Guest Op-Ed: Fast Trains for All

In the U.S., the Pacific Northwest has reached a tipping point where expanding its mobility choices to include high speed rail is critical to plan for long-term growth and address large-scale challenges such as climate change, housing affordability, and access to good-paying jobs.

The Problem

The Cascadia megaregion, which includes Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver is reported to grow by 3.6 million people by 2050; three times the size of the current population. Regional growth plans only account for 2.3 million of those people, leaving a gap of 1.3 million people unaccounted for where they will live and work, as well as adding further demand on the region’s strained transportation network. Additionally, a study on regional growth in aviation found that Seattle’s Sea-Tac airport will exhaust all expansions by 2027 and still be over capacity by 3 million passengers annually. Decision-makers are exploring building two additional airports to meet demand. Meanwhile, 60 percent of the region’s carbon emissions come from passenger transportation. Legislators have set a goal to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050 in alignment with the Paris Climate Accord. On our current trajectory, Cascadia will miss this goal and only decrease emissions by 20-30 percent without a game-changing investment in fast, high-capacity, clean-energy transportation, such as high speed rail.

The lack of regional connectivity has also created an equity issue for underserved communities who experience long commutes and difficulty accessing good jobs and affordable housing. Essential workers, such as nurses, teachers, and first responders have been priced out of the city centers that they serve. According to the Cascadia Vision 2050 report, as population growth continues, by 2035 Cascadia will experience worse traffic congestion than Los Angeles, and by 2040, housing in Cascadia will be less affordable than San Francisco. In Seattle, megacommuters have increased 72 percent in the last five years, traveling more than 90 minutes each way between work and home. Businesses are experiencing difficulty attracting and retaining talent due to high housing prices in city centers. Earlier this year, a spokeswoman from Microsoft explained to the American Public Transportation Association why the company has contributed $500,000 in funding studies to build high speed rail in the Pacific Northwest: “People won’t have to choose where they want to live and where they want to work. It will increase income potential for people not living in existing transit centers.”

The Project

Washington State DOT (WSDOT) has completed studies on the feasibility and benefits of high speed rail (HSR) in Cascadia. These studies outline the benefits of regional HSR:

  • With speeds of 220 miles per hour, HSR can move up to 32,000 passengers per hour, providing 47-minute trips between Seattle and Vancouver and 58-minute trips between Seattle and Portland, cutting down journey times that would take more than two and a half and three hours by driving, respectively.
  • Cascadia HSR will have 21 to 30 daily round trips, with some express trips stopping only at Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, interspersed with other trips that stop at more locations along the alignment.
  • HSR is estimated to cost $24-42 billion to build, which is one-third the cost of building one lane of highway on I-5 along the same corridor: $108 billion. It will generate $355 billion in economic growth: an 8:1 ROI.
  • For every one job created in the rail sector, 4.2 jobs are supported in other industries. HSR could create 200,000 construction jobs in the rail sector and 840,000 jobs in other industries, totalling 1.04 million new jobs.
  • As a comparison, to the capacity of high speed rail, a region would alternatively need to build an additional six lanes of highway, 91 airport gates, and two airport runways to accommodate interstate travel growth projections.
  • High speed rail could reduce the region’s carbon emissions by six million metric tons with potential for zero emissions by using clean energy sources (such as wind, hydro, or solar power), and uses a construction process that is 50 to 60 percent cleaner than road and airport construction.


High speed rail has been successful around the world for over 60 years. We can learn from best practices of legacy systems in Europe and Asia while examining what needs to improve in American policies to deliver results in the Cascadia megaregion.

  • Establish aggressive high speed rail timelines to meet our climate goals. Reduce procedural red tape that causes delay and increases cost of delivering projects. In a study by Eno, rail projects in the U.S. take 17 months longer to build and cost 50 percent more than our global competitors. WSDOT can expedite projects by focusing on faster delivery times rather than mitigating construction impacts.
  • Build high speed rail stations in downtowns, airports, and employment centers, where the most people will use it. The region should also invest in improving local transit (bus, light rail, streetcar) which improves equitable access to underserved communities and feeds local transit into the high speed rail system. As learned from Germany, building many stations in less populated intermediary cities along the alignment will decrease travel times and the increase accessibility, and hence effectiveness, of a fast train.
  • Instead of building two additional airports to accommodate aviation growth, a high speed rail station at the airport can absorb passengers from regional flights. Short-haul flights are typically money-losers for airlines and generate more carbon emissions. By establishing a partnership with the airlines, passengers could arrive on a transcontinental flight, then board high speed rail at the airport to seamlessly make their connection to an intermediary city. With convenient locations, competitive travel times and ticket prices, fast trains using this model have captured 40-50 percent of the aviation market share in Europe.

The question is not “Does the Pacific Northwest build high speed rail or build nothing?” After all, the alternative is to continue building the more expensive, carbon-intensive infrastructure furthering the economic divide of communities: widening roads and adding more airports cannot and will not keep up with growth. Now is the time to act swiftly, and prioritize long-term planning with high-speed rail that benefits the whole.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation. 

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