What exactly is “high speed passenger rail”?

by Guest Blogger Vickie Sheehan

There seems to be some confusion on what exactly is High Speed Passenger Rail. Many people keep asking - Will this be like bullet trains? Will we be able to zip between Vancouver, B.C. and Eugene, OR at 150 miles per hour? Well, not today or in the near future, but a possibility we are working towards in the long term.

Amtrak Cascades trains travel at a maximum speed of 79 mph today. Although our trains are designed to go as fast as 125 mph, we are restricted to 79 miles per hour due to Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regulations, track conditions, rail traffic congestion, and our geography (mountains, water, lots of curves, etc.).

What this does mean is that Amtrak Cascades will continue to travel at 79 mph, but we will be able to work towards incrementally increasing the speeds to 90 mph and eventually 110 mph. Now, bear in mind, this is not 110 mph non-stop between Vancouver, B.C. and Eugene, OR, as we do have to stop at 15 intermediate cities along the way. This means that there will be bursts of speed in designated “straightaways” where we can sustain these speeds.

There has been a lot of conversation about high speed rail recently because of some exciting news we got on Wednesday. This exciting news was in the form of a $590 million ARRA award through the High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) Program.
WSDOT applied for over $1.3 billion in October 2009 for the Pacific Northwest Rail Corridor (PNWRC) .

What does this mean for Washington? As a result of this funding, two additional daily Amtrak Cascades round trips may be added between Seattle and Portland, for a total of six. Even better, the projects that this funding will help complete will help Amtrak Cascades trains be more on-time and reliable. This alone will be a significant benefit to those of you who have ever experienced train delays.

An amazing fact about this recent sum is that Washington State has invested over $331 million alone in support of high speed passenger rail over the last 15 years. To receive federal support of $590 million is a huge boost that will help improve the Amtrak Cascades service tremendously. And we will have more opportunities to apply for additional federal funding from the $2.5 billion set aside for high speed rail in the federal transportation appropriations bill approved in December 2009.