Study makes strong case for Pacific Northwest high-speed rail

Seattle skyline

A new study makes the business case for 220-mph high-speed rail in the Pacific Northwest. A brand-new high-speed line would be more cost-effective than other alternatives, it would cover its operating costs, and it would have a whole array of transformative benefits. It affirms that not only is high-speed rail feasible in the U.S., it’s a great idea. And, it lays out the sort of collaboration we need to bring high-speed rail to the Midwest.

The plan to connect Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. was first proposed in 2016 and has broad support from both government and the mega-region’s business community. This study—and a prior feasibility analysis—were funded by the governments of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, along with significant contributions from Microsoft.

The business plan envisions a train that puts both Portland and Vancouver less than an hour from Seattle. That’s as much as three to four times faster than making that trip today by car or Amtrak’s Cascades service.

This new study recommends as many as 30 daily round trips. That’s even more frequent than previously planned, because the convenience of having a train available at the right time is a critical factor. It also recommends more intermediate stations than originally envisioned, because creating a dense network is just as important as fast connections between the endpoints. (The study envisions a mix of express and stopping trains, connecting to and complementing the existing Cascades and commuter train services.)

The high-speed service is expected to capture 20% of the region’s travel market by almost totally eliminating the need for commuter flights, and by shifting a significant chunk of travel from automobiles. This means 27 million fewer air miles and 6.1 billion fewer vehicle miles over the first 40 years, saving 6 million metric tons of CO2 emissions.

Right out of the gate, the study projects as many as 3.1 million annual riders and $250 million in annual revenue. Over time, this revenue is expected to be enough to cover operating costs.

The study adds up $14 billion in direct economic benefits, such as reduced congestion, and increased productivity and safety. Wider economic growth could be as big as $355 billion, including as many as 200,000 new, permanent jobs.The construction cost is estimated between $24 and $42 billion, depending on the alignment and number of intermediate stations. Compare this to the $108 billion that Washington State’s DOT estimates it will cost to expand the parallel Interstate 5, or at least $10 billion just to add a new runway to one of the region’s airports, and high-speed rail becomes the best option to meet the growing region’s travel needs.

You can bet Virgin Trains (formerly Brightline) has their eyes on this corridor, along with many international high-speed rail operators looking to make their first move into the U.S. market.

The benefits of high-speed rail that this study outlines for the Pacific Northwest would be similar for any other mega-region in the U.S., including the Midwest. The Pacific Northwest’s unique advantage here is its collaboration between multiple governments and a major business player. A similar collaboration here in the Midwest could study the business case for high-speed rail from Chicago to St. Louis or Minneapolis/St. Paul or any number of other destinations.

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