Amtrak regional trains - the tortoise wins the race

Back in February 2019 I was on board one of several Amtrak Cascades trains heading from Portland to Seattle (Amtrak #518). It was a regional, or city to city train and offered an alternative to the long haul train I had been riding up the coast until then, the Coast Starlight (Amtrak #14). See LA to Seattle. The Cascades train might take just a bit longer because it would stop more often. But even with those stops it was still only 3 and a half hours from one city to the other, (approximately a half hour more than the express long haul train). Not a big deal. And there was a big advantage. It was on time.  

One of the realities of the train that comes all the way up the coast from LA is that by the end of that run, it will have had many opportunities to become delayed. I discussed before the tension between implementing a city to city system while depending still on long haul routing, see Amtrak at a Crossroads. But this reliability issue is perhaps as important as the timing and frequency issues which I discussed there. Customers that need to go relatively short distances will have far less tolerance for delays, but they will be subjected to the same delays as everyone else if on board a long haul train. A 2 hour delay for a 20 hour run may not be such a big deal but for a 2 hour run it doubles the transit time.

Almost 2 weeks before, when I had arrived in Portland on the Coast Starlight, it had arrived into Portland about an hour and half late. Which also meant that it would be leaving Portland going north by that same delay. I was happy with that on my trip because I got to see Mt Shasta even with a winter-late sunrise.

I know I showed shots of this in an earlier dispatch about my train up to Portland, but I can’t help it, I have never before seen anything like this cloud formation over Shasta that morning at sunrise.

It had been that late when I boarded back in San Jose. And I wasn’t very bothered by the later arrival since I had pretty much assumed it would be late anyway. On the day I was heading north again to Seattle, it was arriving in Portland also late, by about an hour.

The Amtrak Cascade trains however start in Portland and run north of there only. They are regional trains serving just Portland, Seattle and smaller cities in between and north of Seattle. I’m not saying they couldn’t be delayed but it is far less likely since they don’t have to deal with the accumulation of issues over many miles of track.

Sometimes this accumulating-delay issue can occur even on a train originating where you get on. This is the hidden delay problem and it pays to be aware of it if riding on a long haul train. For example, when I arrived on the northbound Coast Starlight in Portland, as I said before, it was late by an hour and a half. That then caused a delay in the Portland originating Empire Builder leaving Portland eastbound for Chicago. Amtrak gaurantees that connection. Which means that the eastbound train became subject to whatever delay was occurring on my northbound train into Portland. If you were wanting to make that connection, the guarantee is great. If you just wanted your eastbound train to get moving, it probably sucked (if you care about delays).

And it gets worse. (Focus on the names and directions.) That eastbound Empire Builder from Portland eventually joins up in Spokane with the other branch of the eastbound Empire Builder, this one coming from Seattle.  They join in Spokane (physically combine into a single train) and together head east from there. That means that an eastbound train from Seattle could be delayed by the northbound Coast Starlight train (which delayed the Portland leaving Empire Builder) even though the northbound train actually does not connect in Seattle. The Coast Starlight is not scheduled to arrive in Seattle until several hours after the Seattle originating Empire Builder leaves. So it is not a connecting train. Those passengers leaving Seattle to the east may not think the late northbound Coast Starlight could possibly impact them, but they would be wrong. It will hit them in Spokane. 

So when riding the long haul trains you have to pay attention not only to upstream train distances but any possible guaranteed connections in that upstream train.  This is made harder because I can’t actually find guaranteed connections information on Amtrak’s website. I do find however that their call center is very helpful. So maybe ask.

I think guaranteed connections make lot of sense for Amtrak, especially for long haul services. Passengers need to know they can connect without stress. It is one of the really big issues with taking Amtrak. But people also should know when and where they are.  

So, this Cascades train? It was just fine. It was not as big as a double decker superliner, but my seat was still far superior to what you would find on any airplane outside the pointy end.  There was a cafe car with wide table seating. All my electronics were plugged in to power. And the WiFi worked! Left side gave a nice view of Puget Sound. Right side gave some views of Mt Rainier (but my camera settings weren’t good so I am not posting any shots of that).

Puget Sound on left side


The whole issue of dealing with Amtrak delays is worth a full post which I will get to. Mainly I deal with it by never being in a situation where being late is an issue. But for now just note that when booking your Amtrak trains pay attention to where that train has been and from how far away. Look at your options with this in mind. One of your strategies might be to take the closer originating, but slower train that wins the race.  


 ©️ 2019 D Abbott