Amtrak Cascades Derailment and Resuming Promised Service Levels

I’ve been keeping a keen eye on what Amtrak is working on towards resumption of service in the Amtrak Cascades corridor, and what actions are being taken around implementation of PTC. In the last week and some odd days several pieces of information to clarify what is being done and the next steps being taken by Amtrak, WSDOT, Sound Transit, and others.

The first key news is Amtrak wrote a letter to WSDOT and related parties with information about next steps and current actions. You can give it a read here (if it’s ever moved for some reason, I’ve copied it locally to my blog here). From this letter I’ve extracted a few pieces of information as follows, all of which I’ve paraphrased into key points:

Immediate Actions

  1. Amtrak has started and continues a number of safety training and related exercises company wide.
  2. Increased managers and supervisors at pre-trip crew briefings.
  3. Hired an Executive VP & Chief Safety Officer.
  4. Did something about some process that has to do with safety standards and related activities.
  5. Launched a root cause and corrective action process related to over-speed conditions.

Mid-Term Actions

  1. Achieve operation of the I-ETMS or the Electronic Train Management System Positive Train Control System across the entire Amtrak Cascades route.
  2. Onboard locomotives have 51% coverage on the diesel engine fleet. 151 have been fully commissioned and are ready to operate. All unites will be ready by September, 2018 and Amtrak will provide PTC-ready locomotives for use in the Amtrak Cascades service concurrent with system operability, as needed.
  3. Complete I-ETMS installation and activation for the Washington owned Siemens Charger locomotives.
  4. “The host railroads for the Amtrak Cascades Service – BNSF, Union Pacific, Sound Transit – are in the process of completing and testing trackside systems on all subsivisions in Washington and Oregon…” with the completion estimated for 3rd quarter of 2018.
  5. Amtrak’s BOS (Back Office Servers) will be federated with the host railroads BOS in 1st Quarter of 2018.  BOS being what is used to manage and communicate with the PTC via dispatch.
  6. Rollout for PTC is planned for 2nd and 3rd quarter of 2018.
  7. Amtrak has taken the lead on organizing the pertinent meetings to ensure this implementation takes place on this corridor.
  8. Re-qualify all Amtrak Cascades operating crews for operations over the Point Defiance Bypass in accordance with new standard protocols prior to restarting service.

Long Term Actions

  1. Develop and institute a comprehensive new Safety Management System process to improve safety and… some regulatory FRA stuff in the document that amounts to the intent to implement a new safety program that is more rigorous.

Ok, that’s the key points. Here are a few takeaways that I’ve noticed after reviewing the letter thoroughly.

My Observations

  1. The first thing I noticed is there is nothing about where or what Amtrak would do or if they would take action to acquire another Talgo trainset for the corridor. The simple fact is, additional Superliner, Amfleet, or related traditional passenger equipment can’t effectively be used in the corridor like the Talgo sets can be since they’re the only equipment we have in the United States that actually has the tilt mechanism for turns. This corridor, specifically, has a lot of twists and turns between Seattle and Portland, and north toward Vancouver BC. I’d like to know what they plan to do in this regard, since it isn’t exactly a quick process to get a new Talgo set. It would likely take at minimum, if a purchase agreement was signed tomorrow, 2 to 5 years to get a new set.
  2. There was a quick mention in the letter, but no real specifics about resumption of the 6 trains per day per direction between Seattle and Portland service levels. Currently we’re back to the previous schedule of 4 trains per day each direction.
  3. Honestly, much of the talk about safety improvements is likely for confidence building those that don’t understand how railroads are operated in the United States. To me, that’s fine, I realize how safe passenger rail is in the United States and a better focus on safety is great, but the real game change is the PTC system and the removal of the ideology around equipment/person survivability and instead a refocus on wreck prevention instead. There’s a reason that trains in Europe are, one could argue, exponentially safer than passenger trains in the United States. The focus on wreck prevention and the systems to prevent wrecks instead of the notion of survivability, which is misguided and has left us in a place where our rail is technically more dangerous then their rail systems. Albeit, I write this, with the reality that passenger rail is vastly safer than getting into a car any day, and safer than most other modes of transport except maybe airline service. Overall, it’s all pretty safe, and trains are a very safe option.
  4. Not one time have they mentioned that BNSF has PTC operational and working on their freight trains. Why has it lagged on the trains that truly need it, for the safety of human lives? The equipment is obviously there between Seattle and Portland, but I suspect poor funding support and Government mismanagement of the situation has exacerbated the problems for Amtrak and related groups involved.


Overall I’m personally satisfied with Amtrak’s efforts to mediate, mitigate, and manage safety improvements. However, the real safety improvements will be in political and technological advancements around things like PTC and changing the attitudes around what passenger rail should do, and shouldn’t do (like have 30mph turns right smack in the middle of 79mph tracks!) So their work is very much appreciated, but I’m more than aware that the actual improvements are going to need to come from outside of Amtrak as well as a few from inside.

In summary, I’m still left with one significant question though, which is, “how on earth is Amtrak going to resume the aforementioned level of service (6 trains each way between Portland and Seattle) and when is this going to happen?” I don’t have much hope or expectation around and answer for this soon, but I hope we find out in the next few weeks or months. If not, I’m not sure there will be much hope of service resumption for a number of years.

Kind Words for Zack and Jim

Carl Fowler wrote an eloquent comment on my recent post about the Amtrak Cascades 510 Derailment. These words he wrote about his great friends Jim Hamre & Zack Willhoite that lost their lives that day. I’ve reprinted them here in honor of those friends we lost.

Jim Hamre (age 61) and Zack Willhoite (age 35) were each others best friends and mine as well. I can’t begin to process the grief. I talked to both as recently as the Saturday before their ill-fated ride, as they were so happily driving from Tacoma to Leavenworth, WA to photograph the Amtrak Seattle–Leavenworth Christmas train. On Sunday they rode the last runs via the Point Defiance Line. Zack was thrilled to have bought the last ticket at the “old” 1984 Tacoma Amtrak station–a one way from Tacoma to Tukwilla that, of course, he never would have used–a true piece of history. And for rail advocacy their loss is incalculable.

Jim was a long-time member of the NARP/RPA Board. He was quiet, effective, wrote with such fluency and beyond all else was kind and deeply caring. Zack was beyond a computer whiz, a man who could plan bus schedules, fix computers, analyze complex problems and then have such fun driving his preserved historic Pierce Transit bus. And did Zack ever love pepperoni pizza, the Rocky Horror Picture Show and Star Wars!

Both were perfect symbols of what advocacy for balance in transportation should be. Jim was a highway engineer who deeply supported multi-modalism. Zack took the same perspective from his work in the bus side of public transport.

Through my career running tours by train all over the world I got to travel with them to places that really “got” public transport. Jim went with me all over Europe, joined by Zack in Switzerland. Together with their friend Malcolm Kenton they went last year to Inno-Trans, the great passenger rail industry biennial trade show in Berlin. Jim went with me to New Zealand, Australia, Canada and virtually everywhere in the United States.

Jim helped me as a co-tour manager on countless tours from the 1980s to my retirement in 2015, starting on BC Rail trips over the whole thousand mile line from Vancouver to Fort Nelson, B.C. He served meals, carried bags, helped set up photo lines, talked trains, history and culture with fellow riders and once assisted in finding two confused elderly passengers who got lost on a Skytrain in Vancouver. He spent hours searching station after station until they were finally located. Zack amazingly did the same thing once in Switzerland, finding a couple who had gone the wrong way on a Swiss trip, because the trains run on the left there and they got confused by boarding a train going for them the wrong way on the right-hand platform. Jim and Zack were the best in so many ways!

And that was barely the start. For NARP Jim went where-ever needed, criss-crossing the country to Board and Council meetings typically four timers or more each year. He gave over 35 years of similar effort to the Washington Association of Railroad Pasengers/All Aboard Washington For his family he could not do enough. He helped run a Thrift Store for the poor in Puyallup, WA through his church. He cared for his mother, his family and his friends. I never knew a finer person and could always count on him.

Zack had gotten married only a year ago, and like Jim helped care for his mom. His internet “handle” was Busdude1 He knew so much about not only busses, but also light rail, trams, streetcars and of course passenger trains. He had a rapier wit, but was never mean.

You could count on them both. Both men were funny, smart, effective and that they are gone as it was is not so much ironic as cruel. But they did so much and it was all good!

They had worked for over 20 years to improve rail passenger service in the Pacific Northwest–indeed Jim was already active when I met him in 1981 at a Washington Association of Railroad Passengers meeting. The vastly improved Cascades Corridor is their memorial and legacy. In 1981 there were only two daily round-trips and one tri-weekly train between Seattle and Portland. Because of advocacy, positive support from both the state and Federal governments and a truly responsive Amtrak and BNSF in the northwest, there are now 14 daily Amtrak trains (7 round-trips) between Seattle and Portland, 2 more round-trips to Vancouver, the Empire Builder to Chicago and over 20 commuter trains every day on the Seattle-Tacoma-Lakewood part of the line–the greatest volume of passenger service in history to Seattle, and Tacoma.

May I also re share my Facebook tribute to them:

As we all knew they would be, Jim Hamre (of All Aboard Washington/WASHARP and a Board member of NARP) and his great friend Zack Willhoite (also an AAW/NARP activist) were on Amtrak Train 501 on the first run over the new route yesterday and they were, unbelievably, two of the three killed in the horrible derailment of that train.

I can’t even begin to express my grief! Zack was the kindest, smartest, most decent guy, and even more an extraordinarily insightful friend. Jim Hamre was quite simply the brother I never had, my best friend and a far better person than me.

I met Jim in 1981. Even then he was working on citizen advocacy for public transport. We leafleted, went to public meetings, mutually joined the NARP Board, but mostly had fun together. I met Zack through Jim. They were soul-mates. They went with me on tours I led to Europe and the world. We ate pizza together, laughed together, saw glorious scenery and wonderful places. The last time we were all three together was with Taylor (Zack’s wife) and Jim’s so beautiful mom Carolyn at his house for a steak barbecue last July.

I spent a week then with Jim to visit Hells Canyon, the Columbia Gorge, the Sumpter Valley RR, ride rental bikes over the Bitteroots on the Hiawatha Trail (ex-Milewaukee Road mainline grade) and to talk trains, politics, history, friends and simply to share with someone who could finish my thoughts and keep me sane. And I saw Jim again (thank God) for five days in Chicago last month at the NARP 50th Birthday Conference, but sadly not Zack. Our mutual friend Warren Yee was there, and that is a comfort.

I’m going to have to be unusually quiet for me to take this in, but oh God what a bloody waste. Three fatalities too many and so many of us knew two of them and they were so fine.

Carl Fowler
President (Retired)
Rail Travel Center/Rail Travel Adventures

Thoughts on Logistics for a Set of Business Meetings

I had two business meetings this last week on Friday. One in downtown Seattle and then another down in SODO (South of Downtown). Leaving Ballard and getting to Seattle is an easy exercise. Even while healing and a slower pace from walking and no bike option, downtown Seattle is a simple trip. It currently takes me an extra 5-20 minutes without the bike option, but it’s still only a 30-40 minute trip. But the ease of the trip ends at downtown, with anything south adding complexity at a dramatic rate.

Once I’ve arrived, either on the 17, 18, D Line, or 40 Bus, I then have to transfer to some bus or other mode that goes further south to SODO. Traveling through downtown is slow except on the LINK. But the LINK has two stops that aren’t particularly close to 1st avenue or very close to anything in the southern half of SODO.

Info on Ballard, SODO, and where downtown is for a better idea of these trips.

Regardless of the time it was an easy bus ride to both meets, with some of my current slow walking to each location. The weather was actually really nice during both of my walks from the bus to meeting, meeting to LINK, then LINK to meeting. Overall good trips, reliable, and they arrived (shockingly!) on time.

But let’s ponder a moment, since I’ve been doing this a bit more than usual dealing with being injured. My usual situation is to have my bike at my side. I can easily get on any of the above buses even sooner, splitting any time by 1/3-1/5th the walking time. On longer stretches connecting to the bus I easily can cut walking time even more by about 1/10th or more, because of the simple use of roadway and crossing sections that otherwise one must stop at in a car or walking, but on a bike one can slip between different blockages and still pass through legally on toward one’s destination.

I thought through the information and realized I could have cut out almost 32-36 minutes off of my walking time and could have cut out almost 8-20 minutes off of my bus riding time. The later I factored in that I could have caught the earlier 17 if I’d been on my bike, instead of limited to walking slowly from SODO to the 17 Express.

Being able to combine transit and bike trips, especially in massive cities in the United States, is fundamental to making trips quickly. Days like this, were I can’t pair the trips accurately are rough days. In future articles, I’ll break down comparisons in how I save tons of time versus using a car for errands, commutes, and trips too. It’ll get pretty spicy, so stay tuned. I’ve got some interesting and arguable disagreeable thoughts on the matter in the near future. I promise, whatever I do, it’ll be presented in standard Sleuth fashion with some data and good search terms to look into the matter futher!

Until next post, happy trips to all your destinations!

That Transit Supporter Split

Recently I was checking out a map of transit in Kraków, Poland. I traveled there a couple of years ago and took a number of pictures, traveled via transit a lot, and even got to bike around their fantastic bicycle infrastructure. Here’s links if you’d like to read about those adventures in The First Week, Observations of Kraków, The First Bike Rides in Kraków – Part I – Good Morning!, and The First Bike Rides in Kraków – Part II – Lunch Time Mission.

I may have mentioned it when I wrote about Krakow, but I’ll mention it again. Krakow makes US cities seem strangely outdated, draconian, and 3rd world like in so many ways. Kraków’s roads, transit, biking, and pedestrian facilities were dramatically better than anything in the US by a remarkable degree. The vehicles were more modern and capable, their buses smoother riding and cleaner, and the overall city was cleaner and more well put together. Even in the proverbial “slums” it seemed like the housing graded several levels above even what middle class neighborhoods or lifestyles would allow here in the United States. (If one can pretend there is even a middle class lifestyle these days, much of that is now gone) To note, what makes this even more impressive is that Kraków was under draconian Soviet authority for many decades. The US wasn’t, we’ve got no excuse to be so behind while Kraków has plenty of excuses and it isn’t behind!

I don’t write this to bash on US cities, we haven’t really taken care of them very well. But I do write this to make note that what we have here is something that needs dramatic work at massive levels. We’ve neglected cities for decades even though they’re the centers that bring in wealth and distribute it (via capitalism, socialism, or whatever method of economic distribution) more so than any other part of the nation. We should, and financially there’s no excuse, that our cities couldn’t be the most advanced, connected, enabling, empowering, quality, safe, and wealth generating cities on the entire planet. But instead we have barely sustained them by draining them of the wealth they generate. We’ve then – politically speaking both Democrats AND Republicans then went about distributing that wealth out in the most inefficient of ways for a whole slew of things; military waste, auto-dependency, subsidies to suburbs, and similar pet projects and other petty nonsense.

But that leaves us in a position with a lot of improvements to make. I’d argue the greatest improvement we could make today would be making the way we make improvements faster, more efficient, and more focused. We spend years, often decades, preparing for, fighting about, and eventually making improvements. Sometimes we spend and waste all that energy and then don’t actually make the improvements.

This belies one of the huge problems about deciding what improvements we should or should not be making. This battle is intense and one of the massive time destroying horrors of modern America. Take for instance the endless battle of the Portland metro area. It can easily be divided into “bridge and tunnel” crowd and the city crowd. Here I’ve drawn a map of the “We hate transit buses are for the poor and sickly evil people build more roads“, the “middle mixed area of maybes“, and the “please let’s build options to more efficiently travel about instead of relying on the evils of auto-dependency“. Note this is not a scientifically derived map, but one that’s based on the demographics data that is available. I create this to show a general outline of where and the conflict is, but also attempt use the stereotypes of either or group to add a bit of jest to the matter.

2000’s Era Split

The pink + area is the “please let’s build options to more efficiently travel about instead of relying on the evils of auto-dependency” crowd, while the section between the core and the black outlined area are the “middle mixed area of maybes”, then finally the massive area of few people in the “we hate transit buses are for the poor and sickly evil people build more roads” crowd. The overall split among the overall metropolitan population is about 60% of the population is in the pink core, 35% is in the area outlined in black, and about 5% is in the in between section of the map.


2017’s Era Split

This map, which I goofed getting Forrest Grove in there even though it ought to be included is basically that same percentage split of the population. Notice how with the increasing population though the area in which people definitely will support and want more options has increased. As the population has increased in those area it has also increased in the demand for improved transit, biking, and related options. Meanwhile, the outlying areas are still full of lots of naysayers and “we hate transit buses are for the poor and sickly evil people build more roads” crowd.


The demographic that wants options, higher quality, and improved transportation choices is growing in Portland, Seattle, and almost every city in the United States.

The real question however, as we’ve seen with poor support for transit in Washington as the Democrats go in to seriously gut funding for Sound Transit projects that the voters chose by a large margin, is will the politicians get their act together and get things built for their constituent populations that want improved situations?

The answer, for the most part right now seems to be, they’re trying but failing to truly deliver effectively what could be good solutions. We continue to get halfway done or meagerly built transit options at extremely high costs (Compare our costs vs. Europe’s). Part of it is our politicians, but lots of it has to do with our latent inability to work with our own system to get things done.

Maybe I’ll draw a map of Seattle later, but currently it’s basically the same mess. Now that I’ve written this I sadly admit, I’ve no solution to the problems of getting things done. Nor do I have any insight into ideas of my own at this point. This blog post is merely pointing out with some clarity the divide that causes our cities so much pain in moving forward. It’s the same split, almost the same, minor geographically different lines, that divides us on housing and housing solutions. It divides us on free parking versus paying one’s own way. In all of it, everyone is often confused or misinformed about who is or isn’t actually paying for who’s stuff. But rest assured, we’re all paying for each other’s stuff when we’re in a metropolitan area. As no matter what political alignment you are, cities are and forever will be some level of functional socialism.

Until those next thoughts, discoveries, and research, happy transiting.