The Federal DOT is contributing $6 million to the Point Defiance Bypass project so trains traveling south from Tacoma won’t have to use the congested, single track Nelson Bennett tunnel and the slow, winding tracks south of it. The contribution will help the $140 million Sound Transit Project to extend Sounder to Lakewood. When completed, Amtrak trains will use the new inland route, known as the Lakeview subdivision, shaving 6 minutes off Seattle to Portland travel time. 6 minutes isn’t even the biggest impact here – trains can commonly be held up for ten or fifteen minutes waiting for freight in that area. This project will almost entirely eliminate freight’s effect on passenger rail operations around Tacoma.

Once this project is complete, an additional 5 minutes can be removed from the schedule by building a second, 110mph track in part of this corridor. I consider this to be the most important of the high speed segments, as it is adjacent to Interstate 5. Drivers will be very aware that they have an alternative.

A note to Mike Lindblom: $50 million unfunded of $151 million does not mean Sound Transit has “raised only about half”, especially considering the current $50 million shortfall noted on the project web site is probably not updated to include the this $6 million, or the $4.2 million from the FHWA you mention. $40 million of $151 million is a little more than a quarter.

16 Replies to “$6 Million in Federal Funds for Point Defiance Bypass”

  1. It’s a pretty route, but if I hear “Nyyyahhhhhfolks, this is your conductor speaking…” one more time…

  2. Yeah it seems to be a constant problem right around there. It’s cool to see amtrak and sound transit working together.

    1. This is more WSDOT and USDOT working with Sound Transit. Amtrak would love to help, I’m sure, but they can’t even afford to run the trains, much less build capital projects…

  3. The South Tacoma route is obviously superior for SoundTransit; that’s where the riders are. However, for Amtrak to be evicted from the spectacular run along the Narrows is a huge mistake. It is one of the premier attractions on the Coast Starlight and for short riders on the Cascades a wonderful alternative to the “same old same old” Tacoma Dome to Fort Lewis jumble of $1 chinese food and used car lots along I-5. Train travel can be a pleasurable experience.

    In addition, this will never be a “110 mile an hour” route. There are numerous at grade crossings throughout the it, which means that trains will be forever limited to 79 mph or slower using the most generous interpretation of FRA rules. And the Sound Transit funded improvements to the track structure end at the Lakewood Transit Center. Six million dollars is going to improve about the next mile and a half of the line west of there. It has to be completely rebuilt from the sub-base up even to host Talgos at 79.

    The old Milwaukee line which has been rehabbed to the Tacoma Dome Station is only a single track wide through the facility and will be single track nearly to the SR16 overcrossing. Have you ever been to a through train station with only one track? When the commuter trains are running on the advertised half hour headway a single train at a time will be able to occupy the single-track route from the curve under SR16 to just east of the station for its entire transit including the station dwell time. While it’s reasonable to expect that a tolerably reliable schedule can be established for alternating 15 minute occupancy periods can be worked out with a regular 30 minute headway — two trains per rush hour period will have to go in the non-peak direction — there will be no slot for Amtrak in the morning or evening peak period. That’s just not acceptable.

    Finally, assuming the Coast Starlight continues, the slow steep grind up the Nalley Valley from the station stop will consume at least as much time southbound as the run out around Point Defiance.

    It’s a bad choice.

    1. The FRA allows 110mph with four quadrant gates, which is part of the set of projects in the Cascades 20-year plan required for that speed increase.

      Sound Transit and WSDOT both have most of the funding they need for 70-79mph service. The south end of the line – the segment where 110mph would come first – has very few crossings. The full map is here:

      Have a look at Google Maps here, you can see from Lakewood station on, there are only a couple of crossings.,-122.503653&spn=0.032627,0.109863&z=14

      The six minute reduction applies to the Coast Starlight as well, as far as I’m aware. The ‘slow’ climb is a lot faster than turning *north* just to turn south again, and it’s also faster than the winding tracks along the water. It’s absolutely incorrect to suggest that this would be an increase in travel time…

      WSDOT will be building a second track for much of the line, so your fears about having a long segment of single track is also unfounded. I really suggest you read the Cascades 20 year plan (which includes some of these projects) and also look at the EIS supplement for Tacoma to Lakewood from Sound Transit.

      The ST doc is here: (the SEPA addendum in the right column has some descriptions of what track ST will build)

      The WSDOT project is here:

      Have a look at “Pt. Defiance Bypass Project folio” in the project status box. You can see some of the crossing improvements, and where WSDOT will build a second track.

      Also note that $6 million is in addition to the $60 million WSDOT has and $100 million (ish) Sound Transit has for these projects…

      These people aren’t idiots. They know how to operate train service. The 20 year plan even has string diagrams for combined Sounder, Cascades and Coast Starlight service that *alone* shows that your concerns about train timing are unfounded.

      Point Defiance Bypass, while not as scenic, will offer speed and reliability that makes it a *fantastic* choice.

      1. On top of all that, I’m sure special scenic runs will continue to take Pt. Defiance on occasion.

        It’s important to point out that in addition to cutting 6 minutes off the Cascades and Coast Starlight time, it also increases their schedule reliability dramatically; this is one of a fairly small list of congestion points on the Seattle-Portland route. And they’re already working on two of the other major congested points (just south of King St. Station in Seattle, and in Vancouver, WA just north of Portland). I think the other two congestion points are the junctions at Chehalis (currently being designed) and the area around Kelso (which has unfortunately been put off).

      2. Yeah, overall, this will really improve on-time performance for Cascades. As for the Starlight – instead of being four hours and thirty minutes late into LA, they’ll just be four hours late… ;)

        Seriously, it’s all incremental. And without this bypass, we can’t add more trains to Cascades in the long run. Four times a day just isn’t enough – they’re largely selling out right now! Reliability has been way up this year, and that only stands to get better.

  4. Mr. Schendelman,

    I am sorry, but the physical proximity to I-5 means that four quadrant gates would inevitably come down on cars driven by stupid drivers waiting on the tracks for the freeway intersections and trap them in the way of the train. Such a car would be severely impacted (deliberate pun) by the passage of the train that triggered the gates.

    At 110 miles an hour a train would travel a mile in a bit more than 30 seconds. That is considerably less than one light cycle at the four interchanges listed that are next to the freeway.

    There are level crossings at Bridgport Way and Hillcrest Drive (which in fairness might be fairly easy to grade separate because they’re not next to the freeway), Thorne Lane, Berkeley Avenue, 41st Division Drive (the Main Gate to Ft. Lewis), and Barksdale Ave (with light-controlled intersections on BOTH sides).

    Now of course all of these can be grade separated with sufficient engineering dollars, but it will certainly increase the cost well over what improving the track to Class 5 status and using a commuter train speed of 60 or so would. For instance, 41st Division would have to have the interchange inverted to an overpass, but that’s doable. Frankly, if intercity improvements are the point rather than commuter service I think the money would be better spent doubling the Point Defiance tunnel. That would benefit both passenger and freight rail. Only if Sound Transit proposes to provide commuter service farther west than Lakewood does spending money on this old line make any sense.

    The Coast Starlight will crawwwwwwwlllll up — and down — that hill (assuming it will fit in the Tacoma Dome Station…). From the station stop it will get a little boost from the downhill to A street, but it probably won’t reach more than 15 miles an hour. Then that twelve to fifteen car train will be hit with a 2.8% grade for a mile??? Ouch; turn on the sanders.

    This would work for the powerful Cascades trains, but the CS will take 6-8 minutes to make that climb. And this part is single track; at least the bridge is, and there is no mention of multiple tracks in the discussion. In fact, it specifically states on page 3, “From East C Street, a new single track would continue …”.

    Of course, the Starlight is scheduled outside the rush hour so it won’t delay the scoots, but it will not get to Nisqually any faster than it does today and riders in the Cascades Lounge will see the blight along South Tacoma Way instead of the Sound. BIG DISAPPOINTMENT.

    And finally, so far as the “oooohhhh look at the train go” factor, 60 mph is enough faster than the zero that cars frequently move through the Fort Lewis area to make an impression. You don’t need to recreate the NEC through Dupont.

    1. I made the mistake of taking the Coast Starlight to Portland last weekend. I thought since it began in Seattle it would be OK, but at least in this case it was the same equipment as the Empire Builder (from Chicago), and so we left a couple hours late. This is the sort of thing we Amtrak riders expect from the long-distance, routes, though, so I don’t think a slow climb up hill would be a big deal. Oh, and of course there were freight trains parked along Commencement Bay so we didn’t even get a view of the water except between freight cars. (I did enjoy a view on the way back.)

      Second, you do realize that 110 mph is a max speed? The train will not go shooting out of Tacoma or King St Station at 110.

    2. Each of those intersections receive specific upgrades as outlined in the project folio I already linked you to…

      Phase 1 here gets the current track up to 40-79mph and builds passing track/sidings where necessary. Phase 2 (unfunded) builds a second track from scratch for 110mph.

      Sound Transit *will* build commuter service west of Lakewood. Dupont is interested, and Thurston will eventually join the district (assuming ST2 passes, etc).

      I sent you more than one document. Sound Transit builds one track. Phase 1 of WSDOT builds more (although not at C street). Phase 2 of WSDOT builds even more. Again, you actually will have to read the Amtrak Cascades 20 year plan to have a meaningful discussion about this.

      The WSDOT string diagrams disagree with your estimate for the Starlight. And the Nelson Bennett would cost an order of magnitude more than this to widen.

      60mph will get passed on the highway. 110mph makes drivers say ‘I could get there faster on the train’.

      I’m not sure what your aim is here. This stuff is really well understood, and you seem to be coming at it with some knowledge about trains, but not really any knowledge of the specifics of what will be funded and what it will do. Again, I urge you to read the Amtrak Cascades 20 year plan, and especially have a look at the schedule change this would bring. Right now you sound an awful lot like the NARP folks who just don’t care about the train being a real option, but just want it to be a scenic option for those who don’t need to be anywhere on a schedule.

  5. Hey, here‘s a bit more good train news. $13B in federal funds for Amtrak to improve crossings and bridges was just passed, and has enough votes to be veto-proof. Of course they’ll need another bill to be able to actually spend the money (I just don’t get federal politics).

    1. Just a reminder – this is an authorization NOT an appropriation – an extremely crucial distinction.

  6. Anandakos and Nathanael Nerode.

    I need to set some things straight since you have them flawed and skewed with no proper knowledge of the project.

    Amtrak Cascades Long Range Plan clearly states the move of ALL passenger trains, excluding BNSF business trains which will continue to use the lowland line, will use the Lakeside Subdivision, which is owned by Sound Transit. Not BNSF, Tacoma Rail, Union Pacific or the Military. ST owns it as part of the procurement for Tacoma Link.

    Sound Transit is ONLY funding the D Street to M Street project. There original concept was to tear down some homes and businesses and widen Nelson Bennett Tunnel to allow high/wide loads. This is the only reason the 2 tunnels are single track. BNSF has already made the improvement of installing 50mph switches at Control Point Nelson Bennett and Control Point Ruston along with a new 50mph crossover at Control Point “Harbor” These short-term improvements were the temporary benefit for Amtrak Cascades and freight trains after the realization that BNSF would not pony up the funding to remove the tunnels.

    Washington State DOT long range plans calls for run times between Seattle and Portland @ 2 hours and 30 minutes give or take using the Talgo equipment and a MAXIMUM authorized speed of 110mph. This starts on the Point Defiance Bypass next to I-5 which is currently unfunded. With the new Amtrak Re-Authorization plan, this program can now be funded by the States request.

    As for train speeds and the Coast Starlight – It’s a long distance train – it is NOT designed to “go fast” but that does not matter considering that speed between Freighthouse Square and M Street will be no more than 30mph – The Coast Starlight does this currently in the Union Pacific Cascade Division which room to spare. Why? Because there are several grade crossings that need to be dealt with and even so, the FRA would not allow speeds greater than 30mph on a ruling “mountain grade”.

    I can assure you that the State of Washington and Sound Transit will take the utmost consideration to public safety before even boosting speeds beyond 79mph. Systems, such as PTC or ATS needs to be installed to even touch above 80mph. When the new second main train is installed, it will be exclusive to the Amtrak Cascades trains which will allow the slower Sounder trains to do their thing without interrupting the Cascades service. The start of the initial construction on this subdivision is the cornerstone on which will begin the “Higher Speed” railroad for the Cascades and increase our daily trains from four trains a day to near hourly service.

    While I do agree that it is a sacrifice to lose the waterfront running, it is a small price to pay in the name of ridership and competing with the short-haul flights, driving, and buses.

    I’d love to debate this more and point to references regarding this but Ben has already posted several links and may have even sent you other items as well. The fact is written down on several places and is searchable and public information for review.

    I prefer facts and as much as I hate to say this – straight talk – when it comes to “my railroad domain”

    1. When I said that I was sure special scenic runs would go by Pt. Defiance from time to time — well, I’m still sure. Apart from hypothetical and currently unlikely luxury tourist trains, however, those would be diverted trains when the regular tracks are closed for major repairs. Not regularly scheduled transport trains. Heck, Amtrak has taken the Tehachapi Loop recently, although it’s certainly *never* going to be a scheduled passenger route again. An available diversionary route will always get used from time to time, rather than ‘bustituting’.

  7. I read somewhere that the Coast Starlight would be staying on the old route and not moving to the bypass because of the steep grade…Can anyone confirm?

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