Page Two articles are from our reader community.

Hourly heavy rail service between Seattle and Tacoma. Why hasn’t this happened yet? This really deserves a facepalm and long sigh, then a discussion on what to do next.

I published a Page 2 post almost two years ago about ERC heavy rail from Renton to Woodinville, which is clearly a project that will probably never happen – transport technology will advance to a new era of hyperloop and organic hemp dirigibles before the Eastside gets its heavy electrified rail.  But, I have not yet given up on heavy rail.

Vastly improved Sounder service between Tacoma and Seattle could arrive sooner than any major ST3 project.  Metropolitan transportation networks start in the center and fan outward over time, which makes it even more puzzling that not one example of worldclass heavy rail transit has yet been constructed in this transit-progressive region.  Seattle and Tacoma are two large population centers just 34 miles apart along the only freeway connecting the two.  The rail tracks take a slightly longer route, but in a valley of the flattest land in the region and ample space for more rail tracks. The land is cheap and the stations and TOD developement already exist.

Sound Transit has a reputation for doing projects that simply get the job done – such as MLK Way center-running light-rail and draw-bridge running light-rail; there was virtually no forward-thinking mindset.  After nearly begging on their knees, Sound Transit succumbed to transit advocates region-wide and approved all grade-separated light-rail expansions to Ballard and West Seattle – this is forward thinking compared to their previously center-running at-grade designs for those same neighborhoods.

Sounder gets the job done, but now it’s time for South Sounder to get its deserved promotion to heavy rail.  By doing this, Sound Transit would be connecting two of the largest regional transit hubs and termini, serving bus, rail, streetcar and long-distance rail, with 40-minute trips on reliably on-time schedules. This would revolutionize an already progressive transit agenda into a project that finally enables the progressive rail transit desired around the region.  It will encourage more transit expansions radiating from Sounder stations, including potential lines to Orting, Graham, Enumclaw and Olympia in the south end, and Renton and Maple Valley spurs in the north end.

Until the day people wait no more than a half hour for the next train between Seattle and Tacoma, a worldclass rail transit network will always be considered a pipe dream.  Sound Transit needs a cornerstone to support its expanding regional network.  Currently, the network is a series of seemingly random bus routes, but it is rail that evolves urban infrastructure. This Seattle-Tacoma heavy rail line is such a reachable goal, and yet it has been almost 100 years since the last heavy rail line in Puget Sound, when Puget Sound Electric Railway ended the historical Interurban Everett-Seattle-Tacoma line.

As transit advocates, we must vocally support the construction of at least one dedicated track exclusively for Sounder rail.  Rather than renting the tracks from BNSF on already-congested routes, Sound Transit can use the money destined for BNSF to run 18-hour daily service on its dedicated tracks, guaranteeing frequent reliable service that serves everyone, not just 9 to 5 weekday commuters.

Good news though: Sound Transit has rumored support and active negotiating with BNSF for all-day service weekdays plus weekends.  That means the time is now that we must loudly express our support for Seattle-Tacoma heavy rail to enable a future of worldclass rail in the Puget Sound region.

I anticipate working on this more once I return to the Seattle area permanently.  I strongly support the investment of a European/Japanese-style regional rail network for the Puget Sound region, either with electrified rail or some other future mode of heavy public transportation, such as maglev or hyperloop.  Please contact me if interested:

21 Replies to “An Infrastructural Cornerstone: Seattle-Tacoma Heavy Rail”

  1. There are plenty of hurdles before all day Sounder service will happen between Seattle and Tacoma. First, the land is not cheap and BNSF doesn’t give away access to their property. Your goal of a 40 minute trip time (which is greater than 60mph) will require a large investment in rails, signaling and operating equipment. All of which is possible but expensive.

    Tacoma will also need to dedicate itself to developing a much better local transit system. The existing PT network won’t support all day Sounder trains and building more parking garages at T-Dome station wouldn’t be smart.

    The TOD surrounding the intermediate stations isn’t yet sufficient to support an all day Sounder service. The walk shed surrounding Tukwila Station is mostly empty, Kent has forsaken most of its historic downtown for suburban strip malls on the East Hill, Auburn is still dedicated to automobiles, as are Sumner and Puyallup. All the available parking at the intermediate stations is consumed by the 9 to 5 commuters and there isn’t currently enough TOD or transit service to support the all day Sounder service. Again, those problems are fixable, but it would require a new political mindset and a large investment of public dollars by those suburban communities before all day Sounder service would be feasible.

    The commuter trains have shown that heavy rail works if government is willing to heavily subsidize the service. All day Sounder trains could also work if governments are willing to refocus local land use patterns to support density near the stations and, as you point out, build a local transit network radiating from the Sounder stations. But if the midday trains carry loads equivalent to what the North Sounder trains carry at peak hours, the midday trains will be financially unsupportable. There’s a lot of work to do before an all day south Sounders service can be realized.

    1. In theory, the cost of all-day service could be reduced by running smaller trains during the off-peak. Ignoring the BSNF issues, a small enough train should have an operating cost comparable with a bus, and the all-day demand between Seattle and Tacoma is definitely enough to support all-day bus service. All-day Sounder service would also carry more riders per trip than a Seattle->Tacoma express bus because of the destinations in between. It would also open up whole new travel markets, such as Kent->Tacoma that, today, are virtually impossible without a car outside of rush hour. Some of the operating costs could also be recouped by removing parallel bus service, such as the 594, 574, 578 (Auburn->Puylallup segment), and 566 (Renton->Auburn segment).

      The problem, of course, is BNSF, which is determined to extract as much money from Sound Transit as possible for as little additional service as possible. When trackage rights cost $50 million/trip, over and above the cost of actually operating the train, it only makes sense during the times of day that the train can carry thousands of people. There is also the thorny issue of FRA regulations which force Sound Transit to operate every trip with a rush-hour-sized trainset, whether the capacity is actually needed or not.

      1. Creating demand for the AuburnSumner to Seattle, Tacoma to Tukwila and Kent to Puyallup trips will be a huge key to building success for the all day trains. Unfortunately, given the current land use patterns, demand for those trips would be extremely limited.

        Once SMART is up and running we can see what the costs of running a DMU might look like. I think the SMART trains are high level, but we might be able to compare the operating costs of a DMU with a locomotive hauled trainset and see if it would be worthwhile to run DMUs on the Seattle-Tacoma corridor.

      2. Exactly, asdf2. BNSF is a huge obstacle for Sound Transit that is hindering any growth. I think you hit my point, which is the Seattle-Tacoma heavy rail line is really the missing cornerstone to the Sound Transit infrastructure that would increase its value four or five-fold. It’s been missing since 1928 when the Everett-Tacoma interurban stopped. Seattle-Tacoma heavy rail would eliminate the need for several bus lines, which could instead connect Tacoma and Seattle stations to nearby suburban cities for funneling commuters to the Seattle and Tacoma central stations. Once complete, cities like Everett, Olympia and Renton will clamor for similar improvements to their routes due to how critical it is to be connected to reliable mass transit networks that connect to larger successful job and population centers. Then you suddently have a robust regional rail network. That’s when dense TOD cities sprout up near these stations.

        I think we must encourage Sound Transit to make this leap towards Seattle-Tacoma heavy rail in order to enable the type of future rail infrastructure the Puget Sound region so desperately needs.

      3. Sonoma-Marin counties in California are starting a DMU service, and the agency is going by SMART. Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, I think. They are using the same cars used on Toronto’s airport line. They are FRA compatible cars. They have their uses, but they are incompatible with Sounder service as they need high level platforms that are incompatible with the existing platforms and coaches.

        It would be vastly better if we could just get what we call light rail cars to be allowed to operate in main line service. Virtually everything being built here as a light rail car meets UIC international railway mainline standards, so virtually everywhere else on earth including Canada they would be allowed on the main line.

      4. The idea that a DMU would be cheaper to operate than a locomotive hauled trainset sounds logical, but it also seems logical that a van would be cheaper than a full sized bus. Unfortunately, we know that operating costs don’t scale up and down in a direct relation to the number of available seats in the vehicle.

        The all day south Sounder service would need 3 trainsets. Most likely ST would use 3 of the 4 shorter trainsets dedicated to the peak hour north Sounder trains to cover the midday service to Tacoma. It could be that the efficiencies created by using existing equipment might be equal to the money theoretically saved by running DMUs. ST would definitely save money on acquisition costs.

    2. “But if the midday trains carry loads equivalent to what the North Sounder trains carry at peak hours”

      So you are saying they would be full Sounder trains then or are you perpetuating an old outdated myth that no one uses Sounder North?

    3. The TOD near stations and transit infrastructure isn’t perfect near the Sounder stations, which is my reason for making Sounder a popular, reliable heavy rail line. Once complete, it would do wonders to TOD and bus route redesigns radiating from the stations – built it and they will come, right? Meanwhile, you have the already very-popular-Sounder train with remarkable service.

      As for the land, it’s in a flood plain surrounded in business districts. It’s not free, but it’s a fraction of the cost that Sound Transit spends on light-rail routes. Sound Transit needs to realize that BRT and center-running at-grade light-rail will always seem like perfect modes of mass transit until that first European-style heavy rail line is completed and everyone goes… “Wow! We want that!” – And suddenly everyone’s expectations grow, and politicians take note. It happened when the UW Link was built, and suddenly city councils everywhere in Puget Sound were begging for more light-rail routes.

      The Tacoma mayor would join this fight for heavy-rail because it would do miracles to their economy and housing market. With Seattle-Tacoma heavy rail, Tacoma would become the next Seattle. Olympia politicians would LOVE another “Seattle” to profit from.

    4. The TOD surrounding the intermediate stations isn’t yet sufficient to support an all day Sounder service. The walk shed surrounding Tukwila Station is mostly empty, Kent has forsaken most of its historic downtown for suburban strip malls on the East Hill, Auburn is still dedicated to automobiles, as are Sumner and Puyallup.

      The thing is, without decent transit access, those areas will continue to be the way they are. Transit Oriented Development without the transit gets you Point Ruston.

      1. Do we build the all day service and hope that Tacoma and the intermediate communities get their acts together to support the all day service? Or, do we make sure that Tacoma and the suburbs have their land use planning focused on supporting transit service and then go ahead with all day Sounder service? The first option is more likely to lead to half full, heavily subsidized trains that drain financial resources from other projects. The second option has the better possibility of success.

    5. The TOD potential for South Sounder is incredible since most of the stations are smack dab in the middle of downtown, or dense neighborhoods in larger cities. South Tacoma, Tacoma Dome, Puyallup, Sumner, Auburn, Kent, all of these are downtowns or major urban centers within their cities. That’s what makes South Sounder so great.

  2. Hasn’t Pierce Transit been looking into dong BRT-style improvements for Route 1? It would help if that route got closer to Tacoma Dome or wherever the Sounder station ends up, since it is the only PT route that has the potential to really drive urban development.

    1. Thank you for sharing this! Please send me an email at
      I would like to know if there were any discussions you have had with the Port of Tacoma director, and others.

  3. It needs to be a national collective facepalm, not a regional one.

    Someone in Germany was showing me the trains used on one of their regional services. When asked about low risership periods and using a bus instead during those periods, we were told “Oh, we don’t use the buses. They are too expensive, as they are slower and thus cost more per mile.”

    If only we could figure out how to make train operation cheaper than bus operation.

  4. You don’t own the tracks. Sound Transit doesn’t own the tracks. The State of Washington doesn’t own the tracks. Quit smoking crack; it will easily cost a billion dollars to do this and few people will ride it. People don’t go from Auburn to downtown Seattle in the middle of the day often enough to make it cost-effective.

    This is mostly a sop to foamers and transit nerds. Concentrate on the peaks when transit really makes a difference.

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