British Columbia

1 hour from Vancouver to Seattle? Washington state budgets $1M for high-speed rail study

Many people have dreamed of a high-speed rail line between Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. Now Washington Governor Jay Inslee has set aside $1 million in his 2017-2019 state budget to study the feasibility of the project.

The Cascadia region — Vancouver to Seattle to Portland — fits the bill for a high speed line, says expert

Washington Governor Jay Inslee has proposed a one million dollar study in his latest budget to examine the feasibility of a high speed train linking Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. Pictured, a bullet train G80 leaves for Beijing from Guangzhou, China. (Chen Yehua/Associated Press)

While linking Vancouver, Seattle and Portland via high-speed train is not a new idea, the project is back on the metaphorical rails after Washington Governor Jay Inslee set aside $1 million in his 2017-2019 state budget to study the feasibility of the infrastructure project.

Mark Hallenbeck is the director of the Washington State Transportation Center — a research partnership between the state's Department of Transportation, the University of Washington and the Washington State University.

He said the Cascadia region — Vancouver to Seattle to Portland —  fits the geographic and population constraints for a high-speed rail line.

"They're the right distance where it's small enough that the train particularly because the train would compete very well with an airplane.  If you get too much longer, then the airplane's extra speed is better than the train," he explained.

In addition, he said, the three cities are big enough that there's a lot of movement between them and economically there's a lot of business reasons for shared movement.

Prohibitive cost?

The major stumbling blocks for the project has been funding. Hallenback estimated the project would cost in the multiple billions, in part because of the necessary land costs.

"The real issue is real estate. You can't run a high-speed bullet train like the TGV [France's high speed train] on a conventional train track. It's not allowed to share the track with freight trains…. So you'd have to come with the right of way to build two new train tracks," he said. 

Hallenback said finding a place to build and place the tracks, especially in space-restricted areas like downtown Vancouver and Seattle, could force the project to go above existing highways or underground — options which substantially increase costs.

Inslee's proposed study would look at the economic feasibility of a ultra high-speed rail line (defined as 250 miles per hour, or 400 kilometres per hour). It would also look at the location of the stations, environmental implications, technological options, as well as the route's compatibility with existing transportation corridors. The report would be presented to the legislature by Dec. 15, 2017.

Appealing alternative to congestion

Despite the costs, Hallenback said the high-speed rail option is increasingly appealing as highway congestion increases in the region and transit infrastructure improves.

"The freeways are full. The airports are full," he said.

"So you're looking at those capacities, thinking, well if we're going to continue to grow, then we're going to have to come up with a better way."

The Washington budget is currently being reviewed by the the state legislature. The budget typically passes in spring and would come into effect on July 1, 2017.

With files from The Early Edition

To listen to the interview, click on the link labelled Will a high-speed rail between Seattle and Vancouver come to fruition?