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Seattle Times news librarian Gene Balk crunches the numbers

October 14, 2013 at 3:27 PM

Amtrak ridership is down in the Northwest–is Bolt Bus to blame?

The newly restored King Street Station in Seattle (Photo: JOHN LOK/THE SEATTLE TIMES)

The recently restored King Street Station in Seattle (Photo: JOHN LOK/THE SEATTLE TIMES)

Have you seen our beautifully restored King Street Station yet? With such a stunning gateway to our city, you might think folks are clamoring to take Amtrak more than ever.

You’d be wrong.

Ridership on Amtrak’s Cascade route dropped 4  percent in the 2013 fiscal year, according to numbers released Monday by the company.

In 2013, 811,692 passengers boarded a train along the Cascades route, which runs between Vancouver, B.C., and Eugene, Ore.  That’s a decline of more than 33,000 passengers from 2012.

It’s not like Amtrak is doing badly everywhere.  Nationally, ridership rose by 1 percent, or more than 300,000 passengers, for a total of nearly 31.6 million.   That breaks the record of 31.2 million set in 2012.  Twenty of Amtrak’s routes set records this year.

Not surprisingly, the Amtrak folks are in a celebratory mood. “Amtrak moves people, the economy and the nation forward everywhere the trains go,” President and CEO Joe Boardman said in a statement Monday.

But in this corner of the country, we’re bucking the trend.  The Cascades line’s 4 percent drop was the sixth biggest decline of any of Amtrak’s routes.

It represents a reversal from previous years.

In 2011, Cascades ridership grew by 1.9 percent, and in 2012 it had only a slight drop of .8 percent. A report published by the Brookings Institution showed that from 1997 to 2012, Amtrak ridership in the Seattle metropolitan area increased by 59 percent, and in the Portland metro area by 90 percent.

So why a big decline all of a sudden?

An Amtrak official thought a bad winter for mudslides was to blame. But according to data from the state Department of Transportation, Amtrak had 23 fewer service disruptions last winter than in the winter of 2010-2011, a year when the Cascade line’s ridership increased by nearly 16,000 trips.

A more likely explanation:

Amtrak saw its first real competition in mid-2012. Bolt Bus, owned by Greyhound, began service between Seattle, Portland and Vancouver at significantly lower fares than Amtrak. While the company would not disclose ridership numbers, a Bolt Bus spokesperson did confirm that customer response in the Northwest has exceeded expectations. The company has increased the frequency of service to meet the demand, and added new routes; Bolt Bus now serves Bellingham, Eugene and Albany, Ore.

What do you think?  Have you been taking Bolt Bus instead of Amtrak?  Can that explain the drop in Amtrak ridership numbers here? Take our poll, and feel free to sound off in the comments.

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0 Comments | More in Reports | Topics: Amtrak, trains, transportation

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