The alarm clock on my phone buzzed and made chirping sounds as I rubbed my eyes. It was 5:00 am and we had an Amtrak train to catch at Portland’s Union Station. My panniers and backpack were loaded the night before with all of our gear for the four day trip. I just needed to get our six-year-old up and on her bike to ride to the Trimet bus stop.
This was going to be our first carfree trip to visit my parents in Seattle and the first visit since the start of Covid.
The 43 bus to Portland is the closest bus route for us but unfortunately it only offers three buses in the morning with hourly service. Only the 6:17 AM bus (with about an hour ride and one transfer) would get us to the train station in time for our 8:20 AM departure. Taking the 43 would be convenient but also a gamble. Trimet bus racks only hold 2 bikes and we had 2 bikes to get to Portland. If one other person was using the bike rack we would not be able to board. The next bus wouldn’t be for an hour, too late for us to make our Amtrak train. Not wanting to take that gamble we decided to ride two miles to Pacific Highway and catch the #12 bus which has frequent service, every 15 minutes for most of the day. This was our safest route in case of canceled buses (which has been happening often due to a Trimet driver shortage) or full bike racks.
You may know from previous articles that I primarily ride an e-Bullitt cargo bike hauling our kid in the front box and towing her bike behind when she isn’t riding on her own. As much as I’d like to take our box bike up north, it’s too long and too heavy to put on the bus rack. It’s also over Amtrak’s 50 pound weight limit, so I contacted Barb at Splendid Cycles to ask about borrowing a loaner bike for the trip. I was so happy to hear back that they did have an e-bike that was under 50 pounds that I could take on an extended test ride!
The Tern Vektron Q9 is a folding e-bike with a Bosch mid-drive motor. My panniers would clip on the rear rack just fine and there was more room for an additional bag on top of the rack. I picked up the Tern the day before our journey and it was ready to help haul our luggage to the train station. (Thanks Splendid Cycles crew!)
Back to the morning of our departure…
Bus to Union Station in Portland
As we rode to the bus stop on Pacific Highway we were excited to start this journey. I hadn’t been on a passenger train since I was a kid and this would be our daughter’s first heavy rail experience. We arrived at the bus stop at 6:30 am and prepped our bikes for the bus, pulling the panniers off and staging the bikes near the bus stop pole. I opened the Trimet Hop Fastpass app on my phone to triple check that we had money loaded on the card. With the morning sun to our backs we looked West on ODOT’s Highway 99 scanning past the hundreds of single occupancy vehicles looking for the #12 bus. We spotted it a few blocks away and breathed a sigh of relief.
The bus wasn’t canceled! But wait, what was this? I squinted my eyes and stood still. Was there a bike on the front of the bus? “OH NO!” I exclaimed. “What? What? WHAT!” our daughter yelled over the sounds of car exhaust and tire noise. As the bus driver pulled in just 500 feet away at the bus stop just before ours, I could see that the bus bike rack was folded down and there was a bike loaded. Then I noticed a person that hailed the bus also had a bike! Did I make the wrong choice in taking the 12 over the 43? We waved the driver off and pulled the bikes away from the curb as the bus rolled past us with a full bike rack. I frantically checked the trip planner on the Trimet app for the next bus. 15 minutes and it was not showing canceled. But what if the next bus also has a bike on the rack? What if the bus gets canceled at the last minute?
My mind raced. Should we start riding our bikes to the train station? We could make it in time if we had our box bike but with the kid rolling on her own two wheels the trip would definitely take over an hour. We would just have to wait for the next #12 and hope for the best. If we missed the next bus we would probably miss our passenger train. I clenched my teeth as we waited. I checked the arrival time on my phone repeatedly. 12 minutes. 8 minutes. 2 minutes. Due. My stress level was elevated by the stench of car exhaust as my tunnel vision focused on the highway. There it was! The next bus! Squinting again I could see that the bus bike rack was folded up and empty! “HOORAY!” I yelled as we moved the bikes closer to the curb. What a huge relief! WHEW!
After the bus stopped we signaled to the driver that we would be loading bikes and folded the rack down by squeezing the handle in the center. The Vektron easily loaded onto the rack as did the kid’s 20” Cleary Owl. We stepped on board, holding my phone to the scanner to pay the fare and off we went on our way downtown.
West Burnside and SW 6th was our stop. It was a short, seven-block bike ride to Union Station. We dismounted and rolled our bikes through the doors of the historic structure that originally opened February 14th, 1896. Checking in was much easier than at the airport. We walked to the baggage department, I showed my ticket on the Amtrak app and we received paper tags for our bikes. That was it! My panniers and backpack were carry-on and there was no security checkpoint. When departure was announced we stood in a short line, exited the building and rolled our bikes to the baggage car at the rear of the train.
At the baggage car the workers told us to remove the e-bike battery from the bike and carry it on, which I missed in the instructions online. It was not a big deal on the Tern as the battery was easily removed (don’t forget your key!) but if you have a child seat or other accessories mounted to your bike this may be a difficult task, especially with the stress and haste of needing to board a sold-out train. Be prepared and maybe remove your battery much earlier. The next task is to lift your bike about 4 feet up to the level of the baggage car floor. The Vektron was about 45 pounds so not an easy task but doable for me. I’m surprised that Amtrak doesn’t have a ramp to make this easier, perhaps in the future. We scooped up our bags and boarded the full train.
On Amtrak to Seattle
It was an uneventful departure as we rolled through the Pearl District on our way to cross the Columbia River to our first stop in Vancouver, WA. Picking up passengers at the 6 stops along the way only took a few minutes at each location, it’s a very fast process. I enjoy staring through the windows watching the world go by. We brought plenty of reading materials and coloring/activity books to keep the kid occupied.
There is a 120 vac outlet at each window seat so be sure to bring your charger and cable for your devices. Now that I think about it you could charge your e-bike battery if needed! It was nice to have a dining car with a decent selection of food and drink available. Being able to stand up and walk the length of the train was helpful for the 3-4 hour ride. Speaking of time, I learned that Amtrak passenger trains must yield to heavier and much longer freight trains. We had a 30 minute delay near Centralia, Washington as we waited for a miles-long freight train to clear the track and turn off into a rail yard.
As we passed through JB Lewis McChord and Tacoma, WA I was blown away by all of the car infrastructure we could see through the windows: car storage, car repair shops, car fuel stations, car lube bays, car dealerships and car washes. (Did I mention car storage?) I thought back to how many times we have made this same trip in a giant pickup truck burning many gallons of diesel fuel and getting road rage in the gridlock on I-5. It was so nice to be able to read a book and relax as the miles rolled by.
We arrived at Seattle’s King Street Station at 12:15 pm, walked to the baggage car, presented our paper baggage tickets and claimed our bikes. Snapping the panniers onto the rear rack of the bike took five seconds as we walked our bikes through the train station and out the front doors. Our final destination was Everett, WA. (30 miles North of Seattle) After a short 2 block ride to the International District / Chinatown light rail station we purchased our Sound Transit Link tickets from the vending machine.
On the Link
I tried to figure out the apps for the Puget Sound regional transit agencies before our trip. I downloaded “Transit Go Ticket” from King County Metro and the ORCA app. I looked at the Everett Transit website. It was overwhelming and I couldn’t figure out the transfers between agencies. A paper ticket from the machine seemed to be the easiest at the time. The first elevators that we saw were broken and blocked by barricades. (I guess it’s not just a Portland thing!) Riding to the other side of the block revealed another elevator that was functioning.
The first Link train arrived very quickly! Looking through the windows I could see that the train was packed! It looked like standing room only, no way we were going to fit two bikes in there. Especially with that being our first time on the Link. I was unfamiliar with where the bikes go, how they hang on the hooks and also a newbie with taking the Tern on light rail. I decided to relax for 15 minutes and wait for the next train to gather my thoughts and make a game plan on how to board. This gave us a few minutes to explore the station and enjoy the wonderful origami art sculptures by Artist Sonya Ishii. The next train arrived in the station and the doors opened revealing completely empty cars! Woo Hoo! We rolled our bikes on and I hung the 20” bike on the bike hook. I started to pull the panniers from the Tern so that I could hang it as well but then noticed a sign informing us that one bike could remain in the space on it’s wheels with the rider standing with it.
The doors closed and we were on our way. Now, I’ve been on the MAX (Portland’s light rail) plenty of times. That Link train train acceleration is way faster! The bike almost fell over taking me with it but I saved it. Then the deceleration is hard as well! I quickly figured out that not only did I need to hold on tight but I also needed to squeeze the front brake of the bike while standing on the foot of the kickstand! I wanted to take pictures of the amazing art in the other stations but I couldn’t relax my stability stance for one second! Rotating my head like an owl I was able to keep an eye on our kid sitting behind me.
The train filled quickly. Most of the route is underground but transitions to elevated track near the end at Northgate Station. Two more working elevators later we were on the street looking for our next bus.
Bus to Everett
Sound transit uses a bay system which was very helpful. I knew that we needed the 512 bus to Everett but instead of looking for the tiny bus number on the bus stop sign from a distance, the app told me to look for a larger bay number. The larger bay number signs are easier to see from a distance especially at a transit mall or park-and-ride. Multiple bus routes stop at each bay, or section of curb. I scanned the signs and found our bay number and our bus was already there! “That’s our bus!” I exclaimed and we jogged with our bikes. People were boarding as I signaled the driver and lowered the bike rack. These buses are not only double decker, they have triple bike racks! Once again I pulled the panniers and loaded the bikes. I gave our paper light rail tickets to our kid then realized that these tickets may not transfer to the bus. I asked the driver as I frantically checked my wallet for cash. “Are these light rail tickets good for this bus?” The driver looked at the tickets in the hands of our six-year-old. “I’m not sure. Just have a seat.” they instructed.
The kid really wanted to sit in the upper level of the bus but I had two panniers and a backpack with a bike helmet flopping around. I didn’t want to navigate the narrow stairs with our luggage. I also wanted to be able to keep an eye on our bikes. The express buses are also fast. Traveling between the park-and-rides, the buses use left lane exits on I-5 to avoid car traffic. Between Northgate station and the future Lynnwood City Center Station you can see more elevated light rail tracks under construction. It looks amazing and will reduce the number of single occupancy vehicles on I-5.
Arriving at the South Everett park-and-ride we reloaded our gear on the bike and planned the last leg of our trip. Maps wanted to take us and our bikes on a busy street but panning around the map I spotted an Interurban Trail right next to the park-and-ride. (Why wouldn’t Google maps recommend this route over a busy street?) A six mile bike ride and we arrived at our destination at 2:30 pm.
We Finally Made It!
Recap: Bike, bus, bike, Amtrak, light rail, express bus and bike. Tigard, Oregon to Everett, Washington. 175 miles in 8.5 hours. There is an Amtrak route that goes all the way from Portland to Everett but this is a 2 train trip with a 5 hour layover in Seattle. Our multi-modal route beat the two train route by 4 hours.
Unfortunately over the next two days we experienced more map disappointments. Wanting to ride bikes to Everett’s Jetty Island Ferry, Google Maps recommended a terrible route on Washington State Highway 529. I spotted an old pedestrian bridge at 25th Street and a sidewalk that looked much safer so we took the bus and walked instead.
On our two mile walk we discovered that there is a big beautiful new ped/bike bridge with working elevators (the Grand Avenue Park Bridge) that connects to a multi-use path leading to the ferry. That would have been an amazing bike ride but we missed it because we didn’t know it was there. The next day we wanted to ride bikes to the Mukilteo Ferry. Maps recommended a trail to keep us off of a busy street and I double checked it with Ride with GPS. There were so many stairs! Then the trail reduced to an overgrown singletrack where I was actually bushwacking the pokey plants with a stick! Ha! Ha! That made for quite the adventure but greatly increased our travel time.
How can we improve these maps? Can we get wayfinding signs to direct people to these new walk/roll/bike infrastructure projects?
The Reverse Trip
After hanging with family for a few days it was time to go home. We kissed our goodbyes and off we went in reverse order. We discovered that our earlier rush to get on the 512 express bus was unwarranted. This route has Ultra Frequent Service! (Every 10 minutes!) As we rode our bikes to the South Everett park-and-ride, the bus was pulling up. No biggie as we knew the next one was coming in 10 min. This gave us time to unload our baggage and get our new ORCA card ready! We found out that you need a physical card along with the app. The past two days we paid all of our Everett Transit fares in quarters because we couldn’t figure out the ORCA card thing. Problem solved!
We were first aboard the southbound Link train so boarding was a breeze. Ridership was high once again as the train was standing room only on the way to Seattle. Someone made a comment to me during our stay that “Nobody rides the light rail” but I think they meant that they don’t ride the light rail.
We had a couple of hours before our Amtrak departure so we grabbed lunch at Tat’s Deli across from the sinking ship parking garage on Yesler Way. Occidental Square had games set up near the playground with giant Connect 4, Ping Pong, giant chess, bean bag toss and other games which was cool to see in the downtown core. Then we rode up the green cycle track on 4th Ave to the Seattle Public Library. There are some amazing buildings to look at and some big hills! While the kid is a climbing machine on her bike I was glad to have the e-assist on the Vektron especially with all of our luggage and an additional bag of gifts from Grandma and Grandpa on the rear rack. We had a blast riding around downtown Seattle but it was time to catch a train back to Portland.
Once again checking our bikes at baggage was super easy. We walked our bikes through the train station and to the baggage car. I remembered to remove the battery earlier, saving a minute or two. We had no problem finding two seats together on the sold-out train.
After two stops in Tukwila and Tacoma, we were cruising southbound with the sun shining on us through the window when suddenly, CLICK! The lights went out, the AC turned off and everything got very quiet. We were still rolling but we were slowing down. Slower. Slower. We coasted for a few minutes. An overhead sign above the bathroom illuminated in red the words “TOILETS CLOSED” but people were still going in and out. I wondered what they experienced there in the dark. A single white emergency light was on near the front of the train car.
It seemed like we started moving under power again but very slowly. Luckily we made it to the Olympia/Lacey station where the announcement was made that we could get off of the train and take a break while the crew tried to fix the train. I was thankful that the crew was able to get us to a station where there were snacks, bathrooms and grass with trees. If we had been stuck in the woods and not able to get off of the train that would have been worse for sure.
After 30 minutes or so the announcement was made that our train’s engine was broken and we would need another. At this point most people deboarded and some even hailed a ride-share car and left. City transit buses were coming through regularly but I didn’t see anyone get on. I believe that I heard Amtrak was going to send a bus to come get us but an engine was on the way to connect to our train and continue the journey by rail. As the rescue engine approached we were all asked to get back on the train so the workers could do the disconnecting and reconnecting. (Even though I really wanted to watch!)
As we waited on board a long freight train slowly passed us on the right then stopped. After some back and forth motion I assumed that this was our rescue freight train dropping off one engine. A slight bump confirmed that something had definitely arrived. A few minutes later the freight train on our right appeared to start moving again but it was actually our train moving! Everyone erupted in cheer! After a two-hour stop we were on our way. The new arrival times were calculated and announced as we learned that a freight train engine cannot travel as fast as a passenger train engine. (Or at least the way this train was now configured we couldn’t travel as fast.) Our new arrival time was now 9:00 pm instead of 5:30 pm.. This sent everyone scrambling and scrolling to figure out their next steps. I heard people canceling dinner reservations, arranging rides and instructing people to pick up food. Some even made plans to stay in Portland rather than continue southbound on the late train.
As for us, it was a race to see if we would make the 44 bus or the 12. Of course we would rather take the 43, but once again it’s only hourly during rush hour with no weekend service. 44 being more desirable than 12 as it would get us closer to home but infrequent service would push us to take the 12 to Barbur Transit Center and ride bikes the last 1.5 miles.
The sun had just set as we boarded the bus but we made it home with a sliver of blue sky showing. The kid was a champ and did an amazing job on this very long multi-modal day.
The next day I folded the Vektron and loaded it into our bucket bike to return it to Splendid Cycles. Thank you so much to Barb and the Splendid crew! Would we do it again? YES! Next time we’ll explore the new (to us) Sounder Train N line from Everett to Seattle and have our ORCA card ready!
Thanks for reading along on our adventure!
Shawne is a prolific urban rider who has put thousands of miles on his e-cargo bike, often with his young daughter in tow. He lives on Portland’s southern border with Tigard and is a member of the City of Tigard Transportation Advisory Committee. Read more of his adventures here.
Thanks for this! I loved the read and appreciate the way you worked in how to actually do the stuff, like mentioning how to fold down the bike racks. I’ve done bike>train>bike to visit my folks up in tacoma, but it’s much more complex when I think about doing it with my kids.
Thank you for reading! The bike racks can be intimidating for sure. When I saw the triple bike racks on the Seattle bus I hoped that the latch was similar. It was!
Loved the story, thank you for sharing!
Thank you for the kind words!
I love these. Would you consider doing a video series for these adventures?
I was just telling Jonathan that I have SO MUCH video from this trip to edit! I’ll get on it ASAP and share.
Can’t wait to see it!
You have to be young and idealistic to put up with hassles like this.
What about a positive framing like capable and committed? There is no reason to disparage the author.
Or committed to not wrecking the climate, I guess.
(Also I love how avoiding environmental catastrophe is being “idealistic.” I’d call it pretty damn realistic, myself.)
I don’t think so: last time I drove to Seattle, the traffic was so bad that it took 4 hours just to get from Ballard to Tacoma. Driving frequently results in delays, but people tend not to take that into account for some reason.
Service should be improved to make the alternatives better instead of forcing more people into cars.
My point exactly. Our European friends chuckle at what Americans put up with to get from one place to another. I sent a copy of this article to friends in Holland to get their reaction. Bet it’s priceless.
I have ridden Amtrak all over this country, so while I completely understand not wanting to take the second train to Everett given the layover, should you ever have reason to go that way (say to Vancouver BC) I really recommend it. Goes right along Puget Sound; it’s beautiful.
It also occurred to me that when an Amtrak train breaks down — I’ve had that happen twice — they often do send a shuttle bus to pick you up, and I wonder how they would handle bikes. Would they fit in the bus’s luggage storage? Would they fit assuming a bunch of other people’s luggage? Would they prioritize the bikes as your primary form of transportation upon arrival, or would they get left behind and delivered on the next train, possibly the next day?
The anxiety over bike racks on buses is so frustrating. If we’re really going to try to move more people to non-SOV usage with mode-shares like bike+bus, we have to figure out a way to accommodate more bikes. When I first moved to Portland in 2012 I was told by a friend that if you needed to catch a bus on the inner eastside heading east, and had a bike, you’d be out of luck. Your best bet is to get a bus heading downtown and stay on it as it turns around and comes back. It’s true (though somewhat less so during the pandemic) and ridiculous.
Anyway, thanks again for your detailed and enjoyable report!
I bike toured coast to coast back in ’06 and flew back to the start. The airline lost our bikes, trailers and gear! It all showed up in a cab 2 days later. Boxes were banged up but everything was there. So stressful!
Cascades service north of Seattle is supposed to resume in September. If you have bikes, do not go north of Seattle unless you take the Amtrak Cascades service. The Empire Builder is not bike friendly at all.
I believe that should have changed, as Amtrak has finally been able to get new baggage cars, with bike racks, to replace the ones from the 1940s and 1950s.
Also, when a train is unable to continue, Amtrak may either borrow a freight engine or call out buses. Obviously, there are cases where the train is completely unusable or the tracks blocked. I’m not sure there’s an official policy for bikes, but your option would probably be putting them in a bus’s luggage bay, assuming the driver/company (it would probably be whoever is available on short notice) allows it.
Looks like you are right. The Empire Builder now has “trainside checked bike” service:
That does only allow for one daily departure, though. Mon-Fri, Sounder has 2 round trips between Seattle/Everett and a few stops in between.
I’m glad you had a positive overall experience and that your child was extraordinarily patient.
The current long-term trend on Amtrak bike service is to eliminate the baggage car altogether (and one employee) and have passengers load their own bicycles onto a single hook in the passenger car. Yep, pay your $20, then you yourself take your 30-50 lb bike up those steep steps, a hard turn, then load it onto a hook with lots of other passengers jostling you – and don’t forget to remove your front wheel, bags, battery, etc, then do the reverse at your destination. Not fun. Currently on all the “NE Regional” trains but most medium and long-distance trains still have baggage cars. The Acela service has no bicycle service at all.
Carrying the bike up the steps would be a challenge for sure! Yikes!
DIY bike storage is very common in Europe. The roll-on bike service on the Cascades service is great, but it will likely only last a few more years. We are supposed to get the first round of Siemens trains that Amtrak recently ordered. These will be similar to the Amtrak Midwest cars that recently entered service. They will not include baggage cars:
I found the map of Amtrak service expansion on the second article rather interesting. Locally we are all looking forward to the Asheville to Wilmington service, but I’d love to travel by rail from Savanna to Nashville, as well as Greenville SC by day (the current service is in the wee hours only).
On our local NCRail Raleigh to Charlotte service (Piedmont, 3x daily), the bistro car has a rear baggage area for the bikes – perhaps they’ll modify a few of the new Siemens cars in a similar way? If one is traveling entirely between NC cities, the cost of carrying the bike is free on all Amtrak trains, but $20 to everywhere else (DC, Atlanta, Birmingham, and so on.)
Amtrak recently received brand-new baggage cars, with bike racks, not too long ago. Plus, many travelers would be put off by having to handle their own luggage.
In addition, the Cascades trains have fixed consists which include baggage cars (I’m not sure about the planned replacements for ones deemed unsafe, but I’d presume the states would insist on bike storage).
In California, on at least some trains racks are on the lower level (which is just above platform height) and free, albeit first-come, first-served.
Amtrak has replaced the scrapped Talgo VI trainsets with ancient Horizon cars, for the time being (there are still two Talgo VIII trainsets owned by ODOT, so which one you get on a given run is a bit of a toss up). From what I’ve seen, the planned Siemens Venture trainsets do not have baggage, or a “cabbage” car as the non-engine side of the trainset will have a cab built into the passenger coach.
No baggage on Amtrak Midwest using the new cars. From the articles I’ve seen, baggage cars are not part of the Amtrak Cascades order.
I have seen (even with the old Talgo trains) situations where Amtrak hooked up an old baggage car to a new trainset. It looks odd, but any train that can get a freight engine hooked up to it can just as easily have an old baggage car hooked up to it – it’s all the same coupling mechanism and hydraulic lines.
While that’s theoretically possible, I don’t believe the Talgo trains are allowed to have any other cars hooked to them.
In the photo with the freight engine on the front, that’s what Chris I referrers to as a “cabbage”, or cab/baggage car. Cab cars like these are retired locomotives that have had their engines removed but can still be used to operate the train. They eliminate the need for the actual locomotive to be turned around and moved to the front, allowing faster turnarounds.
Additionally, some like this one have had side doors cut in so the former engine space can be used for baggage storage. The Talgo sets include baggage cars, but the replacement Horizons don’t.
That you for the article. In the article, the photo at the end shows the engine, an old baggage car, then four of the new passenger cars. Might they do the same on the Cascades line?
It’s possible. Hopefully WSDOT/ODOT insist that Amtrak include baggage cars on this service.
In any case, it’s safe to expect that the states will insist on bike service continuing, and probably checked baggage.
I should also add:
That being said, I believe one state (IL?) requested bike service and Amtrak’s solution was to allow them to be put in the overhead luggage racks. So you’d have to carry it up the steep stairs (presuming the station doesn’t have a high-level platform) through the narrow door and around the corner, and then hoist it above your head into a horizontal space.
I did this same trip just a few weeks ago, but left my bike in Seattle (long story). I found getting away from the Union Station area by foot at night to be, well, let’s call it a “big city experience”, extending almost all the way to Burnside. I also encountered human waste outside both Union and King Stations.
If we could clean up the area around the stations, this would be a great trip! Like so many other aspects of New Portland, we’ve let things deteriorate to the point where I’m finding it increasingly hard to live my values.
Agreed, sounds like we need lots more public restrooms! I can only imagine what it’s like trying to find a place for normal human bodily functions when living on the street.
Yeah, watch out for those Google maps non-car directions. They have no vested interest in, or motivation for keeping folks safe. Have a look at Ride With GPS, they have a significantly upgraded routing system.
I’ve been learning this the hard way.
Sesttle’s Li nk system has VERY heavy cyclist use. Bikes can be rolled on and on my last Link ride fron Seatac to downtown about fifteen riders used the train for various hops.
If you make the trip again, I recommend picking up an ORCA card. It will allow you to load money and transfer easily between the many transit agencies in Puget Sound. I also recommend staying in downtown Seattle, as there are many things to do, and it is very easy to get around on transit. The Embassy Suites right by the train station is very convenient, especially when you have kids in tow. You can easily get to Link, many bus lines, or even walk to the Colman Dock to catch the Bainbridge or Bremerton ferries. The walk-on fare for the ferries is really cheap, and the kids enjoy the long boat crossing.
Bad luck on the engine problems. We have taken this route many times, and have only had a mechanical issue once, and a train cancellation on another trip due to mudslides. The service is usually pretty reliable.
ORCA is currently being upgraded, so in the future you’ll simply be able to pay with your phone like on TriMet
Personally I’d rather have the card. Phones run out of battery, freeze up, and are often harder to scan.
Despite the TriMet phone app, I prefer my Hop card. And my ORCA card.
What an AMAZING story! Thanks so much for documenting it and sharing it.
My overall impression is that it shouldn’t be so hard to travel with a bike. No wonder people with money prefer to get into a car and drive.
Thank you Fred!
This kind of thing works for a “leisure” trip but for not for utilitarian transportation. Amtrak cascades should not be recommended to anyone who wants to reliably get from point A to point B.
I really enjoyed my biweekly Amtrak cascades commutes between Seattle and Portland many years ago but given my recent experiences there is absolutely no way I’d rely on Amtrak today.
I’ve taken the train in the USA literally hundreds of times. It’s true, it’s sometimes late, sometimes very very late, but about 95% of the time it’s arrived within 15 minutes of its scheduled time, a far better rate than my airline experiences. And unlike an airplane, on a train you can get up and walk around all you like – no such luck when stuck on the tarmac for 2 and a half hours, or that I-5 jam near Longview. No matter your mode choice, be it by walking, biking, car, bus, train, airplane, or boat, there are such things as service disruptions, mechanical issues and traffic congestion. I’ve been on several trains from hell 8 or 12 hours late into Chicago, and at least a dozen that got there a half hour early.
I’ll grant you that being sidelined by a freight train is pretty unique for trains, as is the many trains that I’ve been on that hit something (usually a skunk judging by the smell, but once a semi, once a cow, and 5 times now a human – in each serious case, the train comes to a complete stop about a half-mile away from the hit – trains are heavy and take a bit to stop – and police come out to do an investigation, carcasses are scraped up, and the train eventually moves on. I’ve also been on trains where the people outside mooned or flashed us.
Only trains seem to have dining cars, where the food is often superb, and the views breathtaking.
And unlike airlines, there’s no Homeland Security or TSA to deal with, saving many hours dealing with security. Even the Border Patrol and their dogs at Blaine are polite and pretty quick.
I have many Amtrak horror stories in the past 5 years but my most recent one involved a trip cancellation that I only learned about when the bus driver showed up ~5 hours late. Amtrak refused to accommodate an alternative return trip and left me stranded ~300 miles from home. Other recent trips involved excruciatingly long delays due to staffing issues and track conflicts.
I’ve been a faithful Amtrak rider for many decades but I’m unlikely to book another ticket until they fix their reliability issues .
We have had similar issues with our college kid in Tacoma (who hates driving). What seemed like an easy train ride in 2019 turned out to not be this at all, except for one trip, over the years since. Out of a dozen rides only one leg was ever on time, not fully canceled, etc. Its a bummer.
It is a huge bummer and, IMO, people who function as boosters of dysfunction do Amtrak no favors. The Washingtong and Oregon legislatures should adequately fund Amtrak in the same way they burn billions building and re-building freeways.
Washington, and to an extent Oregon, have done a lot for Amtrak, from funding the Cascades service to extensive track improvements.
However, at the Federal level, Amtrak is still a punching bag and hot potato, having to beg for it’s funding each year. This makes it hard to run and attract good talent.
Nothing is stopping states that claim to care about the climate crisis from funding an Amtrak-administered regional rail line (e.g. an expanded Cascades line).
One thing that might help the Empire Builder Amtrak train is the addition of a second railroad bridge from BNSF over the lake in Sand Point, Idaho to be finished in 2024. Some people opposed the railroad bridge, but where was the pushback against the relatively new freeway through the inner city there?
BNSF has also done billions of dollars of other improvements to address the oil train surge, including adding 50+ miles of second track elsewhere on the Builder route.
What great, evocative writing, Shawne! Thank you so much for sharing your and your kiddo’s experience. While I’m glad there is a multi-modal way to get from Portland(ish) to Everett, WA, I’m dismayed (and, of course, unsurprised) by all the hoops needed to jump to get there without a car. Until we can make non-car transit the more convenient and efficient way to travel we have little hope of attracting the masses to use trains and buses for their travels.
Thank you Hami! We need to improve every aspect of car-free travel for sure. Let’s do it!
Thank you for your report Shawne! I’ve been wanting to take the kid’s bike on Amtrak but wasn’t sure if it would count as a bike or if we’d have to box it. The Amtrak help line didn’t answer my question, but this report did! Multi-modal trips in the near future! Woohoo!
So cool to hear! Have a great trip and thank you for the kind words!
Legally, the opposite is true. Freight is required to yield to Amtrak, but usually just ignores this requirement because the only authority that can sue them for violating it is the USAG, who has done so once in Amtrak’s entire history.
Until then we can only enjoy Amtrak’s annual passive-aggressive [Host Railroad Report Card: http://media.amtrak.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/Host-Railroad-Report-Card-2021-Final-v2.pdf
You’ll notice the Cascades had an abysmal 57% on-time performance in 2021.
Do you have a source for that? My understanding is where freight owns the rails (which is the case almost everywhere except the Northeast Corridor) freight always gets priority. If every single Amtrak train I’ve ever been on has been ignoring the law that allows them to proceed when freight is approaching, that indeed is pretty galling.
Here’s a quote from the PDF I linked: