Cheney Free Press -

By PAUL DELANEY
Staff Reporter 

So many questions remain after Amtrak crash

Write to the Point

 

December 21, 2017



So much for sharing about grandma Ehlers’ molasses chocolate chip spice cookies.

News of the deadly Amtrak crash near Olympia on Monday morning changed a lot of plans. No one who boarded the run in Seattle envisioned what lie ahead, or if they would be one of the statistics in the state’s first-ever fatal Amtrak accident.

The Amtrak Cascades train was supposed to celebrate a new and faster route between Seattle and Portland, but it seemed few cared. Just 80 people were on board the 12 cars on the inaugural run.

On average, the Washington state Department of Transportation, which owns the recently upgraded tracks, said 250 people ride the train daily and 867,000 each year.

But like going to a restaurant for the first time only to get food poisoning, how do those with their names on the cars — Amtrak, Sound Transit and WSDOT — convince riders to return?

I’m of the generation fortunate to have developed a love affair with the romanticism of travel by rail — way, way, way before Amtrak.

Back in the day, for instance, I vaguely remember passing through the Cheney train depot at about age 5 following the short journey from Spokane.

Or taking a Northern Pacific passenger train back from Missoula on a “road trip” with my mother some 50-plus years ago. That was only half the travel anomaly — we flew there on Northwest Airlines.

There were trips to Pasco on the old Great Northern and NP that actually arrived at a time when family friends did not have to get out of bed to meet me.

But best were the Sunday return trips on the Spokane, Seattle and Portland. The SP&S cruised up the spectacular Snake River canyon, across the scablands through Washtucna, Lamont and Amber on the way to Spokane’s GN depot on Havermale Island.

Those passenger brands disappeared in 1971 with the formation the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, doing business as Amtrak. But deficits, which once reached an estimated $700 million-plus from several hundred passenger railroads 60 years ago, only continued to climb, reaching $1.39 billion according to 2014 figures.

If you want to see where some of that investment goes, take the opportunity to ride the eastbound Empire Builder out of Seattle on one of those long summer days. The views are stunning as the train winds its way towards Stevens Pass and the seven-mile tunnel that goes under it.

Not as good is rolling the dice in winter for a trip to Spokane from Whitefish, Mont. because sleeping in the depot seats waiting for a weather-delayed train is no fun.

Like other ventures that have been left behind to struggle as technology passed them by — the postal service comes to mind — passenger rail has watched market share dwindle.

A century ago it was how American’s got from Point A to B, be it across the state, or the country. Some 98 percent of travelers used rail to go where they needed in 1916, but by 1957, with the explosion of the automobile, passenger trains carried just 32 percent.

Today, trying to cut through anything related to numbers when it comes to mass transit in any form is something that maybe only supercomputer Watson is capable of attempting.

Tens of millions can be an impressive number unless its Amtrak where ridership of over 30 million a year doesn’t come even remotely close to making ends meet. In 2016, Amtrak reported ticket revenues of $2.1 billion but total expenses of $4.2 billion.

Amtrak makes money in the busy Washington, D.C. to Boston corridor, but hemorrhages it elsewhere.

Last week, the Washington state Department of Transportation posted the following on its website: “After years of work planning and constructing almost $800 million in passenger train improvements, we’re excited to be just days away from saying ‘All Aboard!’ to our new, expanded Amtrak Cascades service.”

What did those dollars buy? About 10 minutes of travel time savings over the 150-mile trip.

Plenty of other questions surrounding this tragic event will be forthcoming. Was there too much speed involved? Might there have been an object on the track? Could the engineer have been distracted?

The question I ponder is that an estimated 60,000 cars a day travel I-5, that’s right around 22 million a year.

If you’ve ever been endlessly stuck in pockets of stop-and-go traffic on a trip from Olympia to Seattle, you would have plenty of time to wonder how just short of a billion dollars might speed your travel?

Oh, and the recipe, just ask?

Paul Delaney can be reached at pdelaney@cheneyfreepress.com.

 

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