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NOTE: This post is copied in its entirety from an article I wrote, titled The Upgrading of Our Regional Rail System Is Now Called the SPIRE 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.


In an effort to consolidate the many critical pieces of the Seattle-Tacoma (-Olympia) rail modernization project into one digestible concept for the public, I would like to introduce some helpful branding into the conversation: the SPIRE Plan.

It is an acronym for Seattle, Puget Sound, Intercity Railway Express. It is a vision for a rail based future that invigorates both our economy and our population.

For those within Sound Transit’s taxing authority—especially those living south of Seattle and who are dedicated to improving transportation options in a systematic, meaningful manner—the SPIRE plan is the mechanism through which our transportation ground game is revolutionized.

The SPIRE plan is the reorganization and enhancement of our local rail infrastructure that, incredibly(!), already exists. It would serve historic communities like Kent and Puyallup, cities with good urban bones, all of which are primed for new infill development and additional residents.

With up to 350 daily passenger trains at full build-out between Seattle and Tacoma, traveling safely at maximum speeds of 120mph, the social geography of the Puget Sound would be forever altered in powerful, transformational ways. Additionally, it places higher speed rail service to central Olympia directly at our fingertips, and it accomplishes this through a logical exploitation of existing resources. Key to the plan’s success is the diversion of all freight trains to an adjacent and parallel railroad line, thereby streamlining heavy freight operations into and out of our major ports and urban areas.

The SPIRE plan is absolutely doable, politically and technically, but only when we make the responsible planning, legislative, and funding choices that pave the way toward its realization.

By comparison, the planned Link light rail extension into Tacoma is the epitome of planned obsolescence. Not only does it build redundant rail infrastructure to poorly considered stations in low density auto-sprawl areas, it endangers actual quality plans with more deliverable timeframes, and which possess far more potential to positively affect regional mobility.

The SPIRE plan is one such proposal, a no-brainer commitment to incrementally upgrade our rail network to a world class standard, and which is fed riders by a suburban bus rapid transit system that stretches into the hinterland.  Ultimately, we could tie a region together via swift, reliable, high-capacity transportation. We could construct a passenger rail spine that is truly worthy of financial capital, political capital, and our collective admiration.

Do you want swift, electric, frequent, and reliable passenger trains serving Seattle, Tacoma and beyond? Do you agree that our freight railways are an integral part of our transportation system? Do you wish to protect our cities by diverting dangerous freight cargoes away from their city centers? Do you want to eliminate every dangerous and traffic-plagued railroad crossing from our regional map?

If so, only one proposal could ever deliver those transformation results.

That proposal is the SPIRE plan.



8 Replies to “The Upgrading of Our Regional Rail System Is Now Called the SPIRE Plan; Poster Included.”

  1. What kind of trip times are we looking at for this if the trains maxed out at 120MPH? How long would it take to get from Seattle to Tacoma or Everett. A little chart would be nice.

    1. Cost estimates and trip time analyses are forthcoming. I have lacked adequate software to compute the latter and I hope to get that resolved soon. Fortunately, I can pinpoint cost estimates to a respectable degree of accuracy by examining similar construction projects in the area and extrapolating, especially with recent road and rail grade separations. That is just a huge project on its own.

      As for speed profiles, certainly the local trains will not be maxing out the corridor’s top speed due to their stop patterns. They will markedly improve upon the current hour-long trip times by several minutes, though, and that is even when you add an optional Georgetown station.

      Hypothetical Seattle-Tacoma-Olympia express trains, however, or modern intercity trains out of Portland, both of which would use the new third main that is both funded and soon-to-be under construction between Tacoma and Seattle (as part of ST2), and which allows for the skipping of local trains, could complete the run in about 22 minutes at an average speed of 105 mph. Conservatively, let us pad that timeframe for an approximate 25 minute Seattle-Tacoma trip time.

  2. “Do you want swift, electric, frequent, and reliable passenger trains serving Seattle, Tacoma and beyond? Do you agree that our freight railways are an integral part of our transportation system?”

    Do we, yes. Can we convince the state to prioritize it enough to make it happen? Not judging from its “D”-grade commitment to Cascades.

    The state is planning to upgrade the corridor to 110 mph eventually. It ruled out 125 mph as too expensive for its incremental benefit. The difference between 110 and 120 is not enough to get bothered about. But this is several decades in the future, while the transit needs are now.

    1. At the very minimum, at least WSDOT has produced for the Cascades a long term vision that can be incrementally realized once funding is secured. Even Sound Transit lacks such a vision, of all the basic planning documents to not have. With a progressive state government and executive branch, the Cascades plan becomes rather meaningful.

      Personally, I think a brand new high-speed line from Seattle to Portland should feature 186mph top speeds, which it is certainly capable of accommodating from Nisqually southward. However, 110mph is just fine for interim Cascades trains and feeder services.

      Still, whichever high speed figure is selected, you handicap the rail line when you compromise on any part of the SPIRE plan between Seattle-Tacoma-Olympia—with which it would integrate. Think of the shared Caltrain and CA HSR trackage between central San Francisco and San Jose. That modernization project, along with the Alameda freight bypass, is the conceptual cousin of the SPIRE plan.

    2. When the tracks are improved for Cascades, Sounder can run faster too. It will just have to buy faster trains, which is much less expensive than upgrading the right of way or buying BNSF out. The original Sounder trains will have to be replaced anyway at some point. The state rail project is intended to benefit all passenger rail service including Sounder, not just Cascades.

      1. Mike, none of the segments of the WSDOT Cascades plan that feature speed improvements are within the existing Sounder commuter rail corridor. In fact, only one minor segment of the WSDOT proposal sneaks into the larger extents of the SPIRE plan into central Olympia, and the improvement is to the exclusive benefit of Cascades trains.

        While the Cascades and local commuter rail systems should be planned in a complimentary manner to one another, that currently is not the case. However, in the future, they could very well be should future Cascades trains be built according to SPIRE specifications (for example, hybrid electric trains capable of taking high-speed curves and which share car floor dimensions to match with SPIRE platform heights for level boarding).

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