Most of Sounder’s North Line problems are well-known and structural: its would-be walkshed is comprised of half ocean and half cliffs, transit connections are poor, parking availability is poorer still, frequency is severely limited and codified by contract agreement with BNSF, and mudslides knock out service a couple dozen days per year. Given these rather severe odds, the service garners just over 1,000 daily riders. While the North Line’s high costs and poor performance have been all over the news lately (Seattle Times, STB, etc) , all indications are that the line will continue to operate indefinitely. Sound Transit recently leased 5 years of additional Edmonds parking and is proceeding with long-term station enhancements, and on Thursday the mayors of Everett, Mukilteo, and Edmonds offered their unequivocal support (emphases mine):
Our service along the shore of Puget Sound offers the nation’s most beautiful commute…We strongly disagree with [the Citizen Oversight Panel's] suggestion of reducing Sounder service to pay for more buses on I-5. Our communities have made a tremendous long-term investment in Sounder. We will not stand for reducing service. A number of vocal Sounder opponents, many of whom live nowhere near Snohomish County, have tried to skew the COP’s report to suggest the service might be subject to outright elimination. That will never happen.
So if the service is to continue, can it be improved without ‘throwing money at it’? What sort of operational enhancements (if any) could increase ridership at no or little cost? One possibility after the jump.
The North Line currently operates four peak-direction trips on 4-car trainsets, while the South Line operates nine trips on five 7-car trainsets. On the South Line three trainsets are peak-direction only from Lakewood to Seattle, while two trainsets make three one-way trips per peak period, LKW-SEA-TAC-SEA in the morning, and SEA-TAC-SEA-LKW in the afternoon. See the current schedule below.
While looking at the data in the 2013 Draft Service Implementation Plan I noticed something striking, an approximate ridership equivalence between North Line trains and South Line reverse-peak trains. South Line reverse-peak ridership (111 per train) nearly matches the North Line (151 per train).
The reverse-peak trains (which I happened to commute on for 18 months) are simply monetized deadheads, and they exist primarily as a way for ST to make 7 peak-direction trips with only 5 trainsets. As such, the smaller trainsets used on the North Line are more than adequate to handle reverse-peak demand: Additionally, I have been told (but lack the data) that South Line peak-direction ridership follows a bell curve, exhibiting classic shoulder and peak-of-the-peak behavior, so there is theoretically more operational flexibility with the earliest and latest trains. So we could run limited end-to-end service by:
- Running all five 7-car trainsets peak-direction only, Lakewood to Seattle.
- Running the first two North Line trains from Everett to Tacoma, turning them back to Seattle to make last two peak-direction trips
- Running the last two North Line trips unchanged, from Everett to Seattle.
Here’s a mock schedule showing how it could work:
- Provides limited through-routing for the first time, providing Snohomish County with rail access to the tens of thousands of jobs in the Green River Valley.
- Reduces operating costs (slightly) on the South Line by using smaller trainsets on two of the seven trips.
- Provides better options for Lakewood commuters by replacing the 4:42am train with a 7:07am train (currently the last train leaves at 6:37am).
- Provides better reverse-peak scheduling by replacing the 6:10am train with a 7:20am train.
- Offers a later arrival in Seattle at 9:30am.
- Provides later peak-hour coverage for the North Line by replacing the 4:05 train with a 6:00 train. (Amtrak’s 6:50 train would still be available to full-fare pass holders.)
- Remains operationally compatible with the Empire Builder, the Coast Starlight, and all but one Cascades train. (exception noted below).
- The smaller trainsets may not offer enough capacity to accommodate the two latest A.M. and earliest P.M. Tacoma-Seattle trips. (If Everett Station can store more than 4-car trains, then cars could be added if necessary.)
- Through-routing may complicate labor arrangements between BNSF and ST.
- The easement agreement may forbid operating in the hours proposed.
- The proposed schedule is incompatible with Amtrak 501. (The 7:30am departure toward Portland would have to shift to either 7:10am or 7:40am)
I don’t pretend this would solve any of the structural issues listed above, but if we’re stuck with the North Line indefinitely, we need to think creatively about how to improve it cheaply. Limited through-routing could be one way to achieve that.