More Trains, Not More Lanes: “a climate solution hiding in plain sight”

Planes, (fancy) trains and automobiles won’t help us meet our climate goals.

by Mary Paterson | July 5, 2023 (reprinted from Real Change, the Seattle homeless paper by permission of the author)

Real Change began an important discussion this spring about how our state legislators and governor are ignoring the need for East-West passenger trains between Seattle, Auburn, Ellensburg, Yakima, and Spokane (‘It’s Just Negligence…,’ March 15, 2023). Modernizing our existing rail routes — think Amtrak for the 21st century — can help us reduce “vehicle miles traveled” and slash our emissions by 2030, which we must do according to warnings from scientists about climate change. 

Trains on our existing rail network are a climate solution hiding in plain sight. They’d also help relieve traffic on our roads along East-West and North-South corridors.

On June 20, the Joint Transportation Committee in Olympia discussed a “draft final report” evaluating what Gov. Jay Inslee and others are calling the “ultra” high speed rail project, a super-fast train that would connect Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. Proponents envision speeds of 220 mph or more. That’s faster than many of the high-speed trains in Europe and much faster than the well-known “Acela” Amtrak train on the East Coast or the privately owned “Brightline” train in Florida. “Ultra” is not a term recognized by the Federal Railroad Administration, which defines high-speed rail as trains traveling at 90 mph or more. But the governor and backers in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia use the term “ultra,” perhaps as a way of selling the idea to the public. 

Don’t we all love the idea of traveling between Seattle and Portland in one hour?

Well, yes, maybe, until we start getting real about how much it would cost and how long it would take to get an ultra-fast train in Washington.

The consultant presentation to the Joint Transportation Committee noted that the ultra-fast rail project is still in the “conceptual” phase, without a specific route, technology, or governance structure. It says that the ridership forecast is at “the high end” of a reasonable range, partly because the ultra-high-speed rail survey overly relied on responses farmed from social media. And it says the desired speed of 220 mph is “at the high end of what’s likely.” Trains traveling this fast require new rights of way because they can’t share track or even run close to slower trains, like freight trains. New parcels of land, including wetlands and rural land, would need to be purchased on whatever route between Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., is eventually selected.

How much would the ultra-high-speed project cost? Without more nuts-and-bolts decisions like the route and what kind of technology would best achieve the desired speeds, it’s hard to project costs for this North-South ultra high-speed rail project. 

But the Joint Transportation Committee heard figures like $36 billion to $63 billion if it were to be built now, partly because of increased construction costs and the costs of tunneling and carving out new rights of way through urban areas. One of the consultants estimated that $70 billion was more likely, though it was not possible to project costs without more detailed planning, and the report itself gives a cost range with $150 billion at the high end.

How long would the ultra-high-speed rail project take to build? 

This is the most alarming thing for people concerned about climate change. There was quiet laughter in the Joint Transportation Committee when consultants referred to the initial studies projecting an end date of 2030 or 2035 — “clearly not doable,” they said. The California High Speed Rail project that, though fraught, may deliver some benefits by 2030 or 2035 has taken 20 years to build the least complex segment through the Central Valley. 

Washington is embarking on its ultra-fast rail project more than two decades after California started. And even the proponents of Washington’s project have called it a “Vision for 2050.” Isn’t that a bit late? In respect to the climate, we need to cut our emissions in half by 2030 ­— just seven years from now. 

And according to the Washington State Department of Commerce, also at the hearing on June 20, converting to electric vehicles is “far from enough.” 

What can be done? 

Even if decision makers in Olympia forge ahead with the ultra-high-speed rail project, at a cost of $70 billion or more and a due date of 2050 or later, we must upgrade our existing rail service North-South and East-West so that people have climate-friendly options by 2030 to 2035. 

We can do this! 

In 2006, Washington completed a plan for frequent trips between Seattle and Portland that would take 2.5 hours and could make the ride between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., in 2.75 hours. Our governor and Legislature are shunning this plan, but this can change if we demand it: 2030 or bust! 

Choose more trains, not more lanes and planes!