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Seattle-to-Portland Amtrak service to get a boost

State announces a deal with BNSF Railway to begin improvements this fall, using federal stimulus money.
The tracks at Seattle's King Street Station are to be improved with federal funds for high-speed rail.

The tracks at Seattle's King Street Station are to be improved with federal funds for high-speed rail. Washington Department of Transportation

State transportation officials have reached an agreement with the BNSF Railway that will bring more and faster trains to the Amtrak Cascades service between Seattle and Portland.

In a release today (Sept. 3), the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) said the accord “clears the way for the state to begin initial work this fall” on projects being underwritten by $590 million in federal high-speed rail (HSR) funds. The agreement provides ground rules and operational goals for using most of the money, which the federal government awarded to Washington last January. The sum is part of $8 billion in HSR stimulus money authorized under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

For Washington and the 30 other states getting the HSR funds, plenty of questions remain to be answered, however. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which is doling out the dollars, is aiming to issue all the checks nationwide by Sept. 30. As of now, however, the agency has gotten only $600 million or so out the door.

Disbursement of the billions has stalled as the railroad administration, states and railroads fine-tune rules and agreements that are terra incognita for the FRA, formerly a strictly regulatory agency. In an interview, Ron Pate, the state's director for the Cascades program, said some of the $590 million will probably arrive this fall, but he declined to be more specific.

BNSF, which owns the track, "could probably go to work in the next few weeks, but we have to get this agreement with FRA to get the money flowing,” Pate said.

In addition to funding various new sidings and bypasses, the $590 million is expected to pay for a new set of tilting cars, seating some 300 and similar to the trainsets currently used in the Cascades corridor, which runs from Eugene to Vancouver, B.C. The improvements will translate into two new daily round-trips on the state-supported Amtrak line between Seattle and Portland, bringing the total to six, as well as speed and safety upgrades. Pate hesitated to say when the new trips would become reality, but did state that the enhancements would shave about 11 minutes off the current 3.5-hour travel time between Seattle and Portland.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in the release that the agreement “could not have occurred without a strong commitment from both parties, and their partnership will serve as a model for other states and railroads.”

Lloyd Flem, executive director of All Aboard Washington, a passenger rail advocacy organization, said, “We're pleased that our state and BNSF have put together an agreement that once again seems to be leading the country.”

WSDOT is seeking about $80 million in a new round of applications for federal HSR money. That application includes several projects on the Seattle-Vancouver, B.C., line, which got only a tiny slice of the $590 million.

The current projects and proposals do not include establishing two tiers of service — local and express — even on the popular Portland-Seattle route. “Even at six round-trips, we're not in a position to operate two tiers,” Rail and Marine Office deputy director Andrew Wood said in an interview. AAWA has proposed the two-tier format as a means of both allowing faster travel on limited-stop trips and introducing service to communities such as Auburn, which the Cascades do not now serve.

C.B. Hall is a freelance writer and has been following Pacific Northwest transportation issues since the 1990s. He can be reached through editor@crosscut.com.


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