Here in the busy north-south corridor west of the Cascade Mountains, Amtrak is having what it considers to be a reliability problem: six breakdowns among the trains that run between Eugene, Ore., and Vancouver, B.C.
To put it in perspective, however, that's six breakdowns in a year -- a 99.85 percent mechanical reliability rate. Amtrak has had that many breakdowns during some weeks with its troubled Acela trains in the Northeast. But even six in a year is not good enough, considering the breakdown rate had been running at about two a year.
"We're catching a lot of flak in Spain," said Jean-Pierre Ruiz, North America chief executive for the Spanish train manufacturer Talgo SA, which makes the equipment used on Amtrak's Cascades service. "Six is a lot for us."
The Cascades service is an example of what can happen when simplicity meets a transportation need. Increasingly, it has become an argument for the theory that Amtrak should buy off-the-shelf high-speed technology from Europe rather than build trains from scratch such as the Acela, the many mechanical problems of which have included cracked suspension brackets that forced it to be pulled from service for several days this past summer.
In many ways, the Cascades service is a working model of what the Bush administration is pushing for as the Amtrak of the future -- a reliable, high-volume regional service that, despite what state officials complain is a lack of federal funding commitment, manages to do well with the help of significant state support.
Ridership has increased 460 percent since the first train began operating in 1993, and it grew 5.7 percent in 2001 alone. Customer satisfaction surveys indicate that 84 percent of passengers would ride again, and 98 percent said they would recommend the service to friends.
The low-slung tilt train has gathered a following that makes it difficult to get reservations some weekends. Already, 20 percent of business travelers between Portland, Ore., and Seattle use the train, though there are now only three round trips a day, none go faster than 79 miles per hour and all Seattle-Portland seats are sold out on a few days during the holiday season.
The Cascades' popularity stems from many factors, including that it runs in a highly congested area with a dense population base. Beyond that, it serves local foods, operates generally on time and emphasizes onboard service.
The Talgo is not as fast as the Acela, although plans call for it to go much faster in the near future, but it seems to be equally smooth and quiet. One Talgo technician travels with each train, not only ready to troubleshoot problems but to note minor annoyances such as burned-out reading lights and stuck toilets. The technician feeds all the information into a Palm device that feeds it to maintenance computers at night as the train undergoes routine maintenance.
Amtrak onboard crews "feel real pride in ownership of a good product, and it shows," said Kenneth M. Uznanski Jr., manager of the Rail Office of the Washington State Department of Transportation.
The Cascades service is operated by Amtrak, but Washington state owns two of the five train sets used in the service, and Oregon owns one. Talgo maintains the trains under contract. Washington also pays a portion of operating costs.
Since 1993, Washington and Oregon have contributed $140 million in capital funds, including funds for buying the trains, new track work and new stations, while Amtrak has contributed $90 million. In fiscal 2002, Washington state contributed $16.5 million in operating costs, $16.1 million came from ticket sales, and $12.8 million came from Amtrak.
The Cascades service is a prime example of an incremental approach to high-speed rail. Instead of building a new 200-mph rail line and commissioning costly, futuristic equipment, the Cascades operate over the tracks of the freight railroad Burlington Northern Santa Fe at a top speed of 79 mph -- the maximum allowed by the federal government on lines without an automatic train stop system. The state wants to gradually establish 21/2-hour Seattle-Portland service by building a 110-mph track parallel to the BNSF freight line. Studies by the state and Talgo say it would cost about $2.1 billion, a fraction of the estimates for new high-speed rail construction that doesn't use freight railroad rights of way.
"Too many people are stuck on the dream that we need to go straight from the 19th century to the 25th century," Ruiz said. Amtrak President David L. Gunn, who arrived long after Amtrak had committed to the Acela, has frequently said he wishes the railroad had bought off-the-shelf trains for the Northeast Corridor. A believer in the incremental approach to high-speed rail, he has often said that he wants to try one new route with at least hourly service, and he holds up the Seattle-Portland market as a good possibility of a route on which Amtrak could "dominate the market."
Mechanically, the Talgo "tilt" system alone is a model of simplicity. It is a "passive system," which essentially swings slowly with the curves. The Acela, on the other hand, has an active tilt system that relies on a sensor on the locomotive to send messages to each car as to how far to tilt on upcoming curves.
The Talgo has always been sort of a poor relation in the American high-speed market. When Talgo first approached Amtrak more than a decade ago about operating in the Northeast Corridor, then-Amtrak President W. Graham Claytor Jr. all but threw the Spaniards out of his office. Claytor sniffed that the Talgo's low profile would never fit the Northeast Corridor's high-level platforms.
Branching out to the states, Talgo found a home in Washington.
Talgo also had some difficulty persuading the Federal Railroad Administration that the train was safe enough to operate on U.S. tracks. Among other things, it does not have the heavy steel crash posts required on U.S.-built passenger cars. However, the company made enough modifications to persuade the regulators to grant a temporary waiver.
Within a few weeks, the FRA is scheduled to announce whether to extend Talgo's safety waiver to the rest of the country. A federal official said the Talgo "appears on target" for being declared safe.
The Cascades service also benefits from a cooperative freight railroad, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. That is a benefit not enjoyed by all fledgling passenger rail operations. Part of this is because former Burlington Northern chairman Gerald Grinstein is a native of Seattle and felt a sense of civic duty to help develop solutions to traffic congestion in the area.
But Burlington Northern officials say that Washington state makes it easy for a freight railroad to be cooperative.
"Washington DOT recognizes that freight is as important to the state as passenger service, and that they need to take that into account," said D.J. Mitchell, Burlington Northern's manager of passenger services.
Mitchell said any state or city that wants to run passenger service on freight railroad tracks must understand that freight business is growing, too, and that the passenger service must fully cover the cost of the track and other capacity needs of passenger trains. In the case of Seattle-Portland, the state must not only pay for a separate track, but Burlington Northern must be certain that there is enough space to install a third freight track between Seattle and Portland.
How soon the 21/2-hour schedule will come into being is open to question.
Washington state officials say they have done their part for a high-speed corridor, just as the Bush administration wants, but they are waiting for the federal government to do its part.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), now ranking minority member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, said that she agrees with the administration that states should contribute to improved Amtrak service but that states are continually faced with federal budget policies that threaten to kill Amtrak.
"If they [the states] are going to bite the bullet and put scarce funds into a partnership with Amtrak, then they will need to know that Amtrak is going to be around for a while and prospering, not just limping along month to month on the edge of bankruptcy," Murray said.
Noting that some proposals for reforming Amtrak would essentially leave funding of regional intercity rail up to the states, Washington state rail manager Uznanski said: "Nothing will happen that way. The federal government has got to play a strong role."
Uznanski also has an uphill battle in persuading the state legislature to fully fund the expansion program, especially in an era of tight budgets, after the voters soundly rejected an initiative that would have provided significant funding for numerous state transportation projects, including the Cascades.
Unless a new form of funding is found by January, there will be little opportunity for expansion in the next year, he said.