Washington’s long-awaited draft state rail plan update has been released. Due out in 2019, the draft finally surfaced last week from the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) highlighting the status of the state’s railway infrastructure as well as projected demand and needs. The draft plan shows that mainline railways are becoming more congested, which is in line with a growing economy and population.
Also featured in the draft plan are forthcoming passenger rail enhancements, possible Amtrak Cascades service growth scenarios, and discussion of intercity passenger rail studies underway. A final state rail plan is expected to be adopted in the spring, but the public can comment on the draft plan through February 14th. The plan could serve as a catalyst for a major expansion of passenger rails service.
Context of the state railway system
The bulk of Washington’s railway system is privately owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) and Union Pacific. Several dozen other private and public entities (e.g., state, ports, and local governments) own shortline railway segments for economic development purposes that connect to the mainlines. Thus, passenger rail is largely operated over private tracks owned by BNSF. The exception is the Point Defiance Bypass, which is forms a small segment of tracks from Tacoma to the Nisqually Valley and is owned by Sound Transit. That segment currently has commuter rail service as far south as Lakewood but will once again feature Amtrak Cascades service sometime this year.
The draft rail plan includes a baseline analysis of mainline railway service levels as of 2016 and three growth scenarios through 2040. The analysis uses the traditional transportation planning quantitative measure: level of service (LOS). There are five LOS ratings with LOS A being limited to no delays and LOS F involving regular delays and system breakdown. All three growth scenarios assume no additional track improvements are made to facilitate more capacity.
According to the analysis, the busiest segment–based upon volume over track capacity–stretches from Vancouver to the Tri-Cities on tracks owned by BNSF, operating at LOS E. Approximately two daily passenger rail trips and 34 daily freight trips operate along that section of track. A small stretch of track approaching Spokane also operates at LOS E. Perhaps surprisingly, mainline track segments from Tacoma to Seattle operate at LOS A and LOS C, despite 32 daily passenger rail trips and 40 daily freight trips. The best operating segment stretches from Auburn to the Tri-Cities at LOS B where only eight daily freight trips occur.
In the low-growth scenario, WSDOT assumes that demand for freight rail declines. Thus, all mainline railways would operate at better service levels.
In the moderate-growth scenario, the inverse would be true. Passenger rail and freight rail demand increase leading to more congestion and delay. This would be particularly acute on the track segments from Everett to Spokane and Vancouver to the Tri-Cities, both operating at LOS F. Between Seattle and Tacoma, there could be more regular delays, but outside of that zone from the Canadian to Oregonian borders the mainline railways would degrade to LOS E.
In the high-growth scenario, the mainline railways would experience widespread system breakdown at LOS F. Only the segments from Seattle to Tacoma and Auburn to the Tri-Cities would operate above LOS F.
Underpinning these growth scenarios is the forecast for freight tonnage by rail. The chart below shows what the baseline compared to each growth growth scenario. In 2016, state railways carried approximately 122,000 tons of goods. That was up from 103,000 tons at the bottom of the Great Recession, representing an 18% increase. Through 2040, the growth scenarios indicate the following possible freight tonnage:
- Low-growth scenario: about about 110,000 or a 9% decrease;
- Moderate-growth scenario: about 216,000 tons or a 77% increase; and
- High-growth scenario: about 321,000 tons or a 163% increase.
While freight rail demand can be somewhat volatile from year to year, the moderate-growth scenario appears to be the most realistic scenario based upon past trends. This means that a coordinated effort will be necessary to keep the system moving. Unfortunately, private railway owners are very secretive about their business plans and typically plan system improvements only a few years out (often only two to three years out). That makes government cooperation difficult in developing system infrastructure.
The status of the passenger rail system
In terms of passenger rail, the state has three types of services: commuter rail (Sound Transit Sounder), intercity rail (Amtrak Cascades), and long-distance rail (Amtrak Coast Starlight and Empire Builder). Commuter rail only operates between Everett and Lakewood, travelling across three counties. Intercity rail runs as far as Vancouver, British Columbia through Western Washington to Eugene, Oregon, depending upon Amtrak Cascades service. Amtrak also operates long-distance routes from Los Angeles to Seattle as well as Chicago to Seattle and Portland–splitting at Spokane.
Ridership on Amtrak services have varied over the past two decades. In recent years, the Empire Builder service has seen dwindling ridership outside of Washington where delays from oil trains in North Dakota have become rampant. In-state, Empire Builder ridership has mostly remained constant with about 200,000 annual riders since the end of the Great Recession, though it was higher during the start of the millennium. Meanwhile, Coast Starlight has mainly just stayed at about the same in-state ridership level with around 200,000 annual riders since 2000.
Amtrak Cascades ridership has been more robust, growing from about 530,000 annual riders to a peak of 848,000 annual riders. In 2018, annual ridership stood at 802,000, which represented a slight decline from prior years. That is likely due to several factors, such as significantly lower on-time performance (worsening from 76% in 2016 to 56% in 2018), lower ridership south of Portland, and the December 2017 derailment. Added trips, opening of the Point Defiance Bypass, new sidings, streamlined customs procedures, and increasing gas prices, however, could collectively lead to much higher ridership in the next few years.
Farebox recovery on Amtrak Cascades was increasing steadily over the first part of the millennium, but that has begun to plateau around 63% as of 2018. Farebox recovery peaked in 2011 at 66.2%. Increasing operational costs have largely kept farebox recovery from catching up.
WSDOT could increase farebox recovery using several strategies. An immediate one would be to require Amtrak Cascades allow greater use of the Rail Pass program in the Central Puget Sound to fill booked but unused seats. Another mid-term option would be transition to a dynamic reservation system that only books seats between a rider’s origin-destination pair and allowing the seat to be resold for portions of trips where it otherwise available. New equipment is on the horizon, so integrating digital seat assignments onboard and upgrading the reservation is achievable even with Amtrak’s backend reservation system. Doing so could actually make tickets cheaper and maximize system capacity without adding new trips.
Looking ahead, WSDOT has considered several Amtrak Cascades growth scenarios through 2040: baseline, low, moderate, and high.
The baseline scenario would essentially consist of instituting the promised additional two daily roundtrips from Seattle to Portland and shaving 10 minutes off the schedule with the Point Defiance Bypass. Reliability would thus go up significantly and ridership would rise 60% over the time horizon. The alternative growth scenarios could more than triple ridership by adding more trips across the board and increasing seat capacity.
The low-growth scenario would entail adding four daily roundtrips between Seattle and Portland and cut travel time on the corridor by 20 minutes, increasing ridership by 82%. Naturally, the biggest growth would be centered on stations along that corridor, though Vancouver, British Columbia would see ridership increase by 106% just due to natural demand.
The moderate-growth scenario would do the same, but add two daily roundtrips between Portland and Eugene and shave 10 minutes off travel times as well as one extra daily trip between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia with 15 minutes less travel time, increasing ridership 133%. The Portland-to-Eugene stations would see comparatively higher growth than others due to the added trips.
Finally, the high-growth scenario would add nine daily trips between Seattle and Portland, four daily trips between Portland and Eugene, and two daily trips between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia along with substantial travel time reductions for all segments–but particularly north of Seattle. Collectively, the high-growth scenario would increase ridership by 214%, but the Portland-to-Eugene stations would still see some of the largest percentage growth.
Ridership growth essentially would follow service improvements, either in time reductions, increased reliability, extra seats, or new trips. The latter, however, would be most effective in driving ridership upward as more choice in trips provides more windows of use and confidence in service. In the next few years ahead, around 2022, Amtrak Cascades is projected to reach capacity necessitating such improvements as intercity trains cannot permit standees.
Under the differing scenarios, ridership growth is not equal for all stations as service improvements vary between the scenarios. WSDOT did model what growth could expected that granular of a level though:
Amtrak Cascades 2040 Annual RidershipThe scenario columns show estimated 2040 annual ridership numbers compared to the 2018 base year. The numbers in parentheses indicate ridership increase over the 2018 base year.
|Station||2018 Base Year||2040 Baseline Scenario||2040 Low-Growth Scenario||2040 Moderate-Growth Scenario||2040 High-Growth Scenario|
|Eugene||24,600||35,400 (44%)||35,700 (45%)||58,900 (139%)||82,700 (236%)|
|Albany||9,900||14,500 (46%)||14,600 (47%)||24,000 (142%)||33,800 (241%)|
|Salem||20,200||29,200 (45%)||29,400 (46%)||48,600 (141%)||68,300 (238%)|
|Oregon City||6,000||9,300 (55%)||9,300 (55%)||15,400 (157%)||21,700 (262%)|
|Portland||205,700||308,200 (50%)||348,600 (69%)||477,110 (132%)||717,000 (249%)|
|Vancouver, Washington||38,400||61,100 (59%)||75,800 (97%)||75,800 (97%)||113,500 (196%)|
|Kelso/Longview||13,400||21,000 (57%)||26,100 (95%)||26,100 (95%)||39,000 (191%)|
|Centralia||10,800||18,900 (75%)||23,400 (117%)||23,400 (117%)||35,000 (224%)|
|Olympia/Lacey||26,700||42,500 (59%)||52,700 (97%)||52,700 (97%)||78,900 (196%)|
|Tacoma||41,700||71,600 (72%)||88,900 (113%)||88,900 (113%)||133,000 (219%)|
|Tukwila||16,400||26,000 (59%)||32,300 (97%)||32,300 (97%)||48,300 (195%)|
|Seattle||249,500||400,900 (61%)||475,200 (90%)||491,900 (97%)||705,700 (183%)|
|Edmonds||10,800||15,100 (40%)||15,200 (41%)||20,400 (89%)||27,700 (156%)|
|Everett||11,000||15,300 (39%)||15,300 (39%)||20,600 (87%)||27,900 (154%)|
|Stanwood||2,600||3,400 (31%)||3,400 (31%)||4,500 (73%)||6,200 (138%)|
|Mount Vernon||8,600||11,900 (36%)||12,000 (40%)||16,000 (87%)||21,800 (153%)|
|Bellingham||25,500||33,200 (30%)||33,200 (30%)||44,800 (76%)||60,700 (138%)|
|Vancouver, British Columbia||79,900||164,100 (105%)||164,900 (106%)||189,800 (138%)||296,000 (271%)|
Commuter rail in Washington is limited to the Central Puget Sound under the Sounder brand. Two lines meet in Seattle and serve communities stretching from Lakewood to Everett. Ridership has been growing steadily through 2018 as new trips and station access improvements have come online, but that has begun to peak. Annual ridership reached 4,631,000 in 2018 with the vast majority of rides coming from the Sounder South line. Annual ridership is projected to grow to anywhere from 8,000,000 to 11,000,000 by 2040, depending upon the kinds of service improvements chosen (e.g., more train cars and trips). Sound Transit also plans to extend the Sounder South line further south to serve Tillicum and DuPont by 2036.
Not mentioned in the draft plan are concepts for Sounder extension to Lacey and Olympia. The idea has been mentioned by politicians and transit advocates, but so far have not gotten any real traction. But if those ideas come to fruition, that could raise projected ridership even further.
The draft plan acknowledges two key studies underway: one for conventional intercity passenger rail between Auburn and Spokane and another from high-speed rail from Vancouver, British Columbia to Portland. It also highlights strategies that are likely to be employed to improve passenger rail service incrementally over the next 20 years.
In terms of the Eastern Washington intercity passenger rail study, it is already known that using the Stampede Pass corridor is technically feasible and the kinds of improvements necessary to make it a reality. That was settled in a 2001 study, but the current study underway will evaluate potential ridership and update improvements that may be needed now. Cities served by the corridor would include Auburn, Cle Elum, Ellensburg, Yakima, Tri-Cities, Toppenish, and Spokane. Presumably, service could be extended to Seattle, Tacoma, and possibly other destinations for some or all trips, but that is yet to be worked out.
Two decades on, the circumstances have changed significantly as cities across the state have grown, population has aged, and the state transportation modal split has moved decidedly in the direction of higher transit use. The Eastern Washington corridor on the face of it offers much to like, such as a more reliable means for people to get across the Cascade Range–winter snow and summertime recreational travel can lead to hours of delay–and a more environmentally-friendly option. Ultimately, if intercity passenger in Eastern Washington shows promising ridership, it would still require authorization from the state legislature to move forward with a program to deliver service and take several years to get off the ground. The study should be completed this summer.
High-speed rail is also being actively studied by the state and could wind up serving seven to ten cities. Right now, WSDOT is evaluating what the structure and powers should be for an interstate high-speed rail corridor authority as well as the what is needed to move forward with project development. Recommendations on that should come by the end of year. But several studies have already shown that high-speed rail would be economically viable, generating up to 3,250,000 rides per year and fully covering operational costs by 2055 with a baseline service of 12 daily trips. Nothing necessarily would preclude the corridor from having more inter-regional service with extra stops, increasing its overall utility and value.
It bears mentioning that high-speed rail would be complementary to conventional rail service that Amtrak and Sound Transit already operate. Sounder and Amtrak Cascades service would not go away, since wherever the high-speed rail line would go, it would mostly operate in its own corridor and right-of-way and likely not serve every city that those two services do.
Other actions that will or could be taken to improve passenger rail service in the coming years, include:
- Amtrak working with host railway companies and the Federal Railroad Administration to improve on-time performance of long-distance passenger rail service;
- Amtrak upgrading existing long-distance train equipment until replacement vehicles are procured and put into service during the mid- to late-2020s;
- WSDOT working toward preclearance authorization for cross-border Amtrak Cascades trips from Vancouver, British Columbia to shave off at least 10 minutes of travel time and starting in 2021;
- Implementation of independent on-time performance strategies for Amtrak Cascades and enforcement of a limited delay agreement with BNSF that guarantees 88% on-time performance (only 56% of trips were on-time in 2018;
- Acquisition of temporary replacement equipment for the Talgo 6 equipment, which the National Transportation Safety Board had decertified for use;
- Entirely new trainsets to add to and replace the aging Talgo 6 series for Amtrak Cascades, which would likely be acquired as part of Amtrak’s national procurement process underway;
- Installing new and replacement platforms in Olympia, Kelso, and Centralia;
- Implementing new daily trips on Amtrak Cascades;
- Aligning future Travel Washington Intercity Bus service with passenger rail; and
- Enhancing multimodal station access and coordinating local transit service at most Amtrak Cascades stations.
The draft plan actually specifies detailed candidate improvements that could be made to Amtrak Cascades stations stretching from Portland to Vancouver, British Columbia. They would all be necessary if the state takes a high-growth approach to intercity passenger rail.
The future is foggy, but modestly positive
Ultimately, the future is somewhat foggy about where Washington goes with rail investments and market demand. On the one side, freight rail has proven to be a bit boom and bust over the years and the companies that operate in the market are very hesitant to reveal too much about their plans. Owning the railway tracks means that they have considerable control over their use and can deny additional access. The companies also tend to make very short-term investments that add capacity, making them an unreliable partner in delivering new assets. On the other side, intercity passenger rail and commuter rail demand is extremely high today given the capacity. The main thing holding back more riders is indeed service capacity.
Provided that track owners agreed, Washington could easily authorize more passenger rail trips and it would quickly fill with riders. But the balance of power is heavily weighted in the direction of track owners, who so far are only allowing abysmal on-time performance for passenger rail, and control of the state legislature has shifted several times over the past decade, leading to unclear policy direction if WSDOT should proceed with more service sooner. None of these issues are insurmountable as passenger rail advocates have demonstrated in recent years. With studies underway for high-speed rail and Eastern Washington intercity passenger rail, there is promise that a consensus may be forming around the need for more passenger rail of all varieties.
Stephen is a professional urban planner in Puget Sound with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. With stints in great cities like Bellingham and Cork, Stephen currently lives in Seattle. He primarily covers land use and transportation issues and has been with The Urbanist since 2014.