How passenger rail is integral to our environmental goals and can help fight climate change

By Patrick Carnahan, Co-Executive Director, All Aboard Washington and Tim Gould, Transportation & Land Use Committee Chair, Sierra Club Washington

Rail is the only form of mechanized ground transportation that does not contribute to tire-related massive salmon die-off.  Yet, news of University of Washington research on tire dust toxicity to coho salmon coincides with the state virtually freezing intercity passenger train service. The toxic effects to salmon, caused by a compound in rubber tire dust that runs off roadways into streams, do not occur with steel-wheeled trains.   How frustrating that the energy efficiency advantage of steel wheels on rail, and the mobility access provided by the rail network are ignored as solutions to pressing environmental and transportation challenges.

Amtrak Cascades has connected the Vancouver-Seattle-Portland corridor since 1995, offering a green travel alternative to I-5. Cascades handled over 800,000 annual riders in 2018 and 2019. However, in response to the pandemic, service has been curtailed to only one train per day. Worse yet, due to an equipment shortage, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) does not envision a full return of service for up to five years. Our best hope for a sustainable, equitable transportation network is being terribly neglected at this critical moment in the fight against climate change.  

Passenger trains can make a difference in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions during the next decade, the critical time to avoid climate change tipping points. WSDOT has had plans since 2006 to improve and expand service. Hourly train trips between Portland and Seattle would divert three million people annually from aircraft and highways to curtail GHG emissions. However, this plan has been neglected and is not even available on WSDOT’s website (find it on All Aboard Washington’s [AAWA’s] website).

Time is of the essence.  Within a decade, we need to leverage the sustainable transportation alternative we already have: Amtrak Cascades. AAWA and Sierra Club recognize the pandemic-induced budget limitations that the Legislature faces.  Yet, the state’s economic recovery and environmental goals can be advanced using existing rail infrastructure to restart and enhance Amtrak Cascades service. 

To fight for our salmon and climate today, five Cascades projects are needed:

  1. Restore North Sound Service

Cascades train service north of Seattle has been discontinued during the pandemic due to the Canadian border closure, eliminating twice-daily round-trips that serve Edmonds, Everett, Stanwood, Mount Vernon, and Bellingham. WSDOT should restore North Sound service, and extend it to Vancouver when the border re-opens.

  1. Complete the Cascades Long Range Plan (LRP)

Realizing the vision presented by the 2006 Cascades LRP will be critical in our efforts to combat climate change. An update this year to the LRP will position the Cascades to seek federal grant money, implement shovel-ready projects, and acquire new train equipment with sufficient funding. 

  1. Secure Stable Funding

Rail needs consistent, robust funding in order to become our accessible, equitable, and climate-friendly transportation backbone. Let’s support creative revenue sources such as land value recapture and county rail districts.

  1. Strengthen Local, Regional, and Federal Partnerships

Cascades service, supported by Oregon and Washington, can be more successful with closer cooperation between the states, the province of British Columbia, and stakeholders. Streamlined governance relationships, regional rail commissions, and rail advisory committees can facilitate better cooperation.

  1. Expand Service Statewide

Washington’s commitment to equitable, sustainable mobility for rural and urban communities across the state requires more intercity rail service to complement other transportation modes.  The Legislature needs to embrace a bold vision of mobility justice with passenger trains serving more of Washington. 

 To learn more about this effort, contact: WA Chapter Transportation & Land Use Committee Chair Tim Gould <>