Rail Capacity Constraints – 2006

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.

2006 WSTC Rail Investment Plan

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.

81 Replies to “Northwest Governments Should Go Big on Rail”

  1. Highway 2 between Monroe and Wenatchee is probably most beautiful drive across the Cascades. But the road is old and narrow, and traffic can be a nightmare- right alongside a major freight railroad. One passenger train a day across there, and some excursion trains holiday season.

    While some road construction is probably overdue, would like to see rail upgraded to minimize need for highway space.

    Mark Dublin

  2. “do much to bridge the cultural Cascade Curtain”

    Ah, no. There is absolutely no way that a train between Spokane and Seattle is going to do absolutely anything to bridge the Cascade Curtain. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea and at 6.5 hours I would love to use it, but I know both sides of the Curtain very well and it is going to take much more than a train to bridge that gap. (Increased urbanization in Spokane/E Wa might help, but they still are developing on the old suburban models).

    Resurrecting the old Milwaukee Road Beverly route is well past due. That, and improving clearances over Stampede Pass would do a lot for capacity and rail transit times. It should be done.

    Q: A few years back I was up mushroom picking near Tunnel 4 and it was all marked up for reconstruction to improved clearances. What happened to that effort? And why would they improve the clearance on Tunnel 4 and not on the Stampede Pass tunnel?

    1. Both tunnels are two low for double stack. That effort was shelved when the economy tanked and train traffic dropped. Also, capacity improvements and new DPU technology allowed BNSF to run more trains on Stevens and along the Gorge.

    2. This state is starting to re-orient itself around a growing “Inland Washington” (the new term for East of the Cascades), and I applaud it.

      A high speed rail line through the Cascades and linking up Ellensberg, Yakima, Tri-Cities and Spokane would be a fantastic growth boom.

      It would free up tremendous living and business opportunities.

      It would give people the ability to live in smaller, less congested towns and cities that are of manageable size.

      That map is little fuzzy and hard to read. I wish there were a clearer image.

      But my question is about the Stampede Pass line. That must be freight only, right? When I look at the Amtrak schedule to try and get from Kent to Pasco it seems the only options are to take the train to Portland and then eastward. Or to take an Empire Builder and double back from Spokane … pleasant I’m sure, but not useful if you want speed.

      1. The map was taken from the “Washington State Rail Investment Plan”, to which there is a link in the article.

      2. Passenger trains on the Stampede Pass/Yakima corridor ended decades ago. The only Amtrak service is Vancouver-Seattle-Portland and Seattle-Wenatchee-Spokane. A few people have floated reviving the line to SLC and Denver, but it has less ridership payback than other improvements would.

      3. Washington has essentially THREE Amtrak rail lines.

        1) Cascades – Vancouver BC / Seattle / Portland (roughly following the I-5 Corridor)

        2) Empire Builder SEATTLE branch – Seattle / Wenatchee / Spokane (roughly following the US Highway 2)

        3) Empire Builder PORTLAND branch – Portland / Vancouver WA / Bingen-White Salmon / Pasco (Columbia River Gorge)

        You are correct that there is no passenger service across Stampede Pass, but people often forget about Washington’s #3 Amtrak line (so to speak). The Empire Builder splits in Spokane, and that branch of it serves several Washington communities on it’s way down the Columbia to Portland.

      4. Three? Last time I checked the Coast Starlight serviced 6 stations in Washington which is nearly the same as the Seattle to Chicago Empire Builder.

        The only real practical line in WA is the Cascades. All others are once a day trains that take forever.

      5. I attended the Washington/Oregon APA Conference in Portland that wrapped up today, and visited a session on statewide passenger rail investment. In short, it seems expanding passenger rail capacity outside the I-5 corridor is a non-starter.

        I even asked during Q and A how I-5 corridor passenger rail service expansions will benefit people in what’s soon to be a bi-state CMSA and whose major public university was started by an 1880s railroad industrialist and happens to sit on the other side of the state. The panel was left speechless.

        Oh, BTW, in response to Mike Orr’s post below regarding personal intercity transportation mode choice, I took Greyhound as it’s less expensive and more convenient than Amtrak.

      6. I took Greyhound as it’s less expensive and more convenient than Amtrak.

        Pretty much my son’s conclusion traveling up and back to B’ham. Amtrak costs more, takes longer, is less reliable and has a worse schedule (and Amtrak buses are just… well, why???). It is however a treat to take the train when you have the time/money and want to enjoy the deluxe treatment and views that can’t be beat.

      7. I actually did the same for several years: I took Greyhound because it was cheaper than Amtrak and had a better schedule. My impression of Amtrak was, “Slower than a bus, more expensive than flying, and it goes once a day.” On Amtrak I could go to Vancouver Saturday morning and come back Sunday night, but on Greyhound I could go up on Friday evening after work, spend Friday and Saturday night up there, and come back Sunday morning. But as I get older comfort becomes more important. I’m tired of sleeping in hostels and taking Greyhound. So last year I took Amtrak to Portland for Rail~volution, and two years ago I took the Empire Builder to Chicago. It’s worth it for the comfort and the space and the electric outlets and the atmosphere. Plus the lack of tiresome passengers and staff you sometimes get on Greyhound.

      8. I also used to travel on Greyhound’s 2-week and 4-week passes, which let you go to as many places as you like and change your mind at any time. I travelled across the country two or three times on those. But now if I wanted to make an east coast tour, I’d take a train or plane to New York and start my Greyhound trip there.

      9. For Oregon nearly everyone in the state lives within 15 miles of I-5 (something like 90%) so their rail plans should be easy.

        For WA that’s not the case but still I’d say that 75% live in the Puget Sound area so again rail down I-5 probably make the most sense to serve Washington’s needs. However a Seattle to Spokane connection following I-90 and then a Spokane to Tri-Cities to Portland (similar to the current route) would take care of most of the state. A cheaper to run Sounder-like train from Wenatchee-Ellensburg-Yakima-Yakima Valley-Tri-Cities-Walla Walla train would connect virtually every town larger than 3000 people.

        I spent some time last summer driving around the Colombia basin and realized that all of those little towns still have grand old passenger train stations and wine tourism has gone through the roof. It would be great to board a train from Seattle to Ellensburg then a short run down to the Colombia basin for wine tourism. It could be a package deal with hotel, ticket and the wineries could run shuttles around. Towns (the businesses within) could even subsidize the ticket since people who spend the night will spend more than $10 since it would be impossible not to.

        As far as the Greyhound being better than Amtrak I got a little pain in my temple when I read that. I’ve ridden Greyhound quite a bit and I’ve ridden Amtrak a lot and I can’t believe the two are even in the same sentence. Greyhound is torture. Even if Amtrak locked you in your seat and only pulled over once every 4 hours for bathroom breaks it would still be a great deal better than Greyhound! The only reason to take Greyhound is it goes to places Amtrak doesn’t and is more frequent. Outside of that I can’t say anything good about it.

      10. I have reached neither the state of decrepity nor poverty to take Greyhound. When I do, I will know it’s time to stay home.

        If the Amtrak schedule doesn’t work for me – but it usually does, as I call the shots for both business and leisure travel – I fire up the old car.

  3. The name of the body in British Columbia is the Legislative Assembly.


    The “Parliament” includes the Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) and the cabinet (Ministers, who have the status of department secretaries but retain the position of MLA) but also “The Queen in Right of British Columbia”, currently a Mrs. Elizabeth Windsor of Palace Road, London SW1, England who is almost always represented by an appointed Lieutenant Governor.

    So the equivalent of the legislatures of WA, OR and ID in BC is the Legislative Assembly, not “The Parliament”.

      1. Yeah, “WAC Bennett.” I noticed that too. That was witty. Well played, anonymous British Columbian. Well played.

  4. Sadly, as long as gregoire is governor, I’m skeptical is to if there will be any rail in the transportation bill at all.

      1. Originally, governor Mike Lowry and whoever was working with him in the legislature, I believe. But yes, the two subsequent governors seem to have supported Cascades strongly.

        Small point: I believe one of the Cascades trips is not state-funded, existing prior to 1993.

  5. Somehow I’m not seeing the benefit to Washington State tax payers to build a better rail system to be used by private corporations like Burlington Northern to ship stuff from China to the Midwest. Yes we get jobs by unloading ships, but I’d rather we subsidize manufacturing here in WA than make it easier for China to build stuff and ship it to the midwest. And the jobs multiplier would be much larger.

    Ok, I get that better access for passenger rail is good, but I don’t see that in this article except as a side issue. And passenger trains and freight trains don’t mix well because of the speed differential.

    1. Sending many more freights over Stampede would free up lots of space for passenger trains. No they don’t mix well with freight, but the idea is to add enough capacity that both purposes have breathing room. I agree with the point about preferring to subsidize local manufacturing jobs, but I just don’t see it happening. The underlying economics will probably continue to dictate a large trade deficit with China for years or decades to come, and if the choice is that vs nothing, I’d rather us invest in moving their stuff than let it all go to Newark or Savannah via Panama.

      1. If a new train is created between Seattle and Spokane, it would likely be routed via Stampede Pass. Most of the population centers between Seattle and Spokane are located near the old NP/Stampede Pass line (Auburn, Ellensburg, Yakima and the Tri-Cities).

        Is electrification of the Stevens Pass line included in any of the proposed projects? I know BNSF has expressed interest in studying the idea. If the Stevens Pass line were electrified between Everett and Wenatchee, tunnel capacity would increase immediately. But I don’t have any idea if the cost of stringing wire plus the operational cost of the engine changes would be balanced by time savings and operational efficiencies.

      2. Using the Cali HSR estimates, electrification is about $10 million/mile. Electric locomotives are a few million each, and no clue what substations cost. But it would be a spendy project.

        The tunnel isn’t the lines biggest capacity constraint, it’s the distance and travel time between sidings at Scenic and Skykomish. It’s about 11 miles, 2.2% grade and 20 mph. The Tunnel is about 9 miles from Berne to Scenic, 1.5%, and 20 mph. Electrification solves the flushing issue, but not the siding distance.

        A little operations background of the Cascades Tunnel:
        -Westbound trains can parade though the Tunnel w/o flushing
        -The tunnel requires flushing between each eastbound train
        -A WB train can enter the tunnel after a EB has gone through because the fans push the dirty air out in front of a WB train
        -An EB train can go after a WB as long as its clean enough, but it sometimes requires a flush
        -Of course, this can totally go out the window for whatever reason

      3. The electrification of the Stevens Pass would probably pass cost-benefit analysis by itself, but in order to electrify it *and* carry doublestacks under the wire, the tunnel has to be dug out even more. *That* starts to get really expensive.

    2. Think big picture. Lots of local businesses depend on freight access. Freight mobility on highways is a big deal, and that’s private business using public infrastructure. But we all know the benefits to society if freight can move and what happens if it’s immobile. If we cannot move goods by rail quickly and efficiently, then industries and businesses will not want to move to Washington no matter the subsidies. If we decide to subsidize manufacturing here in Washington, then how will the materials get to the factories and the goods be shipped elsewhere? The alternative is more trucking and highway investment, which can be more costly.

      Look at all the Sounder investments in the Seattle corridor. Now freight and passenger trains operate faster and more efficiently, with fewer conflicts. Once the triple-tracking of Seattle-Tacoma begins, then operations will improve even further. Yeah, a lot of public money is benefiting private businesses, but do hydorelectric dams, and water mains, and buses, and roads, and powerlines. They all benefit private citizens and private businesses.

      Freight and passenger have operated hand-in-hand for over 100 years in times when steam locomotives went 100 mph. With all this technology, motivation, and a little political will, we can do better than what we have. Look at the Golden Age of Railroading, it’s possible.

      1. Steam locomotives, other than in some publicity stunts for newsreels and 1930s movies, seldom averaged or even peaked at 100 MPH – this is a myth that continues to live on and is simply untrue. Yes, Amtrak trains are slower today, but not because there are no steamers pulling the trains.

      2. Lloyd,

        Not sure where you got that from but steam engines regularly and commonly broke 100mph. I’ve seen many photos from old heads to videos of this happening…

        Even the older diesels commonly broke 100mph… Yes, Amtrak service is dramatically slower than what was before….

      3. The Golden Age of Railroading was long before the Current Age of Litigation and Abdication of Common Sense.

    3. The benefit to Washington is easy – “jobs.” Freight moving through our ports, being handled by our workers, and moving over local rail (and probably some roads) certainly has more benefit to Washington then sending the work to California, or Panama, or…..

      And don’t forget improved freight mobility and the potential for improved passenger service.

      1. Ok if we want “jobs” lets lay rail for people and not freight. Extend Sounder & LINK and put in a dedicated rail for Amtrak.

        When we make it easier to ship stuff from China to the Midwest we make it easier to export the manufacturing jobs in the midwest. It’s a net loss for the country.

      2. Unless we make money on goods travelling through Washington I think we need to leave that to the private companies. If we want to create jobs we either build passenger rail or the state gets into the freight rail business.

      3. Gary,

        Ah, no.

        If the Midwest can’t compete in the global economy then that is their problem. It is not our responsibility to constrict our ports and build inefficiency into our transportation system here in Washington just so the Midwest can retain jobs that can be done better and cheaper by unskilled labor in China. We shouldn’t be wasting valuable resources protecting that sort of inefficiency.

        And besides, the $350M we are talking about here to free up our freight corridors would buy something like 1.5 to 2 miles of Link LR. That level of investment in Link just isn’t going to create many jobs compared to investing the same amount in our freight corridors.

    4. Mike,

      The capacity-limiting constraint isn’t just Sky to Scenic, but also Scenic to Berne and Winton to Leavenworth. See page A-9: http://www.wstc.wa.gov/Rail/TM3_RailCapcityNeedsandCnsts.pdf

      Further, if trains exceeding 7,500′ in length are considered, the Everett-Spokane corridor is limited to 18 trains/day because of the short sidings immediately west of Spokane at Edwall, Espanola and Lyons, effectively turning the 39-mile segment between Latah Jct. and beginning of double track at Bluestem into a single-track railroad with no place to meet long trains. This is a valid concern because BNSF plans to run 8,000′ intermodal trains out of the PNW ports.

  6. The “bi-directional running” project would permit a significant increase in capacity by routing nearly all eastbound traffic via Stampede Pass and all westbound traffic via Stevens Pass; this takes greatest advantage of the two routes’ profiles, avoiding the westbound ascent from Beverly to Boylston on the old Milwaukee Road and the eastbound climb through Cascade Tunnel (thereby eliminating the time needed to flush the tunnel). By routing traffic one-way on each line, spacing between trains is reduced to whatever the signal system permits for following movements instead of having to account for meets between opposing trains; thus, for Cascade Tunnel, the capacity would increase to something on the order of 45-50 westbound trains/day. This wouldn’t be the actual capacity, of course, since the Empire Builder would still run in both directions via that Stevens, but it’s still a significant increase over the current practical capacity of 22 trains/day.

    One minor correction, Zach: The capacity-limiting constraint between Seattle and Portland is the single-track section in Tacoma at Ruston & Nelson Bennett Tunnels, which limits practical capacity to 72 trains/day; with about 50 trains/day passing through, the overall corridor is at ~70% capacity. This situation will improve once Point Defiance Bypass opens and the ten daily Amtrak trains are routed away from the tunnels.

    1. Another point: The capacity of the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma to handle intermodal (container) traffic is not limited by the port facilities, but by the ability of the railroads serving the ports to move the goods east. With three BNSF lines across Washington and UP’s line along the Columbia River Gorge all close to capacity, the ports can’t accept more traffic. This is where the opening Stampede Pass to double-stack traffic plays a key role; it gives BNSF (and possibly UP, if persistent rumors about sharing the line because of the use of taxpayer funds to perform the work come to pass) the ability to move more trains out of the Puget Sound reason, permitting the ports to accept more traffic and increasing the amount of international trade that passes through the region.

      1. Ya, directional running has huge advantages to both routes. WB over Stevens and EB over Stampede makes a huge amount of sense and really increases overall capacity. Improve the sidings and you have a huge improvement to total capacity at what amounts to a modest investment.

        I suspect the funding for this would take the form of some sort of partnership between BNSF and Washington state. And if Washington kicks in some funds, then part of the deal would probably be trackage rights for UP (which might give BNSF second thoughts, but….)

        But the problem isn’t the ports, it’s rail capacity. This gets at that in a very efficient manner.

      2. I suspect we’ll a Columbia River Gorge/Stampede Pass pairing first, with loaded coal and grain trains heading west along the river and returning empty over the hill.

      3. Paul, that’s BNSF’s current operating practice: all loaded unit trains run west through the Gorge, and a large number of empties return east via both Stampede and Stevens Passes. For a time in 2009 or 2010 (fuzzy memory) BNSF ran loaded grain trains over Stevens with additional mid-train remote units (DPUs) added at Wenatchee, but that routing fizzled out. They also did some proof-of-concept testing with DPUs on loaded grain trains over Stampede in 2009 and ran one load that way last year for PTC/ETMS testing (see the November issue of Trains Magazine), but it hasn’t developed into a regular practice.

  7. From a passenger rail perspective, for 2 billion we could get a lot farther along the long range plans for the Cascades route. Given the size of the potential passenger market there versus Seattle-Spokane, I’d rather see any additional funds spent finishing the upgrades there first.

    Any freight line improvements ought to come with some kind of funding from BNSF etc. Since they would be the primary benefactor of the upgrades.


    1. 2 billion would probably provide marginal benefits to the Cascades line. The $800 million seems to be doing a lot of reliability improvements rather than speed improvements. To get serious, like 125 mph dedicated operations, we’d need a hell of a lot more money. IMO, until we get more serious, $800 million, or 2 billion, for 2 or maybe 4 more daily SEA-PDX trains isn’t worth the cost with our short little trains and slow trackage.

      2 billion for a Seattle-Spokane or Seattle-Tri Cities could create an entirely new line and give regional train service to a region not at all served by passenger rail. Both corridors are hungry for rail, especially with all the growth on the I90/I82 corridor.

      1. “2 billion would probably provide marginal benefits to the Cascades line. ”

        Where in the world did you come up with that? Two billion would get us another track for 1/3 the distance or electrification the entire way or double tracks to Lacey so Sounder/Cascades could run as much as they wanted through there or 2:30 minute travel times… 2 billion won’t get us our own rails to Portland but would make train travel between the two cities THE best way to travel.

  8. I don’t quite understand all this hostility towards giving a private railroad some public money to improve their lines. It’s not like we’re giving it to a group of bankers or investment brokers. We’re getting measurable benefits and physical infrastructure that’ll last 100 years. If we improve freight lines now, it can open the doors for passenger traffic later when BNSF Railway and WSDOT realize the new additional capacity can be used as such. The state could dump a bunch into a privately-owned Stampede Pass, but suddenly can operate passenger rail now that it’s been upgraded. Or it could allow new passenger service over Stevens now that slow trains have been shifted off that line.

    Started work for a state-owned, privately-operated shortline in Eastern Wa. We’re receiving state money for rail infrastructure (it’s WSDOT’s track), doing the work, and the operators (us) reep the profits after WSDOT’s cut. Now in turn, farmers get better rates for moving freight, larger quantities of raw materials can enter the region more cheaply and efficiently, and we help take thousands of heavy trucks off the roads (saving millions in road maintenance and improving safety on a parallel congested highway by WSDOT’s estimates). There has even been studies and discussion of additional improvements for future passenger operations! That wasn’t even a thought when this first started. If WSDOT didn’t step in, the line was most likely to be abandoned, which benefits no one outside the short run. Now, public money has going to help many private parties here, but is it necessary a bad thing? WSDOT doesn’t think so.

    1. The hostility is due to the history of railroads in this country. They were given massive land grants, money to lay rails and then they ripped off farmer and governments right and left, extorting money to run next to this town vs that.

      Yes freight mobility is key, but is public subsidy without a return on the investment via an equity stake in the company the only way?

    2. My problem is that we’ll be giving it to railroads to fix up tracks that aren’t really good for passenger rail anyway. I’d really like to see passenger rail that’s faster and more comfortable than driving. The former will never happen on freight tracks shared with freight trains. And let’s be honest, they’re never going to build separate tracks for 100 mph rail with state money because it doesn’t benefit them.

  9. Personally I’ve have a bad case of Gotthard Base Tunnel envy for quite a few years now. If we had something similar here we’d have a tunnel that almost made if from Covington to Cle Elum. If you compare the heights of the passes and things like that it doesn’t seem like that crazy of an idea. I wonder if anyone has ever looked into something along those lines?

    1. Such an option really is not cost-effective; our mountains have enough passes at sufficiently low elevations that a base tunnel project would be infeasible. Keep in mind that the majority of the grades on Stevens and Stampede are fairly reasonable; it’s only the relatively short approaches to the tunnels which exceed 2%.

  10. The more rail capacity we can build, the better. As the price of oil goes up, trucking becomes expensive. Unless we see a massive change in battery technology, we’ll never see electric long-haul trucks.

    1. Agreed. But we need Oregon, Washington and British Columbia to join together in creating that regional rail network that will hugely boost tourism, industry, rural-livablity and connectivity throughout Cascadia. The Pacific Northwest is almost an bioregional island all pulled together by the urban cores of Portland, Seattle and Vancouver and these urban areas must have efficient regional passenger rail lines that radiate from the urban center to the rural outlying areas to bring a region into one.

    2. If the price of energy goes up, won’t it be more energy efficient to ship stuff through the Panama Canal? How would the region ever compete with that?

      1. Once goods get to the east coast, they’ll still need to be loaded on trains or trucks to get to their final destination. Depending upon where that is, time and energy might be saved by using a west coast port. The midwest is still quite a long way from Mobile or Savannah or New Jersey.

      2. As someone who interned at the Alabama State Port Authorities Office of International Trade back in the day, I would point out that thanks to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway (Tenn-Tom) and the Intercoastal Canal, almost the entire east coast and the entire Mississippi Basin is open to barge traffic from the Port of Mobile.

      3. Barge traffic becomes very inefficient when it has to go through locks. So although it’s perfectly feasible to get to the Mississipi River and Ohio River destinations, as well as the East Coast destinations, directly by ship and barge, it’s no longer efficient to run it up the Erie Canal (for instance).

        Which means that railroads are still going to be important for a lot of destinations.

  11. Why not construct tracks dedicated to a 100-140mph Talgo train along I-90 through Snoqualmie and then joins the path and follows the frieght train tracks making the same “U” shape from Seattle to Ellensburg, south to Yakima, Tri-Cities a back north to Spokane. I can also see a line going west from Olympia to Aberdeen and follow the coast south to Long Beach, Astoria and Ocean Shores.

    Also, how about a Sounder commuter train line to Port Angeles for Victoria-PA users and other commuters or vacationers?

    1. There are different cost levels at 79 mph, 90 mph, 110 mph, 125 mph, and faster. Each level is significantly more expensive due to different technologies and requirements. The current level is 79 mph, but the actual speed limit is lower in many places due to local track conditions. Currently they’re improving Seattle-Portland bit by bit to eventually reach 90 mph. I vaguely remember something about 110 mph, but 125 is considered too expensive to be worth it. If, in the distant future, California HSR is finished and successful, we could consider an HSR line down to it, but that’s too far off to think about now.

      Many people think 90 mph is fast enough for regional rail. Seattle-Portland is already down to 3.5 hours, which is just 30 minutes longer than driving. 90 mph will bring it closer to 3.0 and possibly even below. Flying takes 30 minutes, plus an hour to go through security and boarding, and however long it takes to get to each airport; meaning downtown-to-downtown it approaches 3 hours too.

      1. BNSF stated a few years ago that they aren’t willing to allow 90 mph passenger trains, but they would be willing to allow 110 mph operations. I don’t know if that policy still stands, but based on the list of ARRA funded improvements, it looks like we’ll be building a very reliable 79 mph corridor from Portland to Seattle.

      2. Guy: You’re right, the current funding is intended to increase reliability in the Cascades corridor without an increase in maximum running speed. That will come about when the dedicated passenger tracks are constructed along BNSF’s existing main track to support 110mph operation; this is amongst the final steps of the original PNWRC 25-year plan.

      3. If we average 90 mph we can do Portland to Seattle in 2 hrs. We only have to average 70 mph to do it in 2:30 which I think is the sweet spot. We only have six stops between Seattle and Portland so as long as there’s no traffic we could probably average 70 by doing 90 and maintaining it.

        I was on the Coast Starlight once from Portland to Seattle and we came in 40 minutes ahead of schedule. That big double decker lumbering Superliner got to Seattle 40 minutes before it was supposed to! Outside of station stops we didn’t even slow down. That’s what it would be like if we had our own tracks even if they were crappy ones.

      4. Mike, for three months I commuted between Seattle and Portland and the time it takes to drive, fly, take the bus or the train are all nearly identical if we’re fair about it (you have to get gas before leaving town etc..). I ended up writing an article on it. For comfort the train won, for flexibility the car won. The airplane never ever won for anything. It was the most uncomfortable, the most agonizing process and by far the most expensive. I don’t understand why anyone would fly it.

      5. To be clear, I got the 90 mph thing wrong. Many people think 79 mph is fast enough for regional rail, and 110 mph would be nice. But 125 mph or greater would be overkill and not worth the expense. Three hours makes it possible to go to Portland for a day without hassle. But at two hours or one hour, you’re getting more people trying to do daily commutes over long distances. Mr Bailo would approve, but many of us think it’s not worth spending the extra money on — especially when we could put that SAME money into another line. A long-distance HSR line is a different matter; of course it would need to be higher speed, because 24 hours to San Francisco and 48 hours to Chicago is too long. But we don’t need to build a statewide HSR now on the off-chance it might connect to a long-distance route later, because by then it might be a different technology, as when they put rails in the DSTT and then had to replace them because low-floor trains were invented in the meantime.

    2. Ano Nymous – There is no existing way of getting rail up that far North and there would be no way any person up there would even allow rail construction to be built. The cost would be far too prohibitive. It is far cheaper (and faster) to drive up there.

      There were several logging railroads but those lines have been abandoned and most turned into bike trails. Even if those railroads existed, the grades on most of those lines would not be the best way of getting up there.

  12. 6.5 hours to Spokane is just 30 minutes longer than driving, so it would be comparable to the Seattle-Portland situation. Currently it takes 8 hours and the Spokane stop is in the middle of the night. Thus, people who would ride the train if it had Cascades service, are instead taking Greyhound, driving, or flying.

    1. I drive Seattle to Spokane in 4.5 hrs. If the train schedule was more convenient and took less than 6 hrs I’d take the train. However, the Empire Builder spends an hour just trying to get out of the Seattle area.

      With a train like the Empire builder somebody somewhere will be boarding/deboarding in the middle of the night. For us it would be best if the eastbound train left earlier but not so good for the people going to whitefish to ski.

      1. So if we run more than one train we can have options for who has to get off/on in the middle of the night :)

      2. That’s the problem with a long distance train. Its why the state should sponsor its own day light train to Spokane someday, so that WSDOT can decide on times and make the schedule reasonable.

  13. I’ll outline a few things that we (and the State) should seriously focus on.

    Spending the money on Stampede Pass, crowning the tunnel/lowering the road bed to allow double stack and autorack trains. Upgrading the rail from jointed to CWR (continuous welded rail) and installing PTC/CTC (Positive Train Control/Centralized Traffic Control) on the route and building the Ellensburg – Lind connector. Adding a second track from Lind to Spokane could be an additional goal but is manageable in its current state with the high speed running.

    What the above would accomplish would be two East-West mountain routes that would relief traffic in the Columbia River Gorge, Stevens Pass, and enable additional traffic on Stampede Pass. Bi-directional or “Speed” running, as already stated above, would allow trains (excluding passenger) to take the most economical route.

    For an example would be heavy loaded coal or grain trains could primarily use the Columbia River Gorge route, fast freight to Chicago on Stampede Pass.

    Of course, all of this enables certain bottle necks elsewhere. Where? Auburn Yard would need to be expanded and become a crew base (easy enough). Tukwila to Auburn would need an additional track (tentatively funded by Sound Transit 2), the Point Defiance Bypass would have to be built for passenger trains (On hold due to EIS and residential backlash), and the Ruston tunnel (not funded) will need to be crowned as well to double track that bottle neck.

    As far as passenger trains go, 90mph on BNSF’s rails is out of the question (unless this policy has changed) and the State of Washington will need to build new infrastructure in order to support trains beyond 80mph (located in the Amtrak Cascades mid-range plan). Even at 80mph, the Cascades between Seattle and Portland can maintain 3 hour running time, with schedule padding. If 90mph were allowed, 2 hrs and 50 minutes would be achievable, and at 110mph, 2 hours and 30 minutes would be achievable. Utilizing locomotives that are lighter, accelerate faster, and have the capability of tilting would lower the travel time even more so.

    Daylight trains between Seattle and Spokane or even Pasco would be a great benefit to the region as we continue to grow. 6.5 hours is very realistic with the Talgo set between Seattle and Spokane, however, Seattle to Pasco (via Stampede Pass) would need to use conventional equipment until the track has been replaced with CWR (Talgo’s aren’t kind on jointed rail as I am sure some of you have experienced going to Vancouver BC or coming into the station at Portland)

    While these are all fantastic ideas, getting the state and the citizens of this state behind rail would be a very, very difficult endeavor to reach. It would be a great task with a lot of backing needed. Vancouver BC to Portland, Oregon cost $6.8 billion for the full build out (13 trains between SEA-PDX, 4 trains between SEA-VAC) excluding what Sound Transit has done between Everett and Tacoma/Lakewood. An aggressive freight and passenger rail expansion that would benefit everyone, including short line railroads from increased business would be $8-10 billion realistically with a 20-50 year pay back time…

    It’s a difficult pill to swallow but the State, at least, this administration, will never go for such an ambitious plan.

    1. Money is tight right now but WA had made plans to crown the Stampede Pass tunnel. With the slow down in freight BNSF doesn’t need the extra capacity and is happy to close the line in the winter. But when things rebound I’m hopeful this public/private partnership will resurface. Part of the deal has to be allowing UP access the line as well; something I don’t think BNSF is too keen on. A detailed analysis needs to be done by WSDOT to see just exactly how much revenue can be generated with the additional capacity and the various Port districts should probably provide the bulk of the government funding. It’s OK if the State takes on a financial stake in the railroads as long as the Class A railroads accept a model more like the Interstate system that allows access with rates/tolls set to cover maintenance.

    2. Like anything an incremental approach is best used here. A cheap and easy capasity improvement along the seattle sub, would be to install a proper second platform with overcrossing at Vancouver, Kelso, Centrailia, Olympia, and Tacoma to allow both main tracks to stay in use when a train stops at the station, and to remove the need to cross the trains over so much to the the proper side of the tracks to serve the station. And other projects such as modifing the stampede pass tunnel, installing CTC and upgrading the tracks can be done incrementally. Europe dident build high speed trains in a day, and theres no reason why we cant start incrementally improving our rail infrastructure by tacking trouble spots and relativly easy fixes followed by more and more complex work.

  14. Folks,

    If the liner companies see an economic advantage in running the Canal to the Gulf ports taking little tucks out of rail transit times in Washington isn’t going to change their mind. They get a much bigger revenue split if they haul stuff heading for the southeastern transplants to Mobile or Houston.

    You do know it’s the shipping lines that pay for the doublestack trains, right? Not the people who own the stuff in the boxes. Right now with the relatively tiny locks in the Canal it doesn’t make economic sense to haul to the Gulf and East Coast. But when Super-Panamaxes can sail from Shanghai directly to Hampton Roads and drop the containers directly onto trucks headed for the customer DC’s, they will.

    I’m afraid the Sage of Omaha may have bought at the top this time.

    And believe me, I’m very sad to say that.

    1. I’m afraid the Sage of Omaha may have bought at the top this time.

      How’s your retirement portfolio compared to his? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

    2. I’d be surprised if the amount of money BNSF makes on runs from west coast ports to the east comes even close to the amount of money BNSF makes shipping coal from Wyoming to the south. I suspect it’s the coal trains that Buffett was betting on.

    3. Buffett could equally well have been betting on *domestic* intermodal, which is a high-margin business which grows every time the price of gasoline goes up.

      Ever noticed how many of the intermodal cars are UPS, FedEx Ground, Yellow, etc.?

  15. “A cheaper to run Sounder-like train from Wenatchee-Ellensburg-Yakima-Yakima Valley-Tri-Cities-Walla Walla train would connect virtually every town larger than 3000 people.”

    How long would this route take? Both for a conventional train and for a theoretical Talgo. I like the idea of making this the second or third Cascades corridor. It would bring in several population centers, leaving out only Everett and Wenatchee (and tiny Leavenworth). But Everett has ST Express and Sounder and may eventually get Link. Wenatchee just needs a short shuttle bus. And even WSU would be within an hour by shuttle bus.

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