High-speed rail from Los Angeles to Vancouver?
Pacific Northwest considers a line that could eventually connect to California’s bullet train
North America is a laggard on high-speed rail. Aside from a few segments of the Acela corridor in the Northeast United States, there’s no true high-speed rail on the continent. Much of the European continent, on the other hand, is well-connected by high-speed lines, Japan has been using the technology for decades, and China built the world’s largest high-speed network over the past decade.
There are signs that North America may finally be ready for high-speed trains. A line is under consideration in Texas, and another could be built between Chicago and St. Louis. Ontario just committed C$11 billion for a high-speed rail link between Toronto and Windsor, provided the Liberal government gets reelected in June. But the West coast provides some of the most exciting prospects for a train network of the future.
California is poised to have the first real bullet train in North America. Construction began on the Los Angeles to San Francisco line in 2015, but isn’t expected to be complete until 2033 — though a segment between San Francisco and Bakersfield will begin operating in 2029. There has recently been controversy because timelines were pushed and budget projections increased to $77.3 billion, but polling shows that 53% of Californians still support the project.
However, that isn’t the only project under consideration on the West coast. The governors of Oregon and Washington, along with the premier of British Columbia, are supporting a business case analysis of a high-speed rail link between Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver after a study of possible routes and technologies was released in December. An economic analysis paid for by Microsoft and trade unions shared in February also suggested the link could create hundreds of thousands of jobs and further boost the region’s economy.
The governments believe construction would begin in 2025 and take nine years at a cost of between $24 billion to $42 billion, depending on the final route and technology chosen for the project. Washington Governor Jay Inslee cited California as a learning opportunity so the Pacific Nortwest project isn’t plagued by similar mistakes that could lead to large cost overruns.
There is one aspect of the study taking place in the Pacific Northwest that is particularly exciting though: it will also look at the possibility of extending south to connect with California’s high-speed rail system. It’s this kind of thinking that is essential to creating a true network of high-speed trains, instead of a series of separated lines in different parts of the continent.
Auto-dependence is not going well for North Americans. Commute times keep creeping up as congestion gets worse, and all that sitting in vehicles is incredibly bad for drivers’ health. A shift in the way cities are built and designed — to make them walkable and easier to get around on high-quality public-transit networks — is essential, and better means of connecting major cities is also crucial to a twenty-first century transportation system that values not just passengers, but the environment as well.
Airlines are currently responsible for about two percent of global emissions, but their share is projected to rise significantly as emissions in other sectors are cut. And as more people crowd into cities, the connections between major economic hubs become even more important. For some, air travel will still be necessary — few people will be taking a high-speed train between Los Angeles and New York City on a regular basis — but bullet trains could easily compete on short-haul routes, such as Vancouver to Seattle and even Los Angeles to San Francisco, especially when the time savings from downtown train stations and less security theater are factored in.
Unfortunately, we are still looking at the late 2020s and early 2030s until the first high-speed rail lines are opened in North America — if they go ahead — but the thinking added to the business case analysis being done in the Pacific Northwest is pointing us in the right direction. North America needs high-speed rail, but there can’t simply be a few isolated segments; it’s imperative that those segments connect into a larger network that will eventually span the continent and transform how people travel.