Jumping onboard: What rail's resurgence means for efforts to decarbonize the Pacific Northwest
Rail advocates argue new lines will grow the economy, shrink mobility inequalities and help decarbonize the region.
In August, Charlie Hamilton trekked from Seattle to Spokane, evangelizing a two-decade-old idea to resurrect an east-west passenger rail route. The proposal would link fast-growing cities like Ellensburg and Yakima via Washington’s Stampede Pass.
At some stops, only a handful of attendees came out to hear the pitch. At others, larger crowds gathered, and residents spoke up about the need for more transit services for rural areas.
“Interestingly, the places we had the most response were the smaller communities,” said Hamilton, co-executive director of All Aboard Washington, a train advocacy group. And Seattle or Spokane wasn’t always the final destination people wanted to reach, Hamilton heard.
“It was also about going to Yakima, because even in Toppenish there’s not a whole lot of transportation options,” Hamilton said. “The other piece: Everyone is concerned about the environmental needs, the tipping point. If we are going to survive, we have to turn around the carbon situation in the next decade. Time is running out.”
Reviving the east-west route through Stampede Pass isn’t the only rail plan picking up steam in the Cascadia region. There’s also a high-speed rail proposal for the Interstate 5 corridor running from Portland to Vancouver, British Columbia, via Seattle. Another plan would upgrade and electrify Amtrak’s existing coastal route, along with other lines.
Rail advocates argue new lines will grow the region economically by providing better connections between cities and evening out mobility inequalities, while also contributing to decarbonizing the region.
Achieving both economic and environmental goals would require powering trains by zero-carbon sources and shifting riders from autos and planes to trains.
Emissions of carbon dioxide, meanwhile, dissolve into the atmosphere, contributing to the climate-change-driven heat waves, flooding and other weather extremes that already disproportionately affect marginalized communities.
And with President Joe “Amtrak” Biden in the White House ushering in one of the most substantial investments in passenger railroads over the past half century — $66 billion — regional rail's big moment might finally be arriving.
A passenger rail renaissance
Regional rail is already having a resurgence in the U.S., as congestion clogs highways and housing costs force many to live far from their jobs. Rail lines are launching in areas not known for their embrace of public transportation, including private ventures.
The first privately run intercity railroad in the modern U.S. opened in Florida in 2018. Brightline shuttles passengers between Miami and West Palm Beach, with a stop in Fort Lauderdale, in about an hour and 15 minutes. An extension is scheduled to reach Orlando by the end of next year. The service reopened in early November after the pandemic shut it down for 20-months.
Seeing potential for demand — and revenue — in other areas of the county, Brightline has plans to build a western high-speed rail route between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Meanwhile, two other U.S. projects (one private, one public) aim to run trains over 200 miles per hour between densely populated areas.
Though common in Europe and Japan, high-speed rail has been slow to gain traction in North America. Currently, Amtrak’s Acela line in the Northeast remains the only one in the U.S., but actual speeds often have riders doubting that descriptor.
In 2016, California launched an ambitious high-speed rail project to link San Francisco and Los Angeles via the Central Valley. The public project is following a familiar trajectory for large infrastructure projects; it’s behind schedule and over budget. The first section, between Merced and Bakersfield, is set to open by the end of the decade.
A private project — still in the planning and financing stage — would connect Dallas and Houston with a 90-minute train ride. Texas Central estimates construction would take five to six years once the permits are obtained and will cost $20 billion.
Ultrahigh-speed rail, said former Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, can help Cascadia reach its climate goals, while also addressing housing affordability and traffic congestion as millions of people are expected to move to the Cascadia region. Gregoire now leads Challenge Seattle, a group of CEOs from the region’s largest employers.
The long-awaited federal infrastructure bill set aside $66 billion for Amtrak, plus $10 billion specifically for high-speed rail. That could be what launches the Cascadia megaregion high-speed rail project into reality.
The proposal is already backed by a range of local and federal elected leaders from Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. On Tuesday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and British Columbia Premier John Horgan reaffirmed their interest by agreeing through a formal memorandum of understanding to continue laying the groundwork for high-speed rail along the I-5 corridor.
The project also has support from a coalition of cities, businesses, government and transit agencies, and environmental groups.
A 2018 ultrahigh-speed rail study analyzed several routes with varying numbers of stations, with the goal of condensing travel times to less than an hour between Portland and Seattle, as well as Seattle to Vancouver. Build-out costs for the line would range from $24 billion to $42 billion in 2017 dollars, with a projected annual ridership of 1.6 million to 2.5 million by 2035.
This high-speed rail line would mimic the current Amtrak Cascades service, which in 2019 carried roughly 830,000 passengers, but make far fewer stops and run at faster speeds. These changes would drop travel times between Vancouver and Portland from more than eight hours to less than two hours.
The region needs to start thinking 20, 30 years into the future, argued Gregoire.
“We need to be thinking about our failure to plan,” Gregoire said. “All three cities have become unaffordable, the congestion in and out is just a crisis and we are not close to the Paris [greenhouse gas] goals that we set out.”
Not only are more federal dollars expected to flow toward rail, there’s also broad public support for these larger projects, she said, pointing to a poll that found a majority of people would support a high-speed rail project, as well as robust ridership on public transit in the region pre-COVID.
People are tired of thinking about just adding another highway lane along I-5 from Oregon to Canada, Gregoire said.
“Even if you constructed that whole daggum thing, by the time you had it constructed we’d overrun it, too. So we need to think about something other than concrete,” Gregoire said. “I don’t see an alternative. If a better idea comes along, we are open to that. But we fundamentally believe we have to think much bigger and much bolder.”
High-speed rail in Cascadia
In the years before the pandemic, greenhouse gas emissions slowly, but steadily, climbed in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. Moving people and goods is the largest source of emissions in all three of Cascadia’s jurisdictions. It accounts for about 45% of the total carbon released in Washington, and for about 35% and 41% of carbon emissions in Oregon and British Columbia, respectively.
Rail is one of the most energy efficient travel modes, according to the International Energy Agency, offering a pathway to zero-emission intercity travel. However, that carbon savings relies on filling seats, as well as using zero-carbon energy to power engines.
Cascadia’s hydropower-rich electrical supplies are among the cleanest in North America. British Columbia leads the way at over 90% hydropower. Washington and Oregon have similar goals for a carbon-neutral electricity grid in 2030 and 2040, respectively.
“The energy mix with low carbon hydropower makes a good argument for high speed electric rail in Cascadia,” said Martino Tran, associate professor at the University of British Columbia and director of the university’s Urban Predictive Analytics Lab. “If we are serious about decarbonization and increasing economic benefits by connecting up the region, then high-speed rail is potentially serving as a win-win.”
Building out electric high speed rail now is a way to lock in carbon savings over the next 50 to 100 years, Tran said.
“The alternative would be expanding the highway network and the supporting road network and potentially inducing further vehicle use, increasing congestion, all of which have a negative carbonization impact,” Tran added.
Not to mention carbon-intensive regional flights. Aviation is one of the more difficult sectors to decarbonize. So much so that advocacy by climate and community activists has put potential expansion of airports into question.
To make an impact on carbon emissions, trains must attract riders away from air and vehicle travel, and rail trips must be competitive in both time and cost. For rail, that sweet spot comes in journeys of a couple hundred miles. Or, say, from Vancouver to Seattle to Portland, and not necessarily from Spokane to Seattle.
A 2018 feasibility study for a Cascadia ultrahigh-speed plan found the line could shift nearly all intercity air travelers and nearly 20% of vehicle trips to rail. Backing that up are studies showing modest to significant shifts from cars and air travel to high speed rail lines in Europe and China.
In China, scientists found a decadelong expansion of high-speed rail indirectly reduced greenhouse gases. Interestingly, the reduction in carbon emissions likely came from freight traffic moving from the road to rail, as riders shifted to high-speed trains, freeing up capacity on conventional rail tracks, the authors, Yatgang Lin and colleagues, suggested in the paper.
“I’m quite confident you could design a high-speed rail service for the Cascadia corridor that would attract people onto it,” said Don MacKenzie, associate professor at the University of Washington and director of the university’s Sustainable Transportation Lab.
Planners need to be judicious in choosing stops, he warned. “There’s going to be political pressure to serve every little town. If you say yes to everyone, you wind up with something that's useful to none,” MacKenzie said. “Instead, think along the lines of serving well spaced, major population centers. Portland, Tacoma, Seattle, Everett, maybe Bellingham, Vancouver.”
Serving many stations will slow travel times and drive riders away, according to MacKenzie, pointing to the east-west plan through Stampede Pass that Charlie Hamilton spent 10 days touting across Washington state.
A recent study of the east-west route came to a similar conclusion. It found the route would generate low ridership because of long journey times. At an estimated eight hours and 35 minutes travel time from Spokane to Seattle, the scenic route would take nearly twice as long as driving (assuming no traffic, of course).
That proposed route would travel southwest from Spokane to Pasco, where it would turn northwest toward Yakima, then on to Cle Elum and the Seattle area. A version of the line once existed, shuffling passengers from Spokcane to Seattle via Pasco and Yakima, before Amtrak’s Empire Builder was rerouted through Stevens Pass in the early 1980s.
Low ridership would also sap the route’s climate dividend. “Empty trains will not have a favorable emissions profile, compared with full cars or full aircraft. A lot of cars travel empty and most aircraft travel pretty full,” MacKenzie said. “If it’s important to serve these types of communities as a transit-type service, OK. Don’t sell it as a climate solution because it’s not going to attract the ridership, and it’s not going to displace the air and motor vehicle trips that are needed to deliver an impact on emissions.”
Gregoire’s version of high-speed ground transportation combines speed with infrequent stops. But it also connects to local transit networks, and potentially to a rail extension through Stampede Pass, to seamlessly move people around.
“It’s all about a grand infrastructure plan,” Gregoire said.
Meeting climate goals will take more than just these two plans, Gregoire added, predicting there was enough federal money for multiple projects.
Not all rail aficionados see it that way. Some think Cascadia would be better off upgrading what it has.
“This ultrahigh-speed has taken the oxygen out of the room. People are being harmed right now by diesel emissions,” argued Bill Moyer, an activist with Solutionary Rail.
He foresees years wasted arguing over the details of a high-speed route and further years cobbling together rights-of-way and laying track.
“The idea of decades fighting to get a high-speed corridor so we could go a little faster a couple places, rather than upgrade what exists, makes no sense,” Moyer said.
Moyer favors electrifying and adding extra tracks to Amtrak’s existing Cascades line along the coast from Oregon to the Canadian border, which he says offers a faster and more cost-effective path to lowering carbon emissions. Moyer estimates costs to upgrade and electrify the Cascades line at about $9.2 billion, compared with the $24 billion to $42 billion cost to build an all-new electric high-speed line.
Other technology is also on the horizon. Engines powered by hydrogen fuel cells could be a fast and cost-effective route toward zero-carbon transportation without having to hang wires. The technology, which produces electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen, is being used on a small scale for passenger rail service in Germany and China. And Ballard Power Systems, a Vancouver-based fuel cell manufacturer, recently landed a deal to develop hydrogen-powered locomotives for Canadian Pacific, which carries freight across Canada and in 13 U.S. states.
“Building an independent, electrified, regional passenger rail network is basically laying a set of rails,” said Gord Lovegrove, a colleague of Tran’s at the University of British Columbia and principal investigator at the university's Sustainable Transport Safety Research Laboratory.
“There’s tons of abandoned freight corridors in Canada and the U.S. that could be reactivated for regional rail, or even to serve low-density communities,” he added.
Part engineer, part rail advocate, Lovegrove said government intervention will be required for new passenger rail lines to become a reality.
“If we really are going to do the right thing — climate change, safety, transit equity — it is going to require government control to push passenger rail. Plus a carbon tax and other measures,” said Lovegrove. “We’ve had discussions with our province about this stuff. They get it, but somebody has to go first.”
Experts like Lovegrove say constrained geography and a string of cities in close proximity, combined with the environmental ethics of Cascadians, make the region a good fit for rail.
“What I love about the Cascadia region is that you have Portland, Seattle and Vancouver competing to be the greenest city in the world, or at least the greenest in North America,” said Chris Kennedy, a professor at the University of Victoria and director of the university's Industrial Ecology Program.
But the main reasons for building new regional rail usually are rooted in transportation, rather than environmental needs, according to Kennedy: “You build it because you want to get rid of congestion or improve the quality of life. Or you want to change the culture. The environmental reason might follow as a secondary benefit.”
To reach the region’s climate goals, electrification of cars is at the top of Kennedy’s list. He said that will have the biggest environmental impact.
“If we don’t electrify vehicles, we are completely toast,” said Kennedy.
The ability to calculate a plan to reach a net-zero world on paper keeps the self-described carbon number cruncher optimistic about reaching climate targets.
“The only thing that makes me pessimistic is throw some people in there. Then I think about the political realities of getting there and that’s when you can get really pessimistic,” Kennedy said.
This story is part of the series Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia, which explores the path to low-carbon energy for British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. This project is produced in partnership with InvestigateWest, Jefferson Public Radio and other media outlets and is supported in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.