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Plans to beef up Amtrak Cascades service in 2020 beset by multiple uncertainties

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NW News Network

A holiday wish of many Pacific Northwest rail fans is more roundtrips on the Amtrak Cascades schedule with greater speed and reliability. But in order to beef up train service between Seattle and Portland, a bypass route south of Tacoma needs to be reopened. There is still no fixed date to return Amtrak trains to those tracks where a deadly derailment happened just over two years ago.

"There are a lot of variables that need to come home to roost," Washington State Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar told public radio in an interview. "Right now, I don’t have a precise schedule. But everybody is working in a good faith effort to get back on the bypass and back to that enhanced service as soon as we possibly can."

The DuPont, Washington, derailment happened on what was to be the first day of more frequent Amtrak service between Seattle and Portland. Washington state was all set to subsidize six daily roundtrips — up from four — using the new, faster bypass route between Tacoma and Nisqually.

The expanded and then retracted Amtrak Cascades schedule of late 2017 would have had trains leaving both Seattle and Portland every two to three hours throughout the day. The inland bypass route has to be reopened to add roundtrips because of freight rail congestion on the waterside BNSF mainline.

At this rate, it will be spring at the earliest before motorists see Amtrak trains speeding alongside Interstate 5 south of Tacoma. This month, the rail advocacy group All Aboard Washington telegraphed impatience with the delays and said the bypass route should be reactivated as soon as possible.

"We believe that further postponing Cascades service on the Point Defiance Bypass - for which we have already paid $181 million - is detrimental to the interests of the Puget Sound region, the Pacific Northwest, and the traveling public as a whole," All Aboard Washington's leadership wrote in a blog post. "The taxpayers of Washington state have invested a significant sum of money to improve a useful service along a busy corridor. Let’s make that improved service a reality without delay."

This summer, the Pierce County Council and Lakewood City Council voted unanimously to oppose resumption of fast rail service on the Point Defiance Bypass until all 26 safety improvements recommended in a National Transportation Safety Board crash investigation report are made. One of the hardest recommendations to achieve is to acquire replacement railcars that meet tougher crashworthiness standards.

On that point, Amtrak and train car maker Talgo recently moved three barely-used trainsets out of storage in Indiana to a maintenance facility in Milwaukee in preparation to bring them to the Pacific Northwest next year. Talgo insists its older train cars are crashworthy, but is supplying its newer Series 8 model.

"Some of those enhancements include PTC (positive train control) and features to align with the service provided in the Amtrak Cascades corridor," wrote Talgo VP for Public Affairs & Business Development Nora Friend in an email confirming the refurbishment plans.

Another variable affecting enhancement of regional train service is the cautious stance of Sound Transit, which owns the bypass line tracks. The agency is revamping safety protocols in the wake of two investigations this year that said failures by Sound Transit contributed to the December 2017 Amtrak derailment, which killed three people and injured more than 60.

"Before Sound Transit allows Amtrak to resume Cascades service on the Point Defiance Bypass, we will verify that all necessary changes have been made to correct identified deficiencies," Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff wrote in a memo to his board, obtained by public radio. "We will not assume, but rather rigorously verify, that Amtrak's personnel training and testing programs for operation are more than sufficient."

Rogoff listed upgrades that are already in place to prevent a repeat of the derailment of Amtrak Train 501. Sound Transit has added trackside warning signage, put in a graduated speed limit and instituted a "crew focus zone," which requires the conductor and locomotive engineer to be in communication about the upcoming sharp curve where the speeding Amtrak train hurtled off the tracks onto I-5 two years ago.

Rogoff also noted that an automated emergency braking system that federal regulators have long wanted is now fully operational in the corridor. The technology, formally known as positive train control, is in use on all passenger trains in the Pacific Northwest.

WSDOT Rail Division spokesperson Janet Matkin said her agency plans to hold further meetings with local elected officials in west Pierce County. Matkin added that the rail division would present to city councils and probably organize one or more open houses in the new year to provide reassurances to concerned residents about the return of fast trains to the Point Defiance Bypass line.

State Sen. Steve O'Ban, a Republican whose district includes the derailment site, said he wants a third-party certification of safety before allowing the resumption of Amtrak service on the route. O'Ban directed staff to draft a bill for the 2020 legislative session that would task the state Utilities and Transportation Commission with that evaluation.

"Unfortunately, I don't think that enough has changed," O'Ban said on the two-year anniversary of the derailment. "We do need an independent body to make sure that this service through Lakewood and DuPont doesn't result in loss of life and injury in the future."

[Copyright 2019 Northwest News Network]

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