WES by Jason McHuff
WES by Jason McHuff

Imagine getting off Sounder or a bus at Auburn station and a few short minutes later, another sleek, quiet train pulls into the station. This could happen in a few short years for Maple Valley, Covington, and Black Diamond residences.

The cities of Maple Valley, Covington, and Black Diamond have joined together for a feasibility study to implement commuter rail service, running from the Auburn Sounder Station to  the Black Diamond/Ravensdale communities, in hopes to relieve congestion off Highway 18, Hwy 169, and create transit communities around the stations or TOD, much like Kent Station.  More after the jump…

The concept of the project was touted a few years back but never gained any ground until January at a joint council meeting. Christy Todd, Maple Valley City Manager said in the Covington Reporter “This idea was first floated at our joint meeting,” Todd said. “It generated a lot of excitement.”

On December 9, 2009, Senator Patty Murray secured $360,000 to fund the study for the rail service, which is assumed to use Diesel Multiple Unit or DMU for short. The commuter rail service is seen as not a priority, but rather a necessity, by the city councils to relieve congestion on Highway 169. The planned expansion of Hwy 169 would cost nearly $600 million dollars. With the idea still in its planning stages, it will still be another 7 to 10 years before it can become a reality.

There are some who believe that the commuter rail will not work and will be prohibitively more expensive but their own facts use numbers from Sounder which has a much higher capital expense than what the Auburn – Black Diamond service would have. At the most, the route will be roughly 13 to 16 miles in length and require track and signal upgrades that, in my opinion, would cost no more than $150 million dollars with a maximum speed of no more than 60 to 70mph.

Like many agencies looking at starting a new commuter rail system on the cheap, they are considering DMU vehicles. However, these have many limitations. Without being too technical, there are 2 types of vehicles available. The “non-compliant” DMU’s do not meet the FRA’s crash worthiness standards.  They therefore must be in a “sealed” corridor separated from freight traffic and other passenger trains, like Sounder or Amtrak.  Non-compliant vehicles are typically restricted to 55mph, like Sprinter and Capital MetroRail. The FRA-Compliant vehicles can operate with freight and passenger without a time separation or a “sealed” corridor since they meet the requirements of 49 CFR Part 238 Compliant DMU.

Selecting an FRA compliant vehicle will be a challenge with only one manufacturer, U.S. Railcar, formally Colorado Railcar, being the sole maker of these vehicles. These vehicles are currently running on Tri-Rail in Florida, Tri-Met WES in Portland, Oregon, and in Alaska.  Operating non-compliant DMU trains would enable more frequent service, like the Escondido  Sprinter light rail system which is using the Siemens Desiro Classic DMU’s. Both the Siemens and the U.S. Railcar models are capable of adding multiple sets together.

The Sprinter Light Rail by So Cal Metro
The Sprinter Light Rail by So Cal Metro

With the BNSF Stampede Subdivision line currently not handling any trains (it is being maintained, inspected and plowed in case of derailment or slide on Stevens Pass or the Columbia River Gorge routes) at this time, establishing commuter rail service would be beneficial over the next 5 to 10 years as more people continue to move into the region. When trains start running once again, BNSF may request additional track work, such as rebuilding South Auburn siding (connected but with manual switches and very poor roadbed) to prevent any bottlenecks at the Auburn Wye.  Planners must also figure out a location for Westbound trains to layover (most likely a half mile North of Auburn Station).  Stampede is all single track, but even at its peak it rarely saw more than 10 daily trains.

I’ll stay on top of this.  The study should be completed some time next year.

What are your thoughts and opinions on this? Do you believe this will work out as the councils believe it would? Do you foresee this as a way for cities to expand Sounder, such as out East to Monroe or Sultan? Or extending North to Marysville and Stanwood? What about funding?

51 Replies to “SE King County Commuter Rail coming soon?”

  1. I heard that Stadler was developing an FRA complaint version of their GTW railcars, have you heard anything about this? I’ve ridden on them a few times in Switzerland and they’re really nice, a lot more modern than the Colorado Railcar design.

    1. Zed,

      The Stadler cars are currently testing on the Austin, Texas Capital MetroRail route but have been severely plagued with issues. I am not sure if they are in fact developing a FRA compliant version.

      The SMART or better known as the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit is also going through the hoops of finding a suitable manufacture for DMU’s. Their route however is expected to be 71 miles long. http://www.sonomamarintrain.org/

      For more information on DMU Compliance, check out this website as well.

      1. The GTW/Flirt’s are very nice cars. I rode various configurations several times in switzerland (Tilo/Thurbo amongst others). It’s too bad the FRA will not get over this buff streignth thing they have going on. Also with improvements to the stampede sub, the future Kittitas County rail project may be able to get off the ground as well. They want to have a line from Ellensburg to Auburn (and mabye onto seattle) as well. Even though it would probally be cost prohibitive, for connectivity’s sake i think running the trains through to Seattle would be the best idea. Even with current thinking you probally would have to rebuild Auburn station to be a multi-track configuration to support 3-5 platforms for the Kittitas/Carnation services plus regularly scheduled Sounder and mabye even Amtrak if the city if successful.

  2. Just a few random thoughts:
    1. Maple Valley to Auburn runs NE-SW, whereas most employment centers are to the NW of those areas, so you’re never really getting any closer to your destination on the rail line, unless you’re just going to Auburn area, or transferring to Tacoma.
    2. SR18 has about 30,000 vehicles a day, both ways, whereas I-405 has about 180,000. If all the teeth gnashing over ridership on the BNSF along I-405 was justified, then Covington is really going to be marginal.
    3. Trains must be capable of mixing with BNSF traffic along the corridor. I can’t imagine they give up there re-route options without a fight.
    Other than that, bring it on. Many European cities have DMU service with lots less density than the SR18 corridor. Why not us?

    1. Along with a local DMU service to Covington, as long as the line is being mothballed, what are the chances that WSDOT could finally get a passenger service open to the Tri Cities and Yakima? It seems there was a WSDOT study years ago, but back then they were afraid of hindering the new freight service.

      1. I don’t know, perhaps even if the North Coast Hiawatha doesn’t happen it would be worth pursuing some sort of corridor service to connect Spokane, Pasco, and Yakima to Seattle?

        Say 1 train per day each way over Stampede, 1 train per day each way over Stevens. Stagger the runs to provide useful 3x day service between Spokane and Seattle as well as 2x day service between Spokane and Pasco.

        While Talgos would be nice, a service with just Amfleet and Horizon cars is better than none at all.

      2. If we’re talking about a Washington-only line then we’re probably talking about something that comes out of Washington’s budget or our piece of the federal pie.

        Would you really sacrifice Cascades improvements for this service?

      3. Would you really sacrifice Cascades improvements for this service?

        No I would not, it is mostly a “nice to have” right now. However I could see proposing such a service as a way to get political support for more Cascades investments in the Legislature and with the state’s Congressional delegation.

        Perhaps improved passenger rail between the East and West halves of the state could replace some highway projects. ;-)

      4. Honestly, yes, I would be willing to reduce service on the Cascades for additional trains to Eastern Washington. Why should they have to pay for the Cascades if they have no rail service to make it some what beneficial to them?

        Eastern Washington has been wanting rail service for ages now but continue to get the “we don’t have the equipment” yet that has not stopped California from purchasing/leasing Superliner cars for the Amtrak California trains.

        There are several cars and locomotives available.

        If the State really wanted to do something, I’d look at purchasing some of those coaches or DMU’s for the service.

      5. I don’t know, perhaps even if the North Coast Hiawatha doesn’t happen it would be worth pursuing some sort of corridor service to connect Spokane, Pasco, and Yakima to Seattle?

        One thing the Hiawatha study didn’t address was simply going back to the original form before the line was split to form the Empire Builder. Why not start out with say two trains a week using the southern route. I’d say the cost of refurbishing stations should be largely paid for with local funds. I would think BNSF would love the idea of shifting some of the Amtrak traffic over to Stampede.

      6. I really don’t know why Amtrak puts station refurbishing costs in its studies of adding service to corridors that don’t currently have it. If a town along an existing route wants a station Amtrak generally expects somebody else to pay for it (see the Olympia, Stanwood, and Leavenworth stations). Same thing with staffing, everything but the largest towns can get by with unstaffed stations or stations staffed with local funds or volunteers (see Olympia again).

        Of course a lot of rail advocates have noticed all of the extras piled on to the startup costs of the North Coast Hiawatha, Pioneer, and Sunset East of New Orleans. In addition to station costs, Amtrak is including everything on the host railroad’s wish lists. They also assume new Superliner cars will need to be bought for the route rather than repairing equipment on the wreck line or even using spare Amfleet or Horizon equipment. I know Amtrak wants new rolling stock but trying to heap that onto any added service is kind of obnoxious and not likely to get them what they want.

    2. The “teeth gnashing” over I-405 is about the high capital cost and the fact that it takes money that could otherwise be used for Link on the Eastside at lower cost per rider.

      If these three cities get money from the Feds or something, that’s basically free money for transit. If this is about adding Maple Valley et al to the ST district, you’ll see this blog become pretty unenthusiastic.

      1. I wonder if they could do an arrangement where it is paid for by the feds and/or those cities, but operated by ST? Of course, I guess ST doesn’t operate Sounder itself anyways, but at least maybe they could brand this service with ST stuff and integrate it into the transit network.

      2. Martin,

        It’s not free. Unless the Federal government raises taxes dramatically — yeah, right — any money spent on anything not now funded has to come from borrowing or by taking from another program.

        The Federal government is not a See’s Candy box.

  3. would be better if they could find a way to make the line electrified … for the environment et al

      1. Electrification would not cost 1 billion dollars… It would only be 1 or 2 million a mile.

      2. And actually combined with electrifying the rest of the corridor would bring the per-mile charge down significantly, along with all the capasity improvements it would provide. Using electric traction would result in greater acceleration and breaking capability for passenger and frieght, and would help you get across the road faster than with diesel’s.

  4. There have been discussions of using compliant DMUs between Everett, Mt. Vernon, Marysville, and Bellingham, which would be very cool.

    1. That would be awesome! Would it be some kind of commuter rail thing? Because that would be great. The return of the Interurban!

  5. Hopefully the TOD would be a better mix of uses including residential than what happened in Kent though.

  6. Siemens is also hinting that their product will be FRA complient

    I also see Diesel Light Rail (DMU, what ever) as a way for Sounder to finally start offering mid-day and non-stadia-related weekend service, since apparently Sound Transit is unwilling to operate the Bombardier Bi-levels and F59 Locomotives at this time.

    Somehow world-class cities like Salt Lake City, Albuquerque and South Bend CAN operate off-peak and weekend commuter rail, but the Salish-Norwegian fishing village/mill-town on Puget Sound can’t.

    Oh and P.S. I thought Chatsworth showed us that “FRA-compliant” equipment doesn’t really prevent anything, so can we upgrade the tracks& signalling and stop requiring TANKS to run on them?

    1. They can also build brand new commuter and light rail in a very highway-friendly environment (moreso than us). Surely, 40 years ago, neither city was talking about trains, let alone trying to build any. The Seattle way!

      The FRA rules are ridiculous at best. They take some of the safest trainsets in the world, like the TGV and ICE, and reject them from American rails. From that we get overweight trains like the Acela, which are prone to stress fractures due to mass. Or the Sprinter vehicles made by Seimens. Perfect track record, FRA says no. The FRA rules proably require nuclear weapons to stop trains as tanks do enough. Remember in Goldeneye where shooting the train didn’t work? They’re thinking of that.

      1. And just think… the Obama Admin wants the Feds to take over ALL public transit. Yay! Don’t we just all love more regulation!?!?!

      2. Well hopefully Federal Regulation of transit doesn’t end up in some sort of bureaucratic charlie foxtrot where current FRA rules are applied to anything with steel wheels on steel rails. Even if the agencies tried to do something so stupid one would hope the outcry from Congress (from every member in a district or state with light rail or rapid transit) would be loud enough to dissuade them.

      3. The outcry didn’t help prevent the stupid rules prohibiting special bus service to sports events.

    2. I think Bombardier has proposed a DMU version of the bi-level car in the past though they haven’t gotten anyone to buy such a beast.

      I think the main problem with more frequent Sounder service isn’t so much a willingness of Sound Transit to offer off-peak and weekend service but of BNSF to move freight out of the way. The mainline between Tacoma and Everett is a VERY busy freight corridor plus it hosts a number of Amtrak trains. BNSF is pretty much insisting on Amtrak/Sound Transit adding an additional track to the mainline before they allow any more passenger traffic between Seattle and Tacoma.

      Commmuter rail in Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, and South Bend runs on tracks with little or no freight traffic.

      I agree the current FRA regulations for passive safety are over the top. European equipment is quite safe as long as everything is well maintained and you have a modern signaling system.

      1. Is there enough room to put in an extra track through there? If so that would be great. Sounder is by far the highest ridership commuter rail without midday or weekend service, but I think it could get pretty high ridership if they did add it.

      2. There’s room for another track south of approximately Renton. North of there it’s tricky but there’s room for another track on *much* of the distance. North of King Street Station there is of course no room for another track.

    3. >>> Somehow world-class cities like Salt Lake City,
      >>> Albuquerque and South Bend CAN operate off-peak
      >>> and weekend commuter rail, but the Salish-Norwegian
      >>> fishing village/mill-town on Puget Sound can’t.

      It’s all about track access. If our port were the size of Albuquerque’s, we’d have more commuter trains in the middle of the day.

  7. Looking at satellite view and Mapnik maps, it looks like there’s a spur off that line to Enumclaw, but the last couple miles appear to have been torn up. I suppose that would probably be too circuitous of a route anyway.

    Brian, any idea what the average speed could be? Would a (presumably lighter) DMU have an advantage in that terrain?

    I think it’s great to see more use of DMUs. Their flexibility really seems to be put to use in Europe. I wonder how flexible the FRA could be with time segregation — enough to have morning and evening DMU commuter segments and midday and evening freight?

    1. It may not be the same spur, but the last time I was down that way, it looked like there was a bike/ped trail on a former railroad right of way between Black Diamond and Enumclaw.

  8. $150 million is nothing compared to highway funding, in fact, this could be about the price of the First Hill Streetcar.

    1. Pretty much. I am sure if some agency wanted to run regional service between Seattle and Yakima for example, it could be done for less than a billion, perhaps more if they wanted to electrify the route.

      That seems to be the main issue is that everyone has to rely on Amtrak to get anything done…

  9. I really hope this goes through. Although I hate the idea of exurbs, they’re here to stay, so it’s good to provide service to them. And it would be great if they could get some real TOD around the stations. I just hope TOD in a Covington or Maple Valley context doesn’t mean an 8 unit per acre subdivision instead of 4. What would really be great is if they could extend this out to Federal Way after a while, although unlike this route it would require whole new ROW.

    1. Don’t look at it as exurbs to the city – it’s an interurban! (For all the Covington-Black Diamond trips…)

  10. I’ve been on the WES/Colorado Railcar DMUs and I’m not impressed with those vehicles. They’re loud, slow to accelerate and vibrate quite a bit while they’re running. Basically they ride like a tank. Hopefully the Siemens/SMART DMU will offer a better product.

      1. Pretty much Oran, that is the times with the FRA crash requirements. Even CalTrain has came out and said that the rules are more likely to cause more harm than good in an accident when compared to European standards.


        Dan, It really depends on where you sit on the vehicle for noise. I thought they got up and boogied to be honest but both trips the operator was throttle happy!

        I am going down to ride the Sprinter to see what that’s like in a few short months. Capital MetroRail won’t start for at least another 6 months which most likely I’ll just miss it…

  11. It would be pretty hard to find a part of the world where doodlebugs haven’t been tried, and they work pretty well, in places where people have no alternative. In the Andean highlands, for example. There’s actually a doodlebug you can ride on Vancouver Island, but there’s no love from the locals, who say the schedule is bassackwards.

    In most places doodlebugs have failed due to poor ride, poor ridership, and alternative transportation. In Europe a number of services run as a part of a transportation network and policy, with farebox return as the least of considerations.

    We know the goal of “reducing congestion” stated above is baloney (and political poison for rail advocates, because the anti-rail crowd loves to rebut that claim).

    So, who would ride such a train? Let’s remember that in these hinterlands people think nothing of driving 40 or 50 miles to get to work, and almost everyone has a car, because everything is so far away. Employment and housing is a mile wide and an inch deep. We’re not talking about people who go in to Seattle or Tacoma to work and then return home, we’re talking about people who start nowhere and end up nowhere, and reverse the process at the end of the day.

    A well-funded service that would obviously be in place for decades (think overhead wire + social and political policy to fit) would be a valuable social tool to start restructuring land use in the area. A doodlebug with one or two unique (and probably unreliable) units started on a trial basis to “relieve congestion” does not fit that definition.

    Which doesn’t mean it won’t happen- just that it won’t look anything like what they did in Salt Lake City or Albuquerque if it does.

  12. Off topic, but important. (Ray LaHood on The Daily Show last night)
    As we all wait anxiously for FRA to announce the winners of the 8 Bn HSR Lotto, Sec. LaHood gave some insight as to where the bulk of the money will go.
    When asked by John Stewart about .. ‘Where will the rail hubs be for HSR?’, he answered, We’ll start in the Midwest, California, and the South (FL, SC?? or both), and fix up the NE Corridor some.

    Cascades wasn’t mentioned, or most of the other corridors.

    I know this isn’t much to go on, and probably not much news to many of us, but the time to send letters to all of our congressional delegation is now. Please join me in doing so.
    Regards, Mike Skehan

    1. And when Mr. LaHood was asked how he would be returning to “Our Nation’s Capitol” that night, he replied: “The Shuttle” (i.e. DL or US aeroplane)

      It’s all talk folks.

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