'Amtrak Cascades in Seattle' photo courtesy KDavidClark

After some worries that the recent House bill to cut transit funding would wipe out money for the state’s intercity rail projects, agreements signed between the FRA and WSDOT have finally guaranteed the $590 million in federal stimulus funds that were granted to Washington earlier last year.  According to WSDOT, the funds not only help upgrade track and separate crossings, they also add two additional roundtrips to the Cascades between Seattle and Portland:

  • “Two additional daily Amtrak Cascades round trips will be added between Seattle and Portland, for a total six, by 2017.
  • On-time reliability is expected to increase from 62 to 88 percent.
  • More consistent speeds will be possible throughout the corridor, resulting in faster travel times between Seattle and Portland.
  • Major construction projects will be completed that will include building bypass tracks to allow for increased train frequency and multiple upgrades to existing track.
  • Several safety-related projects will be completed, including grade separations and the latest technology in advanced-warning signal systems. This will reduce passenger/freight congestion, making passenger travel times shorter with more reliable on-time service.”

The press release from WSDOT has much more on this.  USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood also had a few words to say about the agreement:

I am thrilled to congratulate the State of Washington, BNSF, and Amtrak for their contributions to the agreement signed today by the Federal Railroad Administration and Washington DOT that will make $590 million available for work to begin on significant improvements to the popular Cascades corridor, which connects Eugene, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver.

While the agreements do secure the first round of grants, the state has yet to finalize the roughly $160 million refused by Wisconsin and Ohio.  Governor Gregoire has also said that she will vie for additional funds recently returned by Florida Governor Rick Scott.

63 Replies to “$590M in Intercity Rail Funds Guaranteed to WA”

    1. This isn’t related to that – if their money is reapportioned, that would be additional.

  1. This is a great day for the state of Washington. I’ve been riding that corridor for more than 20 years, and it’s already miles ahead of where it was then. This set of work is going to bring enormous benefits as we continue to increase our population and deal with peak oil. Thrilled to hear this is finally guaranteed.

    1. I hope to return to the Pacific NW after “making it” in NYC… Hopefully by the time that happens, I won’t have to decide between Seattle or Portland, because I’ll be able to have them both!

      Coming to the Northeast definitely made me realize me how great Cascades service is. Sadly, out here I’ve always had to take the Chinatown/BoltBus/Megabus buses from NYC to Boston or DC. Can’t afford/justify Acela and the buses are pretty nice and very cheap.

      1. It’s not just Acela, you know :-). Even the Metroliners – or whatever they are calling themselves these days – are fairly quick and better than a bus.

  2. Not that I’m complaining, but I’d trade a fat wad of this for New Starts money to get North Link’s funding sewn up. I believe STB editorialized something to this effect at some point.

    1. I wouldn’t. North Link is guaranteed, it just might be slower than we want it to be.

      1. True, I hadn’t thought of it that way. And I’m not complaining — I’m thrilled to see Cascades improve. But damn, I’m going to be nearly 40 by the time North Link opens on the current schedule. This project’s timeline is making me contemplate my own mortality.

      2. How is North Link guaranteed? I thought the money was not obligated yet and could still be caught up in the proposed recisions.

      3. Bruce – exactly. We can build it with local money, and that funding is secured. If we failed to get this money for Cascades, we don’t have a local option to provide it.

      4. @ Bruce: It’s already 40 years since Forward Thrust was turned down.

        You haven’t been waiting all that long compared to some in Seattle.

    1. I don’t think there’s any technical reason they couldn’t start them tomorrow, but the service would suck because it would exacerbate the existing major choke point at the Nelson Bennett tunnel. They’ve made the calculation that they’ll get more for the money if they finish the Point Defiance bypass and other capital improvements first.

      If Cascades is faster and more reliable, it’ll be more popular and they’ll be able to charge more, so the per-train subsidy will be less. The bypass is scheduled to finish at the end of 2016, so that’s probably where the 2017 date comes from.

      1. would a few trains on existing structure be a good guage for more trains and track??

        one morning and one evening or whatever times that most between portland and seattle currntly travel???

    2. Also, the manufacturer only has so much capacity for all its clients. That was the reason given for the gradual addition of vehicles in the past, that since the 2008 crash many cities have been adding buses and trains all at once.

  3. Now all we need is the FRA and BNSF to come to an agreement so we can get construction started…

      1. Are there any more legal options to question the necessity of the EA? Really, it’s going to get built and the study and delay only serve to cost a great deal of money which could be used to mitigate any adverse environmental effects. This is where some red wine swilling stogie smoking Republicans are needed to ram this thing through… LaHood? :=

      2. The EA wasn’t originally required when only WSDOT funding was going to be used to build PDB because the state got a waiver (basically, because the project is fundamentally rehabilitating an existing rail line). However, expenditure of federal funding requires an EA, hence the additional delay — which is unfortunate because the plans are sealed and ready to go out for bid.

  4. Looking at the “plan” for HSR in Wischeeskin I have to say it’s a good thing that at least the money isn’t being wasted there. Madison and Milwaukee are only 70 miles apart. There is no passenger rail service now because there’s no demand. I think all of the money should be going toward projects that are already in use and showing increased demand rather than California dreaming or trains to Tomorrowland. A serious investment would put freight mobility on equal footing with passenger service to compete for federal infrastructure spending.

    1. how do you know that freight isnt on equal mobility as passengers?? and why should freight be???

      can you get more soup cans in a truck than peopple??

    2. Madison may only be 70 miles from Milwaukee, but Chicago and a host of other cities are on the other side of Milwaukee. Madison could also be in the middle of a route between Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul.

      1. Fair enough but why not concentrate the money on Milwaukee. Or really Chicago to points south; Indianapolis, Columbus, Pittsburg, Washington DC. Maybe someday a HSR cooridor reached the Twin Cities but that’s the end of the line. My question is that if a route is a good idea on it’s own merit then why haven’t these states invested local money over several decades like Washington has. I think the answer is that they’re a dumb idea that wouldn’t see the light of day if it weren’t for the “free money.”

      2. Columbus! A capital idea! Well, so is Madison.

        The other idiot in the troika stopped train service to Columbus, which is said to be the largest US city without rail service. BTW, Ohio has long planned better rail service, and Wisconsin has actually supported it with the Hiawatha line. In January ridership figures, the Hiawatha had more trips than Cascades, althogh it could be argued that landslides impacted our corridor more than in most years.

      3. Not surprising at all that Amtrak Hiawatha ridership would beat Cascades given that Chicago has a greater metro population of about 10 million with long running train service and Milwaukee is over a million (2 million metro). If the HSR funds were targeted primarily at that I wouldn’t consider it a lame brained idea like I do Milwaukee to Mad Town. I think there was some token scraps of pork for Hiawatha but does Wisconsin have shovel ready projects already planned? Do they get trucks off the road as well as passenger vehicles? Those are criteria I’m looking for on any stimulus funds for rail infrastructure.

        I wouldn’t suggest starting with Columbus but rather that it could eventually be part of a corridor that mimics the model of the Northeast Corridor. Meaning after you fix Milwaukee to Chicago it would still probably make more sense to build south/east than toward the great white north.

      4. Bernie- Why other states have not invested the money is a good question. Look at Oregon- they have not invested anywhere near what Washington state has. If they had, Cascades service would be much better in Oregon than it is now.

      5. I’m not up on how much OR has kicked in but didn’t they recently pony up for a new train set? I wouldn’t expect Oregon to come up with anywhere near the amount Washington sould because it only covers a small portion of their state rather than border to border and the number of people served are far less (Seattle Metro population is almost equal to Portland and Vancouver BC combined). I would fault Canada if I was going to point fingers for why Cascades isn’t much farther along

      6. And Canada has I believe contributed zero to trains, done precious little to improve abysmal track conditions and expects U.S. to cover the cost of their customs agents for the privilege of spending our money north of the border… Loonie!

      7. Oregon wasn’t ready for HSR money because it didn’t finish its plan yet. There is a lot of local NIMBY controversy because ODOT is considering changing alignments off the UP main line (UP is not as cooperative as BNSF) to a much lesser used non-UP short line known as the Oregon Electric line that parallels the UP main.

        Also, current Oregon law prohibits most of ODOT’s funding from being used for anything but roads, even though ODOT is very pro-rail. That and Oregon is much less populated than Washington, which means less money overall.

      8. Canada hasn’t helped, but BC did kick in a small amount, more I’m sure to grease BNSF. $4.5m for a siding. I did email Ottawa about the ridiculous Customs issue, and received a substantive response from the Prime Minister’s Office prior to Harper’s change of heart – who knows, perhaps it helps.

        I use the train to Seattle and would be very pleased if more was contributed.


      9. Also, Bernie, Wisconsin HAS invested its own money; unfortunately it started later than Washington. *Shrug*. It put its money into the Milwaukee-Chicago line first, and that is now sufficiently good that it’s time to connect Madison to Chicago (via Milwaukee, as that is much cheaper and nearly as fast as the direct route).

    3. There is high demand for passenger rail service from Madison to Chicago via Milwaukee. Very high. The people currently taking the buses are not happy. So stop lying.

  5. finalize the roughly $160 million refused by Wisconsin and Ohio. Governor Gregoire has also said that she will vie for additional funds recently returned by Florida Governor Rick Scott.

    i dont know if this is true….are all these republican majority states??

    it doesnt seem proper to get refused money from a state to do extra rail for rails sake if the money can be used of other clear human needs in the refusing states….faster ambulances, advanced disease research rather than over-railing in an area what the fedgovt wouldnt give more of in the first place.

    if refused it should be placed in another method of state funding/grants. but with how the govt funds stuff it may not make any difference at all.

    1. Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida are swing states that are currently being goverened by idiots and/or ideolouges. At least two of those governors are facing possible recall petitions.

      The money appropriated for rail projects needs to be spent on rail projects. It’s the law!

      1. John, you’re making the “top speed error”. A rail route which runs 110 mph end to end, slowing down only for stations, is extremely effective and will take huge numbers of people out of their cars and off airplanes.

        One which runs 160mph in the countryside but slows down to 10mph for 20 miles inside the city limits is a piece of crap.

        Look at average speeds, not top speeds. Washington State has been very intelligently eliminating all the slow-speed bottlenecks on the existing Cascades route — most of which are within the Seattle-Tacoma or Portland-Vancouver metropolitan areas — and it’s paying off in better average speeds *and* better reliability. Building a superfast track through the wilderness would not pay off nearly as well if it hit 30mph limitations within the city. Building a brand new superfast route through the city and suburbs is practically impossible due to the amount of house demolition, bridging, and tunnelling (and astoundingly expensive even if possible).

        There are places where the city approaches are in pretty good shape, or empty ROW is available for a good approach, and new high-speed ROW in the countryside would be a more cost-effective first step. This is rare; it is not true of anything approaching Chicago except from the west, and it isn’t true of New York City, it isn’t true of Denver, and until WashDOT’s work on Cascades it wasn’t true of Seattle or Portland. It isn’t even true of *Toledo*, and it’s *very* far from true of Detroit.

        It is almost true, interestingly, of Los Angeles, though even there the very last block of approach to the station adds excruciating minutes to the travel time. And in California they *are* building the cross-country line first.

  6. This is the best news I’ve heard all day. I want a TGV of our very own, and I want it yesterday, and this is at least small step in the right direction, so I’m all for it.

  7. I think the news is a bit premature. While it is good news, BNSF just signed a contract for an additional 2-4 daily coal trains (all 125 car long, 17000-18000 ton trains) with a maximum of 6 to 8 daily coal trains to Cherry Point, Washington. This isn’t including the number of daily grain, soy bean, potash from Canada, etc that could also hit up the line. The Pacific Northwest Division is about to get a whole lot more busier in the next 6 to 12 months as Cherry Point is fully built out, along with all of the new intermodal contracts starting up as well.

    So while that new siding at Stanwood, WA is completed (and just in time too) the need for dedicated ROW is going to be much more important with these trains beating up the mainlines. That extra $160 million should be part of the money to upgrade the Bellingham Subdivision, more specifically, Mt. Vernon and hopefully 2-6 miles of double track between Marysville and Silvana to ease some of the congestion that will undoubtedly happen due to all of the low speed swing bridges between Marysville and Everett.

    And this doesn’t even begin to fathom if and when the Port of Longview and its future export facility that would also see the same amount of coal trains.

    In short, between Longview, Centralia, Cherry Point, and Roberts Bank, BC, there could be upwards of 20 coal trains, just coal trains, a day.

    If anyone recalls a post I made about the Seattle Subdivision running out of capacity, even WITH these minor improvements, well folks, 6 years from now, there will not be any additional capacity until dedicated ROW starts popping up and now is the time to seriously start being vocal about making passenger trains a priority.

    20 coal trains (17000-18000 tons), 10-15 grain and soybean trains (12000-15000 tons, heavy manifest trains (8000-13000 tons), Union Pacific trains of all sizes, mixed freight trains, intermodal trains from both railroads. To put it blunt, I will not hold my breath on an 80% reliability….

    1. Sounds grimm. Where are we going to get the room for a dedicated ROW, especially in the Seattle area? Alongside the current tracks? Not to mention that will take a lot of money to build the tracks and buy the ROW.

      1. Point Defiance, Nisqually to Olympia Station, Olympia to Napavine would probably be the candidates for it if anything. There is also Longview to Vancouver that is very possible doable since it is mostly straight between those sections.

        I don’t mean to sound grim or dark but as things recover and freight traffic improves, there will be a lot of things that will change here. Sound Transit is paying for some additional triple track work between Seattle and Ellingson/Pacific, which is a large bottle neck. It doesn’t do much for those trains coming North in the morning but the evening commute will benefit greatly.

        There will need to be much more than this done not only for passenger traffic to be unaffected but also to keep the Pacific Northwest a viable competitor for freight traffic but don’t at all be surprised to hear about 100-140 trains a day, between Longview Jct and Vancouver Jct and between Seattle and Tacoma.

    2. Where’s the coal coming from?

      Must not be over Steven’s Pass or it seems like it’s effect on Cascades to Vancouver would be minimal, and no effect on Sounders.

      Is it coming over Stampede, or on the tracks along the Columbia?

      1. BNSF prefers to run heavy coal and grain trains along the relatively-flat Spokane-Pasco-Vancouver-Seattle route, though last year they demonstrated that they could effectively run loaded grain trains over Stevens Pass with DPU (remote-controlled) helpers. They also ran a few loaded grain trains over Stampede in 2009, but with that line’s practical capacity being limited to just 10 trains/day, I would think it unlikely BNSF would eat into that figure with slow-running loads that require helpers when they can just shove the empties through unaided.

  8. Congrats WA. This is a good area to spend on rail.

    Still, I want true HSR, but I think it should be done on a brand new right of way (someplace that doesn’t involve sand cliffs and flood zones).

    1. Agreed. But I think HSR should equal > 200mph and not 90-110mph. (I know, pipe dream…)

      1. How many times does it need to be pointed out that the Cascades program was fundamentally designed to be an incremental, long-term approach to building a competitive travel mode in an existing rail corridor using taxpayer dollars in the most efficient manner? It was never intended to be true HSR.

      2. You guys are talking about different things.

        Cascades has an incremental plan to reach 110 mph someday.

        There’s disagreement on the minimum speed for “high” speed rail, but potential numbers are 125, 150, or 200 mph. There is no current plan to increase Cascades that far, and even 125 mph would be a substantial investment (not linear with the speed).

        True HSR to California and Chicago would be a good thing, of course. Expect it sometime after California’s line is completed.

        Cascades-like service to eastern Washington (Spokane, Yakima, Pasco, and maybe Pullman) is also important. HSR expresses to these areas would be a bonus but aren’t really necessary. Except the stop for Bailo’s mini-house in the woods, that’s top priority.

      3. I agree! Daylight service to Spokane and the Tri-Cities/Ellensburg should be the next project for WSDOT to focus on. Even if it can’t be Talgo trains, buying some used Horizon cars would be just as good and would most certainly ride better in the sections of jointed rail on the Stampede Subdivision.

        That is of course a bit harder to swallow with Amtrak now having issues with locomotive shortages all over the system but a P42, business class coach, snack/diner lite, and a coach or two would be ideal (Good for at least 160 passengers)

        The other issue with any trains would doubtly be any upcoming freight traffic but that is a topic for another day =)

      4. Spokane? How much Spokane-Seattle passenger traffic demand is there, really?

        Surely reviving branchline service to Olympia would have greater immediate benefits. Though more expensive obviously.

      5. A Seattle/Spokane train would be a nice glamor project to tie the state together once Cascades is “complete.” It’d pierce the supposed Cascade Curtain.

      6. Olympia would be good for Sounder but Thurston County would need to join the ST districts, which will be voted down by the outlining areas and all honestly, the Olympia Express buses would still probably beat the bus if the State continues its push of HOV lanes Southward towards JBLM. Sounder would indeed be cheaper but the benefit of the service wouldn’t be there to support it. All about being realistic.

        A daylight Spokane and/or train over Stampede Pass would probably both be a large hit. Why? College students will easily pick a train over Greyhound or flying mostly due to cost and being more adventurous and more inclined to waiting a little longer to arrive closer to the city center. Spokane, Pullman, Wenatchee and Leavenworth would be the highest rider routes. Stampede Pass would probably be most popular with Ellensburg, the Tri-Cities, and Pasco. Either of these trains would mostly be served by college students. Yes, driving will be faster but just how many college students that pile I-90 will be willing to drive over it in the middle of winter?

        Options are a wonderful thing =)

      7. My son’s in his second year at Western in Bellingham. In two years he’s used Amtrak a grand total of once to get back from Bellevue. Amtrak costs more, takes longer and the schedule is less convenient. The one time he did use it was a treat. Very nice scenic ride. But the Dog is full every week for good reason. From B’ham to B’vue on a Friday public transit is the clear winner; provided you can get out of Dodge B’ham early enough. I can’t see where eastern Washington rail service is going to be a winner with college students. I did my first two years a WSU. I took Greyhound back once and it was a bit scary but a “real life” experience. The rest of the time I drove my ’72 Bug which as it turns out happens to be the first auto model to out sell the Ford Model T in the US.

      8. “How much Spokane-Seattle passenger traffic demand is there, really?”

        There would be more if the train ran more often and the speed were incrementally improved. Currently there’s one daily choice, Seattle-Spokane arriving at12:45am and returning at 2:15am. Seattle-Leavenworth arrives at 8:00pm (dark in winter) and returning at 6:08am. Night owl departures dramatically reduce the number of people willing to ride. The Dog fluctuates between 1, 2, and 4 trips a day (including NW Trailways); it currently has 4 and an Amtrak bus makes 5.

        When people say there’s no demand, imagine closing the freeway except for one hour each day (or from 7pm-6am, or all day Sunday). There would be howls of protest and people saying, “That’s unreasonable,” yet people think that’s fine for transit and then wonder why ridership is low.

      9. “How much Spokane-Seattle passenger traffic demand is there, really?”

        Sounds like five bus loads if you have that much frequency. Actually more like four since nobody is going to take the first Trailways bus that leaves a 9:15am and gets to Spokane 50 min. after the 10:15am Greyhound. If you added buses you’d get a few more riders but not enough to justify the expense. If there were 25 buses a day that would start to approach demand that could possibly warrant train service. Yes some people will ride a train and not a bus based on ride comfort but the buses also serve towns the train doesn’t. And if Greyhound brings these coaches to the NW I’d expect the anti-bus sentiment to diminish.

        The future of bus travel has arrived. Well ahead of schedule.

        Your right about the timing of the current service. It really couldn’t be much worse but I suspect there’s nothing that can be done without screwing up the route somewhere else.

  9. Meanwhile…in Realityville:

    Rail’s Cash-Flow King Stakes $62 Billion on Tokyo Maglev Train

    Central Japan Railway Co., whose high-speed trains carried more passengers than the world’s largest airline last year, is staking 5.1 trillion yen ($62 billion) on building the world’s fastest train.

    The company plans to fund the project, at a cost almost eight times the $8 billion President Barack Obama is giving to U.S. high-speed and conventional rail projects, with cash, loans and bonds, said Kinya Tani, a spokesman for the Nagoya, Japan- based company. JR Central will issue 5-year, 10-year and 20-year bonds in equal amounts, according to the company.


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