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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Riding the Amtrak Cascades to Portland for Railvolution

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My October 16th trip to Portland for the Railvolution conference was going to be my last chance to ride the Amtrak Cascades train direct from Vancouver to Portland. Luckily, a last-minute reprieve means that we have at least another year to enjoy it. A short travelogue of the 8-hour trip.

by John Calimente, re:place Magazine

If you want to take the Amtrak Cascades from Vancouver in the morning, you have to get up early. Very early. So early that SkyTrain is not even awake. I was actually a bit surprised that on a Saturday morning I could get a trolley bus to the station – the first one of the day at 5:35am.

I arrived at Pacific Central by 6am and immediately got into a line-up. One thing I don’t understand about Amtrak is why one’s seat isn’t assigned before boarding; instead it is assigned on the spot. Perhaps this is not the case on some routes, but it was the procedure on the Cascades route. A quick border check and we were onto the train at about 6:30 for a 6:40 departure.

Except we didn’t depart. We sat for about half an hour while an electrical problem was dealt with. One can see just by looking at the Amtrak trains that the organization has been working very hard to keep them running smoothly in the absence of proper funding over the years. Nothing is wrong with the Spanish-built Talgo trains, built in the 1990s, but they are starting to show their wear and tear after years of continuous use.

It’s hard to believe, but daily service between Vancouver and Seattle was only reinstated in 1995, after a 14-year absence. The former Pacific International was operated by Amtrak between 1972 and 1981 before being discontinued. Since 1995, steady growth on the corridor has seen service between Portland and Seattle increase to four times daily, with one train travelling the complete 499 kilometre distance from Vancouver to Eugene, Oregon. Even with relatively limited service, the Cascades route is the eighth-busiest in the Amtrak system.

About 65 km of the route passes through BC and 200 km in Oregon, leaving the remaining 500 km in Washington State. One definitely gets the sense when riding the train through Washington that this is not just a train for tourists and the occasional rail fan. College students, military personnel, families, and businesspeople seemed to be in the majority once the train departed Seattle with a full load of passengers. The daily trains have gradually become a lifeline for those moving between towns in the state like Mount Vernon, Edmonds, Centralia, and Kelso.

Even with just the addition of the second daily train between Seattle and Vancouver, BC, Amtrak staff told me that they were starting to see businesspeople using the route, with one women holding dual citizenship taking it “almost daily.” Clearly there are many people happy not to have to choose flying or driving.

But getting back to our departure, once we left the station at 7:08am it was smooth sailing. This was the first time I’d taken the train south from Vancouver, with my only previous experience a trip on the Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver (another amazing rail journey well worth taking).

The tracks pass along the Grandview Cut, come above ground for a series of level crossings beginning at Slocan Street, passing north of Still Creek and Burnaby Lake, then jogging south along the Millennium Line route before crossing over the Fraser River Rail Bridge that parallels the Pattullo Bridge. Then it’s southwest along the Fraser River, south alongside the 91 Highway, and then…out into the open ocean. At least that’s what it felt like. (Part 2 next week)


John Calimente is the president of Rail Integrated Developments. He supports great mass transit, cycling, walking, transit integrated developments, and non-automobile urban life. Click here to follow TheTransitFan on Twitter.