All aboard for passenger rail upgrades

Earlier this month, officials, politicians and executives along Washington’s I-5 corridor tooted each other’s horns in support of an agreement that guaranteed the state $590 million in federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to improve passenger rail service from Portland to Seattle.

“Ultimately, the goal is to boost the rail-line capacity and relieve mainline congestion, allowing Amtrak Cascades to offer more frequent and reliable passenger rail service between Portland and Seattle,” Washington Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said.

The improvements agreed upon by the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) are to be met by targeting bottlenecks and implementing rail bypasses to allow for increased train frequency, as well as establishing grade separations and the latest advanced-warning signal systems to reduce congestion.

With the entire I-5 rail corridor being shared between passenger and freight traffic, it’s no surprise Larry Paulson, executive director of the Port of Vancouver, said everyone using the rail is on track to benefit.

“We think it’s a win for passenger rail capacity, but also for freight rail capacity,” Paulson said. “When all is said and done, we’re quite pleased that this [agreement] is happening.”

Though the stimulus funds aren’t initiating new projects in Clark County, Paulson said around $29 million is slated to support the concluding phases of the $150 million Vancouver Bypass project that the WSDOT began in January 2009. Tied in with the port’s West Vancouver Freight Access Project, these local improvements were already set to reduce congestion in the Vancouver area by roughly 40 percent.

Paulson said the local projects have progressed without significant wait time, dwell time or congestion-related problems. He foresees similar management success with the passenger rail project, which should allow the port to operate unaffected during implementation.

“It’s not magic; it’s hard work,” Paulson said. “There are a lot of good engineers on both sides that are making it all happen.”

In that regard, Secretary Hammond noted the ARRA funds will create more than 6,000 direct and indirect jobs in the Pacific Northwest – most of them being highly skilled construction and operating jobs. Cumulatively, these positions will work to enhance a passenger rail service that Hammond sees as a viable alternative for travelers up and down the I-5 corridor.

By 2017, officials hope the ARRA funds will secure further viability to passenger rail. This is when the proposed projects aim to achieve faster travel times from Portland to Seattle, increase on-time performance by 25 percent and introduce two additional daily Amtrak Cascades round trip routes.

Long term, Paulson anticipates a significant increase in traffic, but not one that the Port of Vancouver will feel in their daily rail operations due to the extensive timeline, proposed upgrade projects and emerging technologies in rail traffic control.

“There’s frankly more freight traffic than there is passenger traffic – by a fairly significant percentage – but the passenger traffic is still very important,” Paulson said. “In fact, by federal law, I believe the passenger traffic – Amtrak – has a certain priority.”


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