As high-speed rail inches forward, could new routes cut congestion and revitalize rural economies?
It was a revolution on rails. In 1911 the first Portland-to-Tillamook passenger train sped through Oregon’s rugged Coast Range at unprecedented speed, whisking travelers to their destination in less than seven hours, covering ground that until then had taken days to traverse.
Tourists soon flocked to the new line, revitalizing coastal economies as hotels and cottages popped up to serve thousands of visitors. Lumber that once depended on risky sea journeys to reach market instead sped east on Portland-bound freight cars. With livestock feed deliveries now available by train, dairymen could for the first time milk their herds year-round. Communities that had been isolated by steep slopes and shallow bays were no longer cut off from the rest of the world. The 20th century had arrived.
More than a hundred years later, bike lanes and public transit have earned Oregon’s largest city a reputation as a leader of a new transportation revolution. But as Portland has forged ahead, the rest of the state has been stuck in reverse. It’s been half a century since passenger rail regularly connected the Willamette Valley to Oregon’s coast, two decades since trains stopped serving passengers in eastern counties and 10 years since Greyhound cut bus service to three dozen rural towns across the state.
With Oregon’s population now topping 4 million, roads to the coast clog each summer, skiers complain of unprecedented gridlock toward Mount Hood in winter, and in remote corners of the state, where cars have become the only option for most residents seeking to get out of town, there’s a growing sense of isolation.
Perhaps the time has come for Oregon to take a new look at that old solution: rail.
Trains are faster and cleaner than last time they revolutionized transportation, says David Arnold, president of the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates (AORTA) and an engineer with short-line freight carrier Wallowa Union Railroad.
“There’s a good argument to be made for passenger rail,” says Arnold, who became a passenger rail advocate in an effort to reinstate service to La Grande that was cut in 1997. “Not only is it an efficient way to move a lot of people, it’s safe and it’s also environmentally friendly. But throughout Oregon, it’s been a real challenge to get support.”
Recent signs point to new political willpower to consider passenger rail. And around the country, there is a new burst of enthusiasm for intercity rail, with several projects in the proposal, financing and construction stages. In Portland, positive signs include climbing ridership of the Westside Express Service Commuter Rail, opened on existing freight tracks in 2009. Substantial upgrades to the Eugene-to-Vancouver, B.C., Amtrak Cascades are on track to cut Portland-to-Seattle travel times by better than half an hour. Tourism officials in car-swamped destinations across the state say they are desperate for relief. And as a handful of communities works to bring back abandoned freight lines, Arnold sees more opportunities to knit together urban and rural populations that have never seemed further apart: “If it’s good for freight, it’s good for passenger, and vice versa.”
Though it may surprise riders who remember the Amtrak of last decade, when three-hour delays between Seattle and Portland were common and only 45% of trains arrived on schedule, the Eugene-to-Vancouver line has been federally designated as one of the country’s first five high-speed rail corridors since 1992. When the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act pumped $8 billion into high-speed rail development, the Amtrak Cascades line received nearly $800 million to get its operations back on track. Upgrades since then have boosted on-time performance to 80% and cut travel times by as much as 20 minutes between Seattle and Portland.
In 2015, an estimated 200,000 people rode the Cascades — more than any line outside California and the train-dense Northeast U.S. corridor. Among those riders were employees of GlobeSherpa, a Portland-based maker of apps and mobile ticketing for transit systems, which frequently does business in Seattle.
“We work in transit, and we ride transit, and the train up to Seattle is great,” says Mac Brown, GlobeSherpa’s director of business development. “When I drive to Seattle, I’m exhausted. When I ride the train, I’m online, I’m connected. I can work or I can stare out the window. The travel time is about the same, but the personal impact is much less. And they’ve been working on that line a lot. We can see the results.”
Headquartered in downtown Portland, many of GlobeSherpa’s workers bike, walk and take transit to the office — choices common among urban tech firms staffed with millennials, who have developed a reputation for eschewing automobiles. An employee who lives 70 miles from the office in Albany — a rarity on staff — would be thrilled to commute via a truly commuter-friendly, highspeed rail system, Brown says. Though dubbed “high-speed,” Amtrak Cascades’ morning trains take just shy of two hours to trek from Albany to Portland, however. As a result, the GlobeSherpa worker opts to drive.
Compared to Europe, where trains frequently fly along at faster than 150 miles per hour, safety constraints limit the Amtrak Cascades’ “high-speed” rail link, which travels the roughly 350 miles between Portland and Vancouver, B.C., in eight and a half hours. Meanwhile, California’s under-construction $64.2 billion San Francisco-to-Los Angeles high-speed trains are expected to zoom between those cities at 220 miles per hour, whisking passengers more than 500 miles in just 2 hours and 40 minutes.
California isn’t the only state aiming for a resurgence in train travel. Chinese companies are investing in a proposed $100 million-plus Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas high-speed line. A private rail line in Florida is under construction and aims to run 32 departures a day between Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. In Texas, the firm Texas Central Partners, is seeking to build a high-speed train that would traverse Dallas and Houston in 90 minutes.
The Cascades line’s high-speed aspirations are far less lofty, involving 20 discrete projects that collectively seek to make the Portland-to-Canada journey a little bit faster and a lot more reliable. Top speeds are capped at 79 miles per hour, with lower restrictions on aging tracks. Future upgrades could ultimately allow trains to top 100 for some stretches of the journey.
But Alex Craghead, a former Oregon resident and contributor to Railfan & Railroad Magazine who is pursuing a doctorate in urban design at U.C. Berkeley, says even investing in the relatively slow Amtrak Cascades line makes economic sense for transportation officials seeking to address gridlock between Portland and Seattle.“ Adding a lane to I-5 would have been so expensive, it was cheaper to build a faster train,” Craghead says. “At current speeds, there’s pretty much parity or a slight advantage to rail over driving, and rail is getting faster.”
As the Amtrak Cascades line continues to improve, Craghead says it will increasingly compete with air travel, as well. Transit time is slower, but the gap closes when travel to and from airports and the hassles of security are factored in.
Those cost-benefit analyses also hint at one of the biggest threats to the current passenger-rail rise: falling gasoline prices. As the cost of a tank of auto fuel drops, a train ticket can seem like less of a bargain, notes Craghead. Amtrak’s own analysis suggests that lower fuel prices last year led to a 4.2% drop in ridership across its national network, though Cascades line figures are not yet available. “Gasoline is a direct competitor to rail,” Craghead says.
Timberline Lodge public affairs director John Tullis groans when asked about the traffic he has seen grow worse each winter over his decades working on Mount Hood. This year, skiers have reported delays as long as three hours to traverse the 10 miles between Government Camp and Mt. Hood Meadows. “If we were in Europe, there’d be a gondola to the top of the mountain, maybe we’d have rail,” Tullis says.
In the U.S., efforts are underway in Denver to revive the city’s Ski Train, which shuttled enthusiasts to the slopes from 1940 until 2009. Though it was shut down due to financial concerns and conflicts with freight traffic, local media have reported that officials in Colorado are in talks to revive the line’s weekend runs by the 2016-17 ski season.
Tullis notes that buses, albeit few and far between, do provide public transportation to some ski areas. But extending tracks to the Hoodland area, roughly halfway between Sandy and Timberline Lodge, could convince Portlanders to leave cars at home and take a bus the rest of the way to the slopes, he says. Crossing the mountain by rail would be tremendously expensive, he admits, but something needs to be done.
“In the past 20 years, all the innovative money and energy has gone to urban planning and light rail, and the rural areas in the state have been on hold. The ski areas are interested in any transportation- solution proposals, we really are.”
To the west, leaders of Oregon’s coastal communities are likewise eager for traffic solutions — and skeptical that the state will meet their needs.
“I remember the trains when I was a kid — freight, but also an occasional passenger car,” says Jane Dunkin, recently hired as Coos Bay Chamber of Commerce information specialist, and formerly involved in Tillamook County economic development.
Today remnants of the state’s once vast rail network offer round-trip scenic excursions and dinners to tourists between Wheeler and Garibaldi during summer’s peak tourism months, but passenger rail has become a source of entertainment, not transportation, where it survives along the coast.“ People love the train — I love the train. But the rails are gone. It would take millions to bring them back,” Dunkin says.
Will Oregon’s rural communities ever see the passenger trains that once provided vital links to the rest of the world. While Oregon’s statewide rail plan, adopted in 2014, emphasizes maintaining and improving the existing Amtrak Cascades line rather than adding new routes, Arnold, the AORTA president and a resident of La Grande, says it’s a mistake to give up on expanding rural rail.
“There’s a statewide goal to move to a multimodal connected system, and that’s not happening in a lot of Oregon,” he says, adding that he does not accept the idea that rail is too expensive. “When the train was pulled out, one reason given was that it wasn’t paying its way,” Arnold says of the Pioneer line, which connected La Grande to Portland and Boise until Amtrak shut it down in 1997. “But trains have always been subsidized, just like airlines. No train pays its own way.”
“The biggest challenge is getting the Legislature to be serious about funding rail-passenger service in the state,” he says. No major rail legislation moved this year out of Salem, and no private developers have stepped forward with a proposal. But recent history proves that state legislators can, at times, be persuaded to expand passenger rail.
The two best-known examples are within the populated Portland and Salem areas: In 2004 passenger service returned to Oregon City after 50 years, with the opening of a new Amtrak Cascades station in the community. More than 14,000 people use it every year. And in 2009, the 15-mile Westside Express Service, or WES Commuter Rail, began connecting Portland suburbs along freight tracks upgraded to allow passenger travel. About 2,000 people board each day.
Perhaps more heartening to rural rail advocates is the Lewis and Clark Explorer Train, which carried travelers between Portland and Astoria as part of the bicentennial commemoration of the Corps of Discovery.
Running on tracks restored with a $2 million federal grant, and costing ODOT about $60,000 per month to subsidize, the train operated each summer from 2003 through 2005. It was never intended for long-term use, the low-budget improvements left the train dependent on volunteers who hand-cranked bridge spans closed to allow safe passage, and the journey — two hours by car — took twice that long by rail. But the short-lived route captured the imaginations of train enthusiasts, who cited scenic views not available to drivers as one of its major draws.
Beach Train: Starting in 1898, the Astoria & Columbia River train between Seaside and Portland catered to families vacationing on the coast. The train stopped running in 1953. Photo courtesy of the *Seaside Museum Historical Society.
But much like the Portland-to-Tillamook line that transformed access to Oregon’s coast more than a century ago, the short-lived Lewis and Clark line is a call to the power of big ideas. That vision, Arnold says, is what Oregon needs to bring back for the state to truly revolutionize transportation in the century ahead — as population growth continues and gridlock worsens. “Folks all the time ask me when the train is coming back,” Arnold says. “We can make this happen. With rail, the best is in the future.”