Racing Amtrak Cascades

[Readers have been asking about our 4-part series on Seattle-Vancouver high speed rail.  With Zach moving on to new adventures, we’ve asked Alon Levy of the excellent blog Pedestrian Observations to finish out the series.  Enjoy part 3 below. – Ed.]

Seattle Transit Blog has looked at special challenges involved in high-speed rail in the Pacific Northwest, between Seattle and Vancouver. I briefly explained the problem a few years ago, and earlier this year, Zach Shaner here began a series examining the Seattle-Vancouver corridor segment by segment. Part 1 dealt with the Seattle-Everett slog, and part 2 with Everett-Bellingham, an easier but already less slow segment. In this post, I will look at Bellingham-Vancouver.

The Bellingham-Vancouver segment has four important decisions:

  1. How to go around Bellingham?
  2. How to get between Bellingham and the built-up area of Vancouver, roughly around Surrey?
  3. How to complete the last 20-25 miles into Vancouver?
  4. Where should the Vancouver terminal be?

Decision #4 is the subject of part 4. In this post I’d like to examine the first three decisions.


It is impossible to serve Bellingham’s CBD. The legacy alignment through the city has a curve of radius 920 feet (53 mph) and grade crossings; it also has poor connections to I-5 from the south. The only reason to use this alignment is if there are plans to never run trains that skip the city. Whatcom County’s population is 200,000; HSR would pass through Burnaby (population 230,000) and Surrey (s520,000) without stopping. Letting express trains skip Bellingham is fine, even desirable.

Instead, trains should run alongside I-5, and serve Bellingham at an outlying location—see map below. The best locations are a lot closer to the CBD than the current Amshack in Fairhaven. There is still a problem: I-5 is not especially straight through Bellingham. On the map, potential stations are in black, and curve radii (in meters) are in blue:

High Speed Rail through Bellingham via I-5
HSR alignment through Bellingham

The tightest curve on the I-5 right-of-way has radius 600 meters, or 2,000 feet, good for 78 mph. It and the curve to its south can be eased to about 3,600 feet, good for 105 mph, before they turn into an S-curve. A 105 mph slowdown for 225 mph express trains is bad, but not fatal—about 95 seconds; the 2,000 meter (6,600′) curves farther north are good for 140 mph and add another 15 seconds of slowdown.

Across the border

North of the built-up area of Bellingham, I-5 runs through open land. The terrain is very flat on the American side of the border, and there is so little development that the best alignment is an area rather than a line. In other words, instead of drawing a single line between Bellingham and Langley or Surrey, it’s better to draw a western limit and an eastern limit, and between them pick the alignment that presents the easiest construction in terms of minor cut-and-fill, overall distance, and land acquisition.

Metro Vancouver

To understand how trains should enter Metro Vancouver, it is useful to understand where in Vancouver they could end up. There are two reasonable options for a Vancouver station: Canadian Pacific’s Waterfront terminal (where the West Coast Express goes), and Canadian National’s Pacific Central (where the Cascades go). Waterfront is in the CBD, Pacific Central just outside it, two stops out on SkyTrain’s Expo Line. A new station location at Commercial/Broadway, at the intersection of the Expo and Millennium Lines, could in theory work, but in practice the tracks are constrained and there is no room for platforms.

Regardless of where trains go in Vancouver, the only useful way out is on the CN track; the CP track feeding Waterfront is too curvy and constrained. Today, the Cascades reach the CN track via the BNSF track, which winds its way between the Surrey built-up area and Burns Bog Delta Nature Preserve. Passenger trains have to go through New Westminster Rail Bridge, a single-track structure with 46 freight trains per day and capacity for just 14 more trains. There is no chance of HSR without replacing or bypassing this bottleneck. Here is an alternative alignment:

Fortunately, there is a good right-of-way letting trains enter the CN track from the east: the Trans-Canada Highway, a full freeway. It is dead straight through Langley and Surrey, and mostly undeveloped on its south side; it also has a usable median most of the way. South of the Fraser, only two miles pose a real problem, between Guildford and Fraser Heights: there, development goes right up until the right-of-way, which requires some combination of viaducts, takings, noise abatement measures, and speed compromises in the 150 mph area. This is low hundreds of millions of dollars, not billions.

The Fraser crossing would be a new bridge. The New West Rail Bridge replacement is budgeted at $110 million. The nearby two-track SkyBridge, connecting SkyTrain to Surrey, was built in the late 1980s at a cost of $28 million, about $50 million in today’s money. The Trans-Canada crosses the Fraser at a somewhat wider point than SkyBridge, but still, costs much higher than $100 million are unlikely. Then it’s industrial takings, possibly straying from the road to ease a curve (the road itself is 2,500 feet at the bridge, good for 88 mph). The final approach on the CN line may require widening the line from two to three tracks, and possibly some grade-separations, but there’s room for all of this, and Canadian construction costs are lower than American ones.


The Bellingham-Vancouver segment looks scary, and Vancouver has a dearth of high-quality rail alignments. But it is actually not that bad—Bellingham imposes some slowdowns, but the road from there to Metro Vancouver is clear, and within Vancouver, not a single meter of tunnel is necessary except perhaps in the immediate downtown area. On the longest option, going to Waterfront Terminal, this is 60 miles of rail, in about 28 minutes one-way for trains not stopping at Bellingham. While slower than most recent HSR lines, this requires just routine construction in greenfield areas and some urban viaducts, and possibly minor tunneling near Downtown Vancouver; this should be doable for a low single-digit number of billions of dollars. The problems for Seattle-Vancouver HSR are more at the Seattle end than the Vancouver end.

Part 1: Seattle to Everett
Part 2: Everett to Bellingham
Part 3: Bellingham to Vancouver
Part 4: Terminal options

65 Replies to “Seattle-Vancouver High Speed Rail Part 3: Bellingham to Vancouver”

  1. I like the idea of maintaining a straightened Bellingham alignment, with stations near I-5, as well as the proximity of the Lakeway station to both downtown and WWU, approximately a mile to each. Good commentary.

    1. Because of these curves, Bellingham is the one place where we should pay the extra cost of a short tunnel. In fact we will probably already need a few tunnels in the southern approach to Bellingham around Lake Samish if we try to stick to the I-5 alignment.

      In Bellingham proper, a tunnel could depart from the I-5 alignment just south of the Samish Way exit (where the track is still heading due north) then curving softly northwest to emerge in the CBD around Chestnut and Bay St. At this point it would hook up with the existing fairly-straight BNSF right of way leaving downtown Bellingham to the northwest.

      This tunnel would be less than two miles long, and would emerge at the perfect location for a station, right at the spot where Bellingham’s existing downtown meets its huge new brownfield waterfront re-development.

      1. If you come out at Chestnut and Bay, you have the opportunity to utilize the 1907 Great Northern Passenger Station at the end of D street. It’s too small to be the station in its entirety, but a thoughtful addition would allow this former passenger station to regain its glory.

      2. The train is going to stop in Bellingham anyway, so the Bellingham station should be located somewhere on the arc of the curve to minimize the time lost. It wouldn’t be efficient to locate the station on a straight section of track and make the train decelerate from 220mph to zero and then accelerate again to 220. Putting the station along the curve would incorporate the deceleration time into the station stop and not be as much of a time loss.

  2. Last sentence is such a perfect British understatement that there’ only one proper response for railroad building from the Commonwealth to Tierra del Fuego: “Quite.”

    Same for multiple unfortunate legacies in right-of-way and station placement. Which themselves provide an important guide to planning from here on, over same length of time in the future.

    Given inevitable results of climate change, “Fill” and “Sea-Level” mean “Think Channel Tunnel.” Also, wouldn’t fret distance from present city centers. Passenger rail travel under discussion here will convert today’s Downtowns into tomorrow’s Old Towns.

    Great series. Thanks.

    Mark Dublin

    1. I don’t think what you say about Downtowns and Old Towns is generally true, but I’ll explain more in part 4. In short: unless HSR is giving you a connection to a massively larger city, it isn’t valuable enough to displace the existing CBD. In Bellingham, HSR would be a connection to a massively larger city, but in Vancouver it wouldn’t.

      1. not to mention that both of those I-5 stations are closer to the old Bellingham CBD than Pacific Central is to Granville & Georgia in Vancouver

      2. Notice I didn’t confine my assessments by the calendar. All of them. Over the centuries, How many of the world’s cities have had their business districts relocated by everything from Mt. Vesuvius to Business?

        Be great to have coffee with you at that great beachfront cafe on the west side of Broadway, watching the glass bottomed hydrofoils sweep majestically around the floating hotel anchored to the antenna on top of Columbia Center. Though we’re also overdue for Utah to have a Pacific Coast.

        All I’m saying is, there’s no harm and much good in approach you’re taking. Pretty much same as LINK on MLK, and eventually LINK itself, what you’re designing will be the network of local blood vessels that makes the really big fast ones work.

        Have to admit, though, it’d be great to know I’ll have a huge marble statue in the world capital known as Greater Omaha when Statues of Rich Guys Retro comes back. Word to the Art Commission, though. Don’t make same mistake with us you did with the Greeks. We both really wore clothes to work!

        Mark Dublin

  3. Something to point out – if using the Vancouver area alignment noted, most of Whatcom County’s new high speed track would not follow I-5. After Bellingham, it would follow I-5 as far as Ferndale, but from there, the new corridor would have to head due north (I-5 goes NW) to the border to meet the proposed BC alignment. This is an unpopulated farming area that presents few problems, except that there is no border crossing in this area (It’s located about halfway between the Blaine and Aldergrove crossings)

    1. There doesn’t need to be a road border crossing. The Cascades already have preclearance, so there needn’t be any new fight about border controls. The Maple Leaf and Adirondack’s practice of sitting at the border crossing is a monumental waste of time. If you can’t do preclearance, just check passports on a moving train, the way the Russians do and the way the Western Europeans did before Schengen.

      1. Also the way that the Americans and Canadians did it as recently as 1971. It was only a few years of no-cross border service before services were started and Customs refused to re-implement on-board inspection.

      2. Unfortunately, I think the border clearance will be a bit more difficult than you describe without pre-clearance. If there are no stops between Bellingham and DT Vancouver, agents will have a half hour to process everyone on the train. Practically speaking though, you’ll need at least one or two more stops between there. Alan points out below that a Blaine station may be needed. Even if BC funds everything, you’ll still want a stop in the suburbs. Anyone living in the suburbs who wants to take a train to Seattle won’t if it will take them 30 minutes just to get to the train.

        So now you probably have 15 minutes to process everyone. If there are 100 people on the train and let’s say 3 agents, you get less than 30 seconds per passenger. Even if there is no other stop, you still have only a minute. My feeling is that this would be cutting it very close.

        You might be able to do some kind of special arrangement for passengers bound for the Puget Sound areas – separating the train for example. But I don’t know what kind of security between cars would be needed. You could also do pre-clearance in Canada since there would only be a few stops, but that still requires manning at least 2 stations. And that would still create the annoying issue of having to arrive an hour before your train to clear immigration or wait when you arrive, which would be good to avoid.

      3. I would suggest setting customs up like airports in Canada. Do all the customs work at the 1 or 2 Vancouver stations and design them for this. It will probably even be more secure to do it this way than to try to rush an crossing entry point or layover.

        One major disadvantage is that travel between two stations in Canada may need to be restricted. That however could be solved by a one short train set that shuttles back and forth.

        The other would be to delay international traveler journeys a bit compared to an on-board processing. If a Bellingham stop and a surburban Vancouver is in place, there may not be enough time to do that anyway so that holding a train would be required –eating into a time savings.

      4. David,

        If there is a suburban station in BC, Blaine is not needed. There are a few thousand people living in the Blaine/Birch Bay community. Put a stop in New Westminster and folks in White Rock will be fine with catching the train there. There is direct Trans-Link service.

        But, seriously, what is the point of this train? These are two different countries which don’t share a “Schengen” zone. Travel back and forth fifty years ago was completely relaxed and easy. Today there is ever-increasing friction between the Canadian and US Governments, usually politically based. When the US had Obama, Canada had Harper. Now that Canada has Trudeau, the US has Trump. We crossed paths.

        If Bill Gates needs an HSR to Vancouver in order to locate non-citizen programmers there, let him build it.

      5. As others have mentioned, Surrey would be better than New Westminster. Apologies.

      6. @David: yeah, having two stops complicates matters. That said,:

        1. The number of agents can scale with the number of passengers. If the train expects 500 passengers, then hire 25 agents.

        2. Why wouldn’t the stations be manned? Presumably there would be a couple trains per hour (if there aren’t any, ridership is too low to be worth the expense of HSR), enough to justify manned stations even in the suburbs.

        3. Eurostar has something like preclearance rather than on-board checks, for reasons that boil down to “the UK is a special snowflake,” and this adds 15 minutes rather than an hour. Pacific Central preclearance is slow for two reasons: CBP is run by misanthropes, and there are only 2 trains per day, so it saves money to force everyone into long lines, whereas if there’s a train every half hour they need to just hire more people to process passengers fast enough.

      7. @Richard: Yes agreed that Blaine is probably not needed if you have a suburban Vancouver station.

        @Alon: First, remember that each agent is not cheap (probably at least $100k/year) and if you want 1 agent at all times, you probably need to hire 2-3 people to account for at least 2 8 hour shifts, vacation time, sick time, breaks, etc… Then double it since the same person can’t do both Canadian and US immigration.

        Second, I don’t know where you came up with 15 minutes for Eurostar, but on their site they state unless you pay for premium service you must be there at the station 30 minutes prior to arrival and during busy times, 45 minutes. And even though the UK and Europe have separate immigration, (for now at least) they’re in a customs union. So half the process doesn’t need to be done. From what I remember, EU citizens can walk through an automated gate to enter England. Until we can do that between Canada and the US, I don’t see anything less than 60 minutes working (at least as a recommended time).

      8. This is Homeland Security and an anti-immigration administration. They will not speed up the process. Eventually they’ll slow it down further when they add TSA-style scanning. And they already refused to do customs in Vancouver or support more preclearance Cascades runs.

        Airplanes start boarding 30 minutes ahead, so if you’re not ready to jump in line by then there’s a good chance you’ll be left behind. Casades’ domestic cutoff is 10 minutes ahead. That’s only a 20-minute difference.

        Microsoft is expanding its Vancouver office for those who can’t or don’t want to come to the US. Potentially it could channel all its new non-US citizens to there.

      9. At the terminals, the Shinkansen dwells for 12 minutes. That includes cleaning. Boarding takes 1-2 minutes, because there’s level boarding with 2 cars per train, or 2 per ~100 seats, whereas long narrowbodies have 1 gate for ~200 and you have to be seated with your seat belt fastened before the plane can start moving.

        This is independent of the “airports want you to waste money at the duty-free so they tell you to show up early, but if you’re already checked in and have no luggage you can show up half an hour before the flight and get on” issue.

        An agent is expensive, yes. But you need to avoid queuing, and that forces the target processing times to be well below the headway (so the worst case is still below the headway). If agents are expensive, there are two ways to speed things up:

        1. Do inspections on board on express trains – there’s lots of time for inspections.
        2. On local trains, segregate local riders (e.g. Vancouver-Bellingham) on 2 cars, and let people exit only after showing a passport to an agent.

        The vast majority of travelers are American and Canadian citizens, who have freedom of movement into their country and something approaching freedom of movement into the other country. At any Schengen airport, when arriving from a non-Schengen country, I show my passport to the agent, and the entire process takes maybe 20 seconds; Frankfurt even lets me just scan my passport at a machine and enter German territory without talking to a human.

        The current administration pretends to be tough, but so what? First, it’s not going to be still around when any HSR line designed now will open. And second, Trump will most likely sell Tiffany to slavery if you spend $5 million on stays at Mar-a-Lago; getting him to be flexible about customs inspections is a rounding error for HSR budgets. To the extent Trump is a risk, it’s that if he’s involved, the contract will go to the top Mar-a-Lago money launderer and not to the bidder with the best combination of low price, fast construction, and good technical merit.

      10. Problem, though. What’s going to happen when the rest of the world builds a Beautiful Wall around itself, and when we refuse to pay for it, not let us across the border ’till we get vetted. Ask any dog if he wants you to get the leash and take him to the vet!


      11. @Alon: Both options you suggested would work (though they would be expensive).

        I agree entering Schengen countries is easy. But have you actually crossed the American/Canadian (and, for that matter UK) border recently? 20 seconds is what it takes if you have a Nexus card (and even then, not always, since especially the US side likes to ask where you’ve been). If you don’t use a nexus line to cross, then you get interrogated over everything possible. For example, after telling the agents I was going to be kayaking in BC as part of my trip, I was asked “Where’s your kayak?” as if not having one meant I wouldn’t be able to kayak. And this was during the Obama days. Who knows what will happen now.

        Plus, even at it’s simplest, it takes 20 seconds to scan the passport, then you have to deal with people who don’t have it out yet, and all the questions. I’d bet on more like 3 minutes per family typically, with maybe a 5 minute average if you consider all outliers.

        I’m not saying it’s impossible to overcome this, but as Mike pointed out, this is not going to be a friendly administration to work with on this. And your competition here is not only planes but also driving. If I have to arrive 45 minutes prior to departure, and it takes an hour to get to Seattle, then we’re getting very close to the time it takes to drive, especially if I’m not starting or finishing near one of the stations.

      12. Right on, Mark. It’s happening and it won’t be pretty. We simply cannot be prosperous without good relationships with other democratic capitalist nations.

      13. Half the time when I go to Canada, and the last time was under Bush, they just scan my passport, but the other half they ask questions about where I’m staying and how long and act like they don’t believe me. They’re trying to weed out people who intend to secretly work in Canada or stay there. Sometimes they ask how long I’m staying and give me a printed visa for that time. I never stay in Canada for morectgan a weekend or once for a week, but still they give me a visa to make sure I leave.

      14. I’ve always been asked questions re the purpose of my stay going to and coming back from Canada on top of the passport scan—after, during, and before Bush.

        However, coming through customs upon landing in Paris less than a year ago, I had my passport scanned and was waved on by???

      15. It now occurs to me I said “2 cars per train,” which is silly. I meant to say “2 doors per car.” Sorry about the word usage mistake.

        I’ve crossed the US/Canada border by land 3 times – one roundtrip in 2007, one one-way trip into Canada on Bolt in 2012. In neither case did anyone ask more questions than showing the passport + entry card. The roundtrip was me and 3 Americans crossing Rainbow Bridge, and it was very obvious we were doing tourism to visit Niagara Falls. The one-way trip was when I already had a Canadian work visa, so nobody asked questions.

  4. Thanks for a great post! One other major challenge which is political and not technical, is coordinating the funding between two governments. I’ve been thinking about what would happen if Washington State and/or the US federal government decided to move forward with funding HSR without getting Canada & BC to start building at the same time. Would there be value in a (perhaps temporary) station in Blaine? Don’t laugh, hear me out!

    There’s already been a small study by Western Washington University about reviving the Blaine Amtrak station: The idea is not to serve the tiny town of Blaine itself, but to serve the huge and sprawling population of Greater Vancouver south of the Fraser. For most of the population of the Lower Mainland, driving across the border to Blaine to catch HSR is faster and more convenient than traveling all the way to downtown Vancouver just to immediately head in the other direction south to Seattle by rail. Already, Bellingham International Airport is growing massively due mainly to Canadian travelers, and a Blaine HSR station would certainly do the same.

    If, for example, Washington State decided to fund HSR on its own, perhaps by an initiative or referendum like in California, we might have to make a Blaine station work until the Canadians take care of funding the final leg all the way to Vancouver, BC. Just an idea:

      1. There’s a big organization-before-concrete issue here. There does not need to be a 60-minute wait at the train station, even with passport checks. Try 5 minutes, maybe 10-15 with passport checks. Eliminating this hour of recommended early arrival is far cheaper than eliminating an hour of on-train time.

        A suburban stop at 104 Avenue in Surrey, with a connection to an extended 96-B bus, could probably better serve that part of Metro Vancouver. The main problems there are that it constrains border control – it makes it harder to do preclearance if there are two Canadian stations, and it reduces the travel time during which border control can check passports on the train from 28 minutes to maybe 14.

    1. Is there precedent for a border straddling HSR station so travelers effectively walk across the border and board in the country they’re traveling to? The closest thing I can think of is the Tijuana airport which built a terminal connector on the US side so it’s more convenient for people in San Diego.

      1. What about Basel SBB? SNCF has a station there which was on the French side of border controls at one time [Schengen makes the question less interesting, at least for Europe]. various high speed trains stop there.

      2. They do it on Bolt between Seattle and Vancouver. They even make you take your suitcases out of the bus, drag them across the border (where nobody so much as looks at them a second time), and load them on the bus again. It’s a silly delay that raises questions like “who won the Cold War?”.

      3. I think Oran is talking about two separate transportation companies on each side of the border.

        When I was in Germany my friend wanted to go to Liege and we had a weekend national train pass, so we took the regional train to Aachen to see what we could do from there. A border-crossing train to Verviers (the second Belgian town) was $25 to $50 more a domestic Belgian train, so I asked whether we could walk across the border. I was imagingining a situation like San Diego-Tijunana where you get off the trolley, walk through the gate, and get a taxi in TJ. The information agent said walking across was not possible. I assumed he meant the border controls wouldn’t allow it, My friend went to a local information desk and asked if there was a bus to Eupen (the first Belgian town). He said yes and pointed us tot the bus stop. When the bus came we got a 12-zone ticket valid all the way to Liege.The bus transferred at Eupen and again at Verviers, and got us to Liege in three hours. As we were riding between Aachen and Eupen I saw why you couldn’t walk across the border: it was a two-lane mountainous road from one small town to the other. We passed what looked like a disused checkpoint. Interestingly, the ordinary signs gradually changed from German to French, while the high-class signs (for cars and airlines) remained in German. That told you who had money and who didn’t. When we got to Liege, we found it was in recession and had a lot of “A Louer” (For Rent) signs, so that explained that.

      4. I’ve taken Bolt Bus to Vancouver; that’s not what I meant.

        What I meant was a joint station in both countries on the border, let’s call it “Peace Arch” Station. Passengers traveling within their countries would be able to access and exit the station on their side without border checks. International passengers at that station would have to clear border control within the station to exit on the other side.

      5. I can’t think of any that are actually accessible from both sides of a border independently, although it’s an interesting idea.

        It’s no longer done this way but when the original Singapore rail station (Tanjong Pagar) was still in use for trains to Malaysia, the train stopped at Woodlands station at the Singapore end of the Malaysia-Singapore causeway solely to debark, grab your luggage, pass through customs and immigration for Singapore, then reboard the exact same train. This meant that you went through “backwards” – you “entered” Malaysia at Tanjong Pagar 30 minutes before you “left” Singapore at Woodlands!

        Oddly enough, the Singapore station was part of the Malaysian railway system and was technically owned by Malaysia (and Malaysia had partial sovereignty over it) despite being in central Singapore – but you only cleared Malaysian customs and immigration there. The border formalities were somewhat haphazard – the Malaysian officials forgot to stamp my passport with an entry stamp, which I only noticed when flying out later and the immigration officer asked how I got in! He smiled and just wrote on my exit stamp “Entered by train” (since I had a Singapore exit stamp from Woodlands station) and that was that. Vestige of the days of the Empire when Singapore was nothing more or less than any of the federated Malay states as far as the British were concerned – no need for border formalities!

        Now the Woodlands station is used as the Singapore terminus and you just clear customs and immigration for both countries as you arrive or depart.

      6. I can’t think of any that are actually accessible from both sides of a border independently, although it’s an interesting idea.

        It’s no longer done this way but when the original Singapore rail station (Tanjong Pagar) was still in use for trains to Malaysia, the northbound train stopped at Woodlands station at the Singapore end of the Malaysia-Singapore causeway solely to debark, grab your luggage, pass through customs and immigration for Singapore, then reboard the exact same train. This meant that you went through “backwards” – you “entered” Malaysia at Tanjong Pagar 30 minutes before you “left” Singapore at Woodlands!

        Oddly enough, the Singapore station was part of the Malaysian railway system and was technically owned by Malaysia (and Malaysia had partial sovereignty over it) despite being in central Singapore – but when traveling to Malaysia you only cleared Malaysian customs and immigration there. The border formalities were somewhat haphazard – the Malaysian officials forgot to stamp my passport with an entry stamp, which I only noticed when flying out later and the immigration officer asked how I got in! He smiled and just wrote on my exit stamp “Entered by train” (since I had a Singapore exit stamp from Woodlands station) and that was that. Vestige of the days of the Empire when Singapore was nothing more or less than any of the federated Malay states as far as the British were concerned – no need for border formalities!

        Now the Woodlands station is used as the Singapore terminus and you just clear customs and immigration for both countries as you arrive or depart.

  5. You mention bringing HSR service to Waterfront Station, but don’t explain how that could happen.

    I heard that the Expo Skytrain Line runs through the original mainline rail tunnel connecting Pacific Central to Waterfront Station (true?). How can this tunnel accept new HSR trains? Or is the (tentative) proposal to construct a new HSR tunnel under downtown Vancouver to Waterfront? This is the best solution from a user point of view, but it will bring the Canadian-side cost estimate up.

    Due to the geography of the Vancouver metro area, a second station in the suburbs will be very useful for area residents to access the train. In this alignment, the best stop location is a bit south of the Fraser River Bridge.

    1. I am looking at it. The options are,

      1. Bag Waterfront, stop at Pacific Central. It’s too far from the CBD, but hey, Gare de Lyon isn’t in the Paris CBD either and people still take the TGV.

      2. Build a trench to Waterfront. The legacy tunnel, as you note, is used by SkyTrain, making it unusable by mainline trains. Instead, there’s a secondary CN branch with 6 trains per day that hits the CP line. It’s single-track and has grade crossings with local complaints that freight trains are making the streets harder to cross, so it needs to be trenched to be usable by HSR, but that’s maybe a kilometer of trench. Ask yourself if serving Waterfront is worth the $100-150 million of incremental cost.

      1. Is there enough room to trench the Burrard Inlet Line and still allow it to connect to freight traffic?

        That being said, Waterfront is worth a lot more if this is being done to permit a coincidental regional rail line to be built in the future

      2. I would go with option number one, at least for the time being. That is terminus now, for trains heading east (towards Toronto) or south (towards Seattle). It is also not very far from the heart of town. Those who don’t mind public transportation will transfer to SkyTrain, while those who want to call a cab won’t pay that much to get right to their hotel.

        If this thing really takes off, then they might add another stop, but my guess is they won’t bother.

      3. That secondary CN branch is a great find. Would need to take out the row of buildings adjacent to the track to the west or east to build a trench, while keeping the current track in service. Major problem is that it could destroy the best gelato shop in Vancouver. However, Waterfront HSR terminus would allow direct connections to both the Expo/Millennium and Canada Lines, and be walkable to most of the central business district.

        Close call.

      4. The current track doesn’t need to be kept in service – all of CN’s waterfront traffic can be hauled out by way of CP (and pretty much all of it was until for several years after CN & CP signed a co-production agreement).

  6. So, when you do the airport pre-clearance in Calgary (for example), the plane doesn’t land at some airstrip at the border for additional screening before continuing on to Seattle. Why then, does the train from Vancouver stop at the border after doing pre-clearance at the station? Are credential checking and bag searching totally different things from a bureaucratic standpoint, yet seamless everywhere but on Cascades?

    1. I don’t know why the train stops, but answering your other question, yes, credential checking is considered “immigration” and bag searching is considered “customs”. At least in the US, immigration does an initial screen for whether you need to be seen by customs. For most people, that’s a no. But some people (e.g., bringing in plants) would need to be seen by agriculture for inspection. Or if you’re bringing in something in excess of your duty free allowance, you’d need to be seen by customs to pay the appropriate duty.

      At airports everyone gets glanced at by customs (after you receive your bags). At land borders it’s only if the immigration officer thinks you need to be seen.

      In other countries (most of Europe, for example), you speak to immigration only about immigration, and then either you declare items, or declare nothing and potentially get randomly selected for customs screening. I believe Canada follows the American model for airports, but I’ve only flown in a few times and don’t remember.

    2. If you come to the US from Toronto, there’s a separate terminal for “Departures to USA” and they do both customs and immigration there, and then your flight to the US is considered domestic. I don’t know about Vancouver: when I went to Germany I took Greyhound to Vancouver, stayed overnight, and then flew to Duesseldorf so it was a Canadian departure.

      1. Er, the Vancouver flight was to England. My Germany trip was before I met my friends in Vancouver..

      2. Vancouver has the same, but they close at 8:30 pm, so overnighters have no preclearance. Pro-tip: the Cathay Pacific flight to JFK gets to T7 first and immigration is a breeze; the Delta flight gets to T4 behind a flight from Tel Aviv and immigration is a “fuck it, I’m joining Al-Qaida” slog.

    3. I guess my point is, why don’t they do customs AND immigration in Vancouver before getting on the SB train. As it is now, I don’t see the benefit of pre-clearance for immigration when you still have to stop at the border for customs. If the US border agent at the I-5 Peace Arch can do both tasks, it seems like the same could apply to the US agent in PC station in Vancouver.

      1. Probably because in theory you need agriculture and customs inspectors, the facilities to write up duties, etc… Which means that you need people to do that and they probably don’t want to fund that.

      2. This already exists in Ireland (where US Customs & Immigration is done at departure, not arrival) and the Chunnel (where border control is done upon arrival in London/Paris, not at the literal arrival in each country).

        David raises some key points, but I think that only applies for freight. For a passenger only train, border control can be done somewhere other than the border crossing.

  7. The thinking in this series is too tied on the conventional wisdom of following existing highway or rail rights of way. If the vision is truly HSR, operating on average 180 mph, then we need to think bigger and broader.

    Between Sea-Van, I’d suggest moving east, and looking at the utility ROWs paralleling Highway 9. Consider doing a business deal with the utilities and/or federal government to access those rights of way that are already being used for a public purpose. If do-able, this would dramatically cut down on the number of curves to be addressed and focus the primary design challenges in entry/egress at the metropolitan areas.

    From Vancouver, for example: tunnel from the main downtown station east under Simon Fraser U, following the CN ROW along highway 7 to Maple Ridge. A new bridge across the Fraser River toward Walnut Grove. The area east of Langley is rural; go south cross country elevated if needed, buying the property needed for the guideway and column placement, heading into the states generally in the Delta Line corridor. Again, this is rural country; use the farmland, buy what’s needed for columns to support an elevated structure. Or come to grade and pay to grade-separate all the east-west roads.

    The one place it might be useful to consider tracking the I-5 ROW is in north Whatcom. From around Custer, follow I-5 and consider putting the B’ham station at the airport, relying on local transit and rideshares to access town. From there, head east roughly in the Bakerview corridor. If that’s not acceptable, run down the west side of the airport and come in on Marine Dr, and tunnel into a downtown station in an east-west alignment (look folks, it’s going to be expensive to do it right).

    Here’s where the fun starts. From B’ham, head east. there is a large electric transmission ROW that runs north-south east of Lake Whatcom. Once you’re in it, you can stay in it all the way to Lake Stevens. And it’s straight.

    The next debate is whether and how to serve Everett. I’d say no, because the primary market is Sea-Van. This is a hard call, but the easiest thing to do here is continue south in the Highway 9 ROW, again very straight) until reaching SR-522, which could be followed as far as Bothell. And then I think there’s really no choice but to dig a deep tunnel all the way into downtown Seattle from there. Sounds crazy, but ST tunneled 6 miles from downtown to Northgate in about that many years, and that’s half way to Bothell.

    Take the same approach Sea-PDX: stay east, look for the utility ROWs, and try to do that deal. There’s a major power transmission corridor from Tacoma to Longview, for example, that covers half the total distance. Food for thought.

    1. What would Europe do? How did it site its HSR lines? Are they all next to existing track or did they build a lot of new ROWs? How much did they tunnel?

    2. There are excellent ideas with the caveat that utility lines can go up and down steep hills; HS trains can’t. There are more than a few hills between Tacoma and Longview.

    3. If the power line ROW is what I think it is, then it’s not really usable, because the grades are too steep. HSR is limited to 3.5-4%, power lines aren’t. So you need way more tunneling than if you roughly follow I-5 between Seattle and Bellingham, and all that gets you is 2 minutes in Bellingham, which you lose again because your route is longer. Vancouver has the same problem – too much tunneling, too little time saving from running faster.

      If you look at my maps more carefully, you’ll see I’m not exactly following existing ROWs. I go near I-5 in Bellingham, cutting off a few curves when necessary. In I-5 Zach proposed the same – the only time you ever use the exact I-5 corridor is in the last few km into Seattle, because that close to the station you’re not gaining much from allowing 300 km/h and the cost is prohibitive.

      Everyone makes compromises. A non-stop TGV going 300 km/h can do a 425-km route in around 1:29, counting acceleration and deceleration. With schedule padding, make it 1:33. The actual timetable for Paris-Lyon nonstops is 1:57-1:58. SNCF chose to make some compromises by using legacy track the last few km into Paris and having a few substandard curves on the route allowing 270 km/h and not 300.

  8. Really great article.

    I’m curious though if it would be worth considering making Scott Road Station on the Expo Line a terminus?

    1. Considerable distance shorter than downtown
    2. No river crossing of the Fraser Required
    3. Linked to Skytrain, 30minutes from downtown, and tied into rapidly growing ‘second downtown’ in Surrey

    1. Well outside downtown
    2. Completely disconnected from the Canada Line and Evergreen Line routes (requiring transfers)
    3. Nothing in the direct vicinity.

    Might be worth a consideration though, as it could shave a few hundred million dollars from the proposal and puts it somewhat more in the ‘middle’ of the region.

    1. Surrey may think it’s the second downtown (and that would be Surrey Central, not Scott Road), but that doesn’t make it true.

      The part about only connecting to the Expo Line isn’t thaaaat big a deal. Pacific Central is only on the Expo Line, too, though it’s on the trunk and Surrey is on a branch. The bigger deal is that Surrey is 20 km outside the CBD.

      1. Alon, want to apologize for trivializing anything here. This is a fine report of a posting. Just trying to lend some perspective about the future.

        Best to have good feel for the smallest mechanical details. Especially what happens when machinery gets overheated, dirty, and badly-operated, also called normal operating conditions.

        Railcars or countries, past experience is probably best general predictor of the future over same amount of time. And reason Shakespeare works with machine guns is that people in the same trade, including being rich punk gangsters like Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, will always think alike.

        But one really unchanging thing is need to handle fast change fast. Ask IBM (do they still exist?) if they still think no ordinary person will ever need a computer. Though right now, chief computer skill is dealing with fact that the best thing a computer knows is the last thing the dumbest human to touch it told it.

        I’m only messing with you because you’re dealing with the most important and complex period of any transit project: the intermediate phase between the Coast Starlight and the international bullet trains. The better you can handle Downtown Bellingham where it is, the easier it’ll be to plug it into where either it or the railroad, has to move next.

        But reading this, you’re personally on the right side of comparison that the founder of Metro Transit once told me. “You have a choice to make. Do you want to be the one to do things, or the one who gets the credit for them? They’re never the same person”

        For you, different day, different role.


  9. Personally I would like to see the train make a stop at Vancouver airport. At the present time a traveller from the US to Vancouver airport would have to go to downtown Vancouver and then backtrack by changing trains. Thanks for listening.

    1. That brings up the interesting possibility of departing from inside the US preclearance zone, which would eliminate the need for any stop at the border at all.

  10. I don’t think we ought to consider our present national and international political problems permanent. Younger people I’m seeing going into politics and business now don’t have much use or patience for them. Or their perpetrators.

    Can anybody else think of a single reason why the United States needs a guarded border with Canada? Name me one bad thing or person they’ve got that we can’t out-badify. So I can see why the Canadians mighjt want a border. But that doesn’t mean we have to have one right next to it.


  11. As some people mentioned a suburban station in BC would be ideal, as the area south of the Fraser river is booming with growth. Translink is in the processes of designing and funding LRT from Newton to Guilford, which would intersect with the Skytrain. The expected terminus at 104 ave and 152 st could be extended east to connect with a station at 160th. Additionally, the new Port Mann bridge was built with the capacity for LRT to be built underneath so if the HSR was using light enough trains it might be possible for HSR to share the existing infrastructure.

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