'Amtrak Cascades Ad' by Oran

Yesterday, WSDOT announced that it has officially applied for $120 million of the $2.4B high-speed rail funds rejected by Florida back in February.  The money would be used  to improve the Cascade corridor, including environmental and engineering work for much-needed slope stabilization.  Combined with the money WSDOT has already been awarded –  $590 million in original stimulus funds and $161 million rejected by Wisconsin and Ohio – the total funding package could top $870 million.

According to WSDOT, the funding has different criteria which effectively reduces the amount the state can apply for:

The Florida-related funding has more stringent “readiness” requirements, narrowing the list of p1rojects eligible for consideration. Projects in WSDOT’s application are primarily for environmental and engineering work to stabilize hillsides, add capacity to reduce conflicts with freight, and replace an aging trestle. All projects funded by the ARRA rail grants must be completed by September 2017.

Assuming the Republican-controlled House fails to cancel Obama’s HSR program, these dollars will be a welcome addition to improving the Cascades, which is already one of Amtrak’s more popular corridors.

55 Replies to “WSDOT officially applies for HSR funding rejected by FL”

  1. Is that “aging trestle” the one coming into Freighthouse Square? I hope so! I always thought it was strange to plan for a shiny new Pt Defiance Bypass while having the approach to Tacoma remain a single-track, 100 year old, 10mph wooden trestle.

    1. I’ll be floored if this isn’t it. There aren’t very many ‘aging trestles’ on the line. It’s the perfect stimulant to work on that whole little stretch, from where the Sounder splits from the mainline all the way up the hill to the Tacoma Dome station. Is the station going to be dual-platformed when Lakewood service starts (to say nothing of Cascades service)?

    2. @BH’er: Just because the MILW built the trestle a century or so ago doesn’t mean that’s exactly how old the current structure is; periodic maintenance is continuously performed on the bridge, and deficient members are replaced when identified by inspections.

      Having said that: Replacement of the trestle has always been part of the PDB plan, it was just a matter of finding the funding to get the work done. It will be interesting to see if accommodation is made for the final built-out of two main tracks through here; it does not appear that ST took such future planning into consideration when it specified design criteria for the new Pacific Ave. overpass.

      @DIT: A second station track will not be added as part of the Sound Transit work; schedules will be designed so that Sounder trains do not meet between FHS and Lakewood. Not sure what the plan is for when Amtrak moves its operations over from the current depot.

      1. The Pacific Ave. overpass was supposed to be specified to be suitable for future expansion to two tracks (it just means wider support walls), and I believe the Milwaukee Road trestle replacement also is, at least judging by the preliminary information I’ve seen in the long range plans (though in that case it means building one viaduct while leaving room to build a second parallel viaduct, IIRC).

    3. I for one hope it’s the horrible stretch between Everett and Marysville. The day that track is completely redone is the day I send WSDOT a dozen roses.

  2. I certainly hope any and all states that are interested in higher-speed rail apply for the scraps off Florida’s vandalized table.

    But I think the best outcome is for California to get most of it, and succeed at getting its voter-approved bullet train up and running. The existence of such a line will provide much greater impetus for adding Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver to that corridor. It will also create the textbook for how to get a true HSR line running in this country.

    1. $120 million is a very small portion of the $2.4 billion Florida walked away from. I know projects in other states are applying for that money as well, but I’m sure at least some will go to CHSR.

      At this point I’m not to worried about CHSR. They’ve got enough to start construction of their MOS out in the Central Valley. Parts of the line outside the Central Valley have a lot further to go before they will be “shovel ready”. Sure more money means a longer initial segment, but that isn’t a reason to starve other deserving projects in WA, OR, IL, NC, or elsewhere (NEC anyone?).

    2. I agree with Brent. California should get most of it. But a little slice our way–and this slice is pretty small–is a good thing. My concern would be that if you add up little slices like this, the amount California gets might be too small to really help that project. In the long run, their project is the most important because it will spur calls for more investment in the long run.

      I actually think the NEC needs the money least. There’s not enough to upgrade them to true HSR, and they’ve got a pretty good moderately-high speed system already. My priorities would be California, then probably Chicago, then the Northwest, with the Northeast and other regions trailing.

      1. I suspect a lot of that money is to upgrade the notoriously old and flaky electrical system in the NEC. This has left thousands of commuters stranded on trains in New Jersey a couple of times in the last year. I’d like to see the NEC get a chunk of this money.

  3. I’m not so concerned about true HSR, as I am about getting the tracks between Vancouver BC and Portland stable so that every dang heavy rain we get doesn’t close down the corridor for two days. Having regular, reliable and reasonably fast service on that run will show that there is a need for high speed rail. Beside knocking a 1/2 hr off the total trip time between Seattle and Portland isn’t as crucial as taking the 800 mile trip from Seattle to San Fransisco and making that a 5 hr trip. And no one is talking about the cost of setting up that right of way yet.

    1. The worst mudslides are north of Seattle. I wonder if the concerns with getting Canada to let in the extra daily train is why they’re focusing on Seattle-Portland more.

      1. The reason for the focus on Seattle-Portland is because it’s the more productive route segment. In the long range plan, it will have more service.

      2. Right, but I believe there are also more mudslides on the north. At least I see far more tweets about Sounder North being closed than Cascades to Portland.

      3. We have (or rather had) a viable alternate route between Seattle and Everett, that is not effected by Mudslides. We just need to convince WSDOT to rebuild the bridge at Wilberton

      4. There was also the Seattle to Everett Interurban line. Part of that is now a trail. Not sure about the rest of the ROW. I think it’s pretty much gone.

      5. Lor,
        And in case the slide is north of Everett, they could rebuild the NP line near Highway 9 (now thw Centennial Trail).

      6. Really seems like the inland routes should have been rebuilt north of Seattle. That coastal route is just asking for trouble.

      7. Calm down people. The “inland” route served nowhere! That’s why BNSF tore it up and sold 3/4 of it off. North of Mount Vernon it provides their interchange with CP and takes pressure off the beautiful but nightmarish line at the base of Chuckanut Mountain, so they kept that portion.

        The inland route will never be rebuilt. Can you imagine going through downtown Renton and Sumas to get to Vancouver? It’s 100 miles farther and just as curvaceous as the coast line.

        Calm yourselves. Apoplexy threatens!

    2. I’m guessing that the bit about stabilising hillsides at least includes some of the northern segment, because WSDOT and Amtrak have both been fretting about just how often it’s been closed this winter.

  4. Why are we investing money in the current corridor? I was under the impression that the current Cascades corridor was a complete non-starter for true HSR for two reasons:
    1. Since it’s shared with freight, there are hard caps on speed and frequency
    2. The turning radius of the tracks on much of the corridor is way too low to support HSR

    You’re not going to convince anyone that rail is viable by marginal improvements to the existing service. We should follow the route of California and start planning for real HSR now, rather than sinking hundreds of millions into a corridor that we know it is physically impossible to run HSR along.

    1. Wacka wacka wacka. This has been endlessly rehashed on other STB comment threads. California-style HSR would cost a fortune and doesn’t make sense given the tax base and population in the north west. For a fraction of the price, we can get bi-hourly trains that are reliable and faster than driving.

      1. Heck, I don’t even care if it’s faster. Not having to drive the damn route is good enough.

      2. @Bruce, I agree and more. HSR up here is a complete waste. Spending money to improve our existing system gives far more value and use to the taxpayers.

        The Cascades keep getting better, why mess with them except to add a few more stops possibly.

      3. Note also that it’s looking likely that California HSR will end up in the 90-120 mph range in the populated areas, and since most of the Cascades corridor is populated, it’s not like building something “California-style” would really add all that much.

        Like everyone else said: reliability, frequency and reasonably fast speeds (90-120 mph) are we really need in the Northwest.

    2. Stephen, I suggest you read frequent commenter Alexander Craghead’s article in the April 2011 Trains Magazine for an excellent explanation of why, contrary to your belief, the incremental improvements to the Cascades corridor have been extremely valuable, which is why Washington is one of the few states that has a viable, ongoing HrSR program. (Outside the Boston-D.C. corrdior, the only places Amtrak can run 100+ are NYC-Albany-Schenectady, on portions of the Chicago-Detroit corridor, and on portions of the Chicago-St. Louis corridor; we’re next in line to construct infrastructure which can support such operations.)

      1. I went to look it up, but unfortunately it’s behind a pay wall. Do you mind summarizing?

      2. Hey Dave, thanks for the heads up. I will try and summarize the article somewhat.

        First, recall that Amtrak Cascades was born in the 1990s, and during that time, there were many other “HSR” projects under way. Most notably both Florida and Texas had extensive, “true” HSR programs on the books, the Florida FOX and the Texas TGV, respectively. On paper, both looked very good, promising true HSR speeds and tight, well anchored networks or lines.

        However, as one friend likes to say, you can’t get there from here.

        Both projects fizzled in political turmoil, while Washington’s survived and thrived. Why? Specifically because the Washington DOT project was incremental.

        In the 1990s there was almost no rail service in FL, TX, or WA. Don’t get me wrong, Amtrak ran daily trains in most if not all of these states, and in WA, there was a daily coach trip from Portland to Seattle. Ridership on these was pretty paltry, though, these trains were basically just placeholders and the rail equivalent of transportation of last resort. Most people hadn’t taken the train PDX-SEA and most people, further, didn’t even know there was one.

        In preparing the article I talked with Gil Mallory, formerly of WS-DOT, later president of the Amtrak West business unit (remember those?) and after that Amtrak’s head of commuter rail and state contracted operations. As Gil put it, there was no “rail culture” anymore. Going from no rail culture straight to high-speed, as had been proposed in FL and TX, was simply untenable. And sure enough, each project failed because there just wasn’t the public support, and thus no political support either.

        In WA, the project was an experiment endorsed by the legislature but within very tight boundaries. If it failed, it was over. This meant that WS-DOT had to husband their limited funds very very carefully. It was a succeed or die scenario, and through careful choices, they were able to show that their initial 6 month trial was worth repeating. Then extending. Then improving. While this meant the program became inherently incremental and thus slower to develop than an “all at once” approach might be, it bears pointing out: what programs from the 1990s HSR boomlet are still with us? None, except for Amtrak Cascades, the only one that bucked the trend of have it all, have it now.

        There are other aspects to the story too, such as choosing speed, and defining what it means to be convenient, but the rapid growth from 95k riders to ~900,000 riders is a testament to how successful this approach has been. If WA-DOT had held out for a large scale true HSR program it is unlikely it would have received the support of the public much less the legislature, and there would be no Amtrak Cascades at all today.

      3. That does sound quite convincing, although you can’t discount the general political climate of the three states. Right-wingers in this neck of the woods will still denounce rail as a boondoggle if you give them a chance, but they are not in the majority. In Texas and Florida, it’s the other way around.

        The incrementalism in an advantage politically, of course. No-one’s going to make killing the Point Defiance bypass one of their campaign pledges, it’s under the radar, as are all the other little things WSDOT has done. Taking Cascades from Portland on a whim was how I first visited Seattle and I might not be here if it were not for the quiet work that they’ve done, and I thank them for it.

      4. The other state which had massive success with incrementalism was North Carolina. Not exactly a “blue state”.

        The other state which had serious TROUBLE with attempting to make massive leaps all at once, rather than making incremental improvements, was New York, which has not had significant service improvements over most of the Amtrak period, despite a *really* attractive route. Only once cities started putting in the money for incremental improvements themselves did improvements start coming to the Empire Corridor.

    3. Seattle-Portland is already 3:30. It takes a solid 3 hours to drive from Seattle to Portland without traffic. So it’s only a half hour longer. The incremental improvements will bring it down toward 3 hours and even below. The Point Defiance bypass alone will shave off 10 minutes. 3 hours is a reasonable amount of time to get to Portland; we don’t need to bring it down to 2 hours or 30 minutes. Of course, if it cost nothing to do so, why not? But costs raise exponentially the faster you go. The money we don’t spend on HSR to California is money we can spend making a really first-class system in the Northwest (Cascades, Sounder, Link, lines to eastern Washington, etc.) *After* California finishes its HSR line and it’s successful, then we can start thinking about building a brand-new line from the northwest.

    4. Also, as I commented in the “On Rail Nostalgia” thread, states that did make incremental improvements over the past twenty years now have better train service (California, Washington, Oregon), and one of them is building HSR. In contrast, Florida has been pursuing HSR exclusively for the past decade, and now has nothing.

    5. Stephan, I couldn’t agree more, and tried to convince AAWA to start thinking beyond incrementalism to no avail.
      There are opportunities now that will probably not be available if we dither on ROW acquisitions to incrementally divorce the Cascade trainsets from BNSF corridor traffic. Someday we’re going to want to go faster than 110.
      1. Instead of having the prairie line rejoin the BNSF south of Lakewood, take it through Joint Base McCord (nobody is getting off, so security is not a problem), and take it through the existing downtown tunnel in Olympia at the Transit Center.
      2. New Capital Station. Relocate Centennial Station.
      3. Join the nearly abandoned line used by Tacoma Rail to store obsolete SP intermodal trainsets that parallels I-5 to Centralia, via the abandoned ROW from Olympia to near I-5.
      There’s some missing links in all this, but bridging 3 miles here, and 5 miles there is a lot less expensive than drawing a line between Portland and Bellingham, and saying you have to buy it all.
      The point is this,
      Amtrak Cascades passenger rail is doing just fine sharing the ROW and cost with BNSF, and we wouldn’t be where we’re at without that approach. Bravo to WSDOT/AAWA.
      But long-term, it becomes a hostage to ever increasing demands to remain.
      Just look at how much ST had to pay to incrementally add trainsets to the schedule in each of the next few years. About 50 mil per trip. That buys a lot of concrete ties and welded rail.

      1. Yeah, that 50 mil buys you rather less than five miles of HSR, I suspect. Call me when you’ve figured out how to get the other few billion.

        The areas that form the “carshed” for such a line are King County, Pierce County and Bainbrige and Bremerton with the ferries, and the Portland/Vancouver-WA metro area. How many people is that compared to the Central Valley?

        We don’t have the people. Not everyone gets to have the fastest and shiniest toy.

      2. (1) ROW acquisitions in the urbanized areas are poitnlessly and impossibly expensive already — they’ll only be possible after the train is *immensely* popular (witness the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Part 2, for an example of how such urban approaches happen last).

        (2) In the rural areas, there is relatively little opportunity cost in delaying getting the ROW. At least once it’s already abandoned; it’s always valuable to preserve it intact and prevent buildings from being dropped on it, of course.

        (3) You have to improve the slowest sections first, which means the urban sections, which are the ones where you can’t get exclusive ROW easily.

        (4) They ARE getting exclusive ROW now. Point Defiance Bypass. The “Olympia route” you propose is an excellent future idea, but let’s do one major bypass track at a time, OK? In addition, south of Chehalis, it’s either BNSF or greenfield, and they are planning additional passenger-only tracks around (for instance) Kelso.

  5. Replace the wooden trestle going into Freighthouse Square? Yes please!

    I think the Tacoma Amtrak station should be moved to Freighthouse (or is that too much to ask?) I was thinking about how everything is offered at Everett Station when I say that.

  6. http://zierke.com/shasta_route/pages/04example.html

    This page suggests existing Cascades trains could go even faster within the existing curve radii and explains how regulation and the nature of rail operations in the US make Amtrak trains slower than they could be.

    The FRA’s philosophy on rail safety is the same as the one SUV/big truck drivers have, bigger and heavier is safer, and goes at odds with the rest of the world. An article explains How the FRA is Regulating Passenger Rail Out of Existence.

    1. Agreed, Oran. One just needs to look at what happened with the Acela trainsets and their failing brakes discs to understand that the bigger-is-better philosophy is a fallacy. (For review: the vehicles were so beefed up from what Bombardier was accustomed to building that they weren’t able to accurately account for how the increased braking forces would affect the discs over time, leading to cracking.)

      Here’s a fun one to research: Will new federal equipment regulations permit any new passenger services from operating Talgo equipment?

      1. I’m pretty sure that the HSR replacement of Amtrak’s Hiawatha is getting Talgo equipment.

      2. Wasn’t this predicated upon the fact that if the Feds payed for it, they dictate what the standards are? I was under the assumption(yes, assumption) that if Oregon or Wash. bought them with their own money then the Feds have no say. Or did this change and I of course missed the ball….

      3. WA/OR will be able to purchase new Talgo sets because they’re operating under an existing FRA waiver, but it’s my understanding that the new equipment regs have basically regulated Talgo out of business in the US. All that investment they made in Wisconsin for a manufacturing facility so they could comply with Buy American laws and build trainsets here? Basically a waste of money.

      4. Let’s hope the FRA gets sane. Apparently there is huge pressure for them to do so, from agencies as disparate as Caltrain and NJ Transit — all the experts are telling them “heavier is not better, cut it out”.

      5. Well, we can point out that light trains cost much less so it would be a “deficit cutting” measure. And it would be a cheap way to reduce oil usage and emissions. (We may have to give the oil companies a tax break to compensate for that loss in profit.)

      6. I read somewhere that Cascades uses a compliant engine or power car (“cabbage”?) at each end of the train in order to be compliant.

      7. @ Bernie.

        It isn’t required for the train to run with the cab car (cabbage). Its been done and ran many, many times, especially as of late with the failures of the F59’s and/or the cab cars themselve.

        Actually there was a picture on one of the railroad forum sites of a Union Pacific freight engine leading the Cascades with nothing protecting the rear. Pretty cool to see it!

      8. Thanks Brian. I was hoping you could clear that up; not sure where the rumor started. I found a little bit of discussion about it in this post which referes to an NPCU (de-engined F40PH). For those interested in the relationship between BNSF and passenger service there’s a nice write-up in Pride of the Northwest. It’s focus is Sounder but the same principles apply to Amtrak.

  7. Before we get ahead of ourselves, lets remember this is all “Assuming the Republican-controlled House fails to cancel Obama’s HSR program,” which is a pretty big assumption. With the conventional wisdom in DC becoming “should we cut a little” or “should we cut a lot,” it seems pretty unlikely that they will continue forward with the Florida rail money. It’s always easier to cut money that hasn’t been spent yet than an existing program. The good news is that the $590 million is locked in and the $161 million is probably far enough in the pipeline to go through.

    1. True, but it never hurts to ask. Once it is awarded, it gives the awardees and their legislators in Congress something to fight for.

  8. Meanwhile, Oregon is applying for #13 million of the former Florida money. Half of that will go to buy three locomotives. Otherwise, they were awarded $8 million in the first round to do some engineering work prior to construction and $8.9 in the second round, most of which will be spent planning. It looks like the southernmost part of the Cascades is still a ways from seeing improvements.

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