To Bolt or to Train...

Before I broach the subject of Seattle vs. Portland (a topic that I'm still researching :-)  I thought I'd share my experiences on traveling between these two awesome cities in the PacNW.

As I've written many times before on my blog, I try to avoid driving as much as possible.  Do I hate driving?  No, I love it, especially since I drive stick, but one person driving back and forth between Seattle and PDX isn't the best for the environment, not to mention expensive.  So what do I do?

Well, I'm sort of what you'd call a "transit junkie".  I absolutely love riding on trains, buses, ferries and planes as much as the actual traveling itself.  As one particularly loud and annoying passenger on MAX said last Friday, "most of the fun of traveling is getting there" and I couldn't agree more.  Maybe you don't agree with me, maybe you think mass transit is too slow, dirty and doesn't get you where a car does, and that's probably true for many.  But for me, I count it as a blessing that I live in the Northwest, where you don't have to drive all the time, giving me a chance to catch up on reading (I've never read so much as I do now) and avoid traffic and the "pain at the pump" to quote CNN everytime gas goes up.

Where was I?  Oh, right!  I travel to Seattle about every other weekend to take a break from Intel.  Over the next six months, that translates to roughly 4800 miles of driving, which would cost me about $800 at current gas prices. Yikes!  Not too mention the clog on I-5 north of Portland every Friday as well as the drawn out commute up the freeway.  It's just not the most exciting trip.

When I moved down here, I started snooping around and found Amtrak.  "Amtrak, are you kidding me?" I thought.  Keep in mind, before moving to Seattle, I lived in California, land of the ever-late and ever-cancelled Amtrak routes.  Granted, I never took one, but the stories I heard were enough.  Hour delays waiting for freight trains (Amtrak leases their tracks) and cramped cars.  Not to mention, it typically took you twice as long by train to get anywhere when you could drive (hint: fix up the trains and maybe not so many people would drive in CA).  Thus, my skeptisicism.  However, it IS only $60 each roundtrip (about a tank of gas) and I get a student or AAA discount, so for $100 less why the hell not?

Now, many of my friends at UW who take this route said the Cascades was nothing like the "Star-late" (Pacific Starliner) or any other Amtrak routes.  It is more like a European train, which I could relate to; I loved riding the rails all over Europe.  I'll try anything once, so I said "Why not?"

Since moving down, I've taken the train a handful of times and I must say, I'm pretty impressed.  The trains are pretty much on time (+/- 15 minutes) and the cabin is very comfortable, complete with WiFi and a dining car.  Besides the fact that I can get to the station from work with mass transit, I'd say by far the best thing is the view; the lakes and mountains look simply awesome, and you can't say the same for I-5.  Now, there are some negatives (which I go over below) but needless to say that although I'm impressed, the fact that fares are actually about $90.10 RT after my discounts is a little more than I can swallow.  What's a guy to do?

Well, one day at work, someone posted on our company blog about this thing called Bolt Bus, promising $1 (yes, $1) trips back and forth from PDX <-> SEA.  Are you kidding me?  This I had to see, so I jumped on their site (which was barely up) and grabbed a couple of RT tickets for $2!  Pretty sweet.

So what's their deal?  They're actually part of Greyhound (but they never say that, probably for good reason) and have a few other of these routes in the Northeast.  Not all seats are $1 (more like $10-15 each way when I look later on the schedule), but still, $20-30 RT!?  AND it sounds like some people are randomly selected each trip to pay $1, which I think is a gamble I'm willing to take.

I just got back from my first Bolt Bus RT Sunday and I must say, I am quite happy with the trip.  Yes, it's on I-5 and no there's no food, but it is direct to Seattle (Amtrak makes about a half dozen stops) and it's more convenient to me (picking you up right off Salmon St) which is nice.  The seats are cozy, though balancing your laptop on your lap is a little awkward.  Oh, and the bus was only half full!  Wtf?  I'm sure that after people go and tell their friends (case and point: this blog) that they will become very packed.

The drivers were very nice, but other than a few messages at the start and end, it was pretty quiet, which is nice.  It sounds like they're adding more buses as they play around with the schedule, as well as adding routes to Eugene and Vancouver, BC soon, which is great.  Man, they are RIGHT in competition with Amtrak: same routes, same times, cheaper cost.  I know the view on Amtrak is great, but I don't know, this is gonna hurt.  And they just got a bunch of federal money to improve the rail corridor, so I wonder how that will go.  Maybe they'll finish the 5 years of renovations at King St?

One last thing, the bus is so convenient downtown; it's right smack dab in the middle of Portland and Seattle, whereas Union Station is a bit out of my way for the train.  I got home on Sunday, walked one block east, and 2 minutes later I was on the 15 to Belmont.  Beautiful, my hat's off to the guys at Bolt Bus for making this really a great experience.

You know me, I'm a man of lists.  Who doesn't like a good list, right?  I don't claim to be an expert on Cascades or Bolt Bus by any means, but after my first few trips, here's how I see it:

Amtrak Cascades
  • Train from Seattle to Portland
  • Trip Time: 3 1/2 hours
  • Cost: $90.10 RT on weekends w/ student discount
  • Location: King St. Station (Seattle), Union Station (Portland)
  • Route: Scenic corridor, avoids I-5
  • WiFi (slow, just like on airlines)
  • Outlets
  • Comfy seats w/ lots of legroom and trays (good for laptops)
  • Lots of room for baggage
  • No security screenings
  • Food available (complete with dining car)
  • Bathrooms in every car
  • Beautiful, quiet route along the water
  • More expensive
  • Wait in long line to board
  • Seat assignments (though they often don't care after a certain point)
  • Makes stops
  • Does wait for freight trains (sometimes 15-30 minutes delayed)
  • PDX station not as convenient (requires 1-2 MAX trips and a bit of walking)

Bolt Bus
  • Bus from Seattle to Portland
  • Trip Time: 3 1/2 hours (Closer to 3 hrs)
  • Cost: $1-25 each way depending on when you buy (average is about $10-15)
  • Location: S Jackson St. and 5th Ave S (Seattle), 647 SW Salmon St. (Portland)
  • Route: I-5
  • Cheaper
  • Hop right on
  • More convenient location in PDX (for me)
  • WiFi
  • No assigned seating
  • Outlets
  • Express, no stops
  • Lots of room for baggage
  • No security screenings
  • Bathrooms in rear
  • Less legroom and no trays (harder for laptops)
  • Dim reading lights
  • No food on board, though you can bring it
  • Subject to traffic on I-5
  • Not as picturesque
  • WiFi choppy; driver will stop to reset it (amazing, he did this on the way to SEA)
  • Outlets only every few seats, so be sure to look
There you have it, the train vs. the bus.  I hope this helps you decide on your next trip.  As for me, I will deifnitely be taking the bus more often than the train, though I think the extra room for my computer and the view will call me back every few times.  As one article put it, the train is more about the experience in many ways; if you just need to get from A to B, then Bolt is definitely the way to go.  Otherwise, it may be worth taking the train.

That's my two cents, now go forth and enjoy your ride around the PacNW!

- StM

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