The curve where Amtrak Cascades 501 derailed Dec. 18, killing three people, was identified years ago as an obstacle to Washington state’s dream of creating high-speed rail.
The corridor between Lakewood and Nisqually “includes unsuitable sharp curvature,” said the state’s long-range plan, written in 2006. “A new connection, largely on structure because of differences in elevation, with a speed limit of one hundred mph will be required.”
Yet the curve remains, a symbol of unsteady political support in the United States for rapid-rail infrastructure.
Even with $800 million in Obama administration stimulus money, Washington state didn’t rebuild it.
The state decided instead to spread that cash among 20 projects, mostly to make its 79-mph corridor through Western Washington more reliable. Those projects include landslide prevention in Mukilteo, new Port of Vancouver, Washington, freight tracks to clear shipments out of the way of Amtrak Cascades, and renovating historic King Street Station in Seattle.
To straighten the DuPont curve and adjoining trestle over Interstate 5 would have driven the total cost to at least $412 million for the 14.5-mile passenger-rail corridor that opened this month from the Tacoma Dome to Lakewood and DuPont. That’s more than double the $181 million actual cost to rebuild the century-old segment with the 30-mph curve left in place.
Amtrak Cascades 501 was going 78 mph in a 30-mph area when the lead locomotive jumped off the tracks to the right, where the rails curve toward an I-5 overcrossing. The engineer, who was accompanied by another crew member, didn’t slow the train, for reasons yet to be determined.
Washington’s incremental projects are a far cry from true high-speed rail, defined in the United States as reaching a 110- to 150-mph top speed in regional corridors — achieved only on two Amtrak lines in the Northeast, while construction is just beginning in California on a 200-mph system.
Worldwide there are more than 50 corridors 150 mph or quicker, including the famous TGV in France. Japanese Shinkasen trains cruise at 200 mph, and last month, China Railway opened a 155-mph line.
In the past decade, Congress named the Northwest one of five U.S. high-speed rail regions, and Washington state wrote its $6.5 billion master plan. But even then, the DuPont curve appeared only in a technical appendix. And the straightening was proposed for performance, not to clear an urgent hazard.
Gov. Jay Inslee has discussed going beyond that plan, to consider a bullet train, averaging 220 to 250 mph, between Vancouver, B.C., Seattle and Portland. A state-funded $300,000 study describes a $24 billion to $42 billion construction cost, but it says enough people would ride to break even on operations.
No promise made
A Wall Street Journal story Dec. 22 said the DuPont curve was to be removed “in the original plans.” It portrays the site as an example of neglected areas around the country, some designed around the Civil War era, that afflict rail service today.
The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), which owns and subsidizes Amtrak Cascades, replied on its blog that the 2006 document is merely intended to describe a series of building blocks, to be added gradually, on a limitless budget.
“It is common for railroads to have areas of reduced speeds due to curves or other factors, as found along the entire Cascades route,” according to the post.
WSDOT said in a statement to The Seattle Times on Thursday, Dec. 28, that the new route “is safe for passenger rail operation.”
“It received all necessary approvals for the design, construction and upgrades that were necessary to open for operation. Multiple tests occurred over the last year to ensure tracks and signals functioned properly, equipment was certified to operate on the corridor, and train crews were familiar with the new route. All tests were completed successfully.”
Amtrak hasn’t answered news-media questions about the quality of crew training, an issue the National Transportation Safety Board will examine.
The 2006 plan envisioned trains cruising up to 110 mph from Blaine to Marysville, slowing through the Puget Sound urban core, then again reaching 110 mph in most places from Lakewood to the Oregon border.
Some funds became available through the $831-billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, known as “economic stimulus” money. Washington won $800-million for rail, trailing only California and Illinois.
The state’s stimulus contracts, released through a public-records request, show the state made no promises to change the curve, nor did it promise to create a 100-mph corridor.
Former WSDOT Secretary Paula Hammond said she doesn’t recall anyone discussing the DuPont curve during her leadership, from 2007-13.
Bruce Agnew, director of the Cascadia Center think tank, recalls the state “talking about very tough negotiations in 2008 and 2009,” over where to spend stimulus funds, involving BNSF Railway and the Federal Railroad Administration.
Officials weren’t going to spend money to straighten the curve if that drained money for the new Tacoma-Lakewood bypass.
“This is their centerpiece,” Agnew said.
WSDOT rail director Ron Pate has declined interview requests since the crash. Spokeswoman Barbara LaBoe says the state determined it could leave the slow curve while still meeting its contractual commitment to the federal government to provide six daily round trips for Cascades by 2017, and an 88 percent on-time performance, with available stimulus funds.
The state kept that commitment until Cascades 501 derailed. Trains have since reverted to the waterfront route out of “sensitivity” to crash victims, rail customers and the public, LaBoe said. Trains will enter the new route once an automatic braking system, called positive train control, is ready, sometime in 2018.
The new route through Lakewood is designed to save 10 minutes compared with the former alignment along the Tacoma Narrows. Passengers also would be delayed less often by freight trains.
If the 2006 estimates were right, straightening the curve would have required roughly $230-million. That’s comparable to Sound Transit’s cost per mile of elevated light rail, or half the cost of WSDOT’s two-lane I-5 widening plan at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
But the trains still couldn’t exceed 79 mph, when continuing north through communities such as Lakewood, without a host of additional improvements.
Lloyd Flem, executive director of the rail supporters group All Aboard Washington, lost two friends in the crash. But he said last week keeping the curve was the correct, fiscally conservative move. “I’ll roll through a curve at 30 mph to save the taxpayers $200-million,” he said.
WSDOT anticipates it will straighten the track in some big future phase, allowing an increase to eight round-trip Cascades trains daily reaching 110 mph, LaBoe said.
“I don’t think we have a year put on it. A lot of it depends on funding availability,” she said.
President Donald Trump tweeted about the Cascades 501 crash as a reason to improve U.S. infrastructure, but his recent budget proposals reduce transit funds, calling those a strictly local concern. His administration Friday declared it won’t carry out an Obama-era agreement to fund half of a new Hudson River train tunnel. No subsidies are forthcoming for new high-speed rail.
If Washington state ever aims for triple-digit speeds, said Agnew, of Cascadia Center, another tight crossing would need to be rebuilt, over I-5 between Marysville and the Tulalip Indian Reservation.