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Possible cuts to Amtrak service raise stakes of Salem’s transportation limbo

Posted by on April 16th, 2015 at 11:20 am

Bikes on Amtrak

The Cascades line is arguably the bike-friendliest
in the country.
(Photo: Will Vanlue)

One of the country’s most-ridden Amtrak lines could have its southern tail chopped off unless Oregon legislators find another $5 million to keep it whole.

The state-sponsored Amtrak Cascades service between Eugene and Portland, with stops in Albany, Salem, Woodburn and Oregon City, is likely to be eliminated unless the state is willing to cover the one-third of the line’s operating costs, $28 million annually, that aren’t covered by ticket revenue.

The Oregon Department of Transportation has already found $18 million from non-general funds, and the legislature’s working budget framework reportedly adds another $5 million from general funds. That leaves about $5 million left to find.

The Cascades line, which also runs north to Seattle, Vancouver BC and other cities, is maybe the country’s bike-friendliest train line; for $5, it lets you add a bike to any trip, rolling it on and off the platform yourself to hang it in the luggage car. This has proved popular; the line has been adding more bike parking hooks as its existing ones fill up on weekends.

The passenger rail service is just one of many transportation decisions caught in the crossfire of a fight between Republicans and Democrats over creating a low-carbon fuel standard in the state. Republicans have been blocking all action on a proposed gas tax hike unless Democrats kill the fuel standard, which would add an estimated 4 to 19 cents per gallon to the cost of gasoline by 2025.

The City of Portland, meanwhile, has put its own search for transportation revenue on hold in hopes that Salem will hike gas taxes.

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Three Cascades trains currently run south of Portland each day. The Coast Starlight, a different line that is less reliably on schedule, adds a fourth run.

On Monday, the Wallawa County Chieftan reported that State Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) was saying there is “no story here” because legislators would not fail to find $5 million.

Johnson suggested to the Chieftain that in order to get its state subsidy, the Cascades line should adjust its schedule to capture more commute traffic between Portland and Salem.

The Portland-to-Eugene route has been discussed as a future high-speed rail corridor, too. But ridership demand for that segment falls far short of those for the Portland-to-Seattle corridor, one of the nation’s most popular city pairings and the key segment on the Cascades line.

However, passenger rail advocates say that cutting Willamette Valley cities out of the network would hurt the entire line’s viability.

“If you think of it as a system, any change to one part of the system is going to affect all other parts of the system,” David Arnold, president of the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates, told KOIN last month. “So this line is really critical.”

Meanwhile, Amtrak Cascades has faced private competition from BoltBus, a low-cost bus line with runs to Eugene, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver BC. BoltBus relies on the Interstate highway system, which is paid for by a combination of gas taxes and general funds, including its exemption from property taxes.

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51 Comments
  • Avatar
    Todd Boulanger April 16, 2015 at 11:38 am

    I love taking the Cascades down to Eugene with my bike for meetings and social events. But its generally been a pain due to the poor scheduling times…this schedule problem has just changed recently so this service cut would be too bad. But then again the on again and off again state support for this line has really crippled it (and required a 25% discount to market the service). It really needs a minimum of 4 trips a day (not counting the Coast Star Late) to be functional for choice riders.

    In the end it might be best to move these 2 train sets to the PDX – SEA segment as that would have the biggest multiplier effect and without pulling more funds from the empty pot. This assumes BNSF has the capacity to accommodate these trains.

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      Chris I April 16, 2015 at 2:57 pm

      They really need to downsize the trainsets for PDX-EUG if they want this service to succeed. 13-car trains with a full-size diesel locomative carrying less than 50 passengers on average is a waste of money and fuel. ODOT should see if WSDOT would purchase these trainsets to expand PDX-SEA once the Point Defiance Bypass is complete in 2017, and look at a multi-car DMU option for PDX-EUG. Smaller trains running more frequently will boost ridership. Something like the Nippon Sharyo trains that will be used for SMART commuter rail in the bay area:
      http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/c/cc/SMART_Rail_Rolling_Stock_%28Nippon_Sharyo_DMU%29.jpg

      They could even do a combined purchase with Washington County, who is looking for additional trainsets for WES service.

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        J_R April 16, 2015 at 4:36 pm

        WES carried 1800 passenger for the month! It never should have been constructed. It should be discontinued.

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          was carless April 17, 2015 at 10:07 am

          WES should have been a MAX line from the start, and it should have a full transit center at Washington Square Mall. Suburb-to-suburb commuter rail is a dumb idea.

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        Adron @ Transit Sleuth April 16, 2015 at 10:34 pm

        They (Amtrak or Oregon) should buy the WES equipment from Trimet and just run it instead of the huge Talgo trains. They simply do NOT fill up and require too many staff (which are expensive) to run the trains. the DMUs would be vastly better for that service and would be able to run multiple frequencies and thus increase the amount of people who see it as an option.

        The Talgos should ALL be moved entirely to Portland to Seattle travel where they’re the most utilized (i.e. the most passengers) and they NEED to bump up the frequencies significantly!! It was stated about 20 years ago they wanted to have 16 trains a day running back and forth between the city pair.

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    Lynne April 16, 2015 at 12:24 pm

    I also love taking the Cascades to/from Eugene, although the current schedule at the Eugene end isn’t particularly rider friendly. The Coast Starlight doesn’t have roll-on bike service, so not a mark in its favor. Write to your state congresscritters!

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    Adam H. April 16, 2015 at 12:47 pm

    The state just spent around $35 mil purchasing two new train sets from Talgo for service to Eugene. It would be incredibly short-sighted and embarrassing to cut service and have to sell those trains. I read yesterday that the co-chair of the transportation committee stated that they plan on funding the remaining cash from the general fund.

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    maccoinnich April 16, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    We should be planning for growth on this line, not cutting back. High speed rail to Eugene is probably never going to be achievable, but hourly service through the Willamette Valley should be a realistic goal. I grew up in in a village of 378 people (in Europe, but still…) and we had more frequent passenger rail service than Eugene does.

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      Jeff Bernards April 17, 2015 at 12:04 am

      I was just in Spain, they had regular daily train service to a village of 800 people where I stayed. They say these countries are broke, but they’ve smartly invested in transportation that is accessible to everyone. Being poor can mean different things to different people, but between the health care and transportation, they’re quite rich from my view.

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        JMak00 April 17, 2015 at 1:48 am

        Uh, they are broke, even worse off than ourselves.

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          was carless April 17, 2015 at 10:08 am

          Look at Germany, the UK, Sweden and the UK then, they all have great rail service.

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    Jessica April 16, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    I really want to support Amtrak, but rail as public transit really is a “go big or go home” kind of deal. We’ve gotten used to trains in America as being infrequent, unreliable, uncomfortable, slow, and expensive compared to other modes. The fact that commuter trains in Oregon have to share tracks with freight is clear evidence that these problems will not improve without substantial investment. I’ve loved train travel in other countries because unlike in America it’s more frequent, more reliable, more comfortable, and often faster and cheaper than other modes of transit. Even in the countryside where the train might run a “mere” three to five times a day it’s still incredibly reliable (I peeked over a train engineer’s shoulder in Japan once and saw that his stop schedule was timed down to the quarter-minute). When I compare those experiences to the ones I’ve had on American trains I have to wonder why we even bother.

    There is no reason why we too can’t have a robust train network for inter-city travel, especially now that the biggest hurdle of train travel (“how to get around your destination city now that you don’t have a car and all the rental places are out by the airport 20 miles away”) is gradually being lessened thanks to improving bicycle and public transit systems in cities and towns around the country. Train travel may remain impractical for 500mi+ trips for a long time, but there are plenty of trips that are too long for city public transit, but too short to justify a plane trip, that are currently dominated by private vehicle travel. The Amtrak Cascades service is a perfect example of this. However, I’m left with my original statement, go big or go home. Even though I love trains and hate driving I never take the train on my trips down the Willamette Valley or up to Seattle, I always drive, because all the risks associated with train travel in America (infrequency, unreliability, discomfort, time required, hassle in getting to/from the Amtrak stations, expense, etc.) are just not worth it when I could instead take a private vehicle from my door directly to the door of my destination without a single transfer and with a departure time completely at my discretion.

    I’m worried that if we let any of Amtrak’s lines cease they’ll never ever reappear, but does that justify pouring millions into an underfunded, underutilized system in hopes that some day we as a country will come to our senses and give commuter rail the funding, support, and ridership it deserves? (I’m not talking about parts of the country like the NE and Chicago where Amtrak is actively used and embraced by the commuting populace, I mean places like Oregon where daily rail commuters are few and far between). I desperately want to see rail become the preferred mode of travel for 10-500mi trips, but I don’t see that happening any time in the next few decades. In the meanwhile, what if we took the millions and millions we’ve been funneling into this sub par system and directed it to intra-city public transit and cycling infrastructure instead? Eventually, our cities would have amazing active transit systems, residents would become accustomed to using active transit, and then demand for a similar system for inter-city travel will grow, prompting the development of a national commuter rail system that is actually superior to driving/flying.

    That all said, I don’t trust the state nor federal government to take money that would have gone to inter-city rail and instead direct it 100% to other active transit projects. So maybe it’s best to keep funding Amtrak, because at least we know the money’s going to some form of active transit, even if very few of us ever actually utilize it.

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    Adam H. April 16, 2015 at 1:08 pm

    Republicans have been blocking all action on a proposed gas tax hike unless Democrats kill the fuel standard, which would add an estimated 4 to 19 cents per gallon to the cost of gasoline by 2025.

    The Democrats have a majority in both the House and Senate – why are they letting the GOP play their party-defining childish games?

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      Jeg April 16, 2015 at 1:25 pm

      This is what I want to know. We have plans that can work– increase the gas tax. Tie to inflation. Fund public transportation with that money.

      Why are the Ds so weak-willed?

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      J_R April 16, 2015 at 1:42 pm

      Because for a tax increase, the legislature needs a 3/5ths majority. In the House, that means they need one Republican. You can bet that any gas tax increase would be appealed by referendum.

      The low-carbon fuel requirement was not a tax increase, so they could pass that without Republicans.

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      George H. April 16, 2015 at 3:37 pm

      Because raising taxes in Oregon requires 3/5 majorities in both houses. Which means the Democrats need Republican votes.

      Which is why passing the carbon in fuels bill, immediately upon the legislature opened, was a bone-headed move by the Democrats. They should have waited until the gas tax was raised first.

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    Dave April 16, 2015 at 2:02 pm

    Jessica
    I really want to support Amtrak, but rail as public transit really is a “go big or go home” kind of deal. We’ve gotten used to trains in America as being infrequent, unreliable, uncomfortable, slow, and expensive compared to other modes. The fact that commuter trains in Oregon have to share tracks with freight is clear evidence that these problems will not improve without substantial investment. I’ve loved train travel in other countries because unlike in America it’s more frequent, more reliable, more comfortable, and often faster and cheaper than other modes of transit. Even in the countryside where the train might run a “mere” three to five times a day it’s still incredibly reliable (I peeked over a train engineer’s shoulder in Japan once and saw that his stop schedule was timed down to the quarter-minute). When I compare those experiences to the ones I’ve had on American trains I have to wonder why we even bother.
    There is no reason why we too can’t have a robust train network for inter-city travel, especially now that the biggest hurdle of train travel (“how to get around your destination city now that you don’t have a car and all the rental places are out by the airport 20 miles away”) is gradually being lessened thanks to improving bicycle and public transit systems in cities and towns around the country. Train travel may remain impractical for 500mi+ trips for a long time, but there are plenty of trips that are too long for city public transit, but too short to justify a plane trip, that are currently dominated by private vehicle travel. The Amtrak Cascades service is a perfect example of this. However, I’m left with my original statement, go big or go home. Even though I love trains and hate driving I never take the train on my trips down the Willamette Valley or up to Seattle, I always drive, because all the risks associated with train travel in America (infrequency, unreliability, discomfort, time required, hassle in getting to/from the Amtrak stations, expense, etc.) are just not worth it when I could instead take a private vehicle from my door directly to the door of my destination without a single transfer and with a departure time completely at my discretion.
    I’m worried that if we let any of Amtrak’s lines cease they’ll never ever reappear, but does that justify pouring millions into an underfunded, underutilized system in hopes that some day we as a country will come to our senses and give commuter rail the funding, support, and ridership it deserves? (I’m not talking about parts of the country like the NE and Chicago where Amtrak is actively used and embraced by the commuting populace, I mean places like Oregon where daily rail commuters are few and far between). I desperately want to see rail become the preferred mode of travel for 10-500mi trips, but I don’t see that happening any time in the next few decades. In the meanwhile, what if we took the millions and millions we’ve been funneling into this sub par system and directed it to intra-city public transit and cycling infrastructure instead? Eventually, our cities would have amazing active transit systems, residents would become accustomed to using active transit, and then demand for a similar system for inter-city travel will grow, prompting the development of a national commuter rail system that is actually superior to driving/flying.
    That all said, I don’t trust the state nor federal government to take money that would have gone to inter-city rail and instead direct it 100% to other active transit projects. So maybe it’s best to keep funding Amtrak, because at least we know the money’s going to some form of active transit, even if very few of us ever actually utilize it.
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    ALL of the money that ever goes into Amtrak is justifiable. We have our cheap gas at the whim of both US politicians, who stay willing to send our military to murder Arabs and steal their oil, and governments in oil-producing countries who find us tolerable enough to keep selling cheap oil to. Every penny going into mass transit, sidewalks, and bike lanes will become a bigger bargain than it already is the day that ISIS slaughters the Saudi royal family, siezes their oil fields and refineries, and cuts production until the price is $250 per barrel. At it’s worst, Amtrak is part of a backup system and at it’s best it’s a wonderful way to travel especially combined with a bicycle.

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      JMak00 April 16, 2015 at 10:48 pm

      Sickening response.

      Given Amtrak’s miserable history, none of the billions we have paid for it is justified. This hyperbole of murdering Arabs for their oil makes me sick. It is wholly untrue of reeks of anti-Americanism.

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        paikiala April 17, 2015 at 9:16 am

        What’s so great about the US (remember, Canada and Mexico are also in North America, e.g., ‘Americans’)?

        (P.S. you might be on the wrong web site)

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        Chris I April 20, 2015 at 6:32 am

        Exactly. We know that the government will gladly send our future children into battle to protect the Saudi government.

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    Thom Batty April 16, 2015 at 2:13 pm

    I went to Salem when the committee took public testimony on the Amtrak funding issue. Testimony given was overwhelmingly in favor of continued funding for Amtrak. Framing this as Democrat vs. Republican is less than accurate, at least in this instance. One of strongest messages in support came from the mayor of Oregon City, and while his is supposedly a non-partisan position, Mayor Holladay is a Republican, but he knows the benefit continued service brings to his (our) city.

    In addition to rail advocates, there were a number of business owners, mayors/city managers and union leaders speaking in favor of continued funding, as well a senior citizens who depend on the train to be able to visit relatives along the route.

    I would encourage more people to go to Salem and listen to testimony on bills they are concerned with, it is actually quite interesting.

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      Adam H. April 16, 2015 at 4:34 pm

      I’d go to Salem if there were more convenient trains there! 😛

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      JMak00 April 16, 2015 at 10:53 pm

      But is that “benefit” worth the state and federal dollars necessary to maintain that benefit? I can’t imagine the benefit is anything more than a feel-good imaginary one, at best.

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    Kyle April 16, 2015 at 2:41 pm

    So state legislators can’t find a measly $5 million to keep train service running but they can spend millions here and there like pocket change on freeway capacity increases?

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      JMak00 April 16, 2015 at 10:59 pm

      Yes; as a matter of fact, they can. Now it is the millions and millions they waste on other non-priority spending that should be questioned.

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      Pete April 16, 2015 at 11:03 pm

      I suspect there may be more at play here than meets the eye. Freight rail is booming right now in this country – everywhere. Amtrack leases this route from BNSF and often competes with freight loads. When I lived in Albany I’d take this train to Seattle, and my coworker (who was dating a girl in Seattle) explained this, and that I should take the later train because it often gets in earlier than the earlier departure. I didn’t listen to him – the first time.

      Fast forward to today… if BNSF is making more from freight haul than leasing to passenger lines, there may be politics in motion here as well.

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        maccoinnich April 17, 2015 at 10:39 am

        The line through the Willamette Valley is owned by Union Pacific, not BNSF. BNSF do own the line from Portland to Seattle though. South of Milwaukie the line is entirely single track with passing loops. If the state was serious about passenger rail they could partner with UP to work on doubling it, in return for a guaranteed number of paths a day. That’s what Washington State is doing with BNSF.

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          Pete April 19, 2015 at 4:39 pm

          Thx for the correction and info!

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    Train from Eugene April 16, 2015 at 2:49 pm

    The recent schedule change may have made it easier for some Portlanders to come south, but it made it a lot harder to ride the train from Eugene to Portland. Before there was a train around 9 am then one heading back about 9 pm, for a nice day in Portland. Now, the train leaves Eugene at 5:30 am and heads back around 6 pm. I suspect they lost more Eugene travelers than they gained from Portland coming to Eugene.

    As for the train itself, the state should compare it to the billions and billions it would cost to add a lane to I-5. Europe-style frequent high speed rail would transform Oregon. Imagine commuting from Portland to Eugene in 30 minutes. The state should take out a lane on I-5 and run high speed trains right into the downtowns. A train can move vastly more people more safely, quickly and with less pollution than a clogged freeway lane.

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      JMak00 April 16, 2015 at 11:04 pm

      The highway miles would still cost less than the type of train network you’re talking about. The existing rail infrastructure cannot handle the type of network you’re referring to. And the union nightmares and the economic impact study nightmares…sorry, but the unions and environmentalists make these projects prohibitively costly.

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      Pete April 16, 2015 at 11:06 pm

      “Europe-style frequent high speed rail would transform Oregon.”

      Ah, one can dream. We can’t even convince people in Fresno that passenger rail is a good thing!

      I recently watched a loco being built in Erie. Cool stuff! Talk about the predecessors to hybrid cars…

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      Chris I April 20, 2015 at 6:36 am

      PDX-EUG should be, at best, a 110mph corridor. The Talgos can do it, but anything higher would require new tracks with grade-separation. Way too expensive.

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    Jon April 17, 2015 at 6:26 am

    Imagine what that $28 million could do for bicycle infrastructure in Oregon. For the cost of this train service the state might as well buy a bus and give people free tickets to ride it between Portland and Eugene. This train is a huge waste of money. There is not an infinite amount of money in the taxpayer’s wallets.

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      was carless April 17, 2015 at 8:35 am

      Imagine what $12 billion could do for Portland bicycling infrastructure! That is the amount of money the US Navy is spending on build 3 “stealth boats.”

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zumwalt-class_destroyer

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        JMak00 April 17, 2015 at 8:43 am

        Well, those that want to hurt us would have plenty of trains to attack, eh, careless?

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          paikiala April 17, 2015 at 9:18 am

          you seem stuck in the 1950’s.

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          was carless April 17, 2015 at 10:03 am

          What, for a ship that the US Navy says they don’t need?

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    was carless April 17, 2015 at 8:18 am

    Great idea, we can shut down our rail line less than six months after introducing brand new trains, which cost $38 million!

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      JMak00 April 17, 2015 at 8:55 am

      That $38 million is far less than the billions already wasted on it. How many years did we blow money on amtrak and we no high speed rail, no passenger-dedicated rail lines, etc.? And we should continue wasting money on this federal boondoggle?

      No. Sell it to a private party.

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        was carless April 17, 2015 at 10:05 am

        “billions already wasted on it”

        -on Amtrak Cascades? Seriously? Billions? You must be thinking of the OTHER Amtrak Cascades, because this is the first funding cycle that Oregon has to actually pay for service, which is what, $5 million short?

        million =/= billion

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        Pete April 19, 2015 at 4:36 pm

        I agree with Larry Summers: now is the time to invest in infrastructure and put people back to work, not for financial austerity in the period of (relatively) low deficit and insanely low borrowing costs:
        http://money.cnn.com/2015/04/19/news/economy/us-economy-not-growing-fast-enough-summers-paulson/

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        Chris I April 20, 2015 at 6:38 am

        I bet you feel the same way about the federal interstates? Billions transferred to the Highway Trust Fund… State subsidies. Time to sell them to a private company, right?

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    Jerryw April 17, 2015 at 9:07 am

    Amtrak has a Talgo train that arrives in Eugene at 11:00 am, then the train is moved to the rail yard where it sits idle all day. At 4:00 pm it rolls back to the station then provides service north to Portland. In the mean time two Amtrak buses come and go between the two cities. The Amtrak buses at NOT bike friendly, the drivers throw a fit when you show up wanting to but the bike on. The Bolt Bus is much better about putting bikes in the cargo area, as long as there is space available, however they only make one stop between Eugene and Portland, in Albany.
    Five million to continue train service sounds fair and reasonable, it can be made up by limiting politician’s trip boondoggles.

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    was carless April 17, 2015 at 10:55 am
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    Mike April 17, 2015 at 7:22 pm

    A real commuter train should be built between Salem and Portland. Amtrak is not a commuter train and should not be used as such. WES should be extended but it looks like the legislation just to set up a Task Force to study it has died.
    WES and Amtrak could share the same line that is separate from the freight line. And theeBay hours of operation for commuting between Salem and Portland should be improved to all for us to get to our destinations when we need to.

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      was carless April 18, 2015 at 6:22 pm

      WES does not go to Portland, however. It serves Wilsonville to Beaverton. It would be silly to expect any ridership if you built a Eugene to Beaverton train, and then wonder why noone would transfer to the MAX to then continue on to Seattle.

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    Maren April 18, 2015 at 11:25 pm

    In case anyone wants to contact their legislators, here is a letter I drafted. Feel free to edit/personalize, of course. I sent it to my state rep and senator, and then also to each member of the House Ways and Means Committee. If you need to look up your state representative and senator, you can find them here: http://www.oregonlegislature.gov/FindYourLegislator/leg-districts.html

    House Ways & Means Committee members here: https://olis.leg.state.or.us/liz/2015R1/Committees/JWMTR/Overview


    Subject line: Protect the Amtrak Cascades!

    Dear [name of representative or senator]

    I have recently learned of the legislative funding shortfall that may lead to closure of the Amtrak Cascades line between Portland and Eugene. I am writing to urge you to do everything in your power to find the funding to maintain service on this line.

    As you may know, former Governor Kitzhaber set aside the $10.4 million that ODOT had indicated would be necessary to maintain the line. However, the Joint Ways and Means Committee has reduced that figure by more than half, to just $5 million, which would not be sufficient to continue operations.

    If the Cascades line should cease operations, it would likely be prohibitively expensive to restart at some future point. This means that rail travel in Oregon would be severely and permanently curtailed, which is not in keeping with our values as a state.

    Rail is a part of Oregon’s transportation and cultural heritage, and it provides a unique, sustainable, affordable, and forward-looking alternative to driving and flying for those who wish to travel within Oregon while enjoying our natural beauty.

    Please let me know what you are willing to do in this legislative session to ensure that the Cascades will continue to operate.

    Thank you for your prompt attention to this very time-sensitive matter.

    Sincerely,
    [Your name and address]

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