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California says yes to high-speed rail

Posted by on November 5th, 2008 at 1:14 pm

52% of California voters said yes to a proposition that helps fund a $45 billion “bullet train” between Orange County in the south to the San Francisco Bay Area.

This was a closely watched vote by transportation advocates nationwide because, if built, it will be the first project of its kind in America.

While driving (alone) down to a conference in Eugene a few weeks ago, I wondered why there was no such service from Portland to points south. Amtrak’s got their Cascade Corridor, but at 2.5 hours (if it’s on time) and $26.00 for a ticket, it’s hardly a competitive option.

California’s bullet train is expected to go 220 mph and be a substitute for airplane travel.

With a $45 billion price tag, and with far from an overwhelming mandate at 52% of the votes, this project is far from being built. But still, this vote is very encouraging as we enter a new era of thinking about our nation’s transportation system.

What do you say Oregon? Wouldn’t it be great to have a bullet train running alongside I-5 (especially if you could stash a bike in the luggage bin)?

— Learn more about Prop 1A at Streetsblog LA.

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  • Duncan Watson November 5, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    I would love a bullet train between Seattle and Portland and headed south to SF as well. It would be perfect for my lifestyle and getting to cycling events.

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  • Fritz November 5, 2008 at 1:25 pm

    We had a number of transportation issues in California, thought 1A was the biggest and probably the most important.

    Sonoma & Marin Counties passed Measure Q, which will fund commuter rail and bike facilities for a 70 mile stretch and should be running by 2014.

    Silicon Valley voters rejected Measure B, which was billed as “BART to San Jose” by supporters but overwhelmingly rejected by people who actually use transit.

    Back to Prop 1A: the most exciting part of this for the SF Bay Area is that Caltrain will be electrified, which will reduce costs, speed up the service, and allow more trains to run which, in turn, will hopefully increase bicycle capacity 🙂

    The various local measures to fund transportation (including bike facilities and public transportation) with (more) local taxes is because the legislature has raided existing transportation funds for the general fund.

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  • Jonathan Maus (Editor) November 5, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    thanks for that report Fritz!

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  • Schrauf November 5, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    Wow – $45 billion. That money could have been used to bail out a large bank and ensure bonuses for all high-level employees!

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  • Allan November 5, 2008 at 1:31 pm

    I do agree, taking a train to seattle seems way faster door-2-door than taking AlaskaAir or SeaPortAir.

    especially downtown-2-downtown

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  • bahueh November 5, 2008 at 1:45 pm

    and yet they still vote to deny ‘marriage’ to gay people…

    I digress…

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  • Matthew Denton November 5, 2008 at 2:01 pm

    The problem with Eugene Amtrak offerings isn’t the $26 or the time it takes, (even when it is on schedule.) The big problem is that you can’t leave early in the morning from Portland, go down to Eugene for the day, and then come back in the evening, because there are no trains that actually run on that schedule. You can do the reverse, (come from Eugene to Portland for the day.) To add that trip would be about $10M in capital costs, (for another train.)

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  • JohnO November 5, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    The SMART (Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit) initiative will be really cool. As Fritz was saying, it’s a long commuter rail system that will connect Santa Rosa, Petaluma and some other smaller towns on the 101 corridor with eastern Marin county.

    In effect, it will allow people in the North Bay to go just about anywhere. Plus, they’re going to build a bike/ped trail the whole way.

    The WHOLE WAY!!

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  • MK November 5, 2008 at 2:05 pm

    I agree completely Matthew. I have to drive to Eugene every week because of exactly this.

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  • Coyote November 5, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    I ride Amtrak from Eugene to Portland every other week. The schedule works much better that direction. I can be in downtown Portland by 8:00 am or 11:00 am, work a full day and catch the 6:15 out of Portland and be home by 9:00, or catch a beer in town and catch the 9:00 pm train home. Since the travel is a business expense it is much cheaper than having the company pay my wage and reimburse me $0.58/mile. Having my bike in downtown is great. Going the other way is not convenient for day trips.

    Even as regular train user, I am not so keen on high speed rail. I would much rather see a dedicated medium speed rail line that runs both directions every hour. Medium speed rail, ~100 mph, is about half the cost of high speed rail, at least four times as efficient, and twice as fast as driving.

    Then there is this idea: Adapting the
    Interstate Highway System
    to Rail Use

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  • red hippie November 5, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    You don’t need to build a bullet train to do this in the north west. The tracks are already there. Just prioritize the passenger rail traffic and a train can go 100 mph.

    The other thing about bullet trains is that they have few stops. So Vancouver BC to Seattle to Tacoma to Portland to Eugene. This is fine if your in the cities. The rest is slower local trains.

    Maybe a more realistic scheme is Vancouver to Seatac to PDX to Eugene. This would integrate mroe readily into a regional transportation network. PDX has a light rail already to the airport and seattle is building one. This way you could take a train to seatac and hop a puddle jumper to spokane, redmond or K-falls.

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  • JP November 5, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    I say, build tracks for a bullet train between Seattle to San Diego.

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  • Brian Richardson November 5, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    Agreed with MK & Matthew! I drive down to Eugene one day a week and would totally take the train (even for a bit more loot) if I could make it to Eugene in the morning and back to Portland at night.

    I didn’t know other people ran into that problem.

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  • Graham November 5, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    We took a ride out to the Edgefield last week, going up the 205 trail, out along the Marine Drive trail, and back home along the Springwater. The segments that were separate from car traffic were a joy to ride, and got me daydreaming about what a bicycle interstate highway system might be like, and how such a thing might actually come to be. One I idea would be to piggy-back on the right-of-way claimed by railways.

    Outside of the unpleasantness of having a high-speed train whooshing by every once in a while, why not put bike trails along rail trails?

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  • E November 5, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    I would love efficient train service between SF and Vancouver, BC. Faster than driving, cheaper than flying, and more relaxing than either. Add room for bikes and it’s everything you could want.

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  • zilfondel November 5, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    If they actually double-tracked the line all the way down to Eugene, and fixed some of the crappy sections of track, added more trains, that would pretty much equal the typical train service that you find in developed European countries.

    They really don’t run high speed rail between small towns under a million: Portland to Seattle kind of cities (and distances) actually would have the market necessary to sustain a high-speed line.

    Anyways, the Eugene to Portland trip is pretty decent; I have never even been delayed on it yet! And the trains are awesome. We just need a few more of them.

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  • zilfondel November 5, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    I wish the train went all the way down to Medford and Ashland, however. That would be great… I could take my bike down there and see the Shakespeare Festival by train/bicycle.

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  • tbird November 5, 2008 at 4:37 pm

    Even if you couldn’t stash a bike in a luggage car it would be awesome.
    AmTrak has been another one of America’s cruel transportation jokes for far too long!

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  • red hippie November 5, 2008 at 7:35 pm

    Actually, in europe, flying is cheaper than the high speed rail. The advantage comes in “downtown to downtown” connection and less security requirements.

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  • glenzedrine November 5, 2008 at 7:42 pm

    This does sound rad, hopefully something will come of it eventually. I’d hope that they put giant video screens where the windows should be so you could be shown interesting landscape instead of that awful stretch of land between SF and LA.

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  • Stochelo November 6, 2008 at 7:45 am

    Last time I took a European train: From Pisa to La Spezia and back–this is about like, in terms of sizes of cities and distance between, travelling from Portland to Longview. Pisa’s main station has eight or ten sets of tracks.
    The fare was 4 euros (@$6.50 at the time)
    There were trains every hour–this is from a medium sized city to a big town and back. That’s an example of what the Northwest should ask for. Now, we have a president who is at least non-hostile to Amtrak and a VP who has spent years as an Amtrak commuter.

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  • Tom November 6, 2008 at 8:35 am

    High speed, medium speed, whatever. Please! Let’s! Do! SOMETHING!!

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  • Tony P November 6, 2008 at 9:18 am

    drill, baby, drill!

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  • Chandler November 6, 2008 at 10:46 am

    With the passage of the California high speed rail it is time for our regions (governments) transportation designers and proponents to move forward with creating a link from Vancouver BC to Portland and hopefully Corvallis and Eugene. However we must keep in mind the federal government must be shown the way by the local population and that means pocket books must be opened. While governments might realize the need for an efficient electric bullet train they are wedded to politicians with last centuries mentality.

    Now that the Seattle area has passed more light rail miles they too might be willing to swap their UP/BNSF tracks for a dedicated line while retaining the slower commuter rail as well. (Don’t hold your breath).

    Please don’t confuse light rail with bullet trains. They are cousins with different purposes. Fast long distance vs dedicated mass transit.

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  • toddistic November 6, 2008 at 11:10 am

    If the SanFran – LA is a success we will see San Diego to Seattle bullet trains within our lifetime! WOW!!! That’s exciting that I would be able to go from PDX to my family in San Diego within 6 hours! It takes 16 – 18 hours by car.

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  • Andrew H November 6, 2008 at 12:27 pm

    I agree with those who say just increasing the frequency and reliability of Eugene to BC rail service would be a great leap forward. Because trains go to downtown and don’t have the security hassles, the train is already just as fast as flying from Portland to Seattle.

    We could give the economy a boost, also, by investing in rail infrastructure now.

    Maybe if Blumenauer of someone like-minded becomes Transportation Secretary, we’ll see passenger rail get a boost at least in key corridors.

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  • Aaron November 6, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    Comment #10, 11 are very well said. We don’t need a super expensive project in an economic collapse. We just need something that works. We could even keep existing amtrak and simply fund it better and improve the service.
    Create one long distance service (like an express bus) through major hubs) and local commuter trains within local regions.
    It’s either that or an 80 mile bike ride when oil really collapses.
    Congrats California

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  • eric November 6, 2008 at 12:56 pm

    The TALGO cars used on the amtrak cascades are capable of 136mph with a diesel locomotive: Talgo makes electric trains which are capable of 220 mph.

    There is some investment required to make the trip seattle to portland faster, most of which requires by-passing the single rail freight sections and creating new high-speed crossovers for the trains: With current speed limits (79mph) the trip to seattle could go from 3:40 to 2:30 or so. This project is currently underway with the WSDOT. Now, we just need to get ODOT to start on the rails to eugene and points south. I’d love to take the reasonably high-speed to bend.

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  • bikieboy November 6, 2008 at 6:50 pm

    what Coyote (#10) Red Hippie (#11) & Aaron (#27) said.

    The existing rail service between Portland and Eugene really only works in the northbound direction, as Coyote pointed out. Very frustrating. I’ve had great luck with the Portland to Seattle run, both ways, nary a significant delay in well over a dozen round trips, but i have heard horror stories…

    and why the hell won’t the
    Coast Starlight – or the majority of the Amtrak runs – carry (unboxed) bikes?

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  • Cascadia Cabs November 6, 2008 at 7:01 pm

    Let’s build down the median of I-5. We could compose a state initiatives for 2010 that would direct ODOT and WA state DOT to draft a feasability study to be submitted again to the voters in 2012. This puts the mandate upon the existing state agencies and allows the DOT to pursue innovation with political cover. Cascadia High Speed Rail from Vancouver, BC to Eugene is the future of our mobility and economy.

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  • David Feldman November 7, 2008 at 8:44 am

    Could the Amtrak Cascades (excellent, just not enough of it yet) be expanded?
    It’s a good prototype–they even have baggage cars with bike hooks, you can ride your bike to one train station and away from the other. I hear that Amtrak is planning to add at least one more round trip (Eugene to Seattle) per day as part of improvements being made to the Vancouver rail yards.

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  • matt picio November 7, 2008 at 5:41 pm

    red hippie (#11) – I wish it were that simple. You can’t “just prioritise.. and a train can go 100 mph” – you have to grade separate every crossing to allow 100mph under current FRA regulations, and some of the turns would need a wider radius than they currently have. The only route that is up to spec is the Acela route in the NE corridor.

    I’d love to see them do it, but it’s not simple nor cheap.

    eric (#28) – WSDOT and ODOT are only peripherally involved, the big issue is BNSF and UP, who are footing the bill. The main reason they’re building the hi-speed bypass in vancouver (WA) is so Amtrak doesn’t interfere with the yard freight movements. Most of the Amtrak trackage in WA is owned by BNSF, most of the trackage in OR is owned by UP, which is much less responsive to state and local desires.

    Which doesn’t mean it CAN’T be done, only that we need to provide incentives to UP to do it, whether it be by carrot or by stick.

    David (#31) – yes, but there’s no good economic reason to do so – there’s plenty of demand between cities in the Eugene / Vancouver BC corridor, but little demand to get from Eugene / Portland to San Francsisco / Sacramento. Also, speeds would be much reduced when going over the Cascades due to the grades and tight turns.

    There’s no reason why it can’t be done so long as we don’t expect ticket prices to recoup the capital expenses. Amtrak can be run as a business, but only if you ignore the capital expenses and only cover operational costs.

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