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High-speed rail could run from Oregon to B.C.

(The following story by Bill Sheets appeared on the Everett Herald website on May 28, 2009.)

EVERETT, Wash. Imagine being able to hop on a train at Everett Station and be in Vancouver, B.C., in less than two hours, compared with three hours or more now.

Or you could go to Portland, Ore., in 3 1/2 hours, instead of the nearly five hours it now takes by Amtrak.

The countryside would zip by at speeds of 90 mph or more. It would be a smooth ride. The price would be comparable to today's fares.

Obstacles remain, but it might not be far off.

The corridor between Eugene, Ore., and Vancouver, B.C., is one of 10 finalists in the nation for a chunk of $8 billion included in this year's economic stimulus package for high-speed rail.

Anywhere from six to all 10 of the corridors could receive money as soon as this fall, with more possibly on the way later. Work could begin on overpasses and other improvements as soon as next year.

"No question about it, that's our intention," said state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island. She said the state in August plans to ask for $900 million for improvements.

Washington, Oregon and British Columbia have already spent nearly $1 billion on improvements to the Amtrak Cascades line that has run between Eugene and Vancouver since 1994, giving the corridor a competitive edge, advocates and officials say.

"That puts us in good position to compete with the other high-profile corridors," said Bruce Agnew, policy director of the Cascadia Center for Regional Development, a Seattle transportation policy group. Agnew also is a former Edmonds resident and two-term Snohomish County councilman.

The Obama administration plans to include $5 billion more in its 2010 budget, which would parcel out $1 billion a year behind the original investment.

Still, $13 billion is a tiny fraction of what will be needed to develop high-speed train lines nationwide, said Larry Salci, a public transportation consultant who spoke at a Cascadia event in Seattle on Thursday.

"This is seed money," he said. He did not give a total estimated price for bringing high-speed train service to all 10 routes.

The major routes include California, where voters have already approved state funds for a line between San Francisco and Los Angeles; Washington, D.C., to Boston, where improvements to a current high-speed line are sought; and a Midwest network centered in Chicago.

While high-speed trains have been running for decades in Europe and Japan, Amtrak's Acela route on the Eastern seaboard is the only one in the U.S. that runs trains at high speed, up to 135 mph, Agnew said.

The Talgo trains operating on the Cascades route are capable of traveling up to 150 mph but are limited to 79 mph because of road crossings and other safety factors.

For trains to travel at full speed, safety requires building expensive new tracks to keep the high-speed trains from sharing tracks used by lumbering freight trains.

Without separate tracks, other improvements can get trains into the 90 to 110 mph range, officials say.

Use of the Cascades route has steadily grown to more than 676,000 riders in 2007 and 775,000 riders last year. One train per day goes from Seattle all the way to Vancouver, B.C.; plans are in the works to extend another train into Canada daily in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics next February.

The goal is to have four or five high-speed trains running every day between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., Agnew said.

The challenge on this stretch is that there's only one track, while between Seattle and Portland there are two parallel tracks, he said. The trains wouldn't be able to travel at high speeds in some stretches, such as in urban areas or along the water between Seattle and Everett.

The money would first go to "siding" -- short stretches of parallel tracks where freight trains could pull over and let faster passenger trains go by, Agnew said. Everett Station, Stanwood, Bellingham and Blaine are likely candidates for side tracks, he said.

Money also would go to overpasses, underpasses and equipment. A GPS system could be used to better coordinate between passenger and freight trains using the tracks, Agnew said.

"That will expand capacity on that corridor tremendously," he said.

Reducing intersections with roads by building overpasses will allow the trains to operate at higher speeds for much more of the route. Marysville is a prime candidate to receive some of the money, likely in the second wave, for overpasses, Agnew said.

In Marysville, Fourth Street, 88th Street NE, 116th Street NE and 136th Street NE each cross the tracks. Marysville Mayor Dennis Kendall said he is all for overpasses at the crossings.

"Every time a train comes through with a hundred cars it just stops traffic at every placement," he said. "I would welcome anything to get folks off the freeway and get traffic out of town."

Friday, May 29, 2009

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