A perspective from Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley

Oregon Passenger Rail: A chance to react

Written December 2nd, 2018 by Hasso Hering

From Eugene, Amtrak Cascades Train 508 glares into Albany Station Sunday night to pick up passengers.

Of the many ways to get from Albany to Seattle and back, taking Amtrak is probably the cheapest and least stressful. Oregon officials are still working on a plan to make the Oregon leg of the trip more convenient, and a little faster too.

Waiting at Albany Station on Sunday night, I let my attention wander to a leaflet inviting people to an open house and hearing from 5 to 7 Tuesday night, Dec.4, in the Fireside Room at Linn-Benton Community College. It’s a chance to learn more about, and comment on, the draft of an environmental impact statement.

Since 2012, ODOT has studied how to increase the number of passenger trains and have them cover the 124 miles between Eugene and Portland — via Albany, Salem, and Oregon City — in less time. The draft plan, completed this year, considers two possible alignments. One would make track, signal, and other improvements on the Union Pacific main line, the route Amtrak uses now. Alternative 2 would build a new track following I-5 and I-205.

A committee overseeing the planning process has recommended Alternative 1, which would cost less, up to about $1 billion in capital costs through 2035, versus around $4 billion for Alternative 2. But Alternative 1 would limit trains to 79 mph, versus up to 120 mph on a new alignment following the freeway.

Alternative 1 is estimated to result in slightly more passengers in 2035 than Alternative 2: some 739,000 versus 723,000. That’s because the existing stations are in the central cities, whereas the freeway route would require new stations outside.

The study projects the Eugene-Portland travel time under Alternative 1 would be 2 hours and 20 minutes, just a little less than now. Trains on the freeway route would take about 20 minutes less. Now the trip takes two and a half hours.

Amtrak now runs three daily Cascades trains each way, plus the north- and southbound Coast Starlight. In between, ODOT has arranged for “Thruway” buses to help people complete trips when no trains are scheduled.

ODOT expects to publish a final plan and decision on this project in 2019. That would trigger additional environmental studies. And then it would be up to somebody — most likely Congress — to budget the money to carry out the plan.

While the rides are inexpensive now, that applies only to the prices passengers pay. When you add in the amount Oregon pays Amtrak to run the Cascades service and another company to run the buses, the cost per ride is several times as high.

Still, standing on the platform and watching a train come in, as in the video below, you don’t have to be a rail fan to appreciate the effort the state has made. Some say that self-driving cars will make trains even more obsolete than they are now. But maybe not. When tens of thousands of additional autonomous and thus effortless cars clog all the roads, making our highways all but useless, chances are we’ll appreciate the ability to get somewhere on a train, more or less on time. (hh)

[youtube video=”RkU9fsGR-wo”]

25 responses to “Oregon Passenger Rail: A chance to react”

  1. Bob Stalick says:

    We take the train to Seattle several times per year. I used to drive it, but the traffic got so bad and my patience wore so thin, it wasn’t worth the hassle. I’d like to keep our current terminal location, and the building is very nicely refurbished, so Alternaitve 1 sounds better to me, as the additional savings in time doesn’t make that much difference. Of course, I’m retired, so that may be why I’m not so concerned about t he extra time savings.

  2. J. Jacobson says:

    Hey, Hasso….hold on. What’s the hurry? The current station’s just 110 years old. There’s at least another century left in dem bones. We Albanians prefer to see our public buildings well used. Frivolous spending on fancy new stations are a luxury we simply do not require. And 79 mph is plenty fast for a train. Slow down and smell the creosote.

  3. David R Sullivan says:

    I’m a big fan of your comments and analysis, but you are more pessimistic about self-driving cars than seems warranted. Humans are inattentive, slow to react, and unable coordinate actions well. It seems like the speed and density of vehicles in a self-driven fleet should allow at least five times the traffic to move safely on our existing highway infrastructure.

    • Ray Kopczynski says:

      “Humans are inattentive, slow to react, and unable coordinate actions well.”

      All very true, but, I believe much of that has been driven (no pun intended) by our goals of/for safety in our vehicles. By that I mean, we now surround passengers in a safety cage, allow full-surround music studios, touch-screens, cell phones, and a myriad other devices that do exactly that – make us “inattentive, slow to react, and unable coordinate actions well.” We no longer believe we have to be attentive when driving a 1-2 ton vehicle down the road… Self-fulfilling prophecy coming true…

    • HowlingCicada says:

      The best argument against driverless cars (sorry, don’t remember the source, probably BBC radio) goes something like this:

      People will tolerate a certain amount of time to commute to work – let’s say 30 minutes each way on average. It doesn’t matter if it’s walking, bike riding, transit, or cars. Right now, cars will take you maybe 20 miles to employment centers depending on time and location.

      With widespread adoption of driverless cars, those 20 miles might stretch to 30 miles (even if “at least five times the traffic” is wildly exaggerated, as I believe it is). Then you create new demand for housing further out – the 30-mile house will cost as much as the 20-mile house costs now (corrected for inflation). More sprawl, less countryside, fewer walkable/bikeable suburbs.
      That’s the general idea – probably more relevant to Portland and Eugene than Albany.

      On the other hand, maybe Hasso’s vision is closer to reality. Either way, I’m gradually being persuaded away from driverless cars being a real solution to the mess we created with all cars.

  4. Al Nyman says:

    Nobody ever states the obvious: Taking the train to Portland requires an extensive bus trip when you get there to your ultimate destination as the train depot in Portland is not downtown.

    • Ray Kopczynski says:

      “…requires an extensive bus trip…”

      ?? How about considering any of these options:
      * A friend who lives in Portland
      * Uber
      * Cab
      * Max

      • Al Nyman says:

        Typical liberal crap. Way more expensive to ride train and way more time required.

        • centrist says:

          So, you’re entitled to your opinion. How you got there is irrelevant. Kindly step aside and let others pass by

    • Gothic Albany says:

      The train depot in Portland is not downtown???? Just where do you think Portland Union Station is located?

    • Bob Woods says:

      What are you talking about? It’s got MAX Green, Orange and Yellow lines trains right across the street!!! That gets you right downtown and access to all bus lines. Direct bus lines are a block away on Broadway. Greyhound station is across the street. Cabs/Uber/Lift all service the train station. If you can walk, you can head 5 blocks east and hit the Streetcar line on 10th.

      Are you DELIBERATELY lying?

    • Randy says:

      Wtf are you even talking about, Union Station is downtown, and you can walk one block and hop on the max. You can get anywhere in the Portland metro area from Union station with a $2.50 max ticket. If the max is too slow or you don’t wanna be surrounded by bums you can spend more and get a Lyft or Uber. Pretty much everything worth seeing is walking distance from the max.

  5. Linda LaRosseau says:

    Perhaps this societal pressure would dissipate if people simply choose to stay home versus traveling. Think of the monies that would be saved.

  6. Crystal says:

    I have taken Amtrak numerous times over the years to many destinations in Washington and Oregon. I find the train travel fun and relaxing. What I don’t care for is when something happens and they shunt everyone into a charter bus. The buses are a lot less ADA accessible and unfortunately the drivers are usually so tight on schedule they don’t have much time to troubleshoot issues. The train for me is a cheaper way to travel to see family without tiring myself out with the drive. I agree changes need made but 120 mph is insane when we are having issues with safety and derailment at much lower speedx. Safety first!

  7. Lundy says:

    Hasso, what does a round-trip train ticket to Seattle generally run for these days?

    • Hasso Hering says:

      From Seattle to Albany on the Coast Starlight it was about $72 one recent Saturday. I didn’t get the round-trip price.

      • Ray Kopczynski says:

        Midweek, R/T shows $52 (before any discounts)…

        • HowlingCicada says:

          Please take another look and say if I’m wrong. That $52 is *each way* for a round trip (or for just going one way). A few seats are available on some trains for $39 each way. Regular adult. Before gimmicks. Without bicycle or pet.

          P.S., their “fashionable” new website sucks.

  8. David Ballard says:

    “Of the many ways to get from Albany to Seattle and back, taking Amtrak is probably the cheapest and least stressful.” Perhaps this statement is correct regarding the “least stressful” aspect. As to being the cheapest commute for the round-trip from Albany to Seattle, the calculations seem to refute the idea.

    Google says the distance between the two cities is 237 miles. If a weekend trip is made by rail at $72 each way the round-trip fare is $142. Even with driving my gas guzzling half-ton pickup truck calculating 15 miles per gallon at Costco’s recent gas price of $2.70 per gallon the trip cost in fuel is $85.32. (If the calculations are made for the economy sedan achieving 28 miles per gallon the cost would be considerably less at about $45.72). Even allowing for wear and tear of tires and the vehicle, the cost of driving is cheaper or at least break even. If you add the cost of the final leg destination charge via public transportation, bus, taxi, Uber or car rental, the cost of driving will save money compared to Amtrak.

    If three friends or a family of three are making the same weekend trek together the saving are exponential. Three times $142 equates to $426, almost five times the fuel cost of driving the aforementioned gas-guzzling pickup truck, (which, by the way, will transport five adults comfortably.

    “When you add in the amount Oregon pays Amtrak to run the Cascades service and another company to run the buses, the cost per ride is several times as high.” When the true cost of riding Amtrak as you state in this quote is figured into the above calculations, the price of arriving at the destination feeling less stressed is costly indeed.

    • Hasso Hering says:

      Good points. I should not have made that guess, even qualified by “probably,” without first doing calculations of all possible ways of making the round trip. Turns out the fares on planes, buses and trains are all over the map. On one website alone, a one-way Amtrak ticket ranges from $39 to $55, with various intermediate prices. The $72 one-way Seattle-Albany fare with which I was familiar was on the Coast Starlight on a Saturday, perhaps the most expensive day to take the train.

      • David Ballard says:

        Hasso, thank you for the heads-up concerning time and place of the meeting on this topic at LBCC this evening. The presentation filled in a few details, but reading your reporting here on HH Today was just about as informative. Thank you for your efforts in keeping us updated and informed on these matters. You provide a valuable service to your readers on this website.

  9. Bob Woods says:

    The allowed government mileage rate which takes into account depreciation and expenses is $0.54 cents per mile. Round trip to Seattle by Mr. Ballard is 237 miles X 2 = 474 miles round trip. 474 miles x $0.54 per mile = $255.96 round trip.

    Buying your gas at just the Costco rate is BS. The VAST majority don’t. I paid over $3 today. The government is notoriously stingy on deductible allowances. If you want to argue that the government is generous, then buy yourself some armor for the flack you will take.

  10. HowlingCicada says:

    Another option is Bolt Bus. They still exist (I just checked) and go to Eugene, Portland, and Seattle. I took them to Portland (non-stop) a few times and liked it a lot, but that was August, 2016 and earlier, and on quite empty buses; don’t know what it’s like now. Prices are different for every trip and change frequently, mostly much lower than Amtrak. There is a $2 “transaction fee” per purchase. Read the conditions – re-booking, etc. may be useless.


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