by Robert Cruickshank
I'll be honest, I never expected to see this story this soon. From The Olympian (based in Olympia, the state capital of Washington):
Washington state and California officials have held preliminary discussions about a high-speed, state-of-the-art rail line that would connect San Diego and Vancouver, B.C., with trains that could travel in excess of 200 miles per hour....
But Scott Witt, director of the Washington state Department of Transportation’s rail and marine program, said that though he and others are focused on the “here and now,” high-speed trains running nearly the length of the West Coast aren’t just a fantasy.
“They would go like a son of a gun,” he said.
This topic has come up every so often when discussing either long-term HSR planning, the California and/or the Cascades HSR corridors, or when we're sitting around with nothing better to do than draw lines on a map and say "wouldn't it be neat if...?" (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
Objections to a border-to-border HSR route are several. The first is that numerous studies have shown that HSR is only competitive with airlines when the route is around 400 miles or so. Beyond that, the travel times tend to be off-putting for many passengers, who prefer the convenience of flying. Of course, that's given present conditions, and spikes in oil prices and other events that could make flying undesirable or costly might change the calculus.
The second issue is the geography. Vancouver to Eugene and Redding to San Diego is pretty easy. Eugene to Redding is not. There are a lot of mountains in the way, and the easiest route - the current Coast Starlight route, over Willamette Pass, parallel to US 97 through Klamath Falls, and through the Shasta Lake region - almost totally misses the population centers of Southern Oregon.
Both issues contribute to the third, which is cost:
Constructing a truly high-speed West Coast rail corridor wouldn’t be easy. It would require entirely new rails and a new corridor that smoothed out grades and corners. Picking a route and deciding where the trains would stop would be politically bruising. And the cost could be astronomical.
The 1,500-mile line, by some estimates, could cost between $10 million and $45 million per mile to build. Witt said he has been talking with his counterpart in California for about three weeks.
“It’s very, very preliminary,” Witt said. “But it makes a lot of sense.”
An alliance with California and perhaps Oregon would make it easier to leverage federal planning funds, he said.
The Olympian didn't do the math, but at $27.5 million per mile (the midpoint of the estimates) that comes to $40.5 billion. Which is about the cost of just building the CA HSR project (SD and Sacramento phases included). So I am not confident in that estimate.
Still, as the above quote shows, these conversations ARE happening. As far as I can tell it may be part of an effort by Washington State, which recently cut passenger rail staff at WSDOT, to get a more favorable position regarding the federal stimulus and longer-term federal HSR planning for the Cascades corridor by allying with Oregon and California. Show USDOT that the California project is part of a wider vision for the West Coast, so let's fund stuff in the Pacific Northwest too!
I'm all for helping fund HSR along the Cascades corridor. It's a perfect place to implement HSR - most of the Northwest's population lives there, the stations are in the city centers, and in Portland and soon Seattle will be linked by a robust network of local rail and transit.
And I'm not opposed to upgrading the West Coast passenger rail corridor. Upgrading the Eugene-Redding corridor where possible to allow for some higher speeds could make it possible for an overnight connection from Eugene to Sacramento, and someone could get from Seattle to LA in about half the amount of time it currently takes via rail.
One of Washington's US Senators, Patty Murray, suggests we take this seriously:
“This is real stuff about moving people, creating jobs and reducing greenhouse gases,” Murray said.
As for a high-speed San Diego to Vancouver run, Murray said not to dismiss it out of hand.
“Obviously it would be in the future and it would be great,” she said. “But if this (stimulus spending) can lead to that, it would be amazing.”
Patty Murray is fantastic, and if she says to not dismiss it out of hand, I won't. But I'm going to remain highly skeptical.
Especially since I'd be a frequent user of a West Coast HSR route. I just came back from a weekend in Seattle, and as someone with friends and family in that town and in Portland, I'd love a faster and more reliable way to get there and back via train. But I'm not convinced this is a particularly high priority for us right now.
My own conclusion is that my views all along have been right: that we must first focus on building HSR in the key corridors, and then work on upgrading passenger rail between states and regions. A Eugene-Redding HSR line would come at the end of a national passenger rail project and not at the outset. Something I'd envision for 2050, not 2030.