Riding The Much Improved Coast Starlight

Upper Klamath Lake at Sunset

Two weeks ago I traveled from Seattle to Los Angeles aboard the Coast Starlight.   Since the dark ages of 2005-2006, during which the train was late 90+% of the time, the Starlight has done much to reclaim its status as a premier passenger train.  After a mudslide knocked out service in the winter of 2008, Amtrak ‘relaunched’ the service with a renewed focus on amenities and on-time performance, and it has worked.  In June 100% of southbound trains arrived into Los Angeles on-time, while 93% of northbound trains into Seattle arrived on-time.  My own trip confirmed this improvement.  For $220 I had an on-time arrival, wireless internet, bottomless coffee and fresh produce, simple but decent meals, tablecloth service with porcelain dinnerware and real flatware, a small but comfortable room, a hot shower, leather lounge chairs, a cinema, and a panoramic view of Mount Rainier, the Tacoma Narrows, the Nisqually River Delta, the Columbia River, the Willamette Valley, the Oregon Cascades, Mt. Shasta, the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, and the Central Coast of California.

Somewhere Between Lompoc and Santa Barbara

Though we often discuss how well-developed passenger trains can take modal share away from car and air travel – and Cascades has a good chance of evenly splitting the air-rail market over the coming years – long-distance trains are qualitatively different.  They offer neither the on-off freedom of cars nor the speed of airplanes.  They are often the only high-capacity transit service available across a large swath of rural America and they traverse scenic pre-Interstate corridors.  Being a functionally unique service, long-distance trains compete only against themselves and their own expectations, and they will live and die on the strength of the experience they offer. Amtrak seems to have belatedly figured this out, and the Starlight is again a wonderful experience.  It’s not the ‘Star-late’ anymore.

As a footnote, I think Seattle and Portland have largely not recognized that we have arguably the highest quality Amtrak service in the country.  We’re not a hub like Chicago, nor do we have the frequency of the Northeast or California, but we have the two best long-distance trains and a unique corridor service with Talgo equipment everyone else would love to have.  While in many ways Seattle is behind the curve, we can at least be grateful for the high quality of service we enjoy.

In Seattle, Density = Less Driving

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Well, duh.  But it’s nice to see a map that corrolates so well with the theory.  From SDOT:

The green areas have the least GHG emissions from driving per household.  The outlined areas are our urban villages.

Bellingham Seeks to Save Bus Service


On the heels of Whatcom Transit Authority losing in their attempt (by 1.8%) to increase the sales tax and maintain service levels, the City of Bellingham is looking to step in and save bus service in the city itself:

Leaders of the newly formed citywide transportation district wants to ask voters for a sales tax increase this fall, instead of imposing a $20-per-year car tab fee, which could be done without voter approval…

An official decision to put the issue before city voters in November will be made Monday, Aug. 9.

The city would spend the roughly $3.8 million generated by the sales tax increase for annual street repaving, installing sidewalks and pedestrian crossings, and contracting with Whatcom Transportation Authority to replace bus service that’ll be cut this fall.

The license fee would have only added about $800,000 annually, so the sales tax option brings more revenue.

Voting in November, when turnout increases, and limiting the vote to the more pro-transit city itself seem like big winners to me. Those of you who live in Bellingham or know someone who does are encouraged to contact the City Council to support the vote, and then start registering young people.

This Train to Seattle

Next train sign at SeaTac/Airport Station
Next train sign at SeaTac/Airport Station

Sound Transit finally began using the variable message signs (VMS) at SeaTac/Airport Station to tell passengers which train is next to depart for Downtown Seattle. The message, “THIS TRAIN TO SEATTLE”, is put up on the signs next to the train to depart. The other set of signs continue to say “Welcome to SeaTac Airport”. There was one case when they were wrong. Signs were pointing to a train going out of service and returning to the yard. Another train arrived shortly and when the out-of-service train left the station the signs switched to the correct train. That suggests the signs are operated automatically though I do not know for sure.

This is a good development in informing passengers and hopefully leads to some kind of next train countdown display, which we all are hoping for without any indication it’s going to happen. Past solutions that Sound Transit used include sandwich board signs and manually switched lighted signs at Tukwila International Boulevard Station before Airport Link opened.

TCC Fundraiser Thursday Night

A quick reminder that the Transportation Choices Coalition fundraiser we mentioned earlier this week is happening tomorrow. What’s TCC?

For those of you who don’t know, TCC is a nonprofit that shares this blog’s values. Unlike STB, they do the things that really require full-time employees: lobbying Olympia and providing a pro-rail, pro-transit, pro-density voice on various government commissions and task forces.

I’ll be there, along with a few other bloggers.

Update: We just got word that Congressman Jay Inslee and King County Executive Dow Constantine will be in attendance. Inslee is rumored to run for governor in 2012, so it’ll be interesting to hear his thoughts on public transit.

News Roundup: RapidRide Art

RapidRide Signage Samples. Why Not Link? (RapidRide Blog)

This is an open thread.

SLU Ridership Reaches a Record in July

2010 Ridership Trends

Last month, the South Lake Union Streetcar had record ridership, finally breaking the 2,000 mark with a weekday average of  2,193 boardings and a weekend/holiday average of 1,459.  This is about a 15% increase over June’s weekday ridership, and a 9% increase in daily ridership over the same period last year.  Weekend/holiday boardings were actually lower this year, likely due to the construction at Lake Union Park, which limited the number of fireworks viewers in the areas.  You can view the full day-to-day breakdown here.

One observation to point out here is that historically, July tends to be the peak of streetcar ridership with summer tourists flocking into town.  While the numbers have followed a curve in years past, Amazon’s continued move into the area may help buck that trend– two phases of the campus have now been completed with three more to go.

H/T: Michael Arnold

Light Rail Service Disruption

[UPDATE 3pm: Service is back to normal.]

There’s an accident involving a train south of Columbia City Station. The 8 is being diverted between Orca and Alaska Sts. Link is running in separate segments: Rainier Beach-Seatac and Stadium-Westlake, with a “bus bridge” in between.

A truck made a left turn on a red light. Apparently, there are no serious injuries. King 5 has more, including photos indicating the train won.

2010 Primary Endorsements

Here are STB’s endorsements for the August 17th primary election. As always, these picks are meant to reflect solely the performance and positions on issues covered by this blog, not by their broader political philosophy, progressive or otherwise.

While many state legislative races are happening this year, there are typically only a few candidates that make a real, positive difference on transit and land use. If you don’t live in the districts of these candidates, we strongly encourage you to donate or volunteer for them.

STB’s editorial board consists of Martin H. Duke and John Jensen, with valued input from the rest of the staff.

Marko Liias (21st District, Edmonds) was the champion of the transit funding bill that died in the Senate in 2010. Together with Simpson, he is one of the two best pro-transit legislators in Olympia at the moment.

Chris Reykdal (22nd District, Olympia) is unusual in not only supporting more transit  investment, but also understanding that more highways work directly  against the objectives of that investment. His relevant positions include “uphold the core values of the Growth Management Act – focus on  urban  density to avoid rural sprawl”, “adopt constitutional and  statutory changes that permit gasoline taxes  to be used more flexibly,”  and “move our focus away from increasing highway capacity and towards  more sustainable public transportation options.” That’s a slam dunk.

Jake Fey (27th  District, Tacoma) is a Tacoma City Councilmember and serves on the  Sound Transit board. Over 6 years of service in Tacoma, he has advocated  for mixed-use transit-oriented centers, Complete Streets, and the Bike/Ped Plan.  Olympia needs more representatives that understand urban land use and  transportation issues, as well as the issues facing Sound Transit. If  that weren’t enough, he’s been endorsed by 27th District resident and Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl.

Joe Fitzgibbon (34th District, West Seattle/Burien). His primary governmental experience is as legislative aide to outgoing Representative and Senatorial candidate Sharon Nelson, one of the few legislators to understand transit and land use issues. Fitzgibbon has won her endorsement. On his website he has the most explicitly pro-transit, pro-rail platform in any race: he is for extending Sound Transit’s taxing authority to accelerate an ST3 vote, the right position on the single most important issue in the legislature for rail activists. He also wants to extend taxing authority for other transit agencies.

Geoff Simpson (47th District, Covington) has for years been the most reliably good legislator. The correctness of his positions is all the more  astounding given his rural/exurban district. As a result, his seat is always under threat and he could especially use your help.

Stan Rumbaugh (Supreme Court Position 1). It’s always hard to discern judge positions due to judicial election norms, but Rumbaugh claims to be an environmentalist, and his opponent, Jim Johnson, has a horrible track record on issues important to transit advocates. With the Kemper Freeman lawsuit against East Link coming, the Supreme Court will have a big impact on the region’s future. Johnson dissented from rulings that allowed the condemnation of property for construction of the Seattle Monorail and Link. He also tried to strike down the MVET used by both ST and the SMP, and tried to enforce I-776 at the cost of impairing ST’s bonds.

Patty Murray (U.S. Senate), who as a senior member of the  Senate Appropriations Committee, is well-positioned to deliver  competitive federal transit dollars to Washington, a capability she has  frequently demonstrated. She is one of the few central figures in  getting Link built, and deserves to continue to help make our local tax  dollars go farther.

Intercity Transit Authority Proposition 1: YES. It goes without saying that we’re in favor of maintaining the current level of transit service in Thurston County by raising the sales tax rate and restoring gross revenue to previous levels.

RapidRide Trial Fare System

On Board TVM

We are quickly coming up on the opening of the RapidRide A line. While I’m very excited that Metro is testing a proof of payment (POP) system, I’m worried that the trial is set up in a way that makes eventual adoption less likely.

From my understanding the trial is set up like this. All RapidRide stations will have ORCA card readers. When boarding at these stations ORCA card users tap their card at the station and then board at any door. Those that don’t have an ORCA card board at the front door and pay with the driver. At normal stops all riders must board at the front door either using the ORCA card reader onboard or paying with the driver. All riders will be required to have proof of payment, with the implication that fare inspectors will ask to see it. I’m not too clear on this last point, and I get the feeling Metro isn’t either.

The problem with this design is that you have all of the problems associate with either fare systems without getting all of the benefits. Traditional pay as you board systems are good because drivers enforce fare payment (sort of), but as everyone knows it can be painfully slow, especially when people pay with cash. Conversely POP systems are bad because you have to employ fare enforcers, but are good because they significantly decreases dwell times by eliminating fare transactions with the driver, allowing for all door boarding, and improving internal circulation. In the case of RapidRide Metro will have to employ fare enforcers but won’t see all the time savings, because cash payments will still be processed by the driver. Additionally, this system is incompatible with the ride free area which will affect lines C, D and E and is confusing since payment process varies from one stop to the next.

More after the jump.

Continue reading “RapidRide Trial Fare System”

Sunday Open Thread: SR520

(Via Gutierrez)

I’d like to say a nice word about Mayor Mike McGinn. He hasn’t gotten anything like all he wanted on this project, but had he not raised a big stink and hired consultants left and right, WSDOT would not have made the simple fixes to the spans that would allow light rail in the future, should we ever want it. Good for him.

The production values of these videos continue to increase, even as the traffic level remains utterly ridiculous.