Washington High-Speed Fantasies

The California High-Speed Rail Authority says it will release its latest cost estimates today, which most expect will be much higher than previous estimates. “It’s going to be bumpy,” the rail authority’s new CEO, Brian Kelly, promises reassuringly.

Meanwhile, up north, the state of Washington is planning its own high-speed money pit, including a leg from Seattle to Spokane. A lobby group has already formed to agitate for such a project, based on the slogan “You deserve slower.” Oops, the slogan they are using is “you deserve faster,” but since the fastest high-speed trains are slower than flying, they will actually be slower. The Antiplanner wonders how many contractors and unions are a part of this coalition.

An initial study projected that the Seattle-Spokane route would cost $25 billion to $50 billion. The study predicts that fares will cover operating costs by 2055, but it fails to account for driverless cars, increased airline efficiencies, and other technical changes. The truth is that it would probably cost less to just give everyone a free airline ticket.

Instead of blowing $50 billion right away, the Washington plan tentatively calls for starting with moderate-speed trains, with a full-blown high-speed rail project coming later. Supposedly, by using the old Northern Pacific route across the Cascades, which is intact but barely used by owner BNSF, they will be able to put in a 90-mile-per-hour train.

Anyone who believes that has been smoking too much of Washington’s now-legal marijuana. In case no one noticed, there’s a giant mountain range between Seattle and Spokane, and due to grades and curvature, the fastest times recorded for passenger trains before Amtrak were less than 50 miles per hour. The only way to get a true high-speed train train would be to build an 80-mile-long tunnel, but short of that, spending billions on the existing route will not get speeds up to 90 miles per hour.

Some may have forgotten that Washington has already spent $700 million on the Seattle-Portland route and was only able to increase average speeds by 2.7 miles per hour. Of course, the inaugural run of that route turned tragic when the train entered a 30-mile-per-hour curve at 80 miles per hour.

The airlines already offer more than 20 flights a day between Seattle and Spokane. Those flights would be more convenient to locals if Seattle opened Boeing Field, which is near the edge of downtown, to commercial flights going less than 500 miles. Even if it didn’t, the city has spent a couple of billion dollars building light rail to SeaTac Airport, so no one can complain that they would be stuck in traffic flying instead of taking a train.

California’s San Francisco-Los Angeles corridor is the second most important corridor in the country, and high-speed rail has turned into an incredible snafu there. By comparison, Seattle-Spokane or even Seattle-Portland are relatively unpopulated and certainly not suited for an infrastructure-heavy transportation project when we have infrastructure-light airplanes doing a better job today.


9 thoughts on “Washington High-Speed Fantasies

  1. LazyReader

    Short range air travel is gonna be truly leaped forward when companies rather than use runway laden jets adopt STOL technology to their airplanes.
    STOL or short take off and landing, is normally military and prop planes that weigh very little. But thrust vectoring technology normally reserved for fighter jets will make it’s way into civilian engines sooner or later. Thrust vectoring redirects air engine thrust off it’s center of axis at an angle to aid the maneuvering of flying jets but also shortens takeoff by redirecting the thrust downward to boost the plane as it takes off. Lifting off the air even while still drawing air to it’s wings. A Boeing 747 needs 5,000 feet of runway to takeoff, a 737 needs 2,800. If STOL can slice 20-50% of that distance needed, moderate sized jets will suddenly be able to fly even in small urban airports, and small jets would be able to use any runway.

  2. Sandy Teal

    I have looked into taking the train out of Seattle east to Montana, but the entire trip is overnight both directions so it would be a terrible tourist experience. Instead of blowing billions of dollars, why not just blow a few million subsidizing sight-seeing trips through the Cascades and other scenic ways on existing rail tracks?

  3. LazyReader

    Or for 5% of the money we could scenic and beautify our highways and run quiet comfortable electric buses up and down them.

    2nd, 70% of Washington’s electricity is generated using non carbon emitting power (Hydroelectric and nuclear) so if the antiplanner brings up energy consumption per capita it’s meaningless cause there’s no pollution if an electric driven train draws power from what’s most likely non-polluting (unless it’s diesel electric) vs. a car.
    The average car emits 4.7 tons of co2 per year (11,400 average annual miles at a mileage of 21.6 miles per gallon)
    An electric car example the Chevrolet Bolt (238 mile range on a 60 kilowatt-hour battery equates 3.96 miles per kilowatt hour)
    So accumulating 11,400 miles of Bolt driving equates to 2,874 kilowatt-hours per year of electric consumption.
    Life cycle CO2 equivalent from selected electricity supply technologies. So charging your Bolt for a years worth of driving using the various power sources would emit depending on what you generate from.
    Coal = 2.59 tons per year
    Natural gas = 1.48 tons per year
    Hydroelectric = ~25-150 pounds (While electric production incurs no CO2 emissions, anaerobic decomposition of vegetation at the bottom of a reservoir emits CO2 and methane when you inundate what used to be forest and vegetated habitat. Hoover dam however was built on a rocky canyon…..no vegetation so no decomposition.)
    Wind = 70-80 pounds (manufacture of materials and transportation to remote sites and processing of rare earth meals used in magnets and and copper for the generator; doesn’t take into consideration natural gas backup for weather which harms capacity factor which may run up to 0.7 tons with gas backup running 50% of the time)
    Nuclear = 40-60 pounds per year. (takes into consideration fuel mining and former processing, other than that, no emissions directly from power production, nuclear CO2 emissions per kw-h set to decrease with factoring of electrically driven fuel processing in the near future)
    Solar PV = 285 pounds
    Geothermal = 285 pounds per year

  4. CapitalistRoader

    “There’s a reason why they call it ‘The American Dream’, because you have to be asleep to believe it!” -George Carlin

    Is the Canadian Dream superior, H-Man? It certainly is whiter. Easy to get along—easy to share stuff—, when everyone looks, talks, and pretty much thinks exactly the same.

Leave a Reply