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Why Microsoft is getting behind a revolutionary plan for high-speed rail in the Pacific Northwest

The idea for Cascadia High-Speed Rail, connecting Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, is still in its infancy. But one of the region’s most powerful tech companies sees it as a boost to business.

Why Microsoft is getting behind a revolutionary plan for high-speed rail in the Pacific Northwest
[Source Image: Supirloko89/iStock]

Imagine it’s derby day between the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers, with the treasured Cascadia Cup on the line between these two MLS franchises and their passionate fanbases. In years past, the Timbers Army has caravanned up I-5 in a crawl, facing traffic as they leave the Rose City and yet more on the outskirts of the Seattle metro area.

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But today, hundreds of green-and-yellow-clad fans stream out of King Street Station, just blocks from the Sounders stadium. They’ve zipped up to the Emerald City in 58 minutes on a high-speed train, topping out at 220 mph. They’ll be back home in Portland just as quickly for either a celebratory dinner or a defeated ride home.

That hypothetical game day is just one vision of how a newly proposed Pacific Northwest high-speed rail line will transform the Cascadia mega-region and its three booming main cities—Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver—which are currently in dire need of better transportation connections.

Today those trips can only be accomplished by traffic-snarled cars and buses, inefficient short-haul flights, or slower-than-driving and infrequent Amtrak service, all serving a region of 10 million people that’s expected to grow another 3.5 million by 2050. But sub-60-minute reliable high-speed trains could enable everything from sports rivalry day trips to remote workers commuting to the office just a few days per week to expanded audience reach for top-flight performing arts venues to easier business meetings for venture capitalists closing startup investment deals.

Looking to make that vision a reality, the engineers, manufacturers, sales reps, train operators, and transportation managers who make the global rail industry tick met last month amid the Xbox immersive gaming demonstrations and artificial intelligence exhibits inside flashy Building 91 at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington. From high-speed rail hotbeds like France and Spain, they had traveled to Microsoft’s campus outside Seattle for one reason: They see a business opportunity in a Pacific Northwest high-speed rail line.

[Map: Cascadia Rail/Seattle Transit Blog]

There’s no question the U.S. lags behind the rest of the developed—and not-so-developed—world when it comes to passenger rail. For journeys less than 500 miles, high-speed rail going at least 150 mph on average is competitive with air travel. With routes like Paris-Lyon and Madrid-Barcelona, train lines have dramatically cut into the aviation’s market share on short-haul trips.

The three major cities of the Pacific Northwest are prime candidates for a similar connection. While projects from California to Texas to Wisconsin have all suffered recent setbacks, the Northwest hopes to break the U.S. high-speed rail curse. And it has a very wealthy and influential ace up its sleeve. “I don’t know that we’d be even thinking this audaciously without Microsoft,” says former Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, who now heads the CEO roundtable Challenge Seattle, which backs the train proposal.

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The one-day Cascadia Rail Summit at Microsoft HQ was a milestone that marked accelerated progress toward so-called Cascadia High-Speed Rail. Three years ago, Microsoft president Brad Smith first proposed the idea at a cross-border Seattle-Vancouver business innovation conference that Microsoft itself engineered. Since then, Microsoft has chipped in $573,667 (alongside money from the Washington state legislature, British Columbia legislature, and Oregon Department of Transportation) to prepare a feasibility study and a business case analysis.

“The fact that we’re this far along is probably 50% or more responsible thanks to Microsoft,” says Andy Kunz, president and CEO of the lobbying group U.S. High-Speed Rail Association.

The full Portland-Seattle-Vancouver route is 316 miles. That’s just a hair shorter than Italy’s 180-mile-per-hour service along the Rome-Bologna-Milan corridor, the first segment of which opened in 2008. Today, travelers can choose between both a private and state-run high-speed train on that route, which takes about three hours to connect Italy’s two main cities. While shorter, the high-ish speed Acela service between Washington-Philadelphia-New York has been steadily gobbling market share from shuttle flights all decade.

They’ve zipped up to the Emerald City in 58 minutes on a high-speed train, topping out at 220 mph.

As for Seattle and Vancouver, the two cities sit just 120 miles apart. Cars and buses must tangle with traffic and the border crossing. The existing Amtrak Cascades train is scenic but slow—over four hours along track owned by freight company BNSF, which makes it subject to delays when freight trains need to use the tracks—and infrequent at just two round trips per day. Flying is expensive and so short that travelers spend more time getting to and from the airport than they do in the air.

Because of that difficulty, although their proximity is akin to Washington-Philadelphia, professional circles in the two Pacific rim powerhouses operate like cities a continent apart. A 2016 Boston Consulting Group study found that in terms of LinkedIn connections, Vancouver has more ties with San Francisco than with Seattle, while Seattle has more ties with Atlanta than with Vancouver.

But there is already evidence of thirst for more connectivity between the dynamic economies of Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. WeWork offers a Cascadia Passport with access to locations across the three cities for teams working up and down the corridor. Vancouver startups are finding venture capital south of the border. Even more traditional businesses, like Portland-based shipbuilder Vigor Industrial, have a big physical presence in Seattle.

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And Microsoft sees potential in easy access to an international gateway city so close to home. Immigrant-friendly Vancouver is capitalizing on the Trump administration’s hostility toward immigration, especially the H1B visas on which tech companies rely: Microsoft opened a software engineering office in the city with room for up to 750 employees in 2016.

“There is a lot of local talent in the Vancouver area that we can take advantage of,” says Microsoft Government Affairs Director Irene Plenefisch. “If we have a big job center in Vancouver, we very much want our people to get together and communicate regularly.”

“The political reality right now is the U.S. is doing its best to shoot itself in the foot in terms of something that has been absolutely critical to its competitiveness in technology and 21st century industry generally,” says University of Washington historian Margaret O’Mara. “With the current domestic political reality, it does make sense to have an escape hatch and take advantage of a very international magnet city similar to Seattle.”

The question is how far does Microsoft’s involvement go. Kunz said he would not rule out the company investing directly in the rail line through a public-private partnership. “There’s no telling,” he says. “These are actually profitable businesses.”

O’Mara, who studies civic engagement from tech companies, is more circumspect. “Microsoft should only go so far. There are some things that only government can do,” she says. “Microsoft can provide moral leadership, enliven the conversation, and give it a business rationale, but even the deepest- pocketed tech companies do not have the resources to do something of this magnitude.” More to the point, she says, “It should be a public good, not just a Microsoft shuttle on rails.”

Microsoft, for all its boosting of the project, seems to agree:  “I don’t anticipate we would become train operators,” Plenefisch says. “That would be pretty far outside our core competency.”

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