Photo by Altafest

It’s been a long time since I have done one of these updates but there has been plenty of work going on in our region. With the increase of rail traffic between Seattle and Portland, passenger train reliability has taken a noticeable hit. So what’s going been going on?

1. Recovery from the snow and ice storm added several slow orders. The on-time performance of most trains have mostly recovered and repairs along the BNSF Seattle Subdivision, Scenic Subdivision and Bellingham Subdivision are completed. Snow, ice, mudslides, downed trees, a small sink hole, and heavy wash from the Puget Sound all took its toll on the right of way. With these problems now fixed, track maintenance has ramped up. Those that ride Sounder and Amtrak should notice several pieces of Maintenance of Way equipment working between Tukwila and Tacoma for a tie replacement project and a rather rocky, rough ride on the corridor as the work progresses.

More below the jump:

2. According to BNSF’s Service Advisory site, there are likely to be delays of 5-20 minutes in some corridors due to tie replacement: Davis (Tacoma) through Rockypoint, Monday-Friday, 06:00-14:30, through March 2; and Seattle through Auburn, Monday-Friday, 09:00-15:00, through March 14th.

3. Work continues forward on the Point Defiance Bypass and Sound Transit’s D Street to M Street ramp to the Lakeview Subdivision. Test trains from Tacoma Rail and Sound Transit will commence later this summer with service expected in Fall of 2012. Most likely this change will happen around the September/October schedule change. There will be some meetings this Spring on the Amtrak portion of the bypass and findings that WSDOT has come up with. Lakewood is still trying to fight WSDOT on moving the trains on the bypass however it doesn’t seem that many people are joining the cause.

4. Ground work at Tukwila Station has ramped up with the West side of the station now being cleared and grading. This will finally give some additional and much needed parking for vanpool and carpool commuters that take Sounder to Tukwila Station and drive to points East of Lake Washington. This will also provide a few parking spaces for Amtrak Cascades passengers but it is not clear if overnight parking will be allowed for those passengers.

One noticeable change will be a temporary asphalt platform, like Auburn, for a future third main track. This third main line will eventually cover 25 miles, from King Street Station to Pacific (Ellingson Rd near Safeway Distribution Center). Kent to Auburn has already been pre-graded for this work and Tukwila to Kent already has an older siding that will be upgraded to Class 1 specifications, will allowing freight and passenger to operate at normal track speed (60mph Freight, 79mph Passenger).

5. The Vancouver Bypass will begin its third stage with a shoofly near 8th Street to install a new bridge. The bypass itself will start construction later this year and be completed early next year.

6. Positive Train Control is installed (but not activated) on the  Lakeview line between D Street and Lakewood Station. Installation will start this year  between Seattle and Everett and between Kelso Junction and Vancouver, WA. The system itself will not be fully implemented until late 2014 – early 2015. However, none of the Sounder locomotives are equipped with the signal installation and won’t be in time for the opening, although due to frequent stops Sounder might never achieve the 90mph allowed with PTC anyway.

7. Later this year, Sound Transit will receive three MP40PH-3C’s. These 4000HP locomotives will compliment the fleet of existing 3000HP F59PHI currently on Sounder.

8. For those that are a “fan” of the old “searchlight signals” get pictures of these while you can. BNSF is slated to replace all of these old Great Northern era signals by the end of the year. These signals are not compatible with Positive Train Control and will get the new tri-color signals that are commonly seen in the area now.

9. Lastly, the new Talgo has made an appearance, and well, the cab car has definitely soured my taste. The design was for the Federal Railroad Administration’s Crash Worthiness Standard (350kb pdf). The Wisconsin painted scheme is pictured above. The Cascades version should be around soon.

There is plenty more but I’ll save that for another post next month!

53 Replies to “Heavy Rail Update”

    1. It’s going some where on Display. The trainset (not sure if it’ll be Oregon’s or Wisconsin’s) supposedly will be delivered by rail to Pueblo, Colorado first for testing.

  1. Anyone who knows locomotive design, please tell me: It seems that over the past few years, locomotive cabs worldwide have been designed with what appears to be no peripheral vision whatever.

    Engineers look out of a forward-facing slit like a gun-port. Is there now so much grade-separated track in the world that a train-driver really doesn’t have to care about anything approaching from the side?

    Clue me in. BTW, agree this one looks sort of like a frog. Hardly the Super-chief or the Burlington Zephyr. But what’s the story on it as a locomotive? Does the body style mean greater safety?

    Mark Dublin

    1. Having worked in the modern BNSF safety cab (aka wide cab), old spartan cab equipment, and an old F unit, I’d say the first two are a wash as to which has superior visibility. The newer safety cab doesn’t have as much nose in the way, but one cannot see all the way down to the front anticlimber (which isn’t too big of a deal). A spartan cab has more nose in the way, but the windows let the engineer see the ground easier, but the conductor sees what the engineer cannot. I’d hardly describe them as looking out of gun slits. The view is quite good. Lastly, the F unit has poor visibility in all directions except parallel to the track.

      View from Spartan cab:
      View from safety cab:

      I don’t think there is any grade separation considerations since 1 crossing =/= 100% grade separation. It’s more related to safety, speed, visibility, use, glare, and ease of repair.

      In general: the big improvement with the new cabs is MASSIVE steel pillars inside the nose and putting the crew up a little big higher and away from accidents. Also a lot of computers and gadgets are located in the nose. The old cabs were thin, and the nose contained a toilet and not much more in the way of crash absorbance.

      1. If this is the Power car, then will it be only as tall as the rest of the trainset?

        The Talgo power car holds the HEP, so this is essentially that car, with a control cab grafted onto the front.

        That puts the engineer at the same height as any semi fouling a RR crossing.


      2. Many thanks for accurate information on locomotive cab design. Still thinking bus, street rail, or interurban.

        Hadn’t thought much about view from a steam locomotive- especially some of those units that looked half a mile long.

        Thanks again.

        Mark Dublin

      3. And the bigger question is can a train stop within the engineers field of view anyway or is the visibility question related only to when the train is going very slow?

    2. It isn’t a powered locomotive. It is like the F40s that were converted to “Cabbage” cars which we usually see on the other end of the Talgo trainsets.

      They are called Cabbage cars because they function as a reverse direction cab and the ones not in Cascades colors had a roll-up door installed so that the space where the Diesel motor used to be could be used to transport baggage. (Cab+baggage=Cabbage

      1. The gutted F40’s come in two falvors, the CABBAGE version you discribed and the Cascades version called NPCU’s for “non-powered cab unit”.

      2. I beilieve the Cascades NPCUs are also capable of handing baggage in the former engine compartment. Instead of having a roll up door though, i think Amtrak modified some of the side panels to swing out for access.

      3. A good question is, have the Cabbage cars ever been used for baggage? I’d suspect the STP run would generate enough, but I haven’t seen those trains in a while to know.

    3. Mark,

      Have you ever noticed the visibility factor of a steam locomotive? Other than the Southern Pacific Cab Forwards (designed and built so the smoke stack would be behind the locomotive crew in tunnels), an engineer had the huge boiler in front of them, so the visibility in FRONT of the locomotive was quite limited. Gun port slits? LOL. Any modern engine that I have seen has a windshield AND side windows. What more does an engineer need? A train is not quite like an automobile. At speed, if an engineer can see IT immediately in front of her/him, IT is not moving off the tracks, It is history.

  2. +1 on the thank you, Brian. Do you have any additional information on the 3rd main line, who would be funding it, and when it might be completed?

    1. Presumably, the 3rd MT is being funded by Sound Transit’s additional train easments for South Sounder.

      1. I suppose it’s owned by BNSF, but the agreements for the train easments say that BNSF needs to provide the capacity for those trains.

      2. Hmmm.

        Not sure how I feel about that. If we build something we should own it. Why are we building it, giving it away to a corporation, and then paying to use it?

      3. When the state/region has a very very long term “lease” agreement with BNSF that effectively allows it “use” or “occupancy” of the track for longer than the expected useful life of the improved track, then it certainly does make sense for the state to invest in improvements. It’d be like renting a house under a lease that grants you occupancy for your lifetime, you’d have little disincentive not to improve the house.

  3. Regarding the PTC on the Pt. Defiance bypass: is that stretch going to be signaled for 90mph operations? Sounder may not have use for that capacity, but the Cascades trains could likely use it.

    1. No. Sounder will top out at 60. Amtrak wants’ to go 79 but we’ll see how those negotiations go. I haven’t heard of any plans to push Sounder beyond 79 on any of the corridors even when PTC is installed. Of course, that can change when the 3rd main is installed and more grade separation is in place.

      I bet the Sounder could hit 90 even with the close stops. Those F59’s accelerate like a beast. The Coaster uses F59’s and F40-2’s and hits 90mph in a few places with similar stop spacing to the Sounder.

      1. Some of the F59’s pull great and there are some that won’t even see 70mph. They are almost 10 years old and getting close on needing an overhaul. The MP40’s should easily be able to see 90you between all of the stations with an 8 car train. 901 is known for dropping its load around 50-60mph and sometimes causes the computer to reset. Good times!

      2. Lakewood is fighting tooth and nail to keep Amtrak off the line or as slow as possible. Mike could probably give you more information on that aspect.

        BNSF will permit 90mph on its right of way but only in select sections. I have only seen plans for Seattle to Puyallup, Nisqually to Chehalis and Kelso to Vancouver that would be allowable for 90mph.

      3. Perhaps that was a poorly worded reply. From what I’ve experienced, ST isn’t interested in running above 79. On the Lakewood, the Sounder will run at 60. Amtrak seems limited to 79 on that corridor due to community outrage, politics, etc. But, design and negotiations could go anywhere; allowing for 90, staying at 79, or pushed down to 60. It’s still too early to say for sure.

        Cascades will go 90, and even 110mph w/ the F59 locos (assuming they don’t explode in a dazzling display of unreliable parts). They’re geared to do that sort of speed. No idea as to specifically where 79+ ops will be as nothing has been designed, agreed, or approved on.

        901 can’t pull above 60 eh? Any ideas what’s wrong with it? Suffering from Cascadeitis perhaps. I hope they send it down here to SoCal for some sun and TLC. Make for some fun shots along the coast!

      4. When Amtrak wanted to re-start service to Vancouver BC there was a lot of opposition to raising track speeds in Edmonds, Ferndale and several other towns. The fight to raise track speeds spent several years being litigated before the WUTC. In the end WSDOT/Amtrak prevailed, train speeds were raised, and so far, we haven’t seen the doom and destruction predicted by the “keep the trains slow” crowd. Maybe some of that experience could be shared with the good citizens of Lakewood, Dupont and any other community worried about passenger trains barreling through their towns.

      5. “Maybe some of that experience could be shared with the good citizens of Lakewood, Dupont and any other community worried about passenger trains barreling through their towns.”

        I hope so. The Lakewood reaction does, indeed, seem to be hysterical, of the “fast trains will sour my milk” variety, so perhaps some commonsense communication with people who were previously hysterical and now understand that there was no problem would help.

      6. I believe geometric constraints are going to limit the speeds on the Bypass, last I checked; I think there’s some limitation below 79 on the hill at the south end, and I know there’s some on the hill at the north end. Given that, there may not really be enough room in the middle to go much above 80. That’s OK; it’ll still be a lot faster than the route around Point Defiance.

  4. Anyone know what is happening with the UP spur along E Marginal Wy? Lots of crew around today cleaning the tracks. E Marginal has lots of gravel in it.

    1. They have been upgrading the rail and ties all along there. Not sure why though but it could be for a new major shipping business. I need to pound around the Port of Seattle website and see what I can find. Maybe its for Boeing?

      1. Those tracks had deteriorated to the point where trains were restricted to almost walking speed. For anyone interested in track laying or roadbed rehabilition, East Marginal Way is a good place to go and watch. It’s a lot more sophisticated than a crew of big, strong men swinging sledgehammers.

      2. Brian, I think it’s just very needed and overdue maintenance, the track was so bad that I’m surprised things actually held together that well! My question is…are they going to now use the passing siding directly in front of the Federal Building? It has sat dormant for years, whether it was a Homeland Security decision to not have cars sitting in front of the buildings, or if it’s the track.

  5. “Lakewood is still trying to fight WSDOT on moving the trains on the bypass however it doesn’t seem that many people are joining the cause.”

    I’m glad to hear that very few people are joining this extremely stupid cause.

    Lakewood’s situation will improve significantly when the trains move to the Bypass, with better grade crossing protection, gates closed for shorter times, quieter track, etc.

    I suspect they’re just pissed because Amtrak doesn’t plan to stop at Lakewood. That’s really not a good excuse for them to come up with all the hysterical bullshit they’ve been coming up with in order to oppose *improving the safety* of the line through their town.

    1. There’s a certain amount of people who just plain don’t want trains to start with. By limiting speed they can “sour the milk” and convince Sound Transit and Amtrak they it makes little sense to put them there. What they don’t understand is that if the trains do 30 mph they’ll still get to Lacey faster than going all the way around. Also a 30 mph train will block streets longer than a 60 mph train. It’s just math.

  6. I’d like to add a general comment as well. My last two trips on the Cascades and Coast Starlight actually came in ahead of schedule. In the several years I’ve spent riding both I’m always at least 10 minutes late (consistently). Only once in probably 30 trips have I come in ahead of schedule (The Coast Starlight came in 40 minutes early one night!). So maybe I got lucky or maybe scheduling or track improvements have helped. I always ride the same two trains (501 down and 14 or 508 back) so I don’t think the time of day could be the contributing factor.

    1. Amtrak pads the schedule nowadays to meet their performance metric. I took the Empire Builder a year ago and it got into Spokane an hour early and Chicago at least a half-hour early. Next month I’m taking the Coast Starlight to California so I’ll see how it does. I’ve ridden Cascades South more frequently and it doesn’t have the slowdowns it used to. It runs at a respectable speed all the way from Seattle to Portland (unlike Cascades North), and I don’t remember it stopping for freight trains. So the Cascades South timing is probably more predictable and it stays close to its 3 1/2 hour scheduling.

      1. The schedules were always padded, although perhaps there is more in the last few years? But I think they are at the same level of padding as they always were (at least in terms of minutes, if not percentage of the trip).

  7. Correction for #6, PTC has not yet been installed on the Lakeview sub. That work will come about the same time as the Sounder locomotives get PTC equipment

  8. Thank you for the informative coverage on the Cascades. This information is otherwise kind of hard to glean even from the project updates on the WSDOT web site. As a frequent Casades passenger, I can only hope that investment on the corridor increases over the next decade.

  9. A few clarifications/additions…

    – Re Brian’s original post, item #4: The track will be built to FRA Class 4 standards (passenger 80mph, freight 60mph — see CFR 49 § 213.9).

    – Re speeds on the Tacoma/Lakewood/Nisqually line: As designed, track geometry will only permit 79mph max for all equipment, with some curves a bit slower for non-Talgo passenger question. The purpose of designing for 79mph was to avoid having to re-grade the alignment on curves, which would be necessary for faster speeds. The eventual PNWRC plan is to run at 110mph from Lakewood to Nisqually, but that’s well off in the future.

    – As noted above, Sounder will only run at 60mph from Tacoma to Lakewood, regardless of what the equipment might be capable of achieving. Track geometry between M Street and South Tacoma Station was designed with that criterion specified by ST, which limits Talgo equipment to something like 72mph on curves.

    – The subgrade was constructed for the PDB’s second main track between 66th Street and Bridgeport Way, so that work should proceed fairly smoothly once WSDOT finally goes to construction. Weekend closures will likely be needed to install a turnout at 66th Street and realign a couple shoo-flies, but that work will only affect Tacoma Rail service.

    1. Thanks for the details. 60 mph from Tacoma to Lakewood and 80 mph (well, after PTC is installed, 79 mph before that) from Lakewood south is pretty decent. I think if I remember correctly there’s going to be a speed limitation just north of where the Bypass rejoins the mainline on the south end (65 mph comes to mind?) but still, this means solid “cruising speed”, at least as fast as driving, all the way from Tacoma to Lacey.

  10. I wonder what it would take to do “higher” speed rail just between Seattle and Tacoma.

    Like if a Talgo could be the daily run at 110 mph with some modest track upgrades.

    Also, hourly service every day of the week.

    1. Mostly, track capacity is the issue between Seattle and Tacoma — hence the third track construction.

      Cruising *consistently* at 80 mph (with no slow zones and no stopping for other traffic) is honestly pretty good; 110 mph doesn’t get you that much more unless you have a long non-stop section.

      For Seattle-Tacoma running time improvements, the next project after the third track is the trestle replacement in Tacoma. The trestle currently creates a “slow zone” and is single-tracked (it needs to be double-tracked). The trestle replacement is a fairly expensive improvement.

      You can’t get much more speed out of Sounder because of station stops (it doesn’t have time to get up to 110 for long).

      On Cascades from Seattle to Portland, as far as I can tell, the Tacoma trestle replacement is the last of the track-capacity / slow zone projects which remains unfunded. So the next area of focus after that is 110 mph service on the long stretches between Centralia and Kelso, and between Kelso and Vancouver, where the trains can cruise at 110 mph for the longest period, getting the most benefit from high speeds. 110 mph between Tacoma and Seattle (with a stop at Tukwila) doesn’t get nearly the same ‘bang for the buck’ for Cascades as 110 mph on those long stretches with no station.

      1. Sounds good. I like the idea of scoping down and doing one thing really well — like Seattle/Portland or even just Tacoma/Portland — and taking it from there. If the current trains and tracks will a few improvements can get us 110mph Tacoma-Portland that would be a big deal…a very short 90 minute ride.

        Heck even if we could start off just going Tacoma-Olympia-Centralia!

        That would basically extend the “Metro Area” by 100 miles southward and into the area that (according to the last Census) has the highest population growth.

        I can see Centralia — in this century — with high speed rail, living up to its name of being Central to the State. An open area to build in right between the two traditional city centers of Tacoma and Vancouver, WA.

    2. I think hourly service, which is a goal of WSDOT, will take first track improvements, then more equipment. Previously WSDOT has said that the various projects at Vancouver, Kelso, and Point Defiance will create enough capacity to run three more round trip trains a day. That would bring up the number of Cascades trips between Seattle and Portland to six (plus the Coast Starlight for a seventh). I believe that to get more round trips beyond six will take more train sets.

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