ODOT’s High-Speed Passenger Trains: Coming to the Willamette Valley?

The Oregon Department of Transportation is currently working on a plan to bring high-speed passenger trains to one of four proposed routes linking the Columbia River above Portland to the Springfield-Eugene urban area. With all likelihood, a high-speed train could pass through Corvallis.

According to ODOT, “Over the next 25 years, the population of the Willamette Valley is expected to grow by approximately 35 percent, with the population anticipated to reach 3.6 million by the year 2035.”

At the same time, ODOT estimates that freight volume in Oregon will grow by 60 percent. The current population and freight growth rates are on track to exceed the capacity of Oregon’s current rail systems.
And right now, trips from Eugene to Portland can take over 2-and-a-half hours—40 minutes longer than driving.

“We have a fair share of folks who commute to Corvallis from different cities in the Valley, and that would be a wonderful help… I can certainly think of many up-sides to having a stop here in town,” said Corvallis Mayor Julie Manning. “It’s very much in keeping with the city’s interest in alternative modes of transportation, environmental sustainability, diversifying the local economy, and encouraging visitors to Corvallis.”

According to Oregon State, passenger use of the Amtrak Cascades line has risen by 22 percent since 2009 and by 238 percent since 1995; building a new passenger rail line will justifiably help reduce congestion in the Valley. The state would like the optimized tracks, should they run along existing lines, to allow trains to hit 90 miles per hour. But right now, Union Pacific, which mainly moves freight, doesn’t think that in-state trains will move faster than 79 miles per hour. Still, many travelers are less concerned with increased speed as they are with convenience and reliability.

Some advocacy groups are pushing for true high-speed trains, capable of hitting 150 miles per hour, which run on electricity rather than diesel and require a different, dedicated track set-up.

The project will be funded by a combination of federal and state funds, and ODOT is currently in the process of conducting an Oregon Passenger Rail Environmental Impact Statement. Given the obstacles ahead for the proposal, including its enormous expense, it’s possible that the route will never be built.

Still under consideration are issues of train speed, frequency, station locations, fuel type, and routes.

David Knowles, CH2M Hill consultant and project manager for the Oregon Passenger Rail Project, told the Register Guard, “At this point, we’re just trying to figure out where it ought to go.”

by Genevieve Weber