Sounder 1509

When Sound Transit put together their plan last year, more South Sounder service was an important component of building a winning coalition. However, the number of train trips purchased for a certain amount of money is subject to negotiations with BNSF. Last spring, ST exec Ric Ilgenfritz was optimistic that there would be more specifics to share with the public before the election.

That was not to be. “We pursued a path to have specifics in ST3 vetted with BNSF, but it wasn’t feasible to complete because BNSF has been clear that additional service will require capital projects,” said ST spokesman Geoff Patrick. “There hasn’t been intensive work” on this issue since they abandoned hope of an early agreement.

So what are the next steps for South Sounder? First, this September will see a ninth peak round trip and third reverse-peak round trip, the last of the ST2 trips.  The published plan says no more than that new trips will roll out between 2024 and 2036. (!) In this period, the first priority in the South Sound will be Link because “in public involvement, Link was the greatest focal point” and the Board allocated early resources accordingly, with Link reaching the Tacoma Dome in 2030.

However, ST will hire consultants, probably in the next year, to formulate a strategy for engaging BNSF. It’s hard to say what the timetable is for reaching an agreement without that strategy in place. The extension to Dupont is firmly planned to open in 2036. Patrick says the third piece of the plan — extending platforms to accommodate longer trains — may move around as needed to accommodate whatever timetable is feasible to add trips.

The negotiation process is not simply a bid on how much money to hand over to BNSF. Instead, ST is offering to make capital improvements, in particular segments of adjacent track, to allow additional runs without undue impacts to BNSF freight operations.

125 Replies to “Sounder Negotiations Update”

  1. Thanks for the update, Martin.

    A bit disappointing to think that we may go years without improvements to a service that seems to be doing well and is already in service. Seems like it was a ripe candidate for a “quick win”, but if improvements require capital projects I suppose that’s out the window.

    1. We’ve already gotten significantly far with Sounder South and the final ST2 runs will reach “almost hourly” service with just 90-120 minute gaps before and after noon. Sounder South is a significant contribution to the transit network even if it pales way behind Caltrain in span and frequency. And it has even more benefit in south King County where it cuts travel time in half over express buses.

  2. Not only do we pay to improve and expand their infrastructure capacity, we pay rent to use it. Corporate welfare at its finest.

    1. It’s too bad Warren Buffet’s philanthropic giving doesn’t extend to his companies: BNSF. While playing nice with cities wouldn’t be at the same level as curing cancer and fighting global poverty, it should would help with our housing crisis and economic mobility of vulnerable citizens.

      I’m really interested in what the economic impact to BNSF would be if they were more willing to share the track and help prioritize people over freight. What would be the loss of business?

      1. My understanding is there are capacity issues. Regardless of private or public ownership, getting all day Sounder and still maintaining freight capacity would require at least triple tracking the BNSF line, or boosting capacity on the nearby UP line.

      2. Which is fine AJ except when the public foots the bill for a third track and then has to play by BNSF’s rules to use it.

      3. All that depends on the contract between ST and BNSF. It may give ST some ongoing ownership stake or interest in the asset or at least some kind of discount on runs that use it.

  3. This is so frustrating! I remember door belling and phone banking for Kent, Auburn, Sumner and Puyallup. We were pushing Sounder improvements as the reason to vote yes. We didn’t have any specifics except that it would be better. We gave Sound transit a “blank check”. Now this check looks like it will be blank for a long time… We aren’t getting much anytime soon. The valley isn’t getting much of anything else for a lot of people that are now really upset about their car tabs.

    A huge and seemingly easy improvement should be nights and weekends. I don’t see why we need capital improvements to run a late train and a couple of trains on the weekends.

    Cities are not just for working. They are also for living but many people can’t afford the city and move to one of these towns attached by commuter rail. Cities are also for playing. People should be able to go out a couple times a week after work and still be able to get home in a reasonable manner. Restaurants, bars, theaters, sports teams will all benefit if we can get suburban people to spend their money in the city. More people in town brings more entertainment options for all of us. I am not sure why night and weekend trains are such a low priority for ST. It should be an easy win.

    1. “I don’t see why we need capital improvements to run a late train and a couple of trains on the weekends.”

      One good reason, one bad: (a) freight trains run 24/7, so it’s not like the road network where peak demand is centered on two three-hour periods per weekday; and (b) BNSF owns the line and they have essentially all the leverage.

      1. Does ST have any counter leverage through eminent domain? Or are railroads more protected from eminent domain than a typical property owner?

      2. My understanding is that the government could use eminent domain to acquire land, but not to use tracks on that land. Interestingly, RCW 81.53.180 covers the use of eminent domain to build a highway crossing of railroad tracks, but doesn’t say anything about taking land to build a government-owned railroad.

      3. It’s a tricky area of law, but basically you can’t take tracks used by a freight railroad by eminent domain without the assistance of Amtrak and the approval of the STB.

        Most commenters think you can take vacant land adjacent to freight tracks in order to build your own passenger tracks. So Sound Transit probably can build a third (or fourth) track without getting BNSF’s permission. That said, BNSF would probably just agree to that anyway.

    2. I couldn’t have said it better. I voted for ST 3 not for light rail but for sounder. Personally I couldn’t give a damn if Link got south of federal way, we need these things, like buses and sounder NOW, not in 2040 where it will be too little too late

    3. Well at least ST3 will extend the station platforms to accommodate 10-car trains (up from the current 7), which will increase capacity without adding more trips. I agree it’s highly unfortunate that more trips can’t be added as well. Someday I’d love to see hourly Sounder trips 7 days a week, with more frequent trips during rush hour.

    4. This is unbelievable. They had to have known prior to the election they weren’t going to add more runs, but conveniently didn’t make that public. To offer no improvements at all for such a huge tax increase is unconscionable.

      1. They still don’t know now whether they can add more runs so how could they have known it last year?

        It’s like planning a picnic. You can’t be certain what the weather will be like, and saying they knew it would rain is just plain wrong. But ST can negotiate with BNSF, and we can’t yet effectively negotiate with the weather.

  4. What is the current capacity (# passengers) of a Sounder train? Are all the trains the same number of cars?

    1. 150 seats per train. more can stand… 7 cars on most of the trains.. Longer trains would require capital improvements to the stations.

      Capacity is still limited by parking. All stations are filling up all garages every day and spilling into street parking which bothers many people.

      Yes, we hope people will learn to walk or bike to the station someday but right now they are the minority. Most people drive and park.

      The plan is also to improve bus service to the sounder stations. City routes that are replaced by Link service should be able to allow Metro to create new service in the suburbs to connect to Sounder or Link.

      1. There are a few more ST2 parking garages that are coming online soon, but yeah otherwise growth will need to come from improved bus feeder service and more growth within walking distance of the stations (very doable along most of the South Sounder stations)

      2. If Sounder service ran all day, even once an hour, the demand for new housing right in downtown Tacoma could grow fast, which would be the people who would walk to the train. The demand for Sounder South is there under the right circumstances and it doesn’t need more parking.

  5. Let’s not forget, for the stretch from Tacoma Dome to Dupont, the track is owned by Sound Transit itself. I can’t imagine it would be too difficult to run a bunch of locals from Tacoma to Lakewood when here they actually own the tracks. Maybe even 15 minute service and call it the “yellow line”

    1. That would be a huge waste of money.

      I could see Tacoma/DuPont possibly being worthy of increased peak service but 15 minute frequency on a massively expensive Tacoma/Lakewood line would be crazy.

      1. It would be vastly faster than the existing stuck in traffic buses, and could serve as a trunk line for a number of regional buses.

        Current bus service from DuPont to Tacoma Dome can take an hour. This could easily be cut to 23 minutes (17 miles, average speed 45 mph due to several stops) or less. With the drop in travel time there could be enough ridership to justify all day service at least hourly.

      2. Tacoma to Lakewood would have the passengers to justify frequent service, provided you use smaller trains. Dupont, not so much, so you could have only half the trains continue there (which is ST’s plan anyway). I also am curious if JBLM would be willing to chip for a main gate station.

  6. I don’t live in an area serviced by the Sounder nor have I ever taken it but I find this kind of news infuriating. The infrastructure is already in place and it goes right through our front/back yard yet we need permission to use it. I know I’m naive and understand very little about how the railroads work but the fact that we’re allowed to send “bomb trains” full of oil right through the heart of the city at any time of day is completely fine but a commuter train that will only have positive benefits for the fastest growing major city is not a priority. Where is the outrage?

    1. The railroads report to their shareholders, moving freight is in the shareholders interest not the greater civic good.

    2. That’s what private ownership of railroad tracks is like; they do what benefits the bottom line, not what benefits the community. It’s the same with for-profit insurance companies. Other countries have public railroads and either public or non-profit medical insurance. In the 1800s when this scheme was devised, Congress’s imperative was to get transcontinental railroads without spending public money. (And the tradition of public services was much less before 20th-century technology and public streetcars.) The goal was just to get railroads out to the western towns and future towns and to get freight moving, and there was no thought that the towns would someday grow large enough to require regional commuter rail. Or if they did that was a local issue and cities were building local railraods and there was plenty of land so it would be no big deal. But the situation changed with the rise of the car, houses covering all the land, and the government’s withdrawl from supporting passenger rail for several decades except the minimal Amtrak (while it subsidized highways and airports). That gets us to where we are now. The positive side is that the US has a robust freight-rail network that carries a lot of our supplies, saving oil and keeping more trucks off the road and planes out of the sky. But passenger rail has only these small and expensive niches.

      Another thing is that Seattle doesn’t have ;legacy railroads where it needs them for regional and citywide transit. MAX, Skytrain, and BART run substantially in legacy railroad rights of way, as does London’s DLR and Overground. But the legacy railroads for Seattle-Tacoma, Seattle-Everett, and Seattle-Bellevue make huge detours. In Kent that’s an advantage but in Tacoma it isn’t. And we’ve now built cities where the tracks never went like Federal Way. And our population center is no longer along the legacy railroads as the post-WWII construction built subdivisions and shopping centers everywhere without regard to the railroads and now we have to somehow provide mobility for them. The Burke-Gilman Trail used to be a railroad and could be commuter rail again, except it doesn’t serve the bulk of north Seattle’s population which is around 45th and 85th and Northgate. And we threw away the Interurban. So now we have to build new ROWs for citywide travel, through land that’s already built up with houses and commercial districts, and that’s expensive. We should have kept the rail ROWs in Seattle, and built transit infrastructure along with roads and plats in the suburbs, then we wouldn’t be in this mess, we’d be like Chicago with Metra and the El.

      1. Most of the track we are talking about was Northern Pacific. The US Government paid the NP (in land) to build this system. That’s why when you look at a map of land ownership every other section is private land in a national forest. That’s the NP land grand.

        In retrospect that was a terrible decision, we gave the NP a gazillion acres of land to build the railroad, and then gave them the railroad. Now, we get to pay to use it, pay to convert it to a trail, pay to cross its right of way with a freeway, etc.

        It’s like buying the same asset over and over gain.

      2. The government wanted the railroads built and so incentivized their construction. That was the deal. I suppose if we want to go back to the 1800s and rehash it all out we can but it’s meaningless in the current dialogue. We now have one of the worlds strongest and most capable rail freight networks. That has helped our economy in ways we can’t even fully imagine. Cities and regions became more accessible (or even exist at all) because of this. We also can choose to share in that through the jobs they bring to our communities (good paying jobs), the reduction in traffic on some of our highways, and the reduced cost of many things like power, consumer products, and food. We can even own stock in most of them.

        It may seem like a bad deal but it’s done.

      3. That’s how the government distributed the land in the west: it gave it to homesteaders. It didn’t charge money for it or if it did it was a trivial sum. The railroad is just a different kind of homesteader so to speak, with a special priority reservation because it was seen as an essential service. The government didn’t sell the land at the estimated price of all its future economic return (like what the price of a house or a stock supposedly represents), but at a pittance. When Russia took over Alaska it didn’t even claim that: it didn’t claim ownership of land but merely “sovereignty”. When the US bought Alaska it bought that sovereignty. That’s what led to the native land-settlement act that gave tribes a share in the oil revenue: because they owned the land, no government ever did. The US treatment of western land was something in between that and government land ownership (selling the land for full price). Of course there was so much land that it had to practically give it away because it wasn’t worth any more. The vast federal lands in the intermountain states is land that homesteaders and ranchers rejected because they couldn’t make a living on it (too little water, bad climate and soils and too many mountains). The extra acres around the railroad was intended to compensate the company for its expenses and give it an incentive to build the railroad (i.e., staggering profits beyond its expenses) — the same way drug companies won’t invent a drug unless they’re likely to get billions in profits from it. Perhaps the government could have negotiated a better deal, but I’m not sure it’s fair to say the railroad is double-dipping. By that token all homesteaders double-dipped if they still own their land or later sold it to somebody else. But the 1800s was the era of laissez-faire free-market liberalism: companies building and owning the new technology-enabled infrastructure. And this is what it leads to: the companies raking in the profits perpetually, and potentially future public uses having to pay through the nose. In any case, Washington state and residents were very skeptical of this railroad monopoly: that’s why the 18th amendment forbids gas-tax money from going to rail, because they didn’t want it getting into the pockets of those robber barons, and they didn’t want them corrupting the state to send public projects their way.

      4. The solution in the present day is Troy Serad’s proposal. Separate passenger tracks for Cascades and Sounder and high-speed rail, separate freight tracks for UP and BNSF.

        It would take a while and a lot of money but it would completely separate the private freight railroads from the public passenger railroads.

  7. At some point ST should just eminent domain the whole corridor and rent it back to BNSF (as opposed to the other way around).

    1. I believe federal law preempts local governments from using eminent domain against railroads.

    2. Railroads are regulated by the federal government so ST condemning the corridor is as likely as ST condemning the state-owned Husky Stadium parking lot.

      1. Yeah that was my question – we can’t condemn Husky Stadium because it’s already publically owned. The BNSF corridor is privately own, but RRs are very different than most private property.

      2. Not to mention with the US Supreme Court being what it is, I’m sure BNSF would take Sound Transit there and stand a good shot of “winning”. THIS situation is precisely why we should not privatize highways or transit tracks or the state ferry system.

      3. It’s more the fact that it’s already publicly regulated by a higher level of government.
        The state could assert eminent domain over a city owned property, but not the other way around.

      4. On the other hand, BNSF has sold track in the past. MetroLink in Los Angeles owns 175 miles of track.

        It means ST would have to do dispatching, track repair and maintenance, and a host of other things associated with owning and operating a railroad.

      5. There’s an idea floating around that the state could buy the BNSF north-south track entirely and prioritize passenger rail on it, and freight could consolidate on the parallel Union Pacific track. BNSF and UP run trains on each other’s tracks all the time so there’s nothing new about that, and they apparently share resources in some places like how Cingular and AT&T jointly built and shared the GSM towers in Washington. But all this requires the state to prioritize it and BNSF to be willing to sell the track (and for less than a trillion dollars). The state has not moved on it so it hasn’t proposed anything to BNSF, so it’s hard to reliably guess what BNSF’s reaction would be. ST doesn’t have that kind of money or authority to buy the Seattle-Tacoma track, and it’s not a statewide entity which the track is. So it really requires the state to take the lead. And the current legislature is not that interested in prioritizing passenger rail. It’s letting the long-term Cascade speedup capital improvements proceed in fits and starts, but not doing anything else.

      6. Where is this idea floating around Mike? I would like to read more. It sounds like a great idea but I’m doubtful it will happen.

      7. I don’t remember if there was an article on state ownership or if it was just outlined in a few comments. The article AJ linked is not it: that’s a vision of a possible service level in the corridor and the physical improvements it would require. What I’m talking about are the political/ownership/logistical issues in who would own it and how they’d manage the conversion. That’s clearly far beyond Sound Transit’s capabilities or authority or tax capacity. There have been a few similar visions of north-south service, and a state ownership could pursue any of them. (One article has an alternate history going back to 1900 culminating in a single transit agency called “Sound Transit” that provides city, regional, suburban, and rural service across all of western Washington. It’s on Page 2 somewhere.)

    3. Eminent domain would be very hard to execute, but BNSF has proven to be willing to sell in the past.

      The solution in the present day is Troy Serad’s proposal. Separate passenger tracks for Cascades and Sounder and high-speed rail, separate freight tracks for UP and BNSF.

      This absolutely COULD be funded by and done by Sound Transit,… if voters gave Sound Transit the funding to do it. It does not require the state. In fact, if owned by Sound Transit, the state would end up paying rent to Sound Transit to run Cascades on the new line…

  8. 2036 is nineteen years from now. Nineteen years ago, in 1998, first LINK run was still nine years still ahead. And the World Trade Center still had three years to stand.

    Thing to concentrate on is that in 2036, millions of two year olds will be voting, and present-day nineteen-year-olds at least heading powerful committees in the Legislature. So most productive fare simplification might be free transit from conception to age nineteen.

    And every conceivable break and bargain to encourage parents to bring kids on LINK as soon as they can go “WHEEEEE!” all the way from Tukwila International to Rainier Beach. Oh, and the kids too.

    Possible result might be the Governor of Washington, flanked by ranking legislators and maybe the President of the United States, ending his or her inaugural address admonishing board of BN to stop being poop-heads and give Sounder and the rest of passenger rail the track it’ll need to speed up our country’s long overdue return to the First World.

    The few of us left who ever rode the Electroliner truly know the meaning of “Great Again!”

    Mark Dublin

    1. 2024 is the first year we’ll be spending 100% on ST3. Before then it’s just 1/3 of the tax stream. 1/3 doesn’t buy a lot.

  9. Okay. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’ll remember this next time Sound Transit comes asking for a blank check for unspecified improvements: they don’t get it.

    In fact, they seem to intentionally avoid getting it. Unless it’s written in black and white on the ballot measure, we should presume that it won’t be happening – and even then (viz. 145th St Station being at 147th) it might be twisted to the worst possible way..

    1. This is from Sound Transit’s website:

      “Sounder south line passenger capacity and service increases and two new stations added.”

      So — no service increases. For 2.2 billion. Wow.

    2. It doesn’t say definitely no service increases. It says it’s uncertain until ST gets a new strategy for negotiating with ST and actually does the negotiations, then they’ll find out how much is possible. ST never said that anything was definite: it said that it had budgeted a certain amount that it didn’t want to draw attention to before the negotiations were finished, and it was negotiating with an entity it doesn’t control. Link and ST Express are all under ST’s control. BNSF and Sounder aren’t. If that makes you not want to vote for future Sounder projects, that’s your choice. Or you can front-fund negotiations but require a second vote for construction (that’s similar to how Link corridor planning works), you can do that too. But ST was up front that it was negotiating with an entity it doesn’t control so it could only say its maximum goal for service, not promise anything concrete.

      1. The only long-term solution is for ST to build new heavy rail corridors, which ideally Link should have been designed as years ago. LRT is such a poor technology to cover these long distances to begin with, and we continue to double and triple down on it. ST3 could have been truly visionary in how it reaches Tacoma and Everett, but instead continued a long trend of suboptimal decision making.

        Imagine heavy rail running from Northgate to Everett and beyond, connecting each city along the way, and the same between Federal Way and JBLM, with a spur running east along 167 – all owned and operated by ST. Or at least imagine a plan proffered by ST that envisioned such a future. Instead we’re going to flush billions down the toilet sending LRT over distances so vast they were never intended to be served by such a slow technology.

      2. I’m a huge fan of the Vancouver, BC SkyTrain. I like heavy rail when it’s largely on existing rights of way, but once we get into all the acquisition and construction for new rights of way, I prefer something like the SkyTrain.

      1. Can you be specific? If BNSF wants X and ST isn’t willing to pay that, how is that BNSF’s fault? If BNSF and ST agree to something, then BNSF keeps moving the goal post (not unlike them), that’s a different story.

        Just because ST thinks the money and requirements is reasonable doesn’t mean that’s what the other party believes.

      2. ST has known since 2014 or 2015 what it wants; it was a topic in a board meeting I attended when the list of potential ST3 projects was released. They said ST’s goal for the project was hourly daytime service plus some evening and weekend service. That’s presumably what ST has told BNSF all along. I don’t have an ear in the negotiations so I don’t know what ST said or BNSF said, but I don’t see why ST would slow-drag it. It wants these things running now as much as we do, to enhance ST’s reputation as well as transit they can use and people can use. That leaves the possibility that BNSF is dragging it on or moving the goalposts or making unrealistic offers — but I don’t know whether it is or isn’t. I assume they’re big complex negotiations that take a long time, like EISes do. You’d need someone with more train-industry knowledge or more BNSF knowledge to say more than that.

      3. I remember more clearly now. ST was negotiating with BNSF for a “package” of options including hourly service, unspecified evening and weekend service, the third track, etc. It wanted a total price so it could choose which of those options to exercise. So it supposedly asked for all of it.

    3. The assumption that in this case we “won’t be getting it” is totally unsupported by facts.

  10. BNSF is put in the position of greedy landlord. Unless ST can bargain with a Plan B, the taxpayers will continue to hand over millions every year for something that’s way too expensive.

    So what would a Plan B be? A DMU in the 167 median? A Link branch? Eminent domain of the tracks?

    Hiring strategic assistance is a good first step. I would go one step further and put some numbers around Plan B options. Only then can ST know when to hold ’em, fold ’em and when to walk away.

    1. ST is politically well-connected, considering its board members are government officials. I’m sure a large entity like BNSF interacts with multiple layers of local and state government on a regular basis. If those government officials got frustrated, there could be consequences. Building permits can slow down, regulators start asking more questions, etc.

    2. The best plan B is for the state to prioritize passenger rail and buy the BNSF track and give ST plenty of time slots and favorable lease terms. But that depends on the state being willing to do it. ST has some clout with BNSF but the state has hugely much more. The state is also a limited sovereign entity in our federal system so it has a greater priority in law than ST does, which may help for something.

      If that doesn’t work, ST has said that if it can’t reach a reasonable deal with BNSF it will take its money and do something else with it. It hasn’t said at all what that might be. It probably wants to keep mum about it until negotiations are finished. I have no idea what it means. Link or heavy rail in 167 could be a possibility. Or expand the express bus fleet and do something about HOV lanes. Somebody suggested leveraging the deep-bore tunnel and upcoming 509 extension, which would get you to or almost to Kent-Des Moines Road without going on I-5. So that could be a possibility. Another approach would be to speed up and make more frequent the east-west connections to Link, beyond Metro’s RapidRide plans. But even if you made them practically instantaneous, it will still take Link as long to get to KDM and Federal Way as it does for Sounder to get to Puyallup, so falling back to Link alone would be substantially slower. (Plus it would add another several hundred riders to Link which may strain its capacity.)

      1. I can’t imagine how many billions BNSF would want for the corridor, and how many strings would be attached, and how much they’d demand be done to upgrade the existing single track UP line. I mean, that’s almost too daunting even for the state to consider right now. You’d also need access to the Stampede Sub out of Auburn on the BNSF that is handing 10-18 trains a day. And, of course, a yard to replace Auburn that could hold the dozen or more trains waiting to get their slot to head north, south, or east.

        Frankly, and this is just my dream only, I’d love to see them throw link Tukwila-Renton-Maple Valley(-Enumclaw) along the old MILW right of way.

        All us fails – can we please just get more than two lane roads to places like Maple Valley, more lanes on 167, and perhaps some other arterial improvements? I’d even spend a few billion developing a broader Bus Rapid Transit option with dedicated lanes.

        Oh wellz…. :-)

      2. I’ve heard that this track is only mildly important to BNSF and thus it might be willing to sell it if the state came up with a reasonable offer, but I can’t say how true that is.

        “can we please just get more than two lane roads to places like Maple Valley, more lanes on 167, and perhaps some other arterial improvements?”

        Is a roads ballot measure in our future?

      3. We’ll see I guess. The idea that it lacks importance at some level seems odd given how much tonnage they are moving over these lines. However, they have shown in the past that for the right price they will sell as long as they have plenty of capacity to move their trains. The question is – at what price? I think it will be significant though it might include some sort of trade with the state in another area.

      4. BNSF looks at it from the perspective of their national holdings and the total American rail market. Washington is a minor appendage to the network, and it may get the bulk of its profits from elsewhere. A lot of imports/exports come through here, but the local market is small compared to the northeast, the east coast, and southern and central California. There are costs and headaches associated with owning track, not only benefits. The state can’t eminent-domain BNSF but it can make it conform to state laws to some extent, and by so doing it can make keeping the track more or less attractive. So it’s possible that BNSF may not hold onto it tightly, and it doesn’t hurt to ask.

    3. Also if ST decides to replace the additional Sounder runs with nothing, it will have a bunch of extra money in its budget, which it can simply delete, and then the ST3 taxes would end earlier and we could discuss again what to do in the following ST capital round.

    4. Railroads can be too greedy. EBART was moved to a freeway median track built for BART partly because UP wanted high track use fees. Of course, that was not an existing service like South Sounder.

      For example, I wonder if some rail corridor could be created using 167 and its future extension through Fife. ST could operate o mostly single-track EMU line from Fife or Tacoma to Puyallup then north to a Link terminus (BAR Station?) in the morning (a backwards C-shaped line) and reverse that in the afternoon. With a few well-placed bypass tracks and storage sidings, hourly EMU service seems very doable in this way.

      My larger point is that ST needs to work through a Plan B like this — or they won’t know how hard to bargain. It’s like leading a car as if there is no other firm else to lease from. The lessor has the upper hand.

      1. So, the UP line is a complete appendage of almost no value to UP (it doesn’t even connect to the rest of their network). It is completely plausible to buy the UP line (reserving UP the right to run a certain number of trains), upgrade it to a certain specified standard, and then swap it to BNSF (under a prearranged contract) for the existing BNSF line. This would require financing authorization and so forth, but it’s a viable proposal if anyone is willing to work on it.

  11. The more I think about this the more mad I get. The only reason I voted for that piece of garbage ST3 was for sounder improvements, and by the sounds of it that may not happen for a long time. Pierce county is screwed by Sound Transit again. We get shafted by sound transit with lack of P&Rs and feeder service, the Tacoma LINK extension that just keeps dragging on, we have TDS which is about the only point in the county with decent ST express service and it’s always full, and a long drive from anywhere in the county. Local bus service is a joke. Most of the urban portions of county is in the sound transit district and paying taxes with no service nearby, and where there is service they are met with full P&R lots, no way to return mid day or at night, and even those are a long drive for some in the transit district. We are screwed by the Seattle centric ST. #madatst #nosoundernost3 #repealst3

    1. Lack of P&Rs in the suburbs, where? ST3 has substantial P&R expansions which greatly annoy urbanists, and at $35-70K per parking space that’s a lot of money that could have gone into feeders or Tacoma Link if there weren’t such huge public demand for P&Rs.

      ST’s post-ST2 scenarios all truncate ST Express at KDM and bring more frequent service to more outlying areas, so those are a kind of feeders. The public plan isn’t final yet and it hasn’t been updated for ST3 but it will probably be something along those lines. Pierce and South King will probably be postponed a year to 2024 when Federal Way opens, and everything truncated to it.

      And local feeders are outside ST’s mandate; they’re the job of PT and Metro. Metro has a long-term plan with feeders; it just needs additional county/city funding to implement it. PT I think has a long-term plan but I don’t know much about it. I know CT does.

  12. 1) I’ve dropped two comments in response to other comments so my turn to drop my own comment. Quite frankly I wish Pierce County subarea was given a choice between Link extension and more frequent Sounder service. It’s clear folks want that…

    2) It also would be nice if there were better connections between Sounder North & Sounder South. One of the things I’m going to fight for up here in Skagit in the upcoming Skagit Transit Strategic Plan as well is more of Skagit to access the 90X without a cap so we can connect to Everett Station and the Sounder rail spine.

    3) I’m sure the late Rep. Ruth Fisher is just smiling up in Heaven at the news breaking today there’s no way Pierce County can “Piexit” from ST3 or even ST.

    1. “a choice between Link extension and more frequent Sounder service” – I don’t think it’s an either/or … they are completely different corridors. Sounder doesn’t do anything for Fife or Federal Way, and doesn’t connect Tacoma to the airport. Link doesn’t do anything for Puyallup, Sumner, Auburn, and Kent.

      1. Actually, significant portions of Kent and Auburn are on the West Hill, and Link will run through a lengthy section of Kent’s city limits (just skirting Auburn, I think). I grew up in the house my parents still live in, in Kent, just off of Military Rd and 272nd, and they will have walk-able access to the 272nd station.

      2. “I don’t think it’s an either/or … they are completely different corridors. “

        It’s just a money thing. Sound Transit intends to do both, but can’t do both at once without slowing down. Prioritizing Link just means putting the early tax dollars to work in moving Link forward as fast as possible, then getting around to Sounder improvements.

      3. if we were on the Sound Transit Board”

        Well, that’s a picture. I don’t see BNSF as fighting Sound Transit, though. This is just a commercial transaction and they are balancing the needs of all their customers. The capital -intensive approach takes longer, but it has benefits eventually for all parties.

    2. Pierce was given that choice and they demanded both. Otherwise both wouldn’t be in ST3. The Kent – Des Moines border is Pacific Highway so Link goes just a half-block into Kent in the inhabited area (around Highline CC) and just a bit further in in the uninhabited area (around I-5).

      What does “more of Skagit to access the 90X without a cap” mean? What I wish for the 90X is that it would get all-day hourly service and weekends. Right now I think it’s only southbound in the AM peak and northbound in the PM peak. That makes it useless for me to visit Mt Verion, say for the tulip festival or to visit somebody. (I did know somebody who moved to Mt Vernon to live with her relatives, but she moved back to Seattle after a few years.)

      1. It has changed since I last looked. It was peak only a year or two ago. The Tacoma-Olympia route has also gone through similar changes. At one point it was every hour or two including weekends, then last time I looked it was peak only.

  13. Do freight trains have a repeatable, daily schedule, or is it basically random all of the time? Is that the problem? Just from casual observation, it doesn’t seem like freight traffic is more than a few trains per hour in the Kent Valley. It seems like more digital innovation or automation could squeeze in a bunch of frequency into that empty space.

    1. Freight train schedules are very unpredictable. You run a train for 2000 miles, chances are pretty good that there will be something wrong somewhere on that rail line.

    2. Freight traffic is largely random. BNSF is quite busy much of the time, but a lot of the congestion happens in terminal areas. While you might not see trains rolling through town super frequently, that’s often because they are waiting to get into or through one of their terminals. Adding capacity for Sounder will include things like more holding spots for freight trains, as otherwise they are backed up on the mainlines.

      I never hear anyone talk about the UP line through the valley. While not as close to the city centers as the BNSF, Sound Transit might have been able to acquire this much less utilized line outright and paid for access to the BNSF for the UP freight traffic. Amtrak/Cascades service could have moved over as well. Other than some nighttime locals, it could have been 100% passenger. Instead, they elected to pay BNSF out the wazzoo for Sounder access.

      BNSF is a private entity. They are not obligated to just put their own interests aside so that Sound Transit can save some money. If Sound Transit wants more, for better or worse, they’ll need to pay to play. That was the bed they made years ago and they’re going to need to lie in it.

      For those advocating threatening/taking BNSF lines, get over yourselves. How would you like it if the “government” came into your business and told you that they were taking over part of it and making it a homeless processing location? Oh, and if you don’t like it, tough. Personally, I’d rather the government figure out how to do things without taking my business away, whether it’s a small one or a huge one.

      1. Oh, and to add, BNSF takes a hit all the time with their freight trains due to taking on not only the Sounder service but also continuing to handle the numerous through passenger trains each day. Freight trains start going into sidings like Auburn early in the afternoon and will sit there for hours (or longer) since now the crew on duty is out of legal time and must be replaced by a new crew. Frankly, overall I think BNSF does a very good job handling the 30-ish passenger trains on the Seattle-Tacoma line each day along with dozens of freight movements. That isn’t easy and it isn’t cheap.

      2. “How would you like it if the “government” came into your business and told you that they were taking over part of it”

        I have never advocated eminent-domain of BNSF, but the fact remains that this isn’t just any business like a widget factory or a clothing fashion line. It’s basic transportation which is essential to any community functioning. People have to be able to get to work and errands and relatives and cultural activities and civic responsibilities. We could have made everything walkable but we didn’t, and a one-mile-square neighborhood can’t scale to three million people so we need ground transportation. Eminent domain is reserved for cases of “compelling public interest”, and high-capacity transit is certainly a compelling public interest. We can’t eminent-domain BNSF anyway because of the status of land-grant railroads in federal law, but it’s not because there isn’t a compelling public interest in passenger rail transit.

      3. Well I don’t think I was actually referring to you with the eminent domain comment so apologize for the inference. I don’t even have a problem out of hand with the concept of eminent domain. What I have a problem with is a knee-jerk “Then let’s use eminent domain!” mindset when there are still options to be considered. Just because the community doesn’t like the price doesn’t seem like the next step should be to just claim it for your own. I reject that idea.

        I doubt it would ever come to that anyhow, but that was my point.

      4. “I don’t think I was actually referring to you with the eminent domain comment so apologize for the inference.”

        I didn’t think you were. I just didn’t want people to think I believed in that, and I wanted to make sure my attitudes didn’t sound contradictory.

      5. The UP line is exceedingly underused and doesn’t even connect to the rest of the UP system. It would make sense to buy it (reserving UP the right to run a certain number of trains), upgrade it enough for BNSF to be wiling to switch over, and then swap it for the BNSF line.

    1. CalTrain is doing better: off the shelf European electric mu equipment operating on a main line in the USA.

      In years past they would have to be considered light rail and not intermix (New Jersey RiverLINE) but not now.

      BNSF wouldn’t like it on their main line but TacomaRail is a different matter. DuPont to Tacoma Dome would be very similar circumstances.

    2. Don’t get too excited. BNSF is also holding up the Denver-Boulder commuter rail line—apparently they want $500+ million more than budgeted for access to their tracks. So, a rail line that was originally supposed to be running a few years ago is instead not scheduled to open until 2042.

      On top of that, the airport rail line has been having crossing gate issues since it opened 14 months ago, and still isn’t fully certified by the FRA.

      Oh, and also most of the stations are a few blocks away from main roads—think the 145th Link station plans, except with more stop signs and traffic lights between the station and nearest road.

      1. The Denver-Boulder line is far more important to BNSF than any line in the whole of Washington State. Just for clarity.

        The correct solution, as always, is to have separate passenger tracks and freight tracks, side by side (the right of way is plenty wide enough).

  14. Don’t know if this is relevant, but just got this Sound Transit e-mail alert:

    Sounder north line train #1702 (4:33 PM Seattle departure) is delayed approximately 10 minutes en route to Everett due to BNSF freight interference.
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    1. I get these alerts every day. What I want to know is why there is so much freight “interference”? I thought ST paid a bundle a while ago for track and signal improvements that should prevent “interference”. It might be too flip by half, but let the freight wait five minutes and let Sounder pass. (Yes, I know it’s not as simple as that, but as I say, I thought ST got a measure of priority, having paid BNSF for some of those improvements).

      1. Because freight rail is an unpredictable and difficult to schedule business. My job is next to a pretty busy at-grade crossing. Every week, there is a train parked on the crossing for some ten minutes while BNSF is trying to fix some issue further down the line. Obviously they know they shouldn’t be blocking crossings with stopped trains, but shit happens. This is why railroads have a lot more sidings and extra tracks than you would think they need.

        This kind of thing is probably why BNSF is insisting on capital improvements before allowing more Sounder runs, because they don’t want more of this stuff happening.

  15. Something that would add value to Sounder and complement and vastly improve current service would be connector buses from Sounder stations.

    Last week I got lucky with my PT bus connection which proves what is possible. Took the 4.12 (1513) train from Seattle, rolled into Puyallup at about 4.55 (3 minutes late, but exceptional based on averages – actually they had a different crew on this train this day that was much more efficient than the usual conductor who takes his sweet time at stops, and the engineer that’s out for a leisurely Sunday drive).

    As I walked around to the other platform a late PT 402 to South Hill came by and I walked straight onto it, and it immediately left the Sounder station because it was late. This bus was empty, one more person got on in downtown Puyallup, had a clear run until I got off at South Hill Walmart stop, it was 5.05pm, by the time I walked around to my house it was 4.15, basically a one hour trip from Seattle to my house, this usually takes 1.5hrs or more depending on how long I wait for a bus, etc.

    Connector buses would reduce the pressure on the already overloaded P&R lots which are full by the time the second AM train. The few that there are are always full (580 to Lakewood, and the Bonny Lake connector)l, while I watch empty ST 578 buses come and go from Puyallup, and PT lives in its own timetable bubble basically shunning ST Sounder riders.

  16. huskytbone: “The only long-term solution is for ST to build new heavy rail corridors, which ideally Link should have been designed as years ago. LRT is such a poor technology to cover these long distances to begin with, and we continue to double and triple down on it. ST3 could have been truly visionary in how it reaches Tacoma and Everett, but instead continued a long trend of suboptimal decision making.”

    This is a longstanding problem with ST: it doesn’t like to revisit previous decisions. Light rail technology was chosen in the early 1990s because it was surface-compatible; i.e., it could run alongside streets or elevated or underground. Heavy rail, monorail, and Skytrain are street-incompatible. The reason they wanted surface-compatible was that surface-running is cheap: $20K per mile compared to $80K for a tunnel or in between for elevated. All the existing American light rails at the time were 90% surface: MAX, San Jose, San Diego.

    The first proposal was surface from Mt Baker all the way to SeaTac because it was flat and surface was possible. And in the I-5 express lanes or along the east hillside for the same reason. But a funny thing happened as each segment went through later design. One by one the public demanded more grade separation and expressed willingness to pay for it. They saw the advantage in having trains run at full speed rather than being slowed down by level crossings, and in having stations in neighborhood centers rather than along highways. Tukwila objected to surface trains on 99 because it had just rebuilt and beautified the road and didn’t want it torn up again. That and disagreements about the Southcenter routing led to the current alignment. Rainier Valley asked for a tunnel (some dispute this) but were denied. Roosevelt asked for an underground station at its center (moving the alignment from I-5) and got it. In ST2 several areas asked for grade separation and got it. At one point ST2 was entirely grade separated (all elevated, underground, or in a trench). But then Bellevue asked for an expensive downtown tunnel and asked ST to economize elsewhere, so it surfaced a part in the Spring District around 130th and a part around one of the Overlakes. In some places ST found it could run technically on the surface but without level crossings, such as the freeway alignment in Shoreline (where the stations are underpasses), so it got the best of both worlds. By ST3 the baseline assumption was grade separation everywhere, and I believe it is. (Again there’s poor man’s grade separation in south King County along I-5, which is technically on the surface but without intersections.)

    That’s how we got to now, with a technology chosen for less-expensive street-running operations (and a 55 mph speed limit to go with it), for a network that will extend fifty miles on the longest lines (assuming the Tacoma Mall and Everett CC extensions get built in ST4).

    A similar reasoning applies to Sounder North. Some including me have suggested canceling it and putting the money into accelerating Link to Everett, because the bulk of Snoho’s population is centered around Lynnwood not the coast. But ST doesn’t want to contradict its previous decision, especially a voter-approved service, nor does it want to tell Edmonds and Mukilteo it’s shutting them down and here’s a Link feeder. (Never mind that downtown Edmonds and Mukilteo have such small populations.)

    1. Mike, great recap of how we got here. Agreed, it’s big problem that ST is unable to change with the times and continues to be stuck in 90’s thinking with regard to technology, risk aversion (which correlates with the quality of the projects delivered), and its broader vision for the region. Things have changed so much for the region since the 90’s that it’s hard to accept ST – as organized today – is capable of delivering the solutions we’ll need in the decades to come.

      I didn’t really care about how the board is comprised until recently, where I’ve really come around on the idea that it should be directly elected. Yes, there are many synergies to be had by having a board that consists of local officials. The HUGE problem with this is that ST necessarily views it’s customers and key stakeholders as the cities themselves and not the transit-riding public. As you noted above, cities typically get what they want, and often times it’s at the expense of optimal alignments. Witness Tukwila, Bellevue, Highline College – all instances where the transit-riding public gets the shaft because their cities had other lesser priorities. For the life of me I can’t figure out why people aren’t more outraged at how transit has, and continues to, unfold for the region. Like everyone and everything else, ST responds to incentives, and what are they incentivized to do? Not fail! Nothing great ever came from this line of thinking…

      1. ST is fundamentally an extension of the cities & counties and is therefore directly responsible to those elected representatives. It’s really a way for them to coordinate resources & and share services in a way that is more efficient than each county building & running a HCT system independently.

        ST is not a state agency that exists separately, makes decisions about service & alignment, and says “tough cookies” when a city disagrees.

        Do we really want SDOT to be independent of the Seattle mayor and city council and make decisions completely independent of the council’s land use decisions? No, that would make no sense.

        Transit design (ST) and land use decisions (cities) are closely connected, and separating those decisions into separate silos will result in a system that is disconnected from local needs.

      2. The state created Sound Transit after it was clear that the county-based transit agencies couldn’t address regional and multi-county issues on their own, because they’re primarily influenced by neighborhood users: when there’s a need for both Seattle – Lynnwood and Uptown – Capitol Hill, the latter wins out and the former is neglected. Regional transit was horrible before ST: ten-mile long milk runs, peak expresses to downtown but none all-day or to anywhere else (except the recent 194 and 594 and the Boeing specials). ST was created with its current board structure, which for good or ill orients it toward the counties and cities.

        Jarrett Walker has written about the tradeoff between city/county transit agencies and independent transit agencies: the independent agencies can have a better transit-network focus but they lose the integration with cities who are in control of the roads and permits and know the residents’ wholistic needs. Sometimes the relationship between independent agencies and their cities turns uncooperative and hostile. So ST’s structure is one model, and it’s not necessarily worse than another model.

      3. AJ,

        “Transit design (ST) and land use decisions (cities) are closely connected, and separating those decisions into separate silos will result in a system that is disconnected from local needs.”

        Agreed that these issues are closely related and coordination is really important. But the system you wish to avoid already exists! Did locals need ST2 to skip the heart of downtown Bellevue? Did locals demand horrible station designs / locations at Mt. Baker and UW? Do the locals need ST3 to zig zag all over creation near Highline CC? And the ONE time locals were truly engaged (Ballard Transit Study), their preferences were ignored!

    2. 55 mph is a limit imposed by choice. It is possible to get equipment that goes faster. However, then you have to worry about the frequent station spacing.

      1. The track curves and steepness and grade are less easy to change than the vehicles. I understand that some of them have been designed with 55 mph in mind.

  17. Speaking of Sounder, does anyone think ST would have any interest in purchasing Siemens Charger locos in the future?

  18. There’s a bunch of hand-wringing commenters coming out of the woodwork on this article, spouting a bunch of “alternate facts” and blaming Sound Transit for something that is currently out of their control. Why am I getting the sense that these are all a bunch of fake accounts, paid for by some anti-ST conglomerate, like Kemper Freeman?

    Of course, any real person with half a brain and who truly wants increased Sounder service would take this as an excuse to actually contact their state legislator(s) and have them start pushing through legislation to force BNSF’s hand in negotiations.

    1. If you search past blog posts, you’ll find that I have a long history of comments showing a gradual disillusionment with Sound Transit’s eternal not-getting-it: their station design errors, their Link alignment errors, their failure to time transfers, their failure to care for off-peak travelers…

      By this point, I have no reason to believe they want off-peak Sounder enough to push for it. If they released details and said “We offered BNSF X; they said it’d cost Y; we countered with Z but they refused” – then I’d believe them, and if Z was within a reasonable range of the value while Y really was too expensive, I’d say it was BNSF’s fault. As it is, however, my guess is X was far too low while Z never existed. As for Y… I don’t know. Maybe it was too high. Maybe, if so, it would’ve come down if ST had really negotiated. Maybe it was perfectly reasonable and ST passed on it because (as demonstrated elsewhere on this blog) they don’t get it.

      As it is… we’ll never know what we missed for lack of a better board.

      1. The past Sound Transit frustration comments you speak of are usually well thought out opinions that demonstrate why certain alignments, stations, etc are not conducive to long range mass transit viability in our region. They also tend to be established commenters

        The comments today seem overwhelmingly to be along the lines of “ST3 PROMISED me more Sounder, I’m not getting more Sounder, therefore ST lied and ST3 is a sham!” and have a lot of names that I haven’t seen around here before. They are in line with the echo chamber comments one would typically find on MyNorthwest or Seattle Times editorials, which reek of sockpuppets, astroturfing and other paid commenting. I bet if STB had a “like” system for comments, these mysterious commenters would have a bunch of mysterious “likes”.

        Of course, as the article stated, Sounder expansion is not dead, it’s just going to take longer than anticipated. BNSF is notoriously difficult to negotiate with and Sound Transit has no choice but to push out their projected dates out. Sound Transit is also extremely conservative with their timelines, they are estimating timing based on worst case scenarios in BNSF negotiating. There’s always the chance that BNSF could come around at an earlier date, either by “goodwill” (AKA greases their wheels in the right way) or by force of hand by the State. Hell, Ballard Link, which will blow Sounder South ridership out of the water, has a projected date of 2035, despite desperately needing to open 10 years ago, but you don’t hear me complaining that ST and ST3 are shams.

        In the end, Sound Transit is not going to abandon or stagnate Sounder South, that would be the death knell of Sound Transit as we know it.

      2. BNSF is a private company. Negotiations involving them are not open to public discourse no matter if the party on the other side of the table is elected or appointed.

        It would be the equivalent of opening every private real estate purchase required for Link to public scrutiny before being completed.

      3. William C has a point, that even if current or future negotiation rounds are shrouded in secrecy, that doesn’t necessarily apply to the round that was completed. ST could give more details about what was proposed and discussed and what the remaining disagreements are. There must be a middle ground between full details and a blanket “BNSF demands capital pojects” black box. There’s surely room in between for something about number of runs, evening and weekend possibilities, list of capital projects, and minimum-maximum costs. Do the negotiations include a long-term gag clause after the fact? If so we should at least know that. And if BNSF doesn’t like ST’s version of the story, it can offer its own.

    2. What legislation are you proposing? I’m not a Kemper person or anything else. I just got a link to this article off of Facebook yesterday. I love the concept of Sounder and know plenty of people who depend on it everyday to get to their jobs in Seattle.

      I just want to know what BNSF is doing that is so wrong that we need legislation to address it?

    3. I find it hard to believe that anyone would care enough about the comment section of a pro-Transit blog to pay for fake comments.

      1. A lot more people read the comments than you’d think. And never underestimate a wealthy person with a bone to pick.

  19. Not that long ago, we thought the ST3 program would be 15 years. Nobody considered that would have more Sounder. For Pierce/South King, it was only about how getting Link to Tacoma. No more investment in Sounder South until ST4 or beyond.

    The slower timetable is about political priorities. Yes, it could move faster if BNSF would agree to cheap lower-quality solutions. But it’s not BNSF’s fault, or Sound Transit’s, that this is at the back of the priority queue. If you want to move Sounder expansion faster, you need to make the case to Pierce County pols for moving Link more slowly.

    1. And again, the ST1&2 tax streams are maxed out until 2024, so only a third of ST’s revenue is available for ST3 projects until then. That means small inexpensive things first. KDM to Federal Way is already designed and a short hop. Pierce has saved up a large down payment on Federal Way to Tacoma. So those can proceed substantially with the one-third funding available now. New underground lines in Seattle are a bigger lift. With Sounder ST can’t spend until negotiations are complete and BNSF is ready to sign a contract and accept payment, so there’s no point in proceeding now.

      ST already has all the trains it needs, so the only expenses are track-use fees and capital improvements and personnel. The first two are the BNSF negotiations, and the third can be hired when there’s something for them to do.

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