Lakewood Station
Lakewood Station and the Point Defiance Bypass beyond it (Adam Moss / Flickr)

With the national attention that yesterday’s tragic derailment is getting, we felt it would be best to provide a bit of context about the accident’s site: the Point Defiance Bypass. While it is a “new” railroad, built primarily for passenger use, the corridor is over a century old and some pieces date back decades. The bridge over Interstate 5 in particular was built in 1936 over an older highway and was given new tracks as part of the project.

On May 1, 1891, the Tacoma, Olympia & Grays Harbor Railroad announced the completion of a 25-mile railway from Lacey to Lakeview (approximately where South Tacoma station is today), forming a new branch of the Northern Pacific Railway. The main line from Lakeview to Tacoma had been built in 1873 and continued south through what is now Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) towards Tenino. Although a parallel route was built along the coast and around Point Defiance in 1914, this inland route was sparsely used as a freight route by Northern Pacific, and later Burlington Northern to access the JBLM and South Tacoma areas.

By the 1990s, the railway was underused and caught the interest of WSDOT, who were planning what would become the Amtrak Cascades network. While Amtrak trains were using the route along the coast, the state’s 1997 Intercity Passenger Rail Plan envisioned a faster, inland route coupled with a new multimodal complex in Tacoma to link up with the Sounder and Link lines that Sound Transit planned for the city. The state legislature approved design and property acquisition funds in 2005, beginning a long series of back and forth meetings with cities, residents, the military, and other groups along the route. Sound Transit later acquired the whole corridor from BNSF in 2004.

President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package gave the bypass the boost it needed, providing much of the funding for the $181 million project and accelerating the completion date from 2019 to 2017 (a deadline mandated by the federal grant). By the following year, WSDOT was deep in environmental assessment and Sound Transit had already started moving dirt on the Lakewood to Tacoma segment. It received final approval from the Federal Railroad Administration in early 2013 and began construction in 2015, with work on the Nisqually junction completed later that year. The new station at Tacoma’s Freighthouse Square encountered a speed bump late into property acquisition negotiations, but was ultimately able to break ground in July 2016. Extensive testing on the whole corridor began in January of this year, with WSDOT and Sound Transit rolling out public service announcements about train safety. Passenger service began yesterday morning, and seemed to be going smoothly, until the train reached one of the final turns on the approach to Nisqually junction at 7:30 am. While the investigation has not determined the exact cause of the crash, early indications show that the train was traveling overspeed on a downhill section before the turn.

31 Replies to “A Brief History of the Point Defiance Bypass”

  1. So, this unfortunate incident has caused me to notice something else about the bypass…

    It is only single-tracked! We spent $150 million on a single-tracked railway?

    That and the apparent lack of safety features make it look like they really did the bare minimum on this project…

    1. There are many single-track segments on passenger railroads throughout the US. The segment south of Lakewood may get three Sounder round-trips as a result of ST3, but that would bring the potential trips only to 20 per day or approximately one passage per hour on average. Of course, the trains won’t run in the wee hours so it’s probably more like one passage every 30 to 40 minutes; when the Sounders begin there may be conflict with the 6 AM departure from Seattle, and the after noon departure from Portland will run into them in the afternoon, but there are a couple of straight stretches with enough distance between cross-roads to be useful passing sections.

      I’m not sure that the right of way is wide enough to double track a couple of the curves which were smoothed out to allow higher speeds, but this is never going to have a train per hour all day long. If it does some property acquisition will need to occur.

      1. Out of all the curves they smoothed out, they didn’t smooth the one where the train derailed, which has a lower speed limit than the adjoining sections.

      2. Hopefully that’s because of topological constraints and not an intransigent landowner. Eminent domain exists for a reason.

      3. EricHerde. Exactly. That’s what the courts are for. The property can always be acquired through a condemnation action if the acquiring agency deems the property to be necessary for the project. A reluctant property owner needs to be duly compensated for the taking of course, but an intransigent property owner, as you put it, is hardly an insurmountable obstacle for an agency that should be competent with ROW acquisitions. With regard to ST, that point may be open for debate.

      4. There would have to be a survey of where they put the tracks, but most of the right of land required would be the freeway, and thus already WashDOT.

        The big problem is that to smooth the curves they would need two new bridges over the freeway. Those wouldn’t come cheap.

      5. The critique isn’t whether there is a need for a second track, its about what was built for $181 million (and 8-15 years)… one (including us rail advocates) would have thought more would have been done with that money like say, a second track, PTC, and fixing this crazy and now deadly 30 mph S-curve on a “high speed” bypass, apparently its just all towards partially upgrading about 10 miles of easy single track on an existing RoW and a new Tacoma station.

    2. 19 miles is single track, from the Tacoma Dome to the junction near DuPont. That means that trains can be run in alternating directions every half hour (every hour or so in each direction). Gosh, hourly service on that corridor would be awesome, but service levels are nowhere near that. Please explain why it needs to be double-tracked.

    3. There are some segments of it that are wide enough to double-track meaningful lengths, in the future, when service levels ramp up enough to warrant the investment. Part of it is actually double tracked right now, but not with the physical upgrades, but rather, with older track.

      1. Looking on Google Street View, it seems that most if not all of the road crossings between Dupont and Lakewood have upgraded with two tracks. Now all they need to do is to fill that in between the road crossings.

    4. You know which section is also single-track? The tunnel under Point Defiance, which is on the BNSF mainline between Seattle and Portland, carrying both freight and passenger traffic. If they can figure out how to run 14 passenger trains and dozens of freight trains through a single-track tunnel each day, they can figure out how to run just the passenger trains and a few commuter trains in a similar fashion.

      If you want to speed up Cascades, take the money you would spend on double-tracking and invest in the station platforms and boarding procedures. They could shave 10-20 minutes off the trip with level boarding and assigned seating at time of purchase.

      1. I have often wondered if smaller movable platforms could be used at less used stations? Were they at the same level as the car floors those few boarders could quickly get on board along with their luggage.

      2. …Or removing/replacing an insane and now deadly 30 mph zone on a “high speed” bypass line. And we thought it was bad calling 90 mph “high speed” in this country and here we have a 30 mph zone on one of the main and busiest passenger rail lines in this country after $750 million has been spent on upgrades.

  2. Thanks for posting this, with so much being spread I Facebook comments, a little background is needed.

  3. The requirement to open in 2017 explains why it was opened before the engines were fitted with PTC (although not why the engines had not been fitted yet).

  4. Suggest that everybody commenting on this subject take a drive close as you can get to the tracks between Lakewood and Dupont. Park and get off I-5 at Exits 123 and 122 each end of the Tillicum business district, and 119 at north end of Dupont.

    Get where you can read the black and white signs mentioning 80 miles per hour, and take in the whole scene at the crossing. Not rocket science. Plain railroading and an imagination should’ve taken care of it. Like I tell average NRA disciple: However the script reads in a believer’s own mind, the AR15 always goes off in the real world. But now:

    Senator Steve O’Ban (360) 786-7654

    Good time to ask Dupont’s State Senator why he picked car tabs to have all those hearings about. At least I’d have somebody besides me to blame because I drove through Dupont so many times without paying attention and saying or writing anything. His office is in my neighborhood and I never went to see him once.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Mark, is it something specific about the track layout or signage that you are so cryptically referring to?

      1. Trying to be polite where it’s nowhere near warranted. Was only using signs to point out where somebody needs to stand to fully appreciate 80 miles an hour from ten feet of death from it.

        For any sign saying 80 miles an hour, what’s hundred percent needed is a viaduct or undercut so nobody’s life depends on even seeing it, let alone obeying it. As we all know, motorists always do.

        And for what? Ten miles max of straight track? How much longer is that than Amtrak’s grade-level operations from the river into Portland? Somebody tell me how much 30-max top speed from Lakewood to the main line would cost service.

        NRA? Imagining 80 mile an hour speed for that section is exactly like a gun-nut’s fantasy of offing ISIS single-handed in a crowded theater. Yesterday, a would-be bullet-train fell out of a lot of believing pants.

        Senator O’Ban? However much is or isn’t Sound Transit’s fault, the man is now going to be honor-bound to his constituents to destroy the whole agency. But I’m dead serious what I’ll carry for not noticing the danger and failing to report it to somebody. And everybody else.

        Also seriously: I stop in frequently at the all night gas station and convenience store across the intersection at the Dupont historic district. So I expect to hear a lot from people I know who are Steve’s voters.

        Please tell me: What do I tell them to tell him?


  5. Bruce, you may want to update the article to include the reasoning for bypassing Point Defiance. Some people may not know about the single-track tunnel at the point and how it acts as a choke point.

    1. I thought the problem was just backtracking through Tacoma and the slow speed limit on the coast route.

  6. I keep hearing this figure of $181 million mentioned for the PDB project. Does anyone have the breakdown on that? For example, does this include the Freighthouse Station costs? The reason I ask is that I seem to recall a figure of $89 or $90 million thrown about by WSDOT for this project originally.


    1. Double checked that figure and it’s correct apparently.

      The PDB project team gave an incredibly lacking report to the board during their Sep 28 meeting. The report (and I use that term loosely) included no visual presentation nor review of the budget parameters. The project manager essentially simply stated that the project was completed and would move to operations. The board members didn’t ask a single question and looked totally disinterested frankly.

      These are what the meeting minutes reflected:

      >>Point Defiance Bypass Track and Signal – Gate 7 Report
      Jodi Mitchell, Project Manager, Mark Johnson, Project Director, and Martin Young, Commuter Rail Operations Manager, provided the report. Ms. Mitchell updated the Board that the project is completed and is ready to be transitioned to operations. The construction was completed by Stacy Witbeck, and was designed and permitted by the State of Washington, however it was constructed by Sound Transit, and will continue to be operated by Sound Transit.<<

      What a shame.

  7. I’m astonished to learn from this crash just how error prone the U.S. approach to train operations is. Every life or death change in necessary train speed is only indicated to engineers by a single roadside sign 2 miles before the curve (and superfluously again at the spot of the curve where it is far too late to slow down) ?! This is astonishingly bad systems design that relies on an unreasonably high expectation of nearly superhuman attention by engineers. There should at least be a backup speed sign halfway from the 2-mile marker, so if the engineer missed the first one they’re not doomed.

    It also seems like they should wait till engineers are very well trained on a new track before letting them spend the train ride acting as a tour guide for a sightseeing conductor riding along in the front. Even Ride the Ducks now has to have a separate announcer tour guide up front. Not clear if the crash was driver error but seems like an elevated risk to have their attention divided.

  8. Very helpful, Bruce, thank you.

    I heard that positive train control (PTC) elements are in this section, but weren’t to be activated for several months. While this may or may not have prevented this tragedy in human lives and possible contamination of the water supply in the area, this circumstance begged the question as to what was the rush in starting service before PTC? Your article seems to state that it was due to the grant requirement that service was to start in 2017, though I can’t tell for sure by your verbiage, as I didn’t see where that revenue service was required to begin in 2017. Further, I have seen no evidence that the scenic Pt. Defiance Bypass was the root of any problems necessitating the change other than the inconvenience of a mere 10 minute time difference, about the time most people stand in line for their morning coffee, and that pales in comparison to how slowly the train lumbers in a grade-separated segment above Vancouver, WA further south (that a track upgrade of almost any kind would result in an improvement over the 15 mph speed that I experienced on a trip through there).

    It’s also a shame that Congress has drop-kicked the implementation of PTC, getting a deferral to the end of 2018 and, barring a change in the majority in Congress (which, fortunately, is a possibility), is likely to be extended even further given the current majority’s decided leaning towards business interests. The safety of the traveling public should be #1 no matter which means of travel people opt to take!

  9. Just heard on KIROFM and on the MYNorthwest web site that WSDOT says no passenger trains on the PDB until PTC is installed and working.

    Since that obviously is going to take some time since we all know state and local agencies are slow in implementing anything and over budget; I think it would be a good time to have ST take out the old railroad bridges, widen the bridge so that I-5 isn’t squeezed closer together under the bridges.

    Those bridges are very old and and wouldn’t it be better to replace them now vs later?

    They could make both wider so 4 lanes of I-5 cross underneath the bridges and then reduce to three lanes down to Nisqually River. With the new extra lanes they just built this summer between the Dupont exit and Mounts Road; it will be 4 lanes then reduced to 3 lanes right before the two bridges in question.

    The road widen project that was just completed is the first step of WSDOT to widening/rebuilding I-5 from Dupont to Lakewood, with goal of a HOV lane to be in place.

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