Passengers would benefit from improved train service

More reliable train service should be in the future for Amtrak passengers on the Cascades line through Western Washington.

That’s because the state accepted $780 million in federal stimulus money aimed at improving rail transportation.

The state’s share, nearly 10 percent of the total stimulus package targeting train service nationally, is so large because Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida rejected grants the feds offered them.

They feared cost overruns on proposed high-speed rail projects in their states, along with additional long-term operation and maintenance costs the states would have to shoulder.

Should Washington state be concerned that the federal stimulus money could come back to haunt state taxpayers?

It’s a possibility, but probably not as great a risk as in the states that said no thanks to the funds.

Here’s one key reason: state Department of Transportation officials plan to use the bulk of the federal money on projects to keep the trains running on schedule, not new high-speed rail corridors and trains.

In 2010, trains ran on time on the Amtrak Cascades line through western Washington less than 70 percent of the time. The state DOT goal is for those trains to be on time at least 88 percent of the time.

Amtrak is in a good position to take advantage of soaring gasoline prices that have motorists looking for alternative modes of transportation. In 2010 alone, ticket sales on the Amtrak Cascades routes shot up 10 percent to a record 838,251. But when service isn’t reliable, it limits the growth in ridership and passenger revenue. It’s essential that Amtrak improve its on-time record if it expects to keep boosting ridership.

One of the goals is to improve scheduling and coordination between passenger trains and freight trains in Washington state. Detailed planning on how to make this work is just beginning.

Another goal of the rail improvements is to shave about 10 minutes off the time it takes to travel from Seattle to Portland, knocking it down to three hours and 20 minutes. One of the ways to do that is rerouting passenger trains that now wind around Point Defiance in Tacoma straight through Lakewood and DuPont.

That alone is a $91 million project that has the two Pierce County communities raising serious questions about its effects on their neighborhoods and business districts. Look for delays on that project as local, state and Amtrak officials iron out the wrinkles in the project.

The federal money also has some strings attached, requiring the addition of a fifth and sixth daily trip between Seattle and Portland.

The state will see some additional costs of maintaining improved train service, an estimated $50 million to $80 million over the next 20 years. And project managers must be vigilant in their oversight of projects, stepping in to scale back or reprioritize projects that suffer from cost overruns.

But again, the federal stimulus money is not opening the door to bullet trains that zoom along at 200 miles per hour. There are a few places south of Puget Sound where upgrades to the tracks will allow passenger trains to reach speeds of 90 mph, a small, but not insignificant improvement in the existing top speeds of about 79 mph.

The state is taking a bit of a gamble by accepting the federal stimulus money for improved train service. There are strings attached and increased operation and maintenance costs.

But if the money and the projects are well-managed, the state’s overall transportation system will benefit in the long run.