Post-derailment, Oregon passenger rail struggles to get back on track

Testing the Point Defiance bypass route

Passenger rail “is always going to lag and struggle unless we want to put in dedicated resources,” says ODOT rail division chief.

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Oregon Amtrak service was on an upward growth trajectory until December 18, when a tragic accident derailed train cars on the inaugural run of a new track segment on the Cascades’ Seattle to Eugene route near Tacoma, Washington. The segment was intended to shorten the transit time between Seattle and Portland.

Derailments in other parts of the country have compounded the challenges facing stateside rail service. Ridership on the Cascades route in December was down 23.7% compared to December 2016, said Hal Gard, administrator of the Oregon Department of Transportation rail division. January saw a decrease of 30%.  

February looked a bit brighter. Ridership was down 10.8% compared to the year prior — but trains carried more passengers the first 13 days in February than the entire month of January.

Earlier this week, Gard and his counterpart at the Washington state rail division met with Amtrak executives, vendors, consultants and freight companies for two days of intense discussion about new safety technology and recovery writ large post-derailment. 

I caught up with Gard by phone this morning. He talked about the Cascades’ safety technology action plan, getting Oregon train service back on track and why Elon Musk’s SpaceX offers a model for building a 21st -century, globally competitive high speed rail system in this country.

OB: Tell me about PTC, Positive Train Control, the automated safety technology you are installing.

HG: It’s a fairly complicated interactive system that will initiate braking on a train if the train is not operating according to inputs being received by various sets of sensors.  PTC is made up of a network of track sensors, hardware and software on the trains themselves, and along train tracks. And because our passenger rail service works on top of individual freight networks, the dispatching occurs by Class I freight railroads. So Amtrak back office servers have to be able to integrate with dispatchers and individual companies. It’s a bunch of pieces that have to work together with independent companies and various pieces of equipment.

ptcWayside equipment in Washington, part of the PTC system.




OB: What is the status of implementation?

HG: Per Class I freight railroads that use PTC for their systems and equipment, it is up and running.  And for the Point Nisqually bypass [the site of the derailment], the trackside sensors are there; it’s ready to go. Essentially all the major pieces for the WSDOT locomotives are ready to go. All of Amtrak’s locomotives have hardware installed. We are in the process of having two Oregon train sets retrofitted; that should be done by this spring.The tall pole in the tent are the back office servers for Amtrak that make parts talk. 

OB: So when will it be up and running and how will the process impact the Cascades route?

HG: I am a little loathe to throw out a date because you do that and get held to it. We are striving mightily to be operational by December 31st. The major change in service is we won’t be going back to bypass until the PTC system is up and operational.  That was a political commitment made by WSDOT.

OB: Is there any downside to the technology?

HG: Sometimes the technology can lead to operational complacency as well. The assurances I received from Richard Anderson [CEO of Amtrak] was that he understands that higher level of care; he came from an airline industry. He’s working diligently to install the same kind of safety culture at Amtrak. They recognize they have a problem.

OB: This compounds Oregon rail funding challenges, at a time when rail funding has been cut.

HG: There were major funding changes that hit us in 2013 that made the state get hit with a higher percentage of the cost. The state now funds service that used to be funded by the feds. Prior to the passage of the Passenger Investment and Improvement Act, passenger rail cost us just below $10 million; now it’s just below $30 million.  The biggest piece we get is from vanity license plates. The hardest legislatively is that $10 million of that comes from general fund.  That has been a challenge.

 The last four years have been a real struggle. We were looking forward to additional round trips to Seattle, and now we’ve taken another step back.  

Unknown 3Amtrak train traveling between Seattle and Vancouver B.C.

OB: How do we compare with Washington state investment in passenger rail?

HG: Oregon and Washington have separate issues when it comes to passenger rail.  Washington has higher population, higher population density.  Essentially they can’t get enough service.  They are in a really strong growth trajectory.  Passenger rail is an essential part of their integrated transportation program.  They are in a position to put in more investments on an already congested line and are studying pretty actively new lines.

OB: Not in Oregon.

HG: It doesn’t take any imagination on my part to see we need to preserve the service and expand it.  We see congestion on I-5.  We work hard to integrate all our city bus routes to rail.  We think there will be future opportunities with the transportation package.  We’re growing, and there are growing pains and frustration that come with that.

OB: There’s a perception now that rail is unsafe, when that is not the case compared to other modes.

HG: We operated a passenger rail service safely since 1994; up until 2017 we had never had a major derailment, certainly no loss of life. By and and large there have been an awful spate of incidents on Amtrak.  But by and large passenger rail is safe, much safer than driving a car.

We operate on a freight rail system. But when you are hauling people the standard of care is much higher. PTC adds an additional layer that helps remove the human error.  In my mind you really can’t do enough.

seahawksNew train testing the Point Defiance Bypass route, where an Amtrak derailment occurred last December.

OB: The new segment was supposed to be an incremental improvement in the direction of high speed rail.  Will a high speed rail line ever get off the ground in the Pacific Northwest?

HG: Washington just completed a very high level study pushed by Microsoft on high speed rail. The final conclusion was that it could be feasible in not too distant future to make that investment.  How you pull it together and how you pay for it is a different story.  We’re completing an environmental impact and corridor study and that document is taking an incremental approach to high speed.  Washington is probably 10-15 years ahead of us in terms of incremental approaches.

OB: It must be frustrating in your position to see the tremendous investments other countries are making in high speed rail.

HG: I have the benefits of a good history and anthropology background.  The rail system we have is result of a system put in place 150 years ago.  It’s primarly privately owned, and we’re always going to lag and struggle unless we want to put in dedicated resources. There has to be a fundamental shift.  That would get us more quickly to the systems that we see around the world that we get compared to.

I look at SpaceX with regard to space investment and exploration. I used to be completely convinced if you wanted efficient rail it needed to be government operated.  Well, Elon Musk and SpaceX showed us that’s not true.  If there was a private entity out there I could see an opportunity I really could.

OB: So entrepreneurship is the solution to our rail woes.

HG: Right now we have what we can, knowing that we have constraints other countries don’t deal with.

Gard Hal 2015 

Hal Gard, administrator, ODOT transit and rail division


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