Oregon Passenger Rail Project meetings this week

The Oregon Department of Transportation is running an initiative known as the Oregon Passenger Rail Project, seeking to improve intercity rail in the Willamette Valley. There will be two meetings in the Portland area this week for those interested:

May 7:

SE Metro Community Advisory Group Meeting
6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.
Pioneer Center Ballroom
615 5th St,
Oregon City, OR 97045

May 8:

Portland Community Advisory Group Meeting
6:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Billy Webb Elks Lodge
6 North Tillamook Street
Portland, OR 97227

Meeting materials are available at the above link.


18 responses to “Oregon Passenger Rail Project meetings this week”

  1. Apart from needed improvements to the freight rail system, I would like to see public investment in intra-state transportation focused on connecting “the rest of Oregon” not just the Willamette Valley. Maybe that would help stop the abandonment of the smaller towns of the state, by those in search of employment in the big city.

    However, touching upon the means to achieve higher speed on AMTRAK, I would like to know what happened to the idea to simply build longer lengths of rail—–that I read about at least thirty years ago. At that time I saw an article suggesting that 1/4 mile lengths of track, as opposed to 30 ft long rails, would produce a much smooother ride on trains. Perhaps the track could be even longer than that in many section, since you would be able to move them to position via the Railway, as opposed to moving items on the Interstate. I wonder what the maximum length rails could be on straight sections of line, and if there would be a better and more durable way to tie them together, so that there is less chance of deterioration. I suppose getting long rail lengths to curve properly could be a challenge. But the bottom line is that smoother sections could allow higher speeds with existing equipment.

    There may be some simple ways to achieve an improved AMTRAK connection throughout the Northwest without going to an incredibly expensive “high speed rail system.”

  2. Ron, most of the rail on the Union Pacific mainline is already CWR – continuous welded rail – however it takes more than just rail to accomplish a good ride quality.

    In fact there is even CWR on many of the branchlines; recently I saw a picture of one such branchline, in the Corvallis area. Good CWR, but the ballast had shifted and needed resurfacing and many of the ties were worn and split.

    The other problem with the UP mainline is you have a lot of curves (especially in and south of Oregon City), a lot of congested areas with very close development (Salem, in particular) and a lot of grade crossings.

    Ultimately, your first paragraph is right on the nail. ODOT is so damned focused on “rail” that it has actually ignored what it should be doing – focusing on intercity transit needs which are sorely lacking in Oregon. For the cost of just ONE of the new Talgo trains ($20 million), ODOT could have bought a fleet of 40 brand new intercity transit motorcoaches that would have provided hourly Portland-Eugene service, PLUS service along I-84, U.S. 20, U.S. 97, Oregon 99W, U.S. 101, Oregon 18, Oregon 126, Oregon 58… And ODOT even acknowledges that the buses that operate on the Amtrak Thruway service are profitable – they receive no subsidy, are privately owned, operated and maintained, and pay all of the assorted taxes and fees (including the weight-mile road use fees) while the two Amtrak trains operate at an average load factor of 30% south of Portland and require $5 million in annual subsidy.

  3. @Ron,

    The length of a particular section of rail to be used in CWR doesn’t affect its “bendability” once it gets longer than a few hundred feet.

    Rail delivery trains consist of flat cars with frames attached four levels high and six rails wide with rollers on which 1/4 mile long strings of rail sit with guides between each string.

    These rail trains operate with complete impunity over the US rail system; they don’t go very quickly because having 24 rails resisting the bending required to make each curve is pretty rigid. But they are sufficiently flexible that derailments are vanishingly rare. Otherwise, continuous welded rail would never have become possible.

    I’m not sure how the 1/4 mile length was decided. There are limits to how much the rail can be internally compressed or stretched with temperature, so in all likelihood experiments or complex computations decided the length. If a welded string is too long between “fish plates” it might buckle from lengthening too much on hot days or “straightline” a curve from contracting on a frigid day.

    CWR requires a much heavier railbed than does jointed rail, because heavy ties and ballast prevent movement of the track structure, essentially forcing the rail to compress or stretch as required by temperature changes.


    If you can get the legislature to spend $20 million a year on subsidized rural bus service, I tip my hat to you.

  4. I went to the Oregon City meeting this evening. It looks like ODOT is doing a good job keeping the blue-skyers in check and focused on the FRA mandate for “emerging HSR” (e.g. max 110).

    I’d say the biggest problem identified this evening was Milwaukie’s fear of the estimated increase in UP freight traffic over the next two decades of 60%. They have concerns about emergency vehicle access and the constant noise that lots of freights generate.

    So one woman from the city was opposed to the proposed increase in passenger train frequency, because she felt that things were going to degrade enough without more passenger trains.

    All in all a very good meeting. I would have gone to the Portland one, but I already had a meeting on Wednesday evening. So if you’re interested in the topic, try to make the Portland one on Wednesday.

  5. P.S. I came back on the 75 to Clackamas Town Center and then the Green to the Yellow to C-Tran. I was amazed at the number of riders out of Town Center going north.

    Now it was just at 9:00 PM, so the stores were closing, but both cars were about 60% full on a weekday evening at that time. Let’s hear it for the Green Line!

    After Gateway the ridership dropped significantly. But of course that’s because it’s split between three lines.

  6. I would like to see a bus service connecting all of the main highways in Oregon. The destinations could even change with the seasons: major camping areas or trailheads or beach towns in summer; ski destinations in winter. But always connections to certain towns. Following the European example of double decker buses there could be bistros and tables on the top deck. And if you had sleeping compartments on the lower level (as European trains do) overnight runs to more distant towns could take the boredom out of it. For example overnight from Portland to Coos Bay and Brookings, to Boise, or Spokane, or to Klamath Falls. The European buses are quite large and have large storage compartments in back—so you could board your bicycles, camping gear, skis, snowboards, surfboards, etc.

    The objective would not only be town to town connections, but town to rec.destination connections, too, without having to drive. You couldn’t serve every recreational destination, but you could hit the major ones, and perhaps some of them (Bend/Century Drive/Mt Bachelor comes to mind, or Clatsop or Wallowa County) might have shuttles or local transportation that could help. This would allow a lot more people to leave their cars behind, or would serve those who don’t have cars.

    This concentrating of untold billions in improving ‘services” in the Willamette Valley—–CRC is a prime example—–and not helping general statewide (and carless) travel is positively ludicrous.

    Such a system would cost a tiny fraction of high speed rail, and would come close to paying for itself. And it isn’t like no one has done it before; countries the world over have similar services.

  7. A lot of people don’t understand what the main impediments to fast passenger rail are.

    The main impediment is that it’s hard to share track between fast passenger trains and slow freight trains unless there’s very little traffic.

    For stupid historical reasons, the freight haulers — mostly hauling very slow trains like coal trains — have taken over most of the old railways. This means that to run passenger trains at reasonable speed you often need to build a brand new railway. Or at least a new track, perhaps next to the existing tracks.

    This costs about what you might expect — a lot, but less than building a brand new highway or widening a highway by a lane.

    You just have to bite the bullet and do it, though. The only reason it looks so expensive is that we already have a lot of highways and freight rail routes, and we don’t have a lot of passenger rail routes any more, so there’s more new-build needed.

    Where there are old, dismantled rail routes which are suitable, the price tag can come in a lot lower. The Oregon Electric route from Salem and Eugene to Portland is an excellent route which will be highly cost-effective… except that it peters out as it gets near Portland, so some expensive new construction will be needed in the Portland area. You just have to bite the bullet and deal with it.

  8. @Nathanael,

    I think you’ll find that building a new EHSR track even on previously graded right of way is considerably more expensive than adding a new lane of highway. One-twenty-five track structure is extremely heavy and has punishing drainage demands; then there’s the catenary, and don’t forget the crossing protection. Go to yet higher speeds and you’re into double digits of millions of dollars a mile.

    Going beyond adding extra track to an existing ROW to building a “greenfield” railroad is incredibly expensive anywhere but Kansas or one of its neighboring states, because of the grading and bridgework costs.

    All that said, I agree that doing a strong engineering analysis on the OE structure makes sense. I did speak with one of the engineers after the presentation; he said that the OE is off the table between Salem and Millersburg because of the street running in North Salem and the likely impacts on a wetland.

    Other than that stretch, though, OE all the way from north of Woodburn to Eugene is the way to go.

    For the time being I’d build the connection across I-5 and use the UP for access to Portland. That would keep costs down while still cutting the overall transit time significantly. One would have to improve the UP through Oregon City, but that’s a chokepoint that would need work even with no increase in passenger traffic.

    You could also extend WES the twelve miles south from Wilsonville to a little station in “West Woodburn” to provide a link to Wilsonville, Tualatin and Tigard.

    Such a station would also be accessible by auto or perhaps shuttle bus from Newburg and McMinnville.

  9. What about using the WES route all the way up to Tualatin, then turning east through Lake Oswego on those existing tracks, and meeting up with the UP line in Milwaukie?

  10. @Chris I,

    Two words: “Lake” and “Oswego”. The folks there will never allow at-grade operation of frequent passenger trains on that line east of the wye in Tualatin. It’s too close to too many very nice houses. And they have political power.

    However, I believe something very close to your idea might be a useful “high speed” entrance to Portland. But it would be through a tunnel from the current east wye switch and under Iron Mountain to one of two portals right alone the river.

    The problem would be making the transition between the Oregon Electric and old SP. There’s not enough room in downtown Tualatin, so the most likely route would be to transition from the WES to the freeway ROW just north of the Wilsonville station through the existing trucking yard and Wilsonville Toyota, use the median to just north of Nyberg, then back up on a viaduct over the northbound lanes and the river and into the old SP line,which is elevated above the freeway. Boones Ferry would either have to overpass or underpass the line, but McEwan could probably stay at-grade. Certainly speeds couldn’t exceed 60 through there.

    The least expensive option would be a portal under Riverside Drive immediately west of the (replaced) SP bridge.

    However, the folks in Milwaukie are opposed to any such use of the “Tillamook Branch”. They say that its five grade crossings right in downtown Milwaukie would be too disruptive. In any case, it’s being hemmed in by Milwaukie MAX, so there’s probably not enough room to build an additional elevated structure.

    The other option for the east portal connection to the UP would disrupt the Springwater corridor along the river all the way from Sellwood Riverfront Park to OMSI.

    But if you were willing to consider that, there is the possibility of portaling underneath Macadam just north of Sellwood Ferry Road, crossing the river on a new, dedicated structure ending in the power line right of way, and then using the tracks alongside the Springwater trail. I’m not sure how compatible 60 or 70 mile per hour passenger trains and hikers are, though.

    I really don’t see any way to get to Union Station with a “grand” tunnel all the way from Tualatin to Northwest Portland, though. That’s one of the options that’s still “on the table” for the HSR folks. One would have to go all the way to Kittredge, almost to BNSF’s Willamette crossing, to get close enough to the hill. And then the trains would be headed the “wrong way” in the Portland Union Station. They could cross the Steel Bridge and use UP’s tunnel to continue north, but that would be much slower than the current BNSF route. Or they might switch ends in Portland, but that would be an operations nightmare on a regular basis.

    So unfortunately, we’re probably stuck with the UP access to the city for the duration.

  11. @Replying to Myself,

    Well, I guess that for this system there is no catenary planned, so that definitely lowers the price.

    You may be right: it might be about the same as a lane of pavement. But at least it serves both directions at the service levels envisioned.

  12. However, the folks in Milwaukie are opposed to any such use of the “Tillamook Branch”. They say that its five grade crossings right in downtown Milwaukie would be too disruptive. In any case, it’s being hemmed in by Milwaukie MAX, so there’s probably not enough room to build an additional elevated structure.

    MAX trains will be lowering the gates at these grade crossing about eight times an hour, if not more. Of course, MAX trains are short, so the crossing closures are limited in time (compared to freights, which can block traffic for many minutes at a time).

    Passenger rail trains, while longer than MAX, are still generally short–a half-dozen cars or so.

  13. @Allan,

    Hmmm; I guess that’s true, but it would play hell with any possibility of a MAX tunnel in the future since it would go right under downtown. It’d have to be pretty deep to get under foundations; passenger trains can’t turn like LRT’s or subways.

    Still, if you did it you might make a “double deck” tunnel like BART/Muni and there you’d have your Southwest Corridor MAX tunnel handled.

    Pretty grand and expensive, though, for a city the size of Portland. The shortest tunnel through Iron Mountain would be plenty spendy. Going from Tigard all the way to downtown would be HUGE!


    I was just reporting that the representative from Milwaukie said at the Oregon City meeting. I’m rather more with you, but there is concern.

    That’s clearly the least expensive option to get a Wilsonville station.

  14. Well, now that the LO-Portland Streetcar has been ashcanned, we can run passenger rail (not high speed though) on the Willamette Shoreline, with a short tunnel under Naito Parkway through downtown.

    Folks in LO and Dunthorpe would LOVE that. :)

  15. Where there are old, dismantled rail routes which are suitable, the price tag can come in a lot lower. The Oregon Electric route from Salem and Eugene to Portland is an excellent route which will be highly cost-effective… except that it peters out as it gets near Portland

    The OE line from Albany to Eugene might be arrow straight, but it goes, quite literally, nowhere – through farmland and touching just a couple of sparsely populated farming communities.

    From Albany to Salem, the route is curvy, at the base of a hill and above the Willamette River. Not suitable for speeds faster than 40 MPH without significant environmental impact; the existing Union Pacific route is far superior in every single way imaginable; adding a second track to the UP has little impact, whereas rebuilding the OE would require massive earthmoving next to a protected waterway, and through a National Wildlife Refuge.

    Within Salem, the OE is essentially an old trolley line – passing as close as 20 feet to low-income housing in North Salem, passing by multiple schools, and even running down the middle of a street (Front Street). Absolutely, positively 100% unacceptable for an HSR alignment, and the cost to mitigate this would be easily billions and would destroy neighborhoods left and right. (But I guess that’s OK for trains, just not for freeways.)

    Salem to Wilsonville – again, lots of farmland, no communities. The UP serves downtown Woodburn directly, as well as Hubbard, Gervais, Aurora, Canby, Oregon City… Which means each of these very well established communities will be forced to contribute more auto traffic, while the lovely town of St. Louis and its 50 or so residents (and several thousand fish) will have HSR (but no station stop).

    Tualatin – HSR would require a massive, ugly viaduct right in the heart of town, destroying its popular and recently remodeled Community Park. Again, this is apparently acceptable for rail, just not for highways…

    Lake Oswego – lawyered up. ‘Nuff said.

    Willamette River Crossing – existing bridge absolutely unacceptable for HSR, especially with its large wooden trestle approach on either side, plus some of the concrete footings have been eroded. Several hundred million to replace the bridge.

    All – for 160 daily riders, each way.

    Buses do the exact same job, more environmentally “clean”, at lower cost all-around. It’s not government’s job to pander to the “I hate the bus crowd” – they need to either admit that public transit has a higher calling than their personal preference, or admit they aren’t in it for the public good – just their own selfish desires. And they’re welcome to form their own corporation, buy up the OE from ODOT, GWI and BNSF, and spend their own money – rather than taxpayer dollars – to build their choo-choo train to the grassseed farms of Linn County.

    Well, now that the LO-Portland Streetcar has been ashcanned, we can run passenger rail (not high speed though) on the Willamette Shoreline, with a short tunnel under Naito Parkway through downtown.

    And those condo owners in John’s Landing, in Portland city limits…

  16. The only problem with the OE route between Albany and Eugene is its route in Albany–like the Salem stretch, an old trolley route through a residential neighborhood. Were a new connector south of town to be built, joining the OE and UP lines, this wouldn’t be a problem; it would also get trains out of downtown. (I don’t think any customers are served in this stretch).

    HSR wouldn’t likely even be stopping in Albany–for HSR to be high-speed, stops need to be few and far between. I can’t imagine a HSR line to stop anywhere but Eugene, possibly Salem, and Portland; no other community along the line would merit a stop.

    A lower-speed “local” service, with stops in places like Junction City, Albany, Woodburn, and a Portland suburb or two, might make sense. But HSR cannot stop for every burg on the side of the tracks.

    The suggestion to use the Willamette Shoreline ROW was facetious, but I suspect you knew that… :)

  17. @Erik,

    Albany to Eugene:

    The UP line is equally arrow straight but just goes through a different set of non-communities at which it does not stop.

    Salem to Albany:

    I completely agree. UP is the way to go even though pretty circuitous.

    Salem to Wilsonville:

    Your listing of the towns “served” along the UP is moot; the Cascades trains stop at none of them except Oregon City for which see below. If anything, it would be better for EHSR to be west of the freeway just to allow higher speeds without blasting through the town centers.

    Wilsonville is a far better suburban station than Oregon City. It has direct access to and from Tualatin, Tigard, and Beaverton on WES, plus a so-so road connection to Sherwood and on to McMinnville. Wilsonville is also much more of a destination for riders from other areas than is Oregon City.


    There is no need to tear up downtown Tualatin; transitioning to the median of the freeway just north of the Wilsonville station is eminently doable with the destruction of only one significant business, Wilsonville Toyota. It could easily move.

    The transition from the freeway median to the SP right of way can be combined with the new crossing of the Tualatin river that would be required because the median ends between Nygard and the river and the freeway bridge couldn’t support a railbed anyway.

    The rail line would rise up to pass over the northbound lanes (like Airport Max exiting the median of I-205) then cross the river and merge with the SP ROW just north of it.

    Lake Oswego:

    LO’s lawyers are not a problem because you can tunnel through Iron Mountain to a portal below Riverside drive directly west of the bridgehead. Not cheap but doable. It eliminates dozens of grade crossings and quite a few curves as well.

    Willamette River Crossing:

    Certainly the bridge would need replacement, but is it that much more than the viaduct that will be required along the Willamette just south of the falls where it floods? The biggest problem I see with the Tillamook Branch routing is the relatively tight curve at the east end of the bridge. But Talgos might be able to do 40 around it.

    There is the “bird streets” neighborhood between the bridge and downtown Milwaukie which would be criminal to ruin, so speeds would have to be limited through there as well and through downtown Milwaukie with several grade crossings in the vicinity of the LRT.

    I’m not saying “let’s do this now”. As I posted above, I think that the best thing initially is to connect from the UP to the OE somewhere north of Woodburn and redo the UP from the end of double track where the Tillamook Branch breaks off through Oregon City to the junction west to the OE right of way. The railroad will need it someday anyway.

    So far as your general “buses are better” opinion, just ask ODOT how people look when they’re told they have to take an Ambus instead of a train. Buses can be great; I love the Premera Prevosts in Mexico. But they’re not anything like a train.

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