I've spent way too much time surfing WSDOT's website over the past few years, which includes stuff about rails improvements within Washington State. From what I've seen, it's the same general problem as with transportation dollars everywhere; there just isn't enough to go around, so none of the segments get enough to really do well. WSDOT can see their backlog for many projects a decade out or more, including both rail projects (more on that in a moment) and roads projects (like doing something (anything?) with I-5 through Seattle before it deteriorates badly; we're already 20 years past its design life). It seems like a lot of the country breathed a sigh of relief as the Interstate highway system was completed, and went on to other things, ignoring the reality that the early segments were already old enough, and that somehow, this attitude crept into a lot of other infrastructure areas as well. As a society, we're now starting to replace significant parts of the visible infrastructure, and utilities are upgrading/replacing communications, but electric power is as bad off as rails & roads, and my impression is that water/sewer is even worse off except in areas of relatively new construction. Sometimes, we're reacting instead of proactively dealing with our problems. (I-35W in Minneapolis reopened nearly two weeks ago!)
At any rate, I wish rail improvements were happening faster, but I also sort of understand why. There's a lot of broken infrastructure, and a lot of studies and construction needed to deal with that. The timing sucks, because freight rail traffic is also increasing (in both train length and number of trains, I think), so BNSF is more reluctant to let passenger traffic use their rails more unless someone funds expanding rail capacity. For most of the way from Portland to Vancouver, BC, that's WSDOT's funding of Amtrak Cascades, with some help in the Puget Sound area from Sound Transit's funding of Sounder, many of which are jointly funded since they benefit both.
Some of the projects are adding crossovers (Tenino), adding/lengthening sidings, or a second/third mainline track (Kelso) to provide more opportunities for trains to pass each other. Doing that often means that more trains will block roads that cross the tracks, sometimes standing still, and people get grumpy about that, so there are lawsuits (Mt. Vernon) and/or bridges (Vancouver) to build. Also, rail corridors are popular places to put utilities like long-haul fiber-optic cables; relocating them 20 feet over to make room for more tracks isn't cheap and takes lots of coordination.
A lot of those needs are subtle. As far as I can tell, the track work around Seattle's King Street Station (mostly to the south) served two main purposes; it moved the freight mainline to no longer split the station and the passenger-train maintenance/holding yard one block south (freight trains now travel east of both), and it converted a lot of those connecting switches to be centrally managed, automatic switches. Since this included the two Sounder station platforms, Sounder trains no longer have to go through several hand-operated switches, requiring a time-consuming safety process, to get from the station to either the entrance to the maintenance/holding yard or the mainline tracks headed north or south. The Amtrak Cascades platforms haven't been converted, but the connection between them and the centrally-managed segments has been simplified; hopefully, that'll get finished in the 2009-2011 budget cycle. Upgrading safety equipment and crossing signals and straightening out sharp track curves are also important; the current short-term goal seems to be to get as many segments as possible to meet the 79-mph standards (though some like the Ballard Bridge will need upgrades just to get to 40 mph), while the long-term plan calls for some segments to be upgraded for 110-mph service.
Ironically, WSDOT is also funding improving freight rail stuff, but most of that money seems to be going towards building/improving connections to ports and industrial centers; little else has been done by them or anyone else to this entire rail corridor since 1917 except to improve signaling systems. I don't know whether that's a significant driver to BNSF's traffic; maybe that that's pretty insignificant to them, and most of their traffic is longstanding connections and/or goods that are trucked to/from a rail switching yard to be whisked away to a different part of the country.
I don't know if we'll ever reach the goal that was originally envisioned for 2023; that requires some expensive new track for 110-mph operation. However, I have high hopes for their "midpoint" goal that they originally thought could be done by 2008. We're one of five federally-designated future high-capacity rail corridors (not counting the Acela corridor that's already running), although I haven't seen indications that that's translated into significant funding yet. WSDOT and BNSF have a legal agreement that sets out the framework for doing all of these projects, minimizing the remaining bureaucracy required for each individual project. Finally, we're starting to make progress. Several of these projects are underway, including one or two expensive ones. Lots more have funding for their design phase. Hopefully, all of this forward progress will build momentum that'll help get the other pieces done too.
- WSDOT on Amtrak Cascades, especially the 200+-page report linked to at the bottom (I'm only 1/3 of the way through). It describes what was originally seen as a 20-year plan from 2003 to 2023, with many carefully ordered projects to maximize the incremental gain instead of only seeing the capacity/speed improvements all at the end, and the wording tweaked because they realized they would not have the funding to hit their 2008 milestones.
- Sound Transit's Sounder expansion projects
- WSDOT's Rail Projects, revealing that we are making progress on the 20-year plan, but we won't even be close by 2023.