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Washington state, California ponder high-speed rail line

WASHINGTON — Washington state and California officials have held preliminary discussions about a high-speed, state-of-the-art rail line that would connect San Diego and Vancouver, B.C., with trains that could travel in excess of 200 miles per hour.

The talks come just weeks after Congress approved a $787 billion economic stimulus bill sought by the White House that included $8 billion for high-speed rail in the Northwest and nine other corridors around the nation.

Washington state will seek nearly $900 million in federal money to double to eight the number of daily roundtrips from Portland to Seattle in the next three years or so. Even with the improvements, the trains will be able to travel at 110 mph over only limited sections of track.

But Scott Witt, director of the Washington state Department of Transportation's rail and marine program, said that though he and others are focused on the "here and now," high-speed trains running nearly the length of the West Coast aren't just a fantasy.

"They would go like a son of a gun," he said.

Witt envisions trains like the Shinkansen, the bullet trains in Japan, or France's TGV trains that regularly travel at near 190 mph. The bullet trains, in tests, have traveled at 277 mph, and the TGV trains have been tested at 320 mph. Both countries and others are working on Maglev or electromagnetic propulsion trains that could cruise at speeds approaching 400 mph.

Constructing a truly high-speed West Coast rail corridor wouldn't be easy. It would require entirely new rails and a new corridor that smoothed out grades and corners. Picking a route and deciding where the trains would stop would be politically bruising. And the cost could be astronomical.

The 1,500-mile line, by some estimates, could cost between $10 million and $45 million per mile to build.

Witt said he has been talking with his counterpart in California for about three weeks.

"It's very, very preliminary," Witt said. "But it makes a lot of sense."

An alliance with California and perhaps Oregon would make it easier to leverage federal planning funds, he said.

"We've been a highway culture in the West," Witt said. "It could be time for a change."

California voters last year approved the sale of nearly $10 billion in bonds for a San Diego to Sacramento high-speed train. In Japan and France, however, high-speed rail is funded not by borrowed money but with revenue from a steep gas tax, which also encourages people to take trains rather than drive.

Yet the reality in the Northwest, at this point, has more to do with the little engine that could than a bullet train speeding up the Interstate 5 corridor at near airplane speeds.

In including $8 billion in the stimulus package for high-speed rail, President Barack Obama said it would be a "down payment" on bringing the nation's rail system into the 21st century.

"This is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future," Obama said. "It's been happening for decades. The problem is it has been happening elsewhere, not here."

The stimulus funding initially will provide grants for ready-to-go projects. The first of the grants could be awarded before the end of summer. Follow-on funding would be used for more extensive corridor programs and longer-range planning.

Federal officials estimate the existing intercity passenger rail service uses one-third less energy per passenger-mile than cars. If high-speed rail lines were built on all the federally designated corridors, the officials said it could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 6 billion pounds annually.

Congress also has approved spending an additional $5 billion over the next five years on high-speed rail projects.

"We make no bones about it, this will not fund a high-speed rail network," said Robert Kulat, a Federal Railroad Administration spokesman. "But it kicks it down the track."

Since 1994, Washington state and Oregon have invested $1.1 billion in the rail corridor from Portland to Seattle, Witt said. Federal funding would help pay for some long overdue upgrades that could allow the trains to travel up to 110 mph near Kelso and Centralia.

The Talgo trains, built in Spain with a suspension system that allows them to lean going through corners, are capable of speeds up to 125 mph. But the trains are mostly limited to 79 mph until track, crossing and train control improvements are made.

Federal stimulus money will not allow an increase in service from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C. There is now one train a day, but that will increase to two a day prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The passenger trains share the tracks with freight trains on a BNSF mainline.

Last year, the Portland-Seattle line carried 750,000 passengers, an 82 percent increase over the past 10 years.

By 2023, the trains could be carrying 3 million passengers a day on 13 daily roundtrips between Portland and Seattle and four between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., according to the state's rail master plan. Corridor improvements could reduce travel times from Portland to Seattle by almost an hour, from three hours and 25 minutes to two hours and 30 minutes.

But the cost -- $6.5 billion -- could be prohibitive.

Even so, Witt said, federal stimulus funding was a start.

"It's a huge opportunity," he said.

Washington state has one other ace in the hole: Democratic Sen. Patty Murray. As chair of the Senate transportation appropriations subcommittee, Murray is positioned to help.

"This is real stuff about moving people, creating jobs and reducing greenhouse gases," Murray said.

As for a high speed San Diego to Vancouver run, Murray said not to dismiss it out of hand.

"Obviously it would be in the future and it would be great," she said. "But if this (stimulus spending) can lead to that, it would be amazing."