The Washington State Department of Transportation, Rail and Marine division, held a meeting at Clover Park Technical College regarding the Point Defiance Bypass on Monday, May 17th. The meeting highlighted several key and important factors regarding the project, including the highly debated issue of the 10 grade crossings along the route.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), not the State of Washington, is requiring a project-level Environmental Assessment (EA) before Phase 2 of the funding can be made available for construction. The EA should be completed by the end of 2010 with the FRA issuing a finding in 2011. Construction of Phase 2 will start in 2012 with an estimated completion time of 2014. This will push back the 5th and 6th round trip of the Cascades to 2014/2015 as well. This does not affect the estimated start of Sounder service to Lakewood in 2013. More after the jump.
Talking with several people at the meeting, I asked what their biggest concern was with the bypass. Everyone mentioned safety with trains going so fast, the second issue was noise from the train horns, the third is why WSDOT moving trains from the scenic route. WSDOT and Sound Transit has opted to install automatic wayside horns that will do a “long, long, short, long” grade crossing sequence, instead of the trains engineer blowing the horn on the locomotive. This reduces the community noise by isolating the sound to just the area of the crossing. Volume of the wayside horns are adjustable and can be set according to noise background, etc. All of the new crossings will feature electronic bells as well. Most of the grade crossings between FHS and DuPont will feature the wayside horns.
BNSF Railway will not allow for additional passenger trains on their mainline between Tacoma and Nisqually via the waterfront. In order for WSDOT to realize its long range goals, the move to Point Defiance is beneficial for many reasons, such as additional trains, faster and more reliable service, a mostly dedicated corridor for passenger trains (local freight and military trains will run mostly at night)
With the move from Point Defiance, Amtrak will move ALL operations to Freighthouse Square. This includes the Coast Starlight, which is slated to save about 4 minutes over the route vs the Cascades 6 minutes. There was some speculation that the Coast Starlight would continue onward via the waterfront route but that is simply not the case. The short 2.3-2.9% grade from Freighthouse Square to M Street will not be an issue for the train. Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, for example, runs up Raton Pass, which exceeds 3% for over 10 miles and maintains 25mph with a similar train consist. The D to M Street connector is slightly over a mile long.
Amtrak was also on hand to discuss the service. Installation of wifi has begun and will be finished in October. It hasn’t been established yet if it will be a free service or an additional fee. The redesign of the bistro and lounge car will be made public soon. Construction on the new Amtrak coach yard in Seattle begins in August/September for Phase 1 and 2. Phase 3 and 4 are in the works for additional funding.
With the new trains running, there will be some major schedule adjustments to all of the Cascades trains. While this is not yet official, I was told this will be very near the new schedule.
New trains, 502, 505, 518, and 519, will introduce train service every 2 to 3 hours between 6:30am and 10:30pm, if you include the Coast Starlight. When the seventh and eighth round trips begin, it will allow for train service nearly every 2 hours.
Trains will reduce scheduled run-time using the bypass by 10 minutes thanks to the removal of 4 minutes of schedule padding. The trip can be done in 3 hours even if there are no delays in route (I have personally seen 3 hrs and 15 minutes several times thanks to schedule padding)
Overall, the corridor plan is solid. While I will personally miss the waterfront views, the benefits and realization of more trains and more reliable service outweighs the scenery. I also fully disagree with Lakewood and DuPont that the trains will cause major traffic disruptions. We are not talking about a 1.5 mile long, 100 ton, 30mph freight train. We are talking about 600 foot long, light weight, modern passenger train traveling at 79mph that will take less than 60 seconds to pass through each crossing. That already happens in much more dense communities, such as Kent, that has 8 grade crossings in less than one mile. There is also Puyallup, which the train runs directly through the heart of the city at 79mph.
I do understand where Lakewood and Dupont are coming from, however, about safety, which is a huge concern for me. WSDOT is doing as much as possible to mitigate safety to ensure people remain safe and don’t trespass on the railroad and only cross the tracks at crossings. Even if every crossing is separated, train vs. car or train vs. pedestrian will be possible, regardless of the measures taken to prevent the incident. Someone walking along the tracks with their headphones is a potential fatality. The City of Lakewood and Dupont need to take measures themselves as public officials to protect their citizens with an education period, including Operation Lifesaver, along with police and firefighter training for an emergency.
The bypass is a critical part of our passenger rail network. Without it, the trains will remain as they are now, well into the future.