Ultra high-speed rail could work, study finds

Ultra high-speed rail could work, study finds
A new state study found that the ridership for a high-speed rail line between Vancouver, B.C. through Seattle to Portland, Oregon makes the project worth exploring further. Governor Jay Inslee has proposed $3.6 million to continue examining its financial costs and ways to pay for it. Photo: dlr.de

A high-speed rail line between Vancouver, B.C. through Seattle to Portland, Oregon could potentially provide 1.7-2.1 million annual trips and pay for its own maintenance and costs by 2035. It’s a scenario outlined in a feasibility study just released by the Washington State Department of Transportation and shared with the Joint Transportation Committee at a December 14 work session.

However, further analysis is needed to hash out those details before exploring funding sources, something proposed in Governor Jay Inslee’s supplemental transportation budget. It’s likely that if the state plans to attract private investors, it will have to make a compelling case to appropriate the estimated $24-$42 billion needed to build it.

One of the arguments the state might make is the potential market demand. According to the study, one rail design with four major stations (Vancouver, Seattle, Tacoma and Portland) could tap into 13-17 percent of travelers in those corridors and provide 2.8-3.2 million annual trips.

“It’s a big idea to be sure, but many would say it’s an idea whose time has come,” Charles Knutson told the committee. He is Inslee’s senior policy advisor for transportation and economic development.

So far, private stakeholders have proven willing to put money on the table. The feasibility study received $300,000 from the state legislature during this year’s session, while Microsoft and the Washington Building Trades contributed $50,000 and $10,000 respectively. While light rail has proven controversial in the Puget Sound region, the idea of a high-speed rail line has gained support from a diverse group of entities that include Washington Roundtable, the Association of Washington Business, the Business Council of British Columbia and the Portland Business Alliance.

With worsening traffic conditions and rising housing prices, some see a rail line as a way to better connect the region while enabling commuters to live farther away from major employment centers in more affordable communities.

“If you can just imagine being able to go from downtown Seattle to downtown Vancouver in less than an hour, and now imagine that throughout the Pacific Northwest,” Knutson said. “They (the business community) see the economic development potential…throughout the Cascadia region. The feasibility study is bearing this out. It’s good to keep in mind that the private sector is at the table and they might be able to pitch in.”

“This really is about investing in ourselves and in the broader Cascadia region,” he added. “In these tough, troubled times we need more openness, more connectivity, more trade, not less.”

This isn’t the first time Washington has toyed with the notion of high-speed rail; a 1992 state study found the concept sound.

However, great advances in transportation technology mean a rail line could move passengers even faster, says Scott Richman. He is the senior transportation project with CH2M, which published the new report. “When they were talking about ultra-high-speed rail, they weren’t talking about the speeds we have now.”

The study looked at several rail tech options, with varying speeds (200-270 miles per hour) and passenger capacities (824 to 1,500). It found the most financially viable schedule would have 12 daily round trips. The study also considered connecting corridors through Stampede Pass to link up with Ellensburg, Moses Lake and Spokane.

However, the building and operating costs largely depend on which rail technology is chosen. At 270 MPH, Maglev offers the fastest trip, but it also has the highest construction costs compared to high-speed rail. However, Maglev could potentially cover its operating costs by 2035, 20 years faster than high-speed rail.

The actual price tag will also depend on how much tunneling is involved; the study made a high-end assumption. Eliminating half of it would trim approximately a quarter of the total bill, and further changes could bring other costs down.

But that won’t be known until a business case is done, says Ron Pate, director of WSDOT’s Rail, Freight and Port Division. He told the committee that they also will need to take into consideration the logistics of building across a state border to the south and international border to the north, adding that it is “really important to set up a framework with governance structure in place.”

The business case will also help them determine the best way to pay for the rail line. A private company called Texas Central is working on a 240-mile bullet train line from Houston to Dallas.

Inslee’s proposed 2018 transportation budget released Thursday includes $3.6 million for the business case.


  1. It seems to me acquiring exclusive right-of-way and building trackage that would allow Amtrak Cascades’ existing trains to run at the 125-mph top speed of the new Siemens locomotives just put into service would cost a whole lot less than $24 billion. Maybe it wouldn’t be as cool as, say, maglev, but less than an hour and a half between Seattle and Portland (not to mention less than an hour between Seattle and Bellingham) would be a vast, useful improvement over current service… and be more reliable because there would be no freight trains getting in the way.

    In this case, the perfect is definitely the enemy of the good.


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