NOTE: This post is copied in its entirety from an article I wrote, titled Fast Trains to Olympia: A Mapped, Annotated Extension Proposal. It is the latest entry of my blog, Transportation Matters, a Pacific Northwest-flavored blog that discusses railway planning, urban planning, and related politics.
Olympia, the seat of government for Washington State, is sited at the southwestern edge of the urbanized Puget Sound region. While the politicking inside the statehouse may directly affect the other cities of the region, Olympia is not otherwise well connected to them. Including the bus commute on Interstate 5, a ride that is frequently halted by worsening congestion, Washington State’s economic, political and social centers remain unlinked by any reliable, frequent and swift mode of public transportation.
It does not have to be this way.
The Tacoma to Seattle core rail line endeavors to close the most critical gap within the region. It does so sensibly by eliminating mainline redundancy and utilizing existing rights-of-way; by improving rail capacity for cargo trains that have been diverted away from our city centers, and; by building smart, new infrastructure to link the two cities and their suburbs together in a single, urban, high-speed line.
In much the same way, the extension from Tacoma to Olympia will also capitalize on existing infrastructural resources, and similarly employ the best passenger railroad engineering practices of Western Europe to achieve a uniform speed profile of 200kmh (125mph). This is the overall system’s design standard, with the only exceptions being the last few kilometers into Olympia and Seattle’s city center terminals, or those segments where top-speeds are higher.
Some have already questioned the merit of a line to Olympia. Indeed, after decades of malinvestment into the region’s railroad network, and even dismantling quite a bit of it, the capital costs of the project, as-of-yet not calculated, will be substantial. However, to discount a project whose cost should have been evenly distributed over the decades is irresponsible and short-sighted. Railways have not been afforded the same generosity as has our regional highway network.
Consequently, it is even more imperative to thoroughly review and understand the benefits of any such extension.
One, and perhaps most fundamentally, the extension would further transform mobility in the Puget Sound region and upend current notions of distance and geography. Following another on-time departure from King Street Station’s stub tracks in central Seattle, for example, a businessman could arrive at an Olympia Station just eight blocks from where his meeting will be held inside the Capitol Building, and do so roughly twice as fast as driving—likely far more quickly should the interstate not be having a rare free-flowing day. Distance becomes unimportant when high-speed trains are your preferred mode of travel, exposing formerly ignored real estate to investment opportunity from sources across a newly connected region.
Two, as new BRT and streetcar lines are developed and improved bike and pedestrian systems connect with the high-speed line at its stations, the vast majority of the region’s populace will finally be offered a real alternative to driving for the first time since the commencement of the Automobile Age.
Three, the segment of the line between Fort Lewis Station and Lacey Station is designed to accommodate true high-speed trains traveling upwards of 300kmh (185mph). Responsible planning dictates us to prepare for a time when much of the extension is incorporated into the Central Washington High-Speed Line to Portland, Oregon, rendering the final miles of trackage into Downtown Olympia merely a spur. In other words, the extension to Olympia must be seen as the initial segment of a true high-speed line linking the primary cities of the Pacific Northwest. This proposal has us securing the critical urban rights-of-way now before urban sprawl and poor planning eradicate these limited, very precious resources.
Lastly, four, while the construction of any rail line will undoubtedly pollute, their subsequent operation will generate dramatically fewer toxins than their vehicular counterparts. With high-speed electric trains, the comparison becomes even more pronounced. Confronted with worsening congestion, deteriorating air quality, poor mobility and city centers stifled by underinvestment, the Puget Sound has extraordinary potential to recast itself as one of the most resilient and sustainable metropolitan areas of the world through this rail improvement plan.
The Olympia Extension could play a major role within this transformation.
Measured to within mere feet of inaccuracy, this project is technically feasible. All that is required now is the political will to begin establishing the sole rail spine of a rapidly growing region.
From here, I’ll let my plan speak for itself. I welcome scrutiny and constructive criticism.