The Amtrak Cascades is a service the carrier provides to the Pacific Northwest, which while dating back to pre-1970s when private lines like Union Pacific, Northern Pacific, and Great Northern hosted trains has only been named such since the late 1990s. While the routing between Vancouver, Seattle, Tacoma, Portland and Eugene (Oregon) has been popular since Amtrak began providing services on its first day of operations (May 1, 1971) commuter and passenger traffic has exploded since the 1990s when the carrier began offering new trains and other perks. Today, the Cascades trains with their European equipment built by the French is the carrier's most popular in the west and now nearly tops one million riders annually and more than two thousand daily. As demand grows Amtrak continues to add new trains and services. Despite a funding situation that is always fuzzy and unpredictable Cascades will likely remain a very bright spot for the company throughout the foreseeable future.
When Amtrak first began it attempted to organize a chaotic network into something both manageable and sustainable in regards to the rather small operating budget it was given. Additionally, it attempted to make sense of seriously worn down and tired fleet of both locomotives, passenger cars, and other equipment handed over by the private railroads. One region which Amtrak retained was the Pacific Northwest and the corridor between California, Oregon, western Washington, and Vancouver. Historically, this service had been provided through a combination of several roads; Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, Great Northern, Northern Pacific, and Canadian Pacific. There was no Amtrak Cascades in 1971. However, you could reach all of those areas via trains such as the Coast Starlight (which continued to California), Mount Rainier, Pacific International (to Vancouver after 1972) and Puget Sound.
In 1980 northwest service received its first major "endorsement", if you will, when the state of Oregon subsidized a train to reach Eugene, the Willamette Valley. While it appeared the stage was set for the region to receive even further improved services. However, in the early 1980s Oregon cancelled its sponsorship and around the same time the Pacific International was dropped to Vancouver. This left only local/regional service between Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland (aside from the Coast Starlight to Los Angeles). Things stayed virtually the same for the next decade. On April 1, 1994 with more funding available from both the federal government and the states of Washington and Oregon, Amtrak again looked to expand its reach in the Pacific Northwest with new equipment that was built by the French company Talgo (short for Tren Articulado Ligero Goicoechea Oriol).
These cars, the only of their kind to be used in the United States, featured free tilting technology which meant that they could not only easily glide through curves but could also do so at high speeds. Despite the fact that they were meant to operate at speeds over 100 mph they are limited to the mandated track speed of no greater than 79 mph. In any event, the cars offer passengers an incredible degree of comfort even though they are only used in regional service. For power the trains used EMD's then-new F59PHIs (which remain the primary power today), capable of operating at 110 mph with 3,200 horsepower. When launched in 1994 the service was only available between Seattle and Portland on new trains the Northwest Talgo, Mount Rainier and Mount Adams later that year. Then, in May 1995 the Mount Baker International returned service to Vancouver and a month later the Mount Rainier was extended to Eugene after Oregon again agreed to subsidize the service through its borders.
This setup continued until the fall of 1998. It was then that the passenger carrier began publicizing Amtrak Cascades service between Eugene and Vancouver, a distance of 467 miles if one were to travel the entire route, which offered eighteen stops. An attractive new paint scheme adorned the five trainsets of green, white, and burnt umber. Typically, the trains operate with twelve cars plus the F59PHI and a retrofitted F40PH used as a control car (thus, the F59PHI is used in push-pull service). The consist includes a baggage, a business coach, lounge-diner, Bistro cafe, five coaches, and finally a service car. The success of Amtrak Cascades has been quite impressive as today it stands as the carrier's busiest corridor outside of the Northeast and California.
This has also been helped by the fact that Washington, in particular, has been aggressively pursuing the addition of new commuter and passenger rail services similar to other states such as California and North Carolina. Since Amtrak implemented the new Talgo trainsets back in 1994 the demand has grown from less than 100,000 riders annually to over 800,000 as of 2010! This number is very likely to continue to grow as the state continues to fund such services. To date Washington is still eying upgraded services, such as returning unused tracks in the Puget Sound region back into service for commuter purposes. They also hope to one day operate high speed trains (i.e., 125 mph or higher) between Oregon and Vancouver although a target date for such a plan is unknown given the extremely high cost involved.
If you are interested in learning more about Amtrak Cascades or riding the trains please click here to visit their website. Lastly, to learn more about Amtrak consider one, or both, of these books; Amtrak by Brian Solomon and Amtrak in the Heartland by Craig Sanders. Mr. Solomon's book gives an excellent general history of the carrier since its start up in 1971 while Mr. Sanders' book covers Amtrak mostly in Midwestern regionals. In any event, both books are filled with information and pictures so if you have an interest in Amtrak or are interested in learning more about the carrier you certainly won't be disappointed in one, or both books. If you're interested in perhaps purchasing either (or both) of these books please visit the links below which will take you to ordering information through Amazon.com, the trusted online shopping network.