In 2014, the Panama Canal will double its capacity, adding a third shipping lane and dredging its channels to 60′. The primary effect of this will be to make East Coast ports significantly more attractive to Asian shipping interests, most of whom currently call at prominent West Coast ports (Long Beach, Tacoma, Seattle, Vancouver, Prince Rupert, etc…) for intermodal transfer to the midwest and east by rail. Despite our highly successful shift toward services and technology, a robust industrial base remains key to a healthy Cascadian economy, and a significant drop in freight rail traffic would cause significant harm.
To remain competitive, our regional governments (the British Columbia Legislative Assembly, the legislatures of Oregon and Washington, and to a lesser extent, the Idaho legislature) should recognize the urgent need to partner on major rail investments in the next legislative cycle. Washington has the most urgent needs, and the proposed investments are expensive.
Back in 2006, the Washington State Transportation Commission released the Washington State Rail Investment Plan, identifying major chokepoints and necessary improvements (see image above). It is worth noting that the mainline between Seattle and Portland is significantly less congested than the cross-Cascades routes: Seattle-Portland was just over 50% capacity, Portland-Spokane (BNSF) and Portland-Boise (UP) were both at 90-100% capacity, while Everett-Wenatchee (through the Cascade tunnel) was 22% over practical capacity. The report laid out two alternatives (reproduced below): Alternative A would have added capacity for 24 additional trains per day and cost $350 million, primarily by crown-cutting the Stampede Pass tunnel to allow for double-stacked trains. Alternative B would have added capacity for 75 additional trains per day for approximately $2.0 billion, constructing a new Stampede tunnel, allowing 20-minute headways between Auburn and Ellensburg, and allowing two trains in the Cascade Tunnel at the same time, among many other improvements.
Despite continuing austerity at the state level, it is very likely that a major transportation package will be forthcoming in the next session, and I sincerely hope that we can simultaneously identify a new and sustainable source for transit funding while securing the investments necessary to sustain our industrial base.
Of course, such investments would bring welcome new opportunities for passenger service as well. For instance, a daytime round-trip train between Seattle and Spokane would take 6.5 hours on a Talgo, be immune to seasonal disruptions in the Midwest, and do much to bridge the cultural Cascade Curtain. New cross-Cascades passenger service could piggyback on freight investment for very little additional cost, especially considering the fact that we will have surplus trainsets until after the Point Defiance Bypass is complete in 2017. Considering that air service between Seattle and Spokane is being reduced in January, now may be the time to look at additional rail.