Pacific Northwest Corridor

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Corridor as designated by the Federal Railroad Administration

The Pacific Northwest Corridor or the Pacific Northwest Rail Corridor (PNWRC) is one of eleven federally designated higher-speed rail corridors in the United States.[1] The 466-mile (750 km) corridor extends from Eugene, Oregon to Vancouver, British Columbia via Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington in the Pacific Northwest region. It was designated a high-speed rail corridor on October 20, 1992, as the fifth of five corridors called for in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) although it is now called a higher-speed rail since the minimum speed for a high speed rail is designated as 125 mph.[2] The corridor is owned by BNSF Railway in Washington and British Columbia, and by Union Pacific Railroad (UP) in Oregon,[3] and is used by a mix of freight and passenger trains operated by BNSF, UP, and Amtrak. If improvements to the corridor are completed as proposed in Washington State's long range plan, passenger trains operating at a maximum speed of 110 miles per hour (180 km/h) would travel between Portland and Seattle, in 2 hours and 30 minutes, and between Seattle and Vancouver in 2 hours and 37 minutes by 2023.[4]

Current passenger service[edit]

The Pacific Northwest Rail corridor is used by several Amtrak and local commuter rail services. Amtrak operates its Amtrak Cascades service over the length of the corridor, and the Coast Starlight from Seattle southward. The Empire Builder uses the corridor on short segments, via two sections in Seattle and Portland. BNSF Railway operates Sounder commuter rail for Sound Transit between Seattle and Tacoma, and Seattle and Everett. The Rocky Mountaineer operates seasonal service between Seattle and Vancouver.


Development of the corridor[edit]

What became the Pacific Northwest Corridor was largely developed between the 1860s and the 1910s by the Southern Pacific Railroad, Northern Pacific Railway, and Great Northern Railway. Passenger service declined after the 1910s, but service was present on the whole corridor when Amtrak took over intercity passenger service in the United States on May 1, 1971.


In 1866, the United States Congress granted land to a then-unnamed railway that would traverse the length of Willamette Valley south from Portland to the California state line.[5] A railway company that would later become Ben Holladay's Oregon Central Railroad began laying track on the east side of the Willamette River in East Portland, Oregon in April 1868. This railroad reorganized as the Oregon and California Railroad; it was completed as far south as Roseburg, Oregon by December 1872.[6] In 1887, the Oregon and California was purchased by the Southern Pacific Railroad (SP).[7]

By 1940, the SP operated six daily round trips between Portland and Eugene: five long-distance trains - the Beaver, Cascade, Klamath, Oregonian, and West Coast - that continued to Oakland via the Shasta Route, and the Rogue River local service that ran to Ashland, Oregon on the older Siskiyou Line.[8] Service gradually was decreased; after September 1966, the Cascade was the only remaining SP service running between Portland and Eugene. It was reduced to tri-weekly service in 1970, but lasted until the start of Amtrak.[9]


Extent of Northern Pacific Railway in Western Washington, c. 1900.

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Northern Pacific Charter, which established the Northern Pacific Railway (NP) with the charge of constructing a rail connection between the Great Lakes and Puget Sound.[10] Work on the first section of the railway's right-of-way in Washington Territory began at Kalama in 1870.[11][12]:11 After an 1873 decision to place the Puget Sound terminus in Tacoma, Washington, scheduled service on the NP's Pacific Division between Kalama and Tacoma began on January 5, 1874.[12]:11 The NP-affiliated Puget Sound Shore Railroad connected Tacoma to Seattle on July 6, 1884.[13] Rail service between Tacoma and Portland, Oregon (with a ferry between Goble, Oregon and Kalama) began on October 9, 1884.[12]:12 The original line was extended south from Kalama to Vancouver, Washington in 1901 by the Washington Railway & Navigation Company, which was soon acquired by the NP. In 1906, the Portland and Seattle Railroad Company - a joint venture of the NP and the Great Northern Railway (GN), both owned by James J. Hill, began construction of the final link from Vancouver into Portland. The 1908 opening of the Columbia River bridge completed the all-rail route ("Prairie Line") between Seattle and Portland, eliminating the need for the ferry crossing at Kalama.[14][12]:12

By August 1909, the NP ran four daily round trips between Portland and Seattle.[12]:12 The next January, the NP signed an agreement with the Oregon–Washington Railroad and Navigation Company - a subsidiary of the Union Pacific Railroad (UP) - giving the UP trackage rights over the Prairie Line. A similar agreement with the GN was reached that June.[12]:12 By May 1914, three railroads ran some 11 daily Seattle–Portland round trips (4 NP, 4 UP, and 3 BN) plus a number of freight trains.[12]:12 The GN used the 1884-built NP route into 1906-built King Street Station in Seattle, while the UP used the 1909-built Milwaukee Road line into Union Station.[15] The substantially increased passenger service on the NP required the original single-track mainline to be straightened and double tracked. This was completed between Portland and Kalama in 1909, and between Kalama and Tenino, Washington around 1915.[12]:12

However, the section of the Prairie Line between Tenino and Tacoma had a 2.2-mile (3.5 km) section of difficult 2.2% grade. The NP opened Tacoma Union Station and the new water-level Point Defiance Line around Point Defiance in December 1914.[12]:12[16] The southern 6 miles (9.7 km) between Tenino and Plumb, Washington was reused from the Olympia Branch of the Port Townsend Southern Railroad, purchased earlier that year, while a short section east of Olympia used the 1891-opened Tacoma, Olympia & Grays Harbor Railroad.[17][18][12]:12 Although slightly longer than the Prairie Line, the Point Defiance Line was substantially flatter. The UP moved all service to the new line, and the NP moved most service, though the GN continued to use the old line.[12]:12

By the mid-1920s, the GN, NP, and UP began operating "Pool Service", where tickets were cross-honored between the three railroads on their Seattle–Portland services.[19] In 1933, the three railroads reduced service to one daily round trip each - a level maintained for several decades.[12]:14 The GN trip was moved to the Point Defiance Line on August 8, 1943, ending through service on the Prairie Line north of Tenino, and the last passenger service between Tacoma and Grays Harbor via Olympia and Lakewood ended in February 1956.[12]:15 The GN and NP were merged into the Burlington Northern Railroad (BN) in 1970. Final pre-Amtrak BN-UP Pool Service consisted of three daily round trips - one (UP) to Union Station, and two (BN) to King Street.[20]


The original line from Seattle to Vancouver, British Columbia was completed by four separate companies which were soon consolidated under James J. Hill's Great Northern Railway (GN) to provide the GN with two Pacific ports. The Fairhaven and Southern Railroad (F&S) was completed from Sedro, Washington to Fairhaven, Washington in late 1889, with an extension along the shoreline to the international border at Blaine, Washington completed on October 25, 1890.[21]:215-216 The Hill-controlled New Westminster Southern Railway was simultaneously completed from Brownsville, British Columbia (across the Fraser River from New Westminster) to the international border, where it was connected to the F&S on January 10, 1891.[21]:215 In 1890, Hill incorporated the Seattle and Montana Railroad, which acquired the struggling F&S and began construction from Seattle northwards to a connection with the F&S in Belfast, Washington.[21]:262[22] The first Seattle–Brownsville through train ran on November 27, 1891; regular service began on December 4.[21]:262[22] The GN transcontinental route was completed in 1893; it connected to the Seattle and Montana at Everett, Washington.[23]:73-74

In August 1902, the John Hendry-owned Vancouver, Westminster and Yukon Railway began construction of a line from the rapidly growing city of Vancouver, British Columbia to New Westminster, with a bridge crossing the Fraser River to connect with the GN. The GN gained access to Vancouver with the completion of the New Westminster Bridge and the VW&Y in late 1904.[23]:78 The New Westminster Southern was formally purchased by the GN in 1891, the Seattle and Montana in 1907, and the VW&Y via its Canadian subsidiary Vancouver, Victoria and Eastern Railway and Navigation Company (VV&E) in 1908 after years of poor relations, formalizing GN control of the corridor.[21]:261[23]:74, 90

The GN was not the first Seattle–Vancouver rail route - the Northern Pacific-owned Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway (SLS&E) was completed from Seattle to a connection with the Canadian Pacific Railway at Mission, British Columbia in 1891.[23]:73 However, the inland SLS&E route had numerous curves and steep grades; Hill had considered purchasing it in 1890, but deciding that constructing the Seattle and Montana would allow superior service.[22] Passenger service ended on the SLS&E in the mid-1920s, leaving the GN as the only Seattle–Vancouver passenger route.[24]

Several portions of the route were realigned in the first decades of the 20th century. Replacement of leased trackage with GN-owned trackage in Everett, including a new tunnel under the downtown area, was completed on October 7, 1900.[25][26] A a tunnel into downtown Seattle opened in 1905 to reach King Street Station, which opened the next year.[27][28] Construction began in 1901 on the Chuckanut Cutoff, which ran at water level along Bellingham Bay between Fairhaven and Belleville (north of Burlington, Washington) to bypass the numerous sharp curves on the original F&S route.[29] The cutoff opened on February 15, 1903, and the original F&S line was abandoned from Fairhaven to Lake Samish.[30] The Great Northern and VV&E opened a new coastal route with lower grades from Brownsville to Blaine on March 15, 1909.[31] The construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal in Seattle, which began in 1911, necessitated the replacement of the single-track bridge connecting Interbay Yard and Ballard. The new double-track bridge and 2.5 miles (4.0 km) of connecting line opened in 1914.[32]

By 1913, the GN operated four Seattle–Vancouver round trips (three of which continued south to Portland) and one Seattle–Blaine round trip; this decreased to three Seattle–Vancouver round trips by 1928.[33][34] The 1950 introduction of the streamlined International increased daily service to four daily round trips - three Internationals and one unnamed local.[35][36] The GN dropped one International round trip in May 1960, and a second in June 1969.[36] By the time Amtrak began operations, the Burlington Northern ran a single daily International round trip.[20]

Amtrak era[edit]

Initial Amtrak service in 1971 consisted of an unnamed tri-weekly Seattle–San Diego train (later named Coast Starlight-Daylight) and two unnamed Seattle–Portland round trips (later named Mount Rainier and Puget Sound), with no service north of Seattle. The Empire Builder also ran on the corridor between Seattle and the connection with the ex-Northern Pacific mainline at Auburn, Washington.[37] The daily Seattle–Vancouver Pacific International began service on July 17, 1972.[36][38] Coast Starlight-Daylight (later Coast Starlight) service became daily on June 10, 1973, resulting in three daily Seattle–Portland round trips.[39] The Seattle–Salt Lake City Pioneer displaced the Puget Sound on June 7, 1977, with no change to service levels on the corridor.[40][41]:140 From June 11, 1973 until its discontinuance on October 8, 1979, the North Coast Hiawatha also ran on the corridor between Seattle and the connection with the ex-Great Northern mainline at Everett.[41]:160,166

In 1977, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) studied the possibility of 100-mile-per-hour (160 km/h) service between Portland and Eugene.[42]:3 Two additional Portland–Eugene round trips were added on August 3, 1980, with the introduction of the state-subsidized Willamette Valley.[43] The Pacific International was discontinued on September 30, 1981, ending service north of Seattle.[44][45]:52 The stops at Edmonds and Everett were restored on October 25 when the Empire Builder was rerouted over the ex-GN mainline. A Portland section of the Empire Builder, which ran on the corridor between Portland and Vancouver, Washington, was also created at that time.[41]:172 The Willamette Valley was discontinued on December 31, 1981 after state funding was ended.[46] Service remained largely constant until November 4, 1993, when the Pioneer was reduced to tri-weekly service.[41]:149

Expanded service[edit]

The 1991 passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act resulted in the designation of five high-speed-rail corridors in October 1992 - among them the Eugene–Vancouver Pacific Northwest High-Speed Rail Corridor.[42]:4 Between 1992 and 1994, ODOT studied service improvements on the Portland–Eugene section of the corridor.[42]:3 Several reports produced by the Washington Department of Transportation in 1992 indicated that maglev service on an all-new right-of-way or electrification of the existing corridor would be impractical, leaving enhancements to diesel-powered trains as the likely option for improved service.[47]:1-5 In 1993, the Washington legislature allocated funds for the development of incremental improvements to Amtrak service in the state.[48]:6-1 Daily service was to be eventually increased to 13 Seattle–Portland round trips and 4 Seattle–Vancouver round trips. Tilting trains and infrastructure improvements were to be used to decrease travel times - from 4 hours to 2.5 hours between Seattle and Portland, and from 4 hours to 3 hours between Seattle and Vancouver.[47]:1-6 Work on a corridor-level Environmental Impact Statement for the Washington section of the corridor began in January 1996; however, it was suspended in August 2000 in favor of less intensive environmental documentation for individual projects.[48]:ES-3

Parallel to this infrastructure planning, the states began funding service expansions on a trial basis. On April 1, 1994, Washington began a 6-month trial of a rented Talgo tilting trainset, which was used to add an additional Seattle–Portland round trip called Northwest Talgo.[49] On October 1, 1994, the Northwest Talgo was replaced by the Mount Adams using conventional equipment.[50][51] ODOT funded an extension of the Mount Rainier to Eugene, which began on October 30.[52][53] WSDOT also funded the Seattle–Vancouver Mount Baker International, which began service on May 26, 1995, using the rented Talgo set previously used on the Northwest Talgo.[44][54]

Modern changes[edit]

Current investment in passenger rail in the Pacific Northwest Corridor will not be used to create a dedicated high speed passenger rail corridor from the ground up, but will instead create more modest systematic improvements to the existing railway used by the Amtrak Cascades line that uses trackage owned primarily by private freight railways. On January 27, 2010 the federal government announced $590 million of ARRA stimulus funds will go to Washington State for higher speed improvements of its section of the corridor. Additionally, the state of Oregon will receive $8 million to improve Portland's Union Station and trackways in the area.[55] On December 9, 2010 US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that Washington State will receive an additional $161 million in federal higher-speed rail funding from the Federal Rail Administration after newly elected governors in both Wisconsin and Ohio turned down their states' high-speed rail funding. This brings Washington's total funding to about $782 million.[56] These investments funded the construction of the Point Defiance Bypass, which will reduce travel times and enable the addition of two extra trips in the Seattle-Portland Amtrak Cascades corridor daily.

In 2017, the Washington State Legislature budgeted $300,000 for a study of "Ultra High Speed ground transportation" operating at speeds greater than 250 miles per hour (400 km/h) along the Vancouver, BC to Portland corridor.[57]

In January 2019, the Washington State Legislature passed a bill to open another study of a study of high speed rail.[58][59]


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