We’ve all been through it. You pull up at the railroad tracks near Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The lights start to flash.
The bells start to ring. You sit there for two to three minutes waiting for the train to show up and then another two to three minutes for the train to pass. A few minutes later the gate opens back up and you’re on your way.
That’s how things work with a typical freight train traveling through the installation at 35 miles per hour.
Beginning this fall, high-speed Sound Transit and Amtrak passenger trains, topping out at 79 miles per hour, will begin running through JBLM up to 10 times per day.
As the chief of police on JBLM, I watch drivers attempt to bypass the lights at the main and DuPont gates every single day. When the high-speed rail becomes active, there will only be approximately a 45- second window from the time the light starts to flash and the arm comes down before that high-speed train barrels through the intersection at 79 miles per hour.
If the red lights are flashing and the gates are down, a train is usually less than a minute away.
I cannot stress this message enough, do not try to beat these trains — because you will not.
At 79 miles per hour, there is no opportunity for a conductor to identify a hazard, begin to apply the brakes and hope to stop that train before they cross all the way through the installation and then stop somewhere toward Lacey.
To put things in perspective, about three years ago at Solo Point, we had a car pull out in front of and collide with a freight train. That vehicle and train stopped approximately a mile-and-a-half up the road before we could start recovering debris. If a high-speed rail hits a car at our main gate, it will be approximately two-and-a-half miles before the train can stop.
Do not try to beat these trains because you will not.
So what does that mean for JBLM?
If you’ve used the DuPont gate during peak times in the last two weeks, you’ve no doubt noticed it’s taken you three times as long to exit the installation. The timing of the light signals at these intersections has changed to facilitate high-speed rail and specifically intended to facilitate safety and to ensure intersections and rails are clear when the train arrives at 79 miles per hour.
We have approximately 110,000 people on this installation on any given day. If we were a city, we’d be the seventh largest city in the state. Like every other community in the area, we are dumping the vast majority of our traffic onto a freeway that is challenged to handle this volume of traffic at the same time every single day.
However, there are some things you can do to help mitigate traffic issues.
Joint Base Lewis-McChord has other gates that bleed on to I-5 that, oddly enough, are extremely underutilized. The Mounts Road Gate by the prison facility is now open from 3 to 7 p.m. and connects you to the Center Drive Gate and DuPont.
You can also enter the freeway south of a lot of the backups we tend to see on any given day using Mounts Gate. If you’re going northbound, we have the Logistics Gate.
When the construction project on Lincoln Road wraps up, you can use Unity Bridge. Also available are the Woodbrook Gate at McChord Field and the McChord Field Main Gate.
Integrity Gate, on Lewis North, is a great way to get onto DuPont-Steilacoom Road. These gates help spread that traffic flow as it leaves the installation.
Additionally, Washington State Department of Transportation has cameras and maps on their website that show traffic flow on the primary routes at JBLM and the surrounding area. I encourage each of you to visit wsdot.com/traffic/ before you leave in the afternoon to see where the congestion is.
The unfortunate reality of the situation is the external infrastructure outside of JBLM isn’t going to change. All we can do as an installation is adapt how we respond.
The time for JBLM to start preparing for the high-speed rail to make its way through our community is now. I ask that you, please, help spread the word to your Soldiers and Airmen, co-workers, families and retirees about the dangers of high-speed trains.
Your life is too important to risk, just to save a few minutes.