Thursday, March 02, 2006

Can a delay for Sound Transit mean better agency collaboration?

This morning I noticed something I had previously skipped over - WSDOT has a quarterly report up from December of 2005 for the Point Defiance Bypass project. Some of the comments made in this report are fairly harsh:
The lack of coordinated investments will cause Sound Transit to design and build only for its needs. When WSDOT funding becomes available, major components of the Sound Transit work will need to be redone to provide for both Sounder commuter service and Amtrak Cascades intercity service.
The new project, which I've discussed on my other blog, would move Amtrak Cascades service to new track, cutting six minutes off of the Seattle-Portland trip, and allow for further upgrades to reduce that time by at least another five minutes. It starts at Freighthouse Square in Tacoma, currently the terminus for Sounder service, and continues up the Tacoma Rail Lakeview line to Nisqually. A few weeks ago, we learned in the Seattle Times that the F59PHI locomotives in service for Sounder (and presumably those in service for Amtrak Cascades) can't climb the 3.1% grade to that line from a dead stop in wet weather.

This is a problem. The first proposed solution is one that's been discussed in the past: To build a bridge over Pacific Avenue to fully grade-separate the line. This would solve an existing issue - trains crossing South Tacoma Way and Pacific Avenue would pose a significant safety risk very regularly during busy commute times - and an overpass would allow the grade to be only 2.8%, which the locomotives should be able to start on even in bad conditions.

This solution would also reduce the likelihood of the neighborhood and commuters becoming opposed to the system - I can see 18 crossings for Sounder and the proposed 26 eventual crossings for Cascades (from their 20 year plan) being less than pleasant for traffic. A diagonal crossing such as the one originally proposed would be quite dangerous in heavy traffic - last November, a METRA train in Chicago destroyed and damaged cars who failed to heed warning signs and lights. Despite clear markings, gates, signs and lights, drivers still stop on tracks.

But, here's the problem. This track is in two parts - Sound Transit is to build a single track halfway along the alignment, to Lakewood. WSDOT is to build a track from 66th St in South Tacoma all the way to Nisqually, but plans to build a second track along the entire alignment for Phase 2. Sound Transit originally planned to have their section done by the end of 2007, and WSDOT didn't get their first large chunk of funding until 2009. This was a major issue - it meant that Sound Transit would have to build their project completely without engineering work or preliminary construction work for WSDOT's extension, and WSDOT would have to significantly change work ST had done, wasting money.

But! The State Legislature has just pushed up WSDOT's funding for the project so that they will receive nearly all of it in 2007, rather than most of it in 2009 and 2011. If Sound Transit chooses grade separation and can wait until this money becomes available, the cost savings of a shared project could free up funds to help pay for the overpass alternative. If Sound Transit and WSDOT money is pooled, the embankments leading up to the overpass can also simply be built wider for a later second bridge.

We need this project. It benefits both intercity and commuter rail, and not only expands commuter rail service to Lakewood and South Tacoma, but opens a path to Dupont. It allows for the addition of expanded Amtrak Cascades service - I was on a 250-seat train with 260 people on it last weekend, both the bistro and dining cars had people sitting in them. More service is necessary for the growth of our urban areas and to keep traffic congestion from increasing on I-5.

I propose that Sound Transit work with WSDOT to estimate what the cost savings would be to build both projects concurrently. With that savings as ammunition, a double-pronged approach could work. Talk to the communities in Tacoma and Lakewood to gather support for grade separation through education about the danger of a diagonal crossing, and perhaps secure some funding through the City of Tacoma to that end. Ask for help from the Legislature and the Transportation Committee to prioritize this project above others or to secure additional funding given the cost savings of doing both projects at once.


At 6:00 PM, Anonymous EvergreenRailfan said...

Would be nice to get agencies providing rail tranist to work together to get things done. BNSF is out of the picture now(as for the Lakeview Sub), as Sound Transit has purchased this track, and Tacoma Rail is serving their freight customers along this line for them. It is just WSDOT and SOUND TRANSIT. The City of Tacoma, since it is their streets, must get involved. Some would like to use this as an excuse to kill all passenger rail projects in the region. It is bad enough that FRA rules made BNSF abandon the original connection between this line and their main when Tacoma LINK went on-line. Doing this project concurrently with the Pt. Defiance Bypass will help out a lot. It is about time that SOUNDER gets to Lakewood, and AMTRAK CASCADES gets off the Pt. Defiance Line. To all sides, quit arguing and get things done. It can happen.

At 9:50 PM, Blogger Michael said...

Hi there. Stumbled across your blog and was amazed at the discussion about transportation. I work for a train manufacturer (ALSTOM) but we know that in the U.S. trains are not as popular as here in Europe. But I do think it's a lot about politics (cars, gas, airline lobbies, etc.)

I also came across this post that shows the new tramway being built in Paris. It's a video within a post, but I think I've copied the right URL.

All the best!

At 10:50 PM, Blogger EvergreenRailfan said...

The TALGO Trains are pretty amazing, but it is hard to add cars to them. Train Travel on segments of up to 400 miles is picking up in some areas outside of the established Northeast Corridor and Chicago Hub. Amtrak California has three corridors that get good riidership, two with nearly a dozen round trips a day on some segments of the track. The San Juoquins, which go from Oakland(except a few that start in Sacremento) to Bakersfield(if it was not for congestion and no room to expand on Tehachapi Pass, they would terminate at Los Angeles for sure), the San Diego-Los Angeles Pacific Surfliner(some go on to Santa Barbara and San Luis Obisipo, with plans(long-term) to extend a couple trips to San Francisco), and the San Jose-Oakland-Sacremento Capitol Corridor, with some trips east of Sacremento, and proposals to extend one trip to Reno.(Might need to re-double track some stretches of Donner Pass). These three corridors mostly run at normal track speed, which is 79MPH.

Too bad WSDOT/BNSF/AMTRAK CASCADES are unable to do what they would do in the old days of passenger train travel. More passengers than seats, they would just put green flags on the lead locomotive of the first train, and that would signal a 2nd Section is following just behind.

At 11:04 AM, Blogger Ben Schiendelman said...

evergreenrailfan: I don't think the sides are arguing. ST can't wait to build the project unless they have to, it'll damage support for them in Pierce County. DOT finally got their money sooner I learned this morning (and edited the post), and I've heard there's an executive meeting today with this on the agenda, so it sounds like they're going to work together.

michael: Bienvenue! I agree it's about politics, but it seems to be something we can change with better urban planning as well. Individuals support train systems when they see what transit oriented development can do for their communities. Thanks for the link - both that image and the older one are great. Do you know what that type of rail is called, with the well in it? Seattle's light rail system is using the same thing through our tunneled section.

At 4:12 PM, Blogger EvergreenRailfan said...

I found this article in the Tacoma News Tribune today about an alternative that Sound Transit is proposing.

At 10:39 PM, Blogger EvergreenRailfan said...

Looks like in this article in the Tacoma News Tribune from the 5th of March, they are suggesting the very same collaboration, or something like it, that you propose.

Putting SOUNDER and AMTRAK CASCADES trains onto the Pt. Defiance Bypass will save time, and since they are both growing in ridership, will help the Port of Tacoma. Some of the trains that carry traffic from the port are Union Pacific trains, and they head South for Portland. Amtrak Cascades and those frieghts cannot share the largely single-tracked Point Defiance Line much longer. I think that the Port of Tacoma should also pay some of the money it might take for the more expensive option, because they will benefit from the Pt. Defiance Bypass.

At 7:43 AM, Blogger Ben Schiendelman said...

It's interesting that the Discovery Institute, of all groups, is such a fan of rail. Their Cascadia group seems to be in line with what I believe (in regards to transportation, anyway...).

I agree with you that the Port could consider offering some of those funds, although I don't know that they have them to offer. I'm hoping to harass the Tacoma City Council at some point soon, and maybe I'll ask if it's been considered.

At 10:53 PM, Blogger EvergreenRailfan said...

I at first thought Cascadia was too biased towards BRT, but then I saw a video presentation they did on the Seattle Channel that seemed to be pro-rail. Light Rail was mentioned many times in it.

Back to the Amtrak Cascades/Sounder. The story of of people riding in the Bistro and Diner cars on an Amtrak Cascades train reminded me of an article in Trains Magazine about a young railfan going to a Beattles concert in Cincinatti. The author was recollectiong on his experience riding a night run of the Louisville and Nashville, and the two Heavyweight Cars(pre-streamlined, railroads often kept rebuilt cars from the Heavyweight Era running on secondary and third-rate trains), were sold out, and he found a seat in the restroom.

Hopefully with all sides working together, the only thing hurting Amtrak Cascades frequencies between Seattle and Portland will be the lack of sufficient rolling stock, which hopefully will not be much of a problem, as more will need to be ordered before 2010.

At 8:27 PM, Blogger EvergreenRailfan said...

I was in Tacoma Last Night, and saw from LINK near the S. 25th Station where the Tacoma Rail Mountain Division curves East under the I-705/I-5 Interchange.

Unfortunately, I did not get a picture of that. Single-tracked and a 3% Grade. The trains are packed, they need more frequencies, but the tracks need to be upgraded. Train 1701, the first Southbound Train of the Afternoon, which I caught at Kent Station(wanted to see something there), had to stop abruptly at S. Auburn for a few minutes because a Freight Train had not cleared the Main. The Main, Everett-Portland is one long stretch of Double-Track. The Frieght passed us, and it was not a freight train, it was three locomotives deadheading. The third main should be constructed ASAP. The sidings South of Freighthose Square are already cramped, but that does not mean that a 5th SOUNDER-South trip could not be possible. Why not have anything more than the 4th Train deadhead back to Seattle, and open just a few cars to reverse-flow commuters?

Another missed oppurtunity for agency and railroad co-operation, and we are paying for it now. 1701 is a full train, there were 20-30 people waiting on the platform to board at Kent, and it seemed there were still a few people getting on at Sumner and Puyallup, and many getting off at those two stations. The train is a multi-tasker, it is not just for the commute between the County Seat of Pierce County and the County Seat of King County. The on-line stations in North Pierce and South King County also generate passengers. In fact, SOUNDER was the first direct service from Sumner to Seattle for commuters since the Interurban, and it sure seemed to be a long wait for that link to be restored. Pierce Transit never bothered to have a 590 route serve Sumner and Puyallup, in fact the only time the 590s passed through Sumner and Puyallup were when I-5 was too crowded to maintain a schedule.


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