About Zach Shaner

Zach Shaner joined the blog in July 2010. He has a graduate degree in environmental research and an undergraduate degree in philosophy. When not hunched over a keyboard, he's usually riding his bike somewhere.

New Empire Builder Schedule Begins April 15



Since we last wrote about the Empire Builder’s woes, things have only gotten worse. When writers start doing novelty pieces about “riding the worst train in America”, you know things have gotten bad. In February 2014 the median arrival delay in Seattle was 4.7 hours, and the average delay was 5.6 hours (see chart below), excluding the 4 days the train didn’t make it to Seattle at all. After delays of up to 16 hours, even Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari was saying the kinds of things you never want your PR person to have to say:

“You’ll get some people who’ll say ‘never again’ after going through that, and you and I can certainly understand why.”

Empire Builder 1
While previous issues still occasionally cause delays or cancellations, such as Pacific Northwest mudslides or high water at Devils Lake (an intractable problem in an endorheic basin), the blame this time around falls squarely on North Dakota’s oil boom and the constrained track capacity it has caused. While track expansion projects are underway, causing additional delay themselves, the problem will persist indefinitely.  Yet Amtrak has a mandate to run the train, and run it it will. To that end,  Amtrak has released a revised schedule that it hopes will at least be somewhat realistic. Beginning April 15, eastbound trains will now leave Seattle three hours earlier, at 1:40pm, and westbound trains will arrive in Seattle 90 minutes later, at 11:55 am.

I’m a strong supporter of intercity rail, but we do ourselves no favors to downplay this terrible performance or to sugarcoat the human misery these delays cause. As someone who particularly cares about eventually giving Spokane better than its current graveyard service, seeing our fate so miserably tied to North Dakota’s  is a shame.

Lost in this mess is the fact that the Empire Builder runs rather well here in Washington (see chart below and compare above), and we shouldn’t let miseries in the upper Midwest deter us from seeking better service across our state. This new schedule will have the (accidental but pleasant) effect of giving Spokane decent eastbound service, with a 9:00pm arrival time. (Westbound will get  worse, however, with a 3:45am departure.)

Empire Builder 2

Meanwhile, on this side of the Cascades, we have 7 trainsets making only 13 daily runs, an overcapitalized and underused fleet that awaits the completion of the Point Defiance Bypass and other projects. I would love to see WSDOT fund a temporary pilot project to give daily roundtrip service to Spokane through 2017 using one of those surplus sets, just to give Eastern Washington a taste of intercity travel that is better than either uncomfortable buses or unreliable trains. If the train performed poorly, we could cut it. If it performed well, we could fund it.

Win a Walking Tour of U-Link


With construction underneath Broadway impacting access to Annapurna Cafe, Sound Transit is offering a unique bit of mitigation. Anytime you spend $10 or more at Annapurna, you can enter to win a walking tour of the entire 3-mile tunnel from Capitol Hill Station to UW Station. Multiple winners will be chosen by drawing in early March. ULINK

Tacoma Amtrak Station Design Meeting Tomorrow

Tacoma Link tracks and Freighthouse Square from Tacoma Dome Station (Flickr User Aleferrari)

Tacoma Link tracks and Freighthouse Square from Tacoma Dome Station (Flickr User Aleferrari)

Following the negative reaction elicited by the state’s first conceptual designs for Tacoma’s Freighthouse Square — which would have demolished the westernmost half of the structure, WSDOT is starting over. In addition to the city trying to hire their own architect for the project, tomorrow and again next Thursday WSDOT will hold two public meetings to hear your ideas for station design.  More details and commentary below the fold. [Read more...]

Sunday Open Thread: Mistakes

Boston’s Exciting DMU Plans

MBTA Image

Bruce recently wrote about the “cheaper, brighter future of American passenger rail” thanks largely to the relaxation of rules that will allow lighter rolling stock on conventional tracks. While the rule change doesn’t come close to solving all of the problems of U.S. passenger rail, allowing lighter trains does go a long way to reducing costs and improving service on legacy tracks. Last Thursday, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation released an exciting 5-year capital plan that would invest $252 million in Diesel Multiple Unit service.

The MBTA commuter rail’s 12 lines serve a ridership of roughly 140,000 each weekday. Even though there is already mid-day service on all lines, they are not nearly as useful as they could be. With the exception of a few stations such as Porter Square, the commuter rail interfaces awkwardly with the MBTA’s rapid transit lines, and the system has very few useful infill stations. Crosstown connectivity is notoriously terrible citywide, and many inner neighborhoods are neglected, including Allston-Brighton, Dorchester, Chelsea, and Lynn.

Enter Boston’s 2024 vision: in addition to implementing DMUs on upgrades already underway – such as the Fairmount Line in Dorchester, a shuttle train from Back Bay to the Convention Center, and the new Boston Landing station planned for New Balance’s headquarters in Brighton – the plan calls for creating Boston’s version of the London Overground: DMU service to Chelsea and Lynn on the Newburyport/Rockport line, and to Medford, Winchester, and Woburn on the Lowell line.

Even more ambitious are proposed new interfaces with subway lines, with a branch from Auburndale to the D-Line at Riverside, and a new line between North Station and Boston University via MIT (though this would require expensive upgrades through Cambridge to be useful). Meanwhile, traditional heavy commuter rail would continue at the outer stations but would run express through the new DMU lines.

This would create a really sensible service pattern, where the outer stations get what they need most (reduced travel times) and the inner stations get what they need most (higher frequency). And all this at what seems to be a really reasonable price tag: $252 million.

MBTA 2024

Stay tuned for a post from Bruce on applying DMUs in our local context.

Top Ten Posts of 2013

From all of us here at STB, we’d like to thank you for reading us in 2013. Over the past year we’ve had 665 posts, nearly 40,000 comments, and over 800,000 pageviews.  Our top ten posts in 2013 accounted for 10% of our web traffic on their own. Here’s a look at them:

Most Read:

Most Commented:

Happy New Year to our community, and we look forward to the next few exciting years!

Amtrak Cascades Improves Eugene Service Beginning January 6

ODOT Photo

ODOT Photo

After test runs over Thanksgiving weekend, Oregon’s new Talgo trains have entered regular service. They are running between Seattle and Portland this weekend, and will run between Seattle and Vancouver BC later next week (see scheduled runs here, bottom of the page).

Given the new flexibility afforded by the two new sets – each set must overnight in Seattle at least once per week, limiting the schedule somewhat – ODOT has announced a new schedule for Portland-Eugene service beginning on January 6, 2014.

A new early morning departure is being added at 6:00am from Portland to Eugene, and a 4:00pm departure from Eugene to Portland. In addition, on weekends and holidays the morning train from Portland to Eugene will depart 2.5 hours later, at 8:30am.

Currently, northbound departures all leave Eugene before 1:00p and the first train doesn’t arrive in Eugene until after 5:00pm, making day trips to anywhere south of Portland impossible and even one-night stays impractical. This will considerably improve the options for Portlanders visiting the University of Oregon, anyone with state business in Salem (including reverse commuters from Portland), and others.

ODOT has published the new schedule for Oregon service here, but the full corridor schedule has not yet been released (we have an email in to WSDOT). However, given that WSDOT is not changing service levels at this time, we can reasonably infer the following:

  • Trains 11, 14, 500, 501,  506, 507, 510, 513, 516 , and 517 will remain unchanged.
  • Train 508 will now begin in Eugene at 4:00pm and continue to Seattle, arriving at 10:05pm.
  • Train 504 is cancelled.
  • Train 503/(505 on weekends) is the new morning service from Portland to Eugene

If so, the new schedule is as follows:

Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 2.54.29 PM Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 2.55.05 PM


While our fleet will be badly underutilized until the Point Defiance Bypass is complete – 7 trainsets for 11 daily trains! – the added flexibility is greatly appreciated and the redundancy should at least prevent some of the maintenance problems such as locomotive failures that have occurred too frequently in the past couple of years. Though we’re still many years away from a fully usable schedule in which you can arrive in Portland or Seattle in the morning, this new schedule does represent progress.

Sound Transit Refines Ballard Options

Ballard MockUpAfter nearly 1,800 public comments and 6 more months of technical study, Sound Transit held its final open house Wednesday to present refined options (‘Tier 2′) for rail transit between Downtown and Ballard.  After this round of public comment, the results of the full study will go before the Seattle City Council and the Sound Transit Board early next year.

When we last left this project, Sound Transit and SDOT had presented eight corridors more as conceptual thought exercises than actual proposals, helping to focus reactions and reveal the underlying qualities that matter to people.

In a testament to a high demand for fast, reliable transit – and no doubt in some part due to the work of Seattle Subway – Sound Transit said:

“We heard that efficient and reliable service that is ideally grade-separated is a major priority. We included many corridors with high levels of exclusive right-of-way, including a full tunnel option.”

Unfortunately, in response to public feedback ST also eliminated high fixed bridges from consideration, raising the stakes somewhat and leaving us with only drawbridge and tunneled options for crossing the Ship Canal.

The initial 8 concept corridors were refined down to 5 and then analyzed for ridership, reliability, speed, environmental impact, and impact to other modes. Full descriptions after the jump…

[Read more...]

Special Train Service for Thanksgiving Weekend

Photo by Zargoman (Flickr)

Photo by Zargoman (Flickr)

Sound Transit has announced that it will offer special Black Friday Sounder service, with 1 round trip from Everett and 3 round trips from Lakewood. The first trips from Lakewood and the lone trip from Everett will both arrive in Seattle about 90 minutes before the  day’s festivities begin with the 9am Macy’s Parade. Shoppers and families coming into Seattle on the North line will have about 9 hours Downtown, while those on the South line will have 7-hour and 9-hour options. In addition, Seattle residents visiting family in South King and Pierce County have a few reverse travel options as well. Here is the full schedule:

SounderExtra Amtrak service between Seattle and Portland has been dramatically scaled back this year. Where previous years saw as many as 11 added trains, this year we’ll only see a single round trip on both Wednesday and Sunday, leaving Seattle at 12:30pm and with the return trip from Portland departing at 5:45pm.  This paring back is almost surely due to the withdrawal of federal support for state-supported corridors that became effective October 1 of this year. Many trains for the weekend have already sold out, so act quickly if you’d like to take the train this weekend.

Stay safe and enjoy the long weekend, everyone.

A January 2016 Opening for ULink?

Photo from Sound Transit

Photo from Sound Transit

We first reported back in September that Sound Transit was evaluating strategies to expedite the opening of University Link. At today’s ULink Project Update at the ST Board Meeting, Sound Transit Executive Director of Design, Engineering, and Construction Management  Ahmad Fazel expanded on Sound Transit’s hopes for an earlier date, with very exciting news.

The current opening date of September 24, 2016 has been calculated based upon the finishing of major construction (September 2015), 180 days of systems testing (September 2015-March 2016), plus 169 days of schedule float (September 24, 2016). Mr. Fazel presented 3 scenarios for an earlier opening:

  • Q2 2016: Adhering to the current schedule but using the scheduled float.
  • Q1 2016: Adhering to the current construction schedule but compressing systems testing and using the scheduled float.
  • Q4 2015: Compressing the remaining construction schedule, compressing systems testing, and using the float.

The earliest option, a Q4 2015 opening, would incur additional costs of $10-12m, while the other two options incur no additional costs. Accordingly, staff recommended the middle option to the board: that the construction schedule be left intact, that systems testing be shortened from 180 to 90 days, and that the 169 days of float be used.  Doing the back-of-the-napkin math, ULink could open as early as January 8, 2016.

Sound Transit isn’t ready to actually pull the trigger and change the official opening date at this time, but staff will come back with a recommendation to the board within 12-14 months to set a firm opening date that falls within Q1 2016.

Beyond up to 9 months of better mobility for thousands of residents across the region, the timing will be fortuitous for many other reasons:

  • A January opening would allow Metro’s February 2016 service change to take full advantage of the new service
  • ULink would be online in time for the full summer tourist season
  • ULink would be open for the winter and spring quarters of the ’15-’16 academic year
  • Nearly a year of rider impressions would be made ahead of a possible ST3 vote in November 2016

Congratulations to Sound Transit and their contractors on a very successful construction project thus far. Let’s all hope that ST can keep to this expedited schedule.

Pierce Transit Testing Custom Express Routes

As Pierce Transit has slogged their way through successive rounds of service cuts, service frequencies have fallen far below those necessary to sustain the reasonably gridded, pulse-and-transfer based system they previously enjoyed prior to 2010. With mid-day frequencies at hourly on most routes and span of service ending in the early evening, the agency is rightly testing more ad hoc, targeted solutions, including seasonal routes such as the Gig Harbor Trolley, an expanded vanpool fleet, community circulators in East Pierce County, and now a new custom express route. This makes a certain amount of sense, as PT’s overcapitalized fleet affords them the ability to offer service to targeted constituencies willing to support it.

PTThe institution of the new express Route 485 — to be the only fixed-route service on SR 512 since the demise of Sound Transit 585 — is being driven by the Western Institutional Review Board moving its office from West Olympia to the Benaroya Business Park near South Hill Mall in Puyallup. More of a professionally-driven, oversized vanpool than a fixed-route bus service, Route 485 will run from Olympia TC to South Hill with stops at Martin Way, Hawks Prairie, and then nonstop to the Benaroya Business Park. The once-a-day, 30-mile trip will take roughly an hour and have a custom fare of $3 each way. Surveys of the company’s employees indicate a likely daily ridership of 74, putting farebox recovery at 60%, nearly 4 times PT’s 16% farebox recovery elsewhere.

Somewhat strangely, the deadhead to Olympia will run in service as a separate Route 475. Beginning in University Place at 4:30am, the trip will provide a timed connection to the first Sounder train at South Tacoma, stop at Lakewood Station a full hour before the first Intercity Transit 609, then run nonstop to Olympia. In the afternoon, it will provide a 6th frequency during the 4:00pm hour between Olympia and Lakewood, meet the second Sounder train at South Tacoma, and terminate in University Place. The resistance to deadheading the route is admirable but puzzling considering the massive deadheading required for PT-operated Sound Transit routes, which in many cases exceed 100 deadhead miles per day for each round trip.

To say the least, in a general sense it’s hard to be excited by a once-a-day trip before sunrise to an exurban office park, but for Pierce County this idea has many promising applications. Employment centers that have multiple successful vanpools (particularly the 63,000+ employees at Joint Base Lewis McChord, where more than 60 vanpools operate) could, with sufficient local partnership, be scaled up to custom express service.

Free Rail~Volution Sessions Wednesday

For those of you interested in Rail~Volution but unable to pay the $475 registration fee or unable to attend the entirety of the RailVolutionconference, Rail~Volution has a “Free Local Session” tomorrow from 2-5pm. The sessions will have  a TOD focus, and one in particular may be of interest to STB readers: “There is no TOD without the T: Making Funding Sustainable”. This session gives attendees the chance to hear state and county legislators speak on transit funding strategies in front of a decidedly pro-transit audience, including Pierce County Exec Pat McCarthy, Sen. Curtis King, Rep. Judy Clibborn, and County Councilmember Larry Phillips.

Details below the jump…

[Read more...]

Sunday Open Thread: ‘Electric’ Trains

Car2Go Member Appreciation Event Tomorrow

To celebrate Car2Go’s smashing success in Seattle, going from nonexistent last November to the largest fleet in North America (and 3rd largest in the world, behind Berlin and Vienna) just 8 months later, Car2Go is holding a Member Appreciation Event next Wednesday, August 21 from 4:30-8:30pm at 1 Hundred Bistro at 1001 Fairview Ave N.  The location is near the SLU Streetcar terminus, and is also served by Route 70 (71/72/73 after 8pm).

Car2Go will be handing out free memberships, awarding 30 minutes of driving credit for members who bring friends to enroll, will have many more prizes and giveaways, and the restaurant will offer 50% off (food only) for the entire event day. In addition, Car2Go has told me that members will enjoy a standing 20% discount on food at 1 Hundred Bistro indefinitely.

For anyone curious about STB’s strong support of carsharing given our pro-transit mission, a recent comment by d.p. sums it up quite well:

The biggest cost to a car-obsessed society is the space required by all those vehicles. At peak hours, that space is in the moving lanes — Car2Go fails just as hard as private cars and shared-lane public transit when traffic is worst.

But the rest of the time, the problem is the space required to stash cars for long periods of time when stationary. That’s the fatal flaw in [park and ride expectations], and the fatal flaw in your expectation of dedicated car ownership.

Car sharing solves this problem because, in places with enough aggregate demand and multi-directional need, the cars will not sit for long.

Car2Go boasts 50 users for every car they have on the road (24,000 members for 500 cars, eds). Instead of private cars… just… sitting… there… wasting… space… the car becomes a shared amenity.

It’s a 50x more efficient use of a space-intensive resource.

Special Sounder Service to Puyallup Fair

Puyallup Station – Photo by Sound Transit

Want to get a glimpse of what all-day, weekend Sounder service looks like?  On Saturday, September 14, and again on September 21, Sound Transit will provide special Sounder service to/from the Puyallup Fair. Free shuttles will connect Puyallup Station to the fair.

Two trainsets will provide 7 total round trips:

  • 1 round trip from Everett to Seattle
  • 3 round trips from Seattle to Lakewood
  • 3 round trips from Puyallup to Lakewood

Several aspects of this special service are new and exciting. Service from Everett through to Lakewood will be offered (albeit with a cross-platform transfer at King Street), the span of service will be an impressive 9am-10pm, and trips will be distributed relatively evenly throughout the day, offering many opportunities for bi-directional travel all along the route. This will be the first time, for instance, that Seattle or Snohomish County riders will be able to make a roundtrip to South Tacoma or Lakewood in the same day.

Regular commuter fares will apply from King and Pierce county stations. For Snohomish County riders, special discounts will be offered that roughly equate to a free transfer at King Street ($4.50 from Everett to Puyallup, and $4.25 from Mukilteo/Edmonds to Puyallup). It’s unclear what the fare would be for someone traveling from Snohomish County to points south of Seattle other than Puyallup.

Here is the full schedule:

Sounder to the Puyallup Fair

Car2Go Expanding Again


Car2Go Promo Photo

Just 7 months since entering the Seattle carsharing market with 350 cars, and just 4 months after expanding to 430 cars due to unprecedented demand, Car2Go announced this week that it is again expanding. By mid-August the Car2Go fleet will number 500 cars, 43% larger than the next largest U.S. city (Washington DC – 350), and edging out Vancouver BC (450) for the largest fleet in North America. (See STB’s previous reporting on Car2Go here, here, and here, and our comparison between Zipcar and Car2Go here.)

Don’t expect any further expansions in the near future, however. The Seattle Municipal Code (11.23.160, B) caps free-floating carsharing permits at 500 annually, so Car2Go will be unable to expand again without new council legislation.

Copper Theft Suspects Identified

Photo by the Author

Last May STB reported on an extensive successful theft of copper wire from the Link guideway between Rainier Beach and Tukwila. King 5 is now reporting that two suspects are in custody have been identified:

Prosecutors say DNA left on Gatorade bottles lead them to two men suspected in the largest known metal theft in Washington state.

Donald Howard Turpin, 54, and Lee Russell Skelly, 44, are accused of stealing 4.3 miles of copper wiring from the Sound Transit Light Rail System between November 2010 through August of 2011.
“Stealing miles of copper wire must be hard work, because it was the defendants’ Gatorade bottles left at the scene which ultimately was their undoing,” said King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg.

Prosecutors say the two men allegedly committed the theft by entering maintenance hatches in a tunnel that runs below the light rail between the SeaTac and Rainer Beach Rail Stations. They would enter at night and remove the copper wire. They allegedly dropped the wire through air vents and then drove along the line, picking up the cut wire at various locations.

Evidence gathered by King County Sheriff’s Detectives shows that the men allegedly took the wire to various scrap metal recycling businesses in King County and sold the metal. Turpin had a state issued business license which would allow him to scrap the metal with little if any scrutiny by the buyers.

Both men are charged with Burglary Second Degree and Trafficking in Stolen Property First Degree. Turpin is also charged with Theft First Degree with a special sentencing aggravator.

If convicted as charged, the sentence range for Turpin is 63 to 84 months in prison. Skelly faces up to one year in jail.

UPDATE: The original version of this article erroneously claimed the suspects were in custody. According to KOMO, Turpin is at large and wanted on a $50,000 warrant, while Skelly is scheduled to appear in court on June 27. We regret the error.

3rd Round Trip to Bellingham Begins May 31

Photo by Joe Kunzler (Flickr)

Photo by AvgeekJoe (Flickr)

Tickets are now available on Amtrak.com for the 3rd round-trip Cascades train to Bellingham. Beginning tomorrow May 31 and running until further notice, the extra train will depart Seattle at 8:15am and will return from Bellingham at 5:15pm. Because the extra train will use Sounder equipment, running time to Bellingham will be 2h 40m, 28 minutes longer than the 2h 12m that the Talgo sets achieve. The full schedule is as follows:


  • There will be no food service on the extra train.
  • The $5 bicycle fee is waived on the Sounder equipment due to the ease of loading.
  • It is unclear how many cars the trains will have.
  • Fares to Bellingham will range from $17-$23. A quick check of tomorrow’s prices yield $9.50 to Edmonds, $13 to Everett, $15 to Stanwood, $17 to Mount Vernon, and $23 to Bellingham.
  • An entirely accidental benefit of this: As long as the extra train is running, it will be possible to transfer from the Empire Builder to Cascades at Everett (westbound only). Spokane to Bellingham anyone?

Breaking: I-5 Collapses in Skagit County



The I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mt Vernon has collapsed.  Information is sketchy at this point, though multiple outlets are confirming vehicles in the water.

UPDATE 7:10 AM: Seattle Times has more details. Briefly: No deaths; the proximate cause at this point appears to be a strike from an oversize load; and the bridge will be closed for “weeks”. The bridge had an FHWA “sufficiency rating” of 57 out of 100; to put that in context, the Alaskan Way Viaduct has an SR of 9, and the old South Park Bridge had an SR of 6 when it was finally closed by the County. This Times article has a good discussion of FHWA bridge ratings in the area. — Bruce

Transportation Committee Approves Car2Go Expansion

Proposed New Home Area

Proposed New Home Area

On Tuesday the Seattle City Council Transportation Committee (Rasmussen, Harrell, Godden) approved Car2Go’s request for expansion. (See Car2Go’s letter to the council here.) In his testimony to the council, Car2Go’s Walter Rosencranz specifically cited the influence of social media and ‘local blogs’ in making requests to expand the service area.  In its first 90 days, Car2Go  has enrolled 18,000 Seattle members, triple the number typically seen in other cities during that time.

The proposed new home area is exciting and sensible.

In South Seattle, the proposed boundary is S Orcas St (east of 15th Ave S) and S. Michigan St (west of 15th Ave S).  This effectively captures South North and Mid Beacon Hill, Columbia City, Hillman City, Mt Baker, Georgetown, and SODO.  The only exceptions are Harbor Island and the Duwamish between West Marginal Way and SR-99, which will remain outside the new Home Area.

In West Seattle, the new Home Area covers the Junction, Admiral, Alki, Delridge, and High Point. Interestingly, Car2Go has proposed a Home Area exclave at the Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal, allowing trips to begin/end within the area bounded by Fauntleroy Way, Fauntleroy Pl, and SW Wildwood Pl.

To accommodate this 25% growth in service area, Car2Go will add 30% to its fleet, bringing the number of cars to 430 citywide.  They have additionally asked the Council for a total of 500 permits so that a further fleet expansion of up to 70 cars could be accommodated without further Council approval.

The proposal goes before the full council next Monday. It is very likely to pass, but it wouldn’t hurt for you to send a quick email to Councilmembers voicing your support.