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Portland-Seattle-Vancouver High Speed Rail “Makes Economic Sense”

On July 15, 2019 the Washington State Department of Transportation released its Ultra-High-Speed Ground Transportation study and business case, forecasting $355 billion in economic growth, up to 200,000 jobs created, and 3 million passengers annually.   


Transport Action BC agrees that high speed rail (HSR) linking Vancouver, Seattle and Portland is a great idea, but there are a lot of questions and complexities surrounding this proposal yet to be answered.

First, the line must serve the city centres of Vancouver, Seattle and Portland. BC Premier John Horgan’s suggestion that Surrey be the end-of-the-line would add an extra forty-five minutes to the travel time to downtown Vancouver, and more than an hour to the airport. That would be a serious mistake. Instead, consideration should be given to building a four-track joint high speed and regional rail corridor from downtown towards Surrey that would to better serve regional trips toward Abbotsford, relieve the Expo Line, and increase connectivity to the HSR.

Using proven high-speed rail technology would provide compatibility in stations and reduce implementation risks. Costs, which are forecast to be between $24 and $42 billion, increase very quickly at extreme speeds and so does noise, so the project must ensure extreme speed doesn’t get into diminishing returns territory. The project should follow the European example of using upgraded “legacy” rail infrastructure to reach the city centres with minimum cost and disruption to existing property, and the new rail infrastructure should be designed to allow a mixture of all-stations and express services.

The study suggests the HSR would achieve a 20% share of the regional travel market, drawn mainly from cars and origin-destination flights. Designing the system for better connectivity to major airports would draw more ridership from the still substantial projected “air connections” mode share.

The B.C. government has contributed $600,000 to the cost of developing the study and for the next exploratory steps. However, given the track record of unwillingness of Canadian governments to provide any reasonably useful passenger rail in Western Canada, one wonders how seriously to take the BC government’s commitment in this proposal. It is also important that this project should not be seen as an alternative to reconnecting Vancouver with other parts of British Columbia and Canada. The benefit of HSR would be much greater with adequate regional connections.

Meanwhile, HSR will take a decade to build, so a lot could be done to make the existing Amtrak Cascades services faster, more frequent, and thus more attractive in the shorter term, building upon the 6% mode share of rail in the region today. For a start, the current practice of giving freight trains priority over passengers should be changed. Modernising signalling systems and investing in new tracks at critical locations could do a great deal to make travel both safer and faster. All of this could be done in the time period that has been suggested for further studies of the high speed project.

Transport Action BC will have more to say on this topic in the coming months. Join us and get involved.

Photo of Bombardier Zefiro 380 by Björn König via Wikimedia Commons

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