High speed rail study predicts low ridership

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. Continue reading “High speed rail study predicts low ridership”

No Mudslide Relief in Latest Intercity Rail Grants

Vancouver WA Amtrak – Wikimedia

Today Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood announced $2B in intercity rail funding.  This 3rd round of intercity rail grants – likely the last money to be available for quite some time – drew on funds rejected by Florida.

While perhaps the money was spread too thinly, many worthy projects received funding.  Acela trains in central New Jersey will travel up to 160 mph by 2017, much more 110 mph track will be built on the Chicago-Detroit and Chicago-St Louis lines, and California will be able to extend its HSR starter segment to Fresno and the future wye where trains will alternately serve Sacramento and San Francisco.  Good news all around.

Washington, however, fared poorly in this latest installment.  WSDOT will receive $15 million for grade separation and congestion relief around the Port of Vancouver (WA), but will not receive the funds it had sought to combat mudslides and to replace the trestle leading into Tacoma Freighthouse Square.  While disappointing, our total share of ‘HSR’ funding ($781 million) remains impressive relative to our population size, and it speaks well of WSDOT’s preparedness in seeking these grants over the past three years.    Even if we lost out on this round, it is encouraging to see substantial federal investment in both the Northeast Corridor and California’s true HSR line.

As usual, The Transport Politic has an excellent summary.

Improving RailPlus

Photo by the Author

Since October 2004 Sounder commuters with full-fare passes have enjoyed free access to Amtrak Cascades between Seattle and Everett through the RailPlus program.  Barbara Gilliland, then Sound Transit’s Deputy Director of Transportation Services, called it, “One of the easiest agreements I’ve ever worked on.”  Yet very few riders utilize the service; in February 2011 only 126 RailPlus tickets were issued for the entire month.  (Equivalent to 2 people making one round-trip per day!)  Ridership for the past year has generally ranged between 80-160 boardings per month.

Cascades times north of Seattle are hardly ideal for commuter use, with two-peak hour trains from Seattle (510, 516), one mid-day train from Everett (513), and one late night train from Everett (517).  Further, only full-fare passes are accepted, with no E-Purse upgrades permitted.  Due to the higher fare on Sounder vs. ST/CT buses, most Northline Sounder riders have employer-subsidized passes, increasing the likelihood that riders are peak commuters into Seattle for whom the schedules would be unworkable (except for Train 516).  Throw in mudslides, general reliability issues, and the ease of express service from Everett on ST 510, and you have a system that structurally disincentivizes people from trying the train. More after the jump.

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Amtrak Cascades Stimulus Update

Photo by Mike Bjork

When stimulus funding for Amtrak Cascades was first announced earlier this year, it was unclear even to state leaders exactly what projects would be funded – just the goals the feds said they’d like to achieve. The state was asked to resubmit a full project list after the amount ($590 million) was awarded.

Our goals are relatively simple. Two more daily Seattle to Portland round trips should be added, and both speed and reliability should be improved – with on time performance aimed for 88%.

To do this, there are several bottlenecks along the route that must be improved. Trains should get out of the single-track Nelson Bennett tunnel in Tacoma and onto the Point Defiance Bypass, a bypass track is necessary to get around freight congestion in Vancouver, and new tracks are necessary around Kelso and Longview to keep freight trains out of the way.

WSDOT has finally submitted this full project list, broken down by when construction could start (as this is a stimulus package, after all), and we’re now waiting on the Federal Railroad Administration to give us the thumbs up.

Way down at the bottom of WSDOT’s press release is something else I’d like to make sure we all remember. There’s another $2.5 billion available for high speed rail from the 2009 federal transportation appropriations bill. We’ll be in the running for some of that money as well, especially if we break ground quickly on the “shovel ready” projects from this stimulus funding.

New Amtrak Maintenance Facility

As part of both Amtrak Cascades planning and Sound Transit 2, I’ve seen references to a new maintenance facility to be built in SODO to handle all the planned new service.

A year ago, Amtrak made a request for ARRA funding to build this base. It was supposed to start construction a year ago, in fact, but we’re hearing now that the construction contract has just been issued, with expected completion in 2012.

That comes just before Sound Transit and Amtrak will both likely expect new trains for their respective services.

Speaking of Sound Transit, getting Sounder to Lakewood is pushed back to 2013 now, in order for Sound Transit to afford all the changes made to the design of the new track through South Tacoma.

Second Train to Vancouver B.C. Extended Until September

Amtrak Cascades by Timberline1955
Amtrak Cascades by Timberline1955

Great news for travelers to Vancouver B.C.! The second train to Canada will continue operating until September 30, 2010. During the 2010 Olympics and Paralympic Winter Games, more than 11,000 passengers rode the new service.

“The success of this additional Amtrak Cascades service reinforces what we already know – that intercity passenger rail service is a valuable transportation resource and people are using it,” said Paula Hammond, Washington transportation secretary. “As we continue to grow this service, it will provide more travel options for Pacific Northwest travelers, reduce congestion at our border crossings and help our environment.”

The future of the train service depends on whether the ridership was primarily for the Olympics or if there exists sustained demand for a second train. Canada’s Border Services Agency will waive a $1,500-per-day border inspection fee, money that Washington state doesn’t have budgeted, if it finds the daily ridership sufficient to justify the extra customs agents at Pacific Central Station.

Oregon DOT purchases two Talgo trainsets

Amtrak Cascades by Brian Bundridge

The Oregon Department of Transportation moved forward with purchasing two 8th-generation Talgo trains on  February 26th,  joining Wisconsin’s train order and saving roughly $6m in the deal. The trains are marketed for North American operations and meet FRA requirements. The trains will consist of 13 cars (instead of WSDOT’s planned 14-car trains), seating 285 passengers (instead of 300) and will have free wifi, a bistro/lounge car, coach and business classes, along with baggage and continued bicycle services. These will be built at the new Milwaukee, Wisconsin Talgo assembly plant. These will most likely not use the Talgo-Siemens BT diesel/hydraulic locomotive; however, the Wisconsin trains may use the cab car from the BT locomotive. The stimulus funded rebuilt GE P40 locomotives will be used to power these trains.

The way these trains will be integrated into Cascades is still to be determined.  The WSDOT mid- and long-range plans did not consider that ODOT might purchase their own train-sets, even though the mid-range plan was drawn up during the time Oregon was looking at purchasing bi-level coaches and used locomotives, similar to what is seen on the Amtrak California and Surfliner corridors.

ODOT will continue to run 2 daily trains and is in negotiations with the Union Pacific Railroad to increase service to 4 daily trains; increase speeds to 79mph for the majority of the route (which mostly just involves improving grade crossing circuit timings); improve reliability between Eugene and Portland, including extending sidings and add double track in key bottlenecks; and reduce run times.  Oregon continues to study the Portland and Western Railroad for a 150mph double track electrified corridor.

ODOT staff did not given any clues as to how they will deploy these trainsets when they enter revenue service in 2012, except that they will be used only in the Eugene-to-Portland segment.  Given that constraint, one sensible choice would be to replace the two bus round trips that currently connect with Cascades trains that terminate at Portland.

The press release can be found here.

Go Lines: Bus Branding in Bellingham


Smaller transit systems generally don’t have the funding to have fast, frequent service, nor the demand to justify it. However, over the last few years Whatcom Transit has found a way to make their regular bus service a little more appealing.

It’s called the “go lines” program. No route in WTA’s system has consistent 15-minute headways, but there are signficant corridors where they collectively meet that standard. Beginning in 2005 with three lines, WTA rolled out a color-coded five line system (completed in January 2008) that connects Downtown Bellingham with major destinations, such as Western Washington University, the Alaska Ferry, and the Amtrak station, in addition to all of the city’s planned urban villages.

All five lines guarantee 15-minute headways on weekdays from 8 am to 6 pm, with longer waits at other times.  In some cases this involved adding a few trips to meet the standard. The Red Line (to the Amtrak station) also achieves 15 minute headways on Saturdays. WTA and the City of Bellingham have also worked to give signal priority to buses on certain segments of the system.

Each of these lines (Red, Blue, Green, Gold, and Plum, map (.pdf) here) have distinctive signage. Unfortunately, “the fleet is not big enough” to allow the buses themselves to be distinctively marked, according to WTA spokesperson Maureen McCarthy. There are also some other routes that share part of a go line’s path, resulting in some potential confusion.

In spite of these problems, the Go lines have been a hit. For instance, according to McCarthy, ridership on components of the Green Line increased 260% after the go line was introduced. Indeed, in 2008 WTA had the highest ridership increase among small and medium-size systems in the nation (32%), and in 2009 experienced a 5% increase in an environment where most transit agencies had significant decreases.

Like virtually all other transit agencies, WTA is facing a funding crisis. Fortunately, they currently only assess a 0.6% sales tax, giving them room to raise more funding without involving the legislature. There is a ballot measure in April that seeks to raise taxes to 0.8% to simply maintain existing service. Polls indicate this measure is likely to pass.

Smaller agencies are often a good source of innovation in simple and low-cost ways to improve service by making it easier to use and understand. Here in King County, we already a suffer from a surfeit of bus brands, and it’s not clear we need another one. However, the Metro bus system is virtually incomprehensible due to the glut of peak-only and otherwise not-that-useful routes. Some effort to highlight more broadly useful routes (like the 15-minute map that Oran has been tinkering with) would make the system more usable for newcomers.

News Roundup: Safety Incidents

"Wait here", by Atomic Taco

News Roundup: New Bus Lines

Bus mockup at the Seattle Children's Museum (photo by joshuadf)

Amtrak Cascades 2009 Ridership Numbers

This has been in my inbox for a while, but in 2009 Amtrak Cascades experienced a slight decline from the high gas prices and lower unemployment of 2008 while maintaining healthy gains over the recent past.  According to the report, the drop in performance is mainly due to the Portland-Eugene corridor.  In total, Cascades trains carried passengers about 118m passenger miles.

On a somewhat related note, if you participate in RailPlus — using regional passes to travel on Amtrak between Everett and Tacoma Seattle — you must obtain a “validation ticket” from the TVM with your ORCA card.  Amtrak staff presumably don’t have ORCA readers.

Pacific Northwest to get $598 Million in HSR Funds

'Racing Amtrak Cascades' by Oran

By way of an official press release from the White House, the Cascades corridor is expected to receive $598 million from HSR (high-speed rail) funds, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  President Obama will be on hand in Tampa (guess who’s cashing in?) today to make the announcement of grants toward thirteen major corridors, the Pacific Northwest being one of them:

Improvements will be made to the corridor using funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to provide rail passengers in the Pacific Northwest with faster, more reliable and more frequent service.

Seattle – Portland: Two additional daily round trips will be added between Seattle and Portland, for a total six; travel time will be reduced by at least 5 percent; and on-time performance will increase substantially, from 62 to 88 percent. Major construction projects include building bypass tracks to allow for increased train frequency and multiple upgrades to existing track and signal systems. Several safety-related projects will also be funded, including grade separations, positive train control, and seismic retrofits to Seattle’s historic King Street Station.

Portland – Eugene: Investments include upgrading Portland’s Union Station, and engineering and environmental work for track and signaling projects that will increase service reliability and reduce congestion.

Along with WSDOT and ODOT, other regions/corridors that have also been earmarked for HSR funds include the Northeast Corridor, Florida, California, the Chicago hub network, and Ohio.  The White House website has individual releases for each regional grant.  The Infrastructurist had speculated that out of all the contenders, Texas would likely get the shaft, but Fort Worth is expected to receive just a tiny bit.  We’ll bring you more as soon as we figure out exactly what projects our $598 million will go towards.  [UPDATE 7:26am: Here is a full list (PDF) of the grants from the White House.]

News Roundup: Trains, Trains, Trains

Rail News Roundup!

An Amtrak Cascades train meets the Portland Rose steam special
An Amtrak Cascades train meets the Portland Rose steam special in Tacoma

Its that time of the month for another rail roundup;

Passenger News

Amtrak is planning, yet again, to purchase new locomotives and passenger cars to replace the aging fleet. The NEC still will not be a true HSR route, even with the planned “Acela II” with a maximum speed of 180mph, now the low end standard of HSR.

Due for replacement are 412 Amfleet I, 122 Amfleet II, 122 Superliner I, 184 Superliner II, 50 Viewliner, 92 Horizon cars, as well as Heritage baggage and dining cars. Among the locomotives are 20 AEM7 d.c. electric locomotives (the remaining 29 have been rebuilt with a.c. propulsion), and the railroad’s F59PH, P42, P40, and P32DM fleets. Currently, an RFP is out for 125 single-level coaches/baggage-dorm cars/diners and 20 electric locomotives.

Plenty more after the jump!

Continue reading “Rail News Roundup!”

Holiday News Roundup

Photo by "Hong Kong, dear Edward"

News Roundup

"First revenue Link train to Seatac, WA", by DWHonan

BNSF Derailment in Gold Bar, WA

Just got wind of a BNSF derailment in Gold Bar, Washington. It is unknown how bad the accident may be at this time. It is known to be a intermodal/container train bound for Tacoma, Washington.

This occurred on the Stevens Pass route, about 32 miles Northeast of Seattle. This will most likely affect Amtrak’s Empire Builder trains 7 and 8 depending on the location and severity of the derailment. It is unknown if Amtrak will bus passengers or detour the train if it is blocking the main line.

More details to come as I get them.

UPDATE 4:50pm: Train was the S-LPCTAC with one, maybe two cars on the ground.