Opinion: WSDOT and Amtrak Cascades

Amtrak leaving Seattle by Brian Bundridge
Amtrak leaving Seattle by Brian Bundridge

Where to begin after the troubling news that was brought forward to us recently? Washington State Department of Transportation reorganized the passenger rail division during a critical time when federal funding is available for key improvements along the corridor. These improvements would wildly benefit thousands of passengers who take the Amtrak Cascades daily. Read on below the fold.

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Blumenauer on High Speed Rail in the Northwest

US Rep Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) is on board with Obama’s high speed rail programs, according to the Portland Tribune. Blumenauer says that securing federal funds for rail in our area is going to require state matches from Oregon and Washington, a tall order given the Washington state’s current $10 billion budget shortfall. The backlist of Washington Amtrak Cascades projects is pretty long, and we’re not likely to see the entire list knocked off with just the stimulus bill. It’s going to take a significant, sustained investment to get high speed rail on the Cascades corridor.

I don’t expect this in my lifetime (video by Ben):

But something closers to this would be really nice:

News Round-Up: VMT Down

Ave train in train, photo by beco.
  • According to the DJC and confirmed by Sound Transit, the Mountlake Terrace Station project has received nine bids, all under the engineer’s estimate. That’s one good thing about a terrible economy, especially for construction: projects are cheaper. The lowest bid was from a company called “Mid-Mountain Contractors”, who bid $17.7 million, the original estimate was $21.9 million.
  • Streets blog notes that vehicle miles travelled (VMT) was down 3.6% nationwide in 2008 compared to 2007. That’s a huge decline, but even larger than that decline is the decline in congestion: about 30% nationwide and 24% in the Seattle area. You can see the actual DOT data here. I bet the majority of the fall has to do with the dramatic fall in employment, which explains why congestion has fallen faster than VMT: congestion is worst during commute trips, and commuters needs jobs to go to.
  • On that same topic, Matt Yglesias believes the large reduction in congestion caused by a small reduction in trips shows that even a little congestion pricing can go a long way toward a reducing congestion. However, he goes one step farther and makes the claim that congestion pricing shouldn’t be something that drivers care more about than transit users:

    I live in a walkable, transit-accessible neighborhood in a central city. I don’t own a car and get around on foot, on bike, on bus, or on Metro. Consequently, it doesn’t really bother me if other people have unnecessarily long commutes. Ultimately, neither drivers nor non-drivers benefit from bad policy that causes unnecessary traffic jams and inconvenience, but it’s regular car commuters who are paying the highest price.

    I’m not sure that it’s completely correct to say that car commuters are paying the highest price. Both bus commuters and drivers are paying for congestion with their time, but congestion drives up the cost of bus service, meaning fewer buses.

  • NPR’s Morning addition had a story about how Spain’s AVE high speed rail is faster than an airplane, and how Spain built the system so quickly. I wanted to write “The Trains in Spain are faster than a Plane”, but I the npr broadcaster beat me to it. (H/T to tresarboles).

This is an open thread.

High Speed Rail News Round-Up

ICE Train Line
ICE line (with a non-express intercity train) near Dusseldorf, photo by davipt
  • The Transport Politic has a list of competitors for stimulus money grants for high speed rail. I think the analysis for our local Amtrak Cascades service (the line between Oregon and BC through Washington) is a bit off: there are a few projects that would greatly increase (pdF) both the speed and reliability of passenger rail on that corridor. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cascades gets some of the money.
  • The President’s budget includes another $1 billion a year for high speed rail, on top of the $8 billion in the stimulus package. US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said that Obama wants to make intercity rail his legacy. This is a huge improvement over every previous President since the 19th century, but it’s not going to be enough to revolutionize transportation the way Eisenhower did with the Interstate Highways.
  • Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is trying to get into the US’s passenger rail market via the Stimulus plan’s $8 billion in High Speed Rail money. Though I’ve never been on Virgin’s West Coast Main Line in the UK, but I’ve flown Virgin America and Virgin Atlantic and I’d say that what Virgin brings to transportation may just be the thing to make intercity rail attractive again in the United States.
  • The San Jose Mercury news is reporting on the dispute around running high speed trains through the suburbs on the San Francisco Pennisula. California approved the first stage of a $40 billion high-speed-rail project through out the state, and part of that plan was to run high-speed trains on tracks next to the existing Caltrain right of way. This has alarmed some wealthy NIMBYs (the worst kind, in my opinion), but according to the opinion of the author of the Mercury News piece, putting much of the line in a retained cut, so called “trenching”, could temper the controversy. It’d also cost a ton of money, adding to a project that is already very ambitious in scope and extraordinarily expensive. Caltrain runs 40 trains a day along that line, topping out in the 80 mph range, so putting a train going twice that couldn’t be that big a deal, could it?
  • The Overhead Wire, based in San Francisco, has a round-up with more California HSR links, and some good analysis.

News Round-Up: VMT Tax

10th & Commerce
10th and Commerce, photo by raggiesoft.
  • The time-lapse video of one of the walkways going in at Sea-Tac is pretty cool.
  • Puyallup wants BRT. I wish people pushing for a particular form of transportation – including those pushing my favorite, light rail – would not say their system reduces congestion, as Puyallup spokeswoman Glenda Carino did. With the exception of some sort of tolling, congestion pricing or otherwise, nothing really reduces congestion. This BRT will just provide a nice alternative to a lot of people. Go for it, Puyallup!
  • The National Journal has some experts discussing the merits of the VMT tax idea John mentioned last week.
  • The Transport Politic had a great piece on the VMT tax, showing that the gas tax as currently collected is broken because: 1) the tax doesn’t rise with inflation, 2) people are driving less and c) people are driving more fuel efficient cars. Highly recommended that you read the whole thing.
  • WSDOT is holding a preliminary open house about the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement Tunnel tonight.

    West Seattle
    5:30 – 7:30 p.m.
    Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009
    Madison Middle School
    3429 45th Ave. SW, Seattle
    Served by King County Metro bus routes 51, 55, 56, 57, 128

  • We’ll never know whether John McCain would make a good president or not, I bet he would have been fine overall. But from the standpoint of this blog’s topic, surely it’s better that we didn’t elect the guy who doesn’t know the difference between high speed rail and light rail.

Stimulus Process Details

Transit center - bay C
Photo by sparktography

I had a long conversation with Rick Olson of the Puget Sound Regional Council. He was not able to tell me which projects were shortlisted, but did shed some light on some of the workings for the transportation aspects of the stimulus bill. Some people have remarked to me that we’re in a good position for getting competitive stimulus grants because of a lack of investment in transportation infrastructure, and Mr Olson ensured me this was not the case. Rather, it’s the combination of a long-term lack of investment and the relatively recent passage of laws like Proposition 1, the Nickel tax and the 9.5 cent tax that has meant we have the a backlog of projects, but enough designs and engineering estimates done that we could actually spend the money.

When the US House passed an smaller infrastructure stimulus package back in November, local agencies started getting their projects in order and prioritized. The stimulus debate dragged on through the lame-duck session, and is only now finally passed, so even the PSRC has had a lot of time to review the projects. Once the bill is signed into law today, the PSRC will likely be able to announce the selected projects within a month, and the Washington State Department of Transportation should have a similar time frame. Generally about half the money needs to be oblidged within 90~180 days (depending on which bucket the cash comes from), and before that can happen, environmental impact statements and early designs need to be completed.

Below the fold I break down the specific funding categories, which ones the PSRC is going to distribute, and which will be distributed by the US DOT in all the wonky details.

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Hooray and Halleluiah – Maybe?


Congress, in a bold stroke of progressive thinking, has quadrupled the investment in High Speed Rail (HSR) to 8 Billion. The funds will be doled out by the FTA on a competitive basis, and with just 12 HSR corridors in the nation to date, our own Cascade Rail Corridor, using existing Talgo tilt trains is in line for a huge chunk – Maybe?

1/12th of 8 Bil. Is 666 Mil. – but I’m not naive enough to think we’ll out compete California and other large states for a full share. As I have advocated here before our state is in a very competitive position to capture the needed funding to accelerate progress towards making the dream a reality.

We have many of the pieces in place. You can learn more about the latest plan from the WSDOT here.

Many of these projects, such as the Ft Deviance Bypass and Vancouver, WA rail yard bypass are or will be shovel ready. This makes sense on so many levels: Consider a trip from Seattle to Portland via car, plane or HSR.

• Car Travel: 144 miles @ 60 mph takes 2.4 hours, costing $70 (IRS 50.5 cents/mi)
• Plane Travel: About 3.3 hours, costing $70. (LRT to/from airports, 1 hour security and boarding, and a 50 minute flight)
• HSR Travel will take under 3 hours, and cost about $30. For the business traveler who can use the time on the train as billable hours, it’s a no brainer.

Greenhouse emissions are much lower for trains than planes and all but a few cars. Fuel efficiency is a hands down winner for rail!

Using and “Incremental Approach” to funding our HSR line adds train sets, more frequent trips, and increases train speeds to 110 mph along sections of the line. On-time performance is increased from 60% to 97% Ridership will nearly double over 10 years, and the entire corridor, when fully built, could be operated at a profit.

I’m referring to our adopted state plan for Option 3, costing $537 Mil. The report concludes that thousands of jobs will be created, and benefit cities all along I-5 in the billions.

With the Feds now aiming to pressure freight railroads to reduce or eliminate slow orders and improve on-time performance to 80% or greater, now is the time to look towards the future.

Again, the support STB has given to rail transport is appreciated. I hope you can find the time to encourage our elected leaders to grab this low lying fruit. Thanks.

News Round-Up: Density

3rd & Pike St.
3rd and Pike from Robin Kiley

Obama Praises HSR, Criticizes Sprawl

Barack Obama
Photo by Transplanted Mountaineer

Today in Flordia, President Obama said this about transportation:

It’s imagining new transportation systems. I’d like to see high speed rail where it can be constructed. I would like for us to invest in mass transit because potentially that’s energy efficient. And I think people are a lot more open now to thinking regionally…

The days where we’re just building sprawl forever, those days are over. I think that Republicans, Democrats, everybody… recognizes that’s not a smart way to design communities. So we should be using this money to help spur this sort of innovative thinking when it comes to transportation.

That will make a big difference.

Good stuff! Except, the last time I loved something Obama said, it was “[W]e will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s”. Now the stimulus doesn’t contain all that much transit as a portion of the overall bill, about 1%, but transit could see money more in future budgets.

Via Transport for America.

Senate Approves Stimulus Plan

United States Capitol Building
Photo by gawnesco

The Senate has approved their version of the stimulus plan in a 61-37 vote. All Democrats and three Republicans – Senator Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania, and Senators Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine – voted yes, with the remaining Republicans present voting no. Judd Gregg (R-NH) was not present for the vote, and a winner in Minnesota Senate race between Al Frankin and Norm Coleman has not yet been seated.

Because the Constitution requires that both Houses of Congress pass the same bill, the next step is for the Conference Committee to meet and resolve the differences between the House and Senate versions. Senator Specter has stated that he wants most of the what was in the Senate version to come back from Conference, which could mean the bill will look more like the Senate version in the end. Both Houses have to vote a final time before the bill can be sent to the President to sign into law, and without a 60-seat majority in the Senate, the Democrats will need at least two Republican votes to end debate and avoid a filibuster.

Friday the Transport Politic had a nice chart showing the differences between the House and Senate bills on Amtrak and transit, and I’ve reproduced it here.

Program Passed House Bill Proposed Senate Bill
Grants to Amtrak $800 m $850 m
Grants to States for Rail $300 m $250 m
High-Speed Rail 0 $2 b
Total Rail $1.1 b $3.1 b
Transit Formula Funds $7.5 b $8.4 b
Fixed Guideway Modernization $2 b 0
New Starts $2.5 b 0
Total Transit $12 b $8.4 b
Discretionary Grants 0 $5.5 b

I wonder how transit will fare in the “discretionary grant” programs. It’d be the first chance to see Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in action and find out if he’s just another road warrior. Personally, I’d rather see Congress fund New Starts – which give cash to local transit projects – than High Speed Rail. Which would you rather see?

Update: Here’s a comparison of the timelines and levels of spending and tax cuts between the two versions of the bill.

Another Obama Camp Video

This one starts off talking about transit and high speed rail.

In the video is Nancy Sutley, the “Chair-designee for the White House Council on Environmental Quality”. The statement is pretty generic, but I am becoming more and more encouraged as time goes on. Even if the stimulus doesn’t do a lot for transit, the administration as other ways of making their positions known.

Tipping Point

A month or so ago, I couldn’t help but feel that our nation was approaching a sort of transportation tipping point, where the momentum was finally moving in the direction of re-envisioning person transportation from meaning just cars and airplanes. It was hard not to, with most transit measures passing nationwide, and the California High Speed Rail Proposition passing as well. I was worried a bit, though, with the House passing a $14 billion bailout that our leaders weren’t necessarily paying attention. The Senate seems to be set to stall the bill, but probably not because they feel the changing winds.
Continue reading “Tipping Point”

Op-ed: High Speed Rail – Seattle to Portland


Our economy is in shambles, infrastructure rotting away, global warming hanging over our heads and $5 or $10 a gallon gasoline not far off again. Sounds pretty gloomy, but soon, Congress will enact a stimulus-funding package to bootstrap our economy out of the doldrums.  The question is:  What do we do with the money?

It has to be for “projects ready to go”, and will likely be for only a 2 year period. Why not spend a large chunk of Washington State’s share of the pie on working towards high-speed rail, along the I-5 corridor, between Bellingham and Portland?

Continue reading “Op-ed: High Speed Rail – Seattle to Portland”

Amtrak Cascades – SEA-PDX Part One

I’d like to first say that I’m thrilled that Prop 1 passed by a comfortable margin. I’m also very pleased that the California High Speed Rail passed. It’s been covered already by various folks here on what should be done next locally, however I will be taking it a step further by going into detail what needs to be done to the Amtrak Cascades to make it a viable alternative to the shuttle airlines, Greyhound, and driving. Part one of this series will cover what is being done currently, how the Cascades is funded, and what projects are being done to increase the frequency of the trains.

In order for Amtrak Cascades to be competitive to this market, the trains need to achieve a 3 hour travel time between Seattle and Portland. Washington State DOT has a long-range plan which will bring SEA-PDX travel time to 2 hours and 30 minutes but not until at least 2020 if funding holds up. Before we get to ahead of ourselves, let’s look at the projects being worked on now which will increase the frequency and on-time performance of the Amtrak Cascades.
More below the fold.
Continue reading “Amtrak Cascades – SEA-PDX Part One”

A Mandate

We’ve been talking about change all year.

Not just a change from the politics of fear – a change from believing the only way is the highway. A change from pumping money into our airlines when there is an alternative.

This is a new beginning. In California, high speed rail will become a reality. I’ve ridden trains at 200mph – they’re talking about as high as 225. Here, all three counties seem to be passing Proposition 1. This was unthinkable a year ago. We were worried about having just enough votes in King County to overcome opposition in both Pierce and Snohomish.

Not so this time. Everyone wants solutions, and Sound Transit is perfectly poised to offer them.

Assuming both of these measures survive the next day… I want Amtrak Cascades local option funding next.

U.S. Transit Measures + Cali HSR Prop 1A

Currently, Most of the transit measures that was out for rail, buses, etc are passing except for a few.

California High Speed Rail – 50.6% Yes – 49.4% No with 30% reporting in

Sound Transit Prop 1 – King County 61.9% Yes – 38.1% No – Snohomish County 55.4% Yes – 44.5% No. Pierce County 50.82% Yes – 49.18% No.

I-985 – 39.6% Yes – 60.6% No

New Mexico Transit (Including RailRunner) – Winner

Kansas City Light Rail -Defeated

Honolulu Elevated Commuter Rail – 53.0% Yes – 47.0% No

St. Louis Metrolink Tax – 48.0% No – 52.0% Yes

LA MTA Sales Tax – 64.5% Yes – 35.5% No

Sacramento Streetcar – Passing per SF Gate

BART – Passing per SF Gate

$700 Billion…

…I’m just sayin’.

These are the high speed rail corridors the USDOT has identified in their overall plan. If your rail line is on one of those green lines, and we ever pass an Amtrak funding bill with grant money for high speed rail, you can get those grants. Note that Amtrak Cascades is one of those corridors.

Given that the California project is $40 billion (although that’s not all of those lines), I’d say we could get most of this done for $700 billion. This could be our new Apollo project  – it would create jobs all over the country, we’d probably end up building at least one new railcar company (as well as helping the ones we have), and you can bet this would spur more renewable energy development.

While we need a New New Deal for infrastructure, we don’t really have the money. Especially not if we’re giving it to banks.

Challenges for Amtrak

As we all know, Amtrak’s ridership has been booming all over the United States. Corridor trains are selling out more often, while long distance trains are a hit among college students with school coming back into session soon. With the recent surge in fuel prices, people are looking at new ways to beat the pump and Amtrak has been hugely popular as a clean and friendly way of getting around.

In recent weeks, there has been several articles about Amtrak now hitting its upper capacity limits, including in the Wall Street Journal. This is a big problem for several reasons:

1. Turning somebody away because there is not enough room should not be an option. The exceptions are our own Amtrak Cascades and the Northeast Corridor’s (NEC) Acela train, which can not add cars as easily as say the Amfleet (as pictured above), Horizon, or Superliner cars.

2. To have the Government take Amtrak as a serious mode of transportation, Amtrak needs as much exposure as possible.

3. Higher ridership figures will benefit studies of and proposals for High Speed Rail, such as the California High Speed Rail Project (which is a good thing, we need HSR).

4. Overcrowding leads to delayed trains because baggage is lost, people have fallen asleep past their station, etc.

What’s most bothersome is that there shouldn’t be any capacity issue. Amtrak has 70+/- serviceable Amfleet passenger cars stored in the Delaware and Bear shops in the Northeast Corridor. Along with these cars are an additional 20+/- serviceable GE P40 locomotives. Amtrak should be talking to Congress on getting these cars and locomotives either rebuilt/refurbished as soon as possible to reduce the overcrowding on trains.

The Amfleet cars are good for at least 80 passengers per car and most corridor trains run between 3-5 cars. This would be an additional capacity of upwards of 400 passengers per train. At 5 car trains each, Amtrak has enough cars for an additional 14 train sets. Realistically, it would be more like 11 or 12, keeping a car or two at each of the terminal locations as a spare. If Amtrak does have more than the 70 cars however, 14 train sets is easily possible. 14 train sets times 400 passengers each train = 5600 potential passengers for these train sets a day, or 2,044,000 passengers a year – And this is only assuming the train is one way at maximum capacity. Make it a round trip and it doubles. Also, trains can be utilized on a corridor several times over.

Amtrak as it stands now is doing excellently in terms of ridership, but it could be doing even better. If Amtrak was granted the money to rebuild these cars and locomotives, Amtrak could start adding service to these strained corridors in less than 6 months time. This would also give Amtrak a cushion with these spare train sets for new service, including the once talked about Seattle – Pasco via Stampede Pass route. Another example use of these extra cars is to replace a broken-down dedicated train set. The Acela and Cascades service have been both pulled for serious mechanical issues. When this happened, Amtrak had to cut services of other trains to provide coverage. This should absolutely never happen.

Amtrak’s corridor trains, excluding the NEC, operate on freight railroad tracks, which is the other major hindrance to Amtrak. Signal issues, or freight trains that are moving slowly or stalled, or just freight congestion period can easily slow a passenger train down by hours. Long-distance trains suffer from this even more.

In order for Amtrak to establish high speed rail, the State and neighboring freight carriers would need to come to a better agreement on how trackage rights work. All of the freight railroads claim that new rail construction is required and would be used for passenger movements only. The maximum speed would be 90-110mph. At a maximum speed of 110mph, it is fast enough to cut travel times by upwards of an hour and a half depending on curves in the corridor. Our Amtrak Cascades corridor could achieve speeds up to 110mph South of Olympia, which would reduce the travel time between Seattle and Portland from 3hr 30 minutes to 2hr 23 minutes (assuming use of the Talgo Tilting equipment).

And finally, the most important thing to any passenger operations is the maintenance of the track. The video below shows the Amtrak Cascades at speed going over a very rough grade crossing. This is one of many issues with aging infrastructure that face these passenger trains all around America.

Amtrak Cascades going over rough crossing in Kalama, WA