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.
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.