Blog Cascades Corridor Intercity Rail Poised For Growth

The newly-signed federal stimulus legislation includes $8 billion for intercity passenger rail projects – preferably high-speed rail in major corridors connecting metro regions. In addition, as reported by The Politico, the Obama administration will seek an additional $5 billion in high-speed rail funding over the next five years.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has designated six main high-speed rail corridors, all of which would link major metro areas. Here’s a map. The corridors are: Eugene-Portland-Seattle-Vancouver, B.C.; San Diego-Los Angeles-Bay Area-Sacramento; South Central; Midwest; Southeast; and Northeast (a.k.a. “Keystone-Empire”). The California High Speed Rail Authority, which last fall won voter approval for $10 billion in bonds to help develop its system, has already prepared preliminary plans for how it would spend a requested $2 billion slice of the high-speed rail stimulus pie. The authority’s plans include nine “grade separation” crossings, which employ overpasses or underpasses to separate vehicle traffic and train tracks, and thus eliminate the costly delays that result when their pathways cross.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, the existing Amtrak Cascades route between Portland and Seattle (pictured, right) includes extensions south to Eugene and north to Bellingham, Wash. and Vancouver, B.C. Operated by Amtrak in concert with the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Oregon DOT, the route’s ridership hit a record high in 2008, up 14 percent from 2007. Travelers like the alternative to slogging on Interstate 5. WSDOT Secretary Paula Hammond says:

“While we suspect high gas prices last summer helped entice people to try Amtrak Cascades, we think the excellent service and convenience for travelers will continue to stimulate even more growth in Amtrak Cascades ridership. Amtrak Cascades is a great investment for Washington and provides motorists with yet another travel option.”

The Washington State Transportation Commission in its Rail Capacity System Needs Study issued in December, 2006, wrote:

A high-quality intercity passenger rail service offers an alternative to automobile and air travel that can help reduce congestion, energy use, and environmental impacts of highways. If the rail system cannot accommodate frequent and reliable intercity passenger rail service, the State risks losing the benefits of passenger rail as an alternative to highway and air travel.

Against that backdrop, the Commission sounded a warning about the I-5 rail corridor which serves the Amtrak Cascades route, plus frequent freight rail operations, and commuter rail. The corridor, said the Commission:

….is subject to frequent stoppages when trains tie up the mainline to enter and exit the many ports, terminals, and industrial yards along the corridor. Some half dozen sections are chronic choke points, causing delays that ripple across the entire Washington State and Pacific Northwest rail system. The pressure on the rail system will increase in the next decades…many more rail lines within Washington State will be operating at or above their practical capacity….As freight and passenger trains compete for time and space on the rail system, the capacity constraints may also frustrate the service and ridership plans for the State’s passenger-rail program….

Among the policy recommendations in the commission’s report:

  • where public benefits are clearly demonstrated by rigorous cost-benefit analysis, the state should invest in preserving and improving freight and passenger rail systems;
  • additional private investment in the state rail system which benefits the general public should also be sought.
  • In an interview aired yesterday on KOMO-AM 1000 in Seattle by reporter Travis Mayfield (mp3 file here), Cascadia Center’s Bruce Agnew said the Amtrak Cascades route has good prospects for winning a share of the $8 billion high-speed rail stimulus – and that a slice of that pie could improve service frequency, some route infrastructure, and average speed. The Spanish-made Talgo trains can reach 110 miles per hour but currently average closer to 70 mph due to factors including at-grade crossings, other train traffic, and track condition.
    The U.S. Senate and House Appropriations Committees will get an outline within 60 days from U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood on criteria for a national competitive grant program for the high-speed rail funds in the stimulus bill. The funds are then to be allocated to winning recipients within another 120 days.
    Over the long term, additional funding will be needed to build a separate freight rail track between Seattle and Portland. Nationally, the stimulus money just approved for intercity and high-speed passenger rail will provide important benefits but also underscores the necessity of state and private investment.
    Vancouver-Seattle Rail Link Needs Strengthening, Jon Ferry, The Province, 11/17/08.
    High Speed Rail Would Be Ultimate Efficient Addition To Northwest Transportation System,” Brad Perkins, The Oregonian, 12/28/08
    Bringing The Country Up To Speed With 21st Century Transportation,” Michael Dresser, Baltimore Sun, 12/29/08
    Full Speed Ahead On High Speed Rail,” The Oregonian, editorial, 2/22/09