Fast Train in the Fast Lane?

October 7, 2009 at 10:32 am 1 comment

The Thalys high speed train arrives at the rail station in Cologne, Germany.

By Liam Moriarty

For several decades, passengers have been zipping between European cities on sleek, comfortable trains that go upwards of 150 miles an hour. Now, the vision of fast, frequent train travel is taking hold in the Pacific Northwest. So, KPLU’s Liam Moriarty decided to take a ride and see what all the fuss was about.

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Thalys trains in the Gare du Nord in Paris

Starting at the Gare du Midi, the train station in Brussels, I took a morning train to Paris. I travelled on Thalys, the Belgian fast train. We covered the 162 miles from Brussels to Paris in about an hour and 15 minutes. It’s about the same distance between Seattle and Portland. That train ride takes about 3 and a half hours.

If you’ve never been outside the US you’ve never ridden on a train like the Thalys, or the TGV in France or the ICE in Germany. We don’t have anything like them in the states. If you haven’t ridden one of these trains before, the first thing you notice is that they’re very smooth, they’re very quiet and they’re very fast …

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Thalys high speed train in Cologne, Germany.

Japan was the first country to build a high-speed rail system. Then, starting in the 1970s, Europe got on board. Now, much of Europe – from Italy to Spain to the Netherlands – has fast trains hurtling passengers across the countryside.

As high speed rail has spread across Europe, it’s replaced air travel for many trips. In fact, with trains scheduled almost hourly between Brussels and Paris, you can’t get a flight between those cities anymore.

In the U.S., passenger rail has long taken a back seat to highways and airlines. But in the Pacific Northwest, the vision is taking hold of fast trains whizzing the length of the Cascade Corridor connecting Portland and Vancouver, B.C.

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The rail station in Cologne, Germany

In Portland, several dozen public officials, consultants and passenger rail enthusiasts gather for a conference. Oregon congressman Peter DeFazio tells the audience the future is bright for high speed rail in the Northwest.

“And I look forward to the day when you can get to Seattle from here in an hour and ten minutes” he says. “(That’s) how long it’d take the train that they’re running between Barcelona and Madrid to get to Seattle. We have that potential.”

Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson sees a high speed rail link as helping knit together a greater Cascadia region.

“We have a great affinity with our cities to the south, Seattle and Portland,” he says, “and certainly would prefer to have more connection through rail and high speed rail. To be able to jump on a train and be in Seattle or Portland in a couple of hours would be a remarkable breakthrough.”


The Amtrak Cascades train heads north from Edmonds, Washington.

This conference was organized by the Cascadia Center, a Seattle-based think tank that promotes innovative approaches to transportation. Director Bruce Agnew says state lawmakers, port commissioners and business leaders are lining up behind passenger rail.

“ I think this is the hottest new issue in transportation.”

Agnew says one reason this is getting traction now is the growing recognition of the urgent need to cut greenhouse gas emissions. He says that for distances between 300 and 500 miles, studies show that it’s more energy-efficient to move freight and people by rail rather than by individual car or by truck.

And Agnew says, rail’s green advantages can be multiplied by connecting inter-city trains to local light rail, transit buses and bicycle facilities.

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Bruce Agnew heads the Cascadia Center for Regional Development.

“So you make these rail stations in the metropolitan areas hubs, for mobility” he says, “for people to be able to take the train to a city and then not have to have a car to get around the city and the metropolitan area.”

Another reason this is so hot right now is that the Obama Administration has earmarked $8 billion in stimulus money for states to develop high speed rail. After decades of neglect, this federal shot of adrenaline is making rail officials across the country jump to attention. Washington is asking for a large chunk of that cash, nearly $900 million. But Kirk Fredrickson – with the Washington State Department of Transportation – cautions not to expect European-style fast trains anytime soon.

“I just know if that’s going to be realistic here in the next couple of decades here in the Pacific Northwest,” he says. “because of our terrain and the geography, and the cost.”

In Europe, high speed trains run on special track in dedicated rights of way. No one’s calculated just what that would cost along the Cascade Corridor, but it would easily run into the billions. Washington’s plans are more modest: to improve speed and frequency on the existing Amtrak Cascades line between Vancouver and Eugene by upgrading track, unclogging bottlenecks and buying more trains. Kirk Fredrickson says that incremental approach will make taking the train more accessible to more people.

“When you add a couple of round trips, again, that gives people on opportunity to take the train more often every day, so they can make that travel choice,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘Well, the train that was here at noon is gone now, but they’ll be another one at two o’clock, so let’s plan for that.’ It gives people more transportation options.”

And Fredrickson says that will build a constituency for further  investment in passenger rail… It appears to be working; over the past decade and a half, ridership on the Amtrak Cascades has grown steadily. Last year, more than three-quarters of a million people rode, up nearly 15 percent from just the previous year.

Since the mid-90s, Washington has put nearly a billion dollars of state money into the Amtrak Cascades line, building infrastructure — and ridership– a bit at a time. State officials hope that our willingness to spend our own money will persuade the feds to fund our next step toward making fast, convenient rail travel between Northwest cities a reality.

Zipping through the French countryside: the view out the window of the Thalys train from Brussels to Paris.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. LB  |  October 1, 2009 at 11:27 am

    Details on the WSDOT cost estimates to improve the speed of existing train runs:

    Click to access LongRangePlanforAmtrakCascades.pdf

    Here’s a list of what is needed (according to WSDOT) to get trains down to the sub-180 minute area:
    Vancouver Terminal Control System Installation of new traffic control system/$6.9 million
    Still Creek to CN Junction New siding/$12.9 million
    Sperling-Willingdon Junction Siding New siding/$11.4 million
    Willingdon Junction Grade separation/$16 million
    Brunette-Piper Siding New siding/$28.6 million
    Fraser River Bridge Replace or improve existing bridge/$575 million
    Colebrook to Brownsville High speed track, continuation of White Rock bypass/$91.8 million
    Colebrook Siding New siding/$11.4 million
    White Rock Bypass High speed rail bypass/$312.7 million
    *estimated in 2006 U.S. dollars.


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