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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

High(er) Speed Rail May Yet Reach Vancouver

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hsr_tfanAs always, events south of the border will have an immediate impact upon Canada. In the case of high(er) speed rail, the recent announcement of $161 million in funding for rail on the Cascades corridor could have a hugely positive outcome for Vancouver. After all, we only have 65 km of the route to upgrade.

by John Calimente, re:place Magazine

Riding the Amtrak Cascades to Portland recently allowed me to see just how short the distance is between Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland. It’s only 500 km (310 miles) from Vancouver to Portland, so if true high speed rail (250 kph or better) were built along this corridor, it would mean Vancouver to Seattle travel times of a little over an hour, or Vancouver to Portland in around two and a half hours. Even higher speed rail (145 to 200 kph) would allow Vancouverites to hop on a train and be in Portland eating Voodoo doughnuts in just 3 to 4 hours, less than half the time it takes now.

This past June I attended a meeting of provincial, state, and municipal government leaders and railway representatives hosted by the Vancouver Economic Development Commission and the Cascadia Institute, at which the steps towards a higher speed rail route for Cascadia were discussed. A protocol agreement was signed by the mayors of the three cities to push for a high speed rail line for the Pacific Northwest from Vancouver to Eugene, Oregon.

The goal is to run trains at speeds of between 145 to 200 kph along the line, with a maximum speed of 240 kph. Matt Rose of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway noted that once speeds of 145 kph are reached, trains will need to get off the main lines that the share with freight and run on their own tracks.

A total of 13 round trips would run between Seattle and Portland alone. There are currently 4 daily round trips between the two cities, with ridership jumping in the 1st quarter of 2010 by 34,000 riders over 2009. During the Olympics period in February, 11,400 people took the Cascades train, with 16 trains selling out. The Seattle to Portland route is running at 80% farebox recovery overall while the Vancouver to Seattle route is logging 45%.

Kevin Brubaker of the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Ohio talked about his work to incrementally improve rail service in the Midwest. He argued that once the train becomes faster than the car and the plane, you beat the competition and maximize your investment. There is a sweet spot in terms of speed, cost and ridership. Beyond a certain cost, there isn’t enough ridership to make further speed increases viable from a cost perspective.

Brubaker also talked about the selling points of higher speed rail. Apparently better rail service to towns surrounding Chicago has allowed university presidents in those towns to start attracting top-notch faculty. And as more rail service rolls out, there is an immediate impact in those communities benefiting from the service. And as important, a political ROI, or return on investment – politicians get to take credit for the service improvements under their watch. On the flip side, communities without rail service petitioned their politicians for more service as well. Many older Americans are supporters of increased rail service, since many can’t drive and don’t want to fly.

The Cascadia corridor is one of the 11 recognized corridors for high speed rail in the United States. The funding application asked for $1.3 billion and the corridor received $598 million in January of this year, which was the 5th highest amount awarded nationwide of the 11 projects that were awarded funding. The funding will go towards upgrading the 750 km line so that maximum speeds of up to 240 kph can eventually be achieved. Upgrades to track and signalling systems, bypass track construction, and seismic retrofits to Seattle’s King Street Station are included in these funds. Because of the number of at grade crossings and freight traffic, speeds are kept under 130 kph in Washington State, and don’t reach nearly that speed on the Canadian side.

Then a week ago came the surprise news that a further $161 million had been granted to two dozen projects along the corridor, as rail projects in Ohio and Wisconsin had been rejected by incoming Republican governors. While the governors wanted the money to instead be spent on highway projects (of course), the money had been authorized only for rail-related work. California and Florida also benefited from the governors’ decision, receiving and extra $624 million and $342 million respectively.

With all the activity happening south of the border, work on the Canadian side is moving slowly by comparison. Metro Vancouver mayors and tourism leaders have supported extending the improvements for the rail line on the Canadian side, but the federal government has shown little interest. Only pressure by U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Jacobson seemed to persuade the feds to not cancel the second Amtrak train running to Vancouver over a paltry $800,000 per year. One wonders what it will take to pry even a few million out for rail improvements.

The provincial government, however, has been stepping up recently. The $3 million investment in the Colebrook siding in 2008 allowed the 2nd daily Amtrak train to run, with millions more being spent to reduce the number of at-grade crossings on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line on which the Amtrak trains run.

It will take continued pressure by our local governments in Canada to make the provincial and federal governments understand the importance of quick, efficient rail travel for the Vancouver region. Hopefully higher speed rail won’t end at the 49th parallel.


John Calimente is the president of Rail Integrated Developments. He supports great public transit, cycling, walking, and urban life lived without a car.