The Sounder. Flikr user mgjefferies.
The Sounder. Flikr user mgjefferies.

Occasionally, a report drops into my lap which is so informative and well-written that I really have little to say about it, except that everyone should go and read it in its entirety. The Sound Transit Citizen Oversight Panel’s report on Sounder North is one of them, and it’s a pretty devastating evaluation of the north line as a regional mobility project:

COP members are very sympathetic to the sense of ownership, pride, and equity that Sounder North represents in Snohomish County. In a decade of development and operation, riders have grown to appreciate having the service and citizens have stated clearly that they value having both train and bus service as alternatives. These are real and meaningful values and COP shares them.

However, we believe that, in the long-term, the tax-payers and transit users of Snohomish County will not be well served if the high-cost Sounder North line continues to run well below capacity while the much lower-cost ST Express bus routes run overloaded with passengers standing in the aisles. At a certain point in the future, Sound Transit may have to come to terms with a reality that one of its services is not living up to a reasonable definition of viability.

The COP report subsequently flinches from discussing hard criteria for viability, presumably in deference to the vocal support of local politicians whose cities are served by Sounder.  Instead, it makes a number of suggestions towards cutting operating costs and improving ridership which strike me as reasonable, but unlikely to close the yawning gulf between the status quo and a defensible level of ridership and public subsidy, given the alternatives of improving today’s overcrowded bus service, or saving for a planned Link extension. To quantify that gap, ST’s Seattle-Everett express buses cost just over $5 per boarding, versus $32 for Sounder North.

More after the jump.

My only criticism of the report would be that is does not consider the effect Lynnwood Link will have when it opens, tentatively expected in 2023. Community Transit currently operates a vast network of long-haul commuter service into Downtown Seattle and the U-District via I-5; services which, along with Sound Transit’s freeway-running services and CT local feeder routes, are already eating Sounder’s lunch. Assuming a good bus-rail interchange at Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace, those trips could be truncated, and the (considerable) savings reinvested in an improved feeder network of local and commuter services.

Link will provide a fast connection into the hearts of the region’s biggest job centers that will be totally immune to traffic and mudslides, and run every 10 minutes or better, all day and into the evening, every day. Combined with a high-quality CT feeder system, Link could offer a level of speed, access and convenience that reduces Sounder North to a (very expensive) irrelevance, serving only a niche market of ferry commuters and nearby residents — nothing remotely like the kind of concentrated ridership needed to justify commuter rail, which is a very labor- and energy-intensive service to provide. 2023 is a long way off, and that date could slip, but any potential major capital expenditures on Sounder North are 50 year (or more) investments, and should be evaluated as such.

This report also confirms a rumor I had heard several times, but had never got on the record, namely that BNSF took ST to the cleaners on the Sounder North easements:

The agreement eventually reached between ST and BNSF limited Sound Transit commuter rail to four daily round trips, where six had been planned. The cost of the four easements was $258 million, compared to about $65 M previously assumed. The trips were to operate in the peak direction only, although both directions had been assumed. […]

One important lesson learned from the Sounder North experience was that term sheet agreements with BNSF and Amtrak should have been negotiated before going to the ballot [for the money to pay for the service].

Again, the report is ten pages of great information, and you should read all of it. My hat is off to the COP: this is exactly the kind difficult truth that agency leadership should be forced to publicly address.

151 Replies to “Sounder North Oversight Panel Report”

  1. Hmm…
    From my standpoint, the downfall of the northend Sounder lies solely on accessibility and wintertime reliability. To me, the P&R facilities for Sounder, aside from Everett, are laughable. The Southern Sounder stations have decent P&R facilities. Granted, they habitually are filled by the time the last trains pull through. The express buses from the North primarily originate at P&Rs, and this is the accessability that the people want. As a commuter, I don’t want to ride a train, and then take a bus home or to the store and then home. I want the afforded flexability to get off transit, hop in my vehicle, go to the local store and then drive home. The current P&Rs in Mukilteo and Edmonds are non-existant.

    Additionally, service is unreliable because BNSF is unwilling to install retaining walls to mitigate mudslides from impacting the tracks between Seattle and Everett. Every year mudslides cancel service. I’m glad that ST recognizes that the northend service is a bit of a blunder.

    1. I think the problems run deeper than that. The train is slower than a bus (particularly because your job is probably going to be a walk from the downtown station) and doesn’t run a schedule that allows commuters any flexibility in working hours. The station locations don’t have a whole ton of walkshed or connecting transit potential, and probably don’t have lots of extra traffic capacity sitting around.

      It’s not a good idea that was blundered. It’s an idea that should have never been pursued.

      1. Are any of the Sounder stations (excluding King Street Station) really geared toward having a large walkshed? Its a commuter service, so it is more aimed at taking peak capacity off of I5 than anything else. Thus its more about P&Rs and local connections.

      2. I consider the at least partially a failure of local zoning. Each of these stations could have up zoned in perpetration for the new service, and had plenty of TOD and ridership by now. I’m still not sure that would have completely countered the high costs, but it would have helped.

        That said, I’m still not convinced that even successful TOD would make this a good project. Even dense homes in the far suburbs would be strongly car dependent. We need homes with frequent, easy access to jobs, shopping, schools, etc. that currently means Seattle, which is where we should be building.

      3. Even if walkshed at Edmonds and Mukilteo is restricted, they should benefit from ferry connections.

        That is, if WSF and ST could manage to coordinate schedules.

      4. I didn’t just mention the walkshed of the Edmonds and Mukilteo stations. It’s also bikeshed, driveshed, and traffic capacity (with so few train runs per day, if you build a parking garage you have to design it so it won’t totally shut down your town if half the garage’s capacity worth of cars shows up at the exact same time).

        If you have a fast commuter train to a downtown area with heavy traffic and expensive parking, some people will be willing to walk quite a long way to it. So beyond the small walkshed we’d consider for local buses and the slightly larger one we’d consider for typical light rail, you can consider an even larger walkshed for really good commuter rail. That’s the case in the Chicago suburbs with Metra. Lots of people park and ride, of course. But lots of people also bike there, and lots of people walk pretty long distances to stations. And lots of people get dropped off and picked up at the station (“kiss and ride”). The Metra stations’ walksheds are limited by urban form, but the bikesheds and drivesheds cover huge numbers of people.

        It’s not just that the Sounder North stations lack walkshed, they lack bikeshed and driveshed, too. Their bikesheds and drivesheds don’t have enough people in them. Combine that with the slow speed that can’t be fixed, limited schedule that can’t be fixed, and reliability issues that can’t be fixed, and an ample network of P&R bus depots all over the place (featuring buses that serve much wider swaths of downtown and the region generally), and Sounder North looks really unattractive. And you can’t solve that with a bigger parking garage.

      5. That is, if WSF and ST could manage to coordinate schedules.

        Doubt it. WSF’s schedules are based on how many boats they have and how long it takes to get them from one side to the other. ST’s are primarily based on when BNSF’s tracks are clear. You might be able to fudge it a few minutes in each direction but not by much.

      6. I consider the at least partially a failure of local zoning. Each of these stations could have up zoned in perpetration for the new service, and had plenty of TOD and ridership by now. I’m still not sure that would have completely countered the high costs, but it would have helped.

        I don’t feel like you can really build TOD around a stop on a 4-trip-per-day rail line in a county without 7-day bus service.

      7. I’m surprised the fact that all the ferry riders using Edmonds and Mukelto stations (most of the boardings at each) don’t even live in the ST district, and probably do their shopping near home, which hasn’t even been brought up.
        Why should Snohomish Co subsidize 1/3 billion of their capital pot, go in debt for 30 years, and pay over $50 a day to support commuters ‘just passing through’ to higher paying jobs in Seattle. Surely they don’t buy that many Latte’s standing around waiting for Sounder to show up.
        The other big surprise for me was the fact that up to this point nobody at ST or the COP has even asked the question about plan B – cancel the service. What’s the contract say. Are they really that shy about knowing all the pertinent facts, or they know and the news is not good. Maybe everyone in SnoHo is just not very selfish and doing this for their fellow man and woman. Very commendable!
        How bad a screwing did BNSF administer to the novice hotshot lawyers at fledgling ST. I’d like to know. Maybe they should too.

      8. NORTH Sounder stations have poor walksheds.

        Most of the South Sounder stations have good walksheds and even better bikesheds. Kent probably best of all for walkshed, with good retail and denser, multi-story apartments in easy walking distance, though Kent’s bikeshed is hampered by the city’s use of sidewalk bike lanes and other bicycle-hostile infrastructure.

        Auburn’s downtown renovation got hung up on the economy, but the zoning and planning are there for a vibrant downtown within the walkshed of the train, aided by co-location of train, regional, and local bus service at Auburn Station.

        Auburn, Kent, and Tukwila also have extended bikeshed thanks to the Interurban Trail, a popular bicycle feeder to Sounder and bus service.

    2. BNSF is currently designing mudslide mitigation measures paid for by federal dollars but the work won’t be complete until 2017–a lot of environmentally sensitive areas will be affected. Some of the slides are caused solely by mother nature but many of the slides are caused by development on the slopes above the tracks. BNSF isn’t always at fault for mud on he tracks.

      1. But don’t forget the FRA moratorium. Something like 48 hours before passenger rail can pass through a slide area, but only a few hours for freight. Sounder ends up getting screwed just because its cargo has lungs.

      2. The FRA has plenty of silly requirements but that’s actually a BNSF rule. It was pedaled as a safety concern but the real reason is that after a closure they need at least a full day to get all the backed up freight service sorted out. They also put slow, like crawling speed limits on the freight trains going through that section while they try and determine if any more mud is going to come down. So, your commuter train wouldn’t be much good if it gets you to work a couple hours late.

  2. This seems very well written. I say cancel the north sounder entirely, and reinvest those trips in the south sounder (which I believe is more heavily utilized and cost effective, though I could be wrong).

    1. That’s not going to happen. Even if S Sunder were cost effective (I’d be surprised), you’d be leaving packed buses in the north. Not to mention the sub-area equity thing.

      1. Sounder South is definitely more expensive than buses, but not wildly, insanely more, the way the north line is. With the opening of the Lakewood extension in a few days, I assume it will get better. More fundamentally Sounder South is in the right place to serve commuter demand in the Kent valley, whereas Sounder North requires travelling out-of-direction for most riders: it’s perched right on the edge of the “car-shed”, rather than being in the middle. The only city Sounder North hits near its center is Everett, which also happens to be where the more-frequent buses leave from.

        But yes, subarea equity means you’d never be able to take SnoCo money and spend it in South King. The alternative is more bus service between Everett and Seattle. Of which you could buy a lot with this money.

      2. It’s not so important that Sounder South is more expensive than buses given that the farebox recovery is higher. That’s particularly impressive given the passenger-miles involved.

      3. “Even if S Sunder were cost effective (I’d be surprised), you’d be leaving packed buses in the north.”

        This can easily be mitigated by adding more buses in the north to handle the demand. More Sounder trips in the south means fewer peak-only 594 trips are needed. Redirect those buses to the north and problem solved.

    2. Are the easement costs for South Sounder any better?

      I would take all the rolling stock for N. Sounder and redeploy to South Sounder.

      This would include:

      More service beyond rush hour. Especially one or two “Nite Owl” express trains back from Seattle at say 10pm and 11pm.

      1. I’d really like to see regular service during the day in the opposite direction from the current commute pattern.

      2. Again, subarea equity prevents doing this en masse.

        But – late night express service? Sign me up.

      3. Moving those trains to the South King subarea would require some sort of a trade. You’d have to give Snohomish a big chunk of your bus service hours or something.

        And that might be worth it to south county riders for longer hours or extra reverse trips, if they would prefer more Sounder service to their existing bus service. But neither Sounder is ever going to be cost-effective so long as we’re buying expensive track time on a congested freight corridor. If we built/bought our own rails, things would look much better, but I don’t even want to think about how expensive that would be.

  3. I’m quite interested in the COP’s foreshadowing of a cost struggle with the regional transit agencies, they appear quite concerned with the rise in costs.

    I’ve heard old rumors of ST bringing in a private contractor to operate the buses, although that’d be surprising.

    1. ST already brings in contractors…Community Transit, Pierce Transit, or King County Metro. In Community Transit’s case, they re-contract out to First Transit. In a sense ST is just a brand with a bunch of planners at Union Station.

      1. And ST has, in the past, mulled of skipping the CT middleman. Also, earlier this year, ST and CT amended their contract due to some changes in CT’s contract with FT. I imagine the FT drivers got a pay increase since ST doled out more money.

  4. At least when they get cancelled, more coal trains interfering with the traffic flow on SR104 won’t be an issue.

    Eight more would fill those time slots nicely.

  5. Nippon Sharyo is now manufacturing an FRA compliant DMU that seats 156 passengers (and can be expanded) for SMART (Marin County) and Metrolinx (Toronto). With current ridership averaging less than 150 passenger per trip, should ST look into buying some new rolling stock? The Nippon Sharyo cars cost about $4 million each, but they should be cheaper to operate than the locomotive hauled bi-levels.

      1. No, satire would be maybe ST should look into building gondolas into the Edmonds and Mukilteo stations.

        When ST started north line service there weren’t any proven DMUs available in North America. Now, Nippon Sharyo is manufacturing a compliant DMU. Shouldn’t ST take a look? At least kick the tires?

      2. Sorry, I didn’t mean to be insulting – I honestly thought it was satire.

        Lets move this to the bus realm. “The 42 has a terrible cost per rider, since nobody rides it.” “That’s ok, let’s buy these new $4M vans. They’re smaller and more efficient. That’ll fix it!”

      3. maybe ST should look into building gondolas into the Edmonds and Mukilteo stations.

        You know, for the first several times I heard talk about “gondalas,” I thought they were the little boats from Venice. That actually gives me an idea: replace Sounder North with ferries stopping at Edmonds and Mukilteo. I’d guess they’d be as inexpensive and roughly as fast, and ST wouldn’t need to pay for trackage rights or wait out mudslides.


      4. High-speed passenger ferries actually sound like an intriguing replacement to me. Basically the whole line is already waterfront, and we’d have no worries about corridor congestion.

        IIRC, King County Water Taxi has a cost per boarding in the $6 range. This route would be 2-3x longer than the Vashon Island route, so it would be quite a bit more expensive to operate than the existing route, but probably still quite a bit cheaper than existing Sounder North, and quite a bit more reliable.

        The problem is the water taxi’s current leased catamarans have a crusing speed about half as fast as a current Sounder train. We’d need to get some faster boats. There’s a carferry route in Oman that cruises at 60 mph, so it seems like we should be easily able to get a passenger ferry that can be time-competitive with Sounder.

      5. The problem with high speed passenger ferries has been their wake. The waves that the boats create as they near shore could possibly damage the valuable shoreline so the EIS process for high speed passenger ferries would likely be endless.

        Also, there would likely be a fatal flaw in my DMU idea. It looks like the Nippon Sharyo DMU would require high platform stations.

      6. The waves that the boats create as they near shore could possibly damage the valuable shoreline so the EIS process for high speed passenger ferries would likely be endless.
        But how much of their trips would actually need to be near the shoreline? There’re only four spots where they’d need to touch the coast; one of those is the Port of Seattle and the other would be pretty near Everett Naval Station.

      7. To some extent, the lower speeds of boats could be made up for by being able to travel in a straight line, without having to follow the meandering coast. However, as we saw with the failed Seattle->Kingston ferry, boats are still expensive to operate compared to buses, although they might not be any worse than the north Sounder line (I’d have to look at the numbers).

        Nevertheless, though, I think both the boat and the train options are significantly more expensive than buses. Those who really want a train ride to Edmonds or Everett will still be able to ride the 4:40 Empire Builder, no matter what happens to the Sounder. Since it’s the very beginning of the route, it should even be on time, most days.

    1. I’ve actually wondered (don’t laugh…quixotic perhaps but not satire) about the viability of DMU shuttle service between Renton and King Street via Black River Jct. The track is there, the station is there, 2 blocks south of a huge transit center. It’s probably a bad idea, but I’m certain it would pencil out far better than Sounder North, while allowing for truncation of the 101/102/143.

      1. I don’t know much about this Black River Junction. Does it branch off before or after the potential site for a BAR station?

      2. There used to be a ton of rail traffic from various parties through that area, hence the name ‘Black River junction.’ NP, Milwaukee, GN along with the Interurban.

      3. It used to branch both North and South too, and another track ran along Grady where the power lines are now.
        And was electrified. and Seattle had a 100 passenger trains a day arriving at UP and GN.
        Oh, those were the days.

  6. One thing I do not see in the report as to whether or not stations at Ballard, Carkeek or Richmond Beach would help the line become profitable. Of course, spending money to make money is not the best plan, but if the Seattle Subway’s research is remotely valid, there’s demand from Downtown to Interbay and Ballard. While Sounder will never be able to match the span of service nor frequency, surely it would be quicker than Metro’s new EnhancedBusRide D Line.

    1. why not go a step further
      Work with BNSF to gets stop added in Marysville, Snohomish and Monroe
      (wither CT would have to pay, or ST boundrys in Snohomish county would have to be expanded

    2. But then N. Sub area would have to shoulder a portion of the expenses, which is 100% on Snoho’s dime. If you want to add a louser to your portfolio, I have some dawg stocks you’ll like better than the train.

    3. I think people would scream if the parking spaces for the picnic tables at Carkeek Park were all filled up with commuters riding the Sounder.

  7. The limited number of stations on this line has always struct me as odd and seems to be a major contributor to the lackluster ridership numbers. Why isn’t Sound Transit investing in new stations at North Seattle, Richmond Beach, Meadowdale and perhaps Bond Street on the West side of Everett. It seems these stations would draw walking, riding and “kiss and ride” riders, even without building large parking facilities. The report dismisses creating new stations as being prohibitively expensive. But how expensive could a short paved platform, a few lights and a sign really cost, particularly when compared to the huge cost of the BNSF easement?

  8. It isn’t just the walkshed and bikeshed that’s tragically small for North Sounder. It’s the rideshed as well. Since a rather limited number of riders actually ride the bus to North Sounder stations, the rideshed consists of a couple ferry lines and the buses that connect to them — all from Island County and Kitsap County, which btw are not in the Sound Transit sales tax district.

    I foresee that Sounder North will only survive a little bit longer than the political career of a certain anti-transit politician who represents Island County in the state legislature.

    Looking at it another way … *weekend bus service* vs. an out-of-the-way scenic route to a short bus ride to work that is duplicated by, and is done faster by, a fleet of commuter buses costing 1/8 as much per passenger. Which is more important?

    1. If folks from Island and Kitsap counties commute to Seattle, they are in ST’s sales tax district. They just don’t live there.

      1. Great! Then ST can extend service to Olympia and Bellingham. Those living in the taxing area in between shouldn’t have a problem, since the people on the train will be working inside the sales tax district.

        Heck, maybe Metro should agree to take over the cost of CT’s commuter fleet.

      2. It’s sales tax, not property tax. If they’re taking Sounder, they’re coming into ST’s service area to buy something, work, or see something. All of these generate tax revenue for ST. The number of people going completely through ST’s service area and beyond is essentially zero, as Sounder’s schedule makes it difficult if not impossible to go from Whidbey Island to Olympia for the day, and there’s no other significant draw outside ST’s service area except Olympia. Only in the Bailoverse would people be commuting from Whidbey Island to North Bend or Yakima.

      3. I do hope ST would extend service to Olympia and Bellingham and even Blaine. Those cities are really in the Puget Sound regional economy and scheduled service (bus and/or train) would be quite beneficial.

      4. I dunno Mike. Zach tweeted this:
        “I just met a Boeing employee looking for a vanpool from Ellensburg to Kent.”
        and I replied:
        “From a non-Twitter person: ‘I know 5 Seattle firefighters who live in Kittitas and commute via vanpool…'”

      5. That was to Seattle or a Boeing site. Harborview has nurses from eastern Washington, Port Townsend, and Victoria. They often work 40 hours over 3 days and stay with a friend or family, then go home for 4 days so they’re commuting weekly rather than daily. I have a hard time seeing what job in North Bend or Yakima could attract somebody willing to commute from Whidbey Island or Marysville.

      6. @Mike Orr,

        Try standing at Kent Station platform during afternoon rush hour. You’ll see many people getting on the train…to be dropped off southbound in Auburn, Sumner…

        I have even seen people get on in Kent and off at Longacres in the morning!

        I really wish the transitistas would stop all the kneejerk Seattle centrism here and realize we live in a multinodal, not hub and spoke, transportation environment!

      7. When I rode Sounder South in the reverse commute, I saw only two people on the train. I can appreciate that more people may go at other times. Auburn is an industrial jobs center like Kent, so it’s not surprising people are commuting to it, and it’s great that they have Sounder available. As for Sumner, have you really counted how many people get off there in the mornings and on in the afternoons? Maybe it’s only one or two?

        In any case, Auburn is far different from North Bend or Yakima.

  9. There are ways to recoup a lot of the sunk cost…

    The vehicles are perfectly usable for South Sounder.

    The track rights can be sold or loaned to Amtrak. (I think more trips, in both directions, spread throughout the day, might be more useful, if they go all the way to Vancouver BC.)

    The stations are still useful for people waiting for buses or ferries at the ferry docks. And Everett Station already is multi-use with or without Sounder.

    1. Amtrak does have plans to add more trips to Vancouver. The two new trains Oregon ordered will be here early next year, so this is a great opportunity to expand Vancouver, BC operations. I think there are some issues on the other side of the border, though…

      Currently, there is no mid-day departure from Vancouver, as the only options now are very early in the morning, or in the evening, and you can’t get all the way to Portland. It would be great to have a 12 or 1pm departure, arriving in Portland late in the evening. Extending the 500/509 to Vancouver would be a good idea.

      1. Do you have a source for those plans? Last we heard, WSDOT was axing the funding for the 2nd VAC trip.

      2. The Amtrak schedule online shows a departure from Vancouver at 9:00 and 11:30 a.m. The 9:00 a.m. departure meets the 2:20 p.m. departure of Train 507, which arrives in Portland at 5:50 p.m. with a comfortable 95 minute break for lunch in Seattle.

        There is a 2:00 p.m. departure on Bolt Bus that arrives in Portland at 9:45 p.m. There is also a 1:00 p.m. departure from Vancouver for Seattle. The parent company Greyhound departs for Seattle and Portland at 11:15 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.

        Finally Quick Shuttle has a 12:00 noon departure time for Seattle.

        I believe that is seven midday departures from Vancouver to the south.

      1. They’ll do more when there’s more demand. The question is…

        is there more demand?

  10. If the line continues to be operated, three things should be done:

    1) WSF & ST should implement coordinated schedules. I’m sure BNSF can be brought along.

    2) A stop should be added near the Pike Place Hillclimb to create access to the northern part of downtown, and maybe a stop at Richmond Beach.

    3) ST Express and Sounder Fares should be aligned. It cannot possibly make a meaningful difference in cost recovery. No reason to give a financial incentive to ride the bus, especially if there is unused zero marginal cost capacity on the train.

    1. (2) Logistically almost impossible. A stop near Broad is the closest you might get.

      (3) Reasonable, and the report discusses it, but many riders are believed to be on employer Orca passes, so totally insensitive to fare.

      1. Reasonable, and the report discusses it, but many riders are believed to be on employer Orca passes, so totally insensitive to fare.

        Big part of the problem around here.

        People who pay nothing of their transit costs feel less stake in the quality of the service, especially as it effects a network that they are less likely to use for any reason other than commuting (they haven’t sunk any cost into their pass, so why bother).

        It’s a real affront to those who do pay to have doubled fares, reduced service, and know that you’re riding with a bunch of spoiled, over-compensated office-tower babies who will only demand more express one-seats in the peak.

      2. (2) Broad St wouldn’t be useful enough. I am not entirely sure where the tunnel portal is, but the tracks are daylighted between buildings behind the Marriott hotel and condos. Maybe you only build a platform on the westernmost track, so you introduce an operational constraint, but it must be possible to find a way to do this.

        (3) Even a monthly ORCA pass has a nominal fare value. The intercounty ST Express fare is $3.50. If the employee has a monthly pass worth $3.50, then the ST Express bus is free, but Sounder costs $4 to Mukilteo and $4.50 to Everett, so the monthly pass isn’t enough. Got to convince employer to give a higher value pass or pay the difference or just ride the bus.

      3. (2) The portal isn’t the problem, it’s roughly west of a point just south of V.S. park. There just isn’t enough space at the track side unless you spend a zillion dollars shoring up a near-vertical embankment or buying up condos and knocking them down. Moreover, regardless of what the city does or doesn’t do about connecting Pike Place to the Waterfront, WSDOT will start building the Elliot-Western connector right over the portal from Alaskan to Belltown once the viaduct comes down in 2016. The space where you would access station will basically just be a lightless dumpster access alley underneath a bridge.

        (3) Employer passes through the trip-reduction program (which is what virtually everyone has) do not have a monthly fare value. Each month, the total value of rides used on employer passes is added up, and then each employer pays a slice of that, based on how many employees have a pass. The differential fare cost of Sounder is thus spread around employers, and they have no incentive to get their employees to use cheaper fares.

      4. I always invisioned that North Seattle stop between Clay and Vine. It’s the only spot that has enough length and depth. The problem is the transit connections from there stink.
        Would a stop north of there, say around Elliott and Harrison work better? At least you could connect to buses on Elliott, and be near F5 and Holland America.
        The train tunnel goes right under Benaroya Hall, why not just build an underground intermodal station there? They spent $258M for the easement, why not another $2b for an underground station? :Sarcasm

      1. The report said that there have been no conversations with BNSF regarding a buy back.
        The thing is I’m not sure why BNSF would bother. The worse North Sounder performs, the more pressure ST will be under to ditch it. There’s not really anyone other than BNSF that would want to buy the easement, so BNSF could offer a nickel and what would ST do? Keep the easement, but not use it? That’s ideal for BNSF, isn’t it?

      2. It would make more sense to sell the slots to Amtrak. If it were more viable to leave King Street Station northbound (sigh), Amtrak might benefit from extending some Seattle-Portland services further north.

  11. Link will provide a fast connection into the hearts of the region’s biggest job centers that will be totally immune to traffic and mudslides, and run every 10 minutes or better, all day and into the evening, every day.

    Of course, pretty much no one will be using that 10-minute service, all day and into the evening, every day. Because that’s just not how people use transit over long distances from sprawling suburbs.

    Make no mistake: North Link will be a gigantic money hole as well. The outer branches of the BART network average $30/ride subsidies as well — and that’s with only 20-minute service!

    On a scale of 1 to Insane Waste, North Link probably won’t seem quite as bad as Sounder North, because, hey, at least it’s not only serving a couple hundred people. But the total dollar-figure subsidy that will be necessary to provide grossly disproportionate service on North Link will dwarf what we pay for Sounder’s handful of trips.

      1. Thank you!

        I’m not even opposed to the existence of Lynnwood Link, believe or not.

        I’m just opposed to delusion, to denial, and to the “choose your own facts” attitude that seems to exist in spades around here!

        (“Lynnwood is like Oakland”! Yeesh!)

      2. Lynnwood is twice as far from Seattle as Oakland is from SF. And it’s a sprawling, po’dink Nowheresville by comparison with any place in the East Bay.

        The East Bay has 2 million people living in it — that’s nearly the entire population of the ENTIRE Puget Sound region north of the Pierce County line.

        Lynnwood isn’t a “strategic launching point” for anything. You won’t change the world by offering frequent express transit that practically no one will use.

        STB shouldn’t be a cauldron for Fantasyland advocacy. The real world is laughing at us.

      3. “The East Bay has 2 million people living in it — that’s nearly the entire population of the ENTIRE Puget Sound region north of the Pierce County line.”

        So you’re saying it’s great that BART is there? The idea that an area with 2 million people don’t deserve a rapid transit line across it just doesn’t make sense to me.

      4. And yet those millions live in sprawl. And BART is a near-total failure: encouraging that sprawl, losing money hand over fist, convincing precisely zero people to go car-free.

        What the sprawling parts of the Bay needed was a commuter option that avoiding getting stuck in traffic. That’s all they use BART for anyway. Whether a commuter train on existing ROW or a bunch of express buses with uninterrupted lanes on the highways, it could have been done for infinitely cheaper without the hundreds of miles of elevated subway running empty all the time.


      5. So if somebody wants to travel from Fremont to San Francisco off-peak, it should take two hours on a bus equivalent to the 169, because they don’t deserve anything better than that?

      6. If somebody wants to travel anywhere from Fremont off-peak, there’s a pretty good chance they’re going to drive. And having BART available to take them to a handful of destinations (at great expense) hasn’t made the slightest mathematical dent in that fact.

        BART should have been built denser and more effectively throughout the central Bay Area. That would have given the Fremonter the option to drive (most likely) or bus (if necessary) to somewhere in South Oakland or to a P&R near where the worst traffic backups tend to start. It also would have greatly expanded the number and variety of transit-appropriate destinations that the Fremonter could have reached from that P&R.

        Currently, the Richmond District or SFSU are “fuck it, I’ll just drive” no-brainers from the East Bay. That’s true even at rush hour! If BART had been built urban, and with less waste, that wouldn’t be the case.

      7. “BART should have been built denser and more effectively throughout the central Bay Area. That would have given the Fremonter the option to drive (most likely) or bus (if necessary) to somewhere in South Oakland or to a P&R near where the worst traffic backups tend to start.”

        Now we’re starting to get somewhere. This is the first time you’ve said BART should have been strengthened in the central Bay Area. Before you’ve said either BART shouldn’t exist (in favor of MUNI), or that it might be acceptable to Oakland and Berkeley.

        To me, the most fundamental destinations of BART should have been downtown San Francisco, downtown Oakland, and downtown San Jose. Berkeley can be added as an honorable fourth. The reason BART looks so skewed to East Bay sprawl is that Santa Clara County and San Mateo County voted it down, which has hindered Bay Area transit for decades, unlike Cologne-Duesseldorf-Essen which is similarly sized. BART fundamentally needs to be a ring around the bay, with the extensions to Richmond, Pittsburgh, and Dublin being minor extensions. But the south and southwest pars of the trunk was never built. This made Walnut Creek appear more important than it is, and left Silicon Valley and the San Mateo penninsula ill-prepared for the high-tech renaissance that was to come.

        (PS. If BART had been built in the southwest, Caltrain could have been terminated decades ago, akin to Sounder North.)

      8. You just advocated a 100-mile loop.

        100 mile loops do not need frequent transit.

        That would literally be the most wasteful transit in existence.

        Can you really not see how insane that is?

    1. You threw a DC analogy at me yesterday, so I’ll throw one at you today: have you ever ridden the (outer) suburban portions of either the west Red Line or the Orange Line at off-hours?

      Get enough development happening near the stations, as the powers that be are doing in Falls Church and Rockville, and suburban HCT can work outside of commute times. Perhaps Link will cause Lynnwood, until now not very transit-friendly, to get religion on this. Adding 5,000 residents within a 10-minute walk of Lynnwood Station would solve the problem.

      1. Have you ever ridden the (outer) suburban portions of either the west Red Line or the Orange Line at off-hours?

        If you’re talking inside the Beltway (e.g. Falls Church, Bethesda), then yes. Outside the Beltway (Vienna, Rockville), then no. But a friend in Fairfax who takes Metro into the city all the time at night says that they’re sparsely used before crossing the Beltway, to put it mildly.

        While sprawl is endemic throughout the D.C. area, there’s a huge difference between the well-connected inner suburbs and distant outer sprawl.

        There’s a difference in distance. There’s a difference of traffic (bad all the time within the Beltway; comparatively non-existent outside the peak in Seattle). There’s a massive distance in the total coverage and variety of destinations you can get to within the district. There’s a massive difference in cultural presumptions about living, recreating, and moving around.

        Adding 5,000 residents within a 10-minute walk of Lynnwood Station would solve the problem.

        No, it won’t. At best, you’ve just turned it into 1/4 of Tyson’s Corner.

        I mean, for crying out loud! 5,000 people live within two blocks of me in Ballard, and Ballard isn’t even all that dense! We, apparently, don’t even deserve 10-minute bus service!

        Lynnwood is way outside the Beltway here. It is Walnut Creek, or Winnetka. Link will useless for non-commute trips for anyone. Expensive. Waste.

      2. Then who rides all those off-peak 510 and 511 buses? They’re not empty — the 511 runs every 15 minutes — and Lynnwood, while a suburban wasteland, is not as much of a suburban wasteland as you think.

        And in DC, I can tell you from massive personal experience that the Fairfax portions of the Orange Line and the Rockville/Shady Grove portions of the Red Line are very well used off-peak during the day, especially on weekends, although not late at night. I’ve personally been on an Orange Line train that filled to capacity at Dunn Loring, the second stop, on a Saturday around 2 p.m. The only special event going on that day was a Nats game several hours later.

        Yes, all those people were park-and-riding. But they were still riding, and we still want to keep their cars out of the city while bringing them in. As long as we’re subject to subarea equity, connecting the people in that subarea to Seattle is the best thing we can do for the region.

      3. Also, I-5 traffic is far from nonexistent on many weekends. Typically the direction with the express lanes is moving but the other ain’t.

        Which is not to say that I’m a fan of the I-5 alignment, or that any half-decent urban rail system built in Seattle wouldn’t beat the heck out of it for rides/hr or cost/ride, but off-peak ridership is not going to be zero.

      4. The 511 runs every 15 minutes off-peak now, and it used to run every half-hour. That doesn’t mean those buses are full. I rode it reverse-commuting when it was half-hourly and ridership was pretty sparse. People take it Friday evenings to go to Seattle, and when there’s a Sounders game, but even then I never once had to stand and almost never had anyone sitting next to me. The best walking environment Lynnwood will ever have is that of Bellevue (it has a mostly-connected grid, but suffers from over-wide streets, superblocks, long light cycles, too many left-turn phases, all that typical stuff), and given the freeway proximity, probably more like the Bel-Red corridor than downtown Bellevue. Lynnwood’s biking conditions are abysmal. Lynnwood TC, right along the wasteland of I-5, has half a walkshed, and though it’s a nice place to transfer, it takes a long-ass time for buses to get in and out. That’s the bad news.

        The good news? More people will ride off-peak when it doesn’t get stuck in I-5 traffic, goes to Northgate, UW, and Cap Hill, and even the eastside or the south end or the airport are at least a simple ride away. But if you run the same capacity to Lynnwood you do to the U District, you’re practically guaranteed to underserve the U District and overserve Lynnwood. By a lot. This sounds like BART but it’s worse, because SF at least has another in-city system that allows them to dial up off-peak capacity between, say, Sunset and Castro without running huge empty trains all the way to Milbrae.

      5. “I never once had to stand and almost never had anyone sitting next to me.”

        Yikes, if the threshold for off-peak service is that no seats may be empty on average, you’d have to cancel the 26, 28, 30, and 347 too. You’d also have heavy overcrowding on some days because average ridership is much less than maximum ridership.

        We subsidize off-peak service because it’s a necessity if we want people to use cars less, and because people won’t ride one way if they can’t get back later.

        “Lynnwood is way outside the Beltway here. It is Walnut Creek,”

        Lynnwood is more like Oakland. Even if it’s not as big as Oakland now, it has the potential to become bigger, and to absorb the influx of residents so they don’t go sprawling out to Marysville and Maple Valley.

        “Lynnwood’s biking conditions are abysmal.”

        They’re nothing to write home about, but the Interurban Trail is a short walk from the transit center.

      6. “if you run the same capacity to Lynnwood you do to the U District, you’re practically guaranteed to underserve the U District and overserve Lynnwood”

        So turn back at Northgate. ST can always adjust the routing later.

      7. I’m not saying that the threshold for there being off-peak service is that the buses fill up their seats, or even that they fill up half their seats. I think it’s great that the 511 is at 15-minute headways now, particularly because it’s the result of a restructure that absorbed a bunch of Mountlake Terrace commuter routes and really improved transit mobility through SnoHoCo.

        But when Lynnwood-Seattle transit demand doesn’t even fill half the seats outside the forward peak (that’s why almost nobody ever sat next to me, not because I smell bad) at 30-minute headways, that raises serious questions about the priority of running trains there every 10 minutes (or fewer — that’s the post-East Link plan, right?). Especially when some parts of Seattle I won’t name (and that I actually don’t care for myself, primarily because when I go there my inability to grow a beard is thrown in such sharp relief) are bursting the seams of their capacity and being offered little of value. I hope there’s a train to Lynnwood in 50 years. In the meantime, let’s fill in the network a little!

        Lynnwood isn’t all bad, I guess. JD’s Market is pretty rad.

      8. There’s a difference between what’s ideal and what’s realistic. Yes, building DP’s several subways right now and Lynnwood later would be fine; just please include some ROW for future express tracks. But that’s not the choice we have. The choice we have is to build ST2 Link now and something else later, or to not build ST2 Link now and maybe nothing else later. You can’t build something without the agreement of the politicians and the taxpaying public. The public wants ST2 Link: that’s what they asked for and voted for.

        We’re lucky they saw enough value in rail (unlike the 1960s and 1970s), and that we were able to convince them to put underground stations at Broadway and Brooklyn (rather than going on I-5 with stations at Eastlake and the 45th flyer station). Building to Lynnwood and Bellevue now does not make building to Ballard less likely; in fact it makes it more likely because the suburbanites will oppose it less. Building Link to Ballard instead of or before Lynnwood was never a realistic possibility so it’s a false choice. If it was realistic we would have seen a campaign for it when ST1 and ST2 were being solidified, and it would have garnered a lot of support. But I don’t remember any such campaign. In retrospect, all that energy went into the monorail and was lost. Maybe if there hadn’t been the monorail we would have been further along in a Ballard subway now. But that’s moot.

        By the way, I have said I wouldn’t oppose truncating Link at Northgate and 200th, as long as the extension buses to Lynnwood and Federal Way are frequent (including evenings and weekends). The most important part of Link is the segment from Stadium to Northgate: that’s what’s been most holding Seattle back from being a more transit-oriented city. So Lynnwood is not necessary. But the other question is, is it good to connect the main cities in the region with rapid transit? Yes, for the same reason it’s good to connect all the urban villages in Seattle with rapid transit. A well-functioning metropolis needs both. So if officialdom wants to build Link to Lynnwood, I can’t say it’s a bad thing. And in any case, it doesn’t matter whether King Countyites think it’s a good thing or not because we’re not paying for it. We’re paying for Link to 185th. That’s only four miles past Northgate so it’s hardly an outrageous extension.

        Finally, we need to stop worrying about overbuilding. We got into this situation with crappy RapidRide D because of chronic underbuilding and underprioritization for decades, and it has affected everybody’s mindset. If we overshoot a bit on the way up, that’s OK. Those who particularly benefit from it (those who frequently travel between Lynnwood and Seattle, or between Capitol Hill and Northgate) will be especially grateful. It’s bad to have infrequent buses that turn 30-minute trips into 60 minutes, or 60-minute trips into 90 minutes. It’s dragging down our economy and making people ever more wedded to their cars and parking lots.

      9. In fact, the chronic underbuilding is the reason for the “overbuilding” to Lynnwood, Northgate, and Federal Way, and the grand stations that get some people’s goats. The pent-up demand and frustration is so huge that people want something big now, and they won’t settle for something small.

      10. The irony here is that I’m not even opposed to Lynnwood Link.

        Sure, I find it insane that is has become a top priority in the consensus vision, and in such a way that massive overservice (crowding out funding for more worthwhile service) is almost guaranteed. And it is doubly insane that delusions of Lynnwood as a new Bellevue — or Oakland (yeesh!) — could be offered as a reason with a straight face.

        But I do understand the value of a transit option that completely bypasses I-5 traffic, and I do understand that means building beyond Northgate.

        So again, I’m not opposed to the line.

        But, if you think that service on the built-out Lynnwood line will require anything shy of exorbitant subsidies, then you’ll have a rude awakening down the line. All worldwide precedent suggests that $15-$30 per rider may continue in perpetuity! The outer-BART subsidies should serve as a cautionary tale of terror to anyone who makes an “efficiency” argument for ultra-suburban lines.


        I am aware that there is a psychological component to the drive to “overbuild”, though I think it has more to do with asserting civic ego in the present than with reacting to the unbuilt failures of the past.

        But overbuilding remains unjustifiable. Overbuilt stations are expensive, and lead directly to the urge to cut stops and starve your line of its usefulness. A system with 20 minimal stations is better than a system with 10 gorgeous ones. This is not debatable.

        Overbuilt stations are also inherently difficult to access, and make transfers less convenient and more forbidding. Again, objectively worse for your network and your ability to appeal to riders.

        Overbuilding is lose-lose-lose. Only politicians and designers want something grand; everyone else just wants to get there!

        Lastly, it’s time to knock it off with the express tracks. Because, no. We’re a small city, and all you would do by running redundant services in a small city is to split your demand and halve your frequency on each. 20-minute waits. 30-minute waits. The upshot is less useful service for all.

        New York has express tracks; Paris his entire express lines; London doesn’t and should. Expresses are only needed in huge cities like these — frequencies are universally high and extra capacity is actually needed.

        Pretending that Seattle has even a fraction of New York’s demand, and fragmenting service accordingly, is how you would end up the city of crap you wait a very long time for. And that’s what you’re always pushing! It needs to stop.

      11. “All worldwide precedent suggests that $15-$30 per rider may continue in perpetuity!”

        It’s the only way to reverse the automobile stranglehold on the suburbs and mitigate the impossible disadvantage non-drivers face. It works reasonably well in the New York and Chicago areas. It should have been built when the suburbs were developed and it would have been a lot cheaper. The solution is not half-hourly buses and giving in to widening the freeways and bridges, which would inevitably happen if we don’t have this system (and would, tada, cost as much). That would put an even ever-growing percentage of the population without access to good transit, which would make the problem steadily worse, especially since it strengthens the calls for highway funding and parking minimums and weakens the calls for transit funding.

      12. “Lynnwood is more like Oakland.”

        “Give me a break.”

        Sheesh. I didn’t mean Lynnwood has the size or industrial base of Oakland. I meant it’s about the same distance and serves as a strategic central gateway to the surrounding smaller cities. It’s hard to map Pugetopolis cities to Bay Area equivalents because so many things about geography, relative sizes, and industries are different. Distances are generally less here (few people drive 60 or 90 minutes), but there’s a stronger north-south bias (more people live further north and south than they would if Puget Sound and Lake Washington weren’t there). Therefore, frequent transit has to go further north and south than it would in most other cities, and that’s a necessarily higher cost. By going to Lynnwood, it indirectly serves all of south Snoho county; by going to Belleuve, it indirectly serves the rest of the Eastside; by going to Federal Way, it indirectly serves Auburn. In our case Link is continuing to Redmond; in the Bay Area’s case BART is continuing to Walnut Creek and Dublin. (Fremont is different because it’s not in a line of ever-shrinking exurbs to the wilderness, but is halfway to San Jose, which should have been BART’s terminus on that line.) I’m ignoring the implications of extending Link to Tacoma and Everett because I know that would make you choke, and it’s not worth discussing until ST is ready to move on it.

      13. Lynnwood is twice as far from Seattle as Oakland is from SF. And it’s a sprawling, po’dunk Nowheresville by comparison with any place in the East Bay. As you said, we are a less extensive metropolis overall; if anything, Lynnwood is more Fremont than Oakland. But as you also said, Fremont is on the way to somewhere. Everett ain’t San Jose.

        The East Bay has 2 million people living in it — that’s nearly the population of the ENTIRE Puget Sound region north of the Pierce County line.

        Lynnwood isn’t a “strategic launching point” for anything. You won’t change the world by offering frequent express transit that practically no one will use.

        STB needs to stop being a stockpot for Fantasyland advocacy. The real world is laughing at us.

      14. “Lynnwood is twice as far from Seattle as Oakland is from SF.”

        Then why does BART take 20 minutes and Link is expected to take 28? That’s not much different.

        “You won’t change the world by offering frequent express transit that practically no one will use.”

        We can only offer the transit. It’s individuals’ daily choices whether to use it. Having transit available is a benefit even if you don’t use it today. The express buses on I-5 contradict your statement that nobody will use it. As people get more used to Link over time, they’ll start using it for ballgames and Bumbershoot and Folklife, and then they’ll start using it when they want to pop down to the UW for something. It doesn’t have to be a huge mass of people on every train to make a difference in people’s lives and in the region’s quality of life. And I do believe future circumstances will necessitate driving less, and at that time people will be glad the line was built in the 2010s and is paid off or almost paid off now.

      15. When I worked in Lynnwood for a short time a surprising number of my coworkers got to work by transit – one from near Tacoma! There’s a commute…

      16. BART is 10-12 minutes from Embarcadero to downtown Oakland.

        Your “let’s just spend a fortune and hope for the best” suggestion is appalling. That’s why we use real-world precedent and ideally non-politically-motivated modeling. The precedent is not good, and we don’t have infinite money around.

        The handful of buses that exist are half-empty pretty much at all non-peak times. Link will be a ghost train.

  12. “ST’s Seattle-Everett express buses cost just over $5 per boarding, versus $32 for Sounder North”

    Is the initial fleecing of ST by BNSF included in that $32 or is it purely operational costs?

    Either way the following quote kind of sums it up:

    “From an operating perspective, the commuter rail service is more expensive to operate, has higher fares, and has a longer travel time than the bus. For some of these reasons as well as for reasons related to station locations, station access, and service reliability, riders are choosing not to ride Sounder in that corridor”

    The market seems to have spoken – riders in North Puget Sound prefer fast and cheap.

    1. No, it excludes capital costs, of which the perpetual easements are one.

      I’m a big fan of fast and cheap in general :-)

      1. Just get Mr. Rogoff to paint some BUS ONLY signs over existing GP lanes, and cheap is well within grasp.

    2. It may be purely “operational costs”, but looking at the accounting, I am almost certain that it isn’t purely *variable* costs.

      I want to know what the fixed costs embedded in the “operating costs” are. I think we need to see better accounting here.

      I suspect that Sounder North is getting allocated overhead costs which would exist even if Sounder North were shut down.

      1. Yes, ST made a monumentally stupid decision to buy the track-age rights up front. Hey, when it’s not your money… But really ST is in the business of spending tax dollars. So, by insuring a huge sunk cost it means they have a job(spending tax dollars) for year to come.

  13. This is the first official document I’ve seen that questions Sounder North’s value. If people keep pressing the ST board to dump Sounder North and put the money into buses and Link, it might force the board to address the issue head-on.

    1. Emperor Constantine has said he will keep Sounder North, and that is that. If some King Co. boardmember dissented from the party line, he or she would be replaced ASAP with a more like-minded individual.

      1. Emperor Constantine may change his mind someday, if opposition to Sounder North becomes more widespread. The problem so far is that it’s only been a tiny number of transit fans who have suggested it, while the Sounder riders have spoken loudly and many other Snoho residents say keep it for the Sounder riders’ sake. But if more Snoho residents start changing their mind, it would affect Dow too. It’s not like it’s his #1 campaign promise.

      2. The Emperor is on the board.

        And I wouldn’t call this an official document. COP is sponsored by ST but is hardly a representative.

      3. It’s official in the sense that an entity ST recognizes and chartered for this purpose issued it, and ST presumably took steps to ensure its members were the most representative of its north end constituents that it could get. It carries more weight than an article by some random group of transit fans, for instance. It’s a piece of evidence they can’t pretend doesn’t exist.

  14. Would this evaluation be different if North Sounder traveled Everett -> King Station in 40 minutes?

    At some point in the future, when the nation gets serious about HSR, those tracks will be upgraded and ruggedized for the Amtrak Cascades.

    1. I really don’t see that alignment being conducive to high speed travel. There would be environmental impacts that would not bode well with the residents along that line.

    2. If there’s ever HSR tracks north of Seattle, they won’t be along the hilly coast. They’ll be inland somewhere. Perhaps by that time driving will have diminished enough to free up the center lanes on I-5 to convert to HSR.

  15. I’m curious about the whole BNSF easement thing. The document mentions the assumed/actual costs and also the limiting factors (28 trains per day). I was under the impression that only the Cascade tunnel was a limiting factor, yet the document specifically mentions the waterfront tunnel as well:

    Constraints exist at the Cascade Mountain tunnel and in the downtown Seattle rail tunnel, limiting capacity to 28 trains a day on the line.

    Is it true that the Seattle Waterfront tunnel can only have 28 trains/day too?

    1. As far as I know, the downtown tunnel is not ventilated, so there may be a restriction there as well, possibly also due to the waterfront crossings.

    2. That has to be a typo of some variety. There’s no special restrictions on the Great Northern tunnel that I know of. It’s short, runs on a level grade, and is very well ventilated. 28 is the limit on the Cascade tunnel, and if I’m not mistaken, almost all of those 28 trains passing through the Cascade tunnel also use the Great Northern in downtown Seattle. So if the Great Northern was also limited to 28 trains, nothing but Cascade traffic could ever get through it.

      The Cascade tunnel’s restriction due to ventilation concerns caused by the length and grade. It’s single tracked and is dug with very little clearance around the railcars; it’s a classic rathole. Uphill trains have to go through it hard on the throttle, which fills it with fumes, and it takes 20 minutes for the ventilation system to flush the 7+ mile tunnel with fresh air.

      1. There a number of trains that go through downtown Seattle but not the Stevens Pass tunnel.

  16. Light rail and buses work best with dedicated ROW. What made ST think trains were any different?

    We need a grade-separated, electrified, dedicated passenger rail corridor. I’m not sure where to put it, and it would be very expensive financially and politically, but the alternative is more of what we have now.

    1. Couldn’t be any worse than what they did to put in I-5 through the middle of a large city…

  17. 1 — the easements are sunk costs. Sound Transit was overcharged, but it owns the slots ‘free and clear’ now.

    2 — someone needs to dig down into the cost figures. Why are diesel buses cheaper to operate than diesel trains? This isn’t exactly normal. What are the cost drivers on Sounder North? Most of the problem appears to be simply low load factors / low ridership. To factor this out, I multiplied the “cost per boarding” by the “boardings per revenue vehicle hour” to get a “cost per hour”:

    Sounder North: $1560.71
    Sounder South: $684.05
    (How is this even possible? Is there a lot of overhead being allocated strictly to Sounder North, or what?)

    Music City Star: $239.18
    Westside Express: $920.65
    Northstar: $1209.53
    RailRunner: $599.40
    FrontRunner: $164.45
    ACE: $625.65
    Capital MetroRail (Austin): $1867.32

    Dammit, it looks to me like these numbers have fixed costs embedded into them again. Dividing fixed costs by number of passengers is rarely useful for future planning.

    Someone needs to dig deeper into the cost numbers to figure out why Sounder North is so expensive per revenue hour. Does Sounder pay a per-hour fee for track access in addition to the easement? Or is this, as I suspect, a meaningless accounting artifact?

    I think the cost numbers are a case of garbagey accounting. I would like to see a more careful cost breakdown.

    3 — So, assuming low ridership is the main problem, can it be fixed, and is it worth fixing? The causes are enumerated in the report:
    A: fewer stations than planned. Some examination should be taken to see if the ‘missing’ stations (Ballard? Interbay?) would be more useful than the existing ones.
    B: fewer trips than planned. This is probably too expensive to change thanks to the easement prices.
    C: parking constraints at stations. Should this be fixed?
    D: mudslides. This has to be fixed anyway for Amtrak Cascades.
    E: track location next to the water. This is unfixable and may be the biggest problem with Sounder North.
    F: Reduction in feeder service by Community Transit. Fixable.
    G: Difficulty in aligning train service with ferry schedules at Edmonds and Mulkiteo. This SHOULD be fixable, surely.

    1. Digging deeper into the report, it appears that BNSF is charging Sounder something like $2800 per trip *on top* of the fully paid easement.

      Is this right? That would certainly explain the high cost structure. At that rate, it would be cheaper for the state to buy the rail line outright.

      1. BNSF gets paid to operate Sounder. So each train requires a crew, which would be at minimum an engineer and conductor. They’ll be paid from the time they get to the yard in the morning to check out the train until they park the train in the coach yard in Seattle. As a SWAG, that might be two hours pay for a one hour trip. Now what? Do they twiddle their thumbs in the yard all day until the afternoon commute? They guys doing the first run (but probably not the second run) might have time to shuttle back up to Everret to make a second run, but they’ll be on the clock for the time the trip back takes. You might add a driver and use of a van for that too.

        Operating the train presumably also includes dispatching, fueling and cleaning the train, so there are more costs associated with that. Do they get paid for security at the layover yard?

        Some other operating costs which would not necessarily be charged to BNSF would include allocated costs for fare enforcement and station operations.

        Clearly, the per-train operating costs would come down if each trainset operated for more than a single one hour trip. Even with the restriction that there be no reverse-peak trips on the North line, they can do better. For example, a North train could run-through Seattle, turning into a reverse-peak South trip, then reverse in Lakewood to become a shoulder-of-peak, peak-direction trip. Under this scenario, you might get a reasonable four hour shift out of your North crew, most of which would be actually operating the train. And you get better utilization of the rolling stock.

      2. Oh, right, I forget that BNSF is actually *crewing* Sounder. Thanks. So this is probably mostly crew pay.

        And so I’m correct that it would make more sense if North Sounder trips were all extensions of South Sounder trips. You wouldn’t have the crew twiddling their thumbs.

        I guess the operating scenario you suggest is worth pushing for. The path to better North Sounder is better South Sounder, and through running.

    2. ST evidently has funds set aside for a parking structure in Mukilteo. I know the City of Mukilteo is very interested in seeing that get built, along with a ped bridge all the way across the tracks.

      1. Isn’t that kind of impressive? I mean, I knew the Austin line was routed badly and would have poor ridership, but I honestly don’t know how they ended up with such a high cost structure. And they’re even using “FRA-noncompliant” equipment, which should theoretically improve the numbers!

    3. I think the key word is “revenue hour.” They’re getting as many as three round trips per day out of the South Sounder trainsets. IIRC there are a bunch of costs in storing the train and paying the crew in downtown Seattle every midday.

      1. Thanks for explaining it. So the costs would go down with better equipment / crew utilization. That would be a good priority; surely some careful planning could devise a schedule with through-running which would give better utilization.

        And who knows — someone might want to go from Everett to Tacoma!

  18. The reoprt is full of useful information.

    Apparently Sounder North has a captive fleet of cars. ???? This is crazy. Sounder North should be operated as extensions of four contra-peak Sounder South trips. Yes, you’re running even more cars, but you’re providing through service (Everett to Tacoma!) and the incremental cost of operation is pretty much the same. At the moment the Sounder North cars appear to be severely underutilized.

    Now, perhaps this is due to the lack of suitable contra-peak slots on Sounder South. If so, the way to improved results for Sounder North is to improve Sounder South first.

    1. Or is this due to the lack of contra-peak slots on Sounder North, which means that once you’ve gotten to Everett for the night, you’re not allowed to go back?

      I think that’s probably it.

      Odd though it sounds, buying contra-peak slots would significantly improve equipment utilization.

      I believe BNSF didn’t want to sell them until the corridor was fully double-tracked. It’s getting close, isn’t it?

    2. The reason the North trains have a captive fleet is because those trains are shorter and the South trains are longer. The short trains could be used for the midday run(s) between Seattle and Tacoma, if they ever materialize, but that might create even more accounting obfuscation.

      1. “The short trains could be used for the midday run(s) between Seattle and Tacoma, if they ever materialize,”

        Well, this would make sense.

  19. Shut it down.

    Reinvest the cash in getting Link to Lynnwood faster, and adding more ST Express buses on N/S rotes.

    Yeah, I know, not politically viable. But I can dream, right?

    1. It’s now more viable than it was. It’s more than just a dream. A dream would be: full Seattle Subway in ten years, plus subway lines on Madison and on 35th NE – 23rd S (as the monorail proposed), and one or two Link lines to Kent and Renton.

  20. Dave Erling, Mr. North Sounder is back on the Board. Snohomish is stuck with the crap they got sold by the political machine and a railroad that saw gold in them thar bluffs.
    15,000 at LTC on Link? Anyone want to do the math that makes that happen in SleepHollow? (hint: That’s twice what ALL three Bellevue CBD stations will generate in 2030)
    “”Good Models + GIGO + Pols”” = CRAP TRANSIT

    1. Don’t worry, Mic.

      Lynnwood is exactly like Oakland, that established city of 400,000 right next to San Francisco.

      Also, it will be the next Bellevue, cubed.

      And if not, the demand problem can certainly be fixed by a mere 5,000 units of new housing sprawled out a half mile from the station.

  21. Anyone have access to the contracts between BNSF and ST? I wonder if a good litigator could argue that the frequent mudslides deny ST access to the easements they bargained for. There could be a viable claim for breach of contract if BNSF (either through lack of prevention, promising ST 365 days/year of service when they knew they couldn’t deliver, or through a discretionary 48-hour rule) has denied ST year-round access to the tracks even though we paid for it.

    If we’re only getting 95% of the trips we paid for, maybe we could get a similar proportion of our access costs back.

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