With two blasts from its horn, an Amtrak locomotive pulled 12 cars out of King Street Station on Friday to inaugurate the first passenger-train service between the United States and British Columbia in 14 years.
The Mount Baker International departed as scheduled at 7:15 a.m. with a full load of passengers excited about the return of service between Seattle and Vancouver.
“We make the trip to Vancouver fairly regularly on the freeway, and we’ve been wanting the train for a long time,” said Dena Dawson, a Seattle resident originally from Vancouver. “We rode the old Burlington Northern train, and then they canceled it. It was extremely sad.”
The Spanish-made Talgo 200 train was bound for stops in Everett, Mount Vernon and Bellingham before crossing the border and heading for a scheduled 11:50 a.m. arrival in Vancouver. The return schedule called for a 6 p.m. departure and Seattle arrival at 10:35 p.m.
Charles Mott, president of the Washington Association of Rail Passengers, was relieved just to be on board. He had planned to be on a demonstration run for dignitaries and news media on Wednesday, but business concerns forced him to miss the trip. He managed to snag a ticket when someone else canceled.
Mott, whose organization worked for resumption of the service, said the current one-round-trip-per-day schedule has limited utility, but he predicted great success ahead.
“It’s not a businessman’s schedule,” he noted. “It’s for seniors and people who want to spend the day up in Vancouver.
“The reason that they chose this schedule is because this is the one that’s probably going to pick up and go the fastest. In other words, it’ll hit the deck running and that’ll build up the momentum to get a second train.”
Mott said that when service was axed in 1981, officials justified the move on grounds of declining ridership, although the number of passengers had begun to rebound in the last year of service.
“Had the schedule kept going I think it would have sustained itself,” he said. “And of course, everything’s changed in the last 14 years. There’s much more travel, much more commerce back and forth. The border (congestion) problems are much more than they were then.
“And you also have a lot of people today; the biggest growth area is your senior citizens. They have money, they have time, and this is what appeals to them.”
The 196-passenger train can travel at 125 mph, but track conditions along the 155-mile route limit its top speed for now to 79 mph, and even that speed is possible in just a few areas.
Greg Fischer, an Amtrak employee from San Francisco who decided to ride the train as a “novelty” while visiting Seattle, said increasing the speed will be important in determining whether the train will develop a role in the region’s drive to ease traffic congestion, or be merely a curiosity for tourists.
“Four-and-a-half hours is fun once, but for repeat business and business travelers I don’t think it’s likely,” he said.
“But if they can get it down to even 3 1/2, and certainly 3, and if they were somewhat a high-speed service, then, ‘Watch out, Horizon Air,”’ he said, referring to a commuter airline.
Friday’s train had a contingent of eight passenger coaches, two power cars, a dining car and a bistro car.
The state Legislature has allocated money to buy two more trains to expand service between Vancouver, Seattle and Portland. Stan Suchan of the state Department of Transportation said they would have the same configuration, although one of the power cars would probably be given up in favor of a baggage car so passengers could take items like bicycles.
The addition of the service comes at a time when Amtrak is cutting operations by 21 percent to reduce costs, and Congress is considering phasing out subsidies that have kept the railroad running.
But Washington state has spent $24 million for track and facility improvements, and will chip in $1 million to $3 million a year for operating costs. Burlington Northern has spent $3 million on track improvements.
Northbound passengers will clear Canadian customs in Vancouver. Southbound passengers - at least to start - will be checked by a U.S. customs inspector who will board the train at Blaine and work as it travels to Bellingham.