Amtrak will postpone restoring its Cascades passenger-train service between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., until a target date of December because the national railway lacks enough personnel.
The service gap occurred despite the Biden administration’s much-hyped $66 billion allotted in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to catch up on maintenance and spread Amtrak service to new cities including Las Vegas, Phoenix, Columbus and Nashville.
Transportation officials in Washington state hoped the trains would roll again by summer or even late spring, said Janet Matkin, rail spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Transportation, which announced the disappointing news Friday afternoon.
Amtrak doesn’t have enough conductors, mechanics and onboard service staff yet to operate the trains, though new classes of conductors are being trained now, said a letter to Washington and Oregon rail directors from Ray Lang, an Amtrak vice president. Lang notes that every region wants full service.
Approximately 159,000 people per year rode between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., before the pandemic, or 290,000 when including stations between the big cities, said Matkin. Passenger fares traditionally cover about two-thirds of operation costs, while states cover the rest.
“Amtrak’s lack of support for the Amtrak Cascades service cannot continue and Amtrak’s plans to delay the re-start of Canadian service for seven months or more is not acceptable to WSDOT and ODOT,” says a response co-signed by WSDOT Secretary Roger Millar and Oregon transportation Director Kris Strickler, who suggest at least partial service in the meantime. “However, the states cannot accept Amtrak’s plan to provide no service at all.”
The state directors argue Amtrak is failing to fulfill its Cascades service agreement, for the sake of propping up its longer interstate routes.
Later this month, the Empire Builder will increase from five days a week to full seven-day service, news outlets in Montana are reporting.
It’s been nearly a year since Amtrak President Stephen Gardner visited King Street Station, with U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., alongside, to celebrate the return of long-distance Coast Starlight trains to California and Empire Builder to Spokane and Chicago. Gardner highlighted a $1.7 billion federal infusion to recall 1,200 workers from furlough. Staff for Larsen and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., a leading advocate for rail projects, couldn’t be immediately reached for response.
To reopen the Cascades line to Canada, Amtrak needs three more conductors, who need six to 12 months to win promotion from assistant conductor, Lang wrote. The conductor is responsible for passenger well-being, train equipment and connections, and warning the engineer of trackside hazards.
WSDOT’s Amtrak Cascades website Friday said Amtrak hadn’t committed yet to a reopening date and recommended bus service by Cantrail. Meanwhile, Amtrak’s schedule page still says, “Train service in Canada reopens when the border reopens.”
Currently, three Cascades trains each direction travel daily between Seattle and Oregon, along with one Coast Starlight train each way.
Amtrak is currently advertising 18 jobs in Seattle, such as coach cleaners, chefs and electricians, among nearly 450 open positions nationwide.
Washington state lawmakers this year approved $150 million to study and plan high-speed rail between British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, perhaps replacing Amtrak someday. But such a vision is estimated to require at least $42 billion and decades to construct.
–By Mike Lindblom, The Seattle Times