Monday, January 28, 2019

Vancouver-Seattle rail service stats, bullet trains, and a more pragmatic approach to providing better service.

During the summer, I posted information about the latest study into the feasibility of building high-speed rail between Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland.

Unlike other studies, this $1.5 million study is funded by Washington State, the Province of BC, Oregon, and Microsoft.

The estimated cost of the line would be in the $40 billion range; $40 billion would build SkyTrain everywhere in Metro Vancouver.

Recently, I had the chance to ride the Amtrak Cascades rail service which runs from Vancouver to Seattle, and it got me curious about the current ridership on the corridor.

10-Year Ridership by Funding Partners, 2008-2017. Select chart to enlarge.

Ridership along the corridor for the most part has been increasing steadily. It peaked in 2011, then declined with the low occurring in 2015. Since then, ridership had been on the rise again. Ridership was 811,000 in 2017, which was slightly lower than in 2016. There was a serious derailment in 2017 which had an impact on ridership.

While not an apples to apples comparison, West Coast Express ridership was 2,323,000 in 2017 with five trains a day.

Since 2010, Washington State has invested close to $800 million to improve the on-time performance, frequency, and speed in Amtrak Cascades service. One of the biggest changes to improve performance of the service will be when the Port Defiance bypass reopens later this year. The bypass will speed up service, and allow six round-trip trains per day to travel between Portland and Seattle.

Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver, BC are the highest ridership stations along the corridor. In fact, travel between Vancouver and Seattle is responsible for 19% of the revenue which is behind travel between Seattle and Portland which accounts for 31% of revenue. This is impressive considering that there are double the trains between Seattle and Portland.

Annual Ridership by Segment in 2017. Select chart to enlarge.

There are some limitations to increasing rail service in Canada. One is the cost of providing border services, and the other is the rail corridor in Canada. For example, rail service has to use the over 100 year old Fraser River Rail bridge which is congested. It also has to travel slowly through White Rock beach.

While the provincial government and Washington State are studying bullet trains, a more pragmatic approach might be to invest in a few key upgrades such as bypassing White Rock and budgeting for more border services. This would allow more trains between our countries, and would make train service faster than driving. This would be more feasible than a $40 billion bullet train.

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