Last week, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) held a public meeting on the future of the Point Defiance Bypass project. This project, as we’ve discussed before, would cut 6 minutes from Amtrak Cascades travel time to points south, reduce delays caused by congestion with freight traffic, and allow for more service by getting passenger trains out of the single track Nelson Bennett tunnel under Ruston.

Unfortunately, WSDOT’s outreach attempts appear to have fallen flat. WSDOT mentioned that some of the funding for this project could come from a high speed rail stimulus grant – and media has already claimed that these trains move twice as fast as Sounder. These trains would run at 70-79mph, just like other passenger rail, this project would just allow for a later, unfunded, project to increase train speeds in the corridor. There’s also been little explanation of what a six minute improvement, or the other benefits, really mean, and residents came away concerned that loud, fast trains were going to block traffic and cause safety problems for little benefit.

In reality, because Amtrak Cascades is already close to time-competitive with car travel between Seattle or Tacoma and Portland, a six minute reduction in trip time and an improvement in reliability would do quite a bit to increase ridership, and it’s required to create the capacity we need for more round trips. 70-79mph service is exactly the same as what runs through Sumner, Puyallup, Kent and Auburn already without incident. And because this track would only have lightweight passenger trains, noise would be reduced significantly relative to often under-maintained and very heavy freight equipment.

Thankfully, WSDOT has posted three YouTube videos that help demonstrate the planning that’s going into the Point Defiance Bypass project, and help dispel the biggest concerns. Have a look after the jump.

The first video demonstrates a system to reduce noise. Small “wayside” horns mounted at the intersections can direct noise to oncoming traffic while not blasting the whole neighborhood. These wayside horns allow trains to avoid blowing their main horns, but still warn those in the intersection.

The second video shows how much shorter passenger train crossings are than freight train crossings. Amtrak Cascades trains are short, meaning the time taken to cross through an intersection is minimal compared to a 100-car freight train. The video shows a typical freight train taking 2:38 from the gates dropping to rising, while Cascades takes only 0:42 – potentially less than a light cycle.

The third video is the most interesting. WSDOT has modeled peak traffic in 2020 at each of the intersections where there’s been public concern about backups. It’s clear that trains will cause no more of a delay than any other light cycle, and backups across intersections when a train approaches are prevented by synchronizing signals.

While there’s clearly more work to be done, this kind of planning from WSDOT should show that they’re paying close attention to public concerns and showing how they’ll mitigate potential problems.

78 Replies to “Point Defiance Bypass Simulation Shows Little Impact”

    1. No, this shows what WSDOT and ST would like us to see. The reality of at grade light rail aligments through downtown areas is that they do create backups. As I have related before, Bellevue has visited several already existing light rail lines. ST representatives accompanied these trips and over and again the group was told by city representatives that had at grade through downtown that they regreted doing it and would put in a tunnel if they could have a do over.

      1. Cindy,

        How long was the wait at these crossings? Who was waiting, Cars or Pedestrians? And how does the Point Defiance Bypass relate to a light rail?
        Which cities are the ones Bellevue has visited that had the complaints?


      2. would put in a tunnel if they could have

        There is the take home statement. We can’t! If we can then show me the money. I’m not going to support a tax on Bellevue that would pay for it and there isn’t the money in the east sub-area fund to build it. The choices are; avoid downtown, find an at grade or elevated alignment that works, or try and kill East Link. Avoiding downtown means we spend a huge amount of Bellevue tax dollars and minimize it’s value. I can’t get behind that. Killing East Link, OK I’m not convinced that buses wouldn’t do the job better for less money for a number of years. But, the reality of stopping light rail at this point is pretty small and the costs are pretty high; not a good bet. That leaves finding the best at grade or elevated alignment. Frankly I’d hoped for much better for the 114th option. I’m still listening but the Vision Line as presented is; number one without a cost or ridership estimate and number two has what I believe a very negative visual impact on the city and on the utility of the Overlake Hospital Station. I’d really like to see 110th at grade advanced to the level that the city did the Main Street make over planning. I see ways this can really work for transit, traffic and bike/ped access (did I just equate bikes and pedestrian access as being somehow the same? Shame on me).

      3. Yea, Portland hated at-grade light rail through downtown so much that they built an at-grade streetcar and another at-grade light rail line.

      4. And is planning 5 more at-grade streetcar routes and upwards of 3 more at-grade light rail routes… how terrible that they do that!!

    1. I love it. When you’re a frequent runner, you find that the pedestrian world is timed for those who are walking.

    2. Oh and speaking of joggers, I love how in the first video you can see a WSDOT guy in hard hat and orange vest taping the whole thing, and then a dude clearly runs through in grey shorts and T-shirt without getting hit by a car or smashed on the head.

    3. Excessive safety margin mandates lead to disregard for warnings — nothing unique to rail crossings.

      The jogger could have run several laps through the crossing and still had plenty of time to clear the tracks.

      1. “Excessive” safety margin mandates are often the difference between life and death for someone in a car stuck on the tracks.

      2. The gate he jogged around isn’t a car gate, it’s a pedestrian gate, over the sidewalk, curb separated from car traffic.

        Having pedestrian gates close at the same time as car gates encourages pedestrians to bypass the gates. You can see similar behavior at the pedestrian gates at Sounder stations — the gate closes, pedestrians see the train is still ridiculously far away, and they cross against the gate.

  1. Just curious, how much time can we expect the various improvements to shave off of the Seattle Portland run? Point defiance is obviously 6 minutes so we’d be downt to 3:24 with that, and I’ve been on trains that were several minutes early so I suppose reliability improvements could bring the “official” time down even more.

    How about the Vancouver Rail Yard project? Thirty minutes between Vancouver and Portland is kind of a long time. If we could break the 3:00 mark I think that would be a major step in luring people off planes and out of their cars.

    1. It’s not just the 6 minute improvement in travel times, it’s also an increase in capacity. Going to the bypass route allows additional passenger trains to be added on the Seattle-Portland run. With the current routing those additional trains cannot be added.

      So the bypass route is a win-win-win for transit — more trains, shorter trip times, and improved reliability.

    2. The time between Vancouver and Portland is actually close to 15 minutes – but the 15 minutes in padding in the schedule is all at the end of the trip. This lets the train be late to every station by as much as 15 minutes while still getting people to their destination when they expect to be there. The same extra 15 minutes exists between Tukwila and Seattle, northbound.

      So basically, we’re already at 3:15 or so, depending on freight traffic and assuming we ‘hit all the lights’.

      This six minutes might even let us get rid of a little bit of that padding, because it prevents several common points of delay.

      More interestingly – when we do actual high speed rail work, the Tacoma to Nisqually section would save another five minutes by getting trains up to 110mph. That would require many other investments, but it’s still likely to be the first place along the line where we go to higher speeds. That’s why it qualifies for HSR funds.

      The most fun part about that is that these trains will be passing traffic on I-5 even at 79mph, helping show people that they have a better option. At 110mph, this will be even more pronounced.

      1. Do you know what the longest stretch on the whole route without a crossing is? Is it possible under current regulations to get speeds up high, if even for like a mile or two, just so we can get a taste of what’s to come? Kind of like the one ceiling tile they removed in King Street Station to see the to-be-restored, ornate ceiling above.

      2. I believe it’s not possible to test higher with current regulations. To go higher, we need a different signaling and emergency stop system.

        Brian Bundridge would know for sure, but I’m *pretty* sure.

        Also, you don’t have to eliminate crossings for 110mph, just put gates on all four quadrants of the crossing (not just the oncoming two quadrants), so cars can’t drive around them.

        As Mike B noted below, you may not have to blow horns once you have four quadrants, either. For Point Defiance Bypass, that’s part of the unfunded Phase 2.

      3. Without positive train control or automatic train stop, we can not go any faster than 79mph. There isn’t a real noticeable difference between 79mph and 90mph. The signaling system itself can support PTC, ATS, and ETMS.

        As Ben said, four quadrant gates will be required. The FRA has been looking at requiring trains to blow horns at any crossing unless it has a wayside horn.

      4. And to answer the question on the longest straight…Tukwila to Puyallup would be the most feasible with only 10 total crossings. Nisqually to Chehalis and Winlock to Vancouver WA would be the runners up

      5. And would it be possible to reduce those 10 crossings by grade-separating any slightly major grade crossings that are still there?

      6. Any grade crossing can be separated, it is the cost that makes it hard to do. By adding grade separation, you add several thousand to millions of dollars to the design and overall cost of the project.

        I would say that the major crossings at this point would be 212th, James, Smith and Willis Streets in Kent.

        If they wanted to shave off some more time, they could reduce the curve at Stewart to keep the train speeds up though the curves that lead into Tacoma would still slow traffic down.

      7. I’ve never ridden Amtrak south of Olympia before, but when I go up to Vancouver it’s fun to pass cars on the freeway just south of Mount Vernon. We really book it north of Marysville!

        If we can do that near Tacoma it’ll be even better.

      8. The closer to the center of the urbanized area you can do high speed, the better your train looks. :)

      9. Two of the biggest sources of delay are the Nelson Bennett Tunnels (bypassed by the Point Defiance Bypass) and the Vancouver rail yards (bypassed by the Vancouver Rail Yard Freight Bypass project, currently being constructed). I believe the next largest source of delay is freight traffic separating from the mainline at Kelso/Longview, for which another project has been designed (but is not funded).

        With those three projects built I would expect most of the 15 minute padding could be removed; the only remaining sources of delay would be truly unexpected things. Then it would be time to start building those 110mph tracks….

  2. Ok, so how do we get those wayside horns in SODO? I live on the other side of Beacon Hill and still get woken up some nights from the freight horns, so I can only image what it’s like on the SODO facing sides of BH and West Seattle.

    Which brings another point of why they even have to blow horns in the first place for intersections. Not to be callous about the possible loss of life but we don’t make cars honk when going through green lights.

      1. It is FRA, so your Member of Congress and our 2 senators would be the first points of contact in suggesting a change. Of course, closing crossings would be a huge help, worth suggesting to them as well.

      2. Hear, hear.

        I wasn’t very clear, though – I meant our state legislators could help us get wayside horns. :)

    1. FRA requires horns be blown at ALL marked crossings unless they are equipped with wayside horn devices or four-quadrant gates. The honk is in case the crossing devices have failed. Railroads assume they do not work until they go though them. A train weights thousands of tons, a car weights 1-2 tones. So its an order of magnitude in weight. A 110-125dB horn is a hell of a wake up call for any errant driver since a car can easily move out of the way. A train is on an immobile path.

      Its not very likely that they’ll make the industrial area a quiet zone. Too many trains going all kinds of different speeds, and there aren’t any houses for at least a mile. And that sort of stuff is expensive. The City of Seattle is required to maintain quiet zones. Railroads to not have to do more than maintain than the most basic equipment required for a crossing (flashers & gates where necessary, crossbucks, train bells, and horns).

    2. I can hear those horns clear up in the CD – although honestly they don’t bother me, I’ve come to see them as one of the city background noises, like police and fire sirens, airplanes (we’re in the flight path), etc. But I definitely get how they could be really annoying for folks who live closer.

  3. I thought it was interesting that in the videos of Ruston and Puyallup, there was considerable track noise because of jointed rail. I hope that in Pt. Defiance Bypass, they will be using CWR throughout.

    1. Point Defiance so far could rival a TGV route. They have full concrete ties, concrete switches, 132lb rail. Super heavy duty stuff.

      1. aw, that is a freight spur;

        Here is a photo that Steve Carter took during a media tour of the Lakewood line

        Though the maximum speed will be 60mph (or was it 70mph?) after Lakewood, trains will be able to go 79mph and eventually, 110mph.

        ST seems to have built this to Class 6 specs. Its pretty darn impressive!!

        Currently the entire BNSF NW division is Class 4

      2. Eh, I don’t think it would be grade restricted since the Talgo’s go 79mph up Napavine hill which is 1.2% Southbouth and 0.9% Northbound

      3. It all depends on the equipment and the track and infrastructure

        You could have a TGV style of train but only run it at 60mph because of the condition of the track. There are a lot of variables.

        A good video to watch if you have time is search for the Eurostar cab ride video on If you want to see how a complex system is, that is definitely one to watch.

    2. That clatter you heard from the wheels was probably the insulated joint isolating the track circuit that lifts the gates. Crossings have several track circuits that work together to drop the gates well in advance of an approaching train but also lift them promptly after it passes.

      You wouldn’t want the gates to stay down for as long as it took that freight train to go the same distance past the crossing as it was before the crossing when the gates started flashing. So they have far circuits and near ones.

  4. It always amazes me how far the noise of those train horns carries on Beacon Hill. It’s clear as a bell to us on the top of the Hill, but it doesn’t bother me.

    1. I agree.. I live almost 2 miles from Kent Station but I have no problem hearing the trains in the middle of the night. I wouldn’t mind having the wayside horns there but I think it’s pretty darn sweet to hear Amtrak (or a steam special) blast through town at 70+mph

  5. There is actually several points of padding. Trains could do 3 hours currently if there was no station dwell times and the train had ALL green signals and did not cross over at any point during its journey and maintained track speed. I’ve been on a 3 hour and 5 minute trip once before (before the rule of dwelling at stations until departure time was enforced more strictly and that was back when we had the F40’s and the original Talgo 200 sets)

    Point Defiance will shave off 6 minutes in total journey time. This time will be removed from time padding. The run will be 3 hours and 20 minutes after this change, so realistically, we are cutting off 10 minutes on the overall trip time.

    After this project, the only way to go faster than 3 hours is to increase speed with the assistance of Positive Train Control, which BNSF is testing on Stampede Pass (Their version is known as Electronic Train Management System or ETMS).

    With WSDOT’s plan not to allow trains go above 79mph that share locations that are shared other trains, meaning if the Cascades has to share track with BNSF, UP, Sounder, slower Amtrak trains, the trains will be restricted to only 79mph. This means if your train can’t get over to that HSR track, you’ll trek along at only 79mph, even with PTC. Not 90mph, not 100mph, not 110mph… back to square one…79mph.

    Trains will only go faster than 79mph on passenger only third main tracks that will support 110mph. If for whatever reason the train is on any of the regular main tracks, they will be restricted to 79mph, per WSDOT.

    Unless WSDOT can come out with a good plan to allow 90-100-110mph running on all main tracks, the goal to have 13-15 daily SEA-PDX trains will not happen without a true dedicated corridor. I have never heard of a State having such an ass-backwards approach to HSR and buckling so easily when it comes to the RR demands, especially when 80% of the improvements have came from the State of Washington.

    If the State and BNSF wants HSR to work out strongly for this region there needs to be a better consciences on how the program will work. If BNSF is worried about traffic between Seattle and Tacoma, purchase and upgrade the Union Pacific mainline between Tukwila and Tacoma and divert traffic on that route. That would benefit not only Amtrak but Sounder could then triple its traffic AND have weekend trains to boot.

    I can go on forever regarding this issue but I believe I said enough =)

    1. What’s the rationale for WSDOT enforcing stricter speed limits than the FRA? You’d think that BNSF would be in favor of higher passenger train speeds so that train paths would be cleared faster.

      1. What a silly state we live in. 80 years ago the Milwaukee Road was running passenger trains over 100 mph with primitive wayside signaling. Here we are investing in modern PTC and cab signaling and we’re still going to be stuck at 79mph until additional track is built.

      2. Fair enough, but 80 years ago the accidents were spectacular and deadly, and happened more often.

      3. And those “high speed” runs on the Milwaukee were top speeds, not sustained over long distances. Rare was the train that was scheduled for less than about 5:45 for the 400 miles between Chicago and St Paul, about 65 MPH over the distance.

      4. I know that. I was just trying to make the point that it’s silly to invest in modern signaling equipment that supports higher speeds in mixed traffic and then not utilize the capability. The FRA is about the most risk-averse organization in the country, so if they are OK with 110 mph service on Class 6 track with PTC then WSDOT should be too.

      5. Zed, I would have to say that if the State really wanted to do it right, they should upgrade the current 2 mains to Class V track (Freight 70mph), Passenger 90mph) and the dedicated passenger tracks to Class VI (Passenger 110mph). That would keep everything running as it does now.

      6. In the mixed areas the freight trains have to go faster,too, or elso the overtakes would be impossible to manage. BNSF for one does not what to take coal and grain trains to 70 mph or more as it would cost them more in fuel and pounding of the tracks.

  6. Stay on top of this story about trains through Lakewood. What is really going on here is Lakewood wants the Amtrak trains to stop there in return for causing all this “noise” and “disruption.” This is only being hinted at right now with comments such as the TNT editorial: what does Lakewood get out of this?
    This important project can’t be allowed to fall to the political process and whims of local elected officials or the 6 minute gain will be lost in a useless second Pierce County stop. It is possible Lakewood could be molified with something less than an Amtrak stop, but it will drive up costs and delay the project.

    The biggest irony is that Lakewood officials have been highly critical of their neighbors in Tacoma for causing a delay in Sounder service to Lakewood because of the redesign of the Pacific Avenue crossing (this is not the infamous “berm” issue). They are very anxious for Sounder to cross those 7 Lakewood streets and there are no spoken concerns about noise and traffic congestion from Sounder. It is only the Amtrak trains that magically cause congestion.

    I am telling you. Keep a close eye on this.

      1. Well, after all this time, things did get better since WSDOT and Sound Transit now are on the same page with a design. Now, if only the funding were all there…

    1. Sounder won’t have seven street crossings (I think it’s 3) and importantly it doesn’t cross Bridgeport Way. Why wouldn’t at least Amtrak Cascades train want to stop at Lakewood at least once AM southbound and again in the evening northbound? Is the cost of getting back up to speed more than the revenue they’d generate from Lakewood ridership?

      1. Well if Lakewood really wants an Amtrak stop they should just ask for one rather than pulling this political BS.

        If there is the ridership to justify it I don’t see why there can’t be a stop.

  7. Correct me if wrong, but doesn’t Amtrak run 110 mph trains on it’s empire service in new York without grade separation or separation from freight traffic? And hasn’t it run the southwest chief for the past 30+ years at 90 mph over a large portion of the western us between Chicago and la without similar restrictions? I get the ptc or ats requirement for speeds over 79, but WSDOT requiring separation from freight traffic for speeds over 79 seems really overly cautious given the fact that Amtrak has been running trains in mixed traffic at up to 110 mph for several years. My 2 cents.

    1. On the Empire Service route, only the Metro North section has ATC, but it’s got tightly spaced tracks on a twisty ROW interlaced with commuter trains, so it doesn’t go 110. Portions have 95 mph maximums, I have read, but most of it is 80 mph or lower. There are a minimal number of freight trains on this section; it’s not a mainline for freight.

      It’s actually more valuable that the Empire Service runs at 80 mph almost continuously, with very few slowdowns except at stations. The expressway speed limit is 65 in NY, so this is pretty good time. There are unfortunately some bits which slow to a crawl or dead stop which *badly* need upgrading. You’re lucky in Washington that they already fixed most of yours. :-)

      As for the Southwest Chief, it has Automatic Train Stop installed for long sections (“nearly 1000 miles” in total according to a BNSF press release from 1998) starting east of Barstow, including some sections with a lot of freight traffic — it maxes out at 90.

      I agree that WSDOT’s plan makes no sense as stated. If there are a *lot* of freight trains, on a double track line, it makes sense to run all the trains on a given track at the same speed, just for efficiency, but there’s no reason not to make that speed 80 mph, or (where the freight trains are capable of it) 90 mph.

      1. Nathanael,

        Where did you read that there is ATS on the Transcon today? It’s entirely double track, reverse signaled CTC west of Winslow. And they’re moving east as quickly as they have cash to convert. There are simply too many I/M trains to live with the old ABS with sidings that the Santa Fe used.

        What you’re saying about ATS used to be true. That’s why the Super Chief could do Chi-LA in 39 and a half hours. But no longer; JB pays the bills these days.

        You can’t have ATS where there is reverse signaled CTC. They work entirely differently.

      2. How does the ATS work on the Surfline? I believe ATS starts at Santa Ana on the route and Coaster, Metrolink, and Amtrak Surfliner service all are permitted at 90mph. Not sure what the freight speed is however.

      3. Brian,

        Now I know this is a semantic thing, but I really doubt that Metrolink has actual “Automatic Train Stop” with the flippers. They probably have some sort of computerized cab signal override system that big holes the train if a signal is passed (“Positive Train Control” of one form or another).

        Yes, the San Diegans have traveled the route for a long time and might have had it when it was owned and operated by Santa Fe, but it’s been upgraded several times since Metrolink was established. Surely they would have replaced such a high-maintenance mechanical system.

      4. I have been on the Empire Service with a GPS, and it was showing a speed over 100 mph. The section north of Poughkeepsie is owned by CSX, but has been partially upgraded by Amtrak to allow running at up to 110 mph. And this is on a section shared with freight trains. Also, the CSX line has cab signals at least to Albany, and for all I know they might extend all the way to Buffalo or Chicago. I know for a fact that most of the Boston-Albany line has only cab signals (no waysides except at interlockings) despite being owned by CSX and being a predominantly freight line with a top speed of around 60.

  8. Seth,

    The Empire Service is in automatic train stop territory. So far as the Chief, it only does between Ellinor and Walsenburg where the track basically exists for it. The Chief’s performance is really the only reason that Raton is still open. BNSF routes all the freight from Colorado to LA via Amarillo.

    As I understand it, BNSF doesn’t even own the rail corridor south of the Colorado/New Mexico border any more, down Belen. The state does and they have trackage rights which they don’t use often.

    1. Thanks guys, I guess the point I was trying to make is that Amtrak has safely been operating it’s trains in mixed traffic at speeds higher than 79 MPH, so WSDOT’s requirement of a sealed corridor for speeds over 79 seems a bit unreasonable. Seems to me that once PTC of some type is installed and tracks upgraded beyond class IV then speeds should be incrementally increased, if only from 79 to 90 initially.

      1. Seth…think maintenance costs. The state probably doesn’t want to pay an extra amount of money for freight and passenger use…even though it would benefit greatly.

      2. If I remember from the long-range plan the state wants to keep freight off the high-speed passenger tracks because freight pounds the crap out of the railbed and can’t have curves elevated as much as passenger lines can. So yea, it is a maintenance issue.
        I don’t think WSDOT has a problem with Talgo trains sharing tracks with more conventional equipment like Amtrak long-distance trains or Sounder. The only real issues there are the more conventional equipment is heavier so it can’t accelerate/decelerate as fast, it can’t go quite as fast through curves as tilting trainsets, and I believe the maximum speed is a tad lower (90 MPH vs. 110 MPH)

  9. Brian – isn’t wsdot already requesting stimulus money to upgrade the entire corridor to class v track?

  10. I’m a little late in the comments here, but just want to say that that’s some pretty sweet transportation visualization software in that third video *wink*.

    After seeing the simulation, a few thoughts come to mind.

    1. The simulation is already majorly congested. This can be seen by the vehicles stretching to the end of the roads where they originate from. So the 2020 situation is already pretty dire, meaning that without a change in vehicle trips or intersection capacity upgrades traffic will probably be in the same realm of poor performance with or without trains.
    2. The European truck model is just not valid for simulation in the US. Dear US traffic consultants: please modify the 3D truck model inputs.
    3. It would’ve been a lot sweeter if the ICE train in our new 3D vehicle fleet was used instead.
    4. That’s pretty cool that they modeled the traffic gate going onto the base.
    5. This confirms the importance of the I-5 Fort Lewis Study.

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