Reviving a Rail Revolution: How HSR in Washington Can Get Back On Track
By Patrick Carnahan — Seattle, WA
Amidst the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, interest in passenger rail has increased markedly across the United States. With an enthusiastically pro-rail federal administration now in power, talk of our nation’s “second great railroading revolution” has begun among advocates and transit blogs from coast to coast. But is this only our second, or even third, attempt at such a revolution? What about the one that started in the Pacific Northwest around 30 years ago, the one that aimed to create the most advanced rail system in North America?
Where It Started
It was the early 1990s, and change was afoot in Western Washington. Many parts of the region were still recovering from the last recession in the 1980s, in addition to earlier declines of Boeing’s space program and the logging industry. Bellevue and Redmond were feeling the impacts of Microsoft’s meteoric rise. Amazon didn’t even exist yet, but Washington’s leaders were taking proactive steps to accommodate major economic and population growth. There was a new awareness of the environmental pollution caused by car dependence and the impossibility of “building our way out of ” congestion with more highway lanes.
The state was steadily easing its way into implementing the 1990 Growth Management Act and several Commute Trip Reduction provisions, all to mitigate the impacts of a projected population boom in the Puget Sound. In 1991, the Washington State Legislature directed that a comprehensive assessment be made of the feasibility of developing a statewide ‘High Speed Ground Transportation’ (HSGT) system. The next year, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) designated the Pacific Northwest Rail Corridor, which runs through the heart of Seattle, as a high-speed rail (HSR) corridor.
With the results of the earlier HSGT study in, the 1993 Washington State Legislature passed RCW Chapter 47.79 and created something revolutionary: a goal to build a regional HSR network connecting Seattle with Portland, Spokane, and Vancouver, British Columbia by 2030. As recommended by the study, Washington and Oregon began implementing modern intercity passenger rail service on existing tracks between Vancouver, BC and Eugene, OR, with the goal of increasing this service’s top speed to 110 mph. From this came Amtrak Cascades, one of the nation’s most successful intercity passenger rail services. Following the study’s vision, the Washington State and Oregon Departments of Transportation (WSDOT and ODOT) both created bold long-range plans for Cascades that would dramatically increase the line’s frequency and usefulness. Washington also studied the idea of using existing tracks to provide convenient intercity train service between Seattle and Spokane via the Yakima Valley and the Tri-Cities.
But something happened along the way. Progress on realizing the vision of world-class rail in Washington slowed during the early 2000s. With the exception of some improvements made thanks to funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the upcoming opening of the Point Defiance Bypass, Amtrak Cascades has not seen significant expansion since 2006. A 2001 study of daytime East-West passenger rail service went almost 20 years without the necessary follow-up, largely due to revenue losses stemming from Initiative 695 (a 1999 statewide initiative that cut Washington vehicle registration fees). Efforts to get HSR moving again have begun in earnest with faster travel times and a different project name: ‘Ultra-High-Speed Ground Transportation’ (UHSGT; to avoid confusion, I will now refer to the new project as ‘HSR’). But at this point, HSR will come too late to respond meaningfully to our climate and housing crises; and its lack of interim connectivity improvements (especially for Central and Eastern Washington) calls the project’s motivations and political viability into question.
What’s missing? Where do we go from here? The Northwest HSR project must include a stronger emphasis on equity and faster climate and environmental action in order to respond to today’s demands. What it needs is an intermediate step: a robust intercity passenger rail network.
Building a Solid Foundation
Here are the top ten countries with the most advanced HSR systems, rated in terms of operational top speeds and route mileage:
Spread across the world, with differing geographies, economies, and political systems, these countries don’t have much in common. Even when it comes to their rail transportation systems there are different lessons to be learned from each one. But there is one thing they do share: excluding only Saudi Arabia, every country on this list had existing intercity passenger rail networks before HSR, with very frequent schedules along busy travel routes. The biggest problem with the Northwest HSR implementation approach is that it hasn’t remembered this simple lesson: without a solid foundation of local and regional passenger rail services, HSR will likely struggle to succeed.
Communities lacking good local rail and transit services, particularly those in the Yakima Valley and Eastern Washington, are unlikely to support a Seattle-centric north-south HSR line at the polls. Even enthusiastic HSR supporters in small towns along the I-5 corridor may choose not to ride if they have difficulty getting to HSR stations without long drives to metropolitan centers. With the right infrastructure upgrades, Amtrak Cascades can become competitive with flying and driving between many places and building the train-riding culture necessary for HSR to be economically and financially feasible. This is why Washington state rail plans and studies dating back over three decades have all recommended incremental yet consistent investment in existing rail corridors and services before the development of HSR, including the 1992 HSGT study and the 2006 Long-Range Plan for Amtrak Cascades.
Emphasizing Equity and Accessibility
The economic and social effects of HSR are varied. Thus, it is important to understand those circumstances in which HSR helps with equity or accessibility and those where other solutions are needed. Places like Japan and France are not more equitable or accessible simply because of the Shinkansen or TGV lines between their major cities. These top-tier HSR services are the flagships of nationwide mobility ecosystems that include conventional intercity and commuter trains; metro systems; bus networks; high-quality pedestrian and cycling infrastructure; and urban design patterns that are economically efficient and can connect all of these things together effectively.
The Northwest HSR project is often talked about as an equalizer, and in certain respects it is. But if improving equity and access across Washington are our top priorities, we cannot forget the roles of regional and local public transportation systems, active transportation like cycling and walking, and transit-oriented land development. HSR is unlikely to be an ideal option for daily work commuters and those with limited finances because HSR fares are assumed to be 52 cents per mile, as opposed to a 19-26 cents per mile average for Amtrak Cascades and a 10 cents per mile average for Sounder commuter rail. If it fails to feature more affordable transportation alternatives across the entire state, the HSR project may not contribute meaningfully toward its core values of equity and economic inclusion.
Two JR East express trains pass each other at Minami-Kashiwa station near Tokyo on January 4, 2020. Commuter and intercity trains play a critical role in transportation in Japan.
Fast Environment and Climate Action
A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change claims that a 45% drop in global carbon dioxide emissions (relative to 2010 levels) by 2030 is necessary to prevent irreversible climate damage. As of 2018, the largest contributor to America’s greenhouse gas emissions is the transportation sector, at 28%. Of that, 82% of the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions are from road vehicles, another 9% from aircraft, and just 2% from rail. A major mode shift from highways and air to rail is perhaps the fastest and most effective way to reduce the overall emissions of America’s transportation system.
With a planning horizon of no less than 20 years, Northwest HSR will not be able to contribute to needed carbon dioxide reductions by 2030. When it does open, HSR’s speed will make it a strong competitor to air travel, but it will be too costly to compete with driving. Thus, in order to reduce emissions as quickly as possible, Washington needs to invest in its existing rail system and shift as much freight and passenger traffic to rail as possible. This includes upgrading Amtrak Cascades to maximize its speed, capacity, and frequency as laid out in the previously mentioned studies.
The Bottom Line: Northwest HSR Won’t Succeed Without a Robust Amtrak Cascades Network Supporting It
It’s 2021, and once again Washington finds itself with mixed news and a bit of uncertainty. While Puget Sound’s economic and population growth has continued, the effects of climate change and a serious disconnection from the rest of the state threaten its prosperity. We have also fallen far behind in achieving our 1993 goals for a statewide HSR network. But Washington still has the chance to prove itself as a leader in doing rail the right way. We just need to think practically and focus on our most critical priorities in the short term without forgetting our ambitious long-term goals.
As we start to consider the financial and political feasibility of HSR, we must not forget the importance of investing in our region’s existing rail infrastructure and services over the next decade. For intercity passenger transportation, that means, at a minimum, implementing the 2006 Long-Range Plan for Amtrak Cascades and extending similar passenger rail services across the Cascade Range to Yakima, the Tri-Cities, and Spokane (a project which sees public approval of 76%). Once North-South and East-West intercity rail backbones have been established and a competitive market of rail and transit travelers has been created, Washingtonians on both sides of the mountains will have reason to support the creation of Northwest HSR.
HSR is a worthwhile long-term endeavor — we cannot afford to undermine it by forgetting to build out the comprehensive region-wide public transportation network and coalition of stakeholders it needs to succeed.
A version of this article appeared in the May issue of Speedlines, a newsletter of the American Public Transportation Association.
A JR West Shinkansen train at Shin-Osaka station on January 8, 2020. Will Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver, BC ever see HSR without building a stronger Amtrak Cascades network to support it?
Cascades Horizon Update
By Rocky Shay — Fed. Way, WA
A Horizon trainset parked at King Street Station on the last day of Talgo VI service, June 29, 2020.
You’ve probably noticed by now that an Amtrak Horizon fleet (WSDOT’s choice for replacing the late lamented Talgo Series VIs) is now covering most Cascades assignments. Amtrak has been able to move fast on supplying Washington with enough cars to do the job, partly because of the sharp reduction of trains in Chicago due to the pandemic. As of mid-June, Seattle officially has four 4-car Horizon sets for Cascades service (literally numbered 1 through 4), plus a fifth set running without its food service car covering crew training runs on the Point Defiance Bypass. Cascades riders will likely continue to see these Horizons until new Siemens trainsets arrive four to seven years from now.
Each Horizon set consists of three 68-seat coaches and a club-dinette for business class with 32 table seats and 14 two-and-one club seats. Coaches on sets 1 and 2 are freshly refurbished but not freshly painted on the outside. I haven’t yet seen the insides of sets 3, 4, or 5. This means we have at least 15 coaches on hand, plus possibly a spare or two. We also have seven club-dinettes, including all five still active ones that were rebuilt from full dinettes and thus have no overhead luggage racks. These dinettes are always on the south end of the consists. We also have one of the two Oregon Talgo 8s back in service with a single business class coach and the dining car (removed during the pandemic) back on the train. The other ODOT Talgo 8 is getting the same treatment now and is due back soon. The Talgo consists have also been flipped, with business class now on the south end and the coaches and baggage car on the north. As with the Horizon sets, the ODOT Talgos are still running cab car south. When the second Talgo 8 returns, we will have five Horizon sets and two Talgos, enough to cover all the service we had before the pandemic started while providing a spare trainset. Amtrak will have to provide another full Horizon set plus spares when our final two Cascades round trips are reinstated.
Still in question is whether WSDOT will match the Talgos’ now 42 available club seats by bringing full Horizon coaches in for Cascades business Class for sale on a two-and-one basis. The club-dinettes could then be turned and their 14 club seats sold as coach seating. That would bring Horizon business Class and coach capacity to within a few seats of being identical to each Talgo. As for cab-baggage cars for the Horizon sets, we now have at least six, three of which have baggage doors. The other three (owned by Oregon) have only their old locomotive side doors. Those side doors appear to be getting reconditioned hinges for easier use as baggage doors. This gives us a cab-baggage car for each of our five Horizon sets, with one spare. We’ll need at least one more ‘cabbage’ car for six round trips, but several Chicago cab-bags with baggage doors are now stored, replaced recently by regular locomotives.
As for equipment-depleted Chicago, it’s believed that Amtrak will send Amfleet I coaches from the Northeast Corridor to cover the Windy City’s loss of Horizon cars, since the NEC is coming back more slowly than the rest of the system. There are several other factors at work here. Roughly nine Horizon coaches were put into storage during the pandemic. We now have one of them (54525), so it’s possible that those cars were stored as a money-short Amtrak decided to delay required maintenance. The other factor may be a recent report that there are unsafe lead levels in the water systems of the new Midwest and California Siemens cars, and they may have to have their water tanks retrofitted. There’s no word yet on how long that might delay their entry into service. And California may need to have its single Horizon set returned if it brings its Pacific Surfliners back to full service, so Amtrak may be tight on corridor equipment for a while.
Regarding Horizon’s reception here, it’s a mixed bag. Ticket agents say some find it more spacious and better-riding than the Talgos. Others dislike the steep steps to and from the cars and the small Horizon windows. There’s still no word on whether WSDOT plans to repaint these Horizon cars into Cascades colors, perhaps one reason for selecting easier-to-paint Horizon equipment over Amfleets.
Some Good News, But More Needed…
By Lloyd Flem — Olympia, WA
Amtrak Connects US 2035 Map. Few improvements were proposed in the Greater Northwest between the Cascades corridor, Denver, and the Twin Cities. People DO, in fact, live here!
Passenger rail advocates nationwide are pleased (though not surprised) that the Administration of “Amtrak Joe” Biden is emphasizing intercity passenger trains more than any president since the 1971 inception of Amtrak. While most of the forward motion is thus far in the proposal stage, this interest by both the Administration and Congress is encouraging.
In the House, the Transportation Committee voted 38 to 26 to approve a huge infrastructure bill, including $32 B for Amtrak. The Committee vote was partisan, with Democrats supportive and Republicans opposed. There was better bipartisanship in the Senate, as the Surface Transportation Investment Act (STIA), with $25 B specifically for intercity passenger trains. The STIA is co-sponsored by Washington’s Maria Cantwell, (D) and Roger Wicker (Mississippi-R). Praise for the two senators, from states as politically, culturally, and geographically different as can be. One can only hope more constructive bipartisanship can come from Washington DC, as exemplified here by Senators Cantwell and Wicker. Reality check: It’s still quite possible that state, not federal, money will still be asked to pay for much of this better passenger rail future.
While most American passenger train advocates applaud the Connect US 2035 Map (above) showing potential new Amtrak services (which in many cases are restorations of those cut since 1971) and enhancements of existing routes, we in the Northwest quarter of the 48 States offer two cheers at best. Except for depicted enhancements on the Amtrak Cascades (which WA, OR and - hopefully - BC would likely pay for), there is nothing proposed south of the existing Empire Builder and north of the California Zephyr. The existing large geographic void of intercity passenger rail would remain, even given this dream scenario of future Amtrak expansion.
It is reasonable that some non-Northwest expansions should happen. Certainly the restoration of New Orleans – Jacksonville (which was suspended following Hurricane Katrina) is an important addition, with the first section (New Orleans-Mobile) expected to happen sometime early next year. Phoenix, now the largest US metro area without Amtrak service, ought to be connected to the national network. Las Vegas-Los Angeles (with private funding via Brightline West) is underway. Others, including the “Threes Cs’ in Ohio, and Cheyenne-Pueblo, are among those that can also be justified, at least from the view of my front porch.
Now to our Northwest quarter: How about East-West to Spokane? And restoration of a modified Pioneer, from Portland east and southeast to Boise and Salt Lake City? Or (connecting also with East-West at Spokane) moving east serving southern Montana’s major cities and the southern part of North Dakota? These are essentially restorations of past Amtrak routes. But they are not even on Amtrak’s future wishlist right now!
What should AAWA members and other Northwesterners do to at least get former Amtrak trains on the Map? First, we should contact our Congressional delegations, both Senate and House members. Support the idea of increased public investment in passenger train service. Then we should consider how they might tie their support to at least putting our now-absent Northwest trains on the Map.
The upcoming PNWER Conference in Big Sky, MT would be an ideal place for us passenger rail advocates from WA, OR, ID, and MT to ask the influential PNWER Conference to insist our now-missing Northwest trains be added to the Map! While the Map is for now just a nice proposal, getting our trains on that list at the national level is vital to us, just as it is for our Yakima Valley train restoration to be on WSDOT’s rail future map, where it is now conspicuously absent.
Yes, there is good news nationally on the passenger rail front; but we in the upper left quarter of the country need to be assertive to ensure we are nor “forgotten” as passenger rail moves forward in the US.
Lloyd H Flem, Olympia WA
AAWA Executive Director, 1985-2018
Amtrak Trip Report
By Art Poole – Coos Bay, OR
Art Poole relaxes in a bedroom aboard train #11 departing Eugene on April 24, 2021 for California.
Toni and I made this trip from Oregon to Louisiana to help transition Toni’s mom from living at home to an independent living community. This was our first trip away from the Oregon coast since the beginning of the pandemic. Both of us were vaccinated against COVID-19. We booked private rooms all the way mostly using accumulated Amtrak Guest Rewards points. But we paid full fare on the Empire Builder between Chicago and Portland on the return.
We departed April 24 by Coast Starlight from Eugene to Los Angeles. We drove from Coos Bay to the Eugene Airport where we parked our car. Then we took Lyft to the Eugene train station. We were supposed to occupy Bedroom E in Car 1132, but it was already occupied. Not a good start, but our attendant directed us to Bedroom D and said this would be our room for the entire trip. We inspected the room carefully, and it was clean, so we got settled in. Our attendant was a 46-year veteran of
Amtrak, having started in dining car service. As it turned out, his customer service was outstanding throughout the trip.
One major problem was that our multi-city ticket was not scanned by the conductors. Our attendant offered to have it scanned, but instead, we brought it to them in the dining car to have it done. Keep in mind: if you begin a journey with multiple legs, you may be considered a no-show by Amtrak if your first leg is not scanned.
During this entire trip, we ate all our meals in our private room. The same Flexible Dining Menu was used on each train. The lunch and supper offerings were the same. The food was pretty good, except for breakfast. There was no fruit offered at breakfast. For alcoholic drinks, the first drink was included free-of-charge for sleeping car passengers.
The bedroom was very cold and drafty at times. The attendant did his best to make adjustments. We suggest wearing a hoodie sweatshirt in the coaches and sleeping cars to withstand the drafty air conditioning. You can support rail advocacy by ordering a hoodie from the Rail Passengers Association online store.
In all our bedrooms, the showers worked well. We had plenty of hot water. The faucets in our rooms were all gooseneck type; water flowed smoothly, with no air blasts coming out of the faucets. The public address announcements in the aisle could only be heard when the bedroom door was open. We didn’t hear any announcements in our rooms. Also, Amtrak seems to have done away with hooks in the bedrooms for hanging clothes or toiletry bags, although there is a closet.
In preparation for this trip, we printed all the long-distance train schedules as published on www.amtrak.com . A black & white photocopy of the train schedule was taped to the wall in our sleepers at the top of the stairs. However, we preferred to use the timetables that we brought with us. Amtrak used to place a printed schedule along with the safety information card at the foldaway table in each room; they should resume this practice for the convenience of their riders.
Amtrak required everyone to wear masks when outside their rooms, and all the Amtrak employees wore masks. Hand sanitizer stations were conveniently installed near the toilets and shower room downstairs and at the top of the stairs near the trash containers.
The daylight portions of the Coast Starlight trip were enjoyable. We had especially good views of agriculture in the Salinas valley. The 100-mile stretch south of San Luis Obispo along the Pacific Ocean is not a view that car drivers on I-5 will see.
Our train arrived at Los Angeles Union Station early, which was good, because the schedule only allowed one hour to make the connection to the eastbound Sunset Limited. Union Station was rented out this Sunday evening for the Academy Awards, so much of the station was off limits. We took a Red Cap cart to the elevator for the Metropolitan Lounge. The lounge is located on the second floor of the station. We found it to be somewhat crowded and not very pleasant.
The Sunset Limited departed on time April 25, and sunshine greeted us the next day before we got to Tucson. One of the Amtrak engines had malfunctioned and a Union Pacific engine was placed on the point at Tucson for the remainder of the trip. We particularly enjoyed viewing saguaro cacti in the Sonoran Desert east of Tucson. Even though we ate every meal in our room, the dining car on the Sunset Limited was beautifully decorated. The lead service attendant was quite welcoming, and you could sit at socially distant tables if desired. There was even a bowl of free candy.
We arrived in New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal at 11:59 pm on April 27, 2 hours 40 minutes late. Besides the engine addition at Tucson, we also picked up two private cars at Houston, and were delayed by freight train activity at Avondale just before crossing the Huey P. Long Bridge into New Orleans. The return journey began on May 23 via Chicago. It was a three-train trip involving the City of New Orleans, Empire Builder and Coast Starlight. Travel by train during the pandemic was a safe and enjoyable experience but required careful planning due to the three day a week schedules.
Toni Poole on the station platform during #11's station stop at San Luis Obispo on April 25, 2021.
Back on Track
As we write this, the health, vaccination, and travel situations appear to be improving rapidly in the Northwest. No announcements have yet been made about opening the Canadian border, which, WSDOT says, will be the prerequisite for resuming Cascades service north of Seattle. Rumors are flying that the reopening is in sight. We have already seen increased frequencies on the Cascades, and the return of daily service on the Coast Starlight and Empire Builder. Changes are happening quickly, so please follow the AORTA and AAWA websites and social media for the latest news. See below for the links. We hope to resume quarterly publication of our newsletter shortly. Your writing and photographs are welcome!
CA Fires Halt PNW Coast Starlight Service
The Union Pacific Dry Creek Trestle with major post-fire structural damage, June 2021.
A fire beside Union Pacific’s Dry Creek trestle near Weed, CA on June 28, 2021 caused enough damage to shut down the railroad for at least the next few weeks. Amtrak Coast Starlight service north of Sacramento has been cancelled through at least July 14, pending bridge reconstruction by UP. Passengers needing to travel between Eugene and Seattle can use two daily Amtrak Cascades round- trips, but Klamath Falls and Chemult will lose train service entirely during the reconstruction.
Information attributed to this Trains.com article: https://www.trains.com/trn/news-reviews/news-wire/canadian-rocky-mountaineer-coast-starlight-disrupted-by-fires/
2021 Train Trek Across Washington
We want to hear from you! AAWA will be traveling across Washington to get your take on your community’s greatest transportation needs. But we need YOUR help to make it happen! We need to raise $13,000 by July 31, 2021 in order to secure our venues and cover the necessary costs for the Central and Eastern Washington leg of the Trek. Visit www.aawa.us/impact/2021-train-trek to register for an event near you and learn more about how you can support AAWA’s 2021 Train Trek.
Train Testing On The Point Defiance Bypass
Trains resumed testing on the Point Defiance Bypass earlier this year. Two separate testing sessions (one in January and one in June) have been conducted with both Talgo 8 and Horizon equipment as part of the process for Amtrak crew certification. As the owner of the route, Sound Transit is responsible for authorizing Amtrak’s usage of the Bypass. There is no official timeline for restarting Amtrak revenue service on the Bypass, but it is possible that service could resume later this year as long as operating procedure compliance and crew certification processes go smoothly.
Northbound Talgo 8 on the Point Defiance Bypass at Steilacoom Rd. in DuPont, January 17, 2021.
AAWA and AORTA Featured in RPA Northwest Webinar
The Rail Passengers Association hosted a webinar on Wednesday, June 30 focusing on the recent news of its Northwest Division members and affiliates. Bob Krebs and Charlie Hamilton spoke on behalf of AORTA and AAWA (respectively), detailing the relevant work of both organizations in support of RPA’s legislative efforts in Washington, DC. View the slide deck and watch a recording of the webinar at:
Northwest Events Calendar
Saturday, July 24, 2021, 1:00 PM
AORTA July Board Meeting
Meeting may be virtual or in-person
Visit https://aortarail.org/event for more info
August 12-22, 2021
AAWA East-West Train Trek
See https://www.aawa.us/impact/2021-train-trek/ for details on events in:
- Everett-Snohomish County
- Yakima-Union Gap
- Walla Walla-College Place
- Spokane Area
- Moses Lake-Ephrata
Wednesday, August 18, 2021
Pacific Northwest Rail Forum: Passenger Rail’s Economic, Environmental, and Equity Benefits for Northwest Communities
Pacific Northwest Economic Region Summit
Big Sky, MT
See http://www.pnwer.org/ for details.
Saturday, August 21, 2021
AAWA Annual Picnic
Saturday, August 28, 2021, 1:00 PM
AORTA August Board Meeting
Meeting may be virtual or in-person
Visit https://aortarail.org/event for more info
September 19-22, 2021
RailNation: DC 2021 - Fall Advocacy Conference
See https://www.railpassengers.org/ for details.
Saturday, September 25, 2021, 1:00 PM
AORTA September Board Meeting
Meeting may be virtual or in-person
Visit https://aortarail.org/event for more info