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Pandemic-curtailed Amtrak service to be partially restored next month in Pacific NW

Amtrak will restore a bunch of curtailed service in the Pacific Northwest on May 24.
Amtrak will restore a bunch of curtailed service in the Pacific Northwest on May 24.

In another sign of the rebound in travel, Amtrak and the state transportation departments of Oregon and Washington announced plans to restore a good chunk of the passenger train service that was curtailed due to low ridership in the pandemic.

Beginning May 24th, Amtrak will restore daily service on its long distance routes through the Pacific Northwest, meaning the Empire Builder (Chicago to Seattle/Portland) and Coast Starlight (Seattle to Los Angeles) routes. Those had been cut to thrice weekly service since last year. Members of Congress demanded the resumption of daily service as a condition for Amtrak to receive $1.7 billion in COVID relief funds.

Also on May 24, the state-supported Amtrak Cascades service partially bounces back from its nadir of one lonely roundtrip per day between Seattle and Eugene. As of late May, there will be a second daily roundtrip between Seattle and Eugene and a third roundtrip just serving the Seattle-Portland segment.

WSDOT and ODOT said they are closely monitoring ridership and seeing a resurgence this spring. WSDOT rail spokesperson Janet Matkin said many Amtrak Cascades trains in April have operated at capacity, currently set at a maximum of 50% of seats filled to comply with state health protocols.

After the late May service restoration, frequencies in the Eugene-Portland corridor will be back to pre-COVID levels. Passenger train service north to Vancouver, Canada, remains suspended because the northern border is still closed to nonessential crossings. It is unclear when the Portland-to-Seattle segment will be fully restored to the four daily Amtrak Cascades roundtrips it had before the pandemic hit.

"The addition of more trips will depend on demand and ongoing COVID restrictions," Matkin said on Monday. "We'll be watching these additional trips closely to determine if more trips are needed. Ultimately, we plan to return to the four daily roundtrips, but the timing is uncertain at this time."

Further service enhancements -- specifically, an aspired to fifth and sixth Seattle-Portland roundtrip -- would require reopening an alternate rail line that parallels Interstate 5 between Tacoma and Lacey, Washington. This trackway -- the Point Defiance Bypass -- has not been used by Amtrak since a catastrophic derailment in December 2017.

Sound Transit owns the Point Defiance Bypass and controls its use in partnership with Amtrak and WSDOT. Sound Transit safety managers are being extremely deliberate in reviewing plans to resume Amtrak Cascades service on this faster bypass route. A presentation posted in advance of a Washington State Transportation Commission briefing on Tuesday said "no date has been identified" at this time to return Amtrak trains to the bypass.

Copyright 2021 Northwest News Network

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.
Tom Banse
Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.