Backing into Seattle: An Amtrak Cascades Adventure


Day eight of the book tour’s West Coast swing was supposed to be a relaxing one. Sleep in, grab a late breakfast in Portland and then hop on the Amtrak Cascades train for the ride up to Seattle. I love the rain option, assuming I have the time to spare. The coastal views are spectacular and it is cheap, especially compared to the flight options. With the added bonus of city center to city center service it was an easy choice. And it mostly worked as expected.

Rolling up the Central Washington Coast, enjoying the views on the Amtrak Cascades line.
Rolling up the Central Washington Coast, enjoying the views on the Amtrak Cascades line.

One difference between the Cascades line and the NE Corridor I’m more familiar with on the East coast is that reserved seating on the Cascades is assigned seating. When the ticket is checked at the station a seat is assigned rather than leaving passengers to find their own once on board. The good news is that meant we were guaranteed seats together. The bad news is that we scored seats on the “wrong” side of the train. The left side northbound has better views and we were across the aisle. Not the end of the world, but slightly disappointing, if only for 45 minutes.



Less than a half hour after we departed Portland, before we even managed to cross the Columbia River, we stopped. I assumed a traffic issue on the rails; after all, this section of rail is owned and operated by the freight lines and they typically take priority. As we watched a freight train roll by I thought my assumption confirmed. We started rolling forward a few moments after it passed us.

More great views (through filthy windows) on the Amtrak Cascades line between Portland and Seattle
More great views (through filthy windows) on the Amtrak Cascades line between Portland and Seattle

And then we started to roll backwards. This wasn’t a short, slow roll. We were picking up speed. Something was very, very strange about this ride.

As the few folks around us in the seats started laughing about our plight – a seeming return to Portland rather than making the trip to Seattle – the conductor came on to clarify the situation. The engine at the front of the train broke and would not be able to get us to Seattle tonight. Fortunately, however, the Cascades rail sets come with engines at either end. The “return” engine didn’t have the same mechanical fault so it would be driving us to Seattle with one small catch: All the seats were now rolling backwards.

More great views (through filthy windows) on the Amtrak Cascades line between Portland and Seattle
More great views (through filthy windows) on the Amtrak Cascades line between Portland and Seattle


Riding backwards doesn’t really bother me. Switching from forwards to backwards, however, is harder than I expected it to be. It took a decent bit of time to adjust my brain to the fact that this was now the correct way to travel and that we’d be rolling this way for a few hours. And, as an added bonus, the reversal now had our seats on the “right” side of the train for the good views.

Not the most modern services on board the Amtrak Cascades line, but the ride is really all about the views.
Not the most modern services on board the Amtrak Cascades line, but the ride is really all about the views.

Even with the engine swap we rolled into Seattle – backwards – only about 20 minutes late. Not too shabby. I’m not sure that’s really why they have the second engine on the train set, but the redundancy worked out great in our case.

Worth noting that, while we didn’t bring a bottle of wine on board this time it appears that it is tolerated, if not explicitly permitted. The folks across the aisle from us had a few and none of the conductors seemed to care. Also, highly recommended to bring your own food on board if you’re going to want a snack during the 4ish hour trip. The bistro car options are not very impressive.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

8 Comments

  1. We’ve just received new locomotives that will be in service soon. This might be one of the reasons for the upgrade :p The schedules are currently incredibly padded, thus the minor delay. They’ll be revised when the Point Defiance bypass track opens – which will mark the end of the most gorgeous views.

  2. Great article! Amtrak Cascades trains generally run with one locomotive, not two. Usually the North end is a powered locomotive while the South end is a NPCU (Non-Powered Control Unit), an old locomotive that had the mechanical parts removed and is used only for control. There is a small chance your train had two locomotives, but that is pretty rare, and the problem was probably an issue with the controls or the lights, so it couldn’t lead under FRA rules.

  3. Why can’t I wrap my head around this?

    Trains don’t have places to completely turn around en route. So unless the train some how did a loop, you should have been facing the same direction when you continued on to Seattle.

  4. Funny you weren’t impressed with the bistro car items. Unless they’ve changed them recently (been a few years), I actually have always enjoyed the Cascades’ selection much more than normal Amtrak cafe selections. There seems to be quite a number of local (and organic) products available on this state-supported route that aren’t available on other trains. I seem to recall particularly enjoying a local oatmeal and a local macaroni and cheese option at some point in the past.

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