Sound Transit EMD F59PHI

For years, doubters have said that Sounder to Olympia is impossible, or prohibitively expensive. Recently a News Tribune article reported Senator Sam Hunt as saying it would be “eons away.” None of these objections are necessarily true.

Extending Sounder to Olympia is far easier than some many think, as they don’t realize that the Capital Division branch line from East Olympia into Downtown Olympia runs within walking distance to the Capitol. The former Lacey branch line (now Woodland Trail) that would have been the preferred route and served a far greater potential for ridership was ripped out nearly 10 years ago. To rebuild the Lacey branch line would be nearly cost prohibitive considering the bridge over I-5 would need to be rebuilt, and many homes on some parts of the former right of way would have to be condemned.

The Capital Division is a branch line that serves Olympia and the Port of Olympia with roughly 10 miles of total track. Tacoma Rail leases this route from Union Pacific on a long-term agreement and UP has hinted at selling this branch line. Sounder would use 7 miles of this line between East Olympia and Downtown Olympia.


The most appropriate location I have found for a station is located between 8th Ave SE and Union Ave SE, circled above, which will provide a nearly flat walk from the station to nearly all of the Capitol buildings in 10 to 15 minutes. It is long enough between the crossings to allow an 8-car Sounder train without blocking the crossings.

The bulk of the cost would be upgrading the rail line of roughly 7 miles, including adding a storage and servicing yard in Olympia along with the installation of CTC signal and Positive Train Control (PTC). While this route would most likely be limited to 60mph, the travel time would still be less than 15 minutes.

Using a rough cost estimate, this segment would cost around $75-90 million for a simple platform, 1% art included and all necessary upgrades to Class 4 standard track.

As far as the rest of the line, it is 10 miles from East Olympia to Nisqually Junction where passenger trains will branch off via the Lakewood Subdivision, devoid of most freight trains. Improvements on the route could include a second platform at Centennial Station along with a new pedestrian overpass would add flexibility to dispatchers over the current single platform setup, minimizing delays. The upgrades on the BNSF line should be minimal, only adding a new crossover at East Olympia.

Olympia Rail-01

As many people know, the upgrades on the Lakewood Subdivision will be completed in 2017, which finishes the upgrades from Lakewood Station/Bridgeport Way to Nisqually Junction. This gives Sound Transit an excellent opportunity to add a station at Dupont P&R, which is right next to the Lakewood Subdivision. With this station stop, travel time from Lakewood to Downtown Olympia could be under 40 minutes, making it possible to travel from Downtown Seattle to Downtown Olympia in under 2 hours.

The most difficult segment of all of this would be negotiating track easement/time slots for the trains, which will drive up the cost and control how many trains reach Olympia. With 13 trains soon to be running between Seattle and Tacoma/Lakewood, how many realistically could continue South? Taking numbers from prior projects, I would estimate $150 to $300 million for the entire project, assuming 5 trains went all the way to Olympia.

The costs would be the following:

  • Purchase of the East Olympia branch line from Union Pacific
  • Additional equipment (passenger cars and locomotives)
  • Upgrade the line to Class 4 track and installation of CTC signal system and Positive Train Control
  • Construction of new stations at Downtown Olympia and Dupont
  • Construction of a second platform, pedestrian overpass with stairs and elevators at Centennial Station.
  • Track easement/time slot for 5 trains for 10 miles.

With all of this information, all that stands in the way is adding Thurston County to Sound Transit and funding the above. It can be done far sooner than most believe, and it makes sense to do it. Not just for Sounder, but for the added Express bus service as well.

Former STB staffer Brian Bundridge is a locomotive engineer for BNSF Railway. The views expressed are solely his own and does not reflect the views of BNSF Railway managers, supervisors, or executives.

93 Replies to “Sounder to Olympia is Not Out of Reach”

  1. What about another stop in Tumwater? Looking at google maps it appears to be vaguely built up, although I’ve never been there myself so I can’t speak to the actual environment.

    1. I’m not familiar with that area either, but looking at aerial photos, it looks like the track is a ways away from the built up part of Tumwater with a golf course in the way. It probably wouldn’t be worthwhile to put a stop there.

      1. The river valley is mostly park land, golf course, or industrial land all the way through the built up part of Tumwater.

        There really is no good spot for a station between downtown Olympia and Centennial station.

      2. I think Tumwater is another of those places where not many riders are going to live near the station anyway. If it’s largely catering to the Park-and-Ride crowd, then there’s not a penalty to not having it downtown. Maybe it’s even better that way.

        But then you have to factor in the cost of adding a lot of parking.

      3. The best spot for a station isn’t that far from downtown Olympia. On the other side of the coin putting in a lot of parking and finding room for storage tracks in Downtown Olympia might be difficult.

        At this point I say extend Sounder to DuPont and then study the best way to serve Thurston County. To some extent that depends on what Thurston County is willing to pay for. However as much as I would love to see Sounder all the way to Olympia I suspect the cost/benefit really won’t pencil out, especially compared to express bus service.

  2. This really needs to happen. But while I would prefer that this project is done professionally… meaning dedicated track for the Sounder train alone, rebuilt for higher speeds and new large train stations rebuilt along the line… I know that this will not be done until trains begin service between Seattle and Olympia regularly.

    I envision 24/7 Sounder service with only a couple of runs overnight, but hourly service from dawn until dusk every day of the week. I also see the potential for Sounder trains to Bellingham, and another line from Tacoma station to Bremerton, Silverdale, Poulsbo, Port Townsend (south), Sequim and Port Angeles. The most important line, however, is to Eastern Washington. We need a new train called the “Columbia” that crosses the Cascades and stops at beautifully rebuilt stations in Ellensburg, Yakima, the Win Country (Prosser), Tri-Cities and Walla Walla.

    There is so much to do, just not fast enough unfortunately. Olympia is the very start.

      1. I think Andrew would have promoted urban freeways in their time as well. We don’t want to make these far run places extraordinarily easy to commute to and from – unless we desire endless, soul less, suburban nonsense.

      2. [And my criticism was gently plaintive this time. I merely pointed out that his writing sounded like a satire of a railfan with a tenuous grasp of reality, and that it should give you pause if your earnest “envisionings” could be so easily mistaken for satire. I was trying to refute the insanity creatively, and I didn’t even use vulgarity in doing so! Nothing abusive about it.]

    1. Yes, the most important line is to eastern Washington, because there are a ton of people who commute to Seattle from Walla Walla and Yakima, it’s jamming up I-90 like crazy.

      Commuters to Seattle from Bellingham are finding it difficult to find time to sleep, forcing them to combine their bedtime with their daily commute, creating problems. The only solution obviously is to extend Sounder North to Bellingham.

      West of the Narrows, let’s build another Tacoma Narrows bridge exclusively for Sounder trains.

      Alas, no mention of Federal Way, where I live. It would be a good place for Sounder service in comparison to all of these amazing and wonderful road trip destinations given the higher volume of commuters and lower cost of construction.

      But it is after all more important to get workers from Bremerton back to their homes in Sequim late enough to cover their 1am night shift.

      But seriously, where’s the love for Spokane and Portland?

      1. I have found it as quick to take Sounder to Auburn and then a bus to Federal Way Transit Center than to take the bus from Seattle to Federal Way.

      2. Alex, do you know that since very recently time-wise, the distance the average person had ever been from home was same as a horse could pull a wagon?

        Of course it would not be reasonable to extend Sounder to Moses Lake right now. Of which there’s no danger, because time it would take to plan it have construction start ten years behind when demand indicates it’s time to build it.

        This is major difference between general outlook now and up through the 1960’s, especially among young people.

        Probably the worst damage done by the Cold War, and the Vietnam one, was that overnight, the future went from being a time when all our problems would be solved, but one where everything would unavoidably be worse.

        Or at least constricted to present size and capabilities. Olympia-and Moses Lake- are gaining population. But the sooner we begin planning for good public transit even farther away, the better our chance of making the result better than now.

        Brad Pitt should have retired after his great line in “Burn After Reading: “Huh huh huh huh…You think a Schwinn is a bicycle?” At worst, future will be a lot better than a World War against Olympic track zombies that can’t see sick people.


  3. I bet BNSF would want to see another track added from Nisqually Jct to the junction with the UP Capitol Division, including a new bridge over the Nisqually River. Not a bad idea in the overall scheme of things, but pricey. That would be something WSDOT should contribute to for the Cascades.

    1. The Cascades Long Range plan does include a third main track between Nisqually and Hanaford. They put the price at $512M back in 2006. That would blow up Brian’s budget considerably, even if ST only contributed to the portion between the junctions.

      1. That’s a pretty long section of line with a fair number of bridges, including one over the Nisqually river. Capitol Division junction to Nisqually junction still makes for an expensive new bridge.

  4. Sounder trains are quite large and are justified between Seattle and Tacoma. I think this would be better done with something lighter weight between Tacoma and Olympia. DuPont to Tacoma, if it could be brought down cheap enough the current bus operations through there really would be better with a train, because the bus fights traffic at every traffic light getting to and from I-5.

    This is probably going to be a huge fight, but New Jersey Transit operates a version of the Stadler GTW essentially as a diesel light rail train. The line is freight at times and separated from light rail by temporal separation (freight and light rail is not allowed on the line at the same time).

    Therefore, it seems to me that something similar to that should be examined here. It’s going to be a huge fight because railroad labor unions are already fighting to maintain two person crews on freight trains and implementing one person crews on a passenger service on the main line isn’t going to be popular at all. In my opinion there are times when two (and even three) person crews are justified, but an operation similar to light rail isn’t one of those cases.

    Siemens, Alstom and a few other European car builders spend a bunch of money showing that the UIC collision standard used in Europe really isn’t exceptionally different in the ultimate results than the FRA standard. The FRA has in recent years been willing to consider alternates to their own collision standards. Therefore, there may be an opening to allow light weight DMU operating for this type of service. However, making the service cost competitive with a bus will be difficult if one person train operation is not allowed.

      1. Traditionally, that’s been one of the things they do. ‘Course, they used to stand by the door, and holler “Booo–ard!” (“All aboard!” before swinging aboard.

        Really miss it. Hate those “The doors are closing, the doors are closing” automatic messages on Sounder. Almost as much as repeated “Report suspicious (whatever it is), and worst of all “Don’t put your feet on the seats or lie down”.

        Which make me suddenly sleepy by suggestion no matter how much espresso I drank at Zeitgeist a block from the station. However- message doesn’t say anything about putting a camping mattress up on the overhead rack…creating instant Pullman sleeper service from Seattle to Olympia.

        Also, all the old railroad folk songs were generally about one thing: A train always called “Old…” did what trains often did before modern brakes. And radio communications instead of paper “train orders” to be sure “Old (whatever) didn’t get onto same single track as “Old (something else.)

        Which could be problem from Lakewood to the Duwamish.
        Not common “Come around a hill” and had one’s “brave heart stand still” over an oncoming headlight, is it Brian?

        Also doubt anybody at Sounder controls ever turns to his firemen and says: “I’m gonna put Old 1507 into Lakwood on her schedule or I’ll sink her in the bottom pit of Hell!” Well-better than have engineer’s last word be “Issue!”


      2. Brian, I’m not sure if my last comment got through or not- my “set” has trouble with these screens. But even if it repeats its message, I can’t apologize enough for above remarks on some operating aspects of railroading. I wish these screens allowed ripping things up and burning them.

        Having driven 100+ loads of passengers, I should know better than to write like certain folk-song subjects are funny. Nobody thought so at the time these songs were written. Coffee-house musicians generally avoid singing about airliner crashes.

        On September 19, the air brakes on Southern Mail Train Number 97 failed on the steep grade coming down to Danville, Virginia. The train derailed coming onto a high wooden trestle, and shattered to splinters in the river below. I don’t think the accident report said “Old”.

        Engineer Steve Brody and ten other people were killed. Train 97 was officially called “The Fast Mail”. No joke in those days, and very significant here. Before planes, overland US mail went by rail. And Federal contracts held steep cash penalties for every minute a train arrived late.

        So an engineer faced a lot of pressure for speed- both from his company and his own professional pride. And his machinery was extremely dangerous.

        19th and early 20th century passenger cars were made of wood. And heated with coal- or wood-burning stoves. So for passengers, train wrecks were absolutely like jetliner crashes now.

        Also, a smashed locomotive boiler was instantly an incendiary bomb of live steam- not the fluffy kind, but a deadly blazing-hot gas. Jet pilot, locomotive engineer- equivalent crash, same fate.

        On single track- very common- with no automatic switching controls, “switchmen” had to throw switches by hand. On minimal communications.

        “Train orders” specified arrival time and which train was to hold. But what if plans or conditions changed? “Asleep at the switch” didn’t mean a missed investment opportunity. “A headlight shining in his eyes” was often the last thing an engineer saw in his life.

        Everything safe and reliable about rail travel now was learned at the cost of a couple of centuries of trainmen being killed. And every safe arrival now- at Lakewood and anywhere else-depends on working people doing their jobs right and cooperating, in the face of conditions a long way from bus driving.

        The thing I hate worst about terms like “issues” is that they imply that passengers are better off not knowing critical facts about the service they’re paying for, and on which their lives depend.

        Often meaning unfair criticism of trainmen, and failure as citizens to demand from politicians and management the conditions these workers deserve. So most abject apologies, Brian. Thanks to people like you, arriving at Lakewood on time doesn’t cost anybody’s life.

        Mark Dublin

    1. The BNSF track between Nisqually Junction and East Olympia is very heavily used. Time separation isn’t an option for this stretch. Then there is the crew issue. For right now I think anything other than locomotive hauled commuter rail coaches is unlikely to pass muster. Though to be fair by the time service to Olympia would start some lighter alternative might be an option.

    2. Some good points about buses, Glenn. ST Express-talk about false advertising- takes a full hour between Olympia Transit Center and Lakewood Station.

      4:42AM out of Olympia meets 5:46 Sounder to Seattle. Running time that says it all about speed. 25 miles in one hour.

      Up to fifteen or twenty minutes are wasted by a diversion of about a mile each way to Hawk Ridge Transit Center on the Olympia side of the Nisqually River, and a similar loop through Dupont on the other side of the river.

      Earliest schedule, leaving Olympia at 4:42 AM- which safely meets 5: have never seen passenger 1 at either P&R. Or more than three cars a half mile off for every single red light bus has to hold at.

      Especially infuriating is that from what I can see, both P&R’s- especially at Dupont- are close enough to I-5 that bus-only ramps shouldn’t be monumental cost. Reserved lanes (preferably not HOV) on I-5 wouldn’t hurt either.

      Worse disgrace, incidentally, is that 592 takes 2 hours to get into Seattle terminal- bypassing Tacoma completely. Not very “Express.”

      From what I can see, ramps and straight through schedule- missing all Park and Rides- along with signal pre-empt out of Downtown Olympia-would do a lot until rail eventually comes in.

      On Jefferson Street rail right of way- which incidentally also runs a block or two from the transit center as well the brewery- paving street between the freight tracks would cut the present ten minute ride to I-5 to one.

      Worst reservation about your plan, Brian, is the 40-minute schedule time between Olympia and Lakewood- too close to buses with priority treatment above.

      However- one excellent advantage for all trains is the railroad’s own bridge across the Nisqually- where a crash just at the river has been known to block I-5 traffic for a whole day. (I-5 traffic is bad enough already. By 6AM, I-5 is a carpet of red tail-lights from the SR 101 merge all the way to Tacoma.)

      Your expertise here, Brian: would a locomotive- or a diesel motor unit car- pull the I-5 grade from the river to Marvin road? Because it’s tempting to follow I-5 across the river on its own where existing line swings left.

      Only fast right of way into Olympia. I wouldn’t worry about Amtrak station. By my odometer, it’s an eight mile drive into Olympia. Which an IT bus could run in about fifteen minutes, assuming no stops. One express bus per train shouldn’t be as big a deal as it is now.

      Your call, Brian. What do you think?

      Mark Dublin

    3. Can “Sprinters” share trackage with conventional passenger trains? If not, then they can’t use the Bypass.

      I expect that the buffing load from the Starlight running running into another train at 69 is pretty intense. For the other train I mean.

      1. It really depends on what the FRA does. They’ve indicated they are more willing to allow equipment meeting European crash standards to share track with equipment built to US standards. However I’m not aware of any waivers granted for anything other than strict time separation so far.

    1. Only on condition of joint station with Olympia Coffee Roasting, which in addition to the world’s best espresso, is building a new cafe onto its roasting facility at Cherry and Fourth, two minute walk from the Brewery.


  5. There is the option of doing this incrementally. Extend Sounder to DuPont when the tracks between there and Lakewood are upgraded and a station is built. Extend to Centennial once slots are purchased from BNSF and Centennial station is upgraded. Extend to Downtown Olympia once the Capitol sub is purchased, upgraded, and a station built.

    1. In the spirit of incrementalism, it’s worth noting that any distant future reconstruction of the St. Clair Branch (Woodland Trail) would be able to continue using the same downtown Olympia station.

      The route could also be extended along existing track to the far side of Capitol Lake, perhaps to S. Puget Sound Community College at US 101.

      The first step, however, would be track and station work for the basic Olympia service pattern suggested by Brian. A DuPont station should be considered a fully independent project.

      1. I doubt we will see the St. Clair sub restored. Lacey Boulevard is in the old ROW and a new trestle would have to be constructed to access downtown Olympia in addition to the I-5 bridge.

  6. I’m ready to buy a ticket to Olympia right now. It has always surprised me how hard it is to get to Olympia from Seattle, other than by car, and that is getting harder as traffic gets heavier.

  7. A reliable rail link to Olympia from the north and the south would be wonderful especially since Olympia is the state capitol. Bnsf should be hauling food, people, and not oil freight. Too bad the state can’t exercise emanent domain over rail lines. I’d like to more regional passenger rail in a State funded Transportation package.

    1. The state can exercise eminent domain over rail lines for rail purposes, sometimes. It has shown no interest in doing so. Remember, the state would still have to pay full price for the line, and BNSF’s mainline is obviously very valuable!

      1. The main line to Long Beach, Calif. is far more valuable. They were willing to sell part of their lines down there into Metrolink control.

      2. Glenn,

        The San Bernardino sub has never been used for much freight west of La Verne where the Metrolink line breaks off to the south. BNSF kept a perpetual freight easement on the line between there and San Bernardino, so it was able to off-load track maintenance and get double tracking and signal improvements. Selling was a no-brainer.

        The “Transcon” is the line through Riverside and Fullerton fully two- and even three-main-track throughout. While they let Metrolink trains run on it, it still very much belongs to BNSF. It is not for sale and I doubt it will ever be for sale.

        Metrolink is paying for a third track where one didn’t already exist between the flying junction at the Los Angeles River and Fullerton, but that track will also belong to BNSF. It will be prioritized for passenger service, but certainly no embargoed from freight movements.

  8. Has anyone come across a picture of the old Lacey line bridge that would have crossed I-5? I’d love to see one, but I can’t seem to find one on the interwebs. Thanks.

    1. It is extremely hard for me to envision where this bridge would have been. There is a substantial elevation difference between where the trail ends and where this line would have joined the UP line, which makes me think that at some point the trail follows one of the other old right of ways through there.

      I-5 construction and expansion in the very early 1980s really wiped out a lot of stuff through there. I remember seeing photos of a line that I think was right in that area right next to I-5, but I-5 was only two lanes in each direction then. If this is the same location, the line would have had to have been torn apart to make the current 10 lane wide tangle.

      1. It can be helpful to pull up a parcel map of the area to really see where the line used to go. The line formerly crossed I-5 starting where the Woodland Trail ends and stayed elevated through the recycling center, went over Henderson Blvd and the UP line, and then cut through in the green space between those two apartment complexes east of Chestnut St. It would then have continued north across Union Ave parallel to the UP line (through what is now a parking lot) before joining the UP line around 8th Ave.

  9. Ridership in Lakewood and South Tacoma is terrible, and there’s nothing to tell me that extending Sounder to Dupont and Olympia — in the traditional, peak-oriented sense of a locomotive-hauled commuter train — would fare any better. The only reason to run trains to Oly is for intercity/interurban service or intercounty needs wholly within Pierce and Thurston counties.

    Imagine instead a rebuilt St Clair subdivision that confers enormous operational advantages. If you ran half-hourly or hourly DMU service between Olympia and Tacoma, it’d be 99% independent of freight movements, and even the small freight interaction at Nisqually could be circumvented with an extra track and a rail flyover onto the Point Defiance Bypass. Then you suddenly could make the Point Defiance Bypass far more useful than just 14 Amtrak trains/day, with a line serving Olympia, Lacey, Dupont, JBLM, Lakewood, South Tacoma, and Tacoma. If building this could substitute for the $1B+ it’d cost to widen I-5 through JBLM, it might even save money by building it. A smart, timed intermodal Sounder transfer (at Lakewood in peak, in Tacoma off-peak) could provide seamless travel for those with longer trips

    1. That said, I suppose I wouldn’t mind someday rebuilding the Capitol Subdivision anyway, but for an intercity DMU line serving Portland-Vancouver-Woodland-Kelso-Centralia-Tumwater-Olympia.

    2. A full 8 car Sounder train operating at peak hours only doesn’t seem like it would be appropriate for Olympia service. A DMU rail shuttle to Lakewood or Tacoma might be a more efficient.

      If Thurston County is going to join ST and move into the “big time” it might be time to address the problems of Centennial Station. The physical station is nice, but its location doesn’t serve Olympia, Lacey or Tumwater very well. There is a population cluster beginning to spring up around Centennial Station, but most of those houses are being built with 3 car garages. Transit service between Centennial and both Lacey or Olympia is very slow it misses many of the early and late trains, so it’s difficult to schedule a trip to Olympia via Amtrak without having a car meet you at the station.

    3. In the very, very long run, the correct thing to do is to rebuild not only the St. Clair subdivision, but also the former Northern Pacific route southwest out of Olympia, making a passenger-exclusive route through Olympia all the way to Centralia. But one thing at a time!

      1. Even if you made the Olympia-Gate trackage 110 class going that way would add a good twenty minutes to the time for a train to transit between Tacoma and Centralia. Add a BRT-Lite service between Evergeen, downtown Olympia, Lacey TC and Centennial and call it good.

  10. Considering Olympia is the state capitol and access to it is problematic at best for transit users, this is something that needs to be campaigned for & done. There are no landslides in the way. Also this route would really increase access to our state government.

    1. Conspicuously absent from this post: a reason to believe demand exists to justify the expense. (Ridership on the 592 would be a starting point here, but doesn’t warrant a mention.) The connection of Seattle to the State Capitol is a thin rod, because the bulk of sounder service supports commuting in the opposite direction. We castigate the Sounder North not just for its frequent service interruptions but for its shamefully large cost per rider subsidy; I’d like some strong re-assurances we wouldn’t be looking at similar figures here before endorsing a plan like this. Adding to the ST area risks decreasing the general support for transit among the relevant voters, creating a greater risk that Seattle voters hungry for more transit and willing to pay for it will be outvoted by rural and suburban voters who, understandably, have other priorities.

      1. Based on Olympia-area freeway’s resemblance to Seattle area’s 100% daily jammed traffic- and to proliferation of housing sprawl surpassing our suburbs’ worst for waste and ugliness-best to act transit-wise like Olympia’s future is now.

        By the time numbers do justify, which they’re approaching with horrible speed, we’ll be just finishing something we’ll be really glad we started now.


      2. Ridership on the 592 is about 950 per weekday, with a slight morning Seattle-bound service bias. The financials are poor; $10.27 per rider subsidy (the highest in the system), and 15.6 passengers per revenue hour (lowest in the system).

        The SIP notes that ridership is inversely related to Sounder departures from Lakewood (a bus that is scheduled near a train departure has fewer riders). So adding stations further south will add some riders who would have boarded in Lakewood anyway.

      3. Based on Olympia-area freeway’s resemblance to Seattle area’s 100% daily jammed traffic- and to proliferation of housing sprawl surpassing our suburbs’ worst for waste and ugliness-best to act transit-wise like Olympia’s future is now.

        But do we have a good reason to believe a significant portion of these cars are going to Seattle? (I’m not being rhetorical here; I’m asking.)


      4. Isn’t the 592 peak only for people commuting *into* Seattle? I think one of the benefits of rail to Olympia is that you’d get a significant reverse commute on trains that need to dead-head back to the south, either way, just to pick up their next run from Lakewood. To measure whether there’s adequate demand for this routing, ST needs to start operating an express bus for reverse commuters from Seattle who work in Olympia. Then you could start to see what the demand would look like.

      5. That’s a ridership potential to be looked at. But Right now the reverse commute is a pretty small part of Sounder with negligible ridership (really just a monetized deadhead). Recall that the legislative session is only 2-3 months a year; I struggle to see the demand volume penciling out to anything that would constitute a real improvement over, say, Sounder North. Happy to be wrong.

      6. Don’t forget about the state agency employees.

        Seattle-Olympia vanpools do exist, and to calculate ridership potentia for the trainl, all one has to do is determine how many of those employees are single, and not hermits.

      7. It’s not that demand for intercity trips between Seattle, Tacoma, and central Olympia doesn’t exist, nor that said demand can’t possibly justify the low-cost creation of a service running at frequencies better than long-distance intercity services, yet less ambitious than closer-in commuter services.

        The problem is that this plan seems to solve no problem. It goes so unarguably far out of the way that, in Brian’s own words, it “travel[s] from Downtown Seattle to Downtown Olympia in under 2 hours”… but just barely.

        That represents zero travel time improvement over the buses Mark complains about. This would be as slow as the non-stop bus in traffic, and as slow as the multi-bus-plus-layover off-peak. Even if the costs could be as low as Brian estimates… why bother?

        If there can ever be a cheap solution for reclaiming the direct route — a very unlikely situation, unfortunately — that is the time for rail. But for now, just fix the bus access: fewer eye-rolling P&R loops, install HOV lanes at Lewis-McChord, etc.

        Even the slightest improvement in the bus options make them faster than this plan can ever be.

      8. In theory, a Sounder extension to Olympia could allow the reverse-commute trains to achieve non-negligible ridership. After all, Olympia is, in fact, not just a mere bedroom community, but the state capitol.

        However, when you dig down deeper, schedule presents significant operational difficulty in running such a train. In order for a reverse-commute train to arrive in Olympia by 9, it would have to leave Seattle before 7, which means it would have to leave Olympia, going the other direction around 4:30 in the morning, if the schedule is going to allow for a reasonable layover in Seattle between runs.

        Effectively, this means that a reverse-commute trip to Olympia could not practically be achieved by simply putting otherwise deadhead trains into service (which is the case with the reverse-direction Sounder schedule today). Instead, operating a schedule that would align with actual demand would require reverse-commute trains to operate with a separate crew and a separate trainset, traveling an additional 60+ miles per trip that would not be happening anyway with a unidirectional schedule. In theory, Seattle could offer to pay for such service, as Olympia would have no reason to want to pay for it. However, I can think of numerous ways to spend north-King sub-area money that would be more effective than this.

        Instead, a better focus would be on getting straight-line shuttle buses operating between Olympia/Lacey Station and downtown Olympia, aligned with the already-running Amtrak trains. The same bus that would benefit Seattle residents going to Olympia would also benefit Olympia residents going to Portland. There is already a Cascades trip leaving King St. Station at 7:30 in the morning, which, with better shuttle connections, could actually allow for a reasonable day at the capitol.

      9. The 592 is really intended for Seattle commuters only. It’s vastly less convenient for getting to Tacoma. This has the potential for higher ridership as it could have a wider assortment of connections at Tacoma.

  11. Oooh. Shiny.

    What’s conspicuously absent is any discussion of why we would want to build this, how many passengers a day would ride it, and what the operating costs would be.

    Also the construction cost estimates sound like pure fantasy to me: that’s less than a two mile extension of Tacoma Link, or the cost of most of ST’s stations. heck you can barely build a footbridge for that.

    1. Sorry to self reply, but my last paragraph is just wrong. Somehow, I got it into my head that the author had the cost around $75million. The high end of his range actually seems fairly believable.

    2. Rather than dismissing it out of hand as if it were just a model airplane toy, let’s start with the mobility need. There’s demonstrated need for two-way transit between Seattle and Olympia, by Mark Dublin, STBers who want to go to the Capitol and fulfill their civic duty, and people I know who live in Olympia and work in Seattle (and not downtown). Last I checked it was two hours each way on STEX+IT, and it may be worse now if IT runs have decreased. Start with peak, and extend it toward the mid-day, so that people can make half-day trips. That will serve the known demand and we’ll see what its ceiling is.

      I’ve also started thinking the 594 should be replaced by a Seattle – Tacoma Dome – Lakewood route, and get off those side roads between Tacoma Dome and Lakewood. Put the savings into more Tacoma Link runs for those going to downtown Tacoma. That would give better “regional” transit.

    3. You do’t have to buy new right of way, which is a huge expense. The typical thing that requires upgrading to make a line like this faster is tie replacement. The DuPont to Tacoma line will already be done in 2017 or so.

      The bad news is that everyone seems to want this stuff overbuilt. The Portland and Western line in Beaverton was legal for 60mph before WES arrived. They spent $100 million in new concrete ties and completely reconditioned the track. WES doesn’t go above 60mph through there today.

      So, if someone decides the line needs to be severely overbuilt like that it will cost more.

      Operating cost will depend on what they operate. Get one of the transit agencies that have an option on the FRA compliant Nipppn-Sharyo DMU, and run something like a DMU – Sounder coach – DMU for the Olympia train, and off peak Sounder service on the rest of the line.

      1. What I say is: build the station now. Build the track lightly now, and prepare the station for future reinstatement of the St. Clair line. Let the station build up some ridership before trying to reinstate the St. Clair line.

      2. DMU-Sounder Coach-DMU is flat out illegal. You cannot do that; the weight of the Sounder coach would exceed the DMU buffing strength.

  12. Dan,

    Right now, most traffic north from Olympia goes to Tacoma, in addition to military bases in between. But at same time, equal volume of traffic goes from Tacoma and Seattle.

    Right now, only direct bus from Olympia to Seattle takes two hours- and only runs one-way service at rush hour. Any other time, through passengers must transfer either in Downtown Tacoma or Tacoma Dome.

    Often, I appreciate the break. Morning-coffee break between Olympia and Tacoma, then Sounder to Seattle. Afternoon or early evening- great Indian restaurant at Tacoma Dome. Unless I’ve got a 7:30 AM doctor’s appointment in Seattle.

    Also-unfortunately- return Tacoma-Olympia evening service risky. After ten to nine, miss the bus and walk thirty miles. So too often driving and parking at Tacoma Dome, where last ST 594 arrives about 1:30AM.

    So fact that most trips likely end different places doesn’t matter. Most transportation picks up and leaves off passengers its whole route. Hardly any carry only through passengers.

    So fact that we’ve got two separate groups of passengers using Tacoma Dome at same time means through service will work just fine-as well as serving separate groups right now. Very likely a through train would be full even now- and need more cars very shortly.

    Especially as Olympia’s population increases. Dupont, which looks absolutely destined to enlarge, was hardly there not very many years ago.


  13. I would think it is possible to have Sounder service into Olympia without actions to broaden the size of the district. Given the benefit to Washington State legislators and others, there could be an argument made that state funding should be used to build the Thurston County portion of the track and stations.

  14. I’ve read studies about transit mode shares and long-distance trip making. They suggest that it’s possible to have about 20% transit mode shares if the distance is at least 75 to 90 minutes. That would be the case here in both directions.

  15. Great, but the further a train has to travel the more likely it’ll get behind on schedule.

    Sounder south bound in the afternoons barely manages to stay on time, which is important for bus connections, not all buses wait for the train, if you miss it, you miss it. Talking to Pierce Transit about this, they understand the issues, but are unable/willing to alter bus schedules to better suit the train or allow a small buffer for the train if its a few minutes late.

    Judging by the amount of people that pour off the sounder at Sumner and Puyallup where I ride to, has anyone looked at the feasibility of Sounder running express trains so those of us towards the end of the line can skip the first few stops (e.g. Tukwila, Kent, Auburn) and get there quicker ? Quicker commute = more riders ?

    On the plus side, I’m impressed with the quality of the train, and its ability to get from King St to Puyallup in around 45 minutes. My total commute time is 1hr 20 minutes, but it worth it for an affordable home in a nice Puyallup neighborhood.

    1. I don’t think anybody doubts that for passenger service to be fast and reliable, the trains need their own track. Sounder is pretty much like a bus frequently stuck in traffic.

      Also, coal, oil, and freight don’t leave track in very good condition for passengers. Sounder ride has some stretches that belong in the Ozarks of the 19th Century.

      Point being, we have to think trains and track with the same brain cell. Seattle to Olympia from Lakewood will probably mean some serious track-laying many other places.

      And c’mon! Weasels can find their way rapidly through anything. I’ve seen them do it.


  16. Rail advisors that I’ve met over the years tell me that it’s important to have a “Plan B” when negotiating with the railroads. Otherwise, the companies realize that they have a monopoly and gouge the public. It’s important to design a Plan B option just to save in negotiation costs!

    The Plan B I would propose would be an exclusive right0=of=way that would not conflict with freight. and be owned by the State. Frankly, I wonder if ST should look at a DMU from Federal Way to Olympia on exclusive ROW. It could even eventually be linked to the East Side rail corridor for a Bellevue -to-Olympia route.

    1. Any abandoned ROW is best used for bike/walking trails,

      Transit is best served by additional highway lanes used by buses (possibly exclusive, but no guarantees).

      1. Whatever time length it takes to plan and build railroads- which we definitely will need for distances far enough for buses to be uncomfortable- we definitely should have bus service, as close in speed and reliability as trains as is possible.

        Which means, best lose the “if possible” and the “no guarantees” in the same sentence as “best service possible.” No effort at all is needed for above description. Just sit on a northbound 512 around Northgate at rush hour and gloat over the perfection.

        Reason I’m stressing need for really good bus service while working on fast rail is experience with Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, especially between Northgate and CPS.

        In the 32 years since DSTT construction started, we should have been able to get the missing rush hour southbound lane across the I-5 bridge and into the tunnel. Their absence has cost us billions in lost operating time.

        But, like many other fixable problems with the Tunnel, worst problem for freeway improvement was upper-level insistence that there was no need for serious immediate mitigation because trains would shortly arrive.

        So in case we can be sure “shortly” means less than two or three decades, passenger good will, meaning riding transit instead of driving cars, depends a lot on blue-and-white speed and style meantime.

        But remember: the limitation of buses is not speed. Good reason for complete impenetrable separation is that buses can run a lot faster than 60mph- Federal highways were built for 70. Current speed limits were for saving fuel after 1970 problem which turned out temporary.

        But since buses can’t be coupled, the faster buses go, the more lane-space they need. Train of buses is like an accordion- which according to Gary Larson, is same instrument for Hell as harps are for Heaven.

        After trains come in, bus lanes can either be kept- not bad for emergency vehicles- or returned to cars. Win-win, like the yuppies say.


      2. Highway lanes for buses are just short of worthless, and also much more expensive than buliding brand new rail lines from scratch. They’re also unpopular! Visit LA some time, see for yourself. The comparison is blatant.

  17. With the current political culture in Olympia and the long completion time of Sound Transit’s capital projects, I would have to side with Sam Hunt’s pessimism regarding the extension of the Sounder. Personally, I believe investment into creating rail into West Seattle and between Kirkland and Renton should come first – not 100’s of millions into a handful of peak commuters in Thurston County.

  18. I honestly think building a second DT Seattle station or extending service from Tukwila to Bellevue is higher on the priority list. A bad tendancy I see in ST (and its supporters) is overenthusiasm over expanding service outwards without reinvesting back inwards. By the same logic, Link to Ballard or a Link Duwamish Bypass should be a higher peiority before extending all the way to Tacoma and Everett.

    1. True, but with subarea equity, hopefully the money from the outlying projects would be coming from outlying areas. I agree that a Broad Street station would be a nice addition to ST3, but that comes down to whether Pierce and South King prefer to put their finite resources toward Sounder or Link. At the end of the day, it should come down to the number of dollars and riders, but we need to do the studies to see what makes sense.

    2. Except, I-5 between Tacoma and Everett is exceptionally crowded, and the railroad through there is already being upgraded, and the bus service really doesn’t serve the area that well. It makes sense to try to use that line upgrade as much as practically possible.

      You could extend Sounder to DuPont, but that makes no sense really since DuPont really isn’t the origin of much traffic at all. To make that work you would really need to have carefully planned connections to buses headed to Olympia, Lacy, and maybe Yelm.

      The current Sounder trains really are too large to make sense for Tacoma to Lakewood, so you wind up with a lightweight train of some sort.

  19. I think if the line is extended to Olympia, express trains that skip some stops like found on other systems will be necessary. A ride from Olympia to Seattle downtown would take forever.

    1. While headways are twenty minutes on the line segments with the highest ridership, this doesn’t make sense. Maybe when there are 6 tph and full trains, a skip-stop pattern could make sense.

      1. Six trains per hour!?!?! Only after you double track and grade separate the UP line between Black River and the main junction in Tacome.

      2. What does the UP line have to do with it? The BNSF line is already double tracked and may be triple tracked in the future. Also, when I said 6 tph, I was thinking just of peak hours and peak direction.

        It will take a lot of new train easements to fill the schedule to that extent. The cost of all those easements can pay for a lot of capital track improvements. If ST buys more train easements in ST3, they’d probably put them into reverse-peak or mid-day service.

      3. How does it not make sense? The headways are irrelevant. The point is to minimize the travel time. Were there a train between Seattle and Olympia that only stopped at Tacoma for example, travel time would be closer to one hour than two.

        If this means building additional tracks alongside the existing tracks in some places so that the express trains could pass the local trains, than so be it.

    2. Could you fill a train with only one intermediate stop? How many potential riders would you be turning away by eliminating those stops? How many new riders would you attract with the express trips?

      I don’t know the answers to those questions and neither do you. My hunch is that it would benefit more riders at less cost to add all locall trains.

      If and when this is built, ST could do some ridership studies and make up their own mind.

  20. If we’re stuck with the long, roundabout Tumwater route (and the state legislature doesn’t somehow intervene to revive the more direct Woodland Trail route), then it isn’t worth trying to connect Sounder to Olympia. We’re better off with trying to find other modes of transit to connect the city core to Sounder.

  21. I wonder if it would make more sense to improve bus connectivity to the Lacey Amtrak station than to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for an unknown amount of ridership. Currently it takes about an hour to get from OLY to the capitol campus eight miles away.

    1. What is the current bus route from Lacey station, anyway? Does it go west along Yelm Highway SE, head up north along Cleveland Avenue SE -across I-5-, before finally entering Capitol grounds along Capitol Way S?

      1. Intercity doesn’t time their busses to the train schedule, although the 64/94 splits their departures nicely, so on average you’ll be left with a 30 minute wait after the train. Given the length of the 94 I don’t know if timing would be an option, but the 64 leaves from OLY so it might be a quick fix. Or maybe Intercity or WSDOT should just pay for five runs a day to/from the Olympia Transit Center just for Amtrak.

      2. Given how the 64 takes twenty minutes longer than the 94, it’d hardly be worth it to time its departures. Though, extra short-turn 94’s would be very nice.

  22. I don’t see why Sounder/South, the successful part of ST’s heavy rail service, can’t be extended to Olympia, with Intercity Transit buses taking riders to/from various park and rides in the Olympia area. When the legislature is in session, perhaps they can expand their service, and visa-versa.

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