NOTE: This post is copied in its entirety from an article I wrote, titled With Major Revisions, the SPIRE Plan Becomes Our Region’s Surest Best for Express Rail Service: A Mapped, Annotated Update. It is the latest entry of my blog, Transportation Matters, a Pacific Northwest-flavored blog that discusses railway planning, urban planning, and related politics.
For over a decade now, and principally advanced by the November 2016 election, the majority of voters within Sound Transit’s taxing district have committed themselves to the extension of the Link light rail line from Seattle to Puyallup Avenue in Tacoma. The resurrection-in-spirit of the old interurban line of the Puget Sound Electric Railway, which dutifully linked the two cities between 1902 and 1928, manifested itself through a number of factors: the anguish over limited mobility options between the two cities; increasing congestion and delay; the failure to prioritize bus transit on existing roadways; environmental concerns, and; the pro-transit pull of our region’s growing urban cores. By 2030, a passenger-friendly rail system should again bridge that divide in a manner that no system has since the termination of interurban services nearly 89 years ago. Whatever one may feel regarding ST3, compliments to Sound Transit for this rather extraordinary achievement.
In a high-tech, fast paced region like the Puget Sound, however, the ±70 minute travel times between the two cities will eventually prove unsatisfactory; indeed, the primitive interurban had precisely 70 minute trip times scheduled, too, including padding, for their express services in 1922 (a separate, undated timecard details 65 to 75 minute express services). Damningly, this was achieved on a notably longer pioneer alignment that began on Occidental Avenue in Pioneer Square and ended not on Puyallup Avenue in Tacoma, but near old city hall in the crowded central business district. Though our ST3 rail investment will spur growth and positively affect the geography of the region, we are paying an enormous sum of money to establish transit services that are roughly comparable to those conceived in the late 19th century, constructed in the early 20th, and dismantled a few decades thereafter.
The SPIRE rail modernization plan was initially a 2015 reaction to the numerous technical criticisms of the Link extension toward Tacoma. It was a proposal that conveyed a potent message: despite the price and the press, Sound Transit’s multi-billion dollar rail plan was neither the visionary nor intelligent plan needed. Unfortunately, the SPIRE’s best mechanism for financing died with the passage of ST3, considering the core of its alignment rests entirely within the taxing district, and the existing services utilizing its right-of-way for their operations are already wildly popular. In the future, with rail service between Commencement and Elliott bays underway and Sound Transit largely working to pay down huge debts, it seems unlikely that a majority of voters would agree to a major upgrade of rail services on the heavy rail mainlines parallel to the Link corridor.
Consequently, the future genesis of the SPIRE plan will likely have to come in the shape of rail investments in the Cascades corridor to Portland, Oregon, representing a multi-state and/or federal effort to deliver quality express services to the region. Such an effort will be mandatory, in fact, should we ever insist on regional trains that travel at speeds swifter than 90mph (145kmh). That figure is the strict BNSF speed cap for passenger trains, with or without positive train control (PTC). Now, with the following improvements rendering the plan even more rational and executable, the Seattle-Tacoma-Olympia core of any higher speed rail project would almost certainly be the SPIRE line proposed here. Alternative alignments would cost billions more and require a dismaying planning process, the entirety of it vulnerable to collapse due to local politics and eminent domain battles.
SPIRE PLAN MODIFICATIONS
When originally proposed by this blog, the SPIRE plan was to feature routine operating speeds of 125mph (200kmh) on largely tangent track between Tacoma and Seattle, with antiquated curves widened to a minimum 6235ft (1900m) accordingly. However, multiple issues arose from this choice: grade crossings were required by law to be eliminated, raising costs dramatically; numerous homes, or even neighborhoods, were destroyed for some curve improvements; the speeds were unrealistically high for corridor commuter trains and had no real impact on lowering travel times, and; it failed to take advantage of higher equilibrium cants, in essence the sum of the tilt of the rails and the distance value of how fast a train can travel around curves before distress. The higher speed was a benefit to express travelers, though. Unfortunately, express trains were never meant to be the focus of the SPIRE plan.
Modifications, which are presented below, lower the maximum speed to 100mph (160kmh) on track with 10in (254mm) of equilibrium cant, or 110mph (175kmh) on 12in (304.8mm). To accommodate these speeds, curves are widened to a far more sympathetic 3935ft (1200m), sparing numerous homes, businesses and streets from condemnation and destruction. On the express track from Auburn to Tukwila, and on the new passenger-dedicated tracks from Tukwila to Georgetown, top speeds may remain at their original 125mph (200kmh) cap should investments be made to eliminate or avoid grade crossings on those stretches. As this blog has argued before, grade crossing elimination should be a safety priority for the region whether-or-not the SPIRE plan is realized, especially in the valley cities of Kent, Auburn, Sumner and Puyallup.
The speed update to the SPIRE plan allows for a piecemeal grade separation of the corridor—if at all—as the lower speeds no longer legally compel such a separation. While this does substantially lower the cost and complication of the project, it allows for the nuisance of approaching train horns to continue largely unabated.
This SPIRE update also includes a dramatically more precise measurement of rights-of-way based on technical standards from the California High Speed Rail Authority, BNSF, Deutsche Bahn, the Israeli Railways, LTD., amongst others. Elevation contours provided by the city of Seattle, and Pierce and King counties, also were useful in determining the location of critical civil works. This provides us further confidence in the strong technical feasibility of the SPIRE plan, for both the passenger and freight corridors. Roughly all prominent physical features along the railroad rights-of-way, with the exception of utilities, are now identified based on their likely impact.
Additional modifications concern new research and awareness into specific planning issues:
1) The Stampede Pass rail link to the freight corridor is now achieved via graded fill and bridges, rather than trenching. Geotechnical issues related to the water table precluded trenching, as did impacts to adjacent roadways and bridges (pg. 15).
2) A lengthy tunnel is no longer supported though Tacoma; instead, the current alignment is improved with widened curves, affecting some local streets while avoiding hundreds of millions of dollars on civil works under a busy urban zone (pg. 27).
3) Highway columns, especially on the new I-5 Puyallup River Bridge, were incorporated into the project and considered during the design. While some curves were altered to circumvent these columns, it is presumed on other, smaller bridges that steel would provide a means to relocate errant columns. On other bridges, still, a rebuild would likely be cogent due to end-of-life estimations (pg. 26).
4) A new alignment is proposed between Tacoma and Puyallup that roughly parallels the existing BNSF right-of-way. While the new alignment does include a modest tunnel, it avoids the evisceration of a neighborhood and spares numerous additional structures on tribal land. The alternative alignment remains in the SPIRE plan maps for consideration (pgs. 22, 25).
5) Near Olympia and Lacey, the Woodland Trail alignment was selected as the preferred option of accessing the center of Olympia, having proven incredibly amenable to express rail infrastructure using 1200m curves. It is now, by far, the best route to serve the people of the south Puget Sound (pgs. 37-41).
6) In Olympia, competitor siting options for the station were discarded for the location along Legion Way. It is far less disruptive than the alternatives, allows for UPRR to continue to access the Olympia port on their operational cargo line, and provides a fine location near both the city center and the capitol (pg. 47).
7) In the Nisqually Valley area, great pains were taken to avoid the destruction of hamlets and farms, all-the-while preserving 200kmh (125mph) speeds that support a high-speed link to Portland, Ore. The interchange from the SPIRE line to a central Washington high-speed line will probably be made in this rural area (pgs. 35-38).
8) Though the map represents a right-of-way capable of accommodating three tracks, the freight corridor is no longer presumed to be triple-track from the outset, but double. While the SPIRE plan will preserve enough space to allow for three mainline tracks on the entirety of the corridor, current daily freight train totals on the UPRR and BNSF do not warrant three active tracks. Only alongside the rail yards in Fife, Auburn and the Tukwila area can we presume that three main tracks will be useful at this time.
9) Now depicted on the maps are the recently constructed third main lines on the BNSF corridor between Auburn and Tukwila, with the intentional gap through Kent (the railroad has had difficulty acquiring property through the area, and it would further require destruction of Kent Station facilities to accommodate the third track). Should the Seattle to Portland passenger rail link be constructed, this section would need the third track to support express services. A third track would also be required south of Tacoma, though the location is undetermined and dependent on currently uncalculated timetable work. This work is underway and the maps will be updated accordingly.
10) A challenging stretch of right-of-way between Tukwila and SODO has been refined to avoid numerous structures, and now incorporates previously unaccounted-for civil works. Tweaks in the alignment have improved the line’s feasibility (pgs. 2-7).
11) Fort Lewis Station has since become Dupont / Fort Lewis Station, having been moved away from the Fort Lewis main gate and toward a more sensible location near Dupont and the fort’s Clark Road gate (pg. 34).
12) The north arrow is now facing up, mercifully.
These improvements, as well as the precision updates to track geometry, will allow us to better understand the impacts of the intelligent SPIRE proposal on our region. Furthermore, simple budgets and timetable string graphs are now able to be completed, providing us a much clearer picture of how transformational these rail services would be on our mobility and urban geography.
From here, I’ll let my plan speak for itself. I welcome scrutiny and constructive criticism.