Blog Rail Week Focuses Attention On High-Speed Passenger Rail For The Northwest

As most of our regular readers know, this week as part of Cascadia Rail Week, Cascadia Center of Discovery Institute (along with a host of industry and community co-sponsors listed at the end of this post) has been rekindling the debate about national high-speed passenger rail and especially the development of service in the Northwest’s “Cascadia Corridor.” With the strongest commitment to rail in generations (President Obama’s budget request is $8 billion to upgrade and expand rail lines), one of Cascadia’s longest running concerns is getting new life.
“Rail Week” began Tuesday evening at the Columbia Tower Club in downtown Seattle with a welcoming dinner honoring Vancouver, B.C.’s Mayor Gregor Robertson. It ends tonight with a closing dinner and discussion at Novelty Hill Winery in Woodinville, Wash., one of several of the cities on Seattle’s “Eastside” that would be served by a 42-mile Eastside commuter “rails and trails” corridor from Snohomish in the north to Renton in the South. (View the week’s agenda here.)
The Tuesday and Friday evening bookends are emblematic of the breadth of the rail week sessions as well as the issue as a whole. On the one hand, Cascadia is seeking solutions to national and regional passenger rail challenges, exemplified in part by Mayor Robertson’s participation; the mayor is a strong advocate of high-speed passenger rail between his city and points south along the West Coast. On the other hand, Cascadia recognizes that the success and development of shorter commuter rail corridors such as Seattle’s Eastside will be just as critical to the eventual overall health of a future passenger rail system in the Northwest and the country. “Rail Week,” which has so far included a train excursion, policy-focused luncheon sessions, and a well-attended public lecture at Seattle’s City Hall, has been designed to bring attention to both ends of the spectrum and everything in between.

As usual, this week Cascadia Center brought together the right players, including U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (Ore.), Mayor Robertson, Mayor Sam Adams (Portland), Washington Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond, Washington State Senator Mary Margaret Haugen, Washington State Representative Judy Clibborn, and industry leaders such as Talgo and Siemens. Additionally, two key figures in turning a 70-mile corridor into a commuter rails and trails corridor in Sonoma-Marin (Calif.) also joined us: John Nemeth, Rail Planning Manager for Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District and Andy Peri, Marin County Bicycle Coalition, discussed their experience at a luncheon with the Snohomish Chamber of Commerce today and will present and lead a similar discussion this evening to close the week.
Perhaps the most exciting (and refreshingly unorthodox for a policy-oriented conference) part of the week was Wednesday’s sold-out train tour on Amtrak Cascades from Seattle to Portland, Ore. Cascadia Center organized a delegation to ride the train between the two cities. (Karen Rae, Deputy Administrator for the Federal Railroad Administration, and in Seattle for an FRA field hearing about high-speed rail, joined the delegation for part of that trip.) Upon arrival, the 75-person delegation, joined by several dozen more conference participants, discussed high-speed rail (technology, legislation, etc.) and Amtrak in the corridor. Later that day, participants toured and rode Portland’s Westside Express and MAX to get a sense of how Seattle might use similar technology for its Eastside corridor.
A highlight on Wednesday was a chance to hear from keynote speaker and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Chairman of its Highways and Transit Subcommittee. Congressman DeFazio emphasized the need for the United States to really focus its priorities on national high-speed passenger rail. As reported on Oregon Public Broadcasting, and referring to his hope that high-speed rail would make the commute between notoriously congested Portland and Seattle much easier, he said: “If just a fraction of the money the nation spends on space travel was spent on high speed trains, the 70 minute Seattle/Portland commute could soon be an everyday occurrence.” I encourage you to listen to the broadcast.
For Thursday and Friday, the conference moved from Portland back to Seattle, with sessions at the Washington Athletic Club in downtown Seattle, a public lecture hosted by Councilmember Jan Drago at Seattle City Hall, a luncheon in Snohomish (north of Seattle and one end of the line for the Eastside rails and trails corridor), and tonight’s concluding dinner at Novelty Hill. The so-called “takeaways” of the conference have been many and are collected nicely in the media coverage listed at the end of the post. But this article about the Thursday luncheon session from’s Aubrey Cohen perhaps best highlights the need for managing expectations for how fast high-speed rail can be built in this country and how fast those trains could travel once the infrastructure glue dries.

“True” high-speed rail would exceed 150 mph, but the Amtrak Cascades line between Eugene, Ore., and Vancouver, B.C., is more likely to see incremental progress from the current top speed of 79 mph to between 110 and 125 mph (the top potential speed of the current Talgo trains), Cascadia Project rail fellow Ray Chambers said at a forum in downtown Seattle on Thursday.

As with most public policy shifts, success in moving toward true high-speed rail in America and in the Cascadia Corridor can best be seen through measuring “incremental progress” as Mr. Chambers says, and not just in the speed of trains but in the development of corridors. For its part, Cascadia Center has been focused on the rail issue since 1993 and will continue to bring the right decision-makers to the table to make progress on this critical transportation issue. And as I wrote several months ago, for better or worse, never has the opportunity for success been more likely.
The politics of rail has always been complicated and multi-faceted. Not much of that has changed, even with the planned largest federal investment in decades. But judging by the excitement and thoughtful discussion at Cascadia Rail Week, among leaders in government and industry, at least one very important thing has changed. Comity has returned to the debate and there seems to be genuine desire not to let this once-in-several-generations opportunity slip by. Maybe the stars have aligned to finally, so to speak, put the country’s rail program back on track.
Key Press Coverage of Cascadia Rail Week (as of Friday, May 29, 2009)
High-speed rail dreams depend on dedicated tracks,
Mayor Gregor Robertson and Karen Rae (FRA) discuss cross-border rail, KOMO 1000 Radio
High-speed rail along the West Coast is a ‘no-brainer’,
Stimulus funds wanted for improved rail line, The Seattle Times
High-Speed Rail Supporters Meet In Portland, Oregon Public Broadcasting
Co-Sponsors of Cascadia Rail Week 2009