Planning High Speed Rail Line For 17 Years: The Pacific Northwest

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High-Speed-Rail_Northwest-Corridor_Seattle_Amtrak.jpgRight around the same time an indie band from Seattle named Nirvana burst onto the national music scene with a song called “Smells like teen spirit”, the Pacific Northwest was designating a high speed train line from Eugene through Portland, Tacoma, and Seattle, ending in Vancouver. Seattle has seen the rise of its music scene, Starbucks proliferate as a worldwide brand and the creation of Bill Gates’ mega-mansion, but it has not seen the development of high speed rail.

Since 1992 there have been plans for an international high speed train line between the US and Canada, but after seventeen years no such line has entered into service. The Pacific Northwest has a good culture of public transportation and seems to be one of the more receptive areas of the country when it comes to improving mass transit. Portland Oregon stands out as having one of the best light rail and bus fleets in the country. Despite this, progress has been painfully slow.

The reason for this is a lack of funding in rail infrastructure. This is a recurring point in the development (or lack thereof) of high speed rail corridors. Since World War II the US government has spent $2 trillion into highway and aviation systems while passenger rail has received less than 3% of transportation funding from the federal government. The results are self evident. Passenger rail in the US is in very poor condition, leaving cars and planes the only convenient options available.

Nearly two decades after the Pacific Northwest was designated as a high speed rail corridor, money is finally starting to flow into the project. In November 2008, voters in the State of Washington passed a ballot measure called “Sound Transit 2,” which provided $17.9 billion for transit and commuter rail investment. Much like the bond issue of $10 billion in California in the same year, it is a start but not nearly enough to fund the line.

The Northwest Corridor also must deal with another potential conflict. As it is not among the most populous corridors in the nation, many tracks currently are dedicated to the movement of freight instead of people. Many ports are located in the major cities of this line and there will be issues on who will get the right of way on the tracks. Freight companies in the region, notably Union Pacific and BNSF, are worried about trains going “too fast”.

Freight carriers are in effect imposing a speed limit of 110 mph on trains that share tracks with them. This is not true high speed rail and exactly half of the velocity planned in California. Andrew Johnsen, assistant vice president for state government affairs at BNSF has said, “You really need to have separate tracks. Whether you need to have separate right of way is a question we can discuss.”

New tracks across the Pacific Northwest to attain high speed rail might be the only way to realize the project. For that, investment is needed.

This is the 4th of a 13-part series on high speed rail in the USA. Read previous articles: High Speed Rail – 12 Corridors to be Stimulated, High Speed Rail at 90 mph?! ARRA & the Northeast Corridor, California High Speed Rail – Who will pay for $40 billion?!

[photo credit: hellothomas]

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  1. Recently I had a very interesting conversation with Jean-Pierre Ruiz, former CEO of Talgo America, The US arm of the Spanish high speed train builder. He said that one of the main obstacles was politicians demanding a high speed or “bullet” train capable of 200 miles an hour as opposed to a ‘fast’ train capable of ninety miles an hour. The cost difference was in excess of 20X and the politicians would never sign off on the cost of the high speed and never accept a merely ‘fast’ train.

    Jean-Pierre told me that for half the cost of one high speed train, he had proposed putting ten fast trains on the line so that there could be hourly service between Seattle and Portland but the politicians wanted the bragging rights to the first bullet train in the US.

    Twenty years for a high speed train isn’t bad compared to the 30 plus years it took to actually start building the light rail system here. My father was part of the planning process for Seattle area mass transit in the seventies!

    Giovanni Isaksen

    Ashworth Partners Ltd.

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    • Dear Giovanni,

      Thank you for sharing your comment regarding one reason why 17 years was spent trying to implement a high speed rail system through the Pacific Northwest. At least your politicians were more enthusiastic for high speed rail than the ones we have here in Florida!

  2. It’s misleading to suggest that development of passenger rail in the PNW has been held up because of a focus on ‘bullet trains’. The State of Washington has been working to incrementally implement a long range plan to have “higher speed” (110 mph max.) trains in the PNW Corridor since the late 1990s. Thirteen daily round trips are planned between Seattle and Portland.

    The latest plans, which also summarize the history of planning in this corridor, can be found here:

    http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Rail/Plans.htm

    Also, Sound Transit 2 has very little to do with the development of intercity passenger rail in this corridor. Most of the money will be spent on expanding the light rail system in the Seattle area.

    http://www.soundtransit.org/About-Sound-Transit/News-and-events/Reports/ST2-project-details

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