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Thursday, May 20, 2010

What's High-Speed* Rail Worth to You?

Posted by Stefan Kamph on Thu, May 20, 2010 at 10:58 AM

Right now, six five trains run on the Cascades line between Eugene and Seattle. Four Three of those are owned by Washington, and don't go further south than Portland. Two are owned by Amtrak, which lets Oregon use them for service to Eugene. How does Oregon pay for that service? (drumroll...) Custom license plates.

But the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is dreaming big. They want to apply for more stimulus funding in the coming years, and in order to do that, they need a plan. Enter the dream: a new high-speed* rail corridor from Portland to Eugene.

ODOT administrator Kelly Taylor points to the future
  • ODOT administrator Kelly Taylor points to the future

*Remember, this is the USA, and we take baby steps. When ODOT says "high-speed" rail, they do not actually mean high-speed rail. ODOT means making the Talgo train sets we already use travel at the maximum legal limit of 110 mph. Meanwhile, California is looking at building train lines that can go twice that speed. And if those lines ever get up to Eugene, we'll have to rebuild all over again.

More after the jump.

In the last round of federal stimulus allocations for high-speed rail projects, Oregon was virtually ignored. Of the $8 billion budgeted nationally, the Pacific Northwest got $598 million. Of that amount, Washington got $590 million—mostly for track improvements between Vancouver, WA and Seattle. So that leaves Oregon with $8 million, one thousandth of the total money, enough to fix Union Station's roof. Chump change.

"We applied for several projects, and the plans were being developed as we were applying," says ODOT administrator Kelly Taylor. "We need federal funding, because there's no dedicated funding source from the state."

ODOT has signed a contract with European manufacturer Talgo to buy new trainsets, which are slated to arrive by February 2012. It's paying for the trains with some highway stimulus money—and it sounds like ODOT is proud to be diverting funds to something other than cars. "Folks, that's history," said Taylor at a high-speed rail open house in Portland yesterday.

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At the open house, railway experts were on hand to answer questions about potential routes. Now ODOT is exploring three options: use the current corridor, leased from freight operator Union Pacific; revitalize the old Oregon Electric corridor, or build a new line along I-5.

That last option would require rebuilding a lot of overpasses, as one finicky rail buff in attendance pointed out. Meanwhile, ODOT was thinking rather simplistically, asking potential riders to rate their priorities using stickers.

Oregon submitted its application yesterday for federal money to fund this kind of research. Stay tuned—maybe you'll be alive to see it come to fruition.

Oh yeah, and the current average speed? 42 mph.

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