Washington state passenger rail advocates call for Point Defiance Bypass opening 'as soon as possible'

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SEATTLE — Rail-passenger advocacy group All Aboard Washington has issued a call for the Washington State Department of Transportation, Amtrak, and Sound Transit to reopen the Point Defiance Bypass and add Amtrak Cascades trains on the Seattle-Portland corridor “as soon as possible.”

All Aboard Washington acknowledged it has a special interest in the subject, and not just because of its focus on passenger rail. Two of its longtime members, Jim Hamre and Zack Willhoite, were killed in the December 2017 derailment.

“Our colleagues … would recognize the need to make appropriate safety improvements,” the association said in a website posting. “But they would also push for improved Amtrak Cascades service without further delay.

“The need for fast, frequent, and reliable passenger rail service has never been more urgent. The traveling public wants a convenient, environmentally-friendly service that is safer than driving,” AAW added. “With the right service improvements, the Cascades can meet this demand. But additional daily Cascades trains, with shorter running times between Seattle and Portland, cannot be implemented until the Bypass is in use.”

All Aboard Washington said it believes improvements have been made, including installation of positive train control, sufficient to allowing the reopening of the bypass.

“As taxpayers and consumers, we feel that our tax dollars are best spent building fast, reliable and frequent passenger rail service,” AAW said. “We believe that further postponing Cascades service on the Point Defiance Bypass — for which we have already paid $181 million — is detrimental to the interests of the Puget Sound region, the Pacific Northwest, and the traveling public as a whole. The taxpayers of Washington state have invested a significant sum of money to improve a useful service along a busy corridor. Let’s make that improved service a reality without delay.”

All Aboard Washington representatives testified at a hearing of the House Transportation Committee Jan. 15 in support of HB 2287, a bill intended to address some of the issues of safety-policy coordination identified by the National Transportation Safety Board. According to a legislative summary, the Joint Transportation Committee “is required to oversee a consultant study on rail safety governance best practices and recommendations for the implementation of these best practices in Washington.”

WSDOT, the Utilities & Transportation Commission, the UTC, Sound Transit, the NTSB, Amtrak, the Federal Railroad Administration, BNSF Railway, and other entities with rail safety expertise are to be interviewed as part of the study, which is to be turned in by Jan. 6, 2021.

“We agreed that the lack of coordination between federal, state, and local agencies and private entities was a contributing factor to the disaster, and we applauded the proposed improvements in the institutional framework for rail safety,” AAW said in summarizing its testimony in support of the bill. “However, we emphasized that passenger trains are very safe, many times safer than private motor vehicles. We also emphasized that the excessive speed in this incident — 79 mph in a 30 zone — would have brought about disaster, regardless of who owned the track, who operated the trains, or what specific passenger car equipment was involved.”

The association repeated its call for “a return to full service on the Bypass as soon as possible.” It also recommended a “tangible, permanent memorial” to Hamre and Willhoite be placed at the new Freighthouse Square Amtrak station in Tacoma, to be used by Cascades trains and the Coast Starlight once the bypass route is reopened.
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