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Clark Asks: Why can’t Amtrak be used to commute to Portland from Vancouver?

Amtrak provides inter-city passenger service; neither Washington nor Oregon eager to get into commuter service

By , Columbian staff reporter
Published: November 30, 2019, 6:02am
5 Photos
An Amtrak Cascades train pulls into the station in Vancouver at mid-morning on Nov. 22. There are four round trips per day to Portland, but not at normal commute hours. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)
An Amtrak Cascades train pulls into the station in Vancouver at mid-morning on Nov. 22. There are four round trips per day to Portland, but not at normal commute hours. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

With more than 50,000 Clark County residents commuting to jobs in Oregon and battling almost daily traffic jams, there must be a better way to get to Portland using existing infrastructure.

That sentiment is reflected in the question submitted for Clark Asks, where Columbian readers suggest topics and vote on which story should get covered.

The most recent winning question, asked by a reader who wants to remain anonymous, was: “Why doesn’t Amtrak offer train service from the station in Vancouver into downtown Portland during normal commute hours?”

The simple answer is that’s not what Amtrak does. The National Railroad Passenger Corp., better known as Amtrak, provides inter-city passenger service in 46 states and Washington, D.C., but does not offer commuter service within metropolitan areas.

Commuter rail service is typically offered by local transit agencies, such as TriMet. In addition to its MAX light rail lines, TriMet also owns the Westside Express Service, a 14.7-mile commuter rail line that runs between Beaverton, Ore., and Wilsonville, Ore., on Portland’s west and south side. Ridership has been a problem, according to Portland media.

Amtrak doesn’t own the tracks, locomotives or most of the rail cars for Amtrak Cascades, which provides passenger service between Eugene, Ore., and Vancouver, B.C., including four daily round trips between Portland and Seattle, with a stop at our local train station, 1301 W. 11th St.

When The Columbian asked Olivia Irvin, Amtrak’s public relations manager in Oakland, Calif., about commuter service between Vancouver and Portland, she suggested contacting the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Oregon Department of Transportation because Amtrak operates the Cascades service on their behalf.

Neither Washington nor Oregon wants to get into commuter rail, which they see as a local, not a state, service.

“The bottom line is that WSDOT doesn’t provide commuter service,” said Janet Matkin, WSDOT’s communications manager for rail, freight and ports. “We provide grants and support to transit agencies, but we don’t offer commuter service ourselves.”

As usual, it all comes down to money. Passenger fares cover only 63 percent of the Amtrak Cascades’ costs, with the two states covering the rest. Neither is eager to take on another potentially costly service.

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“We simply don’t have enough state funding to provide an Amtrak commuter line,” said Michelle Godfrey, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

WSDOT has established four goals for Amtrak Cascades: improve customer service, lower costs, increase revenue and reduce taxpayer subsidies.

The department has a long-term goal of adding two more daily round trips between Portland and Seattle, but it has little interest in pouring money into commuter service.

Local residents can take Amtrak Cascades trains into Portland, but they don’t run at suitable times for people working 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. jobs. Matkin said a one-way fare costs $10 to $15.

“Clearly not something people want to do every day as a commuter,” she said.

BNSF Railway

Commuter service, if it were to be added, would run on tracks owned and maintained by BNSF Railway, including rail bridges over the Columbia River, Columbia Slough and Willamette River.

Railways typically aren’t excited to have more passenger service on their tracks because it complicates their ability to move freight, which is how they make their money.

BNSF Railway spokesman Gus Melonas was noncommittal when asked about commuter service between Portland and Vancouver.

“We would have to review an official proposal,” he said. “And that’s all I could say on it.”

Melonas did point out that BNSF operates commuter trains in the Puget Sound area, with service between Tacoma and Everett.

“We operate the trains for Sound Transit’s successful commuter operation,” he said.

Matkin said it’s not easy to get railways to agree to more passenger service.

“For us to get additional time slots is a difficult negotiation,” she said.

Trunnion repair

Twenty-two years ago, there was commuter rail service between Vancouver and Portland, but it lasted only for one week.

Commuter rail was temporarily offered when the northbound span of the Interstate 5 Bridge closed for six days in September 1997 to replace a cracked trunnion, part of the lifting mechanism that allows taller vessels to pass under the drawbridge.

Commuter train rides were free, thanks to $225,000 in grants from the state transportation departments in Washington and Oregon. Vancouver even created a temporary parking lot for 1,000 cars and offered shuttles to the Amtrak depot, which has limited parking.

Next year, the I-5 Bridge’s northbound span will close for up to nine days, Sept. 12-20, so crews can replace a different trunnion.

Transportation officials from the two states are discussing commuter rail service during the closure but have made no decisions.

“The short answer is we are working on it, but there are some challenges due to equipment shortages,” said Jennifer Sellers, passenger rail program manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

In December 2017, an Amtrak Cascades train derailed near DuPont during its inaugural trip between Tacoma and Olympia after entering a sharp curve at nearly 80 mph. Three people were killed and 65 injured when train cars tumbled off an overpass and onto Interstate 5.

That crash took one locomotive and train set — rail cars for passengers, business-class travelers, baggage, and food and beverage — out of service, making it more difficult to scrape together the equipment for commuter trains during next September’s closure.

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