Imagine a 2.5-hour drive from Vancouver to Seattle replaced with a 1-hour train ride.
That’s the vision of Washington State, which is studying the feasibility of a high-speed rail service between Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland.
Washington State Governor Jay Inslee’s latest budget puts aside $1 million to determine the costs and benefits of a north-south, cross-border ultra high-speed rail service, with trains operating at speeds of 400 km/hr or more.
According to a budget bill, stations could also be located along the way in Bellingham, Everett, SeaTac International Airport, Tacoma, Olympia, and Vancouver, Washington.
Such a service would cost billions, and the faster the service the greater the cost. The average cost for the high-speed rail service currently under construction in California is US$56 million per km. However, trains in California will operate no more than 350 km/hr whereas Inslee’s proposal would have trains running at over 400 km/hr, which typically cost around CAD$150 million per km.
Frequency, not just speed alone, is an important factor. Trains for high-speed rail services typically depart every 15 minutes to 30 minutes.
A report with the study’s findings is scheduled to be presented to the Governor and legislature no later than December 2017.
Demand in the Pacific Northwest
It is often said that Vancouver has more in common with Seattle than its Canadian counterparts in Calgary and Toronto, and it goes without saying that both cities have close economic ties.
Last September, government officials in BC and Washington State signed the Cascadia Innovation Corridor agreement to grow the Vancouver-Seattle corridor into a tech corridor and innovation hub. And during the conference where that agreement was signed, improving transportation connections along the Corridor, including the possibility of high-speed rail, was discussed.
Whether there is demand to support the cost of such an infrastructure project remains to be seen, but by the time such a service is operational the Corridor’s population will be significantly greater. All three major urban centres along the Cascade Corridor are forecasted to see major population growth over the decades to come.
Metro Vancouver’s population is expected to grow from 2.5 million in 2016 to 3.4 million in 2040. Similarly, Puget Sound, where Seattle is located, could see another million people, growing from 3.9 million to nearly five million during the same timeframe.
Another million people in the Portland area by 2040 will push the population of Oregon’s largest urban region to around 3.25 million.
Altogether, that puts over 11 million people in the major urban centres along the Corridor, not including the population areas of potential stations at smaller cities.
Route through Vancouver
It took more a decade for California to determine its route for its high-speed rail service, and a similar service through the Pacific Northwest is bound to incur more complex challenges considering it crosses not just multiple state jurisdictions but also international jurisdictions.
The complex geography of the Pacific Northwest does not help either, given that it is bound by water to the west and the mountains to the east.
A high-speed rail service could theoretically run along the side of Interstate 5 of Washington State, north of Seattle, and transition at the border into running along Highway 99 through South Surrey, Delta, and Richmond.
But how the service would travel through Vancouver to reach downtown Vancouver is particularly challenging.
Currently, Vancouver and Seattle are linked by the twice daily Amtrak Cascades train service. The Vancouver terminus is just outside of downtown Vancouver at Pacific Central Station, next to the Expo Line’s Main Street-Science World Station.
Tunnelling under Vancouver to bring the trains to downtown could become prohibitively expensive, and elevated guideways similar to SkyTrain would likely be met with fierce local opposition.
If the high-speed rail service were to terminate at Brighouse Station in North Richmond, a major investment would be needed to significantly expand the Canada Line’s capacity to handle additional passengers. But the lack of a direct high-speed rail connection to the city centre would be detrimental to the high-speed rail service’s ridership and potential economic benefits.
An alternative route that detours through Surrey and Burnaby – following the existing Amtrak Cascades route to reach downtown Vancouver – could be equally as challenging given the lack of space for new railway right-of-ways, particularly through Burnaby. Existing railways are already heavily utilized for freight and domestic passenger train traffic; high-speed railways need their own set of specially-designed tracks.
Canada is the only G7 country without high-speed rail
High-speed rail services in countries like France, the United Kingdom, and Japan move hundreds of thousands of passengers on a daily basis. In China, over 20,000 kms of high-speed rail track, largely built over the last 15 years, move nearly 1.5 million people everyday.
A number of other developing countries including Brazil, Argentina, and Morocco are catching on as well, but Canada has floundered in this area of infrastructural development, despite the nation being built on the foundations of its early railways.
Canada is the only country in the G7 without any high-speed rail service, even though Bombardier, one of the world’s leading train manufacturing companies, is based in the country.
High-speed rail services provide a major boost to tourism and economic development and connectivity, and offer an alternative and more environmentally-friendly mode of transport to air travel for shorter routes.
Recognizing these benefits, California is currently the leader in North America for building high-speed rail. The state government began a US$61 billion high-speed rail construction project in 2015, with the first phase running by 2029 from downtown San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Centre to downtown Los Angeles’ Union Station. There will also be stations at Silicon Valley, Fresno, Palmdale, Burbank, and Anaheim, for connections to Disneyland Resort.
The second future phase will extend the high-speed rail network north to Sacramento and south to San Diego. A separate, privately-funded project to extend California’s high-speed rail network to Las Vegas was put on hold last year.
High-speed rail is also being studied elsewhere in the United States, including within Texas from Houston to Dallas. However, a recent study for the Texas project concluded that it would cost $21.5 billion to build and run annual operational cost deficits of over $500 million for 40 years.
On the East Coast, a cross-border high-speed rail route from Montreal to New York City and Boston has been repeatedly discussed.
Within Canada, the corridor with the best business case for high-speed rail is the corridor running from Quebec City to Windsor, Ontario. Nearly 20 million people live along this corridor, and a high-speed rail service running along this route would connect Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa in between.
The Ontario provincial government is in the early planning stages for an interregional high-speed rail service running through southern Ontario, connecting Windsor, London, Kitchener, Waterloo, and Toronto. There could even be a station at Toronto Pearson International Airport to bolster the airport’s ground connections.
In 2014, a high-speed rail study conducted by the provincial government for a service from Calgary to Edmonton was found to be unfeasible given the cost and expected low ridership. It could cost up to $10 billion, and the combined population two million people between the two major urban regions produced poor ridership forecasts.