Once the current projects are completed, Seattle to Portland travel time via Cascades trains will drop. The current published expectation is a decrease of 20 minutes from 3 hours and 40 minutes to 3 hours and 20 minutes. 10 minutes due to construction delays and 10 minutes from improved speed and on time performance. The actual decrease will be even greater.
The Washington State Long-Range Plan for Amtrak Cascades from 2006 indicates three hour travel time is possible after the in progress improvements are complete. Specifically page 3-4:
Current travel times from Seattle to either Vancouver, BC or Portland, OR will decrease by approximately thirty minutes each way.
The projects required to complete that kind of travel time are listed in the document and those projects are very similar to the ones already completed or in progress as part of the current WSDOT High-Speed Rail Program. The 20 minute delta between estimates in the Long-Range Plan and the current planned reduction is significant and meaningful. I have not yet found the cause of the delta. One possibility for 5 minutes of the delta is the Tukwila stop, but this is only a part of the delta. I surmise planners want to be cautious at first and see how the completed projects impact on time performance in practice versus their modeling. Near 3 hour travel times are possible in the next couple of years.
The long term goal is a travel time of 2 hours and 30 minutes. This has been re-iterated in multiple of the Washington rail plans. For example in the 2014 rail plan:
Thirteen round trips between Seattle and Portland (1-hour frequency during peak travel times) with a travel time of two hours and 30 minutes (2:30).
The current projects will decrease delays and improve the average speed. Currently, the maximum speed is 79 mph indicating a maximum track class of 4. The long range planning documents indicate 110 mph speeds and class 6 track will be needed to reach the 2 hours and 30 minutes goal.
Many of the current projects, once completed, will allow for the track to become class 5. Class 5 track allows for up to a maximum speed of 90 mph. On page 4-14 of the Amtrak Cascades Mid-Range Plan on the WSDOT website:
This project will upgrade and maintain all existing main line tracks to FRA “Class V” standards. However, trains would still be limited to 79 mph maximum due to signal limitations.
The signal limitations, I believe, were addressed in some of the current projects. The quote is referencing track between Blaine and Vancouver WA. An associated cost increase in maintenance would occur if the track became class 5, from page 4-15 of the Amtrack Cascades Mid-Range Plan on the WSDOT website:
WSDOT estimates it will cost more than $200,000 per track mile. This equates to $97.4 million with delivery in 2014 (Exhibit 5A-8, Appendix 5). In addition, the cost of maintaining the tracks to the higher standard will be higher than today. This will take about four years to implement without severely disrupting existing service. BNSF estimates it will cost between $10,000 and $13,000 (2008 estimates) per track mile annually for ongoing maintenance at the higher track standard.
There are roughly 300 miles of track for the Cascades in Washington. If being unkind with inflation and staying on the higher side of the BNSF maintenance estimate that brings the total extra cost in maintenance to $4.5 million annually. Not all of the track needs to be of higher classification and if focused on the Seattle to Portland route the annual cost impact could be lowered. It sounds feasible for at least some of the track to receive a class 5 rating. I believe, based time estimates in the WSDOT plans, this would reduce travel time by another 10 minutes.
Basic internet searching for class 6 maintenance costs versus class 4 maintenance costs suggests the increase would be double the class 5 versus class 4 cost. It seems class 6 track is an unreasonable expectation at this time. The past couple of years WSDOT has named operating cost reduction as a goal. It is also unclear how much if any track at this time is built for class 6 or if the existing engines are economical to run at class 6 speeds.
Aside from track improvements, the new Charger locomotives should also have an effect on travel times. They are more powerful and more efficient. Better acceleration will improve the average speed and the greater efficiency should allow for more use of the greater power due to lower operational costs. There are hints in the various WSDOT plans and articles online that the new engines should help reduce travel time slightly, but I have not found any numbers to indicate how much of an effect they will have.
Over the next four years we should see a gradual decrease in travel time. In 2017 travel time should be 3 hours and 20 minutes. By 2019 I expect to see 3 hour travel times. With a class 5 track rating, by 2020 I would hope for a 2 hours 50 minute travel time between Seattle and Portland.