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Monday, October 22, 2012

Oregon talking new "alignment" for high-speed heavy rail

One of the screamfests of the future is being set up, as Oregon transportation bureaucrats are getting serious about launching one of our state's famous "public dialogues," this time about a proposed high-speed passenger train line between Portland and Eugene. Amtrak currently runs its trains between those cities (most of which service is paid for by the state) on the same tracks as Union Pacific freight. But all the talk of more trains, and faster trains, includes discussion of determining a "preferred alignment," which sounds a lot like laying new track, and who knows what other mischief.

It's always depressing when you see one of these, which is always a pretty good sign that the fix is in:

It gets scarier when you read that there's a "leadership council" meeting regularly to decide these things, and it includes Sam Adams, the head of Tri-Met, Tom Hughes, a Frohnmayer, the mayor of Milwaukie -- and it's co-chaired by a favored Portland real estate developer. Look out, neighbors. Look out, taxpayers. All aboard for adventure!

Comments (17)

whenever i see the train going from pdx to eugene, its mostly empty. anyone have any real figures on ridership??

I'm curious what Erik H. makes of this. My impression from going to one of these open houses awhile back was that Oregon missed out on all the high speed rail $$$ the Obama administration was handing out 'cause this process wasn't done.

Considering the huge missed opportunity & boondoggle that is the WES, pushed by many of these same people as I recall, it doesn't inspire a whole lot o' confidence.

I like the idea of high-speed rail on dedicated lines, but this is something that the Feds need to do and run. The French, Japanese, Germans have good models, but of course much denser populations.

You either do this right by having a federal program similar to the Federal highway program from the 50s, or forget it.

And please get rid of the Federal Reserve and do this without paying those crooks interest.

"a pretty good sign that the fix is in"

Doesn't hurt that the leadership council is 100% YES votes for any kind of train.

I would love to see high speed rail in the Pac NW (Eugene-Seattle would be incredible), but agree with Tim that it needs to be done along the model of the Japanese system. If you've ever been to Japan and used their high-speed rail system, you know what I'm talking about. Best mode of travel I've ever been on, and it's not even close.

All aboard for bankruptcy!

Tim: The French, Japanese, Germans have good models, but of course much denser populations.
JK: Good models of massive money waste. They are all highly subsidized - HSR is very expensive for no advantage over air and less convenient than driving in most cases.

Even Amtrack’s low speed rail costs close to $100 to move each person from Eugene to Portland a few years ago (probably more now.)

Tim: You either do this right by having a federal program similar to the Federal highway program from the 50s, or forget it.
JK: Sounds good. Get 100% of the funding from the users, like the federal highways.

Just in case you have been reading too many transit industry lies, here is federal data that shows 100% user financing: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/programadmin/interstate.cfm#interstate_funding
more is at: portlandfacts.com/autos.html


Andrew S. - thank you for the kind "invite".

The issue with Oregon HSR is not really the alignment - it's whether HSR is really even needed. HSR, in other countries - whether Japan, or China, or France, Spain, or Germany - is about reducing frequent "shuttle" flights between major cities. Today the short-haul air network in Germany is a shell of what it was 20 years ago - no more 737s running 30-60 minute "shuttle" frequencies between Frankfurt and Berlin, for example. Japan has retired the last of their "high density" 747s - cramming nearly 700 people into a single airplane that was really designed for space and comfort on long distance trips.

Now - let's look at the Pacific Northwest Corridor as it's called. Portland-Seattle? You have some promise there - two major metro areas, populations over 2 million each, less than 200 miles apart. Air service - frequent, two carriers, one operating half-hour to hourly departures on 70 seat turboprop equipment; the other running less but still frequent service on 36 seat prop jobs. Throw in five Amtrak trains a day, plus who knows how many Greyhound and Bolt Bus trips, plus various other providers that service a part of the route (i.e. Sound Transit from Lakewood to Seattle, commuter buses from Olympia to the north). There's potential.

Now, let's look at Portland to Eugene:

Eugene - population not even 150,000. It's "Metropolitan Area" essentially is Springfield - plus a few, small, outlying communities, none of which have a significant population.

You have Salem, another 150,000, with Keizer, and again a few outlying communities. You have Albany - about 60,000 or so residents. No real "suburbs" but Corvallis is 10 miles away.

Do you see the problem? You don't have anywhere near the necessary population to support HSR or even anything above conventional rail or bus service. Eugene does not have the strong business ties that Portland and Seattle has; it actually prides itself on its independence. Neither does Salem; but at least Portland and Salem has a healthy cross-commuting market. Eugene's too far south to really have a commuting market, except a handful of people to Corvallis or Albany - hardly something worth spending billions to accomodate.

Let's look at existing service levels - two poorly timed Amtrak trains that are northbound in the early morning; southbound in the late evening. A handful of Greyhound buses. No real commuter service. Horizon and SkyWest fly a few flights out to Eugene - I believe a total of seven flights between the two. (And SkyWest is at some point going to pull out of the market when they retire their EMB-120 fleet.)

So even the market which has a lot of potential to grow...hasn't.

So why is ODOT in such a hurry to blow billions on a line that even people don't want? Surely, if there was a market, Greyhound or another company would ramp up bus service - I honestly believe the market COULD support hourly bus service between Portland and Eugene, and would fill up most of the buses - in fact, ODOT even admits that the buses that run as part of the Amtrak Thurway service don't require a subsidy, and actually pays taxes to the state (which Amtrak does not).

Even before we talk about "where should be build the line" we should be asking "what are our travel needs"...it is the same failure with WES - "Here's a cool train, where can we put it?" The result being a line that really could not support and did not need commuter rail. Portland-Salem, via the UP mainline, is probably the only place where commuter rail - or ANY form of upgraded rail - could benefit. And much of the travel time improvements would not require a 150 MPH top speed or electricifcation - rather, straighten out the track between Canby and Clackamas (through New Era and Oregon City); improve the East Portland interlocking, the Steel Bridge and Union Station, and maybe add a few more sidings and high speed switches.

Those advocating a European style rail system ought to remember that it would be financed by a European level of taxes. No thanks...

Eric H is right on. The population wont support it. In Japan and elsewhere they charge high rates for high speed services. Often 2-3 times regular rail rates. So PDX-EUG service would have to run about $100. Not likely many takers for that. Even then, it would be unlikely to generate enough revenue.

HSR service in Japan is heavily subsidized and debt has still not been paid off. At best these systems cover operating and maintenance costs, but not capital and the debt burdens are heavy. A good, objective report on this was recently done by the World Bank and is available at:


Autonomous cars will render most of this junk obsolete within 20 years.

Even though it may shine and have a pretty whistle, we should have the people decide by way of vote.
Lets vote as soon as we are debt free and property taxes and water bills have been reduced.
Its time we had some adult supervision involved in such expensive, neat o matters.
It's only a matter of time before insane property taxes force us out of town.

Another thing I failed to point out earlier is that HSR is not a stand-alone system, it has to work in conjunction with easily and readily available transit at each stop.

Eugene has a half-way decent system, IF you're within Eugene or Springfield. Even then - the EmX system is quite the walk from the train station - that isn't easy.

Albany has a very minimal transit system with poor connections to nearby towns. Corvallis I believe gets a bus once an hour, but only during the mid-day - and not connecting to the early morning or late evening trains. No use there.

Salem? It's transit system doesn't even function on Saturdays or Sundays, and not after 7:00 PM. You're stuck if you take the train - only to find there's nothing but a taxi cab.

Oregon City? Even within the "great" transit served area of the Portland Metro area - it's a long walk to a TriMet bus.

Portland - OK, if you're going to somewhere along MAX. If you need a bus, you're better off using a ZipCar or whatever they're called. And even many so-called "transit advocates" actually promote renting a car over taking a bus - that speaks VOLUMES about the level of quality transit.

Vancouver - whose city limits population is greater than either Salem or Eugene - has no bus service to its Amtrak station.

I like to use the analogy of what's the point of high speed rail (which I might use once a month, if that) if I have no means to use transit to get to work (five days a week), do my grocery shopping, see a doctor, go to a bank - the usual, day to day stuff? If I have to own a car to do the basic stuff - why would I voluntarily park my car at a train station, travel 50 or 100 miles, only to need a car? I live in Tigard - why would I drive to Portland Union Station (or worse - use transit, that requires THREE buses thanks to TriMet's "service enhancements") and an hour and a half, then ride a train that takes me out of the way to Oregon City, then end up in Salem where there's no connecting transit - or, I could drive to Salem in half the time it would take for me to get to Union Station?

Autonomous cars will render most of this junk obsolete within 20 years.

Not necessarily -- these better cars will be able to let a lot more people not actually require cars themselves, and simply have a labor-cost free taxi pick them up and take them places. Think car-sharing improved a few magnitudes. Autonomous cars won't fix highway congestion. They might make it worse because people will have their personal AVs drive home after they get to work so their other family members can use it.

What AVs may make less useful is a lot of the half-assed empty busses that run to places where transit doesn't make sense. Instead it will make more sense to focus on fast, high capacity, high quality public transit corridors. When you get off the train in Eugene a driverless car that will take you to Aunt Sue's can be there waiting with the engine warm.

Oddly enough, i happen to find myself in Taiwan this week, and even stranger, i rode their HSR yesterday to go from Taipei to Kaohsiung (at the other end of the island). It took 96 minutes to cover about 240 miles with two short stops (I was on an 'express' train... there is another that makes six stops and takes just under two hours). Fastest speed that they announced was just under 180MPH...
The ticket cost me about 65 USD each way, and you can get fares as low as about 42 USD if you buy in advance, ect.
I checked today after reading this post, and the population of Taipei metro is 7.5M, Kaohsiung metro is just under 2M, and Taichung (a city that both express and regular HSRs stop) is about a million...
Supports the main gist of many comments: you need population density to be effective. The trains run about every 45 minutes on average, a little more frequently at rush times for business.
There used to be extensive air service between the two cities, but today there is almost none since the train is more effective... ergo two domestic airlines have pretty much had to refocus (they do flights to PRC now) and nobody i talked to here has any clue as to how much the HSR cost...(according to wikipedia it cost 18Bill USD)

BTW... gas here is expensive but not obscene... about 4.50 USD per gallon...

Just some random data...

cheers, Mike

What AVs may make less useful is a lot of the half-assed empty busses that run to places where transit doesn't make sense

But since autonomous vehicles are still years away, replacing large, inefficient 30' and 40' buses with neighborhood "jitneys" or shuttles still makes sense. Many TriMet routes are today run with huge buses that get only 4 MPG; but could easily be replaced with a Freightliner Sprinter van in transit configuration that gets 15 MPG, costs a lot less to purchase (about $85,000, compared with $300,000 and up for a full-size bus), and if it has less than 16 seats doesn't require a CDL to operate.

Heck - there are even some "mini" versions of TriMet's LIFT buses (Eldorado National Aerotech) that are small enough that don't require a CDL - RideConnection uses some for their volunteer routes in rural Washington and Multnomah Counties. And yet they look like a LIFT bus, have an ADA lift...

Erik H. -

Re your 10/22 12:57 PM Post

While it doesn't change your very good analysis of the southern "half" of the corridor - Portland to Eugene - I think you miss a point about the northern "half".

There would be political issues, but the logical northernmost terminus is Vancouver, B.C., not Seattle.

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