Last week, I covered part 3 in the series about Seattle-Vancouver high-speed rail, covering the Bellingham-Vancouver segment; the first two parts, by Zach Shaner, covered Seattle-Everett and Everett-Bellingham. This piece, the last part, covers the possibilities for suburban stations. Is it better to build stations in Downtown Vancouver and Seattle, or in less constrained suburban locations? Are there in-between compromise options, urban but less central? The answer to the last question turns out to be yes in the intermediate cities, but in Seattle and Vancouver the answer is no: downtown stations are required.
Endpoints and Intermediate Cities
In Seattle and Vancouver, the main tradeoff is that a station in the central business district is more accessible but more expensive. Between the two cities, an additional drawback of central stations, beside the cost, is the noise a 220 mph express train produces. If the location is too constrained for 220 mph, then the speed restriction becomes another reason to build outlying stations.
It is not common internationally to build central stations for in-between cities. In France, all stations located on high-speed lines are outside built-up areas. South Korea and Japan do have some central stations, often with speed restrictions or extensive noise abatement; but in Japan, the trend on the newer lines is toward outlying stations.
In comments on part 3, Mark Dublin zooms in on another factor: the construction of an HSR station in a city may cause its CBD to shift toward the station. The best example I know of is Lyon Part-Dieu, an urban neighborhood that is not the historic center of the city. Thanks to both local investment and TGV service, it became France’s second-largest business district, after La Defense, just outside Paris.
Metro Lyon has 2.1 million people, and the TGV connects it to Paris, metro population 12 million. The ratio between the population of Seattle or Vancouver and that of the intermediate cities is even larger than that between the populations of Paris and Lyon. This suggests that building near-downtown stations in Bellingham and Everett, next to I-5, would cause those areas to become more central, helping build up ridership. In both areas, car ownership is high, and the good freeway access is a boon for ridership. But there is no hope for the same CBD shift in Vancouver and Seattle themselves—they are too big.
In last week’s post, I explained why the only reasonable station locations in Vancouver are in or near city center: there is relatively easy right-of-way from the border right to the existing station, Canadian National’s Pacific Central, two SkyTrain stations outside Downtown Vancouver. The alternative location is Canadian Pacific’s Waterfront, right in the CBD. It is relatively easy to build a suburban approach that feeds the CN track, but not the CP track.
There is a CN branch going from CN’s mainline to the CP mainline, just outside the CBD, the Burrard Inlet Line. It is single-track, with several grade crossings; CN runs six daily trains on it. While HSR can cross roads at grade at lower speed, the neighborhood is fairly dense and has criticized the disruption to surface traffic coming from just six trains. Grade separation and double-tracking are required, with minor takings; this would involve about two-thirds of a mile of trench. Vancouver should be able to build this for $100-150 million.
The Waterfront location is superior to Pacific Central. Employment in Vancouver is concentrated in the CBD, and in a number of secondary centers, none close to Pacific Central. Tourist attractions in the area (such as Stanley Park, the steam clock, and the historic Chinatown) cluster in the CBD as well, which is why the hotels are all in that area: according to the Five-Star Alliance, there are 18 hotels in Vancouver, two near the airport and the rest in the CBD. It is almost certainly worth it to build a trench to get HSR to Waterfront.
In Seattle, the only feasible alignment into the CBD is I-5, taking over road lanes near city center, where land acquisition for an alignment running alongside the Interstate is too expensive.
The main option for where to go from I-5 is a short tunnel, perhaps a mile long, to King Street Station. The tunnel would have to cross under the Link tunnel (as the legacy tunnel carrying the BNSF tracks under the CBD does), but should not be any harder to construct than existing tunnels. The only real difficulty is ducking under the legacy tunnel, but even that is (barely) doable with 4% grades descending from the station.
Other options involve staying on I-5. King Street is at the southern periphery of the CBD; an elevated multi-track station capping I-5 could provide a more centrally-located station. The cost would be losing easy access to Link. With no room for parking, the station would not even have good highway access in lieu of public transit access.
Instead of continuing on I-5 and stopping in the CBD, it is possible to stop south of the CBD. In the first part of the series, Zach identified the Stadium area, one stop on Link south of King Street, as an option. This spares Seattle the need for the tunnel, while maintaining Link access. The problem is that it lengthens egress time for arriving passengers.
The more radical option is to avoid Seattle entirely. There is ample land to the east, the land of I-405 and 520 and low density. Microsoft has spent a little money on the Pacific Northwest HSR studies; is it possible to make Redmond the Seattle terminal? In short, no.
The two square miles of Redmond around Microsoft’s headquarters have 60,000 jobs. The single square mile of the Seattle CBD west of I-5 has 150,000. As in Vancouver, the CBD job concentration means business travelers are overwhelmingly headed downtown: the Five-Star Alliance recognizes 22 four- and five-star hotels in Metro Seattle, three well outside the built-up area, three east of Lake Washington, and the rest in the Seattle CBD. The Space Needle and the university are just outside the CBD, far from Redmond. Nor is a Redmond route a feasible first step, to be followed by a connection to Seattle: Redmond is east of Seattle rather than north of it, and building HSR from Redmond to Seattle is both circuitous and expensive, since tunnels and a long bridge over the lake are needed.
It is tempting to save money by avoiding constrained CBDs. In outlying cities, this is usually the correct decision, including in particular anything between Seattle and Vancouver. But in Vancouver and Seattle itself, it is the wrong approach. In Vancouver, missing the CBD saves a little bit of money and reduces the line’s utility by more. In Seattle, it can save a lot of money using the Redmond route, at the cost of making the line useless to people not visiting Microsoft or nearby tech firms, who form the majority of Seattle-bound travelers.
The good news is that it is not that hard to get to both CBDs. Vancouver is easier, but even in Seattle, what is needed is a small project by the standards of the ST3 tunnels. The real difficulty is construction alongside I-5 in the Seattle built-up area, but even that requires more political will to take freeway lanes just outside the CBD than intricate civil engineering. Project costs under $10 billion seem achievable.