Thursday, August 2, 2018

Getting up to speed on rail service in Cascadia: Ultra high-speed rail between Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland

About once a year, the topic of a very fast train between Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland seems to surface. I’ve been asked about it a few times this year, so I thought I would put together a primer on the topic.

Current Amtrak Cascades rail corridor. Source: WSDOT. Select map to enlarge.

Over the past decade, the Washington State Department of Transportation has invested closed to US$800 million via funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to improve passenger rail service in that state. This money has been used for projects that enabled faster and more reliable service along the rail corridor. Today, the following level of service is provided:

  • 4 daily round trips between Seattle and Portland
  • 2 daily round trips between Seattle and Vancouver
  • 2 daily round trips between Portland and Eugene

The goal is to increase the daily round trips between Seattle and Portland from four to six.

Washington State also completed a high-level feasibility study that cost US$300,000 which was released in December 2017. This study focused on rail service with speeds of 400km/h or faster. They evaluated convention high-speed rail, maglev, and hyperloop technologies.

The study narrowed down the service corridors and stops to as follows:

Corridor 1A
Vancouver International Airport - Vancouver, BC
Fairhaven Station - Bellingham, WA
Everett Station - Everett, WA
Stadium Station - Seattle, WA
Tacoma Dome Station - Tacoma, WA
Centennial Station - Lacey, WA
Rose Quarter Station - Portland, OR

Corridor 2
Pacific Central Station - Vancouver, BC
Stadium Station - Seattle, WA
Tacoma Dome Station - Tacoma, WA
Portland International Airport - Portland, OR

Corridor 4
King George Station - Surrey, BC
Tukwila Station - Seattle, WA
Expo Center Station - Portland, OR

Each of the three corridor options has different benefits. For example, corridor option 1A would provide the highest ridership. Corridor option 4 would be the least costly to build, but would have the lowest ridership. 12 daily round trips along the entire corridor would provide the optimal level of service, and would capture 13 to 17 percent of all trips along the corridor.

The high-level cost to build ultra high-speed rail would range between US$24 billion and US$42 billion.

Recently, the Washington State Legislature, Province of BC, Oregon Department of Transportation, and Microsoft funded a US$1.5 million in-depth study that will evaluate:

  • Corridor options, including station and alignment opportunities, technologies, and costs
  • Potential ridership and revenue
  • Governing structures and economic impacts
  • Funding and finance alternative

Providing ultra high-speed rail service between Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland would certainly be a bold project. It will be interesting to see the results of the new study.

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