Rail -- Landslide Mitigation work October 2015

As rain pounded the Northwest last week, and thousands of newly transplanted Californians started to question their life choices, it seemed inevitable that a landslide along the BNSF corridor between Everett and Seattle would force cancellations of Sounder North and Amtrak Cascades trains. For those of us who remember recent winters, when the mudslides seemed to come every other day, triggering a 48-hour waiting period before passenger trains were allowed back on the tracks, it seemed like only a matter of time.

And yet, so far this year, the trains have kept running, due in no small part to a series of mitigation efforts WSDOT, BNSF, and local municipalities have undertaken in the last few years.   Since 2013, as part of the larger high-speed plan for the Amtrak Cascades corridor, and with the help of $800M in federal stimulus funds, WSDOT has been reinforcing a half dozen of the worst spots in the Seattle-Everett corridor.  The last of those two projects wrap up at the end of the month, according to Barbara LaBoe at WSDOT.

Landslide Mitigation Projects (WSDOT)
Landslide Mitigation Projects (WSDOT)

When I spoke to LaBoe, she was understandably reluctant to take a victory lap – “we’re working with Mother Nature and gravity,” she said, “there are no guarantees” – but she did add that WSDOT was “cautiously optimistic.”  In addition to the mitigation work on the slopes themselves, the catchment walls along the tracks could stop small mudslides, should any occur.

Additionally, LaBoe noted that the state appropriated more funds for landslide mitigation in the latest budget, and WSDOT is currently determining where to best use those resources.  Since “95% of mudslides happen in the Puget Sound area,” it’s a likely the funds will be used on the Cascade corridor, she said.

By the time the 20 HSR projects are done in 2017, we will see an additional two round trips between Seattle and Portland, with a full 10 minutes shaved off the schedule and enhanced reliability.

Sounder North, with its high subsidies and low ridership, is the red-headed stepchild of regional rail routes, but the aggregate subsidies are small in the grand scheme of things, and the marginal utility of taking just one additional car off of that stretch of I-5 during rush hour is actually pretty high.  If the mitigation efforts are successful, we might even consider amping up DMU-based Everett-Seattle Sounder service in the future. Heck, the BNSF tracks already serve Paine Field.

107 Replies to “Despite Heavy Rains, Passenger Trains Keep on Rolling”

  1. While I guess it’s good to improve reliability, is this a long-term corridor for N-S passenger service in the region? Has anyone heard if North Sounder will continue once Lynwood link opens? Express bus + Link will be substantially faster than Sounder for Everett. It would be mostly a wash for Edmonds/Mukeltio, but if you could probably run a new much more frequent Link shuttle to Edmonds/Mukeltio with the money you’d save from killing Sounder, this dramatically improving quality of service even if you don’t reduce travel time.

    1. Sounder is only part of the picture though.

      Unless Link is built with enough clearance and structure to allow standard passenger trains on the line as well, Link won’t help the longer distance trains too much.

      As best as I can tell there are currently more long distance train passengers going through there than Sounder North passengers.

      1. Actually it looks like Sounder North is carrying more people than Amtrak on that segment.

        Last data I have:
        https://seattletransitblog.com/2015/10/16/sounder-ridership-by-station/
        https://seattletransitblog.com/2014/09/10/amtrak-cascades-ridership-by-city-pair/

        This shows 1384 passengers per day on Sounder North (adding up the three stations north of Seattle), which annualizes to 505K per year.

        The Cascades ridership from north-of-Seattle points adds up to about 229K per year.

        I don’t have a way to find Empire Builder ridership from Seattle, but I’m quite sure it’s somewhere between 10K-100K per year, probably on the lower end.

        Of course the Amtrak riders are paying *much higher fares* than the Sounder riders. Which makes it much more cost-effective to repair the line for Amtrak. If you raised the Sounder fares to Amtrak levels, I’m not sure how many passengers you’d still have.

      2. It’s good that ridership is that high. Sounder North ridership sounded dismal in a post a few months back.

      3. “I don’t have a way to find Empire Builder ridership from Seattle, but I’m quite sure it’s somewhere between 10K-100K per year, probably on the lower end.”

        What, are you taking a page out of the PNW Weather Forecaster’s Playbook, Nathanael?

        Pick a number between 10 and 100… ;-)

        Informed sources tell me ~70k per year on the Builder, but that was only from recent data. They couldn’t get to the archived stuff. (about 200/day)

        Remember, 2 coaches and 2 sleepers are heading through that section (SEA-EDM-EVR), on their way to points east, all the way to Chicago.

      4. Jim, my problem was inability to sort out Seattle Empire Builder passengers from the other Empire Builder passengers. One method gave me a low-end number, the other gave me a high-end number….

        ….it doesn’t matter for my point that Sounder North is carrying more than Amtrak, which is true regardless.

    2. For now it’s long-term because ST has not said otherwise, and ST is still investing in station upgrades in Mukilteo and Edmonds. However, one or two boardmembers have voiced concerns about mudslides, suggesting they might reconsider Sounder North someday. ST3 is still being outlined. It’s possible it might say something about Sounder North.

      Don’t get too hopeful about travel time. Link from Westlake to Lynnwood is 28 minutes, which is in the middle of the 512’s range (faster than the worst peak run; slower than an off-hour run). Link to Everett will probably have the same performance compared with the 510. So it would take an hour, which is the same as Sounder. The Paine Field deviation would add some time.

      I would like to cancel Sounder North and put the money into replacement buses and accelerating Link to Everett, but so far ST has not acknowledged this as an option.

      1. My preference would be,

        I would like to cancel Sounder North and put the money into replacement buses and accelerating Link to Everett, but so far ST has not acknowledged this as an option.

        Exactly and also give more bus service to Edmonds & Mukilteo/Paine Field to feed Link. Remember folks: Link needs buses to feed it.

        As I’ve said many comment threads before: Paine Field is so much more than just Boeing (and the Future of Flight)…

    3. It’s absolutely a long term corridor for Amtrak, which is why WSDOT cares.

      In practice, I don’t think Sounder North will disappear until there’s an alternative solution for Edmonds and Mukilteo that approaches its speed and reliability.

      1. Are the local streets between Edmonds/Mukilteo and Lynnwood really that bad that a non-stop express bus to the nearest Link Station isn’t a viable option? The number of North Sounder riders is low to begin with, and if you take out Everett riders, it gets really tiny – and at least half of the Edmonds/Mukilteo riders Sounder does get are probably people coming off the ferry who don’t even live in the Sound Transit district.

      2. You know, I don’t get why at the rate things are going why we don’t look into how much it would cost to run a fast ferry from the Seattle waterfront to Edmonds to Mukilteo to the Everett waterfront…

        Because if this is about service and moving – let’s just say it – elitist folks on mass transit, it’s worth yanking out the calculator for a cost-benefit analysis.

      1. I wonder if all this mudslide mitigation is what is driving the 21% gains in ridership

        For obvious reasons ST has historically obfucated the North/South numbers. It was a cleaver spin but ridership isn’t up 21% over the meager numbers it’s posted in the past. It’s actually down. Sept is the peak for Sounder North. Buried in the ST report is Sounder North total ridership was down 3.5% compared to September 2014″. It’s on page 2 of 8. Ironically the mudslide problems are the “driving reason” for this misdirect. No surprise ST is the master of false advertizing. Literally, all of their cush jobs depend on it. And, like virtually everyone on the ST board, likely drives to work.

      2. On this, good catch Bernie. Good catch. I too am concerned how few transit agency front office staff use transit to get to/from work.

        I am not too happy at Sounder North. I consider it a cost-ineffective means to transport folks from the North by Northwest (three words for Whatcom-Island-San Juan-Skagit-Snohomish) region to/from Seattle. The subsidy is so big per passenger there are opportunities to move more # of passengers around for the same amount of money. Or to invest in accelerating the construction of “Spine Destiny”.

        That said, I am all for county connector buses. I am all for rural, exurban and surburban transit. Whether we like it or not, we’re not going to fix this land use mess overnight. But I think Sounder North – as do you – is part of a bigger problem.

      3. I am all for rural, exurban and surburban transit.

        There is where we differ fundamentally. I’m “show me the money”. I live on the eastside and still find it hard to accept the poor metrics of eastside routes compared to the City of Seattle. Back when Seattle needed eastside money to stay afloat it sort of made sense. And I guess a certain amount of “pay back” is in order. And for sure Seattle still depends on getting people into “the city”. But for transit on the eastside to ever be viable, as in not just poor people use it, we have to force employers and employees to make desicions based on very centralized core areas.

        Like it or not, we’re not going to fix this land use mess overnight. But at the very least transit should take the ‘do no harm” stance and not promote the idea that new people moving into the area, which BTW is the primary reason commute times are up, should move out the hinterlands. Sorry Mayor Enslow, Sumner deserves no seat at the table when it comes to making decisions regarding mass transit. In fact, it’s hard to justify a single bus route to Sumner.

      4. Bernie;

        Well I’m kinda a show-me-the-money too guy. Especially when pitched projects that go into the gigantic fixed costs of money, political capital and time of building & operating & maintaining rail. I’ve been very public here giving conditional support – if that – towards light rail at Paine Field because a lot of bus service hours will have to feed those Paine Field light rail stations for them to break even. I’ve also felt there’s a license to kill Sounder North.

        I do think King County Eastside deserves good, solid transit options. Certainly Bellevue, Redmond & Microsoft.

        That said, as somebody who works closely with Skagit Transit the idea of traveling 4.87 miles between Sedro-Woolley and Marblemount to get a rider is discomforting to me. I doubt seriously more than maybe one or two King County Eastside bus routes have that problem.

        I can justify some bus routes out to Sumner, but not Sound Transit. There’s a lot out there, I just looked via Google Earth.

    4. I wonder if all this mudslide mitigation is what is driving the 21% gains in ridership that ST reported for sounder north in their Q3 ridership report… so it’s gaining ridership but there were so few riders to begin with that a 21% increase is a bit misleading. Even so, maybe things for sounder north are looking up?

    5. “While I guess it’s good to improve reliability, is this a long-term corridor for N-S passenger service in the region?”

      Yes. Due to thoughtless destruction of the Eastside Rail Corridor and the rail line now known as the Burke-Gilman Trail, this is the *only* surviving way for trains to get from Vancouver, BC to Seattle.

      If you’ve got several billion dollars to carve a new route through housing, then there’s an alternative. If you’re wiling to return the Burke-Gilman to rail service, there’s an alternative. Barring those, the coastal is the long-term corridor for north-south passenger service. I don’t like it (the Eastside route is better) but you’re stuck with it now.

      1. “Sounder commuter rail: 3.4 million boardings, 11 percent increase from 2012”
        With approximately 3,500,000 user trips per year, The Burke-Gilman Trail (BGT) is one of the highest use
        transportation corridors within the RTS and the country

        Just sayin’. As for the ERC, nobody held a gun to BNSF and forced them to sell it. After they didn’t need it for 737 transport they abandon it. This is a company that is spending billions of dollars every year on improving their infrastructure. By becoming a trail it’s “in the rail bank” whereas selling it piecemeal would certainly mean that it would never be available as a rail corridor ever again.

      2. One thing the State can do that would send more freight inland is help fund raising the Stampede Pass Tunnel so that it can take some of the pressure off of Stevens Pass. That’s a commercially viable venture. Other than that inland means more trucks on I-5. And when it comes to trucks some of the worst polluting and dangerous are the worn out wrecks used to short haul freight away from the docks. Doing whatever it takes to get cargo loaded ship to train would also be a big step in improving the environment. The ERC never was used as a bypass for the coastal route. Eastside Rail NOW worked to try and keep the line in some sort of active use but there was almost zero love from the transit community for any project that involved the ERC. ST through some money at a study but in typical fashion it was only really to formalize their distaste for anything to do with it. Conversion to a regional trail is/was the only option that maintains ownership as a contiguous parcel of land.

      3. Neither the current waterfront BNSF alignment, nor the ERC is optimal for high speed intercity service. In fact, with our freeways going into city centers, intercity rail is one type that can do well when put in a freeway median (as opposed to light rail).

        If we had 110 mph track down the middle of I-5, then we can use this for both Cascades and Sounder and would achieve 20 minutes to Everett and 1 hour to Bellingham. All of this possible with diesel equipment (Talgo and DMUs).

      4. Let’s not sugar coat this, the ERC is a trail because the neighbors want it that way.

        Plain and simple. No Greenwashing necessary.

        During the I-405 Corridor Program analysis in 1999-2001, the Kennydale Neighborhood Association got the ERC taken off the table for this sole reason. I even had that conversation with their representative.

        End of Story.

        The NIMBYS win. They in Kirkland will NEVER allow any re-use of that corridor for anything else other than a walking trail because they want everyone to stay out of their back yard.

      5. I don’t live in Kirkland, but I must note that their NIMBYs at least allow a walk/bike trail. You think that’s nothing? There was a disused elevated railway in Queens I believe, where neighbors were actively trying to keep it as a disused railway. They didn’t want people walking or biking in their back-yards. It should forever stay as dead space… So the Kirklanders are at least open to some change which is already quite beneficial to the community.

        For what it’s worth, I think that diesel buses will indeed take away a lot from the trail experience. If they were to use quiet electric buses *and* limit speed to ~35 mph then it could be palatable. But a trail next to a diesel bus highway is not a pleasant place to be. And it would require over/under passes for crossing.

        Ideally they’d put whatever transit they want there in a ditch / semi-tunnel. e.g. Note how BART is in a tunnel in suburban San Mateo county.

      6. You don’t have to go to NY to find an example of “neighbors” opposing a trail. The waterfront property owners along Lake Sammamish figured that when the rail line was taken out of service it should become their property.

      7. “By becoming a trail it’s “in the rail bank” whereas selling it piecemeal would certainly mean that it would never be available as a rail corridor ever again.”

        But the ERC WAS sold piecemeal, which is exactly the problem. This is what railbanking is supposed to prevent, and it did not prevent it.

      8. “If we had 110 mph track down the middle of I-5, then we can use this for both Cascades and Sounder and would achieve 20 minutes to Everett and 1 hour to Bellingham. ”

        But where are you going to put *the station*? That’s the usual problem with freeway routings for rail lines to downtown.

  2. Good news Frank. I wouldn’t do a victory lap just yet either.

    A couple of years ago there were landslides near Kelso due to a new housing development without a good drainage system.

    As the region grows that same type of development could happen in a huge number of places along the corridor. I would be particularly concerned about Clark County to Kelso due to what appears to be an almost complete lack of concern about how building on steep slopes impacts unstable slopes.

    The good news is that in a some of that area I-5 is more likely to get hit than the railroad.

    1. Ya, the tracks go from Mukilteo up Japanese Gulch to the west end of the Boeing Complex on the north end of Paine Field, but I’m not sure who actually owns the tracks.

      That said, the tracks are pretty steep for freight service at a ~5% grade, which I believe is similar to the grade on I-90 going over Snoqualmie Pass. As such, for heavy rail operation BNSF takes extra safety precautions — push only service and I believe specially equipped locomotives.

      It’s unclear if it would be possible to run Sounder type service up the Gulch to Boeing, and the location doesn’t lend itself to any sort of integration with LR coming up I-5.

      1. You don’t want to run Sounder North service with Sounder type equipment, period.

        5% is steep, but Allentown Light Rail Line runs trains up a 9% grade. Cass Scenic Railroad in West Virginia runs their tourist trains on an ex-logging line up an 11% grade, and that is with steam locomotives and passenger cars rather than any sort of transit equipment.

        Any grade that can be managed with freight cars can be managed with passenger cars, especially if they are some sort of MU.

      1. It is feasible and wouldn’t be the first time passenger cars have gone up that hill. With that said, DMU service could run up to Boeing. It goes directly to the plant there. They would need to add a platform to the East side of the new Main 2 platform but that is easy and quick (though that station should have been done last year….)

      2. Brian, I would so prefer send the Sounder North gear to Sounder South – which seems to be working out – and buy DMUs like for Trimet’s WES for a northern heavy rail line.

        That is, unless Link to Everett can be done faster and coupled to a robust bus network be a true replacement.

      3. @Brian B,

        When have passenger trains gone up that hill before? It just goes to the Boeing unloading facility and dead-ends.

      4. DMU’s (I often have said it should’ve been in the first place) should be on the North line. It would have saved on cost instead of buying new bi-levels (coming next year!)

        When the rules change to allow DMU’s it’ll open a huge ballfield for service expansion. The group that wanted commuter rail out of Seattle to Covington may have been running around out if it wasn’t for the insane regulations.

      1. lazarus – It was a special event years ago when the line opened up. I believe back in the day (steam era) there was a different route that went up the hill into a industrial area. There are some pictures at the UW image archive. I’ll see if I can find them over the holiday.

  3. The southern route seems more stable overall, but there was a closure between Olympia and Tacoma earlier this month.

    1. When I went by the slide area, it was actually pretty impressive. Would have easily taken out a train.

      1. If it weren’t for those Pounding 7 mile long coal trains, and flaming oil trains, we would be safe !! ;-)

      2. The oil trains exist because we can’t stop driving.

        Want to stop the oil trains? Convince every ‘Freedom Loving American’ that they are the problem.

      3. The oil trains exist because we can’t stop driving.

        Um, what do those diesel buses and locomotives run on, pixie dust? Sounder is sprawl rail. Really, when you heavily subsidize commuting from where land is “dirt cheap” it’s really just driving an unsustainable pattern of land use. How many miles do Sounder riders put on their pickem-up-trucks after they get off the train?

      4. And…

        SR-522, HWY-9, i-5, & I-405 don’t promote sprawl?

        People will live where they want, as far away as they feel comfortable, as long as we pave a road there for them.

        The point of Sounder, and other what you call ‘sprawl’ inducers is that it keeps the other mode – highways – from becoming dominant form on the landscape.

        Your statement isn’t just the ‘pot calling the kettle black’, it’s more like ‘The Pot, the Pan, the Skillet, the Double Boiler.. calling the kettle black’.

    2. “The southern route seems more stable overall, but there was a closure between Olympia and Tacoma earlier this month.”

      Thank goodness this area will be BYPASSED by the Point Defiance Bypass in the near future.

  4. Sounder North ridership is on a steady increase.

    Mudslide cancellations for Sounder just keep newcomers away.

    Amtrak doesn’t cancel, they just don’t let people book new reservations from the stations affected, but they bus bridge the ones who had reservations.

    Amtrak service does NOT stop, despite what the news says.

    Once people are confident in the service, and the drumbeat from the news reports, and this blog, quiet down, the ridership will keep increasing.

    Now is time for pressure on the local governments (Edmonds, Mukilteo) to zone and build the density near the stations.
    Despite the wealthy NIMBY complaints.

    1. When you buy a train ticket at a higher cost than Greyhound and then get put on a bus anyway, it can be a disappointment. Especially if it’s your only train trip during your visit to Washington, and the only train trip you can take that year.

      1. Reason paying train fare instead of I-5 is not scenery, but not spending hours stuck in traffic- which is a bummer even looking at Mt. Rainier with winter snow, on a clear day.

        Amtrak should refund ticket ’til it’s equal to Greyhound- or at least some consideration.

        Mark

      2. The reason I pay double bus fare to go from Seattle to Vancouver in more time than the bus takes (yes, slower than BoltBus) is because of the vastly better experience. Starting with horrible vibrations on buses that make you sick, the cramped quarters, inability to stand-up and walk, the lack of a proper bathroom (needed for a 4-hour journey), having to get out of the bus at the border, etc, etc… It’s night and day different. Same goes for commuter rail vs suburban bus.

        To call this rail bias, is like telling someone to watch full-length movies on a smartphone as opposed to on a big screen or TV, because after all, they are both screens and have the same resolution, and well smartphones we already have and are therefore cheaper…

  5. I am happy to see WSDOT improve this corridor. It is all we have for the foreseeable future. If the Link spine is going to be the heavy lifter for the future, I would like to see Link between Everett and Northgate be designed with an express train in mind that would serve only a handful of stations (i.e. Everett, Paine, Lynnwood TC, Northgate, or whatever you decide is most important). By my quick estimate, that could drive down the ride time from Everett to Seattle from 55 to ~35. Though a third track similar to New York’s express train would be an option, I would like to see an approach similar to Kyoto, where an express train shares tracks with local trains and uses a by-pass track at key stations. (http://www.citylab.com/commute/2014/11/kyoto-can-teach-the-dc-metro-a-lesson-about-express-tracks/382286/). The Kyoto option will be cheaper that a separate third track, but require a bit more sophisticate integration between the trains. Has anyone seen any discussion of this by ST yet? Any other systems around the world that we should be looking at?

    1. It isn’t going to happen. The system is designed as a standard double track light-rail system. No express bypass lines.

      1. Newsflash, north of northgate to Everett isnt designed yet and years out from construction. Only conceptually do any plans exist. The company I work at was awarded station design for MEP lynnwood link. Aren’t getting architectural sets for awhile… What makes you the emperor of design on Link? Site your source for why this can’t happen? Present something of use or value to this conversation. I am trying to have a productive conversation but all people on this blog can do is whine or put down others. Shame on you.

      2. Because it is the reality of the system. Please show me a light-rail system that is designed to operate in such a manner? There isn’t nor should there be. Financially speaking, there is no net benefit at all and hardly any ridership difference when other systems have looked into doing this very thing. You add a complexity that would have needed to be designed into the system out of Seattle proper.

        It is just like how the Rainier Valley bypass has also been shot down. There is no benefit over the cost. This is a LIGHT-RAIL system. Not even Metro systems have this feature. Yes it is a common item in commuter (heavy rail) and high speed rail but it doesn’t make any sense for an urban system that Link is setup to be.

        And you are mistaken, Northgate to Lynnwood is moving into Final Design as voted on November 19th. There is a video of the alignment as well. They aren’t going to add extra cost to an already tight budget.

        If you want sources and what not, by all means, ask Sound Transit if they would be willing to look into it. They’ll openly tell you the same thing that the system is designed as a light-rail system and not a subway/metro system and the complexity vs. cost has no net benefit. Don’t get so up in arms about something that honestly is minor.

      3. Historically, when systems have double track in the URBAN CENTER, there is no point in having triple or quadruple track in the OUTLYING AREAS. NYC Subway and Chicago L both found this out over the course of their history, as did London Underground. There is no point in having more capacity one branch line than you have on the trunk line.

        So if you install an express track, you have to figure out how to get it into downtown Seattle. Good Luck On That.

  6. If Amtrak were to adjust its schedule so that its trains arrived and departed Seattle at something close to commute hours (at least on weeekdays), perhaps RailPlus could be continued, even if Sounder North were discontinued. Maybe that could be sufficient for Edmonds/Mukilteo, combined with shuttle buses to Link.

    Of course, in order for this to happen (which would probably be a good think for Amtrak, anyway, since it would allow people from Bellingham or Vancouver to take the train to Seattle for a day trip), we would first have to find a way to dramatically speed up the Amtrak north of Bellingham. Otherwise, to get to downtown Seattle by 8, trains would have to leave Vancouver around 4 in the morning.

    As one potential solution, instead of fighting the big battle trying to squeeze in faster tracks into the center of Vancouver, perhaps the line could simply be truncated at a SkyTrain station in Surrey. King George Station to Granville Station is just 36 minutes, so if the Amtrak takes longer than 36 minutes to accomplish that stretch, having it continue running all the way downtown feels counter-productive. Especially since Pacific Central Station is not really downtown, so most users would have to eventually transfer to the SkyTrain anyway. Besides potentially speeding things up, it would save operating costs, as well as make the train dramatically more attractive for people living in the suburbs southeast of Vancouver, for whom just traveling downtown and back would take almost as much time as driving all the way to Seattle.

    1. Would it lose a lot of passengers though, people who don’t want to take a subway from the suburbs with a dozen stops in between, and transferring your luggage and no place to store it.

    2. However, big loss by terminating at Skytrain is in educational chance to see how much transportation you can put in rail right of way you inherit. Will give some perspective for critics of Seattle transit construction.

      Mark

    3. If what is now Sounder North becomes a state service, that first train could start in Bellingham. There’s enough traffic up that far north that it looks like it would work to me. That way, you don’t have to worry about whatever you do in Vancouver.

      Get it into Seattle at 7:00 and you can run it through to Portland as the current 7:30 departure.

    4. I ride Amtrak to Vancouver regularly. Amtrak takes about the same time as SkyTrain to go from its Pacific Central Station terminus (also Main Street SkyTrain station) to the area around Gateway SkyTrain station where it diverges from SkyTrain alignment significantly.

      So, if you moved the Amtrak station to Surrey, you are not gaining any speed for Vancouver city customers, you are just drastically reducing their number. As most people go to the city center, you are introducing a transfer and in turn increasing their travel time, not to mention that tourists will avoid it if it doesn’t go where they need to go. Having a stop in Surrey, that makes sense, but a terminus no.

      Conversely, it’s ok to focus on speed improvements only south of North Surrey. You can still save a lot of time speeding up that segment alone.

  7. Sounder service isn’t going to disappear anytime soon, so those that keep repeating it, drop it. With the ST3 comments, A LOT of people want to see the service increased dramatically, that should give ST the push to look at the contracts and change it to improve Sounder service overall. As we have been told at BNSF, the service on both ends will continue to improve as ST, WSDOT, Amtrak, and BNSF continue to do improvements to the corridor.

    Ridership at Mukilteo will increase quite a bit when the new ferry terminal is completed. The improvements will allow for a better, safer walk to the station platform. The Edmonds project will increase parking and station accommodations as well when it begins soon.

    The railroad improvements (the final two segments of double track between MP 16-17 and 26-27) will help dramatically. The nearly completed rebuilding of Bayside yard (West side of Everett on the waterfront) for oil and coal staging will eliminate the delays that occur with Amtrak and Sounder and giving dispatchers greater flexibility and planning strategies.

    The new yard office in Everett will increase yard capacity in Delta yard, further reducing the delays of Amtrak.

    At this point the ball is in ST’s court to build a station between Broad Street and Wall Street. As the South line commuters have proven, a walk into downtown or transfer is no problem.

    1. That’s great news if BNSF is bullish about Sounder increases. What ST most needs from BNSF is time slots for half-hourly service at an affordable cost. That and the possibility of DMUs someday.

      “With the ST3 comments, A LOT of people want to see the service increased dramatically”

      Then why didn’t the menu of ST3 projects any Sounder expansions?

      1. Historic solution: In many old “Westerns”, and also memories and coffee-table books, same train could carry a passenger coach or two. Just sayin’, BN.

        Mark

      2. It isn’t so much bullish but like WSDOT has had to do, Sound Transit will have to pay to play in terms of railroad upgrades. They can’t take hits on delaying freight (and trust me, we sit for hours sometimes) and not see some sort of benefit.

        My honest opinion is ST not listening to the passengers and wanting to finish out the Sound Move plan completely. I don’t believe Link needs to go to Tacoma or Everett and the way it is being used isn’t ultimately the best solution.

        There are many things that ST could and should have done for Sounder to improve service and they didn’t (increased parking at all stations, new station between Auburn and Sumner, additional trains and improving mobility around the stations (ie: overpasses at Sumner and Puyallup stations)

        Why they didn’t is frankly surprising to me but again, LR is sexy and political. Sounder is established and for the most part, completed. It can and should be much more but alas, they want to sit on their hands. As much feedback as we provide them on how to improve service, they are mighty bullish on implementation of it.

      3. I think the bigger problem is that compared to light rail trains, Sounder trains are quite a bit more expensive to operate. There’s only so much that can be done to lower that price when you need each crew to work only two hours a day.

      4. We do a split shift, typically covering 1-4 trains, depending on the job. It is kind of complicated but maybe I’ll do a guest blog on how Sounder operates and give a bit more details if the company will allow it.

      5. Sounder North can’t do too much in terms of crew utilization. You run south for an hour, and there is no way other than helicopter of getting that first crew back north to get even the latest southbound train.

        I don’t think anyone needs anything from BNSF. All they have to do is look at the Sounder North schedule to see how bad it is in terms of allowing good crew utilization.

      6. Brian Bundridge says

        There are many things that ST could and should have done for Sounder to improve service and they didn’t (increased parking at all stations

        Any time the “answer” to why transit doesn’t work is “increased parking” it should be a red flag!

        Ridership at Mukilteo will increase quite a bit when the new ferry terminal is completed.

        From where? Whidbey Island is pretty sparsly populated and I’d hope stays that way. It’s also a 60 mile drive north to south with what passes as it’s only “population center”, Oak Harbor, at the north end of the island. But I guess with the money you save in rent over living within a reasonable bus commute of work in Seattle is enough to afford a brand new RAM pick-em-up. WSF is the mother of all sprawl.

      7. Bernie;
        [ah]

        There are many reasons why folks live on Whidbey and commute to work – for instance with the exception of the Naval Air Station and a moderately-sized shipyard, there are not many jobs. Or a loved one may have a job, but the commuter has to leave the Island for gainful employment to make ends meet.

        Granted there are some… characters who prefer exurban living to services for their disabled relative.

        Granted there are some…. who prefer hobby farming. Try getting farm living between Mukilteo and Sea-Tac – you can’t!

        [ot]

      8. [response to ah]

        Intolerant yes. Intolerant of ignorance. You can come up with all the acedotal sob stories you want; it still equals bad land use planning and a terrible return on transit dollars both in terms of “saving the planet” and service hours. Yes, “There are many reasons why folks live on Whidbey and commute to work” but no matter how sad these indiviual stories are they should not be driving regional land use and transit planning. Money for transit is not an infinite resource and Island County, as far as I know, isn’t even in the ST taxing district.

        Granted there are some…. who prefer hobby farming. Try getting farm living between Mukilteo and Sea-Tac – you can’t!

        Sure you can. It’s not dirt cheap, in fact it’s damn expensive. Blame Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, et al for making the Seattle metro area a lot more expensive than say some place like Nashville (which BTW is pretty nice). But the idea that transit is somehow going to make that possible is exactly the same as saying building more roads will solve conjestion. Two words, induced demand.

      9. “I don’t think anyone needs anything from BNSF.”

        I understand that more time slots cost millions of dollars and are one of the main factors why Sounder (especially South) hasn’t been expanded more and why we’re building Link in parallel instead. So yes, we need those astronomically high costs down. And if BNSF is predicting that Sounder will expand, then it must be predicting some kind of deal too because it knows this is a blocker.

      10. That’s great news if BNSF is bullish about Sounder increases

        Passenger service is an irritant to BNSF’s business which is moving freight. The system is pretty much at capacity and it’s all about serving the ports of Seattle and Tacoma. And let’s hope they don’t build a coal terminal in Bellingham. I doubt BNSF would shed a tear if passenger service just went away.

      11. Trust me, with the furloughs we have right now, it is NOT at capacity, not by a long shot. It would take another 50 trains a day before it is “at capacity”.

        The yard space as I explained is the reason why the mainline gets plugged up. That will all be taken care of next year. Finishing the last two miles of double track will also increase the capacity along the the area.

        The coal terminal won’t have any affect and I’m sorry, I like to have a guaranteed job, that export facility needs to be built, even if it doesn’t serve as coal, it CAN be used for other products.

      12. Another article in the Tri-City Herald said:

        After dipping due to the Great Recession, BNSF’s volumes have increased in recent years. But they still haven’t climbed back to their peak levels in 2006.

        So no, it’s not completely tapped out since the system has been upgraded since 2006. But it’s also loosing some business like Cold Train because of delays. I’m guessing passenger service is a real thorn in the side of BNSF scheduling since you can’t just park people on a siding. As for the coal terminal, yes it will almost assuredly be built somewhere. I just don’t want that somewhere to be Bellingham. It seems to me that one of the sites along the Columbia makes a lot more sense than trying to pull these behemoth trains through the corridor that serves both Port of Tacoma and Port of Seattle and then dead heading them back over the highly congested Stevens Pass tunnel. As far as other uses I think that’s just a ruse to try and win support. To move other bulk goods like grain requires extensive infrastructure that I just don’t see anyone with a checkbook ready to build.

      13. “Historic solution: In many old “Westerns”, and also memories and coffee-table books, same train could carry a passenger coach or two. Just sayin’, BN.

        Mark”

        The reason this stopped is a sad piece of history. Back then, the railroads ran their freight trains on a tight schedule. Now they are lazy and sloppy and dispatch the trains hours late or “when ready”. As far as I can tell, no other country in the world has adopted this operating practice.

      14. Oh, and we’re getting off topic, but the coal terminal is dead. Why? Because China’s made a policy decision to stop importing coal. This has already devastated Australia’s coal industry, and that has shorter shipping times to China and cheaper prices. The business model of exporting American coal to China is dying very quickly.

      15. Nathanael says

        Oh, and we’re getting off topic, but the coal terminal is dead. Why? Because China’s made a policy decision to stop importing coal.

        Where did you recieve this news flash? China is the largest producer and consumer of coal in the world. The state run economy can’t drag their citizens up to 1st world standards without burning more coal than they can produce domestically. FWIW, India is neck and neck with China for US Coal imports.

  8. I will also add, I was VERY impressed to see the 2 five-car trains nearly full last Friday. Even the two-car trains will pretty packed. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if they began adding another car to each of the trains if the ridership keeps growing as it has been.

  9. It’s a “reach” for any bus to come anywhere near Sounder time between the shore and LINK- though it might be revenge, I mean justice, to put a whole center-reservation busway right past Tim Eyman’s neighborhood. Otherwise- only place with same hundred percent morning-long traffic jam is I-5.

    However, for the passenger loads we’re talking about, large high-speed hydrofoil ferries, like the service between Helsinki and Estonia, might avoid both freight trains and landslides. As well as giving passengers a hell of a scenic ride, and making the whole shoreline beg for them. Mosquito Fleet, didn’t we used to call it?

    Still and all: in 20 or 30 years, separate bullet-train rights-of-way, one for passengers, one for freight, straight north and south, Canada to Mexico. I think Elon Musk wants little bullet-carnival-ride-cars. Maybe the idea is to disconnect the little Tesla and drive it around Vancouver BC and Juarez.

    Or just to aggravate light rail advocates. But like one 19th century Robber Baron railroad owner said about passenger trains for profit: “As much use as (milking equipment on a male porker.)” More polite to say “lipstick”, but cigars, spittoons and all, those guys were REAL gentry.

    Mark Dublin

  10. A reoccurring theme in the comments seems to be that WSDOT is doing all this work for “passengers”. While WSDOT is serious about keeping people in their cars moving their overriding concern when it comes to rail is freight. Washington’s economy depends on it. Got to get the wheat, coal and oil out and get the cheap (and not so cheap) asian cars, smart phones and big screen TVs in. Of course the high value goods like crab get flown out of SEA. A sweet one seat ride but you’re cooked when you get there ;-)

      1. [Response to OT]
        Oh gotta be defensive much? Asian cars, be they Hyundai or Lexus come into west coast ports because, wait for it, there’s the Pacific Ocean between us and asia. Of course there are a lot more cheap cars than expensive cars but in terms of dollars I’d bet it’s pretty close. European cars come in through east coast ports and, guess what, go by rail to the left coast. Canada and Mexico, meh, mostly trucks. But regardless of where your vehicle comes from WSDOT is there for you making sure the railroads, ports and highways can have it safely delivered. Joe, just what is it you’ve got stuck in your craw? Spit it out! Maybe you could address why my points about how Sounder is just an expensive subside for sprawl instead of falling back on kill the messenger personal attacks.

      2. No cloak or dagger. I oppose wasting transit dollars on inefficient transit. The farther out and the the more wasteful the more I oppose it. I don’t know what you define as “the Seattle-centric megalopolis”. I’m on the eastside, Bellevue/Kirkland, and it’s hard to make tranist work with the density we have. So yeah, I’d not buying into the “we all got to stick together” idea to bring Island and Skagit counties into the fold. King County revenue was the lifeline that kept the old Seattle Transit afloat. Looking back that was a good thing. But even though I live on the eastside and take the bus +80% of the time to work I don’t think aweful eastside routes should be funded at the expense of much more productive routes in the City of Seattle. Dilluted transit is the worst of all worlds. It just increase the population in area where people move to for the cheap rents but are still automobile dependent. That in turn drives the demand for more roads. All the while this sucks resources out of where transit can actually work; that evil megalopolis. There is no “perfect world” where you can have your transit and eat cake.

      3. Bernie;

        Actually Skagit Transit for Skagit County, Island Transit for Island County and King County Metro are all three different entities. So there really isn’t that much being drained away from Seattle for the hinterlands and exurbs.

        That said, we are one state. In the politics of this state, whether you King County transit advocates like it or not you need us transit advocates in the 38 other counties to get your back and guard your flanks. Not to mention keep working to make transit a bipartisan issue with the state legislature that writes the evil red tape & regulation tying you guys down. I’m very publicly an advocate to cut the damn red tape and let Sound Transit build NOW! N-O-W!

        Now that we’ve really gotten down to brass tacks, policy and principle here, as to:

        Dilluted transit is the worst of all worlds. It just increase the population in area where people move to for the cheap rents but are still automobile dependent. That in turn drives the demand for more roads.

        Listen, I get the angst and I share it enough to want to trade Sounder North for something more cost-effective. I also have publicly voiced my skepticism about light rail for Paine Field without some compromises. If I had my way I’d live between Everett & Seattle or… in Seattle. But there are very real people who through a myriad of circumstances need transit in Mount Vernon, Burlington, Oak Harbor, and yes Bellingham.

      4. there are very real people who through a myriad of circumstances need transit in Mount Vernon, Burlington, Oak Harbor, and yes Bellingham.

        All people are real and through a miriad of circumstances need transportation. For someone in Sedro-Wooley that may mean taxi script. For people that think commuting from Oak Harbor to DT Seattle is viable; sorry.. wrong answer. Which get’s us back to this post and the comments about Sounder North increasing ridership when more money is sunk into a ferry terminal at Mukilteo. Dumb idea to promote hobby farms for rich people working at Amazon. Dumb idea to justify Sounder ridership for Island County residents. FWIW Bellingham has from what I’ve seen decent transit given that it’s largely become a college town. That said, I took time off to ski at Mt Baker last week and was amazed to see they run a bus out to Glacier at ~4PM. Don’t know the route or what it’s frequency is but that was way too early to be a commuter bus. And WCT claimed to be on a tight budget.

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