Oregon saw its subsidized passenger train ridership plummet in December following a fatal train derailment south of Tacoma Dec. 18.

PAMPLIN FILE PHOTO - Amtrak train in PortlandState-subsidized ridership of Amtrak passenger trains has plummeted in the past month, since an Amtrak train derailment just south of Tacoma, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation.

That's significant to taxpayers, because the fewer tickets that riders buy, the greater the amount that the state has to chip in per ride, said Hal Gard, ODOT rail and public transit division administrator. Right now, the state subsidizes each ride to the tune of about $118. The goal is to make riding the train affordable and convenient enough that more commuters will buy tickets. As more people pay fares, the amount the state has to subsidize for each ride declines, or ideally, disappears.

The number of rides was down 2,791, or 2.1 percent, in December from the previous year. Ridership typically surges during December as people go to visit family for the holidays, Gard said.

But a tragic derailment on Dec. 18 caused a dropoff in ridership at the peak of the holiday season.

The state's monetary hit from the ridership decline has yet to be calculated, but ODOT officials said they plan to request reimbursement for any losses from Amtrak.

A spokesperson for Amtrak did not have figures on how much the company might compensate Oregon and Washington for losses sustained from the derailment but said the company is committed to assisting in the states' recovery process.

"As part of our response, we have promised to help them in all areas of recovery, including rebuilding ridership and addressing any revenue lost as a result of the accident," said Marc Magliari, a spokesman out of Amtrak's office in Chicago.

The Dec. 18 derailment caused three fatalities and 62 injuries and shut down southbound Interstate 5 south of Tacoma for 57 hours. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the crash. The train was going close to 80 miles per hour in a 30-mph zone when it veered off the tracks.

The derailment happened on the debut run of a new Amtrak route from Seattle to Portland. As a result of the derailment, service from Portland to Seattle came to a standstill. ODOT has had to adjust schedules and routes. The north-south route will operate between Tacoma and Nisqually until the Portland-to-Seattle line is repaired.

The schedule and route changes, combined with diminished consumer confidence in rail travel after the crash, are likely to blame for the decrease in ridership. Gard said.

Amtrak has agreed to pay for repairs of equipment and cleanup along the tracks and interstate, Gard said. It's unclear, however, whether the company would pay for the loss in ridership.

What may be more difficult is rebuilding confidence in and reliability of the service, Gard said.

Oregon has faced consistent problems filling seats on the passenger trains operating through the state, while Washington has had the opposite problem, not enough seats to fill demand.

State officials have kept the service alive in Oregon despite the heavy subsidies because they foresee population growth in the state increasing demand for rail travel.

Overall, ridership was down about 2,420 for all of 2017, after an increase in ridership in August thanks to visitors for the solar eclipse.

Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau
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