A high-speed rail line connecting Vancouver and Seattle sounds fun. Building a business case for the service is another question

When business and government leaders from Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates to B.C. Premier Christy Clark gathered in Vancouver for the Emerging Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference last September, one proposal for linking the city and Seattle was high-speed rail (HSR). Washington State politician Dow Constantine envisioned zipping between the two metropolises in an hour or less on trains leaving every 10 or 15 minutes at speeds of more than 300 kilometres an hour.

Not so fast. As exciting as a new regional high-speed rail system may sound, it can’t be an end in itself. That’s why the idea hasn’t gathered steam in many areas of the U.S., notes a working paper prepared for the conference by engineering consultant David Carol of WSP / Parsons Brinckerhoff. HSR should be a tactic for achieving another goal, like economic integration, Carol argues.

But how much would a high-speed Vancouver-Seattle connection boost economic activity, asks David Gillen, director of the Centre for Transportation Studies at UBC’s Sauder School of Business.

“They’re trying to say that the economies of the two regions are going to be drawn closer together,” Gillen explains. “But if they’re drawn closer together by moving people around, you can do that just as easily by moving them by air as you can by rail.”

There are few strong arguments for high-speed rail, says Gillen, who researched its viability when he taught at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1990s. Although the Golden State has a much larger population than the Vancouver-Seattle area, he found no real business case for such a system there. Even China’s busiest high-speed rail link, which connects Beijing to Shanghai, only began turning a profit in July 2016, four years after launching. It was financed with a combination of private and public funds.

That study estimated construction costs for a Cascadia HSR line between Vancouver and Portland, Oregon, of US$30 million a mile (US$18.75 million a kilometre), for a total of some US$9.6 billion (US$4 billion from Vancouver to Seattle). Average operational costs of US$900 million a year would mean annual subsidies of $100 million unless ridership increased substantially.

Still, Kevin Falcon, former B.C. minister of transportation from 2004 to 2009, says HSR is a bold idea that deserves serious research and consideration. At the Emerging Cascadia conference, Falcon, now executive vice-president of Anthem Capital Corp., recommended that the B.C. and Washington State governments do a feasibility study: “If we recognize the mutual benefits that could arise from seamlessly connecting our two cities with high-speed rail to get us from Vancouver to Seattle in under an hour, then we need to actually act.” 

 

Quick Hits

*Trains must be able to go
     *240 km/h (U.S.)
     *250 km/h on new lines (international)
     *200 km/h on existing lines (international)
 
*Tracks must be dedicated to HSR, with minimal crossings
 
*HSR is most efficient at connecting major metropolitan areas 320 to 965 km apart
 
Source: Ecolopolis 5.0: High-speed Rail in the Cascadia Region