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NOTE: This post is copied in its entirety from an article I wrote, titled Improving Rail Mobility in the Puget Sound: A Mapped, Annotated Plan.  It is the latest entry of my blog, Transportation Matters, a Pacific Northwest-flavored blog that discusses railway planning, urban planning, and related politics.

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This plan is not intended to improve intra-Seattle mobility. In fact, unlike that of Link Light Rail, the objective of this plan is clear: to provide rapid mass transit between the region’s cities as affordably, efficiently and as swiftly as possible.

I introduce Link into the discussion because Sound Transit is currently extending Link Light Rail southward from Seattle to Tacoma. Link is envisioned as being the region’s new passenger rail spine. With a brand new political alignment, it will be expensive, serve sprawled areas, and be unacceptably slow as it attempts to perform a role better suited for intercity trains.

While much of the final alignment is undetermined, it is quite possible, if not probable, that the routing of the new railroad will be politically expedient and ultimately lacking in the qualities that define world-class transportation systems. With a skeptical eye, we can already see the planted seeds of a new, BART-like system that disappoints more than it engenders praise; indeed, it threatens to be a mediocre system that does not meet any reasonable metric for high-capacity, rapid transit excellence.

Already, the Link Light Rail line south of Seattle features numerous sharp curves and an alignment panned by astute transit planners and critics. At full build out to Tacoma, a worst case scenario sees the line running in the median of Interstate 5 for miles to serve suburban park-and-ride stops sited away from the sprawled centers that Link should be serving. These are the same suburban centers that urgently need to densify. This worst case scenario is not hyperbole.

Incredibly, despite the massive investment that will have been made to build the line, which already costs at least $5 billion (when including projected costs only to Federal Way, and not including existing infrastructure like the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel), the trains will never achieve trip time parity with that of the wildly popular ST Express buses that currently use busy, parallel I-5. Ridership per mileage will be low and maintenance costs will rise for a Link Light Rail that gets you around the corridor reliably, albeit far too slowly for such a prominent and wealthy region.

For the expenses to be paid and effort expended, we should expect better. We deserve better.

There is an alternative.

While Sound Transit puts all of its eggs in the Link basket, betting it all on a new alignment and operating technology wholly unsuitable for swift regional mobility, Sound Transit’s Sounder commuter train popularly operates a nearby corridor without any intense focus from the agency (or from Puget Sound area voters that influence our transportation agenda). The South Line, as it is called, is actually the BNSF mainline between Seattle and Tacoma and hosts, courtesy of expensive, rented time slots, ten round-trip Sounder trains each day. For a two-track line already running 50-60 freight trains daily, it has several real, complex problems: Sounder speeds are limited to roughly 20mph faster than the quickest freight train, artificially capping speeds and significantly disrupting freight traffic; passenger operations are restricted to a frustratingly brief window of time during the rush hours, and there is no weekend service; onerously heavy diesel locomotives and passenger cars are required by federal law because of the mixed traffic, rendering impossible the acceleration, deceleration and top-speed standards that a modern passenger railroad should attempt to meet; platforms are low due to an antiquated state law and railroad policy that prohibits taller platforms, rendering illegal the level boarding of passengers that is a necessity for precision scheduling, and; well, you get the drift. This is not a world-class operation. Sounder commuter trains are merely freight trains in passenger train clothing, and which also happen to carry people.

However, Sounder commuter trains have an incredible asset that render its otherwise mediocre service quite exceptional: an arrow straight alignment that serves many historic, fine-grained cities in the central Puget Sound, allowing for run times that are respectably fast—oftentimes faster than the bus, and occasionally even driving.

My plan is the securing of this right-of-way for the deserving public, and its subsequent upgrading into world-class electric railway infrastructure featuring a modern passenger operation.

The cost will be billions and the politics likely complicated.

Crucially, it will require triple tracking one of two railroad mainlines into Seattle to radically increase its low track capacity, which will be followed up with a seamless diversion of all freight traffic to it. This corridor, currently owned by the UPRR, would become a freight-dedicated corridor that is to be shared and jointly managed with BNSF. The two railroads already jointly dispatch shared corridors in the United States, so there exists an established template for cooperation. Once built, never again would a passenger train delay cargo traveling between Seattle and Tacoma. The corridor will also be grade separated, eradicating dangerous roadway crossings from the regional map. As a bonus, also eliminated is the majority of the noise pollution generated by honking trains rolling across roadways, once and for all neutralizing a nuisance of a federal mandate. For those living near crossings, real estate values might rise (and they undoubtedly would for those near the BNSF line).

The capital cost to triple-track the UPRR will be substantial, but not prohibitive: the existing rail corridor easily accommodates the one or two extra tracks with utterly zero takings of property. Only existing road crossings would be affected; however, the grade separation of both the BNSF and UPRR rail corridor should be done anyway, whether or not this plan is realized. In fact, a significant portion of the expense of this project is attributable to upgrades that should have already been completed. Railway malinvestment in the Puget Sound will force the capital costs of this reasonable project to be higher. Ultimately, the opportunity cost for not making these investments—investments that free up the BNSF line for a strictly public use, a major win for citizens—would be tremendous.

Besides widened curves, the most impacting change will be the relocation of the Auburn Yard to a site near the Emerald Downs racetrack, also in Auburn. This is the most suitable location for a large rail yard on the new freight corridor. Without this new facility, old Auburn Yard continues to exist and perform its critical function of storing freight trains waiting for their travel slot into Seattle. It is imperative to note that any mixed traffic on the BNSF line is the undoing of this plan, and the public would need to settle for a drastically reduced quality of passenger service (think Utah’s Frontrunner as opposed to commuter sections on the Dutch national network). However, should the yard be relocated, and should a trench be dug connecting the Stampede Pass rail line to the freight corridor, every significant BNSF rationale for holding onto the line, besides its financial value and historical importance, would be eliminated. With a direct purchase or favorable agreement, we can divert freight trains onto the shared corridor, remove toxic cargos from our city centers, and take over a railroad line primed for hauling people.

Dependent upon the quality of service the public expects—with this plan offering a fine balance between affordability and operational excellence—all, some, or none of the plan can be constructed. This vision specifies top-speeds of 125mph using off-the-shelf electric trains that have terrific top-speed, deceleration and acceleration specifications. The trains would tilt to maintain comfort on highly super-elevated curves. The curves on the right-of-way themselves would be widened to accommodate world-class urban speeds. A passenger-dedicated section north of Tukwila would be constructed on a largely greenfield alignment to overcome geographic constraints and heavy freight traffic, starting just before the location where the BNSF & UPRR corridors rejoin for their final jaunt into Seattle on historically shared right-of-way.

Simply possessing the BNSF corridor would drastically improve commuter service in the region. However, it must be noted that the type of service levels envisioned in this plan require dedicated tracks and the standard electrification and signaling systems of advanced passenger railroads. Without the tracks the line is partially shared with numerous freight trains, and the constant disruption to all trains would be a never ending reminder that the business goals of freight and passenger are often mutually exclusive. Without the electrification and signaling, precluded is the scheduling of a world-class passenger service. Should such choices be made in the interest of politics, money or time, the rail line will never be world-class, will never provide a future connection to a high-speed rail line to Portland, Oregon, and will eventually fail to meet growing service demands in an expanding region. This could be our shot to get it right the first time, or risk having our children paying far more for new capacity later.

Best yet, it would catalyze the rejuvenation of the historic cities of the corridor, all of which have urbane street grids from the pioneer era that would become logical places to densify. These cities demand recognition. These are cities deserving of new infrastructure, of new investment, of new citizens and new vitality. Urban life here would fundamentally change with grade separation and the eradication of railroad noise pollution, to say nothing of fast, frequent service to the area’s biggest job centers. It would allow for the flowering of central Puyallup, Sumner, Auburn and Kent, even as their cores already experience healthy growth. It would be a reward for sensible development patterns.

Truly, the most responsible plan for regional rail mobility is not the one Sound Transit is struggling to iron out, but the one already in existence and time-tested, just waiting for its moment to transform. Very technically feasible, all that is needed is political and civic will. Never involving a courtroom, the key players in this plan would reach consensus through negotiation. The quid pro quo nature of the plan would generate agreement between the railroads and the government as it satisfies all parties equally.

While this alignment includes new-build track miles, the majority of it already exists and awaits meaningful public investment. Instead of building an entirely new line, a pointless and wildly expensive endeavor, this plan best utilizes the region’s resources, eliminates redundancy, and delivers the goods affordably and efficiently. We could do this.

From here, I’ll let my maps speak for themselves. I welcome feedback and constructive criticism.

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22 Replies to “A Mapped Plan for Transforming the Seattle-Tacoma Rail Network.”

  1. I like this idea. So what are we talking about when it comes to timing? How long would it take to get from Tacoma to Seattle?

    Very few cities as far apart as Seattle and Tacoma are linked with light rail. There are plenty that are connected with commuter rail, though, and this would essentially do that. One analogy is Baltimore to D. C. Baltimore is much bigger than Tacoma, and the D. C. subway way more advanced than ours, yet you take a “regular” train between the two. This is also part of a key Amtrak line as well, but that would be the case here (as you mentioned).

    Speaking of which, how practical would an express be (between the two cities) and how much time would that save?

    1. The rail line as-planned is 39 miles in length, from Tacoma Station’s end tracks to those at King Street Station.

      Using advanced equipment like Stadler’s FLIRT, which can accelerate to its top speed of 200kmh (125mph) in thirty seconds (will assume a minute for our napkin estimate), with a world-standard 7% pad time we arrive at a 22-1/2 minute scheduled travel time, with a 21 minute travel time without used padding. However, with heavy use of the line by locals, this would require the construction of the third track, an overtake track, for expresses and eventual SEA-PDX high-speed rail.

      For local train times, assuming our minute acceleration/deceleration time, and a fifteen second dwell time at stations (which is only achievable with level boarding), we have a roughly 34-1/2 minute travel time with 7% trip padding, or 32-1/4 minutes without padding used. This is significantly swifter than Sounder’s current 59 minute trip time, and it represents a travel time far faster and far more reliable than driving.

      These trip times would be maintained nearly 100% throughout the day by hundreds of local trains with, if service demand required, few minute head-ways.

      With regards to Amtrak, this would preclude the typical Amtrak train movement. Amtrak’s museum trains are simply too heavy, too slow and too unreliable to have any place on this rail line. Service would have to be terminated at Tacoma, or shortly before, for the Coast Starlight, and the Cascades would either need a locomotive swap, or lighter locomotives (and a new lead electric), to continue traveling. Hopefully, this problem would be resolved with electrified, passenger dedicated trackage for the Cascades to Portland, Oregon.

      1. I’d actually handle Amtrak a bit differently, based on my experience in the Empire Corridor, where trains switch from diesel to electric at Albany, NY.

        First of all, all the Amtrak trains would attach/detach electric locomotives at Lakewood, or south of Lakewood, or at Tacoma.

        The Coast Starlight, which may arrive significantly off schedule, would be scheduled to arrive and depart in the nighttime, when regular Tacoma-Seattle traffic will be infrequent, so that its slower acceleration won’t matter for the scheduling, and so that even a delayed train could be fit in with ease. If necessary to manage the grades, it will get two electric engines to haul it. There will be plenty of track capacity to fit one slower train at night and it’s not really heavy enough to worry about track damage. This would be the same nighttime time period when any infrequent local freight traffic (such as the local traffic in the Tacoma area, maximum one train per night) would traverse the line.

        This is basically how they do it on the NEC and on the 125 mph lines in Britain; freight and slow passenger trains get a few slots at night. It’s really not hard to accomodate them since there are so few of them.

      2. Further points:
        — Amtrak will not agree to terminate the Coast Starlight at Tacoma. Financially that would be a disaster for Amtrak.
        — BNSF will want to get *all* the passenger trains off its line, not “all but one”. They’ve made this very clear in the past. They’ll cut a much better deal to get *all* the passenger trains off the line than they will to get “all but one” off. The same attitude has been shown by UP.

      3. Nathanael, the continuing discussion about Amtrak services on the rebuilt corridor are valuable and need to happen.

        As we have discussed, such a modernization of these rail lines would likely preclude Amtrak operations over it.

        Yes, the Cascades could still run with a diesel/electric hybrid locomotive that was of a far lighter weight than today’s pullers (though that would likely be FRA illegal considering it still would share freight trackage south of Nisqually), or even switch locomotives near Tacoma, but all of the Coast Starlight equipment is too heavy or antiquated to negotiate any of the higher-speed curves required to allow for swift speeds between Seattle or Tacoma. Pick your poison: have a lousy train run through to Seattle at the expense of millions of other local trips, or preserve the engineering specs for the grand majority of users and sever the Coast Starlight at a specific point south of Tacoma.

        Transit aficionados need to recognize that any connection to the traditional rail network imperils every novel plan for a world-class passenger rail network, and we have to make choices that in the past would’ve been contrary to our ideals.

        As we reconsider our transit options and explore more sensible alternatives for mobility, we must change the way in which we value different, perhaps competing modes of transportation.

        The mobility game is changing in our favor and we have to be smarter with our investments. Here, that means overcoming our tendency to be kneejerk-reactive with our support for Amtrak.

      4. Slower speed lines will still be needed due to freight service. The Coast Starlight could just continue to use the freight lines.

        As to what the FRA would allow that isn’t clear yet. There have been cases where the use of PTC signals has allowed a waiver for lighter equipment (CalTrain). Since PTC signals will eventually be required on all passenger lines the difference in equipment might not be an issue. The big issue is they haven’t come up with a real plan that shows what they will or won’t approve under this scheme.

      5. This is true, but it begs the question: where will the Coast Starlight stop? Are we to keep the current station along Puyallup Avenue for the low ridership of a single, ultimately inconsequential train?

        I am personally quite fine with the continued existence of the train should its round-trip be accepted over the BNSF/UPRR corridor without issue and otherwise disassociated from the passenger-dedicated tracks.

  2. This is very interesting. It is possibly cheaper to do this than to extend light rail to Tacoma from Federal Way? Maybe not the whole project, but whatever the minimal set would be to get passenger ROW from Tacoma to Seattle (e.g. not all of the work to reduce track radius, at-grade crossings etc…), but enough to triple-track the UP corridor and add the passenger tracks north of Tukwila?

    The grade separation and the wider curve radii could come later (e.g. ST4 — or with State/Federal funding for a HSR corridor to Portland).

    But what’s great about this is unlike Link — this could be much faster than ST Express from Tacoma. If we have all day service w/ at least 4 trains/hour then we can kill all of the 59x routes, and also the 150, even the 101 could be truncated at Tukwila etc… it would really improve mobility in the region. Whereas today it’s impossible to truncate really any of these routes as Link is too slow.

    1. That becomes the question. I think you would get more benefits than the $2 billion for extending LRT to Tacoma let alone the travel time.

      It seems from when I was on the bus with people there was not much enthusiasm for LRT to Tacoma. This has a much better geographic benefit and lays a foundation for potential Sounder to DuPont and Olympia let alone HSR in the future. All the 59x service could be canned and then having something reliable may help with JBLM traffic.

      First objective: Get UP and BNSF to buy off on this given UP has to use BNSF trackage from Seattle to Tukwilla and then via the Ruston Tunnel. You would likely have to pay for BNSF’s relocation for having a single freight corridor and then sweeten it by paying for the grade separations due to the shear amount of traffic in the corridor. However, having a 3-4 track freight corridor with only one passenger train running would likely be enough for BNSF and UP to agree to a joint corridor.

      With the BNSF converted to passenger rail, elevated sections would likely have to go through Puyallup and Kent. Auburn maybe a bit difficult due to the already elevated highways. I do think the extra costs outweight the benefits by the time you reach Tacoma Mall by LRT.

      1. So, it seems relatively straightforward to do the relocation south of Black River (at the north end, where the UP and BNSF lines merge). Expensive (relocation of Auburn Yard, etc.) but straightforward.

        But if this portion were done without building passenger-exclusive tracks north of Black River, then there would still be lots of passenger trains on the line north of Black River.

        The question, I believe, is how much benefit BNSF and UP will see from the project if the passenger trains are still traversing the line north of Black River.

        If they’ll see a lot of benefit from having a freight-exclusive corridor from Nisqually to Black River, then they’ll go for it and we can probably do this project.

        But if it just isn’t worth it for them unless the passenger trains are “out of their hair” further north, then we have to get the passenger trains out of their hair from Black River to Seattle before we can get them to agree to the rest of the project.

      2. I do not expect an elevated right-of-way to be required anywhere other than those locations already specified in the plan. I currently see no reason as to why the line would require elevation in any of the valley cities, and it certainly would not make financial sense to elevate a railroad line in lieu of a hypothetically complicated grade separation if there is no need.

        This railroad line is to be absent of civil engineering aggrandizement wherever feasible to protect the purse of the taxpayer while maximizing the benefit to the public.

        This focus on value engineering is what makes this project compelling.

        With regards to passenger-dedicated tracks north of Black River, Nathanael, you’re absolutely right. Without these new-build tracks, I highly doubt that BNSF and UPRR would allow for the diversion of their traffic onto a shared corridor. If this project was to go forward, the freight line upgrades and passenger-dedicated track construction would be the one-two punch that jumpstarted the entire modernization project.

        As to the relative costs: as of right now LRT to just Federal Way (from the ID) will be at least $3 billion. There is nearly zero doubt that, when figuring the cost for the entire line to Tacoma, that this line could either be wholly or nearly totally paid for by an equivalent level of funding.

    2. It is definitely cheaper to do this than build another Link
      line that connects all these city centers.

      Also, the FLIRT stock isn’t too far from light rail cars in terms of weight. It could probably operate on parts of Link when needed. Say, to produce that airport express thing several people have asked for.

      1. A plethora of new transit mode combinations are made possible with a standard gauge, high(er)-speed rail spine in the Puget Sound.

        This plan unlocks tremendous potential in our region by changing the geography of the area via dramatically reduced trip-times, even if the rails do not come into the center of any particular city.

        Federal Way, for example, is linked far more quickly to Seattle using timed connections from a BRT service to departures at Sumner or Auburn Stations than it ever would be by Link.

        Furthermore, the overall cost savings through this method over a comparable Link alignment (especially when factoring in opportunity costs) would be immense.

    3. This is why the plan is rather remarkable: nearly all of the major projects that are to be built over the two corridors to permit regular passenger services would largely be in existing, preserved right-of-way. That is an extraordinary advantage that controls costs and political damage, all the while enhancing existing, quality infrastructure and urban development patterns in historic valley cities.

      When you factor out pricey grade separations on these railroad corridors, crossings that should be separated anyway for public safety and economic reasons whether-or-not this plan is realized, the plan may largely pay for itself through the rise of associated real estate values over time. Perhaps a value capture financing of sorts via development fees should be considered. In any case, if value capture was not explored and the project simply funded outright, I think the per mile cost for the roughly 80 miles of railroad rebuild would be wildly affordable.

      Those costs have not been estimated yet as the project is still in a scrutiny/design phase, but you can be certain those estimations will be forthcoming.

      This project should happen.

    4. With regards to passenger-dedicated tracks north of Black River, Nathanael, you’re absolutely right. I highly doubt that, without these new-build tracks, would BNSF and UPRR be willing to take the bait and allow for the diversion of their traffic onto a shared corridor. If this project was to go forward, the freight line upgrades and passenger-dedicated track construction would be the one-two punch that jumpstarted the entire modernization project.

      As to the relative costs: as of right now LRT to just Federal Way (from the ID) will be at least $3 billion. There is nearly zero doubt that, when figuring the cost for the entire line to Tacoma, that this line could either be wholly or nearly totally paid for.

  3. 125 mph would be reasonable not only for this Washington Intercity Rail system on the SeaTac corridor, but it should be extended statewide.

    I’d like to be able to take a Sounder from Tacoma to Yakima, or Tri-Cities to Spokane. Or Seattle to ocean beaches area.

    All of our cities should be linked with medium speed rail.

    1. I totally agree. When considering the mid-size population of regional cities, the complication of securing wide enough curves within built-up areas, and the cost-benefit of a 125mph line versus 186mph or more, the extra several billion simply isn’t worth it, I feel.

      Perhaps a greenfield alignment to PDX could have sections of 186mph operations, but to begin designing your curves around that speed may prove too expensive for too minimal of a benefit.

      I think further analysis of the question would support my conclusions.

  4. I updated the system maps today, particularly a new preferred alternative alignment near Tukwila (pages 20-22).

    In discussion amongst multiple bright individuals, this plan is continually being refined and updated.

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