This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.
Since I’m already musing about blowing up the WSDOT long-range plan for Amtrak Cascasdes, let’s see where this train of thought (so to speak) leads us.
Let’s imagine a parallel universe, one where, for whatever reason, the Port of Seattle is unable to build the third runway at SeaTac. Maybe Burien and the other neighboring cities win their lawsuit blocking its construction, or maybe the soil’s no good. Whatever the reason, SeaTac hits capacity. To prioritize incoming air traffic, the Port hikes gate fees, so that only long-distance routes are profitable. Or maybe in this alternative universe, we’ve passed some sort of carbon tax, and so carbon-intensive industries like airlines are under pressure to reduce their emissions. In either scenario, what happens to the short-hop flights to Bellingham, Portland, Yakima, and the like? In the former, possibly they move to Boeing Field, if neighbors there allow it. But possibly Alaska Airlines, which operates most of those flights, sees a different opportunity, and works with the state to develop a rail link to those cities. Land at SeaTac, take a short bus ride to Tukwila Amtrak station, and ride Alaska Rail to Portland.
SNCF offers a similar service in France, but SNCF is a state-owned company. Virgin Trains running on state-owned tracks in the UK might be a better example. The government there has upgraded the tracks and leased them to the train companies. We might imagine something similar happening here. Capital costs are always easier to come by than operating costs. Upgrading the tracks and working with BNSF to lease them out should certainly be possible (especially in this parallel universe where the cost of short-hop flights has gone up).
Usually I’m against privatizing infrastructure. Privatized toll roads, for example, are a bad idea. But in this case, the infrastructure — the tracks — is already private. Republicans in congress would probably love it. And though Northwesterners are typically skeptical of big private companies in this way (with good reason!) I have to think Alaska Air’s status as a regional darling would buy it enough good will (how many people do you know with Alaska Air credit cards? And have I told you lately about their all-Boeing fleet?).
Anyway, this is probably lunacy. And I certainly can’t prove it would result in better, faster, more reliable Northwest intercity train service. But as I said in my last post, I think the nation is begging for some region to step up to the plate and change the game when it comes to intercity passenger rail, and I think it should be us.