In a good post on HSR Yglesias makes a common sorta-true observation:

Now a separate question is whether there’s any feasible way to actually do this in a country that doesn’t have a French (or Chinese) level of central political authority empowered to build straight tracks through people’s suburban backyards. The answer seems to be “no.

Of course it would be very difficult to build a sufficiently straight right of way through sprawling single-family subdevelopments, much less a place like Greenwood. As luck would have it, however, we’ve built very straight, wide, reasonably graded rights of way between all our major cities via the interstate highway system.

Although building local transit lines in the freeway is a suboptimal choice, HSR has limited stops. Building connecting tracks into the center of cities, or linking with existing tracks for these stops, is comparative child’s play, and can even enforce discipline with respect to the number of stops between major destinations.

That’s not to say that we’re on the cusp of change; for starters, Washington’s 18th amendment would almost certainly prevent taking lanes in places where the median wasn’t wide enough. And there are undoubtedly lots of necessary projects beyond putting down tracks and stringing wire. But the necessary political change is “merely” a shift from total preeminence of the car, rather than a sudden willingness to have bullet trains in the backyard. It’s clear to me that if true bullet trains are ever going to happen in the Northwest it’ll be this way.

51 Replies to “My Right of Way is the Highway”

  1. Yep, highways are a nice right of way designed for traffic at the high speed of 65 mph. Curve radius is going to be an issue here, and for a doubling of speed, you need to quadruple the curve radius.

    1. Thinking of I-80 over the Sierra Nevada. That freeway is terrifying to drive at 50mph.

      1. HSR over/through mountains/hills is common in other countries with HSR. In fact HSR can take steeper grades than standard freight rail both due to higher power/weight ratios and because the train’s momentum will help carry it over the grade.

        Compared to most freight ROW, Interstate ROW tends to much straighter through mountains/hills.

      2. That freeway is terrifying to drive at 50mph.

        If you were driving it at 90mph, you wouldn’t have time to be terrified.

    2. This is correct. As for actual high speed rail (not 110 mph rapid rail) at speeds of over 200 MPH, you need very VERY straight runs of track. The interstate would not work. The curves allowable on a highway designed for 75 MPH operation (as it is in rural areas) are much tighter than the 4-7 MILE radius curves needed for high speed rail lines, Not to mention differences in allowable grade.

      Attempting to share the interstate right of way would likely lead to many more complications, as the tracks would constantly have to cut corners to straghten out the line, meaning you have many times you have to cross over the track. Starting with railroad rights of way are more feasible.

    3. I agree this will be an issue, but not necessarily a show-stopper. We’re talking about suburban areas here. Perhaps speeds on the order of 65 (actually, freeways are designed for much higher speeds than 65 plus I wonder if we could bank the turns somewhat) are fine while in heavily built up suburban areas – you’re probably approaching city stations anyway. Rural areas have less right-of-way issues and we could go with straighter sections for higher speeds there.

      (of course this argument is purely theoretical and I haven’t looked at a map – perhaps there’s little break in the suburbs between Portland and Seattle, for example)

      1. There is a break in the suburbs- from roughly Olympia to the outskirts of Vancouver, though there are a few towns along the way like Centralia and Chehalis, they are not continuous suburbs. That stretch will probably be the first place the Cascades can exceede 79 MPH.

    4. It’s really the only way to do it.

      Spending any of the 1 Billion that Washington state is getting for “high speed” rail to fix Warren Buffet’s privately owned BNSF tracks built on mud hills and swamp land seems like a foolish endeavor.

      Let’s use the money from the get go to build a real HSR system, 160 mph or faster, along I-5 with lots of transit access and parking lots.

      1. Unfortunately $1B is a drop in the bucket when you’re talking about a real HSR system. The line from Seattle to Portland would be on the order of $6-8 Billion, based on the cost of the initial segment of the California HSR.

        If we can use that money to speed the trip up from an average of 51 MPH now to maybe 65 MPH, that would cut the trip to 2:45, which would make it equal to a car. Speed up the average speed to 90 MPH, and we’re down to 2 hours travel time. At 2 hours, it becomes comparable in total trip time to flying, when you include security & baggage claim.

        I assume the biggest thing that will be required to improve average speed will be making bypasses of busy freight areas, especially around Vancouver and Tacoma.

  2. I’m confused –

    It’s suboptimal to put urban mass transit *stations* along freeway corridors, because freeway environments are not where pedestrians want to be, and are the most congested places to route feeder buses into and out of to make reliable connections. But there’s no reason not to put high speed rail along freeway rights of way, since by definition the stations are few and very far between.

    1. In general, I think you’d go off-freeway and into the city core for HSR stations. Just use the right of way where it makes sense.

  3. The Yglesias/Krugman comments can be applied to our own regional transportation system. For the cost of building the 3rd runway at Sea-Tac, we could have (pretty much) built a 110 mph passenger rail system that would offer hourly departures from downtown Portland to downtown Seattle with a trip time of 2.5 hours.

  4. Convention Place might be workable as the Seattle HSR station, if we convert the express lanes into separated transit lanes, to hold the space for HSR conversion. Yeah, the platform will need to be longer, so we need to be thinking about keeping skyscrapers off of the future platform ROW, and keeping that property that is already in the government’s hands in the government’s hands. I’m not sure where the station entrance at the other end of the platform would be, though. Drivers who have actually used those express lanes may have some insight.

    Physics pretty much dictates that the trains be on the outside of the freeways, in the same direction as traffic. Imagine a train derailing on an inner lane … into the oncoming direction of another train … at a relative velocity of 400 mph. Very, very, very bad. The same goes for a car sent flying into the path of an oncoming train. But in the city, where neither train is going “fast”, the inner express lanes beckon to be converted, and well-shielded.

    I hope the SR 520 project doesn’t ruin this setup like it is ruining Montlake. It may be to our advantage to oppose any new ramps between 520 and the I-5 express lanes. Besides, very few buses should be using those lanes after 2016, and even fewer after 2021.

    Would it be advantageous to keep North Link off of I-5? Having to rebuild North Link to put it above I-5 would be an expensive retrofit. But if there is a suburban HSR station, Mountlake Terrace may now have the inside track. For purposes of Link connectivity, I’d rather have an HSR station spaced somewhere in the middle of the Link line than at the end of the line. (This is only if we have to have a suburban HSR station at all.) Besides yielding a better rideshed on Link, it may as well happen when the train is well below its top speed, and then let the train accelerate to its cruising speed for the trip to Vancouver (where in Vancouver?).

    How would we get the initial study funded? Put it in ST3? Hope WSDOT takes up the cause?

    Politically, I think it also behooves us to support the California HSR project to the hilt. The faster it gets built, the sooner HSR enters into the public discussion realm here. If it gets WestSeattled or Bellevued there, it ain’t happening here. (Can anyone explain the ferocity of NIMBYism in the neighborhoods around Leland J. Stanford Jr. U?)

    Texas was actually looking at building an HSR line between Dallas and Houston 20 years ago. They were looking at condemning a lot of relatively-cheap farmland, far away from I-45. The farmers got together, and recruited some environmental groups to help them using a simple argument: New transportation projects segment habitat. So, it should be remembered that building HSR in existing ROW is probably the most environmentally sound approach.

    1. The true HSR lines I have ridden on do not begin to achieve their maximum speeds until they are well away from the city. There is no need to build a HSR line all the way into the city center.

      Now, an alternative to the apparently land-slide prone BNSF line along Puget Sound for access to the North and East would be apparently handy.

      BUT!…We need to get the state* that France was in 1960 or, as an example Holland (ignoring the new Antwerp-Rotterdam-Amsterdam HS Line) is today before we should ever entertain HSR service in the USA.

      *(Frequent hourly-or-half-hourly, reliable, trains that operate at 100 to 110 mph)

    2. I don’t think we need a freeway’s worth of separation between the train lines. The Japanese shinkansen run in neighboring tracks in opposite directions, at full speed. In 45 years they’ve only had one derailment, during the 2004 earthquake.

      I agree that interaction with misbehaving cars would be a concern, but the line would probably have to be (at least) visibly shielded from traffic so that drivers don’t freak out when a train passes, in either direction. That wall could easily be designed to arrest any out-of-control car before it intersects the track.

    3. There is no problem with sharing space with North Link (look at Japan as the extreme case) but it may drive up construction costs if it necessitates elevated viaducts, which should be used anyway to protect against floods (like on I-5 in Lewis County in 2009), minimize curves (freeways are designed to meander on purpose to reduce highway hypnosis), and deter trespassers.

    4. I read somewhere that HSR stations are very large, so I think it would have to be located in SODO somewhere, hopefully at a Link station or future Link extension. Convention Place station is almost certainly too small. By the way, Metro is planning to use it as a bus layover area when the station closes.

      I’m not even going to think about Washington HSR until California HSR is finished. What we need now is to finish the Cascades improvements and start similar improvements to eastern Washington. That will benefit the regional trains and the long-distance trains. That will all take a couple decades while California finishes its system. Then, maybe, the cost of driving and airfare and concerns about climate change will be such that the public will be more willing to build HSR, and then we can design lines to California and Chicago that have a realistic chance of being built.

    5. WestSeattled or Bellevued? When Montlake was the backyard, they were pretty opposed to building public works in their neighborhood. And the UW (Physics building) certainly had a huge effect on the placement of the North Link. Maybe instead of saying “WestSeattled or Bellevued” you should say “Montlaked or UWed”.

      1. The article only details the neighborhood being against roadway expansion. I wish more neighborhoods were like that.

      2. True, but I think the Montlake and UW folks opposed the roadway expansion because it was in their backyards. I wager if you put a train through there, they’d act the same. NIMBYism is a funny thing…

  5. I wonder if the grades and bends in highways are too step for highspeed rail. In general, cars can handle fairly steep grades and curves while trains have more modest abilities in this regard.

    American governments do have emmient domain powers as strong as those in Japan, the difference is really in the marginal propensity to sue and to cause general political noise.

      1. Most of the SEA-EUG line is sufficiently flat to avoid tunneling if we have the courage to aggressively pursue adequate ROWs. Though if a south HSR line wishes to avoid the Green River Valley and/or wishes to serve SeaTac Airport, I bet we’d see some tunneling near SR 509 and a potential underground SeaTac station. SR 509 north of SeaTac is underutilized and overbuilt anyway. We would need at least one major tunnel on the north line, under Chuckanut Mountain. The coast line just wouldn’t be feasible, and only flat corridor available (SR 9) would make serving Bellingham very difficult.

  6. I wonder if $50 billion (or whatever) isn’t better spent on more urban mass transit: you get a lot of subway for that money.

    1. I swore a long time ago to never waste my time opposing a transit project. Disagreeing about details, yes, but not opposing one outright.

      The only winners in a transit circular firing squad are automobiles and freeways.

      1. The big losers in ill-conceived transit projects are transit advocates; the money you spend has to be seen to be spent sensibly and efficiently. I would never support a California-scale HSR project in the northwest absent a huge population increase. It doesn’t make sense.

      2. Yeah, you’re probably right. HSR is worth the money anyway, it’s just too bad we don’t have that much money to spend on transit as well.

  7. I think some folks are getting HSR confused with Light Rail. HSR has a stop in Seattle – King Street Station.

    The amount of curves, overcrossings, bridges is prohibitive to putting rail in the highway. True HSR would have to be all grade separated. We’re not there yet. In time (and $$) we may be.

  8. I’m always a little skeptical about massive intercity rail investment in the PNW. Acela barely turns a profit in the northeast, although if you removed some of Amtrak’s legacy issues, that could probably be fixed. California has a population that could support HSR, but we can see how much political trouble it’s having at the federal level. There’s maybe 10 million people west of the Cascades between BC and California who could be potential customers, versus maybe three times that in the coastal cities and the Central Valley of California; plus for such a line to make sense, it would have to be coupled with investments to continue it into California and Vancouver.

    Not everyplace can have the latest, fastest and greatest; it makes far more sense to shoot for things that are attainable, like 2:30 SEA-PDX travel times and mudslide reduction (!) to the north, than $10+ billion megaprojects of questionable marginal utility.

    1. That’s what WSDOT’s plan is for now, get frequency up, reliability up, travel time down. The Cascades are not likely to get to 110 MPH for some time, and that is not true HSR as some point out. It is also going to cost several hundred million more $$ too.

    2. Bay Area to the LA Area and LA Area to San Diego are some of the busiest air routes in the US. HSR makes perfect sense from LA to SF, LA to SD, and even LA to Las Vegas, or LA to Phoenix.

  9. Re: Amendment 18

    I’m not sure Amendment 18 is as large of a show-stopper as people think. Depending, of course, on your definition.

    Amendment 18 talks a lot about highways, not cars. Basically, you can only fund public highways using gas money. However, by state definition: (RCW 46.04.197) “Highway means the entire width between the boundary lines of every way publicly maintained when any part thereof is open to the use of the public for purposes of vehicular travel.”

    That leaves us with defining “vehicular travel”. Is a train not a vehicle? How about a bike? Sure this gets rid of funding existing heavy rail (since it’s not really owned by us and therefore isn’t “public”). But as long as we design rail (or bike lanes) for public use, we should be able to use gas taxes if we want. Of course there are always political realities in the way, but I’d argue there is no legal barrier.

    1. The good news is the Supremes seem at least somewhat amenable to transit interests. It’s possible they’ll use the Kemper Freeman lawsuit to clarify that the definition of “highway purposes” includes trains.

    2. Fuel taxes can only be used for highway purposes, but other taxes can also be used for highway purposes. Look again at the placement of the word “only” in Amendment 18.

      You do bring up a good point. Trains are vehicles, and public passenger trains are open to the public. Given that, I see no reason why judges objectively reading the RCW section you cited would bar the use of gas taxes in funding passenger rail. Nevertheless, judges (including the state supreme court justices) are free to interpret laws however they want, and all judges seem to be “activist” judges when it suits their purposes.

      On top of that, we’d still need to get a majority of legislators in each house, and the governor, to go along with redistributing gas-tax money traditionally used for building more highway miles to maintaining city streets and building transit. Thankfully, ST has its tentacles in at least twenty legislative districts, making the math possible.

      Getting the state supreme court to declare passenger rail as proper vehicular traffic open to the public, and therefore fundable by gas tax, would be a game-changer that would lead to much faster and more massive investment in public transit.

      Bring it on, Kemper!

      1. RCW 46.04.670

        According to the Attorney General of Washington:

        “Vehicle” includes every device capable of being moved upon a public highway and in, upon, or by which any persons or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a public highway, including bicycles. The term does not include power wheelchairs or devices other than bicycles moved by human or animal power or used exclusively upon stationary rails or tracks.

      2. Interesting, Bernie. What a strange definition – I wonder what the history behind that is (carriages, trains, and boats aren’t vehicles?). I wonder what the process of changing a definition involves. You shouldn’t need a constitutional amendment for that, right? Then again, if that were true it would be pretty easy to change the constitution indirectly.

      3. The process involves the state supremes making up their own mind on how to interpret statute and the state constitution, since their collective opinion has higher standing than that of an attorney general. If the supremes issue an opinion that defines trains as vehicles, then the floodgates can open for redirecting gas-tax income to better uses, at least until that source of revenue runs dry.

      4. The definition is up to the Attorney General. That was what the other link was supposed to point to; the definition of “highway”. Boats are considered vessels. On the saltwater and inland waterways you can be at odds with State and Federal definitions.

      5. Doesn’t the AG (along with the SC) just interpret the intent of the legislature? Wouldn’t legislatively defining a vehicle trump interpreting the definition?

        And what about land yachts? Vessel or vehicle? And do they get their own lane?

      6. “Wouldn’t legislatively defining a vehicle trump interpreting the definition?”

        Well, yes. Perhaps this is something ST or Transportation Choices Coalition has already looked at …

      7. Interesting, Bernie. What a strange definition – I wonder what the history behind that is (carriages, trains, and boats aren’t vehicles?).

        “Vehicular travel, huh? So, can you build something for my carriage?”

        “Um, no.”

        “Hey, could you use this to build me a rail line?”

        “What? Hell no!”

        “Boats are vehicles, right? So, you could use this for – ”

        “It only says that because we couldn’t just say ‘for cars’, OK?!”

  10. I still think that HSR ( at this time) is a waste of valuable resources. Getting the regular passenger lines back into order, and more efficient, is a better use of our taxpaying funds. Who here in their right mind expects the govt. to run this when Amtrak can barely the Starlate, Chief, etc?! Lets be real, there has to be a management and operations team that can run such a large, investment heavy network such as HSR.

    Having the Cascades doing 79 is a start, getting the stuff up to 100 would be the best solution for now. There are so many smaller passenger runs that dried up years ago, seeing those return would also be a step towards mass transit on a large scale.

    So many people have bought(and been paid) to buy into HSR because there’s been big money players in terms of corporations that want to sell the US their goods, understandably. But we have to be weary, look at the initial Talgo problems, took some time to get it straight.

  11. Anyone who has ridden Eurostar between London and Paris will recognize that after crossing the Thames in England it parallels the M2 and M20 motorways pretty much all the way to the Chunnel. And between Lille and Paris in France, the train runs alongside the A1. It therefore makes perfect sense to utilize freeway ROW for HSR tracks in the US. There’s nothing like passing stressed out drivers maxed out at 70 mph sitting comfortably in a train going 300 kph / 186 mph.

    As proven time and time again, HSR is the perfect solution to relieve air traffic for all journeys under 500 miles. Referencing Eurostar again, I understand they now have greater than 85% share of the combined air/rail market between London, Paris and Brussels. I rode Cascades recently and I believe Washington’s approach stands the best chance of improving the sorry state of US passenger rail service in the foreseeable future.

    With Washington’s approach in mind it’s worth mentioning that since the mid-1970s Britain’s train operators have enjoyed great success with InterCity 125 & 225 services running on essentially Victorian infrastructure with track-side signaling. When I came to the US in 1985 I had almost 10 years experience riding trains running at speeds up to 125 mph – it was nothing special.

    Largely for these reasons I’m absolutely convinced that vastly improved intercity passenger rail service could be implemented in the US immediately. All it would take is the political will to remove the current speed limit, kick freight off the tracks, and make modest investments on incremental upgrades. Tilting train technology, such as Cascades’ Talgo (like Britain’s use of Pendolino) is the way to go until tracks can be straightened enough for true HSR operation.

    1. Keep in mind the Britain’s antique infrastructure also led to a number of bad accidents in the 90’s — mostly caused by signaling issues — that forced the government to throw bags of money at upgrading said signaling and caused widespread slow-orders in the interim.

      I agree with you that Britain’s train system proves that you can run good medium-to-high-speed service on the same tracks as freight, provided the tracks have the capacity and you prioritize passenger service. I doubt the political will exists to do this “immediately,” and the situation is complicated by the private ownership of the railroad, but what you suggest is basically what exists in most of the UK, and it works well.

    2. “Kick freight off the tracks”? The freight companies own ALL of the tracks in Washington and Oregon. The trains are there because Congress said “you can’t stop offering your (money losing) passenger service unless you agree that forever Amtrak can run on your tracks for your avoidable costs.”

      Since they (except Southern and D&RGW) very much wanted to be shed of those money losing passengers services, they agreed. That’s why we have Amtrak.

      “Kicking freight off the tracks” would be a HUGE fustercluck for the US economy. And you think trucks are bad on I-5 now? Buster, have I got a bridge for you.

    3. Freight rail saves a ton of fuel compared to trucking everything across the country. That’s one major advantage the US has over Europe. So we don’t want to destroy freight rail. But we need to find some way to accommodate higher-speed passenger trains and more of them.

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