We’ve been talking about change all year.

Not just a change from the politics of fear – a change from believing the only way is the highway. A change from pumping money into our airlines when there is an alternative.

This is a new beginning. In California, high speed rail will become a reality. I’ve ridden trains at 200mph – they’re talking about as high as 225. Here, all three counties seem to be passing Proposition 1. This was unthinkable a year ago. We were worried about having just enough votes in King County to overcome opposition in both Pierce and Snohomish.

Not so this time. Everyone wants solutions, and Sound Transit is perfectly poised to offer them.

Assuming both of these measures survive the next day… I want Amtrak Cascades local option funding next.

45 Replies to “A Mandate”

  1. Clearly people want transit; very strongly stated. The battle is not over for good transit’s survival and growth. Metro, CT and Pierce Transit are all in serious financial trouble. Will the Legislature be willing to find more money for these agencies who today carry far more than Link will carry in 2030 be left high and dry? How about Sound Transit? Will its conservative revenue forecasts prove to be conservative enough or will the new tax partially go to pay for service that was already planned to be added as part Sound Move? (The drop in sales tax is very serious; the topic has been silenced during the final throes of the election) Will Link open in July 2009 or it will it be delayed? And given the serious need for more transit soon, will all this investment in rail costing $300 million per mile or more (Link and California Bullet Trains) be useful given our serious lack of good local transportation options, including millions of people in this country living on lanes without sidewalks?

    1. I’m going to ignore your baseless anti-rail rants, but it is true that we need local transportation improvements too. I’d like to see a lot of dedicated bike lanes as well as sidewalks. There is a good chance that the Obama administration will transform the Dept of Highway Transportation into a real Dept of Transportation. Less funding for 18-lane freeways, more money for bike trails.

      Locally, we also must fight for good light rail station locations so that walking is a good transportation option. Shoreline is building a Town Center at 175th and Aurora. The light rail station needs to be there, not by I-5.

    2. I think when you’re building in very heavily developed areas, like Seattle or Bellevue, that the cost of rail is pretty expensive. But past this plan — ST2 — I can’t imagine the price being as high for expansions.

    3. Congratulations to all the supporters of Prop 1. While I didn’t agree with it’s relatively high cost per mile price tag, or the extended time frame for service to begin, it’s clear the voters saw this as a requirement for a healthy Puget Sound. You won a great victory last night, and the region will be better off for it in years to come. Now it’s time to move on.

  2. I think that a King County Metro transportation district is more important at this moment than amtrak funding

    1. We won’t get a KC metro transportation district, I don’t think.

      Amtrak improvements, on the other hand, will drive up ridership dramatically, as next year all the biggest cities on the line will have urban rail serving their stations.

  3. But what is more important, Ben? Getting tourists to watch basketball games in Portland or getting the working classes to their jobs that are scattered throughout many parts of our region? A good non-auto network begins with sidewalks, local bus and rail and then regional/high speed rail. If you skip the first two you will never get the full potential out the latter.

    1. Um… Sidewalks in Portland, Tacoma, Seattle, and Vancouver: Check. Local bus AND rail in all four cities: Check.

  4. If federal money comes in for local transit services, where does it go? Does it shore up funding for existing services? Does it go towards extending Link to Tacoma and Everett? Or does it go to get Link up faster than the 12-15 year timelines?

    It’s refreshing to be asking “how to do it”, rather than “can we do it’! It’s a new day.

  5. Actually, Amtrak Cascades would bring a huge benefit for our region – I agree with Ben that an Amtrak Cascades push should be next, along with helping out our local transit agencies.

    However what could we do to help Metro. All bus builders are 2-3 years backlogged, we could raise fares for Metro but that would push riders away but on the flip side, we also have the lowest transit fare in the United States for a system of our size.

    As much as we would love to keep the fares low, how realistic is it?

    Amtrak Cascades helps our region grow and could help business travelers as well. There are a lot of people whom travel between Seattle and Portland or Vancouver BC for many reasons, trade being number one.

    By reducing travel times between Seattle and Portland, it brings it in competition to the regional airlines whom fly the route. 3 hours would put it in pace with driving, 2 hours and 30 minutes would put it in direct competition with air travel. 2 hours or less is out of the scope because of the lack of room to build a new full right-of-way for High Speed Trains. 90 to 125mph is the max we will see for our region.

    Amtrak Cascades and the State of Washington has already increased it’s ridership with the refurbishment of the train sets bringing a European style to our region more so with the leather seats throughout the train. Stations are being remodeled to go with the new train sets and much more is expected in the coming days.

    For me, the Amtrak long range plan would be a great, telling piece of have for us in this region. We could reduce the heavy vehicle load down on I-5 by increasing the Cascades service.

    We could add features such as Wifi to the train, add more cars (which is needed), promote business class, or we could take it to another level and add conference cars to the trains that would allow business men and women to conduct their meetings in private while enjoying a worry free ride on the train.

    What happens when they get into Portland or Vancouver? The extensive, already in place Mass Transit system will take them to their destinations effectively and quickly. With Portland’s MAX light rail and Streetcar, Vancouver’s SkyTrain, there would be no worries about how to get around town. There is always the option for taxi service as well.

    Moving forward though, the Amtrak Cascades corridor wouldn’t just benefit the Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, and Eugene corridors but it would improve the existing service and restart new service for our region. Idaho is pushing hard to restart the Amtrak Pioneer service that ran from Seattle to Denver, we could have service to Cle Elum, Ellensburg, and Yakima ending in Pasco to connect with the Portland section of the Empire Builder.

    There is a lot that the Cascades service can do, just like there is a lot that light-rail and bus service will do for us here.

    It is all going to take time but the question is… how long will we wait…

    1. Portland is leading the way again, I should point out: they put light rail to the airport, so are we. Now MAX is headed to Union Station, making a Rail to Rail to Rail transfer possible starting next year…

    2. I think most of the items you listed are gimmicks. What would get most people to switch from airplanes to rail down to Portland? Frequency, reliability, convenience and speed. Speed is already competitive, and I think it’s a great idea to improve the route further. Convenience is much higher than the distant airports. But we’re missing two legs of the table. I think our highest priority should be to get several new trains, and have them run only from Seattle to Portland on an hourly basis.

      The same goes for Vancouver, except I’m less familiar with the line so I don’t know if it’s speed competitive with flights (though I’d guess it’s close).

      With rail equaling or surpassing air in all four of these criteria, few people would spend the extra money and effort to go to the airport for short-distance flights.

      1. Flights to YVR are cost-prohibitive, even to the point of Vancouverites flying to Sea-Tac and bussing/training up for international flights from time to time.

      2. Traffic flows the other way, as well – there are direct flights from YVR to Hong Kong and Auckland (off the top of my head) without the need for the dreaded layover in Narita or (far worse) LAX.

      3. What is wrong with LAX anyway? Is it simply underfunded?

        Narita’s just hemmed in by geography and development, but LAX is a mystery to me.

      4. Underfunding generally, I’d say. Also there’s the fact that it is currently undergoing a long overdue renovation. And since the renovation is long overdue, it’s a bit more disruptive than usual.

        LAX is also pretty hemmed in. There’s the ocean on one side and lots and lots and lots of housing, offices, etc around it (at pretty good density levels for SoCal). It’s actually surprising how little industrial land there is around it. Surprised me anyhow!

      5. There actually is a currently funded service improvement to Vancouver (an additional train!) that is being held up by the CBSA demands for more money from the provincial government (at the “new facility” rate). Any future improvements to service there will be held up by the same issue, so cross your fingers that the CBSA stops being intransigent. The major improvements to Cascades to Vancouver would actually need to come on the northern side of the 49th parallel. Damn does that train DRAG once it gets across the border (is the top speed 90 km/h or something!?).

        Here is WSDOT’s long range plan for the Cascades from 2006 – http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/NR/rdonlyres/E768E7BA-4788-42B1-ADC8-1BE01D1424E7/0/LongRangePlanforAmtrakCascades.pdf It includes lots and lots of useful and interesting numbers (A maglev HSR line would cost $30 million per mile, for instance). I’m sure someone else posted it at some point but it’s worth reading to get an idea what the planners think, or thought.

        Though Multimodal Man is being a bit of a dick about it, a City of Seattle levy to pay for sidewalks and sidewalk improvements would probably pass (when’s the last time something that would benefit so many different neighborhoods so quickly actually failed in Seattle?), so I really think that is worthwhile project for an off-year election. Even big parts of the “urban villages” don’t have consistent sidewalks (coughLake CitycoughNorthgatecough), so that would be a significant amenity if we’re serious about encouraging growth in them or near future light rail stations (Northgate again). Similar levies in cities through which Sounder and Link pass would also be great (though I’d expect a few to fail).

        It shouldn’t be the only thing – special transit districts in selected municipalities would be something else that could and should be done to preserve/improve Metro service. There’s a lot that could be done relatively inexpensively that would bring great joy. lower Metro’s costs and give us electric transit. I am a big proponent of actually, finally, carrying out the re-electrification of bus lines that was first proposed in during the last major gas price spike (1982/83). This would actually mesh well with the building of Seattle Streetcar network plan (much as I am not a fan of Streetcars Stuck in Traffic) as the trolleybuses could be phased in with great frequency in certain areas as their need for frequent service is reduced or entirely replaced with fixed guideway in the central city.

        This will not stop me arguing about the need for all transit to have still more reserved rights of way, by the way. Hah!

  6. Ben, I’ve been thinking about this post on Mandate, and forgive me for being a little sentimental this morning, but more than transit having a mandate, I feel like today, Community has a mandate. This is bigger than just Sound Transit, as important as it is. We ride the bus for a number of reasons – some are individual, like not wanting to fight traffic, or wanting to read a book and do homework. We also ride to lessen our impact on the earth; to be stewards of our resources so others in the future will have the opportunity to pursue their individual dreams and goals as we do now. We do it for civic pride – we live in one of the best cities and regions on the planet, and using our transit system is a strong symbol of that, and we want others to have that same experience. I have an unborn son on the way, and I have lived in constant worry about the world he and others will inherit. Today I can dream about him being 10 years old, and riding light rail together to his grandparents house in Bellevue, instead of staying home because traffic is so bad. I can dream this today because despite hard economic times, we collectively agreed to dig a little deeper in our pockets for the public good. We came together as a community to say no, we don’t want to open carpool lanes so we have a little more room to jostle our SUVs through worsening traffic. Obama in his victory speech stated that we will have to sacrifice, and work together as a community, to solve the crises we deal with today. Today, as a community, we are hopeful that by working together, and being willing to give up a little more, we can solve our problems. Instead of throwing up our hands and thinking of moving to Portland, or Canada, or wherever, today we are saying lets get things done here in Seattle, for our community and for our future.

    1. I actually wrote the post as just ‘mandate’, Andrew changed it for clarity, and then changed it back when he realized what I meant. ;)

      This was our first sacrifice. There will be more, and when we’ve built a stronger country again, your son will be there to live in it.

      And congratulations. :)

  7. For Amtrak Cascades I would rather have a train running every hour or every half an hour going to Portland than speed at this point in time. Make it so I don’t have to have a schedule and I can just show up and buy a ticket. The speed can come later, although it would be nice to have both things come all at once.

    1. Yeah, frequency and reliability are the name of the game. Fortunately, a lot of infrastructure improvements that benefit the latter of those two will also increase speed (passenger only by-passes, for one) or lay the groundwork for future speed increases.

  8. I wouldn’t call them gimmicks at all since it is so successful on many European trains.

    I would at best say that the Amtrak Cascades will run every hour and a half to 2 hours between Seattle and Portland along with an additional train or two between Portland and Eugene.

    I don’t see anymore than 3 trains between Seattle and Vancouver BC is until the Canadian government gets more aggressive with upgrading their rails. There is a project starting next year tentatively to upgrade the track from it’s current 10/50mph to 50-70mph. Unfortunately, the Canadian government will not honor the Talgo tilt which gives it the ability to be faster than conventional train equipment. Never-the-less the track upgrade alone will reduce the 4 hour travel time to 3 hours and 20 minutes (yes, that much of a difference)

    Personally, I would rather see 90mph (3 hour travel times) each train with 15 cars, running every 2-3 hours between Seattle and Portland, Every 4 hours between Seattle and Vancouver BC and increase as demand is warranted. Focus on improving the service, especially OTP and the Cascades could easily be one of the model corridors for fast, clean, efficient corridor rail transportation that we need. I would love to see 110mph running but I’ll take 90mph if it gets us there faster and cheaper.

    1. Is there any physical limitation that would keep us from getting to once an hour (or less), or is this just a budget issue?

      Separately, I think waiting for demand is a terrible idea. The way most business people currently use air is to show up and get on the soonest flight. They wouldn’t think of using a service with 2-3 hours between departures. Wait for demand and it will never come. Provide superior service with competitive frequency, and you’ll build demand immediately.

      1. The physical limitation is the fact that with the exception of a few by-passes, most of the rails themselves are owned by BNSF and they’d totally shit a brick at having to give up space to passenger trains when the freight rails are already basically congested. That’s also a budget issue, in a way, since building passenger only by-passes and (eventually) a dedicated line would let Amtrak do it’s thing with decreasing interference with BNSF.

      2. The physical limitation is the fact that with the exception of a few by-passes, most of the rails themselves are owned by BNSF and they’d totally shit a brick at having to give up space to passenger trains when the freight rails are already basically congested. That’s also a budget issue, in a way, since building passenger only by-passes and (eventually) a dedicated line would let Amtrak do it’s thing with decreasing interference from BNSF.

    2. A lot of the stuff that you’re talking about re: speed is in the 2023 plan but would be done after “midpoint.” Knowing you, I assume you’re familiar with it and are just fantasizing a bit right now. The big priority in the 2023 plan really seems to be getting consistent 79 mph service and doing mostly frequency upgrades by “midpoint.” The big speed reductions would come in the second phase, from the look of it, with more 90 mph sections at the point.

      I could also be reading the document wrong.

      If we want to accelerate the WSDOT plan, I’d be all for it, by the way, but we can’t just replace it (that would be expensive!).

    3. I’d like to see the introduction of “Limited” runs in the morning and evening. Bypass Kelso, Chelais/Centralia, Olympia and Tukwila. And then if that pans out, introduce an “Express” service that is Seattle-Portland direct.

      All that likely needs more capacity on the existing lines. Hopefully the “stimulus” package will include money for the identified HSR corridors to implement projects.

  9. Cjh,

    I totally agree with you but a lot has also changed since ST has been around and has completed a lot of various projects.

    Currently, 70% of the Seattle – Portland route is now 79mph which was the goal for 2015 – That is way good news.

    The next good news is with the acceleration of a national wide positive train control movement to prevent accidents such as Chatsworth, we’ll be able to increase to 90+ a lot sooner than the Long Range Plan.

    The last pieces that are needed to make the service nearly hourly is dependent on funding which isn’t allocated right now. That funding will build out 4 more crossovers and the work at Vancouver, Washington right now. Point Defiance will allow for another 2 or 3 round trips. Once we get up to 7 round trips, we then run into lack of equipment (locomotives, train sets, and cab cars)

    I’m not sure if the FRA will allow for the new gen Talgo train sets to be used in our region. Siemens makes a tilting train set but it would have to go through the trials and crash tests since it is European. The Talgo XXI is the only train set available that would match the train sets we have currently.

    More or less – the WSDOT plan would need to be reworked since 70% of the stuff in it has now changed (again) with all of the new track work that has been completed in the past 10 years.

    1. By the way, I meant “time reductions” and “speed increases” – if that wasn’t obvious. :)

      The long range plan anticipates a lot of the track work, it’s just that we’ve been fortunate enough to have some of it done ahead of the planned time.

      I think truly hourly service to Portland may be a bit of a dream until we get the really massive amount of money need to fund dedicated passenger track down the entire route – BNSF track is already pretty congested and I’m not sure that there’s even space in the time table, assuming zero growth in freight traffic (which is a ridiculous assumption), for much above the 2023 projected service levels.

      If I were to change anything about the 2023 plan it would actually be even more frequent service to Vancouver. There is a lot of pent up demand for Vancouver and Seattle, I’d venture. The border crossing is no fun on the train but it is horrendous by car (unless you’re willing to detour out to Lynden or Sumas!) plus the traffic getting out of/into both cities is absolutely awful. The fastest that I was able to get to BC with 4 pm departure time by car was 7:45 pm and that was with tons of little tricks that your average driver doesn’t use (US 9 to McMurray and using 539 to the Lynden-Aldergrove crossing then Canada 1 into town) and lots of dangerous driving (shamefully).

      Unfortunately, as long as passenger trains are sharing track with freight trains I think running our own crash tests will be necessary even if it will slow down implementation. Do Talgos and similar share the rails with freight anywhere else in the world? It certainly isn’t the case in Western Europe or Japan!

  10. I’ll answer this question more in-depth later =)

    But in the meantime – Ronald has a great video of freight and passenger trains working together

    1. Interesting.

      Are they sharing track (and not just right of way)? It’s hard to tell but it looks like they are and my understanding is that it is a very unusual occurrence. That’s near one of the Pyrennes rail tunnels isn’t it? Speeds do seem reduced in that first part of the video from the TGV standard – “only” 120 km/h perhaps (which is the French freight speed limit)? That would be our 79 mph maximum while sharing with freight, right there. ;)

      Anyhow, there’s nothing wrong with having federal safety agencies run crash tests (they do it for cars, planes, etc that have already passed Japanese and German safety testing) except that the relevant agencies are pretty lackadaisical about doing it.

      1. They are sharing the same track, but it is not the dedicated TGV line. The TGV is running on ‘normal’ track.

        Regarding equipment: Federal Railroad Admin. (FRA) has regulations on crash-worthiness which are more stringent than those used in Europe. Thus you can’t just bring over a trainset from Europe (or Asia) and use it on our rail lines.

        According to a paper by the WashDOT rail people (sorry, no link or title available now), the existing Talgo equipment is limited by FRA to 79mph even if it is designed for operation up to 125mph.

      2. By lackadaisical, I meant that they take their sweet time in doing them rather than they were less stringent. :)

  11. How about a NWHSR Initiative? We could have SW BC, the whole Washington, and Western Oregon, and build a Cascades route and a Seattle-Spokane route

  12. Well there is a difficult thing about having HSR here – It just wouldn’t work in Western Washington because of the density here. Eastern Washington would be an excellent place, especially if the old Milwaukee Road right of way was to be used. It’s straight as an arrow and barely has any curves to it until it reaches the Cascades or reaches the Cheney/Spokane area. Perfect for HSR.

    As you’ll read in the long range plan, 110mph will be the max with 125mph not having enough time reduction to justify the higher cost of the project.

    Maybe an STB meetup to discuss this?

  13. As I recall, you have Federal regulations about maximum speed, and from what I can see, any time you want to exceed Federal regulations, you’re definitely falling outside of the old 80-20 rule.

    Grade separation is something that needs to be pushed constantly because it intermeshes with improvements at all levels of government. For example, cities build and upgrade to “urban arterial” roadbuilding standards because that makes them eligible for state funding in part. Grade separation affects passenger and freight operations so UP and BNSF have the same incentives as Amtrak and WSDOT to always work on this.

    Double-tracking for BNSF from Seattle to Portland shouldn’t be optional. Maybe this should take the form of progressively adding stretches of Amtrak high-speed passenger-only alignment and signaling.

    The whole border situation has been for years a hopeless boondoggle, a toxic mix of untouchable bureaucracy exercising unlimited powers and funded by fear. No big surprise that actual terrorists, drug smugglers, and illegal immigrants don’t seem to have as much trouble as the average citizen in getting past the border. Nothing but a wholesale reform will clear this up.

    Seems to me the overall goal is clear- reduce regional dependence on automobiles and commuter flights by upgrading rail service in this corridor. You need a clear overall goal, but most of the solutions can be brought online in incremental segments.

  14. SC,

    No violating rules at all, that would go against my GCOR =P

    Per the FRA, passenger trains are allowed up to 125mph as long as the corridor is “sealed”. This means that all grade crossings must be completely gated in all directions of travel. North Carolina has been using this system for some time now as a trial with great success. Anything above 125mph must be completely grade separated.


    Furthermore – King Street Station to Tukwila is currently triple-track main line, double track from Tukwila to Tacoma, triple track through Tacoma, double track to Nelson Bennett tunnel, single track through the tunnel, back to double track to Portland Union Station. Nelson Bennett tunnel is the bottle neck and the reason why Amtrak Cascades needs to go via Point Defiance. The only way to eliminate that would be a very costly removal of the Nelson Bennett tunnel and some how widen the tunnel which will allow high-wide, double stack, autoracks, etc through the tunnel. The tunnel at one point used to be double tracked until the introduction of container trains, high-wides cars and fuselages for Boeing. There is a plan to widen this section but it will be another 15-20 years before this happens.

    As for the high-speed passing tracks for passenger trains, I can see this happening but as development occurs, that space won’t be around much longer.

    1. I thought the opening of the Sounder extension to Lakewood will allow Amtrak to completely bypass the Nelson Bennett tunnel? Assuming of course funding is available for the necessary track work from Lakewood to Nisqually. From my understanding this will happen much sooner than the widening the Nelson Bennett and cost far less.

  15. Glad to hear the FRA speed limits have been raised.

    I don’t know where the Nelson Bennett tunnel is, but I understand Amtrak-WSDOT will be building a cutoff across Tacoma so the train will no longer go through Point Defiance- I wonder if this might also avoid the tunnel?

  16. ^ Yes. And I think its in the PDF… they are building the cutoff for the Lakewood Sounder line. Luckily, the Amtrak Cascades has enough HP to make the grade, although from what I’ve read, the Amtrak Coast Starlight won’t be able to use it.


  17. From the PDF linked above, this is rather promising:

    “This type of project would add another main line track alongside the existing track(s). The rail corridor will include about 185 miles of third main track and about forty-six miles of fourth main track that will be used exclusively by Amtrak Cascades trains and other passenger rail trains. There will also be about twenty-four miles of third main track, and two miles of fourth and fifth main tracks that will beused by any traffic as necessary.”

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