Collaboration in Civic Spheres

WSDOT: Freight Rail Fixes Are Key, But Funding Is Iffy

by January 13th, 2014

Freight rail can continue to be a carbon-conserving boon to the environment and economy in Washington state versus higher-polluting trucked freight, and will benefit from at least $419 million in publicly-sourced improvements and repairs through 32 completed projects by 2018. But at least another $1.5 billion in identified freight rail improvements is needed by 2030 in the state, and likely more, with funding sources currently unclear.

Meanwhile, the main intercity passenger rail route serving Washington, the Amtrak Cascades train connecting Seattle to Vancouver B.C. and Portland, will see $744 million in investment by 2018, mainly from federal stimulus money for so-called “high-speed rail.” Overall, the state wants $6.7 billion for Cascades improvements by 2030 although the return on investment is far less evident than for the envisioned freight rail spending. These are among the key takeaways from 492 pages of information in nine newly-updated ‘technical notes” to the statewide rail plan. That plan is now being finalized by the Washington State Department of Transportation. The final version is expected to be online by month’s end but not necessarily with the technical notes, which currently are provided only to requesters.

Freight rail “green” in two ways
The new WSDOT state rail plan technical notes offer a number of insights. One is the big environmental pay-off of freight rail versus shipping goods on trucks. Freight rail emits just 28 grams of carbon dioxide per ton-mile versus 54 grams per ton-mile for marine freight, 313 grams for trucks and 1,472 grams for domestic air freight shipments. It’s also highly efficient. To replace the 103 million tons of rail freight that started, ended or moved through Washington in 2011 by shifting them to highways would have required 5.7 million truck trips, according to the notes.

Also evident is the economic heft of “goods movement” industries in Washington, for which freight rail “provides a vital mode of transportation,” according to the technical notes. These key industries include manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, construction and agriculture. They provide 1.2 million jobs or 40 percent in the state, and $106 billion or 41 percent of the state’s gross domestic product, according to the technical notes. Freight rail provides key links to the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma which by combined shipping volumes were the third largest in the U.S. in 2011. The state that year imported $46.7 billion of goods and exported $64.7 billion worth. Of total freight rail tonnage in Washington, international trade now comprises 29 percent; that will rise to 43 percent by 2035, according to the technical notes.

Passenger train market share estimated at 7 percent in I-5 corridor
The notes don’t cite any economic impacts from passenger rail although there are some. According to Technical Note 3b currently seven percent of trips in the I-5 corridor from Seattle to either main Amtrak Cascades destination are on passenger train, 12 percent by air, two percent by bus and 79 percent by auto. Sliced another way, Technical Note 4b states there were in 2012 almost 8.9 million people who lived within a 30-minute drive of an Amtrak station served by the Cascades line – which actually extends south from Portland on some runs to Eugene, Ore – and that estimated 2012 Amtrak Cascades ridership was 824,692. This translates to an average of 2,259 passengers per day. By 2035, the technical notes project, the line’s so-called “drive-time population” will rise to 11.4 million and annual traffic to 1.2 million – or a daily average of 3,287.

What exactly Is “high-speed rail” anyway, and is it ever coming to Washington state?
Although Amtrak operates Spanish-made Talgo trains designed for high-speed rail on the Cascades route and likes to talk about its high-speed rail projects funded via the U.S. stimulus bill, the Cascades line rate of travel is now and will remain much less than officially high-speed, even if billions more are spent. Amtrak reports that the three daily Cascades roundtrips between Seattle and Portland and the one between Seattle and Vancouver reach top speeds of only 79 miles per hour due to track and system conditions. A report last month from the Congressional Research Service noted that in the U.S., high-speed rail was defined by the Federal Rail Administration in 2009 in three ways: “emerging” means top speeds of 90 to 110 mph; “regional” means top speeds of 110-150 mph on grade-separated track; “express” means top speeds of at least 150 mph on dedicated track. WSDOT itself defines high speed rail as traveling at 125 mph on dedicated track.

Of seven “high-speed rail” corridors in the U.S. summarized in the recent CRS report, current average speeds ranged from 47 mph for Los Angeles-San Diego to 79 mph for New York City-Washington, D.C.; with top speeds of 110 mph on four midwest and northeast corridors, 135 mph for NYC-D.C., and 150 mph between Boston and NYC.

A tough road for high-speed rail in U.S.
U.S. intercity rail is constrained compared to much more popular and faster passenger trains in Europe and Asia. This is not only because of lower population densities, greater travel distances and greater reliance on cars here; but also physical barriers. U.S. passenger trains often travel on older tracks in fair to poor condition, studded with at-grade vehicle crossings at roads, and also shared with freight rail trains whose operators usually own the tracks and hold the cards on scheduling, access and maximum allowed speeds. Such constraints are evident in the Cascades corridor and will remain even if costly upgrades occur.

Current travel times and average speeds on Amtrak Cascades
The Cascades schedule shows there are 157 rail miles between Seattle and Vancouver B.C., and 187 between Seattle and Portland. The technical notes specify that the current Amtrak Cascades Portland trip takes three-and-a-half hours from Seattle although the schedule shows runs actually lasting from three hours and 50 minutes to four hours. At WSDOT’s claimed three-and-a-half hours, the speed translates to .89 miles per minute or or about 53 miles per hour. Travel time now is 45 minutes faster by auto than on the Cascades train, according to the technical notes.

The Amtrak Cascades Vancouver-Seattle trip takes four hours, according to the notes, although the actual schedule shows that’s only on one run. Another Cascades trip between the two main cities with intermediate stops in Bellingham, Mount Vernon, Stanwood, Everett and Edmonds takes 4 hours 25 minutes. Based on the four-hour figure, the Seattle-Vancouver Cascades trip covers .65 miles per minute, or just shy of 40 miles per hour. It’s now 95 minutes faster by car, WSDOT estimates.

Future travel times and average speeds
The state rail plan technical notes reveal that by 2035 – several years after the state hopes to have collared and spent that total of about $6.7 billion on the route – travel times would drop to two hours and 37 minutes between Seattle and Vancouver, translating to 60 mph; and to two-and-a-half hours between Seattle and Portland, translating to 74.8 mph.

For now, results of the $744 million in planned spending on the line through 2018 will include two more daily round trips in each direction, on top of the current three to Portland and the current one full round trip between Seattle and Vancouver. WSDOT says other near-term benefits are the anticipated shaving of current travel times by 10 minutes and boosting of on-time performance from 77 percent to 88 percent. By 2035, says the agency, there would be 13 Amtrak Cascades round trips daily from Seattle to Portland, and four from Seattle to Vancouver.

Making the case for Amtrak Cascades upgrades
That frequency would be a good thing, says Kerrie Woehler, Rail Planning and Strategic Assessment Manager for WSDOT’s Rail Division. She adds that the Amtrak Cascades route and U.S. passenger rail in general will become “more important over time” as highways get more congested. Asked about the still-slow travel times eyed in 2035 for the route, she says that wouldn’t necessarily be a deterrent because some travelers prefer not to drive, and it makes sense to offer more choices for people as the regional multi-modal transportation systems continue to develop in the Pacific Northwest. One other choice right now from Seattle to both Vancouver and Portland is the Bolt Bus, brightly colored and commonly seen in and around Seattle. Like the Amtrak Cascades it has WiFi, and similar travel times, but its fares are lower, sometimes considerably so, according to data in the WSDOT rail plan technical notes.

What sorts of fixes are needed?
Specific rail system needs in Washington include fixes to tracks, sidings, and grade crossings, plus rail yard development, removal of height and width limitations for trains, and replacement of bridges. Operational challenges include “capacity constraints, choke points, and conflicts with freight rail, passenger rail and commuter trains,” according to the technical notes.

One example is height restrictions in the Stampede Pass Tunnel connecting Auburn to Pasco, which bar double-stack freight container trains. Other concerns include freight rail choke points at facilities in Everett, Tacoma and Spokane; steep grades and sharp track curvature in the Cascade Tunnel at Stevens Pass used for Everett-to-Spokane freight rail shipping; conflicts in the main north-south rail corridor between Amtrak, freight shippers and Sound Transit commuter rail; and, though not mentioned in the technical notes, not-infrequent winter landslides along the bluff-side tracks in north Seattle that cause Amtrak delays or cancellations and also affect Sound Transit.

Without corrective action, more freight could shift to trucks, WSDOT states. According to the technical notes this could add to wear and tear on roads; and, found a 2011 Washington State University survey of industries, result in shipping cost increases that would be passed on to consumers.

Innovation eyed in funding strategies
The two major or Class One freight rail companies operating in Washington are Burlington Northern and Santa Fe (BNSF) and Union Pacific (UP). They do pay for improvements to the system but at their own discretion and without advance notice or provision of aggregate investment data to the state, WSDOT officials say. The “vast majority” of their investments are for maintenance rather than capacity improvements, WSDOT says in the technical notes. Taxes on drivers’ licenses and rental cars, plus sales taxes and weight fees for light vehicles are the main state funding sources for rail now, apart from federal and state grants, and special local and regional initiatives.

Wide gap between needs and dollars
WSDOT staff stress that the far-horizon planning is just that; adding estimates are approximate and can change somewhat over time. Still, the contrast between the funding needs for future projects and identified, solid sources of capital is notable. Compared to the approximately $9 billon – actually $8.6 billion – in WSDOT-identified state rail systems needs by 2030, Technical Note 6 reports that from 2002 through 2011 Washington state and the U.S. government forked over just $270 million for rail projects or an average of $27 million per year. This is “far less than the needs identified” in the technical notes, WSDOT states. However that number is growing as the $800 million in federal stimulus grants to Washington for rail, approved by Congress as part of a larger first-stage national high-speed rail funding program during President Obama’s first term, come on line.

New financing ideas
WSDOT in the technical notes suggests several other fiscal strategies for the future including tax credits and property tax reallocations for railroads, special taxing districts, use of lottery proceeds, a “sales tax on motor fuels,” and the funneling to rail of a portion of the controversial vehicle mileage tax or “road usage charge fees” now under consideration by the state. The agency also suggests legislative consideration of public-private partnerships to fund rail needs including “third-party finance with usage-based revenues, public financing with private contributions, and private financing.”

Downplaying aggregate cost estimates
The hundreds of pages of technical notes contain only one explicit dollar-value estimate of the combined long-term passenger and freight rail needs of the state, of $9 billion by 2030, on page 2-3 of Technical Note 4c. That estimate is footnoted to the 2010 Washington State Transportation plan which on page six includes a table showing WSDOT estimates of 20-year passenger rail needs at almost $6.75 billion and freight rail needs at $1.93 billion, totaling $8.67 billion. Elsewhere in an attachment to the 2010 state transportation plan, on p. 29, WSDOT noted that the $6 billion-plus in needs for Washington passenger rail are wholly specific to the Amtrak Cascades route, citing a 2006 state study.

This is important to clarify for at least two reasons. First, another Amtrak passenger route called the Empire Builder runs between Seattle and Chicago, and the Coast Starlight between Seattle and Los Angeles. Second, Technical Note 5 does, under the completed-by-2018 passenger rail projects summary, identify six Sound Transit commuter rail projects worth $2.2 billion that are part of that agency’s broader and ongoing transit system construction for the Seattle region. However even though commuter rail is identified as one of several types of state passenger rail, those projects do not count toward the preliminary WSDOT estimate in the 2010 state transportation plan of $6.7 billion in needed passenger rail improvements, said WSDOT rail division staff. They are included in the state rail plan technical notes to satisfy federal reporting requirements.

To request emailed copies of the new technical notes for the state rail plan, contact Theresa Graham of WSDOT’s Rail Division at 360-705-7901or

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