Monday, January 14, 2008

Ramblin' by Rail

Trains came to Cascadia in the mid-1800's with the first real rail company, Oregon Steam Navigation, beginning in 1861. Throughout the rest of the century railroad barons held huge sway in the Northwest as their decisions could literally make or break a city. This was evident in the later 1800's as Tacoma and Seattle battled who would become the final leg of a short line from Portland that connected them to the transcontinental railroad. After the advent of automobiles trains fell out of favor since they could not provide the freedom of personal transportation. Many railroad companies went out of business and abandoned their rails leaving them to rust in their place (Many were later turned into walking trails, such as Bellingham's Alabama Creek Trail and Seattle's Burke-Gilman). Well, this morning I took the train from Seattle to Bellingham and I believe its time that we bring rail travel back, bigger and better.

Riding the train Northbound from Seattle is a truly relaxing experience. As historical happenstance would have it (or perhaps the fact that locomotives were invented over a century before automobiles) the existing rail lines have by far and away some of the best right-of-ways in all of Cascadia. Unlike I-5 which runs from strip mall to strip mall, the train runs almost directly along the Puget Coast, allowing unhindered views of the San Juans and Olympic Mountains. As the train chugs past Everett it heads inland, meanerding along the Snohomish River and then dropping into the farmlands of the Skagit Valley. Surprise relics pop up along the route as well, such as an old beached tugboat just north of Edmonds or a colorful Welcome to Mt. Vernon sign, tucked under an old 99 bridge.

Of course, the train isn't perfect. The typical journey by rail can take up to almost twice the time of driving and the price is not yet competitive to a car (unless those gas prices keep up their trend). Talking to some fellow Cascadian Independents we decided that Cascadia really needs to take rail travel seriously. Geographically it makes sense as we are much longer North-South, than East-West. As well, demographically, we are almost entirely concentrated on the already existing I-5 corridor, which railways already run the length. By putting in a high speed train, such as the Eurostar connecting London and Paris, we could have service from Vancouver to Portland in under three hours! And this isn't like 3 hours to an airport where you then have to wait for your baggage, wait for a shuttle or taxi, and then spend 15 to 20 minutes driving into town, this is literally downtown to downtown.

Plus, you get the benefits of being eco-friendly. In a recent press release from Eurostar it was approximated that traveling by train emits roughly 10 times less carbon dioxide per passenger than traveling by airplane. Not to mention that high speed trains run on electricity, and thus have the ability to come from renewable sources, opposed to burning jet fuel.

Well, as it turns out my friends and I weren't the only ones to realize how brilliant train travel would be in Cascadia. The Cascadia Center, a project started through the Discovery Institute, has been trying to increase efficiency in regional transportation since 1993. Although the Discovery Institute is continuously harassed (rightly) for their promotion of Intelligent Design, the Cascadia Center has actually worked hard on a few important transportation projects in the past, such as helping negotiate a second train between Vancouver and Seattle. Sure, they aren't always right and they haven't yet promoted a high speed train, but at least the ideas are out there.

So what can the average Cascadian do to help promote better train travel? Well, check out the Cascadia Center's webpage and send them a letter showing your interest for high speed rail. The classic letter's to your congressmen and women is also always good. But most of all get out their and ride the rails! Trains are expensive and there will never be financial support if there isn't any consumer support. So pick a destination, charge up your ipod, and go enjoy the Cascadian landscape from the big windows of the old steel pony.

No comments: