COLUMN: Rail lines for the future

New high-speed passenger line could offer a viable alternative to driving or flying between Vancouver, Seattle and Portland.

Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee has included $1 million in the state’s 2017-19 budget to study the feasibility of a high-speed rail link between Vancouver and Portland.

The study, which is to be complete by December, will examine costs and benefits of building a system which could see passenger trains travel at 400 km/h, with stops in Seattle and Bellingham. A report is due in December.

There are a great number of “ifs,” but should such a system be built, it would likely be the best chance of removing train tracks from the waterfront in White Rock and South Surrey. Trains travelling along the waterfront, with the number of curves and the steep bluffs in White Rock and Ocean Park, would never be able to travel at such speeds.

The obstacles to construction of any such rail corridor are very significant. Such a high-speed rail corridor would involve building a completely new route along much of the distance between Vancouver and Portland, similar to high-speed rail corridors in Europe, Japan and China.

As noted by Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Centre, “The kicker in all of this is not the 150 miles in the middle; it’s the 30 miles on either end,” he said. “It’s how do you get into downtown Seattle and how do you get into downtown Vancouver?”

Finding land for such a corridor is challenging in urban areas. While there is a good route out of downtown Vancouver along the existing Grandview cut, it is already occupied by one rail line, and used by both passenger and freight trains and the Millennium SkyTrain line.

A high-speed rail line would require a new Fraser River rail crossing. The current rail bridge has a severe speed restriction, due to sharp curves at both ends of the bridge in Surrey and New Westminster. The bridge is 113 years old and is heavily used by freight trains.

Passenger trains to Seattle follow the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line south of the bridge. It goes west along the Fraser River, through North Delta, along Mud Bay and across two bridges over the Serpentine and Nicomekl rivers, before travelling below the bluffs to the White Rock waterfront. It then crosses the border, and while part of the Washington line is inland, there are many bridges, and several portions travel along the waterfront, notably south of Bellingham, and between Everett and Seattle.

A portion of the line south of Seattle is already being transformed into a high-speed corridor and much of the existing line there could be upgraded as well. However, the approach to Portland and through Vancouver, Washington could be just as challenging as in the other dense urban areas.

In Surrey, in addition to the new rail bridge, there would likely have to be a new line south of the bridge, and most certainly a new line would be needed from Colebrook to the border. It is possible that a line could be built along Highway 99.

That would still mean a separate line for freight trains. If such a line was built alongside the new passenger line, tracks could finally be removed from the waterfront and open the area up. A trail between White Rock and Crescent Beach would be an incredible asset to the area.

Any new high-speed passenger line would have to eliminate pedestrian and street crossings, which adds to the cost. With all the new corridors required, a dedicated passenger line will cost billions. However, it could offer a viable alternative to driving or flying between the three West Coast centres. As Hallenbeck noted, all are doing well economically and are likely to continue to grow – and that is a good reason to think towards the future.

Frank Bucholtz writes weekly for The Leader.




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