Cascadia bullet train: Go ahead or ‘kill that thing’?

New government report on bullet train in the Pacific Northwest recommends that Oregon, Washington and British Columbia formalize their interest in a Cascadia bullet train by creating an independent body to plan and eventually to build it. But a critic associated with a conservative think tank responded that the region should heed California’s bullet train problems and spike the Cascadia bullet train’s ambitions.

The new study by hired consultants reviewed governance and funding options. This report builds on previous state-funded studies that claimed there was sufficient demand and a business case for trains running at up to 250 miles per hour between Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, in British Columbia.

“The creation of a coordinating entity takes it to the next level in terms of being able to make this a reality,” said Janet Matkin, communications manager for the rail division of the Washington State Department of Transportation. “It really goes beyond the simple study phase and the search for an implementation goal.”

Matkin said state and provincial legislatures should likely weigh in again and provide the entity’s seed funding.

According to the consultants’ report, one of the first tasks of the coordinating entity should be to select a technology for the “ultra-high speed land transport” corridor. The study presented several options, including a traditional high-speed train, magnetic levitation trains or a hyperloop, in which passengers slide into capsules that are electrically propelled through sealed low-pressure air tubes. Either way, the expected travel times are approximately one hour from Portland to Seattle and another hour from Seattle to Vancouver, British Columbia.

Another job of the coordinating entity would be to build a broader coalition of support and “ensure deep and equitable local engagement across the corridor”.

The planned maximum speed of 250 mph for the Cascadia bullet train project is faster than other rail services on the horizon in North America. Newly built Acela trainsets slated to enter service in 2021 in Amtrak’s northeast corridor will run at 160 mph. The California high-speed rail line under construction in the San Joaquin Valley envisions speeds of up to 220 mph. A scheduled high-speed train at Central Texas between Houston and Dallas reported speeds of up to 205 mph.

The vision of frequent high-speed train service between the largest cities in the Pacific Northwest contrasts with the grim state of current Amtrak service in the region. In October, Amtrak reduced the frequency of its two intercity lines serving the Northwest – the Empire Builder and Coast Starlight – from daily service to three times a week due to the sharp drop in ridership during the pandemic.

The publicly funded Amtrak Cascades service between Eugene and Vancouver, BC has been reduced to one round trip per day between Seattle and Eugene. Service north of Seattle has been suspended due to the closure of the Canada-U.S. Border at discretionary crossings. Amtrak Cascades’ current service reaches a maximum of 79 mph and operates on tracks owned and heavily used by freight railways.

The $ 895,000 study released Tuesday was conducted by the WSP USA research firm. It was funded by roughly equal contributions from Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, and Microsoft.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, BC Premier John Horgan and Microsoft President Brad Smith on Tuesday renewed their approval of a Cascadia bullet train.

“Transformative infrastructure projects like this could help us rebuild our economy in the short term and provide us with a strong competitive advantage going forward,” said Inslee. in a press release.

The latter study did not include updated cost estimates for the enormous cost of acquiring and constructing a new rail corridor of approximately 300 miles. An earlier feasibility study in 2018 estimated the cost of building a high-speed rail line on the reserved right-of-way from Portland to Vancouver, British Columbia, between $ 24 billion and $ 42 billion. The previous feasibility study determined the need for extensive tunnels and elevated tracks.

The study’s authors rely heavily on obtaining limited state and federal funding to make math work. The calculations also assume private contributions from rail operators or beneficiaries. The study indicated that some construction costs could be funded by borrowing that would be repaid with future ticket revenues. The consultants also suggested that states and the province could levy a regional property tax around station locations in order to generate significant revenue.

Delays and growing financial difficulties for California bullet train project have led analyst associated with conservative tendency Washington Center for Policy to recommend not to go ahead with a Cascadia bullet train.

“Based on what happened in California, you want to kill this thing now,” said Tom Rubin, of the think tank, who read the new WSDOT report on Tuesday. “You can see all the incredible mistakes that have been made so that you can avoid them.”

Rubin said the chances of securing significant federal funding for a high-speed rail infrastructure project of this scale depend on Democrats’ control over both houses of Congress alongside a Democratic president.

“This is the only possibility of obtaining significant dollars from the US federal government at any time in the near future,” said Rubin with a nod at the uncertain outcome of two decisive Senate rounds in Georgia in January.

In a presentation to the Washington State Transportation Committee on Nov. 30, Jason Biggs, WSDOT’s director of rail operations and capital program, said Amtrak Cascades’ ridership was down 90% since the start of the pandemic and that income had fallen by 95%. Biggs said Amtrak Cascades will “gradually” add returns in 2021 as travel demand returns. He said returning to pre-pandemic service levels would be a priority.

The national rail company has been reluctant to commit to restoring previous service levels on its long-haul routes, which its CEO has said. in an October letter depends in part on whether Congress will provide between $ 4.9 billion and $ 10 billion in additional funding nationwide.


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