Sounder North in the Rain in "Kodachrome"

The Sound Transit Board received a presentation from Martin Young, Sounder Commuter Rail Operations Manager of the new protocol to cancel Sounder North service.  Deputy CEO Mike Harbor explains that a small slide that blocked a Sounder North train inspired the briefing. Video is 78:35 into this link.  Below are the slides for you to browse through.

Sounder Cancellation Protocol 2015-01-22 Presentation

After going through the slides, Sound Transit’s spokeswoman Kimberly M. Reason explained the three USGS predictive tools are “rainfall, rainfall intensity and soil saturation” (see here), but also that “Sound Transit uses weather forecast data and information on field conditions to inform service decisions.”  Although Sound Transit attempts to make a decision “the afternoon before the day of service”, there is no firm deadline to make a decision before — or during — a Sounder North run.

Due to this new protocol, Sound Transit was able to call off Seahawks home game trains right before the first train was to start when a slide occurred on Sounder North. The risk of a slide stopping a scheduled run remains before the Mukilteo multimodal terminal‘s arrival (hopefully in 2019) with staff and real-time data.

Personally speaking, I’ve said previously there’s a license to kill Sounder North at some point due to safety plus per-rider daily operating cost. That view may be a minority one, and if the service continues I want a decent Return On Investment coupled to the best landslide prevention efforts humanly possible. If you disagree with me and want to keep the service, go ride it.  I probably will if there is little or no precipitation that day or the night before, and the new protocol keeps working.  At least now Sound Transit is proactively minimizing the risk of catastrophe.

Special thanks to Kimberly M. Reason of Sound Transit for her outstanding help in getting this information to my readership.

58 Replies to “Sounder North’s New Slide Prevention Protocol”

  1. Do these slides occur north or south of Mukilteo? Because Mukilteo and Edmonds are the only stations from which Sounder is faster than ST Express. In addition to both being ferry terminals.

    So if track from Mukilteo southward is reliably clear- or easier to secure than the one to the north, more might be gained than lost by a turnback. Even if extra siding is necessary.


      1. I know the whole track is liable to slides, but haven’t most of the actual slides occurred north of Mukilteo? I seem to remember that from the handful of notifications I’ve seen.

      2. There’s an awful lot of slide-prone track to deal with. Unless an inland bypass route is built (or rebuilt, there used to be one) it will have to be fixed for Amtrak Cascades to Vancouver.

        There is then a question of prioritization. Perhaps the priority should be to slide-proof the line south of Mulkiteo, and run Sounder to Mulkiteo. Once that section is slide-proofed, Mulkiteo to Edmonds can be tackled.

  2. Has anyone done a calculation of how good service we could pay for Mukilteo and Edmonds residents with buses instead of sounder?

    E.g. by extending the 513 to Mukilteo and something similar to Edmonds (maybe certain trips of the 511 could go to Edmonds rather than Ash way)? Would such service be much slower than Sounder? Could it be more frequent, as it’s probably much cheaper to run busses than the train? Are there capital improvements (e.g. HOV/Bus lanes) that could make such trips faster, and at the same time improve bus service for other riders on the I-5 corridor?

      1. Yeah until The Big Slide finally sends one of these choo choo into the Puget Sound.

    1. You are aware of CT’s commuter routes 416 (Edmonds-Seattle), and 417 (Mukilteo-Seattle).

      If you’re talking about diverting ST routes off I-5, then figure in 25-30 minutes to get down and back for each station.

    2. The times I’ve tried to do this have been quite miserable bus trips moving at walking speed on I-5. If the buses can be made to move decently then I’m all for more service over more expensive service less often.

      Unfortunately the I-5 express routes are prone to whatever I-5 is doing.

      I guess I’ll just wait 50 years or so until Link goes far enough north that there is an actual alternative that doesn’t involve sitting in traffic.

      1. Glenn, you’ve described these experiences here a few times, and… as someone that used to go to Snohomish County daily, I can tell you that you’ve had the misfortune of running into traffic conditions that occur less often than Sounder North is closed for mudslides. It’s true that traffic is regularly bad enough that the train is faster than buses to Edmonds and Mukilteo, but if your downtown destination (or connection) isn’t close to King Street Station the bus still can win.

        Link really only needs to get as far as Northgate, maybe the city line, to mostly fix reliability as far north as transit cares to go, because north of Northgate there are HOV lanes (they aren’t perfect but they aren’t unfixable either). To get within one bus ride of the vast majority of people in Snohomish County that would ever use it (including, of course, Edmonds and Mukilteo) it only needs to get as far as Lynnwood TC, which will happen in closer to 10 years than 50.

        Any further extensions get pretty far into the territory of degrading service where people ride most for minimal improvements where they ride least, which is nonsensical. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen some time in the next 50 years, but it’s not at all necessary for your “actual alternative”, or anyone else’s, to be realized.

      2. Glen, what you’re describing is every single day’s commute. I have no idea where Al gets this idea that the slowdown on I-5 happens less than Sounder mudslides. The 511 takes one hour to get from Ash Way park and Ride to downtown at 7am. That means it averages 19 mph every single day! It takes the 417 commuter 1 hr 17 minutes to get from Mukilteo to Seattle. It takes the Sounder 48 minutes to do the same trek. As a matter of fact you can ride the 113 down the hill from the Mukilteo Library, transfer to the Sounder and still get to King Street station faster than the 417. Unfortunately the 113 isn’t timed to the Sounder so they don’t link up often.

        I also don’t know why Al thinks that “To get within one bus ride of the vast majority of people in Snohomish County that would ever use it (including, of course, Edmonds and Mukilteo) it only needs to get as far as Lynnwood TC,”.

        Should we remind him that downtown Everett is almost as far Lynnwood Transit center as Seattle is? It takes 45 minutes for the 113 to get from Mukilteo TO the Lynnwood Transit center. It’s always interesting when people from Seattle comment on Snohomish country.

      3. I took the bus to Snohomish County every day a couple years ago, so I know at least a little bit about it. I’m not saying that general congestion on I-5 isn’t common, I’m saying that he has experienced specific outlying traffic events (which he has posted about at length) on his occasional trips to Seattle, which occur about as often as Sounder North closures. He shouldn’t base his idea of I-5 bus viability in general on them.

        The worst bus slowdowns are south of Northgate after the HOV lanes run out, and the slowdowns that exist north of Lynnwood (where slowdowns are routine but crippling ones are not) are fixable for transit in the existing freeway ROW. They absolutely don’t require an Everett-Tacoma train to solve.

        It takes the 113 45 minutes to get to Lynnwood because it doesn’t take a direct route. I don’t have to look at a Community Transit map to know that. If ST runs a fast train to Lynnwood then CT will run a direct connector bus from Mukilteo. I also don’t have to look at a map of any kind to know that if your Mukilteo origin is all that far up the hill and your Seattle destination is almost anywhere but Pioneer Square you lose the majority of your time savings from Sounder to backtracking. The Mukilteo and Edmonds stations are a backtrack for almost everyone except ferry passengers.

        But none of the specifics are super important. Look at the big picture. Mukilteo is a small town built on a steep hillside. How much do we weigh the specific time savings for a small number of Mukilteo-southern downtown commuters traveling at a limited time of day (i.e. the only people that do much better now than they would with a Lynnwood transfer) against the real, permanent, all-day damage these ultra-long extensions do to service in the parts of the system people will actually use most?

      4. So why can’t we just create 24/7 HOV 3+ lanes both directions on I-5? It’s been this way on SR520 for decades and although some people complain occasionally I think it works quite well. The cost would be minimal (paint + signs), and according to google the current congestion adds 20ish minutes to the trip

      5. The other problem is the fact that I think the HOV lanes are directional? I was always doing this reverse peak, so the peak direction traffic going the other way was moving fine but the non-peak direction (the stuff I always managed to get stuck in on the buses) wasn’t.

      6. @Stepher: 520 has problems around 405, where the outside HOV lanes disappear into interchange congestion… on 520 we mostly just need to move those lanes to the inside, which probably reduces SOV capacity. On I-5 there are major exits on the inside, too, so it’s not so easy.

        One proposal by Alexsandra Culver made the front page of STB a bit ago; read the thread if you’re interested in some of the technical challenges, to say nothing of the politics.

        I’ve actually been on a bus stuck in traffic on I-5 between Lynnwood and Everett, but I don’t know whether there’s some particular bottleneck or just the problem 405 has, that there’s a lot of HOV-2 traffic, especially around a few interchanges. Or maybe I was there during a construction project disrupting the HOV lanes or something. In any case the freeway mostly isn’t as constrained as it is near Seattle; it’s probably easier to fix any chronic HOV problems between Lynnwood and Everett than to fix the chronic HOV problems around Bellevue.

      7. @Glenn: North of Northgate HOV lanes are bi-directional. Between Northgate and I-5 there are directional express lanes, and the HOV lanes live there, so they are directional. They’re also insufficient during forward-peak hours for the volume of HOV-2 traffic. And I think they get messed up at some interchanges, too, but I don’t know about that in any detail.

        When I commuted to Snohomish County I was going reverse-peak, and then the bus didn’t suffer much from congestion until Northgate, southbound, and rarely hit significant delays northbound north of the ship canal. The Ash Way P&R direct access ramps are half-unfinished, so southbound buses have to go all the way right to make that exit. The 145th Street freeway station is all the way on the right, too, and that can be a source of delay when the freeway is congested. Otherwise it’s mostly reliable. Going north in the morning I had a transfer in Lynnwood with an 8-minute window, and I missed it maybe once every two or three months. Again, I have to emphasize this, you happened to experience some severely outlying traffic events here, and should be careful making general conclusions based on them.

  3. I would point out that much of the cost of Sounder North is in the permanent easements to operate on the rail line. Even if service was cut, those easements continue.

    1. Right.

      But the Third Quarter 2014 Sound Transit ridership report says ST Express Bus for that quarter is $6.22, versus $11.32 per Sounder North & Sounder South rider – likely without the easements.

      1. The obvious way to reduce the per-rider cost is to increase the number of riders.

        And the easements are a sunk cost. The costs cited are just operating costs; train crew, fuel and maintenance. North Sounder crew costs are high because it doesn’t have any reverse-peak trips. I don’t know; maybe they can do the four trips with two crews, but then the crew would need to be shuttled up to Everett for their second morning run. On South Sounder, two of the crews do three one-way trips in each peak period.

      2. The obvious way to decrease cost per rider is to increase riders… and Edmonds and Mukilteo have limited drivesheds, to say nothing of their walksheds. A high capital-investment service doesn’t make a ton of sense there.

      3. aaaaaaaaaaawwwwwwwwwwwwww, of course I know, “The obvious way to reduce the per-rider cost is to increase the number of riders.”

        Yeah sure. Market the service, make the service at least 95% reliable and as safe as can be.

        But at some point, with Link going up there, where do we say a service lacks sufficient operating cost & slide prevention cost Return On Investment/ROI? When aw?

      4. Link going up there? As in within 15 miles of “there”? It’s nearly as far from Lynnwood to Everett as it is from Lynnwood to Seattle so I don’t know where you think “there” is but I bet it’s further than you thought. Not only will link not cover ANY of Sounders stops (or the ferries) but it won’t get within 13 miles of where the Sounder goes. So “there” must be half way there.

      5. Grant, buses can feed to/from Link. That’s the idea. There is the cities themselves – we don’t need coastal heavy rail that violates at least one RCW – namely the one requiring rail costs to equal bus costs – to do that.

        We have limited resources to serve as many people as possible. Luxury services – e.g. Passenger-Only Fast Ferry, heavy rail – should be shouldered by the free market. There are good reasons why there is no government airline….

    2. Do you mean to say that it’s impossible to sell these easements? From what I’ve read there’s a lot of people that want to send more trains on this corridor (coal and such), presumably these easements would be in high demand, and possibly have even appreciated in value?

      1. The only crews qualified to run trains there are employed by BNSF and Amtrak. BNSF owns the freight yard and the track going north to the refinery at Anacortes and the Canadian border. So, these time slots have no value to anyone other than BNSF as they are the only ones that can go anywhere else with the traffic.

        You might be able to arrange some trading so that WashDOT could send a couple more Cascades trains to Bellingham or something.

      2. I think selling the easements is something that should be considered. Especially if it’d help pay for the Paine Field diversion that Everett, Mukilteo and Boeing all want.

      3. Amtrak and WSDOT would like the easements, but Amtrak never has any money and WSDOT is not currently spending much of anything on the rail program, so it’s not like they’d be able to pay much for ’em

  4. For awhile a few years ago, for any off-peak service to or from Seattle, I had to first ride CT local service to Lynnwood Park and Ride. For years before that, I was able to ride CT express buses- some before Lynnwood P&R existed.

    There’s absolutely no comparison. Even the CT express buses could sometimes take almost half an hour to reach the freeway- often to be stuck in traffic there.

    To me, the only decent service to and from Seattle for both residents of the two coast cities, and ferry passengers on two separate runs, is along the shoreline on trains. For that, whatever measures are necessary to secure the track south of Mukilteo are justified. Not only for service now, but especially for ferry traffic in the future.


    1. I agree with Mark here. The I-5 corridor is only going to become more congested, and the residents along the shoreline and across the sound via the ferry terminals will only have greater incentives to utilize this rail corridor in the future. It isn’t a perfect corridor, but there aren’t really a lot of other options either.

      On Whidbey Island, where I currently reside, one of the greatest deterrents to utilizing Sounder North for folks over here is the fact that there are only early morning commuter runs in one direction. People constantly say they would rather take the train for non-commute trips into the city if the service from Mukilteo were there. The ferry toll for vehicles and the free all-day Island Transit service already creates a financial incentive for walking on the ferry and taking transit from the Mukilteo hub. I realize Island County is outside the ST district, but there is a sizable population other than just in Mukilteo that should not be counted out when considering the future of Sounder North.

      Future non-commuter train service could also cater to a percentage of the substantial number of summer tourists that clog the Mukilteo-Clinton ferry in the summer.

      1. Benjamin;

        I thought about moving out to Coupeville as a proud supporter of OLF Coupeville. Problem to me is your Island Transit doesn’t have weekend service and it’d be at least 100 minutes one-way from OLF vicinity to work. With only an Airporter shuttle to get me around on Saturdays & Sundays to the ferry, to a supermarket or back to Skagit. So I had to give up on my dream….

        That said, I hope you keep commenting, heck knows the Sounder North saga is far from over!! We need to hear from Whidbey Islanders!!

    2. Mark;

      I hold the view we need a safe service where we’re not one Sounder North run away from a mass casualty event due to a slide. Also we need a good Return On Investment here.

      I get we need desperately high capacity transit north of Seattle.

      1. If you’re primarily worried about safety, you need a plan for Cascades as well. Talk to WSDOT.

    3. It’s a 45 minute ride on the 113 just to get from the Mukilteo Ferry to Lynnwood Transit Center where you can catch a commuter if you go outside of the 413’s hours. Even on the 413 it’s 1:17 minutes IF your ferry lines up with it.

      For people who think that Mukilteo is close to Lynnwood Transit Center…

    1. I don’t think it’s a bad system. I wonder just how good the USGS data is, considering the BNSF urging homeowners along the top of the hill to change their drew age habits. It means to get an accurate idea of the slope being saturated they would have to know just how the drainage is routed at the top of the hill.

      I’m not especially worried about the slope failing on a scale of the Oso slide.

      It would take a pretty big slide to push something into the water where it would be deep enough to be a mass casualty event. This slope doesn’t seem to be prone to that type of massive slide.

      However, I am concerned about the oil trains. It has been seen a number of times so far that it takes only a fairly minor derailment to make one blow up.

      I would feel a lot better if the protocol kept oil trains out of the area when passenger trains might be on an adjacent track.

  5. Given how congested I-5 is (and consequently slowing bus service to and from Seattle), it is probably best in the interim to keep Sounder North until light rail is extended to Everett -or at least close to it. Bus service feeders can funnel riders who otherwise would use Sounder North to the (extended) light rail spine, thereby making Sounder North redundant and easier to mothball.

    1. John;
      So in your view we should ignore the horrible ROI stats and the (granted reduced) slide risk?

      1. Not at all -of course we should make Sounder North as safe as possible in the interim until commuters have a viable transit alternative.

        Nothing I said precluded that.

      2. Sounder from Mukiilteo to Seattle – 48 minutes.
        417 from Mukilteo to Seattle – 1:17 minutes

        If there’s a mudslide then people will spend an extra half hour on a bus for a day or two. Otherwise they get to the city on a much more comfortable ride and quicker too. It’s easy for someone to sit and look at numbers on a paper to decide if other people’s quality of life is worth it.

      3. Considering I have used Sounder North (that photo you browsed by is mine from last fall), it’s more than just “numbers on a paper” to me pal.

        My two concerns are safety (which is being worked on) and ROI (which you don’t care about). Sure, blow off ROI pal… do so at your own risk. I’m all for a business plan to turn the status quo around however.

  6. What happened to the Idea of building another Sounder Station in Downtown Seattle? I feel like a new station just north of the tunnel on the water front, used by Sounder North and a few Sounder South trips would be very beneficial for both Sounder services (North and South). Yes, I know it won’t be cheap.

    1. Why (and how) would having two Sounder stations in downtown Seattle in close proximity to each other be beneficial? What’s wrong with King Street Station?

      1. It’s a 26 minute walk to where he’s talking about from King Street Station. I’m not sure I’d call that close proximity. A stop there could service the Pike Place/Westlake, Seattle Center and Denny triangle all within 15 minutes.

      2. Grant, some of us support a 2nd stop for Sounder North in downtown Seattle.

  7. A few corrections need to be made….

    1) First of all Joe “AvgeekJoe” Konzlar, you continuously bring up fear-mongering that hundreds of people are going to die and frankly I am quite tired of it. We (railroad employees) know of the danger of the hillside and between BNSF, State of Washington, along with Amtrak, Sound Transit and community leaders, continue to do their best to reduce/prevent slides from occurring. Between track inspections, installing additional slide fences, adding more vegetation that absorbs more water than currently on the at-risk hillsides are just some of the steps taken any injury of any life. Period. The steps Sound Transit is taking are steps that go even beyond what is required by BNSF and the FRA.

    2) Even if Sounder North was canceled, the sunk costs, easement rights would continue onward for another 40+ years. Investing in the route is more productive.

    3) If the Downtown Seattle association would approve of the station on the Waterfront, between Bell Street and Wall Street, it would dramatically improve service by giving a reduced walking commute into the business core.

    4) Ridership is hamstrung by several items which is very well known to Sound Transit, Community Transit, and WSF. They themselves have made the decision not to improve the situation to increase the ridership on the route.

    5) The overall cost of Sounder North has nothing to do with running reverse commute trains or not. I have no idea where anyone would even gather that idea from. It makes no difference at all if there was a reverse commute or not, the employees get the same amount of money regardless unless we go into overtime. The lack of parking solutions that would entice more passengers onto the trains is the issue. Why do you think Sound Transit is expanding parking in Sumner and Puyallup? To continue gaining ridership. The same thing needs to happen for Edmonds/Kingston and Mukilteo/Clinton.

    6) CT has done nothing to match Sounder’s schedule. None, and for good reason. They do not want to cut off their bread and butter. Until this happens, the route will continue to suffer.

    So how does some one really fix Sounder North?

    1 – Fix the bus connections so they meet the train in both directions.

    2a – Add parking to Kingston and Clinton. This saves them time and money by walking onto the ferry and taking the train, making the choice easier to make. Say what you will but the solution, despite the cost of the structure, pays off by increased ridership. It is shown at every single location that a P&R has been constructed and expanded again, despite the hate that STB has against P&R type facilities.

    2b – Add parking to Edmonds and Mukilteo. The lack of parking (again say what you will…) is obviously keeping it tied. Adding even 100 spots to both stations will make a huge impact along with the integrated transit solutions.

    3 – Build a SIMPLE station between Bell St and Wall St. This gives users a walk time between the station and Downtown Seattle’s core to 10-15 minutes, depending on the walking speed of the person. With the already available pedestrian bridge and elevator, adding a second elevator would be simple and overall cost effective. This also gives people closer access to South Lake Union either by walking or the City Center Connector Streetcar.

    4) Modify the schedule somewhat to accommodate peoples schedule.

    I fully believe those items would fix most of the issues that route suffers.

    1. Hey Brian;

      #1. I am so happy and “Angry Doug Baldwin” at the same time Brian you are “tired” of me raising safety issues and call my researched work “fear mongering”. Apparently, I’m doing my job afflicting Corporate America with hard truths and I appreciate that.

      But that would be a bit of a lie. You can also say you’re “tired” of King County Exec Dow Constantine “fear mongering” too. Ditto the mainstream media – and we’ve seen the same story time & again: Corporate America says ‘move along, nothing to see here’ and then one day those in the media cowed let a major tragedy happen because the press gallery blew off or obeyed instructions to ignore the warning horns. All it would take is one slide….

      That said: Nobody wants a slide or a tragedy. I’m certainly not accusing you of that, I’m not accusing BNSF of that, I’m not accusing Sound Transit of that. I just think we need to be proactive and I’m happy Sound Transit is being proactive. Perhaps because Exec Constantine and I (for starters) have made a buzz about this safety issue so we can enjoy mass transit & Amtrak Cascades and all the cargo benefits rail provides.

      #2. I think discussing selling the easement back is a conversation worth having. It might be a win-win outcome for BNSF & Sound Transit.

      #3. Absolute agreement. One more station in Downtown Seattle would be an improvement worth having.

      #4. I’ll respond in agreement per below.

      #5. I agree totally more parking is necessary. Folks here need to quit whining about park & rides – they work. Also Community “Transit First” Transit needs to do a more professional, less hip job marketing their services… and serve Paine Field.

      #6. A serious allegation, re: Community Transit’s schedule. That said: I, for one, don’t like having to stand 20 minutes last fall waiting for a train back home. No real-time ETA data, no attendant, no public restroom.

      I share your views totally as a sound business plan to fix Sounder North – provided the slopes are stabilized and remain stable after the fixes. I think it’s time the rest of Sound Transit told us in the North – and I’m a northern area guy – to either get a business plan to execute & then execute the business plan to fix Sounder North’s ridership issues or forfeit. The sold easements could go towards paying for light rail to Everett via Paine Field.

      I “get it” what the Seattle folks are saying to me. It must be frustrating to know Seattle needs more than one light rail trunk line – but also light rail service to Ballard, Boeing Field & West Seattle – but have to wait for Everett, Paine Field & Tacoma to get their piece of the spine. We need to respect the limitations of fixed resources.

      Initial wrinkles aside, I’m happy we’re having this conversation. I just hope I’m furthering it.

    2. Brian, Re: 5, I don’t know that running reverse commute trips would reduce costs. It’s likely that the ridership would be very low on those trips. But if the crew is running a train in service that costs the same in crew time as if they were sitting in a van on I-5. In addition, it could reduce capital requirements by freeing up trainsets that could be used on South Sounder.

      Maybe ST should examine other operational changes as welll. Perhaps there could be through-running trains that went from Everrett to Tacoma then turned around to serve a shoulder of peak run. Once again, a more efficient utilization of trainsets.

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