China Railways High Speed Train at Beijing South Station (Image: calflier001)

WSDOT’s recent study of high speed ground transportation in the Cascadia Corridor raised hopes that much faster rail connections to Vancouver and Portland may be in our future. The Governor has requested a more comprehensive study in 2018.

Depending on the technology and alignment chosen, a high-speed rail service could cover operational costs by 2035. However, capital costs may be large, with estimates ranging as high as $42 billion. Annual ridership in 2035 is just 1.9 – 2.6 million, rising to 3.1 – 4.2 million annual riders by 2055. That seems too low to warrant such a large investment unless costs can be dramatically reduced. Policy makers may conclude the more promising path is to pursue incremental upgrades.

Range of estimated capital costs (Image: WSDOT/ch2m)

Key findings

The study examined high-speed rail and maglev technologies with maximum operating speeds of at least 250 mph. The hyperloop is briefly reviewed, but that technology is too speculative for useful cost estimates. After screening, three conceptual north-south corridors were studied in most detail, all serving the Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver markets. Corridor 1A serves seven stations with a combination of urban core and periphery stations. Corridor 2 serves only the urban cores and Portland Airport. Corridor 4 is a lower cost option serving just three suburban stations. The latter option reduces costs somewhat, but also reduces ridership because the slower local rail connections to business districts increase total travel time for many users.

The study uses the FRA CONNECT model to develop cost and ridership estimates. The model isn’t sensitive enough to measure short trips (say between Everett and Seattle in the 1A corridor) or to closely consider station locations, but outputs estimates for travel between major centers.

Two connecting corridors were examined. An east-west service to Spokane with 90mph service would not significantly boost ridership on the core corridor, but could serve 300,000 – 400,000 annual riders by 2035 while requiring permanent operating subsidies. Analysis of a connection from Portland to California’s HSR in Sacramento is incomplete, but is expected to show very low ridership and revenue potential because of the sparsely populated areas between. The mountainous terrain implies very high capital costs.

Maglev has slightly higher capital costs than HSR because it requires a straighter alignment, but also slightly lower operating costs. Maglev ridership would be higher due to somewhat better travel times. Maglev might cover operating costs from fares by 2035. Either technology would cover operating costs by 2055, but neither would make a significant contribution to capital costs in either timeframe.

Capital costs are estimated between $24 and $42 billion. The wide range is driven by uncertainty about the amount of tunneling. The upper bound estimates are similar for each technology. But HSR has more favorable lower bound estimates because it’s easier to reduce the degree of tunneling and follow a lower cost alignment.

The service is modeled with about 12 trains per day, the level that maximizes operating cost recovery in 2035 before diminishing marginal ridership sets in.

Half of the expected ridership is on Seattle-Portland trips. Another fourth is Seattle-Vancouver, with all other possible trip pairs accounting for the balance.

Why Such Low Ridership?

WSDOT’s 2006 master plan for Amtrak Cascades anticipated ridership increasing on the corridor to 3 million per year by 2023. Meeting that goal would have required $6.5 billion in total investments in 2006 dollars ($7.8 billion in current dollars) and average operating speeds of 110 mph. Actual investment levels have been much lower, with most having come via $800 million in ARRA funds since 2009. Nevertheless, it’s been enough to raise ridership from 225,000 in 1993 to 683,000 in 2006 to 817,000 in 2016. Some of the improved frequency and travel times benefits of ARRA investments are still in the pipeline. Current farebox recovery is 59%.

Estimates in this study are not comparable to those in the master plan because they were developed more than a decade apart with different models. But they certainly suggest few benefits from going beyond a program of gradual improvements. Maybe there just aren’t that many more riders to be gained with much higher speeds above 110mph?

The recent study estimates between 13% and 17% of travelers might use a high-speed train in the corridor in either 2035 or 2055. The maximum segment load (how full the trains are at the busiest point in the network) is just 27-33% in 2035. If the east-west corridor is added to feed the primary north-south corridor, maximum loads might be as high as 37%. The study authors cite 75% maximum loads on efficient systems. Even the 12 trains a day that maximize operating cost recovery would have a lot of empty seats.

A system that achieves respectable mode shares without serving enough riders to be efficient can only be serving travel markets that are too small. The study notes prominently that the cities are quite economically disconnected despite their proximity. Seattle and Vancouver have very few linkages, with only a few companies operating in both cities and fewer having a significant presence in both. LinkedIn data suggests few personal connections, with Vancouver members more connected to members from San Francisco, and Seattle members having more connections in Atlanta than Vancouver.

To contrast, California’s HSR system faces an expected capital cost of $68 billion, roughly twice the midpoint of Cascadia HSR/Maglev estimates. But that capital cost would be supported by 15 times more riders. The median ridership forecast is for 37 million annual riders on the California system by 2029.

This study did not model alternatives with lower speeds and less capital cost. The next iteration of the study should benchmark HSR against services similar to the 110mph master plan for comparability.

86 Replies to “High speed rail study predicts low ridership”

    1. Back of the envelope calculation (probably rather optimistic) …

      Seattle-Portland with 240 mph train 0:47 plus 6.5 minutes for each stop on the way
      110 mph train 1:38 plus 5 minutes for each stop on the way
      current Cascades (from report) 3:40

      Seattle-Vancouver B.C. with 240 mph train 0:42 plus 6.5 minutes for each stop on the way
      110 mph train 1:27 plus 5 minutes for each stop on the way
      current Cascades (from report) 4:30

      – same distances as current Cascades as per the report (probably the only way the above guesses are conservative)
      – assume constant max speed all the way except for deceleration into / acceleration out of stops (including termini)
      – assume constant deceleration/acceleration at 2 ft/sec2 (maybe somewhat reasonable – possibly conservative – for max deceleration/acceleration, but deceleration/acceleration unlikely to be constant)
      – assume 3.5 minute dwell time at stops (perhaps too short if the stop is actually worth making)

      Note that making very many stops gnaws away pretty noticeably at the time advantage of the 240mph train (especially if my estimates of acceleration/deceleration are optimistic).

  1. Not surprising. Even in Europe, you wouldn’t see a true high speed connection between 3 cities of this size. 110mph operations with level boarding and a more efficient ticketing/boarding process should be the goal. Getting the connection times down to 2:30 between the cities would entice a lot of riders, especially if you can just walk up to the platform and board the train as it arrives.

    1. Milan has 1.3 million population and metro area population of 4 million. It has high speed rail connections to several other smaller Italian metros. I personally rode it last year between Venice, Milan and Florence.

      That’s pretty comparable to Seattle/Puget Sound population, and distance comparable to Portland and Vancouver.

      So on what again are you basing your unsupported assertion that no high speed rail exists between cities of this size?

      1. Maybe because they don’t exist in a vacuum? You can take the train from Milan to Rome, Marseille, Zurich and beyond. They’re part of a larger network in a much more densely populated region. Not to mention the obvious fact that the right-of-way was nationalized decades ago.

      2. Per favore………I travel to Italia every month for work. Italia has 60 million people in an area approximately 20% larger than the area of Oregon. They are moving way, way more people by train in a much smaller area vs. Cascadia, and this doesn’t include the stranieri in the country playing tourist. This far fetched notion we have a critical mass of riders available to ride a bullet train makes about as much sense as when an anglo-american stands in the center of Piazza Dante in Napoli staring at his dumbphone and wonders why their wallet/purse is missing.

      3. Milan has more like 8 million people in an equivalent surrounding area to the Seattle Metro Area. Just its urban area alone has over 5 million people with one of the largest city GDPs in Europe. It would be more analogous to Chicago than Seattle.

        The route to Venice tops out at 125mph, which is barely HSR. The real fast trains go up and down the Peninsula connecting tens of millions of people. Sure it stops in Florence, but it also goes on to Rome and Naples though a Country with over 60 million people packed into a narrow peninsula. Comparatively there is only about 15 million in all of BC, Washington, and Oregon.

      4. Hmm. some actual statistics from the web (Wikipedia):
        Seattle Metro: 3.61 million (includes Tacoma and Bellevue)
        Seattle Metro GDP: $313 Billion (2016)

        Milan Metro: 3.19 million (2014)
        Milan Metro GDP: $312.3 Billion (212 billion euro)

        Distance Milan to Florence 181 miles. Distance Seattle to Portland: 174 miles

        Seattle area population sprawls into suburbia a bit more, but otherwise not uncomparable.

  2. If they would put stops at airports, shift pdx, sea and yvr, shift flight capabilities between these cities to international connections, thus eliminating airport expansion cost and flight competition, I think they could recoup billions.

    1. I don’t really think rail will influence the airports except flights between the airports. My understanding is that all these airports are pretty busy. SEA is expanding heavily, but YVR and PDX are full as well. You won’t be able to combine operations between two of them without a lot of issues (both local opposition and logistical). And I’m guessing enough international demand exists that you don’t need to combine operations.

      PDX and SEA have similar airlines, etc…, but YVR is in Canada and has completely different airlines. Not all Canadians (especially permanent residents) can enter the US easily. Same the other way.

      1. I’m not saying consolidate operations, i’m saying free up resources. I know SF airport was happy to hear HSR was coming to town. They had great need for foreign flight expansion and realized freeing up domestic usage was a way to attain the space. If the northwest airports could free up the intercity domestic flights they would have more room for international expansion. Alaska Air alone has 63+ flights a day between Portland and Seattle.

      2. That’s a fair point. SEA-PDX flights are probably 1% or so of SEA traffic. But you won’t be able to quite drop all the traffic either, for a couple of reasons:

        1. Most of those flights are regional jets/turboprops. Those require a lot fewer resources than a 777. Heck, you can probably fit 5 turboprop “gates” into the area that a 777 uses up. I don’t think SEA has an issue with runway capacity right now, but gates are certainly an issue (especially ones for international flights).
        2. Unless HSR is integrated into the airline baggage and ticketing systems, you’d need to pick up your baggage and get it to the train station, buy a separate ticket, etc… A lot of people will just opt to take a flight.
        3. I think SFO-LAX traffic uses bigger jets – most United LAX-SFO flights, for example, are 737-class planes.
        4. CA HSR also has a lot more intermediate stops that have commercial airports – Bakersfield, Fresno, Burbank, San Jose – in addition to SFO and LAX. You can move many of those feeder flights onto the train. In contrast, the Portland-Vancouver corridor only has one additional small airport – Bellingham.

        It will have some effect, but I doubt a large one. At most you’d drop 20 or 30 flights per day.

      3. 1. A majority of Alaska’s flights for SEA-PDX are Q400s (about 30) which seat 72 passengers. 3 are 737 with 147 seats
        2. In 2016, Sea-Tac Airport passenger traffic grew 8 percent and hit a record level for the sixth year in a row. The airport served 45.7 million passengers, including 4.9 million international passengers.. Current plans are to spend 1.5 billion for international expansion. PDX is planning a 1.3 billion international expansion. Vancouver is planning a 5.6 billion international expansion.
        3. A few weeks ago I missed a flight out of PDX because of security lines that took close to an hour to navigate. This would have been avoided if I had taken a train.
        4. I hate flying as do many people.
        5. CAHSR is planning on greater frequency of train service to accomodate, so not sure what your point is here.

      4. A lot of people already drive down to Bellingham to take cheap flights there, so if there is a station at Bellingham and a fast transit connection from the train station to the airport we could take off pressure on YVR that way. Not sure if this would work for SEA, through.

    2. For people traveling only between SEA and PDX you wouldn’t put the main stops at airports. You’d put them downtown where all the transit connections, people, and jobs are. You can still have a stop at Tukwila for airport connections but much of the ridership and convenience of HSR comes from downtown-to-downtown travel like it is between DC and NYC where Acela owns 75% of the rail-air travel market.

      1. Yes, Tukwila would work. Also, Rose Quarter Station would be best for PDX access. Definitely not Expo center, too hard to get to airport from there. I’m not sure about Vancouver BC. I know a lot of Americans drive up to BC to take cheap flights to Asia and the international airport is pretty close to the downtown transit center.

      2. Tukwila station for airport access isn’t very useful because it takes so long to take a bus from the station to the actual airport.

        You’d do much better by switching to Link in downtown Seattle, or the 574 bus in Tacoma.

      3. Taiwan HSR runs a dedicated shuttle bus from Taipei’s airport to the nearby HSR station. It takes 15 minutes, about the same time it takes to get from Tukwila station to Sea-Tac. Link or 574 would take 2-3 times longer than a shuttle bus in travel time alone, not including connection time. Sure, the current transit options suck, but if there’s demand you could do much better than exposing yourself to traffic or slogging through the Rainier Valley.

    3. If they would put stops at airports, shift pdx, sea and yvr, shift flight capabilities between these cities to international connections, thus eliminating airport expansion cost and flight competition, I think they could recoup billions.

      Huh? Did you read the summary of the report — not that many people will take the train. There just aren’t that many people traveling from Portland to Seattle, or from Seattle to Vancouver. There report included stops at the airport, and it didn’t change the dynamic. Why would it? The chief advantage of a high speed trail line from Portland to Seattle is it does from downtown Portland to downtown Seattle. The airport is not in the least bit convenient in either city, and if it was, the folks would just fly. You might pick a handful of people who have connecting flights, but are there really that many of those? If you want to fly from Chicago to Portland, aren’t you going to just fly to direct, instead of making a connecting flight (or train trip)?

      It is different in California (as the report said) because way more people fly (and drive) between San Fransisco and L. A. They are orders of magnitude bigger, and for whatever reason, have major financial ties with each other. Seattle, Vancouver and Portland really aren’t big, and unfortunately, really aren’t tied together. It is too bad — I would love a high speed train to Vancouver, BC; it is one my favorite cities. But there just aren’t enough people willing to make that trip to make this investment be worth it.

      1. I’d also add there are more people traveling from L.A. to Vancouver vs. Seattle, and Vancouver to L.A. vs. Seattle. The film industry drives this dynamic, not to mention, if you were going to holiday for a weekend out of the rain would you go to Seattle or L.A.? Exactly….

      2. You’d be inaccurate in your assessment; annually nearly half a million more people fly between Seattle and Los Angeles as from Vancouver to LA (that’s about 50% more); more fly between Seattle and Anchorage than YVR to LA, and almost as many from Seattle to Denver. Sea-Tac handles several million more annual passengers than PDX+YVR combined, and SEA is 8th in the country in O&D (origin and destination – people arriving/departing at SEA and not connecting onward: i.e. “locals” and tourists/business travelers going to/from the Seattle area). The film industry, while important to Vancouver, is a niche as far as air travel goes.

        More people fly TO Seattle as a destination than TO YVR and PDX combined. About 600,000 passengers annually fly from Seattle to Vancouver and 650,000 to Portland, together still less than the number flying from Seattle to LA.

  3. Still a lot of variables on this that warrants more study. Are there any options between 110 mph and 250mph? Any train that can beat a car is going to get ridership if ticketing and waiting times get optimized.
    Maybe we also just focus on Portland to Seattle. It seems that much more business is done between those 2 cities.
    I am also curious about the future of tourism. I am seeing a lot more Europeans and Asian tourists in town the last couple of years. Could that really blossom into something 10 times more than it is now? China and India is just starting to travel. That could create a lot more demand between Vancouver and Seattle.

    1. Anything above 110mph and you need a completely grade-separated, fenced corridor. Once you build for that, you design for 200+mph. You won’t see much savings by aiming for 125 or 160

  4. Are these ridership studies even meaningful that far out? Should they even matter?

    I mean, did they do a ridership study in the 1950s before building the Evergreen floating bridge? Bellevue had a population of 7,500 and Redmond had a population of 600 in 1950. It’s really difficult to imagine that there was an accurate assessment of demand that drove the building of the Evergreen bridge. It strikes as more likely that there was some visionary optimism that lead to political will. And, of course, decades later land use patterns developed around the infrastructure.

    It seems to me we place too much weight on these ridership studies and the 1950s model of road build actually has some merit, insofar as it was driven more by a vision of what the future should be, rather than what current models predict the future will be.

    1. I agree! Let’s be real, this thing will take at least 25 years to build out. We need to start planning now. By 2040, PSRC projects that our region will have almost 5 million people . Portland will probably have over 3 million. Who knows about BC. The entire Northwest region is growing and growing. How short-sighted are we to just sit back and do nothing for decades and hope that some future tech will resolve our transportation issues at a fraction of the cost?

    2. With you on this one, Jeffrey. I wonder, incidentally, if anybody is keeping track of cost-benefit of studies like this?

      Let’s talk about what elements of the real world could change in twenty years, let alone fifty. Maybe people will just get tired of flying- any chance that’ll happen?

      Or if another five wars leave our pockets as full of holes as what’s left of our highways? Or, conversely, Canada, the United States, Mexico, and the whole continent south of it decide that a rail line will be to all their benefit?

      My own main question is that if present trends continue, what’s going to happen when I-5 jams solid between the North Slope and Tierra del Fuego?


    3. Future projections based on studies of the past instead of dreaming about what could be — inertia. No vision…

    4. A business oriented day trip between Seattle and Portland or Seattle and Vancouver is very difficult with the currently available transportation options. The drive is exhausting and takes at least 6 hours round trip. Flying is a lot of wasted time and it’s expensive. The available Cascades service offers a chance to get some work done on the train but the round-trip takes at least 7 hours. Vancouver, Seattle and Portland are just too far apart to allow for efficient transportation connections without HSR.

      Companies in the PNW don’t structure their businesses around frequent day trips between Seattle, Portland and Vancouver. It’s just too expensive or tiring given the currently available options. But if the trip between Seattle and Portland could be made in less than 90 minutes, how many businesses would take advantage of the time savings?

      The capital costs for a world class HSR system are likely prohibitive given even the highest case scenarios for future PNW population. What is needed is enough investment in the Cascades corridor to reduce travel times between Seattle and Portland to about 2.5 hours with trains running every hour. Build any easy connection between Tukwila and the airport, create a user-friendly ticketing system, design local transit systems to serve the smaller stations and the Cascades will be the most efficient option for local travel in the PNW.

      1. How much should we invest in accommodating one-way business trips? What’s holding Cascades ridership back is capacity, above-2:30 travel time, schedule, and relability. A moderate improvement will bring many of these riders, and we don’t have to chase over companies that (theoretically) want to send employees for weekly/monthly day trips. The best argument for a SeaTac-Tukwila shuttle bus is to connect to incrementally-improved Cascades service that is there. And Canad needs to take responsibility for its quality of service. Washington and Oregon have invested in their corridors, while BC has just let its rot. It takes an hour to get from the border to Pacific Central. How can this be? It sounds like BC should just improve its part of the network, call it HSR standard if it qualifies, ask companies to contribute to it if it wishes, regardless of whether this total HSR vision succeeds.

  5. Building 250mph double track HSR and then only running hourly trains would be a total waste of that capacity, but the study suggests that sub-hour frequency brings diminishing returns…

    As a way to square that circle, this may sound crazy, but think about same-day parcel delivery. Amazon and others right now have two options, trucks on congested highways or planes at congested airports. I feel like they would pay handily to have the ability to load a 250mph hourly train between PDX-SEA-YVR, sequenced in between hourly passenger services. Not like the current freight-passenger chaos on legacy tracks, but a tightly controlled interface of fast passenger service and fast freight.

    The path to building this isn’t through railfans, it’s through commerce. Get Microsoft et al on board for the talent acquisition/retention bit that got them interested in the first place, get Amazon et al on board with the promise of the fastest ground freight services in the world, and get the state and feds on board for reasons of regional mobility and competitiveness. When I squint really hard I can see how this type of arrangement might make the corridor both fundable and productive.

    1. I pushed this idea with CAHRS but fell on deaf ears. What FEDX, UPS, USPS, Amazon and etc would do for high speed deliveries definitely deserves consideration.

      1. There is no business case for high-speed freight, at least in combination with high-speed passenger rail. The one example in France (TGV postal) stopped operating in 2015 – not enough letters that warranted the cost. The companies want to solve the last mile problem and other issues such as cost/automation. Forget it.

  6. This is such an obvious non-starter. Frustrating to see time/energy/resources thrown at it while real, meaningful transit needs go neglected.

  7. Sound Transit should consider designing the new IDS in ST3 to allow HSR in it too. I think that’d be a more ideal option than Stadium station.

    1. RSO, you might go to the library at Sound Transit headquarters and see how much architectural and engineering material you can find about the construction of International District Station. And also plans for future alterations.

      King Street Station, and also the station that became Sound Transit headquarters were probably sited where they were because this area was best location- which owed partly to its being a beach,

      Land rising up out of the swamp that covered everything flat from Jackson south. But I’m also pretty sure you can find some material, including construction photographs, of the way the concrete floor was laid for IDS staging.

      At several dozen places around the property, hundred foot long wooden logs were pile-driven into the ground like the frames of Plains Indian tents. Atop each triangle, square concrete pads were poured,

      Each creating a support for the final floor to be laid on top of. Not to say a future much enlarged station can’t , or shouldn’t be built there. Lot of good reasons it shouldn’t, or maybe can’t. Leaving Seattle with a serious problem of where exactly to build it.

      Main point here is to recognize that decisions like this aren’t matters of belief or ideology. And so first step to any meaningful discussion is to understand facts not only on the ground, but under and over it too.


  8. The biggest thing this lacks is an overlay of local trains to act as feeders. In regions as sprawled out as these are, you can’t have an effective high speed rail line without feeders.

    1. I imagine they would preserve the Cascade line as a feeder similar to what California is doing. I would run the HSR only to Portland, Seattle and Vancouver and let the Cascades and empire builder feed into it. By the time this thing ever got built I think Vancouver WA, Tacoma, Bellingham, Eugene and etc would be providing significant feeder numbers to it.

    2. Glenn, you seem to be mechanical, and so probably architecturally and structurally minded as well.

      What’s under King Street Station, Sound Transit Headquarters, and IDS is largely water with a little dirt in it.

      So I’m seeing more aerial girders than aboard a Steam-punk steam-driven Zeppelin. Maybe conceiving the whole complex as a network of suspension bridges might work.

      My own thought is that by the time the next set of DSTT’s is finished, transit will be good enough, and I-5 jammed bad enough, that we can set the whole station in the trench that now contains the freeway.

      Because I can foresee a time when neither automobile or freight traffic will want to go through Downtown Seattle at all. Rail freight might end up across the Cascades. But on the other side, over time-frame we’re talking about, tunneling will get a lot faster.

      Letting high-speed subways carry passengers to hard-to-reach intercity stations by elevator from their Downtown Seattle hotel lobby.


  9. Just another reason this proposal needs to die a quick but quiet death. Incremental improvements and more support for more airline service via preferably seaplanes seems to be the best fix here. It’s not like Washington State Government is flush with cash – lots of unmet needs on public transportation and social services.

    With ridership projected in 2035 at, “just 1.9 – 2.6 million” and Amtrak Cascades in 2016 – last year available – had 817,000 trips, yeah better to make Amtrak Cascades rail straighter and safer.

    I won’t revisit the unspoken issue of leaving 200,000 potential taxpaying riders in three counties out for a few minutes of convenience. Covered in previous comment section on this subject.

    1. It should be pointed out that air travel is not that great for the environment. Certainly worse than rail by a significant margin.

      More airline service probably shouldn’t be the idea solution.

      1. Much like that resent thing I saw about a ferry between Olympia and Seattle – that should be a non starter simply on the environmental impact alone.

        Getting people and fright out of airplanes, and cars and trucks between PDX/SEA/YVR should be a priority for the same reasons.

      2. A few misconceptions about my comments here:

        1. I was pushing more seaplane service to meet the true high speed demand. There is
        a plan for Harbour Air & Kenmore Air to provide that between Vancouver Harbour & Lake Union.

        2) Harbour Air recently issued a press release stating for 10 years Harbour Air has been “Carbon Neutral”. . Read into that what you may.

        3) I’d rather see us be efficient with transit dollars than chase fantasies. The more premium services the private sector can do, the better. The more transits focus on core services, the better for all and I’d be happy to explain.

  10. I take Cascades fairly regularly. I would be infinitely more satisfied with just a few minor fixes:

    1. More frequency, particularly on the north line
    2. Fix the excruciating slowdowns, especially north of Everett and the slow crawl north of the border.
    3. Eliminate the ridiculous check-in process at King St

    We really don’t need 250mph service to drastically improve what we have. As it is I’ve already mostly switched to Bolt Bus unless I feel like treating myself.

    1. Especially the check in process. It is the most absurd thing. They make you get in line to get a seat assignment to get in line to go out on the platform. Why don’t they just do what normal rail does – let you get in the train and check your ticket on board?

      I love the idea of high speed rail, but if they can’t even get the most basic things right, I have zero confidence they will do a good job on HSR

      1. If you don’t want to wait in line twice, you don’t have to. If you show up 10 minutes before boarding there isn’t a line at either.

        The only reason to show up any earlier is if you want to request a particular seat location, such as one of the tables or a group together.

      2. Which you should be able to do when you buy tickets online, if we are going to even have reserved seating. We need to have a system that allows people to simply wait on the platform for the train to arrive.

      3. Forget the online seat assignment.
        It’s a waste of time in IT development $, which could be better used for equipment upgrades, and platform upgrades.

        Actually, upgrading every platform along the corridor would be a worthwhile investment if you are petitioning for a change in the boarding process.

        Everyone that complains “Why don’t we do it like in Europe and let everyone onto the platforms at King Street and Portland” fail to see the big difference.

        All those European stations have ‘passive’ passenger control by nature of the difference between track height and platform height.

        Both KSS and Portland have track level platforms across active tracks.

        The ability to open all doors at downline stations without the conductors having to bridge the gap with stepstools would require level boarding at all stations. It’s why they’re doing the assignments at boarding time, to lessen the station dwell times.

        Other than choosing something like the one seat only row in Business Class, or the 4 at a table areas, I agree with the idea of open seating.

        The reason choosing a seat at reservation time is a waste of IT resources, is because (besides the reasons I stated above), there is no advantage.

        Choosing a seat on an airplane might have more parameters to make a decision with, and there is one major assumption a passenger can make – The nose is at the front, and the tail is at the back.

        Trainsets and rail cars don’t care if they’re going forward or backward, so any assumption based on view out the window is irrelevent.

      4. Barman, and Ben, I think what you’re talking about is converting the Cascades trains into a 21st century railroad, which is best begun with its political equivalent:

        An agreement, and treaty, to recognize the passenger tracks between Vancouver BC, Seattle, and Portland as a jointly-administered international state. Or province, whichever. Whose boundaries should already be expanding south along I-5 upon toward California upon its inauguration.

        But interesting sidelight. Both history and current events suggest a major source of expertise. The Chinese have large railroad building programs world-wide. As well as some recent experience building ours own railroads. Well, in the Chinese view of time, Golden Spike was just before coffee this morning.

        And their Irish partners, who in the meantime cut the cross-passages in the Chunnel with hand-held jackhammers, might welcome a rematch on our soil once again. For Seattle? Succeeding might beat the hell out of seceding from Washington.


      5. Considering that online seat assignment is standard pretty much everywhere else, has been for years (over a decade?) even on some bus services, I doubt the IT development cost is prohibitive. Especially compared with the insane costs of physical infrastructure development and considering the person-hours needed for the check in/boarding process. It’s one of those things that customers kind of expect in the 21st Century. If not online when the ticket is booked, it could be done online say 1-2 hours before the train departs in case the exact train configuration is not known at the time of booking.

      6. ” IT development cost is prohibitive.”

        I’m not saying it’s prohibitive, I’m saying spending needed dollars on IT issues is a waste of money that is better spent on other upgrades.

        and the train could be reversed before it enters either KSS or Portland, if mechanical issues warrant.

        If we we’re so set on “21st Century” technology, maybe we should be spending more 21st Century money on upgrading the whole operation, with new equipment and facilities.

        We’ve been pouring untold billions more on all our other modes. Airports with tax monies, roads with property, local, and a broad ‘no sub-area-equity’ gas tax.

        Why the objection to upgrading platforms if it makes things safer?

  11. I suspect that reguardless of the HSR study outcome, we ought to invest more in bringing intercity rail to 110mph with straighter and safer corridors.

    We also need to connect places like Olympia into the network by a state funded extension to sounder and more cross mountain services (public or private) to bring better interconnectivity to our major cities.

    To continue to me internationally competitive in an era where urban centers dominate, bringing all of our urban places back into the fold becomes increasingly important.

    In a carbon constrained future, we can’t expext those connections to be kept strong with air and cad travel alone.

  12. I’m not opposed to incremental upgrades. The case for taking the train is pretty strong already for a single traveler headed to a downtown and forced to pay for parking.

  13. There is value in these kinds of studies. It informs technology, station stops and general alignment shortcomings.

    Some questions that this specific study raises:

    1. Should we be focusing first on passenger rail to the state Capitol rather than merely to Lacey, using the I-5 right of way for much of the connecting track?

    2. Should we generally plan and build some shorter and more “double duty” segments or alignments first, like Thurston to Whatcom? Should we not prioritize HSR and spend resources on shorter DMU lines to augment Link ridership first?

    3. Should we look at electrification without higher speeds?

    4. What if all Seattle connections were only to the south, with Vancouver service created by going to Tukwila the follow the 405 corridor (with Link transfer stations at Tukwila, Bellevue and Snohomish County (doing double duty as a 405 train)?

    4. Should we think about great shorter service to get people across the Cascade Mountains, which can have notable winter issues?

    Let’s not simply walk away from HSR. Let’s instead take a broader look about what our objectives for intercity travel are.

    1. No, let’s walk away from HSR in great complexity. Simple, complex, the thing doesn’t pencil out. One-ten is plenty fast enough, but even that will require a tunnel under Chuckanut Mountain.

      1. Oh I would conceptually agree with you, Richard. I was ambiguous. I should have said that we shouldn’t walk from study and projects for inter-city rail, not HSR.

      2. I completely agree with you on that Al. Reading the OC more closely I see that you did allude to it.

    2. Al S., I don’t think you’ll have to look very hard to find maps from a few decades back, when passenger trains ran right through Downtown Olympia.

      Wouldn’t worry about resurrecting. Don’t think they were very fast. But no reason an express line (might be better “tag” than HSR) can’t follow I-5 in.

      However, to me, the project has an overriding importance for Thurston County: A chance to defend itself from becoming the first 1955 of the 21st Century, as suburbia goes tsunami. No Rail Speed is too High for that!


  14. I’m not that surprised at the results. The HSR researchers that I’ve heard speak for decades have usually said that 200 to 400 miles is the market sweet spot. That would be a place like Spokane or Eugene for those of us in Seattle. Those places are way down the list of US metro populations at #98 and #144.

    For larger, closer places like Portland and Vancouver, speeds are less important as long as they can get up to 70 to 80 mph. For those places, reliability is going to be a major factor probably eclipsing speed. I would gladly take a train that takes 30 more or 60 more minutes than take a train that could reasonably be delayed 2 or 3 hours because of competing freight operations.

  15. While high speed rail is appealing, electrification and modernization of Cascades would give us a better return on investment. As calculated above, a 110mph average would give us 1:38 to Portland, where even 2:00 is extremely competitive with driving.

    1. Preston, while I think all our rail lines should be electrified, most important thing is to keep the train moving smoothly, and on schedule.

      So I think it’s worth literally whatever it costs to get track that’s ours only. If we once get that, the rest, including a lot of passengers, will follow. Also wire to run under.


    2. I’d also like to see electrification but it’s probably more important in urban areas with high station density, requiring fast acceleration. England still uses DMUs and/or diesel locos for a large portion of their high-ish speed intercity rail network. For some fun, check out a few videos at the All the Stations youtube channel:

      1. Also, I should mention that electrification is very expensive, and I’d rather see that money spent on speed improvements in the short term.

  16. This is going to shot down as soon as I post it, but nonetheless…I think that rail creates density like no other transportation mode. It’s very expensive to move it once the tracks are laid. That said, I think we should think more holistically about can we concentrate the population to create more demand for rail. (chicken/egg…). If we take this into account, it could make HSR much more economically viable.

    1. It can create density if it is good enough. If it isn’t good enough to attract riders people drive anyway.

    2. Have an example to the opposite, dws. Before I left Chicago when I was 10, in 1955, by any reasonable measure, nobody had any reason to leave town for lack of rail. All speeds.

      While transit still serves the parts of the city that were dense before, the State of Illinois looks pretty much like the rest of suburban America. At the time my family left fore Michigan, many other Chicagoans moved to the suburbs for more room.

      And to take advantage of the first car their family had ever owned.But with next wave of natural compulsion, meaning suburbs so packed with cars nothing can move, people will decide to change living patterns again.

      But might make for easier discussion to lose terms like “HSR”. Whose meaning can take a whole posting full of comments to fight about.

      Train speed. Grade separation- bridge, tunnel, or gates- location and number of stops, headway. For Portland service, judge by terms like those, and we’ll do just fine.


    3. A glowing example is Sounder Southline – now moves some 14000’ish people into and back out of Seattle each day – something ST originally claimed there would be no demand for?

      Sure you could perhaps argue that in the late 90s there was not much demand for such a service, but some 20 years later she’s pretty popular.

      In the last 3 years I’ve been using its gone from have a set of seats to yourself to all seats taken by the time we reach Kent, PM commutes much the same, every last seat has someone in it leaving KSS. It enabled us to afford a nice home in Puyallup on a single modest tech income.

      As for HSR to Portland, honestly driving on freeways sucks – there is nothing enjoyable about it, wife prefers to take the existing Cascades service for semi regular trips to Portland vs driving. If Cascades was quick enough to enable a practical day trip to Portland we’d probably use it a whole lot more.

  17. I would personally rather see the $42 billion go towards regional transit, and let visitors to Vancouver just take a bus.

  18. $42 billion to serve 2.6 million passengers over 30 years comes out to over $500 per ticket. Who’s going to spend $500 for a longer ride to Portland than the airlines at half the cost?

    1. Prent, when you factor in all the wars we continue to fight, and the oil trains in the way of our passenger service, to keep gasoline cheap…what do you think is the real cost of the ticket a gas pump gives you for a receipt?


  19. I fell like they have significantly under estimated the ridership numbers. If you put a stop in Vancouver WA and take it to downtown Portland you will solve a bridge problem while delivering a high ridership potential and going form DT Tacoma and DT Everette to DT Seattle in 10 min would would seriously have people considering taking transit.

    You can drive which takes 90 minutes, you can take the light rail which takes 60 minutes or you can take the HSR it takes 10.

    Build it in phase. Phase 1Vancouver WA to Portland OR (10 mile), Everette WA to Tacoma WA through Seattle WA(64 mile), and Bellingham to Vancouver CANADA (53miles).
    Phase 2 connect the Portland Section to the Seattle Section
    Phase 3 Connect he Seattle Section to the Bellingham Section.

  20. I say forget Vancouver for now, cross border is just too difficult. Concentrate on a mid speed segreagted railway. A Euro DMU high speed unit can easily clock 125 mph. It’s not as if it’s the West Coast Mainline, a half hourly service through out the day from Eugene- Albany – Salem – Portland – Centralia – Tacoma – Seattle, would not require intensive signalling. You would need extrensive dual track though. Exstensive connections to smaller cities throughout the two states would help build political support over a wider base,

    1. Forget? Come on, rational, we can’t blow off the chance of a lifetime!

      Just read that BC is now run by an NDP-Green Party coalition. Meaning that with no advanced notice, one Premier and three US Governors of same political stripe could couple a grand old lounge car with an open platform, to a southbound Cascadian. Just so Talgo isn’t too HS to handle it.

      And make every station down to San Diego a REAL whistle-stop to announce that us Liberals have now earned the right not to call ourselves Progressives anymore by creating a de-facto joint international state (or province, whichever) all the way to San Diego. In the form of a railroad.

      And dare East-of-the-Mountains politicians to top that one with a line of State highways! Constitution could be silent on this one. Or wish it was.

      But one thing for sure: The electorate coast to coast and border to border will like this better than 2016’s miserable campaign distractions. Proving that the pro-rail side can Suc-ceed without having to Se-cede. Tell me Steve O’Ban will ever see this one coming.


  21. We’re willing, but we aren’t large enough markets, nor close enough to make high speed rail economical. All 3 cities are large, but the combination of their density relative to their distance from one another just doesn’t compare to anything in Europe or the Eastern Seaboard.

    Either operating and capital costs need to plummet, or our cities need to become massively larger.

    1. Neel, isn’t that what Seattle is doing right now? Just wish cost to live there would start to plummet.

      But on the not completely negative side, very good chance that people who used to live in Seattle but still work there would love the chance to look at I-5 traffic through a train window at 79 mph.

      Instead of though a windshield at 7.9. Wouldn’t wish a fact-finding trip on anyone, but couple freeway exits’ ride should let you extrapolate how massive is the number of potential passengers our Emerald City is creating us.


  22. This whole thing is hogwash. We don’t need a 240mph train or maglev.

    Institute a cross-state Talgo train that offers a decent Schedule to Spokane and increase the main SEA-PDX corridor to 110mph.

    And make sure we have PTC, because that 501 wreck was not a fun ride. I was on it.

    1. Seriously, Nathan, appreciate your continuing to mention your experience. Also not kidding that any details you can add that’ll be [On Topic] for the posting are extremely worthwhile first-hand reading in these pages.

      My own passenger-driving experience was a different planet from a locomotive cab. But did leave me knowing the damage that can result from skimped training. PTC? I’d first check what signals the engineer had for guidance.

      Now about train speed. Again one man’s observation of tracks and crossings. And reputation of a well-known curve. But I’d hope you’d accept thirteen miles temporarily slow-ordered to thirty miles an hour in return for reaching the 110 stretch at all.


      1. I love the Cascades service, and I had been looking forward to the opening of the Point Defiance Bypass for a long time. I have zero issue with the fact that there is a 30mph curve there, but I do take issue with the lack of braking for the curve.

        There is ridership potential for the new schedule once we get that back, but we also need all 7 Talgo sets.

        I think much more good would be served by a Talgo run that serves Seattle to Spokane that leaves the endpoints at decent times. Take advantage of the Pendular system on the twists of Stevens Pass.

  23. How in the world do these studies come up with realistic numbers in a situation like this, and do they seriously consider induced demand? I know I would make many more trips to both Portland and Vancouver if there were a high speed train option (assuming the cost would be within reason).

    Also, the current Fairhaven station in Bellingham is in the middle of nowhere. Really horrible location. If this thing is ever built I hope they move it somewhere more accessible like downtown Bellingham (which is a lot closer to WWU).

    1. I also wonder how seriously these studies take: urban population growth including smaller cities in between, increasing vehicle congestion, increasing costs of vehicles compared to people’s salaries, increasing airspace congestion, increasing local and regional transit use, And whether driverless Ubers will be prohibitively expensive to take between cities. If it’s HSR for today’s Pacific NW, or even 10 years from now, you might be crazy, but if you’re talking 30+ years, things look a lot different. But of course an “HSR or bust” approach that leaves intercity rail in it’s current state until I’m old enough to retire is not the best approach. Incremental reliability, frequency, and speed improvements and “higher speed” rail are good options.

  24. What’s the alternative where we build a rail optimized to 10 km (Sounder) and 40 km (Amtrak) station spacing? Build a class 6 rail (177 kph / 110 mph) line that can handle both and you’d have about 6 minute and 17 minute leg times, respectively, including dwell. You’d get to Vancouver in about 100 minutes and Portland in 120 from Seattle. Is that good enough? Faster than driving, faster than going to the airport and flying, fast enough to make a doable day trip.

    It’s entirely possible that in 20-30 years we’ll want 10 km station spacing along the entire way, so everyone from Eugene to Vancouver would be able to take a local train not more than a couple stops to transfer on to the faster line. Since everyone would have a convenient connection to the faster service, locating the faster line in major population and transit centers becomes less important. The local line could even wander off on its own track through population centers while the faster followed a highway, and reconnect every 40-50 km. You’d even get “local” and “express” fare classes.

    Does anyone know the logistics of running trains of different speeds on the same track? I assume the 350+ kph HSR can’t easily share track with anything going half that speed, so it’d be a single-use track. But I’d think two trains with similar top speeds but differing stop frequencies could use the same track relatively easily, with station pull outs and perhaps a periodic third track to allow passing.

  25. ‘Way past comment deadline, Nathan, but maybe somebody will google it up. Though most likely will have to give White Pages their credit card number. And at least pretend you know a really cute criminal in a bathing suit.

    My main problem with a thirty mile an hour curve is attaching it to an eighty mile an hour line. Wouldn’t be surprised if regenerative braking- motor switched into a generator to start slowing the train- would’ve had to have been engaged at Lakewood.

    But for the record where every pro-rail body can find it: Aboard any moving machine, passengers’ lives are in the hands of a single human being. Whose employers owe it to them and the world to train they so he can feel every individual mile per hour through their fingers on the controller.

    (Same limitations, incidentally for a Positive Train Control unit. Which in this day and age is probably the work of an outside contractor. If one can spare any time from ST station elevators.)

    And, like a steamboat pilot in 1854, know his train’s location to the foot at every location on the line. At midnight in a roaring storm. And, easy on a double-ended train: Backwards.

    But strong loud second to Stevens Pass and beyond. One train an hour would probably make a single new lane on Highway 2 redundant.


  26. If you want to rework this to make it feasible, start by cutting out the Vancouver leg of the trip. That adds a lot to the cost and very little to the ridership.

    Second, instead of having the goal of high speed rail along the whole line, have a goal of a trip of 2 hours to 2.5 hours from Seattle to Portland with x number of trips a day. That would be a significant improvement while still allowing us to cut some corners.

    Third, design the line to also allow commuter rail service similar to sounder. High speed commuter service to Tacoma and Olympia will probably draw more ridership than intercity service between metro Seattle and metro Vancouver.

    The population density in the northwest outside of Seattle area is quite low, so it’s not surprising that intercity service would get low ridership. Tacoma and Olympia to Seattle commuter service could be a big market on the other hand…

  27. High Speed rail in Washington State
    The fundamental question about rail service is this: “What role should it play?” Yes it is possible to move people along from Seattle to Vancouver BC or Portland or even Spokane at 250 mph but is just that Gov. Inslee’s goal? It seems to this observer that a better goal for such an ambitious plan is to have it be part of an economic development plan for the places in between. Airlines already carry out the function of moving people to these locations, so why duplicate this function?
    The citizens of the State might better support something that serves all those along the route with movement of people and goods. This is something the railroads used to do and we need to reinvent the railroad’s function not just for the convenience of corporations that run the railroad but for service to the people and businesses along the way.
    The speed issue always draws lots of attention, but travel times that solidly and reliably beat travel times between airports and along I-5 are all that is necessary.
    In a better world, trucks should be able to drive to a rail terminal and load onto a flatcar that carries truck and driver past traffic jams on I-5 or I-90. People should be able to travel between Seattle and Portland (or Spokane or the Tri-Cities) in under two hours. This requires an approach that is incremental: improvements in performance associated with investment monies spent.
    In a practical world, the existing rail infrastructure should be used to the maximum extent possible. The freight railroad owners can and should be part of the solution.
    In this world, the expenditure of many billions for maglev with a payback years into the future will be politically unmanageable. Realistically, maglev can only move people and has been judged elsewhere in the world to be too expensive and inflexible when compared to standard rails improved to allow operation at say, 180 mph.
    Let us think about the rail mobility issue carefully.

  28. The fundamental question about rail service is this: “What role should it play?” Yes it is possible to move people along from Seattle to Vancouver BC or Portland or even Spokane at 250 mph but is just that Gov. Inslee’s goal? It seems to this observer that a better goal for such an ambitious plan is to have it be part of an economic development plan for the places in between. Airlines already carry out the function of moving people to these locations, so why duplicate this function?
    The citizens of the State might better support something that serves all those along the route with movement of people and goods. This is something the railroads used to do and we need to reinvent the railroad’s function not just for the convenience of corporations that run the railroad but for service to the people and businesses along the way.
    The speed issue always draws lots of attention, but travel times that solidly and reliably beat travel times between airports and along I-5 are all that is necessary.
    In a better world, trucks should be able to drive to a rail terminal and load onto a flatcar that carries truck and driver past traffic jams on I-5 or I-90. People should be able to travel between Seattle and Portland (or Spokane or the Tri-Cities) in under two hours. This requires an approach that is incremental: improvements in performance associated with investment monies spent.
    In a practical world, the existing rail infrastructure should be used to the maximum extent possible. The freight railroad owners can and should be part of the solution.
    In this world, the expenditure of many billions for maglev with a payback years into the future will be politically unmanageable. Realistically, maglev can only move people and has been judged elsewhere in the world to be too expensive and inflexible when compared to standard rails improved to allow operation at say, 180 mph.
    Let us think about the rail mobility issue carefully.

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