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.