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!”

BNSF, Washington State to Pioneer HSR Negotiations

[UPDATE 6/21/10: It has come to our attention that the content of the original post here is substantially plagiarized from Fred Frailey’s article in Trains magazine.

We take this kind of incident seriously. For obvious reasons, we’ve deleted the text so that you now have to go to the origin to read the content.

We apologize to our readers, Trains magazine, and Mr. Frailey, and will discuss shortly what further action, if any, to take.]

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.

Point Defiance Bypass Simulation Shows Little Impact

Last week, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) held a public meeting on the future of the Point Defiance Bypass project. This project, as we’ve discussed before, would cut 6 minutes from Amtrak Cascades travel time to points south, reduce delays caused by congestion with freight traffic, and allow for more service by getting passenger trains out of the single track Nelson Bennett tunnel under Ruston.

Unfortunately, WSDOT’s outreach attempts appear to have fallen flat. WSDOT mentioned that some of the funding for this project could come from a high speed rail stimulus grant – and media has already claimed that these trains move twice as fast as Sounder. These trains would run at 70-79mph, just like other passenger rail, this project would just allow for a later, unfunded, project to increase train speeds in the corridor. There’s also been little explanation of what a six minute improvement, or the other benefits, really mean, and residents came away concerned that loud, fast trains were going to block traffic and cause safety problems for little benefit.

In reality, because Amtrak Cascades is already close to time-competitive with car travel between Seattle or Tacoma and Portland, a six minute reduction in trip time and an improvement in reliability would do quite a bit to increase ridership, and it’s required to create the capacity we need for more round trips. 70-79mph service is exactly the same as what runs through Sumner, Puyallup, Kent and Auburn already without incident. And because this track would only have lightweight passenger trains, noise would be reduced significantly relative to often under-maintained and very heavy freight equipment.

Thankfully, WSDOT has posted three YouTube videos that help demonstrate the planning that’s going into the Point Defiance Bypass project, and help dispel the biggest concerns. Have a look after the jump. Continue reading “Point Defiance Bypass Simulation Shows Little Impact”

Followup On Sounder To Lakewood

soundtransit.org

Dozens of pieces of email and many comments later, I’d like to follow up on what I’ve learned since yesterday’s post, and what I missed that makes me even more sure that this “post and beam” structure is not a good idea.

First, an apology to those of you from Tacoma. I was unnecessarily dismissive of the Dome District as a place for future development, and I didn’t mean for that to overshadow my argument – but that it did. Let’s say for the sake of argument that in thirty years, this area will be like the Pearl District, or at least in the process of changing, like South Lake Union. Maybe that will happen!

Next, my reasoning. As I mentioned yesterday, this is a project I’ve been well acquainted with for years. It’s not just extending Sounder to Lakewood that’s important here – as part of the state’s Point Defiance Bypass project,  Amtrak Cascades will also move to this track to cut six minutes from trips in the corridor. For now, that means a total of 18 trains daily – ten Sounder, eight Amtrak – but not only might some of the Sound Transit 2 Sounder improvements add to this service, but more Amtrak Cascades service is very likely in the next few years.

And this gets us into the reason I think the berm should stay.

When post and beam proponents talk about the cost difference between the berm and their posts, they’re talking about the difference for a single track – some $1 million. They bring up the narrower profile – but that profile comes at the cost of space for a second track. In the Amtrak Cascades long range plan, a second phase exists for Point Defiance Bypass, adding a second track and increasing train speed along Interstate 5 in South Tacoma. That part of the plan would qualify for high speed rail funds, and it’s been on the books for a decade – but it’s been ignored by post and beam supporters, even though their own web site shows a graphic of two tracks on the berm. Building a second post and beam structure next to the first would be necessary in the long term, and cost nearly as much as today’s project, rather than simply being some earthwork and two new bridges.

The TOD impacts claimed by post and beam proponents also don’t hold up under scrutiny. Their web site shows images of shops and space underneath a railway, which I believe is the High Line in New York. This did happen a hundred years ago – but in the US, it’s very difficult for a public agency to incorporate (or even allow) private use or modification of their facilities. Tacoma isn’t really Manhattan, either, the demand for this kind of development wouldn’t really exist for a very, very long time even if it were possible.

What really, really rubs me the wrong way here is that this opposition group seems to be only a couple of months old, but they’re acting like they’ve been wronged. I knew about this berm in 2005. Where were they then?

News Round-Up

Link at sunset
Link at Sunset, Photo by Flickr User litlnemo.

  • Some Beacon Hill residents are not happy about powerlines that have been installed in their neighborhood for the station their, noting they would rather have had them buried. As a Beacon Hill resident I’ll say I never noticed the powerlines, and I prefer the “don’t ask, just do” approach that was taken to an endless barage of community mailers, meetings and notices.
  • Speaking of endless meetings, the Seattle “process” even made the New York Times in their write-up of Link’s opening.
  • In order for Sounder to be extended southward from Downtown Tacoma to Lakewood, new tracks need to be built. The choosen path has an incline from D to M street, and the grade needs to be slowly elevated in that area. Many in Tacoma are not happy with the proposal for an “earthen berm” construction that they say would be akin to a wall in the neighborhood and be a potential barrier to future re-development in that area. Others just want Sound Transit to get on with it already.
  • Here’s WSDOT’s report on SR 167 HOT lanes. Apparently some 30,000 single occupancy drivers paid a fee to drive in the HOV lanes in the project’s first year, with an average of 1,710 drivers per weekday in April. The first number seems huge, while the second seems incredibly low to me. Still, the program had a postive effect on general purpose lane speeds with no apparent negative effect on HOV or transit speeds. (H/T to Erik G.)
  • Some County Councilmembers want to charge Seattle more for the ride free zone Downtown, and Downtown Business leaders are not happy.

More links below the fold.

Continue reading “News Round-Up”

News Roundup: 4 Days

BeaconHillsation!, by litlnemo
"BeaconHillsation!", by litlnemo

Once U-Link construction gets a little further along, Link will accommodate 4-car trains, carrying up to 800 people each.

The are four stations in the Downtown Seattle tunnel.

The local media is in overdrive:

  • KING 5 news reports Sound Transit is scrambling to finish testing and get the elevators and escalators certified by the State.  On three separate occasions in the report, Mt. Baker Station is inexplicably identified as “Rainier Station.”  ST is confident they’ll finish on time.
  • The Sunday Seattle Times had a fantastic introductory graphic.  Use it to explain Link to your grandparents.
  • Mayor Nickels takes ownership of the Link project, for better or worse.
  • Lindblom has a nice capsule history of rail in Seattle.
  • The Times also looks at some public art at the stations.
  • It turns out that elevated section in Tukwila is too loud.  Sound Transit’s going to fix it.
  • The cities of Tukwila and Seatac start to realize they have a big asset there.  Better late than never, Tukwila.
  • The US High Speed Rail Association launches a website.
  • The Tahoe Regional Transit Agency asks STB readers to provide feedback on their new website.  Please send comments and suggestions to nhmachida@gmail.com.

Ray LaHood Gets It, Gregoire Doesn’t

Ray LaHood at Sound Transit O&M Facility
Ray LaHood at Sound Transit O&M Facility

Yesterday, an assortment of federal, state and local elected officials welcomed US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood to Seattle. LaHood, who has been something of an unknown quantity when it comes to transportation, is maturing into what I believe many progressive transportation advocates have been dreaming for. This comes as a surprise, due to his background as a Republican Congressman from the relatively small city of Peoria, Illinois.

The first sentences out of his mouth praised Seattle for creating such a livable city and limiting sprawl. Unlike what the name of his official blog, The Fast Lane, suggests, he has been surprisingly vocal in his support of livable, walkable, and bikable communities as well as high speed rail and all modes of transit. Last month, under his leadership, the USDOT, EPA and HUD formed an interagency partnership for sustainable communities which will coordinate and align efforts of all three agencies to improve the livability of our cities.

All of this has attracted the scorn of Newsweek’s George Will after LaHood implied that the federal government should encourage and support less auto dependent lifestyles. Obviously, George thinks that’s a bad thing:

LaHood, however, has been transformed. Indeed, about three bites into lunch, the T word lands with a thump: He says he has joined a “transformational” administration: “I think we can change people’s behavior.” Government “promoted driving” by building the Interstate Highway System—”you talk about changing behavior.” He says, “People are getting out of their cars, they are biking to work.” High-speed intercity rail, such as the proposed bullet train connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco, is “the wave of the future.” And then, predictably, comes the P word: Look, he says, at Portland, Ore.

Continue reading “Ray LaHood Gets It, Gregoire Doesn’t”

News Round-Up: HSR

Tempe Light Rail Bridge
Tempe Light Rail Bridge, photo by rail life.

  • Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is serious about competing for the $8 billion in High Speed Rail (HSR) stimulus money. The USDOT is going to complete an initial “application guidance” with instructions on how states can apply for HSR money by June 17th. There’s also a $1 billion per year HSR grant program whose application procedures were published May 18th, with WSDOT scheduled to supply an application and a final application by August 18th. Funded projects will by announced by February 17th 2010. There’s a stakeholder meeting scheduled for May 27th, where WSDOT will outline it’s plan for acquiring funding for HSR. We’ll keep you posted.
  • Pressure is mounting – this time from the Vancouver Sun – north of the border for the Canadian government to chip in border services for a second daily Amtrak Cascades run to from Seattle Vancouver BC. Previous posts on this topic here, here and here. Via the P-I.
  • NPI’s Andrew Villeneuve shares his thoughts on Link’s coming opening.
  • Here’s an easy (but expensive?) way to increase bike ridership in Seattle. H/T to Lloyd.
  • This is a great idea for a bus stop. H/T to Oran.
  • The Tempe Town Lake LRT bridge looks great during the day (see above) but even better at night.

Amtrak Customs Hold-up Temporarily Disappearing

Amtrak 90253 Pacific Central Vancouver BC 2005_0112
An Amtrak Cascades train in customs quarantine at Pacific Central Station in Vancouver, photo by Stephen Rees

Amtrak Cascades has wanted to run another daily train from Seattle to Vancouver, but Canada’s customs agency has been asking Amtrak Cascades to cover the costs of Canadian customs service on the new run – around $1,500 a day – and Cascades doesn’t have the money. Because that money isn’t budgeted, the new service has been delayed. Thankfully, the Canadian Government’s hold-up has continued to get press from our northern neighbours (that’s the way they spell it, anyway), and the hold-up is going to go away, though only briefly ” before, during and for a short time after” Vancouver’s 2010  Olympic games. Here’s Jon Ferry in the Province (H/T to Lloyd):

Responding to increasing pressure, however, federal Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan has finally agreed to waive the customs cash grab “immediately before, during and for a short time after the 2010 Winter Games.” The only problem is the extra trains are needed right now for what will undoubtedly be a critical summer tourist season.

[Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center Director Bruce] Agnew points to a Washington state Department of Transportation study showing that Amtrak passengers currently spend nearly $16 million Cdn a year in the Vancouver area. With a second train on the Vancouver-Seattle run, that could soar to as much as $49 million.

Saying they plan to temporarily waive the border fee may be a way for the Canadian Federal Government to save face and pray for a successful Olympic Games despite the worst economy in generations, but I’d take the Canadian Government’s position at face value. Anyone who dreams about Vancouver-Seattle-Portland high speed rail needs to pay attention to this topic: the US Federal Government is going to take a look at this customs issue before to making any long-term investments in high speed rail on Amtrak Cascades. If the Canadian government isn’t willing to chip in $1,500 a day – at most $547,500 a year – to make a second daily run possible, what hope is there of several daily runs, or anywhere near enough runs to make an investment by the federal government on this side of the border worthwhile?

This hard-line stance may have earned political points in Canada during the Bush administration, but I can’t imagine this is popular today. I’d hate it if Ottawa’s stinginess over just the customs fees on a second run jeopardized our chance of regional high speed rail. Come on, Ottawa, the train is going to get you guys millions in tourist dollars and you only have to pay the customs fees. Get on the ball.

News Round-Up: 66 days

Tacoma Link
Tacoma Link, photo by Oran

Tacoma Link and SLU cars are 66 feet long (Link LRT cars will be 90 feet). 1966 was also the year of an infamous New York City Transit strike.

  • Bellevue’s Mayor, Grant Degginger, really wants a tunnel. Everyone but Microsoft seems to agree, but there’s not enough money, the cheapest tunnel is about $500 million more than the available funding. If Bellevue plans on relying entirely on federal funding and value engineering the rest of the line, they are probably going to wind up short. It’s going to need some local funding in Bellevue.
  • West Coast High Speed Rail? Maybe, but at 1,500 miles and $45 million a mile, it’s little more than a pipe dream.
  • Variable speed limits are coming to I-5 in South Seattle, as they are on I-90.
  • The federal transportation bill might be pushed back to 2010, rather than come in this year. If it includes more transit or better smart-road funding, I’d happily wait.

82 Days

Sounder waiting to go
Sounder in King Street Station, photo by Oran

When Sounder opens to Lakewood, it’ll be 82 miles long. With daily ridership last quarter probably over 10,000 (it was over 9900 in the fourth quarter of 2008), I’d imagine the ninth train plus that extension should get us over 12,000 – if we don’t hit 12,000 before the extension opens in 2012!

In 1982, both the Tohoku (March) and Joetsu (November) shinkansen lines opened, providing high speed rail service north of Tokyo. We’ve got a long way to go in this country before opening two high speed rail lines in the same year!

Freedom

700 Series Shinkansen
Happiness is a fast train (clang, clang, zoom, zoom). 700 Nozomi Shinkansen, photo by Not Quite a Photographer.

Yesterday morning I woke up in Tamami’s grandparent’s place in suburban Hiroshima (like Wallingford density) took a train into the city, bought a Shinkansen ticket and was cross-country to Tokyo before noon. That’s real freedom: just waking up and deciding I want to go all the way across the country today, instead of tomorrow, and getting there between breakfast and lunch. Not being trapped in a car or in an airport security line. Even by American standards that’s like waking up in suburban Seattle and being in downtown San Francisco by 2 pm, and there was wi-fi most of the way.

It’s not nearly as depressing coming back this time, knowing we’ll have a rail transit system for a good portion our city and region, and some sort of high speed rail for our greater region. Back in the States on Monday.