A single downtown tunnel is completely possible and provides the best outcomes

In his recent article, Martin Pagel outlined why a single downtown tunnel is a win-win. I’ll emphasize mainly that transfers are crucial in a world where the suburb-to-downtown commute is no longer as common as it was. And transfers are a million times better when one only has to switch platforms in a tunnel than having to get out of a station, walk some distance, and get into another station.

But most importantly, using a single tunnel for the planned lines in ST3 is not a transit-nerd fantasy but completely feasible. Previous discussions on why a second downtown tunnel is needed have focused on capacity. According to Martin H. Duke’s 2015 interview with Marie Olson, Sound Transit’s Link Transportation Manager for Operations, the capacity of the existing tunnel should allow for 40 four-car trains per hour, or a headway of 90 seconds. Split between the three lines this results in 4.5 minute headways per line – significantly more capacity than needed for ST3 (planned 8-minute peak headways per line)! This particular interview points out that ventilation is not an issue either. Some work may still be required: ST3 project C-07: Transit Tunnel improvements enabling increases in system frequency estimates that approximately $20m will be needed to enable higher than 3-minute headways in the tunnel. That is negligible compared to the billions needed for a second tunnel.

It’s important to realize that this path — upgrades rather than completely new construction — is the path San Francisco took with the 2009 MUNI signaling upgrade. That’s an important regional precedent that cannot be dismissed as happening in vastly different conditions. MUNI achieved a 50% effective capacity increase for $104m, easily 20 times less than the cost of a new 3.5-mile tunnel. They went from 30 trains per hour to 45 trains per hour with a design capacity of 60 trains per hour. Yes, that is a system supporting 1-minute headways (!) for light rail trains. Not to mention that MUNI trains share the road with regular traffic for much of their route (like the First Hill and SLU streetcars) and arrive at the tunnel at irregular intervals, making their problem vastly more difficult than ours.

Sound Transit needs to make it their #1 alternative to leverage the existing downtown tunnel. Not just for better transfers and avoiding disruption in the CID, but because the time savings of constructing a very complicated downtown megaproject will allow for new lines and extensions to open sooner, and will help pay for any cost overruns. And if we are lucky, there may be funds available to enhance other projects.

Cascadia Rail Summit recap: part 2

Yesterday, we covered the first part of the Cascadia Rail Summit. The next sessions were more technical and covered lessons learned from high speed rail systems around the world and also an overview of rail equipment. Below are only the highlights.

Andy Kunz, President & CEO, USHSR

Andy Kunz spoke about what circumstances make high speed rail a viable transportation choice.

A complete transportation system consists of a range of modes all 
working together, each operating in their most efficient segment. 
With each mode optimised, the overall system works at its best, 
providing the highest mobility for the most people, with the fewest 
delays, at the lowest cost. 
When modes don't exist, other modes overload, performance drops. 
Continue reading “Cascadia Rail Summit recap: part 2”

Cascadia Rail Summit recap: part 1

The Cascadia Rail Summit was held from Nov 6-8. Hosted at the Microsoft headquarters in Redmond and organized by the US High Speed Rail Association, the conference brought together some key decision makers from government, consulting, and rail operators and train manufacturers from around the world. Even for a rail skeptic, it is hard to dismiss the momentum that high speed rail is gaining in the Pacific Northwest.

Opening remarks by Gov. Jay Inslee

While it wasn’t in person, but a recording made specifically for the conference, the first speaker was none other than Gov. Jay Inslee, vouching his support for the initiative and kicking off the discussion.

To put this into perspective, ST3 did not enjoy such high-caliber early support. Years before it was up for vote, Sound Transit did not consider a ballot measure in 2016, or of that size. Its passage is a testament to the power of advocacy. Consider then, how much can be achieved with this initiative given that the highest ranks of politics in the state are already on board.

Continue reading “Cascadia Rail Summit recap: part 1”

Can we replace cross-country air with rail travel? Yes, we can!

When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced the Green New Deal, critics jumped on it immediately – it can’t be done, it’s too expensive, etc. I want to debunk one of these critiques, and that is that carbon-intensive air travel cannot be replaced with (eventually green) electricity-powered rail travel.

People often cite the size of the country and large distances between cities as the number one reason. The story goes, we used to have regional and cross-country rail, but now we have cars and planes and the former were rendered obsolete. A lot of people have covered why regional transport (think up to 200 miles), now covered by car as flying is not economical, can be effectively replaced by high-speed rail. The definition of high-speed rail requires a speed of at least 125 mph and if sustained, this provides much faster travel than by car (not to mention that it is congestion-free) and a comparable total travel time to air.

But, what about cross-country? Surely this is the domain of air travel given the vastness of the country? Let’s calculate some travel times from our corner here in Seattle (good for accounting for the longest flights possible).

Continue reading “Can we replace cross-country air with rail travel? Yes, we can!”