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Old Posted Aug 27, 2015, 4:15 AM
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My Plan For Improving Rail Mobility in the Puget Sound (Seattle).

This plan is not intended to improve intra-Seattle mobility. In fact, unlike that of Link Light Rail, the objective of this plan is clear: to provide rapid mass transit between the region’s cities as affordably, efficiently and as swiftly as possible.

I introduce Link into the discussion because Sound Transit is currently extending Link Light Rail southward from Seattle to Tacoma. Link is envisioned as being the region’s new passenger rail spine. With a brand new political alignment, it will be expensive, serve sprawled areas, and be unacceptably slow as it attempts to perform a role better suited for intercity trains.

While much of the final alignment is undetermined, it is quite possible, if not probable, that the routing of the new railroad will be politically expedient and ultimately lacking in the qualities that define world-class transportation systems. With a skeptical eye, we can already see the planted seeds of a new, BART-like system that disappoints more than it engenders praise; indeed, it threatens to be a mediocre system that does not meet any reasonable metric for high-capacity, rapid transit excellence.

Already, the Link Light Rail line south of Seattle features numerous sharp curves and an alignment panned by astute transit planners and critics. At full build out to Tacoma, a worst case scenario sees the line running in the median of Interstate 5 for miles to serve suburban park-and-ride stops sited away from the sprawled centers that Link should be serving. These are the same suburban centers that urgently need to densify. This worst case scenario is not hyperbole.

Incredibly, despite the massive investment that will have been made to build the line, which already costs at least $5 billion (when including projected costs only to Federal Way, and not including existing infrastructure like the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel), the trains will never achieve trip time parity with that of the wildly popular ST Express buses that currently use busy, parallel I-5. Ridership per mileage will be low and maintenance costs will rise for a Link Light Rail that gets you around the corridor reliably, albeit far too slowly for such a prominent and wealthy region.

For the expenses to be paid and effort expended, we should expect better. We deserve better.

There is an alternative.

While Sound Transit puts all of its eggs in the Link basket, betting it all on a new alignment and operating technology wholly unsuitable for swift regional mobility, Sound Transit’s Sounder commuter train popularly operates a nearby corridor without any intense focus from the agency (or from Puget Sound area voters that influence our transportation agenda). The South Line, as it is called, is actually the BNSF mainline between Seattle and Tacoma and hosts, courtesy of expensive, rented time slots, ten round-trip Sounder trains each day. For a two-track line already running 50-60 freight trains daily, it has several real, complex problems: Sounder speeds are limited to roughly 20mph faster than the quickest freight train, artificially capping speeds and significantly disrupting freight traffic; passenger operations are restricted to a frustratingly brief window of time during the rush hours, and there is no weekend service; onerously heavy diesel locomotives and passenger cars are required by federal law because of the mixed traffic, rendering impossible the acceleration, deceleration and top-speed standards that a modern passenger railroad should attempt to meet; platforms are low due to an antiquated state law and railroad policy that prohibits taller platforms, rendering illegal the level boarding of passengers that is a necessity for precision scheduling, and; well, you get the drift. This is not a world-class operation. Sounder commuter trains are merely freight trains in passenger train clothing, and which also happen to carry people.

However, Sounder commuter trains have an incredible asset that render its otherwise mediocre service quite exceptional: an arrow straight alignment that serves many historic, fine-grained cities in the central Puget Sound, allowing for run times that are respectably fast—oftentimes faster than the bus, and occasionally even driving.

My plan is the securing of this right-of-way for the deserving public, and its subsequent upgrading into world-class electric railway infrastructure featuring a modern passenger operation.

The cost will be billions and the politics likely complicated.

Crucially, it will require triple tracking one of two railroad mainlines into Seattle to radically increase its low track capacity, which will be followed up with a seamless diversion of all freight traffic to it. This corridor, currently owned by the UPRR, would become a freight-dedicated corridor that is to be shared and jointly managed with BNSF. The two railroads already jointly dispatch shared corridors in the United States, so there exists an established template for cooperation. Once built, never again would a passenger train delay cargo traveling between Seattle and Tacoma. The corridor will also be grade separated, eradicating dangerous roadway crossings from the regional map. As a bonus, also eliminated is the majority of the noise pollution generated by honking trains rolling across roadways, once and for all neutralizing a nuisance of a federal mandate. For those living near crossings, real estate values might rise (and they undoubtedly would for those near the BNSF line).

The capital cost to triple-track the UPRR will be substantial, but not prohibitive: the existing rail corridor easily accommodates the one or two extra tracks with utterly zero takings of property. Only existing road crossings would be affected; however, the grade separation of both the BNSF and UPRR rail corridor should be done anyway, whether or not this plan is realized. In fact, a significant portion of the expense of this project is attributable to upgrades that should have already been completed. Railway malinvestment in the Puget Sound will force the capital costs of this reasonable project to be higher. Ultimately, the opportunity cost for not making these investments—investments that free up the BNSF line for a strictly public use, a major win for citizens—would be tremendous.

Besides widened curves, the most impacting change will be the relocation of the Auburn Yard to a site near the Emerald Downs racetrack, also in Auburn. This is the most suitable location for a large rail yard on the new freight corridor. Without this new facility, old Auburn Yard continues to exist and perform its critical function of storing freight trains waiting for their travel slot into Seattle. It is imperative to note that any mixed traffic on the BNSF line is the undoing of this plan, and the public would need to settle for a drastically reduced quality of passenger service (think Utah’s Frontrunner as opposed to commuter sections on the Dutch national network). However, should the yard be relocated, and should a trench be dug connecting the Stampede Pass rail line to the freight corridor, every significant BNSF rationale for holding onto the line, besides its financial value and historical importance, would be eliminated. With a direct purchase or favorable agreement, we can divert freight trains onto the shared corridor, remove toxic cargos from our city centers, and take over a railroad line primed for hauling people.

Dependent upon the quality of service the public expects—with this plan offering a fine balance between affordability and operational excellence—all, some, or none of the plan can be constructed. This vision specifies top-speeds of 125mph using off-the-shelf electric trains that have terrific top-speed, deceleration and acceleration specifications. The trains would tilt to maintain comfort on highly super-elevated curves. The curves on the right-of-way themselves would be widened to accommodate world-class urban speeds. A passenger-dedicated section north of Tukwila would be constructed on a largely greenfield alignment to overcome geographic constraints and heavy freight traffic, starting just before the location where the BNSF & UPRR corridors rejoin for their final jaunt into Seattle on historically shared right-of-way.

Simply possessing the BNSF corridor would drastically improve commuter service in the region. However, it must be noted that the type of service levels envisioned in this plan require dedicated tracks and the standard electrification and signaling systems of advanced passenger railroads. Without the tracks the line is partially shared with numerous freight trains, and the constant disruption to all trains would be a never ending reminder that the business goals of freight and passenger are often mutually exclusive. Without the electrification and signaling, precluded is the scheduling of a world-class passenger service. Should such choices be made in the interest of politics, money or time, the rail line will never be world-class, will never provide a future connection to a high-speed rail line to Portland, Oregon, and will eventually fail to meet growing service demands in an expanding region. This could be our shot to get it right the first time, or risk having our children paying far more for new capacity later.

Best yet, it would catalyze the rejuvenation of the historic cities of the corridor, all of which have urbane street grids from the pioneer era that would become logical places to densify. These cities demand recognition. These are cities deserving of new infrastructure, of new investment, of new citizens and new vitality. Urban life here would fundamentally change with grade separation and the eradication of railroad noise pollution, to say nothing of fast, frequent service to the area’s biggest job centers. It would allow for the flowering of central Puyallup, Sumner, Auburn and Kent, even as their cores already experience healthy growth. It would be a reward for sensible development patterns.

Truly, the most responsible plan for regional rail mobility is not the one Sound Transit is struggling to iron out, but the one already in existence and time-tested, just waiting for its moment to transform. Very technically feasible, all that is needed is political and civic will. Never involving a courtroom, the key players in this plan would reach consensus through negotiation. The quid pro quo nature of the plan would generate agreement between the railroads and the government as it satisfies all parties equally.

While this alignment includes new-build track miles, the majority of it already exists and awaits meaningful public investment. Instead of building an entirely new line, a pointless and wildly expensive endeavor, this plan best utilizes the region’s resources, eliminates redundancy, and delivers the goods affordably and efficiently. We could do this.

From here, I’ll let my maps speak for themselves. I welcome feedback and constructive criticism.

Last edited by Troyeth; Sep 3, 2015 at 12:15 AM. Reason: Updated text and links.
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  #2  
Old Posted Aug 27, 2015, 6:46 AM
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My plan is the securing of this (BNSF) right-of-way for the deserving public, and its massive upgrading into a world-class piece of electric railway infrastructure featuring a modern passenger train operation.

I welcome feedback and constructive criticism.
UP and BNSF right-of-ways head in different directions. While there are some freight customers connected to both rail lines, most freight customers are connected to one or the other rail line, but not both.

The tunnels on both rail lines heading east under the Cascades are single track, it will cost much too much to double track these tunnels, much less triple track them.

As it is, the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma are under served by the freight railroads. There's been discussions about reopening an abandoned third rail tunnel under the Cascades. Eliminating one from freight service (BNSF's Cascade Tunnel) with your plan to eliminate freight trains from the BNSF tracks will tie up goods movement in the ports - which will eventually cause the loss of thousands of good paying jobs.

The BNSF corridor is not up for sale. There's no way the local governments can force its sale. National interstate commerce regulations prevent that. They will have to have BNSF to be willing to sale its property it has jealously maintained over 125 years. Good luck with that. Likewise, the UP doesn't have to agree to allow BNSF on its tracks. There's no way local governments can force them to. UP will have to be willing to share its tracks with the BNSF. They are competitors, I don't think UP will be so willing.

The idea of having dedicated corridors for passenger and freight trains is wrong. I strongly suggest having dedicated tracks within the existing corridors instead. Where there isn't sufficient room, imminent domain the extra land needed so they will fit. In this way, you can have modern passenger trains and freight trains in the same corridor, serving every existing freight and passenger customer. That's what Utah did for its Frontrunner passenger trains paralleling UP tracks. This method has been proven to work well. IMHO, the only new dedicated rail corridors that should be built are for light rail and metro rail lines that aren't being built near existing rail corridors, or for true HSR where the existing rail corridors have too tight curves for true high speed trains.

Additionally, take a clue from the Link's expansion north along I-5 and east along I-94. They decided not to run the tracks in their medians - favoring east then west of the freeway alignments, or north of the freeway alignment.. I would suggest the Link's planners will feel the same heading south as well. To date, Link train tracks have not beeb aligned in freeway medians on any of its lines. Why are you so positive they will do so heading further south?

Last edited by electricron; Aug 27, 2015 at 7:03 AM.
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  #3  
Old Posted Aug 27, 2015, 7:05 AM
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With all due respect, you clearly did not read a word of my plan, review any of the maps, understand the project area whatsoever or comprehend the limits of its scope.

Some of the points you make are just flat-out wrong. The BNSF and UPRR corridors are not directional. Trains use the single and double-tracked corridors to travel in either direction.

Second, this plan provides a triple-track freight corridor (a rebuilt UPRR line) that is freight-dedicated, grade separated and not disrupted by passenger trains. It easily fits in existing, greenfield right-of-way. The huge amount of new line capacity and infrastructure improvement is what BNSF gets for the permanent use—or purchase—of its now totally redundant railroad line. UPRR benefits tremendously, too.

Third, this plan does not even involve the Cascades. What???? And Link politics in the South Sound are not the same as in the East Side, nor is the geography. As of now, local political leadership is rallying behind forbidding Link from having a Highway 99 routing, thus leaving an I5 alignment. To that point, the alignment south of Seattle is already curvy and bad.

Finally, BNSF and UPRR are competitors, but they have multiple joint dispatching corridors where they do exactly what I am proposing here. Also, with regards to the Puget Sound area, the railroads maintain expensive, redundant infrastructure that is at present very crowded with passenger trains. This eliminates the conflict and provides them their own right-of-way.
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Old Posted Aug 27, 2015, 7:31 AM
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With all due respect, you clearly did not read a word of my plan, review any of the maps, understand the project area whatsoever or comprehend the limits of its scope.

Some of the points you make are just flat-out wrong. The BNSF and UPRR corridors are not directional. Trains use the single and double-tracked corridors to travel in either direction.

Second, this plan provides a triple-track freight corridor (a rebuilt UPRR line) that is freight-dedicated, grade separated and not disrupted by passenger trains. It easily fits in existing, greenfield right-of-way. The huge amount of new line capacity and infrastructure improvement is what BNSF gets for the permanent use—or purchase—of its now totally redundant railroad line. UPRR benefits tremendously, too.

Third, this plan does not even involve the Cascades. What???? And Link politics in the South Sound are not the same as in the East Side, nor is the geography. As of now, local political leadership is rallying behind forbidding Link from having a Highway 99 routing, thus leaving an I5 alignment. To that point, the alignment south of Seattle is already curvy and bad.

Finally, BNSF and UPRR are competitors, but they have multiple joint dispatching corridors where they do exactly what I am proposing here. Also, with regards to the Puget Sound area, the railroads maintain expensive, redundant infrastructure that is at present very crowded with passenger trains. This eliminates the conflict and provides them their own right-of-way.
First point, while the rail corridors are not directional today, my point is they could be.
Second point, UTA moves Frontrunner trains successfully with UP freight trains in the same corridor with two dedicated single track lines, using dedicated passing sidings where needed. Much more efficient use of land and tracks than your plan.
Third point, Yes your plan does effect the Cascades. If you eliminate BNSF trains heading into downtown Seattle from the south, you therefore also eliminate BNSF freight trains leaving downtown Seattle to the north. The BNSF mainline turns east toward the Cascade Tunnel at Everett - which is north of downtown Seattle. I don't think it is wrong to assume your dedicated, electrified passenger rail corridor using the BNSF mainline into downtown Seattle from the south will cut BNSF freight trains from its main tunnel heading east. Therefore, all the existing Cascade tunnels will be affected in one way or another.
Fourth point, dedicated tracks within the existing corridors will work just as well as your proposal, and keep everyone having the particular service they need. Again, you should check out UTA Frontrunners. While I agree what might work in Utah may not work in Washington, dismissing what they do in Utah off hand without looking at is just as wrong. I suggest what they did in Utah will work in Washington, now prove me wrong!
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Old Posted Aug 27, 2015, 7:44 AM
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Dude, seriously, most of what you just wrote as it relates to this plan isn't accurate whatsoever. Again, the plan has zero impact on BNSF and UPRR freight trains beyond a route diversion. It, in fact, substantially increases track capacity. The Scenic Subdivision is totally unrelated and undisturbed by this plan. Stop.

And if you think the highwater mark of passenger rail services is the retrograde Frontrunner, then I am not sure we are speaking the same language here.

This plan aims to build a modern passenger operation using modern equipment, and for that you need passenger-dedicated tracks and electricity.

Otherwise, the best we can do is Frontrunner: not the worst by any means, but it sure as hell is not great.
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Old Posted Aug 27, 2015, 8:09 AM
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This plan aims to build a modern passenger operation using modern equipment, and for that you need passenger-dedicated tracks and electricity.

Otherwise, the best we can do is Frontrunner: not the worst by any means, but it sure as hell is not great.
One can put any trains, including your electrified modern trains, on any dedicated tracks on any corridor. The key being having dedicated tracks.
If you don't want to share the corridor with freight trains, build you own brand new corridor and leave the freight corridors alone. You'll find that far easier to accomplish, both politically and economically. I guarantee the freight railroad companies will jealously defend in court their ownership and operational control of their own corridors they wish to keep. And they will win that battle.
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Old Posted Aug 27, 2015, 8:22 AM
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There would never be a court battle with the railroads. There is literally nothing to bring to the court, so I do not understand your point or why you bring up the judicial system. In a sensible world, the quid pro quo nature of this plan would generate agreement between the railroads and the government as it satisfies all parties.

The type of service levels envisioned in this plan, as well as the high speeds, requires dedicated tracks. Instead of building an entirely new railroad as you suggest, a pointless and wildly expensive endeavor, this plan utilizes the region's resources, eliminates redundancy, and delivers the goods affordably and efficiently.

Sharing tracks with freight trains in the United States, especially on trackage as busy with freights as the mainline BNSF, precludes the scheduling of a world-class passenger service. The two are mutually exclusive.

Last edited by Troyeth; Aug 27, 2015 at 8:34 AM.
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Old Posted Aug 27, 2015, 5:07 PM
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Troyeth, I like this idea a lot. I'd totally support it. I'm impressed by your detailed plan sheets. What did you use to create them?

Being from Utah, I feel I must justify UTA FrontRunner, just a little bit. Yes it runs within a freight ROW and yes it doesn't go any faster than any regular train, and yes it is single-track and diesel powered - but there are plans to change all of that except the ROW. After talking with UTA capital development officers, I've learned that in the future they fully expect to have double-tracked their line, electrified it, and raised the speed, possibly to as high as 110 mph where the alignment allows it. The reason they will be able to go so fast in a ROW shared with freight trains is because of an ingenious 'pinch point' system they devised, which involves a lot of stanchions placed between the UTA and UP tracks. An electrical circuit goes up and down the inside of the stanchion, and if something like a stray fright car derails and knocks one over, the circuit is broken and the positive train control system stops all traffic on both lines.
UTA has taken the "Rome wasn't built in a day", incremental building approach. It works fine now, but it will improve over time.
Big changes get people up in arms, but slow incremental changes can get by without causing much controversy.

The stanchions are visible in the photo below:


That said, I have no idea what all the design constraints are in the Seattle-Tacoma corridor, and your plan is very impressive. Well done!
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Old Posted Aug 27, 2015, 8:15 PM
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I have to begin by writing about the genius of the stanchion concept. I love it, and the UTA saved quite a bit of money by implementing this technologically crafty system. Somehow, though I am not a researcher of your state's transit politics and planning, Utah seems to be making quality decisions.

Then again, Frontrunner construction coincided with a parallel, massive freeway expansion and rebuild, so there is that.

I want to make it clear that as far as American commuter lines are concerned, Frontrunner is an admirable and enviable service. UTA commitment to publicly owned tracks and separated traffic (for now, at least as much as possible) is a long-term vision that must continue to be realized. Incrementally building a passenger-dedicated system for the Frontrunner, parallel to existing railroad right-of-way is, in spirit, nearly identical to the plan that is proposed here. While my maps detail a full build out, major components of the project can be separately funded and constructed if necessary, with each improvement a tremendous boost for ridership numbers and service quality.

UTA has already worked out the politics of their scheme and so has a leg-up on Seattle. We have a bit more work to do to realize this plan overall, and we have not even begun the discussion.
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Old Posted Aug 27, 2015, 9:29 PM
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Moderator note: I added the words "My Plan For" to the beginning of the thread title, so people will know this is OP's idea, not an official plan.
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Old Posted Aug 27, 2015, 9:38 PM
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Anyway, this looks like a great way to improve longer distance travel, but it would sacrifice providing direct service to the Columbia City / Rainier Valley part of Seattle. It's trading urban transit for regional transit. Ironically that would make Seattle's system *more* like BART.

Doing this makes more sense than extending the light rail further south than it already goes, but north of the airport this is not really a replacement for the Link light rail at all. It's filling a different niche.
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Old Posted Aug 27, 2015, 9:54 PM
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Think of this more as a massive improvement to Sounder's commuter railroad, which does not serve the Rainier Valley or Columbia City. This plan will not either. It is not a replacement for Link just as Sounder commuter trains are not a replacement.

This plan is not intended to improve intra-Seattle mobility. In fact, unlike Link Light Rail, the objective of this plan is clear: rapid mass transit between the region's cities, as affordably and as swiftly as possible.

I do understand the confusion, however. I introduce Link into the discussion because Link is envisioned as being the region's new passenger rail spine. With a brand new political alignment, it will be expensive, serve sprawled areas, and be unacceptably slow as it attempts to perform a role better suited for intercity trains. There just so happens to be such a train waiting for its time to shine.....

By the way, thank you for the title correction. Your fix nearly matches with the title this piece had on my blog.

Last edited by Troyeth; Aug 27, 2015 at 11:39 PM.
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  #13  
Old Posted Oct 10, 2015, 7:29 AM
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This rail proposal has been completely updated. It now also features an extension proposal to Olympia, Washington.

Go to the blog, here, to see the current maps.
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