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WSDOT Oversees Railway Improvements

The department's responsibilities extend well beyond maintaining roadways.

Sat December 28, 2013 - West Edition
Lori Lovely

State departments of transportation are most often thought of in connection with roadways, but in Washington State, the DOT is busy overseeing railways. Washington State Department of Transportation is the steward of a large transportation system, responsible for ensuring that people and goods move safely and efficiently.

In addition to building, maintaining, and operating the state highway system, WSDOT is responsible for the state ferry system, and works in partnership with others to maintain and improve local roads, railroads, airports, and multimodal alternatives to driving. WSDOT manages and directs the state’s rail programs (both freight and passenger), including the state’s freight grants and loans programs.

Passenger rail service has regained significance throughout the Pacific Northwest, due to a growing population, increasing highway congestion along the I-5 corridor and environmental concerns. Ridership on Amtrak Cascade services has grown from less than 200,000 in 1996 to more than 836,000 in 2012, while Sound Transit’s Sounder commuter rail went from startup in 2000 to more than 2.8 million riders in 2012. Amtrak’s two long-distance trains that serve the state — the Coast Starlight and the Empire Builder — also have had significant gains in ridership in the last 20 years.

In addition, rail is generally the most cost-effective method for shipping bulk and heavy commodities overland, and the state relies heavily on rail freight. Freight rail in Washington includes two Class I railroads (BNSF Railway and the Union Pacific Railroad) that own 60 percent of the rail infrastructure by mileage and carry millions of carloads of commodities each year, one regional railroad, various short-line railroads and intermodal facilities.

“In the early 1990s, we had one train,” said Dave Smelser, capital program manager of rail projects, WSDOT. “We have built incrementally.”

The BNSF freight line and three passenger lines — a commuter, Amtrack Cascades (Seattle-Vancouver B.C. and Empire Builder (Amtrack long-distance) — run along the 20-mi. (32 km) corridor between north Seattle and Everett. There are four daily roundtrips between Portland and Seattle, and two between Seattle and Vancouver, with an estimated 850,000 riders last year.

Amtrak Cascades operates more than 4,000 trains each year. The service is popular in the northern segment between Seattle and Vancouver B.C., carrying 234,000 passengers in 2012. This rail corridor also is shared with Empire Builder and Sounder trains.

Room for


Despite growth and improvements, issues remain. Smelser said WSDOT hopes to add two additional roundtrips between Portland and Seattle and increase reliability to 88 percent. It’s now in the mid-70s.

One of the causes of poor reliability is landslides. During long periods of heavy rain, the rail line owner (BNSF) temporarily suspends passenger rail service to ensure safety when a landslide occurs or a high-level threat of landslide exists. Between November 2012 and early January 2013, landslides cancelled a record number of daily trips.

WSDOT is working with government and private rail partners (BNSF, Sound Transit, Amtrak, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, Snohomish County, city of Everett, city of Mukilteo, city of Shoreline, Governor’s Office of Regulatory Assistance, town of Woodway, Seattle Public Utilities, Washington State Department of Ecology, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, and city of Edmonds.) to review recent slope studies and historical slide data, with a goal of determining all factors contributing to landslides.

Construction on a $16.1 million federally funded project began in August 2013 to help stabilize slopes above the rail line near Everett. It’s just one of the projects underway this year. “Three projects are complete, six are ongoing, and there are eight more to go,” Smelser said. “It’s a busy time for design.”

Investing in the

Future of Rail

The Washington State Rail Plan will serve as a strategic blueprint for future public investment in the state’s rail transportation system, providing an integrated plan for freight and passenger rail, including 5- and 20-year funding strategies, that meets federal and state requirements.

WSDOT is expanding Amtrak Cascades service in Washington with $800 million in federal funding for capital improvements throughout the corridor. These federal funds will provide an additional two round trips between Portland and Seattle, improved on-time performance and schedule reliability and shorter travel times. In addition to providing critical rail infrastructure improvements that will position Amtrak Cascades for further growth, the plan’s goals include:

• Two additional round trips between Seattle and Portland; for a total of six daily round trips

• Improved on-time performance/schedule reliability

• Shorter travel times between Portland and Seattle by 10 minutes

Amtrak Cascades travels along the proposed Pacific Northwest High Speed Rail Corridor. One of the goals of the incremental improvements should result in higher speed service. In order to increase train speeds and frequency to meet these goals, a number of incremental track improvement projects must be completed, such as:

• Additional track capacity at multiple locations, such as the Point Defiance Bypass, which separates passenger traffic from the majority of freight traffic southeast of Tacoma

• Upgrades to signal systems and gates

• Corridor reliability improvements, which include work to help stabilize slopes and reduce the frequency and extent of service interruptions caused by landslides along the Pacific Northwest’s only north-south passenger rail corridor

• Safety-related improvements

• Station upgrades, including increased capacities

• Eight new locomotives, one new trainset

• Multiple upgrades to or replacement of existing track throughout the corridor

Work is expected to be completed in 2017.

Smelser described the three types of projects that will be included in the projects: station improvements, additional capacity and increased track consistency.

Several station improvements are underway. “King Street is a retrofit,” he said. “It’s an inside remodel of an unreinforced brick building.” Crews are adding hundreds of tons of steel framing, a new foundation, as well as HVAC, water and electric systems. It’s the first remodel since the 1970s, Smelser said. The updated building will be capable of withstanding earthquakes and passenger areas will be up to current standards.

The Tukwila station also is currently under construction. Its “temporary” plywood platform has been in place many years.

To address additional capacity, passenger bypass tracks are being added around congested freight areas. “We’ll lengthen the lead tracks for better access and to reduce interference with freight,” Smelser elaborated.

To increase the consistency of tracks, several areas are being upgraded with concrete ties, which Smelser said are more stable and last longer. “We’re upgrading the basic infrastructure,” he said. This should decrease out-of-service time after landslides block the tracks.

Working on

the Railroad

Additional planning is needed to identify the next set of upgrades beyond those currently funded and set for completion in 2017. In December 2008, WSDOT published a mid-range plan listing projects needed to achieve the midpoint level of service proposed in the long-range plan. WSDOT is applying for $900 million in high speed rail stimulus funds for projects discussed in the mid-range plan, since the corridor is one of the approved high speed corridors eligible for money from ARRA.

All the projects, each of which has a partner, have different purposes, needs, locations (over a stretch of 400 miles), environmental issues and schedules. Integrating schedules is complicated by the number of separate agreements with so many different partners. “We have four grant agreements with FRA (Federal Railroad Administration), all with different rules,” Smelser said. “There are a total of 22 separate agreements with 45 people.”

The timeline is firm because “funding evaporates in the fall 2017,” Smelser indicates. “They’re providing $8 billion in funding to improve services,” Smelser continues. “We got $800 million, in partnership with Oregon, for rail service from Eugene to Vancouver, B.C.”

In October 2013, the federal government shifted responsibility for funding Amtrak Cascades services to the states, in accordance with the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA). This will increase operating costs for the states. Currently, Washington and Oregon jointly fund 80 percent of Amtrak Cascades’ operating costs. Under the provisions of PRIIA, Washington and Oregon must absorb direct costs for operating Amtrak Cascades that had previously been paid by Amtrak.

PRIIA reauthorizes the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, better known as Amtrak, and strengthens the U.S. passenger rail network by tasking Amtrak, the U.S. Department of Transportation, FRA, states and other stakeholders in improving service, operations and facilities. PRIIA focuses on intercity passenger rail, including Amtrak’s long-distance routes and the Northeast Corridor, state-sponsored corridors throughout the Nation and the development of high-speed rail corridors.

Washington’s rail system is distinct from its roadway, transit, aviation and water transportation networks in that the vast majority of the infrastructure is owned by private companies, such as BNSF and UP. “BNSF won’t allow anyone to do projects on their lines,” Smelser said. “They contract out or self-perform the work.”

To perform some of the work, BNSF is using an undercutting machine that lifts up the track and ties, digs out the ballast and adds new ballast. Another impressive tool on site is used to lay rail. “It has tracks on the front, with railroad wheels in the back,” Smelser describes. “It picks up rail and clips it together.”

No additional roundtrips until all projects are complete.

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