This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Alaska train

Alaska trainWordRidden

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.

6 Replies to “A Different Path for Seattle-Portland HSR”

  1. I don’t know. I’d think they’d rather use infrastructure that someone else has already paid for – the highways – rather than rent time on a monopoly-owned track. Quick Shuttle gets you from downtown Seattle to downtown Vancouver in about 4 hours for $74 round trip.

    Of course bus rides aren’t nearly as nice or efficient as train rides, and wouldn’t be as fast, but it’s likely what we’d end up with from the cost-cutting private sector.

    I’d love to see the public build it’s own tracks for passenger service, then run it as a utility and open up the track for private service (charging a fee, but not a high one). That’s one of the things that government does best – building infrastructure that benefits the public but wouldn’t be built commercially or would be run as a monopoly.

  2. (Did I say $74 round trip? I just ran though a test ticket and it’s actually $48.45 round trip, with children under 5 free. That’s hard to beat.)

  3. (For comparison, the same trip on Amtrak takes only 3 – 3.5 hours each way, but costs $80 each, and $40 for a 2-yr old. But you can rent a bicycle for $5 each! Nice.)

  4. Good point, Matt. I’m conflating two ideas from my last post: one where we piggyback on BNSF and another around building a new track along the I-5 ROW. The only way to get true, true HSR is going to be along a dedicated ROW.

  5. (We need an edit feature. I realized both that the train is actually 4 hours, or 3 – 3.5 hours for Amtrak buses. And it’s $5 to ship your bike, not rent it. So looking at just time and money, not experience, the Vancouver bus leaves Amtrak in the dust.)

  6. I like the thoughts here. Keep it up. I’ve tried for some time to convince others that hitching our HSR wagons to BNSF forever is folly. Just look how much Sound Transit got soaked for commuter rail, and recently negotiated with BNSF for about 40 million for each new slot during the day to add a trainset into the schedule. That’s not a negotiation, it’s called a mugging.

    WSDOT/Amtrak will be held hostage every time they want to ‘improve’ service.

    There are plenty of opportunities to start buying ROW at reasonable prices to limit the amount of trackage time the corridor trains will need to buy. Here’s a few.

    1. UP row Seattle to Tacoma, shifting UP/BNSF to one corridor, including some 3rd mainline. Or go the other way. Shift BNSF to the UP, and leave CR and HSR to share tracks through the valley. Money talks, and should be courting the Class 1’s for some creative route accommodations.

    2. From Dupont, go aerial along i-5 to Olympia, then across Capital Lk, up the hill on abandon Thurston Co. ROW to link up with the old line that runs alongside I-5 to Centralia. (it’s currently home to obsolete SP intermodals gathering rust)

    Gee, we’re halfway to Portland!

    Kelso 3rd main is going to happen, so use it. Now we’re poised for 125-150 mph service to Portland, which makes trains faster than both cars and planes.

    Sharing tracks with freights is a recipe for status quo service levels. Just wait till 25 coal trains a day from WY/MT start running to Bellingham to really screw up the time slots. $$ cha-ching!

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