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It’s time to open up Eastside’s North-South corridor, but it must be done right.

Sound Transit has connected Sea-Tac Aiport with downtown Seattle and very soon: University of Washington. Under construction is the line to Northgate, and next there will be lines to Lynnwood, Overlake and to just north of Federal Way. Now Sound Transit is discussing options for its third package including extensions to Everett, Redmond and Tacoma via Federal Way and lines to Ballard, West Seattle and Issaquah. What’s next?  The sky’s the limit. Lines to Woodinville via Lake City and Kenmore? Light rail to Renton? Sounder to Olympia? These would all be a huge success, but for the sake of something new and more importantly, high ridership, Eastside Rail Corridor (ERC) already provides a grade-separated route with almost zero displacement of homes and businesses necessary. With electrification and maximum speeds between 80-90 mph possible, connecting the urban cores on the Eastside would be surprising simple and a critical project that opens up a variety of options for the future.

The greatest advantage in the ERC is we already have the route with gentle curves and minimal road crossing, we just need the tracks and stations. Plus,not only is the route wide enough for an electrified double-tracked high-speed rail line, but there is virtually plenty room for “local stations” to have four tracks wide that allow express trains to pass in the center two tracks as the local train sits there with its doors open to passengers boarding. For example, if someone in East Kingsgate (a smaller local station) walked to board the train and decided to go shopping in Bellevue, they would have to take the local train to at least Totem Lake Station (a local and express station) where they would continue on that local train or transfer to an express with Bellevue as their destination. The local train would stop not just at Kirkland, but also Norkirk and South Kirkland maybe once letting an express train pass while sitting on a station siding.

But why is there the need for double-tracks? If we don’t build them now, we never will for a long time.  Building it right the first time knowing that the higher the frequency of departures per hour, the higher the ridership – this goes for all transportation. The combined populations of Bellevue, Renton, Kirkland and Woodinville is a little over 230,000, so I would estimate that by 2025 (the year this could open for service if voted for November 2016) there would be 100,000 people living within 2-3 miles of each of these stations. Once you connect this line to the Sounder South line, this adds value to the ERC with accessibility now to Tacoma and Olympia in the future. This effectively increases ridership. Now factor in all the businesses within a mile of these stations. Google in Kirkland, the tourism industry at the Woodinville wineries near East Kingsgate Station, T-Mobile next to Coal Creek / Factoria Station, Boeing offices in Renton and South Center Mall in Tukwila, not to mention all the businesses in downtown Bellevue and the connection to Microsoft via light-rail of course. South Bellevue P-R Station would connect commuters to the East Link for all destinations in Seattle until the Kirkland Station becomes a transfer station to the “Sand Point Crossing” that could one day give Eastsiders unbelievably quick access to UW, Fremont and Ballard. There are so many reasons to believe that the Eastside Rail Corridor would attract 40,000 to 50,000 riders daily during the first 5 years of service at the same time that it increases ridership on ST buses, Link, Sounder and even Amtrak via the Tukwila Station.

This would also be a new mode transportation. The ERC would not be light-rail, nor Sounder commuter rail. The ERC must be electrified heavy rail capable of fitting in low-clearance tunnels for noise control and maximum speeds (lower center of gravity for curved sections of track) that can also share the Link light-rail segment of track between South Bellevue P-R to the future Bellevue main central station;  the potential segment of Link light-rail between Hospital Station and Kirkland that might be built for the Ballard-Issaquah line (via Sand Point crossing) would also be along the ERC where this heavy rail line (local and express) would be built.

Other ideas for the I-405 corridor are BRT and light-rail. I would prefer light rail over BRT, but neither should be what is built along the ERC for the sake of efficiency. BRT is just flat out useless unless it has its own dedicated lane walled off to all other vehicles, but if a dedicated lane is built for BRT, you might as well lay some tracks and it put it on the existing ERC route that offers far more TOD potential and reliable travel times than adjacent to I-405. A BRT route along I-405 would only attract park-and-ride commuters and be a band-aid fix to the inevitable future construction of an ERC rail line. Then there is Light-rail, which is more effective for trains with shorter distances between each other and at slower speeds.

An Eastside rail line is inevitable, it’s just a matter of when. Bellevue is growing and North-South commuting is necessary either for commuting to Bellevue or connecting at transfer stations for Seattle.  This heavy rail line would also serve as the future gateway to Bellevue for intercity high-speed rail to Portland and Eugene and north to Bellingham and Vancouver if extensions are built beyond Woodinville.  If there is ever a passenger rail line built across the Cascades to Spokane, Tri-Cities, and Yakima, the electrified heavy rail ERC would also serve these trains as it follow I-90 over the Pass.

Anyways, I’m open to discussion and for any comments or concerns on building heavy rail this way on the ERC.  The potential stations are listed below since I cannot post a picture:

  • Woodinville (express & local)
  • East Kingsgate (only local)
  • Totem Lake / Evergreen Hospital (express & local)
  • Norkirk (local only)
  • Kirkland (express & local)
  • South Kirkland P-R (local only)
  • Bellevue Central (Local, Express & Intercity High-speed Rail)
  • Coal Creek / Factoria (local only)
  • Hazelwood (local only)
  • May Creek (local only)
  • Kenny Dale (local only)
  • Renton (express & local)
  • Rainier Ave (local only)
  • Tukwila Sounder Station (express & local)

I’m Andrew Stephenson, 21 years old and from Seattle, a student at Washington State University, candidate for a BS in Civil Engineering. I got my passion in public transit after living for two years in Nagoya, Japan without a car. Here in Pullman I am currently making progress in returning bus service between Pullman, WA and Moscow, ID, both two college towns desperately in need of reliable transit connections due to each economy being so co-dependent on one another. My goal is to see better public transit all around the Pacific Northwest.

Contact me at: amstephenson93@gmail.com

15 Replies to “Eastside Rail Corridor – Heavy Rail”

  1. I think we need to stop separating “heavy rail” from “light rail”. Commuter rail must be a separate type of train on the BNSF because the BNSF requires it, but this line should not use such heavy equipment.

    Many “light rail” cars used in the USA actually are designed to meet the UIC requirements for use on European main lines. They can’t be used on the USA’s main lines without expensive paperwork and proving they will be safe, there is no competing traffic on this line.

    The added flexibility of using something compatible with light rail trains wherever possible will be significant. For example, on this line, the ERC doesn’t have to end at Renton. Instead, a short extension could join it to the existing Link line and run the trains to SeaTac and beyond. The capacity of the line is higher once it becomes grade separated again south of ML King. You would not be able to do this with what you seem to be calling for with the term “heavy rail” equipment.

    Unless there are significant advantages with using mainline standard equipment, it really needs to be avoided due to the expense. For the speed range you cite, equipment is available already that meets light rail standards and has the gearing to go there. The issue is trying to get SoundTransit to accept such equipment.

      1. Yes, the loudest opponents will be the waterfront residents in Kennydale. Wonder how many litigating attorneys live in those homes…

    1. Interesting, I didn’t know the current light rail trains can travel at those speeds.

      Have you ever ridden the RER in Paris? Or the JR in Japan? Just like that. I’m looking for trains that don’t stop at every station and travel at higher speeds, unlike regular light rail and subways. We can’t have trains travelling 80-90 mph on most of the existing “light-rail” track between Seattle and the airport due to the bends in the track and non-grade separation. But we do need faster trains that whisk commuters to the more important stations: Everett, Paine Field, Seattle, Sea-Tac and Tacoma. This will cut travel times nearly in half and be a huge advantage to taking the train. By building the ERC so that stations allow faster trains to pass and stop at only at the most important destinations, we make traveling by rail *faster* than driving even when without any road traffic congestion.

      I think we either need to have two kinds of rail in Seattle: “light-rail” and “heavy rail” to distinguish between trains that stop at every station and those that don’t, or stop using the term “light-rail” which implies slower trains on roads without grade separation. There should be a more neutral term if you don’t want to have a difference between the rail built, like “subway” or simply “rail”. It may seem silly to bog down in detail on what term is used, but Sound Transit will always consider streetcar-like alignments (MLK Way) when we vote to expand “light-rail”, not when we vote for “subways” or “heavy” and “high-speed” intercity rail.

      Do you agree or still disagree?

      1. OMG! EXPRESS trains on the Eastside Rail Corridor?!?!?! Four tracks like the NEC! Woo-hoo, lets pull out ALL the stops before the jeering starts. Oh, I guess it already has.

        Now I am not inalterably opposed to using the ERC as a commuter rail line. If some way could be engineered to have it serve both downtown Renton AND continue on to Black River Junction and down to Auburn it really might make a difference to congestion on the southern portion of I-405.

        The north end is probably less useful because there are no population centers anywhere near as large as Renton and Kent to the north along the right of way, except of course Kirkland, and it’s a little too close to Bellevue to be useful for commuter rail whatever the technology. Maybe Woodinville will grow into a traffic generator, but right now Kent + Renton + Auburn must be five times its size.

        So maybe it makes sense to run between Hospital and Auburn but in all honesty, I’d just add a few sidings like WES has. You don’t need double track throughout and you absolutely do not need four tracks for skip stop.

        And “Intercity high-speed rail”? From Bellevue to Portland?

        One last thing that needs to be asked. Where the heck are you going to put a commuter rail station in Bellevue? Commuter trains are long and you’re going to need at least a couple of platform tracks to accommodate reversals.

  2. There is absolutely no way you could run trains at 80-90 mph down the ERC. Curves, crossings, and noise restrictions would never allow it. In practice, such trains would end up topping out at 30-35 mph max.

  3. I must say, as far as long-term rail pipe dreams that don’t actually serve Seattle go, this is one of the less frustrating. We could debate the optimism that 50,000 riders could be achieved in the first five years, but you might be on to something. The ERC poses a somewhat unique opportunity to connect some very large cities on the Eastside (and they are cities, not just suburbs) with populations that are (get ready for this) actually conducive to high-capacity transit (take that West Seattle!) and without needing to re-engineer the entirety of its line to be more TOD-fantasy-ready (take that, North Link!).

    Granted there is some fantasy needed into making Renton, Tukwila and pretty much anything up to Factoria a place where you would want to go in and of themselves (IMESHO), but those fantasies are less appalling than those concocted by West Seattle Light Rail Dreamers, Everett-Tacoma Spine Enthusiasts, or “How could we NOT have service from Pioneer Square to Paine Field at 3am?” askers.

    Trying to redevelop any suburban car-loving enclave into something even kind of resembling an urban/suburban center is truly a massive undertaking, but I don’t feel like you’re asking for the impossible here. However, this strikes me as something that would rely on a quality of connection to Downtown Seattle that frankly (and sadly) just WILL NOT be met by the chosen configuration of East Link. Not only did ST forsake serving more people with their chosen alignment, they created a route just expensive enough to be outrageous for a light-rail line, but not grade-separated enough to function as an efficient metro line. These types of crazy compromises are ST’s specialty.

  4. So there are dozens of at grade crossings on the ERC, there are actually 5 within the 2 mile circle around Totem Lake alone. To operate at those speeds would require extensive grade separation work or closing/moving many local neighborhood access streets. WSDOT had to jump through significant hoops due to not only noise but also safety concerns to get 79mph approved on Pt. Defiance bypass which runs through similar residential neighborhoods.

    Also as another poster noted it is a very curvy line as it was never a main haul and was mostly for local delivery to businesses (I remember trains on that line in Redmond and Kirkland fondly as a kid) I suspect with work and proper track banking you could get up speed but it’s a ways away. Personally I’ve always felt that ERC will work best as a future light rail “spine” parallel to the existing Link. Central Link’s trains are “governed” at 55mph and can go faster though I’m not sure how fast they actually can go.

    1. Actually, it was Northern Pacific’s access to Canada. It carried a lot of freight between Auburn and Sumas before the Hill Lines merger in 1970. Passenger trains did not go that way; they turned west at Woodinville and went to Seattle on the Burke-Gilman Trail right of way. But freights a plenty went that way. Now BN’s interchange with the Canadian roads is mostly made at New Westminster BC, but a non-trivial amount still goes through Sumas, but it leaves the coast line at Burlington and accesses the old NP main at Sedro-Wooley up through Wickersham and the Nooksack Valley.

  5. Andrew, I really appreciate your contribution here.

    Opening up the ERC to commuter rail has always seemed like a no-brainer, especially because the route is already in place. That’s the core argument most can agree on. Matching its cars and gauge to existing Link seems like a decent idea, and if this line could extend through Renton and Southcenter to the longest station name on the west coast (“The Tukwila International Boulevard Station!”), suddenly we have light rail from Factoria, Newcastle, Renton, and Southcenter to the Airport — that would be a serious improvement!

    For me, distinguishing between local and express doesn’t seem important at this stage; there’s no express differential on Central Link, and I bet ridership jumps a lot after connecting to UW soon.

  6. There are some real issues with using the entire ERC as a transit corridor.

    First and foremost there is the issue of transit geometry. The ERC doesn’t really serve anything particularly dense between East Bellevue and Renton. Even finding good stop locations in this stretch will be hard. Unless you use the East Link tracks at Hospital station there is no access to downtown Bellevue proper. The corridor also misses downtown Kirkland and much of Totem Lake. The demand between Woodinville and the rest of the ERC is minimal.

    Commuter rail and LRT has been studied on the ERC multiple times. The ridership is minimal at best.

    Second there is the issue of the 405 over crossing and the Wilburton trestle. The bridge over 405 would need to be replaced. The Wilburton trestle is single track and doesn’t meet current safety standards for a passenger rail line. In addition the trestle is a historic structure so can’t simply be demolished and replaced with a modern bridge.

    Third even if the ERC was a good corridor new tracks would need to be laid. For the most part there really isn’t a good reason to deal with the FRA nonsense so you might as well build to Link standards.

    In short this is one of those weird transit pipe dreams that keeps coming up but doesn’t hold up once serious study starts. Commuter rail on the ERC is the Eastside’s own version of the Seattle Monorail Project.

    A small portion of the ERC will be used near Lake Bellevue for East Link as well as a small section in Redmond. In the future we may see other parts of the ROW used for BRT or LRT. However there is zero chance we’ll see the entire corridor resurrected as any sort of continuious transit line in the ST3 timeframe.

    1. The Freeway Bus version of BRT in the I-405 corridor garnered the same ridership as Commuter Rail, they use the same transit ridership modelling.

      Freeway Bus cost a few hundred million more than Sound Transit’s version of Commuter Rail in the ERC.

      LRT doesn’t follow the ERC, but instead chases the current population centers, for at least $5 Billion.
      Much better ridership, but not enough within the Cost/Benefit analysis’ time span (30 yrs)

      The High Performance “LRT convertible” version of BRT falls somewhere in between the two, but doesn’t cover the full length from Lynnwood to Renton.

      The only thing the adjacent communities will allow in the ERC for the full length is the Mother of All Bicycle Trails.

      We are building Wet Los Angeles.
      Strangely enough, with transit enablers.

  7. I like your idea, but I think offering a service like that of the KIHA on the line would be a better way then electrification. Currently, the line needs to be replaced with ribbon rail, but that is more feasible then adding on the outrageous cost of Catenary. Second, the service could be implemented immediately/after minor updates to the line, while full electrification would take years. Third, by running KIHAs, the service could actually continue on to King Street in Seattle, or loop for that matter since the line connects to BNSF’s Stevens Pass route in Snohomish and the Main line between Seattle and Tacoma in Renton.

    If ran on a strict time table, Express and Local Services can be ran on a single main, in both directions. To implement this, stations would need four tracks. For local stops, two tracks are serviced by platforms while the other two are bypass. At main stations, all four are serviced.

    After the line is functional, a second track can be added at a later date, as well as electrification. Freight service could also be added due to industries along the line.

    I’ve been bouncing around the idea about the line for several years now, since I would be one of the people using it.

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