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How a Train Commute Can Become a Reality
"Bullet" trains would be great, but a more practical solution would be to strategically and incrementally augment pre-existing rails to allow for simply "faster" trains.
Everyone hates an I-5 commute. When I was first elected, rather than accepting a 150-mile round trip drive to Salem, I tried taking the train. It quickly proved to be impractical. At best, the train is as pleasant a way as you’ll find to spend a 75-minute commute. But, unfortunately, the statistics for arrival within 10 minutes of the scheduled time for the Amtrak Cascades, the state-funded service in the Valley, usually runs around 70%. None of us can afford to be more than 10 minutes late 30% of the time.
Why the delays? Train tracks are not like modern two-lane roads. For much of the distance between Eugene and Portland, there is only one track, not two parallel tracks. If you imagine I-5 being a one-lane road with lines of cars a mile or so long, you begin to see the problem. You’ve probably experienced the problem for lane closures during road work on the routes to the coast!
Passenger trains aren’t usually very long, but freight trains can be, and they share the same tracks, taking turns coming and going. This dynamic results in few of us relying on the train for anything other than a meandering trip.
Building New Rails. In the past, we’ve looked at putting in high speed rail from Eugene to Portland. This would require creating an entirely new set of tracks exclusively for the use of high-speed trains carrying passenger traffic. Top train speeds would range from 160 to 250 mph, allowing the train to make the trip from Eugene to Portland in an hour, with another hour to Seattle.
As you might imagine, purchasing an entirely new right of way for these tracks through Eugene, Albany, Salem, and Portland (not to mention points north) is an expensive proposition itself, independent of the construction costs for the tracks and purchase cost for the trains. The costs could easily run into the tens of billions of dollars.
Higher Speed on Existing Rail Routes. Europe is a global leader in high-speed trains. However, not all routes are served by those trains. In fact, “bullet” trains are generally limited to links between major cities. Most of the trains travel on lower speed tracks. Facing the same challenges as we do on these tracks, how do the European train companies make it work? They add strategically placed double tracks and sidings to existing tracks.
We can learn from this example. The average top speed of Amtrak trains is about 79 mph. While that’s only one-third to one-half the speed of the fastest trains, if the tracks were clear, a trip from Eugene to Portland could take only 120 minutes and arrive on time with much higher reliability. To get clear tracks, we simply need to invest in more parallel tracks and sidings.
Instead of building high speed tracks on new rights of way carved out of our cities, we could add more tracks in rural areas, particularly in rural parts of Linn and Marion Counties. As an added advantage, these expansions reduce travel times and reliability as each segment and siding comes on line, making continuous incremental progress possible. A new set of high-speed rails would not be usable until they are all completed.
Moreover, the total cost for these upgrades would be about $1-4 billion, compared to cost estimates well in excess of $10 billion for new rails between Eugene and Portland and $24-$42 billion for the Portland to Vancouver segment. By comparison, the cost to adding a lane to I-5 from Eugene to Vancouver, BC, comes in at $115 billion, not counting the costs of adding the fossil fuel consumption of cars. The pending federal infrastructure bill has $36 billion earmarked for these kinds of projects. The U.S. House Transportation Chair, Rep. Peter DeFazio, has fought for these funds to support long-necessary transit upgrades.
Making our existing tracks more robust makes sense for Oregon. Train travel times up and down the I-5 corridor would still be shorter than drive times, and the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from transportation would be significant. Additionally, reliability on two-track systems is substantially greater than the status quo, with one study noting that these configurations result in many more trains “meeting their minimum run times.” We may yet see the day when a bullet train gives us a three-hour trip time to Vancouver, BC, but, for today, I’ll take “higher speed” rail and a 120 minute trip to Portland.
Marty Wilde is a State Representative (HD 11).