An Infrastructural Cornerstone: Seattle-Tacoma Heavy Rail

Hourly heavy rail service between Seattle and Tacoma. Why hasn’t this happened yet? This really deserves a facepalm and long sigh, then a discussion on what to do next.

I published a Page 2 post almost two years ago about ERC heavy rail from Renton to Woodinville, which is clearly a project that will probably never happen – transport technology will advance to a new era of hyperloop and organic hemp dirigibles before the Eastside gets its heavy electrified rail.  But, I have not yet given up on heavy rail.

Vastly improved Sounder service between Tacoma and Seattle could arrive sooner than any major ST3 project.  Metropolitan transportation networks start in the center and fan outward over time, which makes it even more puzzling that not one example of worldclass heavy rail transit has yet been constructed in this transit-progressive region.  Seattle and Tacoma are two large population centers just 34 miles apart along the only freeway connecting the two.  The rail tracks take a slightly longer route, but in a valley of the flattest land in the region and ample space for more rail tracks. The land is cheap and the stations and TOD developement already exist.

Sound Transit has a reputation for doing projects that simply get the job done – such as MLK Way center-running light-rail and draw-bridge running light-rail; there was virtually no forward-thinking mindset.  After nearly begging on their knees, Sound Transit succumbed to transit advocates region-wide and approved all grade-separated light-rail expansions to Ballard and West Seattle – this is forward thinking compared to their previously center-running at-grade designs for those same neighborhoods.

Sounder gets the job done, but now it’s time for South Sounder to get its deserved promotion to heavy rail.  By doing this, Sound Transit would be connecting two of the largest regional transit hubs and termini, serving bus, rail, streetcar and long-distance rail, with 40-minute trips on reliably on-time schedules. This would revolutionize an already progressive transit agenda into a project that finally enables the progressive rail transit desired around the region.  It will encourage more transit expansions radiating from Sounder stations, including potential lines to Orting, Graham, Enumclaw and Olympia in the south end, and Renton and Maple Valley spurs in the north end.

Until the day people wait no more than a half hour for the next train between Seattle and Tacoma, a worldclass rail transit network will always be considered a pipe dream.  Sound Transit needs a cornerstone to support its expanding regional network.  Currently, the network is a series of seemingly random bus routes, but it is rail that evolves urban infrastructure. This Seattle-Tacoma heavy rail line is such a reachable goal, and yet it has been almost 100 years since the last heavy rail line in Puget Sound, when Puget Sound Electric Railway ended the historical Interurban Everett-Seattle-Tacoma line.

As transit advocates, we must vocally support the construction of at least one dedicated track exclusively for Sounder rail.  Rather than renting the tracks from BNSF on already-congested routes, Sound Transit can use the money destined for BNSF to run 18-hour daily service on its dedicated tracks, guaranteeing frequent reliable service that serves everyone, not just 9 to 5 weekday commuters.

Good news though: Sound Transit has rumored support and active negotiating with BNSF for all-day service weekdays plus weekends.  That means the time is now that we must loudly express our support for Seattle-Tacoma heavy rail to enable a future of worldclass rail in the Puget Sound region.

I anticipate working on this more once I return to the Seattle area permanently.  I strongly support the investment of a European/Japanese-style regional rail network for the Puget Sound region, either with electrified rail or some other future mode of heavy public transportation, such as maglev or hyperloop.  Please contact me if interested:

Message to ERC Trail Proposal Planning Committee: Design for Rail

Written By Andrew Stephenson, 13 June 2015

Sent To the members of ERC Trail Proposal Planning Committee;


In your hands is the future of the Eastside.  In the midst of the biggest infrastructural revolution since the dawn of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, cities have recently reinvested billions solely into mass transit, bike trails and better walkable communities, attracting Millennials and retiring Boomers in the tens-of-thousands.  The current ERC bike trail proposal only addresses the need for a bike trail, naturally, continuing the “suburbia culture” of drive-drive-drive, spending every hour not working sitting in traffic congestion, dropping-off and picking-up people you know without cars, due to the lack of TOD planning.  The valuable time left at the end of the day not spent commuting is used to exercise, in this case: on the ERC trail.  In 10 years, there will be no time left after one’s commute for any activity whatsoever.  The future involves incorporating activity into your commute and avoiding traffic gridlock, whether that involves commuting by bicycle or walking to the train station.  The ERC trail addresses only commuting by bicycle, this is not an appropriate investment for the fastest-growing metropolitan region in the nation. To accommodate bicyclists is a significant achievement, a recently acknowledged mode of transport for this nation, but will not improve Eastside mobility nor attract Millennials and techies from Seattle whom are desperate for a “car-less” lifestyle.  Addressing only one issue along a corridor that can support two modes of transportation is comparable to a D+ on your exam.  Take this rare opportunity to use the ERC, a grade-separated, tree-lined (thus sound-mitigating) right-of-way to please bicyclists, families, motorists, tourists and transit users alike. This is a two-in-one opportunity.

For the sake of our future, it is imperative that you include and leave room for a double-tracked electrified heavy-rail line in the design to parallel the bike trail on the ERC alignment.  Having world-class rail infrastructure in addition to a paved trail for cyclists to commute on will make Bellevue the centerpiece of the rapidly growing Eastside, promoting Bellevue as a potential economic competitor to neighboring Seattle.

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Stephenson

President, Developing Sustainable Communities, Washington State University

I have only posted one other time here on STB Page 2 which also concerned the ERC for heavy rail, an important connection between Eastside communities that could be voted on and approved in 2020 and easily completed no later than 2025 due to its conveniently unobstructed right-of-way.  I suggest others on the Eastside also enthusiastic about using the ERC for heavy rail to email the ERC trail proposal committee like I have.

Thanks everyone,

Andrew Stephenson

Eastside Rail Corridor – Heavy Rail

It’s time to open up Eastside’s North-South corridor, but it must be done right.

Sound Transit has connected Sea-Tac Aiport with downtown Seattle and very soon: University of Washington. Under construction is the line to Northgate, and next there will be lines to Lynnwood, Overlake and to just north of Federal Way. Now Sound Transit is discussing options for its third package including extensions to Everett, Redmond and Tacoma via Federal Way and lines to Ballard, West Seattle and Issaquah. What’s next?  The sky’s the limit. Lines to Woodinville via Lake City and Kenmore? Light rail to Renton? Sounder to Olympia? These would all be a huge success, but for the sake of something new and more importantly, high ridership, Eastside Rail Corridor (ERC) already provides a grade-separated route with almost zero displacement of homes and businesses necessary. With electrification and maximum speeds between 80-90 mph possible, connecting the urban cores on the Eastside would be surprising simple and a critical project that opens up a variety of options for the future.

The greatest advantage in the ERC is we already have the route with gentle curves and minimal road crossing, we just need the tracks and stations. Plus,not only is the route wide enough for an electrified double-tracked high-speed rail line, but there is virtually plenty room for “local stations” to have four tracks wide that allow express trains to pass in the center two tracks as the local train sits there with its doors open to passengers boarding. For example, if someone in East Kingsgate (a smaller local station) walked to board the train and decided to go shopping in Bellevue, they would have to take the local train to at least Totem Lake Station (a local and express station) where they would continue on that local train or transfer to an express with Bellevue as their destination. The local train would stop not just at Kirkland, but also Norkirk and South Kirkland maybe once letting an express train pass while sitting on a station siding.

But why is there the need for double-tracks? If we don’t build them now, we never will for a long time.  Building it right the first time knowing that the higher the frequency of departures per hour, the higher the ridership – this goes for all transportation. The combined populations of Bellevue, Renton, Kirkland and Woodinville is a little over 230,000, so I would estimate that by 2025 (the year this could open for service if voted for November 2016) there would be 100,000 people living within 2-3 miles of each of these stations. Once you connect this line to the Sounder South line, this adds value to the ERC with accessibility now to Tacoma and Olympia in the future. This effectively increases ridership. Now factor in all the businesses within a mile of these stations. Google in Kirkland, the tourism industry at the Woodinville wineries near East Kingsgate Station, T-Mobile next to Coal Creek / Factoria Station, Boeing offices in Renton and South Center Mall in Tukwila, not to mention all the businesses in downtown Bellevue and the connection to Microsoft via light-rail of course. South Bellevue P-R Station would connect commuters to the East Link for all destinations in Seattle until the Kirkland Station becomes a transfer station to the “Sand Point Crossing” that could one day give Eastsiders unbelievably quick access to UW, Fremont and Ballard. There are so many reasons to believe that the Eastside Rail Corridor would attract 40,000 to 50,000 riders daily during the first 5 years of service at the same time that it increases ridership on ST buses, Link, Sounder and even Amtrak via the Tukwila Station.

This would also be a new mode transportation. The ERC would not be light-rail, nor Sounder commuter rail. The ERC must be electrified heavy rail capable of fitting in low-clearance tunnels for noise control and maximum speeds (lower center of gravity for curved sections of track) that can also share the Link light-rail segment of track between South Bellevue P-R to the future Bellevue main central station;  the potential segment of Link light-rail between Hospital Station and Kirkland that might be built for the Ballard-Issaquah line (via Sand Point crossing) would also be along the ERC where this heavy rail line (local and express) would be built.

Other ideas for the I-405 corridor are BRT and light-rail. I would prefer light rail over BRT, but neither should be what is built along the ERC for the sake of efficiency. BRT is just flat out useless unless it has its own dedicated lane walled off to all other vehicles, but if a dedicated lane is built for BRT, you might as well lay some tracks and it put it on the existing ERC route that offers far more TOD potential and reliable travel times than adjacent to I-405. A BRT route along I-405 would only attract park-and-ride commuters and be a band-aid fix to the inevitable future construction of an ERC rail line. Then there is Light-rail, which is more effective for trains with shorter distances between each other and at slower speeds.

An Eastside rail line is inevitable, it’s just a matter of when. Bellevue is growing and North-South commuting is necessary either for commuting to Bellevue or connecting at transfer stations for Seattle.  This heavy rail line would also serve as the future gateway to Bellevue for intercity high-speed rail to Portland and Eugene and north to Bellingham and Vancouver if extensions are built beyond Woodinville.  If there is ever a passenger rail line built across the Cascades to Spokane, Tri-Cities, and Yakima, the electrified heavy rail ERC would also serve these trains as it follow I-90 over the Pass.

Anyways, I’m open to discussion and for any comments or concerns on building heavy rail this way on the ERC.  The potential stations are listed below since I cannot post a picture:

  • Woodinville (express & local)
  • East Kingsgate (only local)
  • Totem Lake / Evergreen Hospital (express & local)
  • Norkirk (local only)
  • Kirkland (express & local)
  • South Kirkland P-R (local only)
  • Bellevue Central (Local, Express & Intercity High-speed Rail)
  • Coal Creek / Factoria (local only)
  • Hazelwood (local only)
  • May Creek (local only)
  • Kenny Dale (local only)
  • Renton (express & local)
  • Rainier Ave (local only)
  • Tukwila Sounder Station (express & local)

I’m Andrew Stephenson, 21 years old and from Seattle, a student at Washington State University, candidate for a BS in Civil Engineering. I got my passion in public transit after living for two years in Nagoya, Japan without a car. Here in Pullman I am currently making progress in returning bus service between Pullman, WA and Moscow, ID, both two college towns desperately in need of reliable transit connections due to each economy being so co-dependent on one another. My goal is to see better public transit all around the Pacific Northwest.

Contact me at: