Dora Kohler

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