photo: a high-speed train in Switzerland
Like this, but in Seattle. Reuters

At the Cascadia Rail Summit outside Seattle, a fledgling scheme to bring high-speed rail from Portland to Vancouver found an enthusiastic reception.

Only 175 miles separate Portland from Seattle. Then it’s another 140 miles north to Vancouver, British Columbia. The three Pacific Northwest cities, which together form the Cascadia megaregion, are currently served by Amtrak service that tops out at 79 mph, shares track with BNSF freight trains, and runs infrequently—just twice daily round-trip between Seattle and Vancouver. If you want to make the full 315-mile run from Portland to Vancouver on rails, it’s going to take you at least 8-and-a-half hours. By bus or car, expect the journey to eat up 5 or 6 hours, with metro-area traffic an unpredictable wild card that regularly balloons travel times.

But Roger Millar, Washington State’s secretary of transportation, sees a better way: a trans-national, ultra-high-speed rail line that can hit 250 mph and put the three booming cities within super-commuting range. Such a system—common in Europe and Asia but still alien to North America—might cost $50 billion or so. That sounds like a lot, but it could be a bargain compared to adding a lane to I-5, the current north-south corridor linking the megaregion.

“[For] $108 billion we’ve got another lane of pavement in each direction, and it still takes you all day to get from Portland to Vancouver,” Millar said earlier this month of a hypothetical lane-widening project. “Half of that invested in ultra-high speed rail and it’s two hours. That’s game-changing stuff.”

(Cascadia Rail)

Millar was a speaker at the Cascadia Rail Summit, which was held at Microsoft Headquarters outside Seattle in November. The event offered an opportunity to talk up a dream that has long beguiled and frustrated American train buffs—true high-speed rail. In February, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that he was scaling back that state’s high-speed rail ambitions, which have faced an array of political and technical challenges since the plan to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco was conceived in the 1990s. In addition to California’s star-crossed effort, the Texas Central Railway, a privately funded scheme to connect Dallas and Houston with a Japanese-style bullet train, continues to gather momentum, despite ongoing political resistance. Now attention is shifting north to a trio of cities that seem to have the right ingredients for high-speed train service: strong economies, short distances, committed political leaders, and private-sector encouragement.

“The biggest thing that it takes to get these moving is good leadership, and they have that like I haven’t seen anywhere else in the country,” U.S. High Speed Rail Association president and CEO Andy Kunz told CityLab.

Poor connectivity between Cascadia’s metropolitan regions has long been a major bugaboo for Microsoft president Brad Smith. The company is headquartered in a Seattle suburb that’s soon to be stitched together with the regional light rail system. Microsoft donated $300,000 to the successful 2016 ballot initiative to expand the transit network, known as Sound Transit. The company runs a fleet of shuttle buses for employees, but has acknowledged that the buses are only a stop-gap solution.

Three years ago, Smith pulled together business and political leaders from Washington and British Columbia and conjured the so-called Cascadia Innovation Corridor out of thin air with a debut conference in Vancouver, where Microsoft has recently increased its footprint. At that inaugural event, Smith called for seaplane service between Seattle’s Lake Union and Vancouver’s Coal Harbour, indicating that Microsoft would happily book its employees on the downtown-to-downtown flights. Less than two years later, the “nerd bird” has become quite possibly the world’s most scenic way to reach a business meeting.

Smith also broached the idea of high-speed rail, with the support of Washington Governor Jay Inslee and then-British Columbia Premier Christy Clark. (Clark’s successor, John Horgan*, has signed subsequent MOUs with Inslee.) While a bullet train represents a far more ambitious transportation undertaking than a seaplane service, the seemingly pie-in-the-sky proposal has covered a lot of ground in a relatively short period of time.

In 2017, the Washington legislature allocated $300,000 to fund a feasibility study that evaluated steel-on-steel, maglev, and hyperloop options; it estimated an upfront construction cost of $24 to $42 billion. In 2018, Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia collectively chipped in over $1 million for a business case study, which predicted that a bullet train could deliver $355 billion in regional economic growth. With up to 3 million annual trips by 2040, the study said the line could be one of the highest-performing intercity trains in North America. In 2019, the Washington legislature approved another nearly $900,000 to study the creation of a Cascadia High-Speed Rail Authority.

Kunz compared the short three-year gestation of Cascadia High-Speed Rail to the far longer saga of California High-Speed Rail, where an authority was first established in 1996, and the business plan first prepared in 2000 has been revised five times. “The whole thing is very accelerated,” he said.

Parts of any proposed route will run into Oregon and British Columbia, facing major geographic and jurisdictional hurdles between the Columbia River and the U.S.-Canada border, respectively. The bulk of the line would be located in Washington, and the proposal’s biggest boosters are in the Evergreen State, too. Besides Inslee, who briefly ran for president on a climate action platform and is likely to win a third term as Washington governor, and Microsoft, which has prodded the process along by funding studies and hosting splashy events like the rail summit, there is a third winning pillar in the state’s DOT head. Millar is a transit-first guy who previously worked on Portland’s streetcar network, lauded as the most successful in the country, and made waves when he told a national association of highway officials that building highway capacity to reduce traffic is a fool’s errand.

He’s signaled his eagerness to advance a non-highway megaproject for his state. “We have $200 billion worth of stuff that we own in Washington State, and we’ve spent all of our energy adding to the lane capacity of one mode—and it hasn’t worked,” Millar told CityLab.

While such talk has long been accepted by planners, hearing it from public officials is still a striking deviation from highway orthodoxy. “It’s a rare progressive DOT secretary talking about how building more roads to solve congestion doesn’t really work,” Kunz said. “You have the trifecta of governor, transportation, and corporate leadership.”

The Cascadia Rail Summit took place in Microsoft’s Building 92, home to the software giant’s flashy visitor center. Immersive Xbox gaming, artificial intelligence exhibits, and a company store to rival any pro sports team lent an appropriately techno-futurist sheen to the proceedings. The attendees—a mix of local elected officials, engineering consultants, city planners, real estate developers, transit agency representatives, and urbanist advocacy groups—watched videos of French TGVs breaking speed records, Japanese shinkansen bullet trains operating with military precision, and cheeky British train-vs.-plane ads, all designed to emphasize how this mode can compete with short-hop air travel. Representatives from rail companies like Alstom, Siemens, and SNCF were also on hand to share how many trains they have built and are operating across the world, if only the U.S. could finally get in the game.

Spanish train maker Talgo knows the local score better than anyone. In 1994, the Washington Department of Transportation awarded Talgo a contract to provide rolling stock for the Amtrak Cascades service, the current not-so-high-speed train that runs from Eugene, Oregon, north to Vancouver. Talgo has had a Seattle office and maintenance facility ever since, where it assembled the art-deco-inspired railcars and fixes up trains from around the country. Talgo CEO Antonio Perez seemed to toss a bit of cold water on Kunz’s optimism. “These studies are very general and preliminary, with no funding attached,” he said of the Cascadia high-speed rail proposal.

Things are very different in his native Spain, where the 2,000-plus-mile AVE system—the largest high-speed rail network in Europe—has has been built from scratch since the 1990s. “In Spain, the train is never questioned. Success breeds success, and politicians want to be associated with success. They compete over who can deliver more kilometers,” Perez said. “It’s very difficult in the U.S. to execute, because decision-making is very slow and inefficient and there is so much polarization.”

As Perez points out, the Cascadia bullet train is still at a very early stage. And the region’s rail fans were just dealt a stinging blow in November, thanks to a ballot measure to reduce car registration fees that slashed statewide transportation funding. There was some consensus that a public-private partnership is the most viable path forward to finance the multibillion-dollar project, though Washington State has some funding-related quirks to overcome, like its severely limited authority to use tax increment financing.

Neil Peterson, who ran the Seattle region’s transit agency in the 1970s and now works as a private consultant, argued for an expansive notion of value capture to build the rail line. “Historically when we think about land value capture, we think about land development only,” he told CityLab. “The reality is, there are so many people and organizations that would benefit from this kind of an investment.” For example, he argued that the Seattle Mariners baseball team should be included in a value capture scheme, because high-speed rail service could expand the team’s fan base to a much larger area, even if the public and not the franchise own the ballpark.

Other critical details, like station locations and alignments, also remain to be worked out. The Cascadia participants were skeptical of Texas Central’s scheme to place stations on the outskirts of downtowns, rather than delivering passengers into the heart of the two cities. But the Cascadia Rail proposal is faced with similar dilemmas, as the business case study outlines some scenarios that would see the train pass through the Seattle region via the east side cities of Redmond and Bellevue rather than entering the Emerald City proper.

In Canada, meanwhile, the train’s route could terminate in Surrey, a suburb connected to British Columbia’s Lower Mainland region by SkyTrain elevated rail service. But Metro Vancouver leaders greeted the study coolly in July, arguing that they have plenty of regional mass transit priorities ahead of a high-speed intercity line. There are models out there of successful border-spanning supertrains—see the London-to-Paris Eurostar service—but the international governance and funding issues definitely add an extra set of complications. Indeed, innumerable barriers remain, says Dave Warner, Pacific Northwest manager for consultancy WSP, which drafted the business case study. “We’re faced with more questions than answers.”

Millar maintained his optimism, however. “High-speed rail works in Europe, it works in Asia, and it could work here,” he said. “There have been awful attempts at it around the country. We in the Northwest have the capacity to do it right, if the vision is there and we go about it the right away.”

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled John Horgan’s name.

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