16 Replies to “Podcast #70: Horizontally Integrated”

  1. Wow, you guys have been busy, I check the site this morning and there’s a podcast and a big news roundup.

    Free transit: the reason Paris and a few other cities are considering it this year is not the usual equity or congestion arguments, but to combat smog and its effects on people’s health. In other words, the same reason as California’s emission standards. One of the ignored externalities of mass driving is the increase in asthma and other respiratory dieases, and this not only damages people’s quality of life and productivity, but it costs us money in healthcare expenses. Also the cities are trying to keep their climate commitments and become carbon-neutral.

    At 12:00 Martin and Frank make a good point that different people have different goals for free transit, so we first have to articulate what we’re trying to achieve and who we’re trying to help or motivate. Some goals require a universal free fare, while other goals just need targeted free fares (like Durkan’s public-school transit passes), and other goals would be better served by more bus service rather than free fares.

    The understatement of the podcast was at 21:40: “14th [Link station in Ballard] is not good.” Acually, it’s really bad, as Martin clarified later. The concentation of passengers and destinations is in a triangle between 15th, Ballard Ave, 24th, and 60th or 65th Street. The 15th Avenue location is right on one side of these, the way UW Station is right at the far corner of the UW Campus and the U-District. 14th is three blocks further, which is like if UW Station were on the other side of the Montlake Bridge. It’s also the distance of UW Station to partway up Rainier Vista for those who have to walk to Stevens Way buses. Stevens Way isn’t even the middle of campus; that’s further off around Drumheller Fountain or the Quad. So that’s even more like the walk from 14th to the center of Ballard that we’re trying to serve.

  2. Is a 14th station pretty close to being a done deal for Ballard or are there still realistic opportunities in the remaining process to get it on 15th? I probably would have voted against ST3 if I thought the Ballard station would be going on 14th. It’s an absolute joke.

    1. Here are the current options. The representative alignment, a modified representative alignment, and a maximum-tunnel alignment. The two public advisory groups (the stakeholders’ group and the elected officials group) both heavily favored 14th, which is what led to the panic among transit fans. But the ST board hasn’t opined yet, and the representative alignment is still in the options. Some people are mistaking ST’s collecting of public input and modifying alternatives to reflect that input as ST favoring those options, but that has not been proven yet. The best way to tell which way ST is leaning is by what the Seattle boardmembers are saying since they’ll be the ones voting on it. Secondly, what the mayor and city council as a whole are saying, because ST defers mainly to cities. As far as I can tell none of the Seattle boardmembers or city leaders have said they’ll definitely favor 14th and won’t consider 15th. I think one of them was sympathetic to the argument that 14th would impact the port less and have less construction disruption on 15th, but hopefully a strong showing by pro-15th activists can convince them that that those aren’t the only factors that matter. The purpose of transit is to move passengers efficiently and conveniently to where they want to go, so that needs to be a major factor too, We shouldn’t even have to say that; it should be in the project’s charter or mandate. There was something like that in the podcast, about how we have to keep fighting for even basic things. So it’s not all doom yet, but it’s at least a yellow alert.

    2. Also here’s Seattle’Subway’s opinion. The headline is interesting: “ST3 Plan Needs to Put Riders First”. That’s another way of saying what I said above, that the purpose of transit is to move passengers efficiently and conveniently to where they want to go. (And why should amateurs need to exhort a transit agency to do that? Shouldn’t that be the agency’s default?)

    3. “I probably would have voted against ST3 if I thought the Ballard station would be going on 14th.”

      I’m not ready to say I’d vote against ST3 but if I had known it would turn out this badly I might not have been such a strong yes and tried to get others to vote for it. Nothing is set in stone yet, but the fact that we’re already at level 3 and these have a strong recommendation from stakeholders and electeds bodes ill: a 14th station in Ballard, a West Seattle tunnel, a 14th station and a West Seattle tunnel, no center platforms at Intl Dist or support for same-direction tansfers, a deep station at Intl Dist, a 4th Avenue station at Intl Dist, no commitment to good transfers in SODO, insufficient attention to transfers at Westlake, a Dravus station that may be hard to walk to or hard for feeder buses to get to, ayayay! I won’t even mention the lack of consideration of an 8th & Madison station or a 1st Avenue SODO alignment because those were long shots. But these other issues are squarely in the domain of station alternatives within a couple blocks of each other.

      We transit fans may have made a mistake in not pushing for a riders’ advisory board earlier, and either gotten it written into ST3 or pressured ST to make it a policy before the ST3 vote. I think we didn’t realize that the stakeholders’ and electeds’ recommendations would diverge so widely from transit fans’ and transit best practices. We thought that “getting to Ballard” was a clear mandate and everybody understood what it meant (and that the worst option would be 15th). And that ST would do better with train-to-train transfers, after all the criticism we gave to earlier stations. And that the West Seattle saw that the budget wasn’t enough for tunnels, and based their vote on “Elevated is better than nothing”.

  3. After last December’s Cascades disaster, I swore off Amtrak until they get positive train control installed and functioning.

    A couple days before the Sounders’ playoff match at the Timbers, I got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in my email, due to be a season ticket member, to buy a ticket in the visitors section for that match. So I got the ticket. But then, the only option for getting home was on Cascades, as Boltbus and Greyhound had sold out. So, I opted for the round trip on Cascades.

    The boarding process in Seattle took over 15 minutes, even with just a half-full train. Before that, riders had to stand in line to get boarding passes and seat assignments, which took another 15 minutes. The return trip was a similar experience.

    There were six stops along the way, each taking several minutes. In the case of the Vancouver stop coming back, it was actually over a half hour, due to track and signal issues.

    The train kept coming to a halt several times when it first started south. The announcer said it was because of the new positive train control technology. From his tone of voice, I was almost expecting him to tell us who made Amtrak install it, and where we could complain. I certainly didn’t mind taking an extra hour for the PTC, while they work out the kinks, given I was just going to a football match, with three hours buffer before first kick. And I got to see the view from the Point Defiance track.

    If we are going to make Amtrak faster, there are far cheaper ways to do it than increase the maximum train speed. First, make seat assignments part of the ticket sales process, and allow everyone to board at once. That removes about a half hour from the wait-and-trip time.

    Second, have everyone along the way board all at once, saving 15-30 more minutes over the course of the trip.

    Third, increase frequency. Waiting in Portland before the gates to the stadium opened added two more hours to my trip. Or to put it another way, I had to get up a couple hours earlier because that was the latest train that got me to the match on time. What is a 4-hour trip on paper was really a 7-hour trip, each way. If we make the train take only two hours, but have it run every four hours, what have we gained?

    1. If stops could happen much more quickly, it would be much easier to have Cascades stop at Mukilteo, Kent, Auburn, Sumner, Puyallup, South Tacoma, Lakewood, Tillicum, and DuPont. The much larger set of stop pairings would add immensely to the line’s utility. Allow standees, and the capacity of the train could also increase.

      Then Sound Transit could sell its trip rights on the North Sounder line to Amtrak, and thereby have North Sounder be replaced by trips all the way to/from Vancouver, BC.

    2. I’ve heard the seat assignments are due to a state law. They haven’t bothered me, but I agree it would be best to do it in the reservation. Amtrak’s reservation system is probably too primitive for that. On long-distance trains it also can’t handle multiple people occupying a seat in different parts of a segment (Seattle-Sacramento, Seattle-Spokane, maybe even Seattle-Chicago), so if one person buys a ticket for a subsegment, the seat is reserved for the entire segment and the empty subsegment can’t be assigned to somebody else until just before the train starts its run.

      I’ve taken Cascades to Portland every few years since the 1990s. At first it had annoying slow segments in Washington, but sometime in the 00s that was all fixed and since then it has run at a respectable speed from King Street all the way to the Oregon border. In Oregon it’s worse, it somehow takes half an hour or more to get from the border to Union Station, and a surprising amount of time just to cross Hayden Island. The last time I took it to Portland was two years ago; it was still slow in Oregon but maybe not as slow as it was in the 90s? The bypass wasn’t finished at that point so I have no experience with the post-derailment operations.

      The Seattle-Vancouver segment is much worse, with several annoying slow sections, both in Washington and especially in BC, and the train sometimes stops entirely for a while to wait for a freight train to cross the Fraser River bridge.

      More frequent trains would require more money for trains and staff. Washington has a Cascades master plan that contains several incremental improvements to reach 90 mph and eventually 110, but since the Eyman initiatives in the early 00s the legislature has been on-again, off-again in funding those improvements and hasn’t committed to any particular timeframe for completing all of it. Those upgrades cost significant money, and more trains and staff would also cost significant money, and the legislature is not keen on spending significant money. However, the number of daily Cascades runs has gradually increased, and I expect it will continue doing so slowly although I don’t know the schedule. I also have had to take Greyhound to Portland or Vancouver when the train’s schedule didn’t match my availability time or I would have had to stay an extra night if I took the train.

      1. “…so if one person buys a ticket for a subsegment, the seat is reserved for the entire segment and the empty subsegment can’t be assigned to somebody else until just before the train starts its run.”

        Not sure where you’re getting that informations, but that’s not true.

        “I’ve heard the seat assignments are due to a state law. They haven’t bothered me, but I agree it would be best to do it in the reservation. Amtrak’s reservation system is probably too primitive for that.”

        It turns out they are doing that on the Acela trains now and working out the bugs. More of a procedural issue, as in new interfaces, and how everyone can change things on the fly, etc. They can do that with bedrooms now, but doing it with every seat would be more of an issue of using up the computer resources (disk space and cpu cycles) tracking everything at such a level of minutiae to be worth the effort.

    3. “North Sounder be replaced by trips all the way to/from Vancouver, BC”

      Or at least Bellingham. Vancouver would depend on Canada and US Customs being willing to do those times and how much they’d charge. Plus BC’s low track quality and busy Frasier Bridge would keep travel time high and reliability low, and that would impact how many runs Amtrak could do or would want to do.

    4. Recent articles about Amtrak’s crazy boarding process (focused more on NEC though)…
      Despite congressional pressure, Amtrak can’t get its story straight on train-boarding rules
      Why you can’t go directly to the platform, not explained.

      There’s an easier way to board trains, so why doesn’t Amtrak do it?

      1. It’s easy, just pump enough money into the corridor services to upgrade all the platforms, such as they are in Europe. (scroll down to see examples), and turn the passengers loose.

        No hand holding, either.

      2. You can’t have platforms like that in the USA unless you have platforms that are separated from freight traffic. This is why for wheelchairs Sounder has to have the mini-high platforms separated by a huge gap from the car floor.

        In some places you can add gantlet tracks to force freight traffic away from the platform (this is what WES in Oregon does) but you have to be able to add a bunch of space between tracks to do this.

        Even with this done, you will never get the UP or BNSF to allow an unrestricted platform. The best you can hope for is a platform with a fence, similar to Oregon City or Bellingham. There are too many flatcars with steel straps waving around off the side of the car and other hazards presented by freight trains.

      3. The best that can be done is Sounder height platforms.

        That way, with the current passenger equipment there is no need for conductors setting out the stools due to the height difference in legacy platforms.

        At least if all the platforms on the Cascades corridor were built like the Tukwila station, with fencing between tracks, it would keep people from dancing on the tracks.

        Which is why you aren’t getting out onto the platforms at Portland and KSS.

      4. There are several reasons they keep people off the platforms at King Street and Portland. Fueling, baggage handling, food loading, etc is difficult in the narrow platforms they have.

        In Portland, an additional reason is the UP dispatcher sometimes throws a through freight train on one of the tracks close to the station.

        Portland also has issues with the station ownership. Stuff like only allowing ticketed passengers to use the restrooms, etc are from the Portland Development Commission that view the station as just another office building property.

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