Sounder Train at Carkeek Park (image: Sound Transit)

When we wrote recently about Sound Transit’s post-COVID funding shortfalls, the comments conversation turned quickly to Sounder North. The lightly used commuter rail line is everybody’s favorite local example of a transit service serving too few riders at extreme costs per rider. As the only Sound Transit rail serving Snohomish County to date, it has survived persistent concerns about costs in the past. Lynnwood Link is now nearing completion and is anticipated to open in 2024. Is it finally time to cut Sounder North?

Snohomish County, like other subareas, will shortly have to delay or suspend some future projects as the COVID-induced recession reduces tax and fare revenue. Some back-of-the-envelope math suggests cutting Sounder would avoid roughly one and one-half years of delays to Everett Link.

Eight years ago, the Citizen Oversight Panel took a hard look at Sounder North’s performance. In 2012, Sound Transit had already expended $258 million buying the easement from BNSF and more than $300 million on various stationary assets. Ridership was far below initial expectations, and reflected in a high $32 operational cost per boarding. The report concluded “at a certain point in the future, Sound Transit may have to come to terms with a reality that one of its services is not living up to a reasonable definition of viability“.

Current Sounder North boardings (image: 2020 Sound Transit Service Implementation Plan)

Since 2012, Sound Transit has expended another $26 million in capital and has a further $105 million scheduled by 2028, much of that for parking expansions at Edmonds and Mukilteo. Operations run about $11 million per year. Those outlays have increased ridership a little by improving reliability in winter, but Sounder North still serves fewer than 800 round-trip commuters each weekday. Four trains in each direction carry morning riders from Everett, Mukilteo and Edmonds to King Street station in Seattle, and back in the afternoon. At about $27 per boarding, the operating costs don’t look much better than in 2012. These costs will soar over $50 per boarding after Lynnwood Link pulls away nearly 40% of riders.

By the metrics of the Oversight Panel in 2012, there seems no path to “a reasonable definition of viability“.

Sounder North ridership improved between 2014 and 2017, but has since declined again. A further decline is expected after Lynnwood Link opens. (chart by author from Sound Transit data, forecast is pre-COVID)

Set against a tens of billions of dollars capital program, it has historically appeared small enough to ignore. Riders are enthusiastic and politically potent even if not so numerous. But trade-offs are real, as continued investment in Sounder North diverts resources from better used services in the Snohomish subarea. Here’s the math.

Sounder North is projected to consume $485 million in capital, operations and state of good repair expenses between 2020 and 2041. Light rail, BRT, and Regional Express buses were projected to run a shade under $10 billion over the same time, before the imminent recession derailed the forecast. Of that, $5.9 billion is in light rail capital outlays post-Lynnwood Link, including the Everett extension and a ridership-based share of the second downtown tunnel.

An immediate stop to Sounder service on the north line is about one-twelfth the Link capital program cost over two decades. Very roughly, there’s enough money currently committed to Sounder North to cover the Snohomish Link capital program for about one and one-half years. In a severe recession, some delays in Link reaching Everett are inevitable, but shaving one and one-half years off those delays seems worthwhile when the alternative is a train serving fewer than a thousand daily commuters in 2041.

Sound Transit expects Sounder North ridership to remain very low in the future even as Sounder South does far better (table: Sound Transit)

139 Replies to “Whether to cut Sounder North?”

  1. I am a longtime North Sounder apologist, but the opportunity cost argument is convincing. Thanks, Dan!

    1. I’m in favor, but then I’ve always been a skeptic of Sounder North. Sad but unsurprised that the money thrown at parking failed to move the needle.

  2. Put stations in belltown and Ballard. The increased ridership from these two stops will fund the whole line.

    1. A Ballard stop would have very small ridership, just because of where it would be (in the middle of nowhere — a place so void of ridership that Metro doesn’t bother running a train there). A Belltown stop would have good ridership, but not from the north. There simply aren’t that many people from the north riding the train to downtown — stopping in Belltown isn’t going to change that. Adding the Belltown stop may make sense, but as part of South Sounder.

      1. Oh yeah, oops. It should be:

        A Ballard stop would have very small ridership, just because of where it would be (in the middle of nowhere — a place so void of ridership that Metro doesn’t bother running a bus there).

        The other time I wrote train I meant train.

      1. Of course it would be better to have more Sounder Stations. But it doesn’t change the main problem: North Sounder performs poorly, while South Sounder does not. There is no way that adding station(s) would dramatically increase ridership on North Sounder, which means that it still wouldn’t be worth it. North Sounder has ten times the ridership of South Sounder, even though it has only has one downtown station as well.

      2. @RossB
        I bet you wish there was an edit feature for posting here. Obviously you meant South Sounder has 10X the ridership….

    2. Think in terms of a pedestrian. The concentration of destinations and residents is centered at 20th-22nd. People arriving by train don’t have a car in their pocket so they have to walk or transfer to a bus ortaxi. Ridership and customer satisfaction drops off the further the station is from the center. A Ballard Sounder station would have the same problem as a Link 14th Station: it’s excessively far a neighborhood the size and density of Ballard. What makes the majority of people in New York and London not own cars is that steps from their origin is a frequent transit line that’s easy to walk to. A Ballard Sounder station would get some riders but not many. It would have the same problem as Edmonds and Mukilteo. Actually worse because there’s no downtown around the station, and Seattlites would not be as tolerant of driving out-of-direction to a Ballard station.

      Belltown I’m not sure where the station would be. I’m imagining near Pier 70. That’s down a steep hill from almost everything in Belltown.

      1. Somewhere between Vine St. and Pier 66 would make the most sense. Already present elevator and skyway, plus some extra traffic to the Victoria ferry and cruise terminal. But yes that climb up the hill would be a major turn off and I’m not sure if any location before the tunnel actually has enough room for even a simple station. I guess they could finally take out the old trolley tracks that are still there.

  3. I can see thesounder train from my office and hear it from my house. Yet, I would have to bike a greater distance to the stations than just biking straight to work.
    From Edmonds to King street, even the slow moving train is significantly faster than other alternatives. However, it doesn’t seem to cause catastrophes when it is dropped.
    Expedia has a private “transit center” next to the tracks. Perhaps they could be encouraged to build a station. Or perhaps we look into a state run line that runs a few times per day from eastern Washington. This will provide an improvement on the current limited Amtrak option, while still providing a commuter route.

    1. Expedia is covered (much better) by Ballard link.
      Frequent service trumps commuter rail.

      1. Ballard link doesn’t exist. A sounder train stop in Belltown would be fantastic, even a stop at Expedia would help the neighborhood. A bikeable destination, too.

      2. It’s several trains a day one direction only. These stations would be really useful (Belltown, Expedia, etc) but their utility would be really limited.

        How many people need to get from Expedia to Mukilteo at 4:00 pm?

        Reconnect the area that is now the Fremont Fred Meyer with Interbay (there used to be a railroad bridge across the Ship Canal there) and extend Sounder South north to there. Maybe an elevated station above the parking lot? This gives vastly improved utility as it hits far more population and activity centers and intersecting bus routes than does the single-direction limited service Sounder North.

  4. Any costs savings will be slightly offset by the need to provide comparable bus service for Edmonds & Mulkiteo. If 50% of the riders are expected to shift to Lynnwood Link, why not wait until then to eliminate the service? The number of negatively impacted riders will be much less than today (pre-COVID), and the cost will be lower because the replacement bus service will connect to Link rather than Seattle.

    Politically, it will be much easier to frame this cost savings step with the context of the major restructure of all Snohomish service when Lynnwood Link opens. Many riders will lose their 1-seat ride to Seattle, trading off a direct route for better frequency/span of service that will come with reinvested service hours. Messaging that to change to Edmonds and Mulkiteo Sounder riders along with Everett, Mill Creek, etc. bus riders seems much more palatable.

    It will also be a less emotional debate. ST & CT can engaged with Edmonds & Mulkiteo and say “hey, we are re-thinking our express service to Seattle across the entire county. Instead of a direct connect to Seattle, you will now get X, Y, and Z.”

    Otherwise, if the decision is simply, “this route is mediocre, let’s save money and kill it,” then the same logic applies to oodles of bus routes. Killing Sounder North but not mediocre express bus service is unfair. If the goal is to kill off expensive, low preforming modes, there are ferries and streetcars that should also be on the chopping box. Opens a pandora’s box.

    1. For example, the 417 only runs 3 times each way right now. That’s a rather expensive route to run downtown with lots of deadhead, but with after Lynnwood Link, the cost per run is much less. So you can go to the Mulkiteo community and offer dramatically more 417 service, which may be slightly worse for Mulkiteo station but much better service for the dozen-ish other 417 stops within Mulkiteo, and still earn the O&M and capital savings.

    2. I wouldn’t worry about the “Pandora’s box” of killing routes. Sound Transit (and I’m guessing every agency) has done that in the past. Nor are buses like the 417 anywhere near as expensive per rider as the train.

      But I agree about the other points. There would be a cost to running more buses (as I wrote below). There would be a big political cost as well to killing off the train now, or even with Northgate Link. The easiest thing to do politically is just wait until Lynnwood Link. There will be a huge restructure at that point, and this just becomes part of it. Riders will miss their one seat ride on the train, but other riders will miss their one seat ride on the bus.

      The main thing to do is not make any long term investment in North Sounder. Building a bigger park and ride lot is a really bad idea. That would be like building an HOV ramp to the U-District right now. In a few years, it would be obsolete, just like the park and ride lots.

      1. Pandora’s box is mostly the political issue. Yes, ST can and will kill projects, but Sounder North is a flagship project so if it’s going to be canceled it will be the context of a large trade-off /restructure. Also, eliminating a voter approved service will be difficult to do politically. I’d imagine staff will have to official say the service is “suspended” due to financial constraints and then it would need to be officially removed in a future vote. The easements are permanent, so ST would always be able to come back add service in the future.

        As for investing further in Sounder North, check out current scopes … the “improvements March 2020” are a quick read:

        I don’t see anything objectionable. The station access improvements are all still valid if you instead provide express bus service. All the parking options are leasing, so you can keep those for express bus riders or just pull the plug later. I don’t see ST building parking structures like for South Sounder. If anything, these are the kind of incremental improvements STB would advocate for at the south Sounder stations.

      2. “Pandora’s box is mostly the political issue.”

        Frankly, I think this argument is vastly overstated. I say that because there seems to be this disconnect between the Snohomish County leadership (and ST board representatives) and their constituencies when it comes to the matter of Sounder North performance and costs. I think if one were to present the facts (just the facts and not the agency’s spin or aspirations) as known today to ST district taxpayers and then poll them on whether to continue running the line or pulling the plug, I think the results would show a majority supporting the latter.

        I live in Edmonds. I know plenty of folks in this area who use the transit that is available here in SW SnoCo. I only know one person who occasionally uses Sounder North. Given Sounder North’s abysmal ridership numbers, that’s probably a rather common anecdotal observation.

        Additionally, support for Sound Transit in general in this area seems to be slipping since the ST3 vote in 2016. There are a number of reasons for this change, including the Lynnwood Link busted budget and delay, the RTA MVET issue, and people generally not understanding that Link to Lynnwood wasn’t dependent upon ST3 approval. Hence I believe there is enough “bad will” sentiment that if the measure were to be voted on again today it would fail in the SnoCo subarea. The I-976 vote outcome in the subarea may portend a similar consensus among the subarea constituency.

        Weren’t you arguing in that previous comment thread (the one the OP mentions) on this subject matter from a couple of weeks ago that Link WOULDN’T cannibalize Sounder North ridership?

      3. I get your point. Looking at the details, they seem quite reasonable. In general, I’m not sure how they get the relatively large price tag.

        But I still think it makes sense to assume that North Sounder is going away. In general, there is nothing special about the area by the current stations if there is no train. It is simply a bus stop, and not a particularly special one. I suppose you also improve ferry transfers, but there is no reason why Sound Transit should invest in say, a park and ride lot close to the ferry, when they can invest in a cheaper park and ride lot farther away.

      4. @Tslgm – yes, I did. I’m skeptical they would. The North Sounder riders I know from work were all a walk or very short drive to their station, but admittedly our office was in the ID, so Sounder is very compelling.

        In the absence of a good bus connection, I don’t see why most Edmonds & Mulkiteo riders would switch away from Sounder to Link. Perhaps the ST modeling assumes good CT feeder service to Link, or more North Sounder riders are heading to Westlake rather than ID. That’s the first time I’ve see that data, so I’m skeptical but I’ll accept it for the purposes of this debate.

        I still think losing Sounder is a loss for Edmonds, and for Everett commuter rail is a good albeit premium service given the distance of that commute.

        But looking at the 417 route really changed my mind. Frequent, all day 417 to Lynnwood TC is a good, logical (i.e. linear) route, and an improvement for most of Mulkiteo except perhaps those within the Sounder station walkshed.

        So if Mulkiteo can actually end up with better service post-Lynnwood restructure, and Everett loses a quality premium service but isn’t losing any real mobility, then it really comes down to Edmonds’ station.
        Supporting North Sounder for just Edmonds is much less compelling than where I was last week.

        Though I will also say that waiting until 2024 gives Edmonds & Mulkiteo some more runway to demonstrate they can develop TOD around the station areas and boost ridership, on which I remain more bullish than most. But if still no TOD come 2024, then I will concede.

    3. Any costs savings will be slightly offset by the need to provide comparable bus service for Edmonds & Mukilteo. If 50% of the riders are expected to shift to Lynnwood Link, why not wait until then to eliminate the service? The number of negatively impacted riders will be much less than today (pre-COVID), and the cost will be lower because the replacement bus service will connect to Link rather than Seattle.

      I would argue with CT Route 113 – Mukilteo to Lynnwood Transit Center – slowly adding trips, some of this work is already underway. Maybe Sound Transit should take over that route if CT finds they can’t add the appropriate # of trips to truly match up with Lynnwood Link.

      I also support ending Sounder North if it would speed up Link delivery. The best and highest use of Link is to remove from I-5 and I-405 buses.

    4. Yes, ST should provide replacement bus service, but I assume that will be a fraction of Sounder North’s costs. What does ST do when the line is closed due to mudslides? I haven’t heard about replacement runs then, so does everybody just fit on the existing buses?

      Replacement buses don’t have to start exactly at the stations. Only about ten people live in downtown Mukilteo, and a modest number in downtown Edmonds. Most people come from further east, and the only reason they go to downtown Mukilteo and Edmonds is that’s where the only Sounder stations are. They could go to closer P&Rs for replacement buses. Some of those may already have ST Express so ST can just add runs to existing routes. Others may have 4xx routes, so ST could pay CT to add runs to avoid adding another route brand. It’s all interim until 2024, remember.

      Which ST Express routes have little ridership? The 513 may be the worst; it mainly exists because of the time-consuming nature of getting to some of the P&Rs so they don’t want to put them all on the same route. The 417 is irrelevant because it’s a CT route, and the 4xx routes are under a different political mandate. CT constituents have repeatedly said they want their tax money going mostly to Seattle express routes because that’s what they perceive as the maximum benefit. So they may tolerate less-productive express routes than ST’s constituents as a whole would. (And ST is one tax district and one agency with central board votes, not autonomous subarea districts.)

      ST has never shown any inclination to cancel Sounder North, except in musings of a potential necessity in the 2008 recession. The new situation may make previously-impossible things possible. But if ST is to cancel Sounder North in 2024, it should be preparing the public now, and even better in 2016 before the ST3 vote. A metro reorg takes a year or two for the the public to get used to it and debate it and to get buy-in from the politicians. Shutting down Sounder North would require even more of that.

      1. I wholeheartedly agree with your comment, “… and even better in 2016 before the ST3 vote.” Sounder North was already a boondoggle then and should have been addressed years ago. It did not require a pandemic to recognize this. ST’s overly optimistic ridership and cost estimates have effectively discouraged public confidence.

      2. When it comes right down to it, North Sounder is luxury transit. For some, it is outstanding. But for many others, it is simply a bit better than the alternative. Ridership each direction varies about 20% at each station, which means that lots of riders are not only familiar with other ways to get there, but they use them. Yet I’m sure there are some riders who absolutely love the current arrangement.

        This puts it into the category that Jarrett Walker calls Elite projection. It is easy to imagine someone — no matter how wealthy — taking advantage of this opportunity. To be clear, I’m not suggesting a majority of the riders are actually wealthy — they may simply be lucky. I get it. I once rode a bus that I called “my personal bus”. It ran along 125th to Lake City, then went to downtown Bellevue. I loved that bus, as it ran a few blocks from my house, and a few blocks from my work. But eventually, Metro cut it, because there just wasn’t enough ridership to justify its existence. No one would accuse some poor schlub from Lake City working in Bellevue as being “elite”. But the bus just didn’t have the ridership to justify its existence.

        Neither does Sounder North. In Walker’s brilliant essay on microtransit, he wrote this:

        “Improving Customer Experience” Who can argue with that? But the question is: Whose experience, at whose expense? If transit agencies spend more money to serve fewer people, as microtransit requires, in order to give those fewer people an improved customer experience, well, why are those people so special? “Improved customer experience” sounds great, but transit agencies are in the mass transit business, so their customer service improvements need to scale to benefit large numbers of people. If they benefit only a fortunate few, this is pretty much the definition of upward distribution of the benefits of public spending, and hence increased economic inequality. (It can also expose transit agencies to all kinds of civil rights and environmental justice challenges, both political and legal.) In short, the “customer experience” talk seems to boil down to elite projection.

        Again, I’m not suggesting that someone in Edmonds, Mukilteo or Everett who uses the train is wealthy. What I am suggesting is that it just isn’t worth it. It serves only a handful, even if those handful love it.

        I understand fully why Sound Transit didn’t mention the failing with North Sounder before the “big vote”. I wouldn’t. That is politically stupid. But times change, and the current pandemic gives them massive political cover to just say “sorry, this isn’t working”. The sooner they say that, the better.

      3. RossB: You wrote, “I understand fully why Sound Transit didn’t mention the failing with North Sounder before the ‘big vote’.”

        That is exactly what a grifter would do: Sell you a solution to a failing of their own.

      4. @RossB:

        I assume that that bus you mention that ran from Lake City to Bellevue was the old 243. Do you happen to have any ridership numbers for it (averaged per run, since I think it ran only 3x in the morning and 2x in the afternoon)? I am asking because I also rode it one summer (2013 or so) from Ravenna to Bellevue and I recall it being fairly busy – not packed like the corresponding 271 runs, but certainly seemed to hold its own. By the time it got to my stop, I felt like a good half of the seats or so were occupied, and by the time we got to the freeway stop I feel like on occasion most of them were. So definitely seemed to be fairly popular, at least in one direction (it never ran late enough to catch it in the opposite direction, unfortunately). But perhaps I’m just projecting later experiences with the 271 on it, thus I’m genuinely curious to see the ridership numbers in case my memory is just super faulty.

      5. I never knew there was a Lake City to Bellevue route. How did Metro pick that pair?

      6. @Mike Orr

        That I do not know. I can say that it ran at least between 2006 and 2014 or so, whenever the last round of cuts due to the recession was. It seemed to me kind of analogous to the 242, which ran from (I think) Northgate to Redmond, except even less frequent. Basically a sort of reverse commuter bus. I think it continued on from Bellevue TC into Factoria, though I am not sure how it got there (maybe along the current 240 or 246 routes?) so it seemed kind of like a catch-all “commute from Seattle into Bellevue on bank hours” thing. Since I did not work on bank hours, it was useful to me only in the mornings, then evenings I took the 271 back and then caught a connection into Ravenna (either the 71 or the 372 or just walked).

      7. @AM — Yeah, that was the bus. I rode it a few years earlier. My guess it got busier as time went on, but when it came right down to it, wasn’t busy enough at rush hour to justify its existence. The bus probably didn’t have a lot of people getting on and off. A bus like that (a commuter bus) has to be pretty crowded (several people standing) to compete with a lot of other buses at rush hour. I don’t think it was particularly fast, so my guess is the numbers just didn’t work.

  5. The laundry list of “persist!” items is pretty long for North Sounder, and not many of them are solvable without considerable capital outlays.

    Top of that list, as 1a and 1b, would have been a North Downtown station (generally sited at Broad Street) and a new bridge over Salmon Bay. As with all things Sounder, ST is a tenant and not an owner; replacing the Salmon Bay bridge (ideally with a double-track one) is non-trivial and involves not only BNSF but also the Coast Guard.

    I have always believed that the Holy Grail for Sounder capital projects though is definitely some kind of renewal/replacement for the downtown tunnel. I don’t even know where to start with this, but the goal would be to allow through-running and reduce (dramatically, given the dramatic expense) passenger/freight conflicts. This was always in the dreamland realm; with the coming financial crunch, it moves beyond and into parody.

    I wouldn’t complain about including a Ballard station, or an Interbay station when paired with a (much discussed) comprehensive Interbay area improvement effort.

    1. That fantastic futuristic combination cartoon and mass transit system Oran gave us two days ago…”Half Life?”

      Might be perfect moving-pictorial for a 3D X-ray view of our tunneling choices through Downtown Seattle. If I’m at the set, including that once-proposed eastward swing through a Madison-Boren station to connect our Hospital district with the rest of the region.

      Should definitely be programmable to include not only building foundations but soils, rock, and underground water. The section-views I’ve been pleading for over the years…where’s it say they’ve gotta be on paper?

      Mark Dublin

  6. I would be interested to know if it is possible to cut weekday service but keep special event service. Every time I have seen an event train, it has always been packed. I believe they even go from 3 to 5 cars for these trips.

    1. Coupled with either post-COVID Intercity Transit or ST game-day connection between Olympia’s new Transit Center and AMTRAK Lacey Station…..Game Day Special wouldn’t have to be cheap. Where There’s A Will.

      Mark Dublin

  7. I would get rid of it, but I think we should also include the cost of bus service to those areas.

    Ridership between northern stations is negligible — it is all about rush hour express trips to downtown. As it turns out, Sound Transit already provides rush hour express service from Everett to downtown. Likewise, Community Transit already provides service from Mukilteo and Edmonds. For these trips, it is a matter of adding some service to avoid crowding. I don’t have the data for the Community Transit express buses, but there is good data on the 510 (the express bus from Everett). Likewise, there is some data on the train. To make it simpler, I’ll use southbound boardings:

    Everett — 300
    Mukilteo — 150
    Edmonds — 300

    There are four trains each way, running every half hour. That means that Everett would have about 150 additional riders per hour taking the 510. The 510 typically runs every 10 minutes, or six times an hour. Spread evenly, that works out to 25 additional riders per bus. The buses have somewhere between 50 and 70 riders. Seating capacity is 80, and standing capacity is roughly 100. It is quite possible that the bus could handle all the additional riders without forcing anyone to stand, let alone leave them at the curb. But realistically, you would probably add a few buses. Just looking at the schedule and the load, I would probably add three buses, mostly in the early morning. This is when the bus has the most riders, and it is also when it runs less than every ten minutes.

    Edmonds and Mukilteo are a little different. Neither the CT 416 or 417 run that often. This suggests they weren’t that crowded, but it also means that they can’t as easily handle the load. The 416 runs five times a day, each way. That would be an additional 60 riders per bus, obviously overwhelming the buses. The existing buses can probably handle some additional riders. I would probably add another five buses (doubling the total).

    The 417 runs three times a day, so the math is similar to the 416. I would add a couple more.

    That is somewhere around ten additional bus runs a day. Riders would have much better frequency from Edmonds and Mukilteo and a little bit better frequency from Everett (especially early morning, when the bus has more riders, but doesn’t run that often).

    I have no idea how much that costs. I also don’t know how ST would handle the shift of service over to Community Transit. They could run ST buses mixed in with the other buses, but that would be less than ideal (although fairly common). They could also work out some agreement to add more rush-hour service, so that CT could shift things around.

    Regardless, I think this would still work out to be a much better value in the long run. As with so many Sound Transit projects, the first thing I would do is cancel (or delay indefinitely) the parking lot expansions. At worst you keep running the trains until Lynnwood Link gets built — but spending extra money on what is obviously not a cost effective system just doesn’t make sense.

    1. I would also lean toward cutting south North. In the absence of COVID, I would advocate delaying the cut until Lynnwood Link opens, offering Edmonds and Lynnwood at least one nonstop express bus to Lynnwood Station for every Sounder trip they have today.

      With COVID, however, I don’t see any point in running Sounder north at all until people start returning to downtown office jobs again. Maybe by then, it will be close enough to Lynnwood Link opening that temporarily reinstating service just isn’t worth it (give them more trips on the 4XX instead). It is similarly hard to imagine any event large enough to justify special Sounder service happening until we have a COVID vaccine.

      1. I agree asdf2. Special Sounder service should only return with a COVID-19 vaccine, which may be by the end of the calendar year. Also if the savings could be plowed into accelerating Link to Lynnwood, then Everett – that’s a win. Finally, since the hardware could be transferred to much more popular Sounder South – this is a win-win.

    2. could cut it in half but not remove it, It is my daily commute to Seattle for work. I’m not near a park and ride so would have to drive just to be able to get to a bus stop

      1. Which station? From what I can tell, every station has bus service.

        In any event, I would keep it until Lynnwood Link. I wouldn’t invest in it, but I would keep it running. Then, when Lynnwood Link opens, I would kill it. Lynnwood Link will have all sorts of new and different bus service, feeding into Link. It may not be as good as the ride that exists now, but overall it would be better. While you might be worse off, plenty of other people would have a faster, more frequent transit trip.

  8. This is convincing, but if you want to get to Everett without delay and still serve nearly as many riders, the *real* money is in cutting the Paine Field deviation. Hell, cut both Sounder North and Paine and focus on making trips from Everett and South Everett as fast and frequent as possible.

    Another thought is since the easements are a sunk cost, then it’s worthwhile to explore ways to provide non-redundant service at radically reduced costs. That 2040 forecast shows Everett providing only 11% of the already-small Sounder North ridership. So while it’s pretty indefensible to continue serving Everett, what about a 1- or 2-car DMU serving Edmonds and/or Mukilteo only? You could retain 89% of the ridership base, reduce trip times by 20% (from 60 minutes to 48), and also cut or restructure the also-quite-expensive 416 and 417 express buses.

    1. On the contrary, I would argue that cutting Sounder North actually strengthens the case for a Paine Field Deviation for Link, in that it would greatly reduce the length of the bus ride necessary to connect Link to Mukiliteo.

      With a Paine Field Station, I could easily see a bus connecting it to Mukilteo that runs all day, every half hour (more often during weekday rush hour), following the direct route of SR-525->SR-526. The route is so short, you could run it every half hour with just one bus. But, if the bus has to go all the way to either I-5/128th St. Station or Everett Station, that’s a much longer bus ride, which makes a direct route and frequent service both much harder to justify. The end result would likely be a slow, infrequent, tortuous route like today’s 113, with only slight modifications.

      1. Absolute agreement again asdf2. Being I used to spend a lotta time around Paine Field and I’m transit dependant, I know just how tortuous Route 113 is and how underserved most of Paine Field is.

        Route 107 would be more of a relief, but not enough trips. I suggest maybe Sound Transit take that one over if need be.

        I am also worried about how Mukilteo Multimodal Terminal will connect to Lynnwood Link… especially as Seaway Transit Center about 5 miles away won’t be connected except at peak hours for right now. Nervous.

        As to the Paine Field deviation, I would prefer a spur to the Boeing factory using automated vehicles and a lot more bus connections. But I am a minority and I talked last September to one of the consultants who worked on that proposal. The political class in Snohomish County really pushed hard for this full-on deviation in the backrooms and I don’t see that changing.

        One last thing since I think I’ve posted enuf comments for the morning: I love trains. But what I love even more is knowing when I will be at the stop to make my transfer so willing to give Sounder North up to get Link faster – that’s what I call the sexy in sexy light rail.

    2. North Sounder, Everett Link via Paine Field, or Everett Link without Paine Field are all bad projects. Arguing which one is worst is like arguing which slug is ugliest. Link should end at Lynnwood, North Sounder should be killed, and money should be put into good bus service.

  9. Pulling the plug on Sounder North would be penny-wise and pound foolish. The savings of $23M/year through 2041 isn’t worth losing an investment that hasn’t been fully leveraged yet.

    What would really help Sounder North is a combined Sounder/Link station at Dravus St that would allow workers in SLU and the north end of downtown to get to their jobs without a long trek down to King Street and back across downtown on a bus.

    A few more trips would also help by giving riders a better range of options that fit their schedule.

    1. I think, if you’re going to do a Sounder->Link transfer to SLU, you may as well ride Link into town instead of Sounder and do a Link->Link transfer at Westlake (or, just get off at Westlake and walk). I don’t see Sounder saving much time, except for those who happen to live right by a Sounder station.

    2. Ross B, this hour, this morning, I’m inclined to stay with Railwatcher on this one. While I’m also going to increasingly address the question of getting enough bus-priority lanes and signals to make sure that whatever else Dave Ross is telling me is stuck in traffic from Everett on in, jam does not include ST buses.

      Because based on history, there’s another constant: When private railroaders finally run out of both money and bribe-able legislators…..if I don’t live to see BN unload several hundred miles of landslide-prone scrap-steel on the public treasury, my brothers’ grand-kids will.

      Speaking of whom, doubt Washington State will ever put the death penalty at sixteen but since more than one other State does….would only be good for transit for that to be the voting age too.

      Mark Dublin

    3. Personally, I see the most utility from Sounder north would be if the trains would have been where they are putting Link. I know why the waterfront route was chosen, but it is not a great routing for ridership.

      If I were transit king with no constraints, I’d have Everett to Northgate via the Link routing, a stop in the U, and a stop at Westlake. Then King St. The “spine” is better suited for commuter rail than light rail.

      Alas, we have to work with what we have. I’d cut Sounder north, and make good, frequent connections to the light rail spine. Best that can be done.

      1. Thankfully, Snohomish county doesn’t consider the Spine a solution for commuter rail and understands that all-day LRT frequency is great for all day travel. Ergo, the Paine Field alignment, which prioritizes trips within Snohomish over commuter trips from Everett to Seattle.

    4. Truncating Sounder North at Interbay would get the trains out of the tunnel and alleviate congestion at King Station (an issue when South Sounder has 15 minute headways). Look for this to happen if only to facilitate South Sounder capacity expansion.

    5. While I like Dravus as a transfer point much better than any of the Urbanist-proposed stations at “West Ballard”, “Fishermen’s Cove” or Smith Cove, there is a busy “yard lead” between the main and the ball field that I don’t think can be taken out of service. Other than that it’s a GREAT location, with direct service to Fremont, lower Wallingford and the U District.

    6. A few more trips, and a few more stops would certainly help, but most likely, it would be putting good money after bad. You are talking about dozens, maybe hundreds of new riders — certainly not thousands.

      Somehow South Sounder manages to get lots and lots of riders despite having the one — and only one — stop in downtown Seattle. Making excuses for North Sounder (“if only it had a stop at Interbay/Belltown/Golden Gardens”) somehow misses that point. You aren’t going to double, triple or increase ridership tenfold just by adding a few stations. It will never be like South Sounder, no matter how many stations you add. The proof is in the pudding. Complain all you want about the weakness of King Street Station, but in 2019, here was the ridership at that station (both directions):

      North Sounder — 1,485
      South Sounder — 13,380

  10. When once again there’s any such thing as public participation in decision-making….any guesses as to how many people would be willing to fight to keep Sounder North at all?

    Also curious about what percentage of its passengers come across the water to meet the train at either Edmonds or Mukilteo- who might do better with fast watercraft directly to Seattle.

    Bus-battery assists of these last several years probably make it possible for Route 44 trolleybuses to meet Sounder at what I think is most likely train stop, west of present terminal at the Senior Center.

    But am I the only one who thinks that for both passengers and freight, the whole seaside line is now in every sense our great grandfathers’ railroad? How far off, really is mag-lev freight from Vancouver BC to Tierra del Fuego in Southern Chile?

    East or west of the Cascades/Sierra Nevada, at any given point up to the engineers? So what I think is most likely future use of that track?

    About 1:40 on the video…..stood at the Locks
    and watched the “combination” containing the orange locomotive cross the Ballard Bridge southbound pulling a real long excursion train.

    Also, one of the beauties of the technology the Swedes call “Spore-vang” and we call “Light Rail”:
    where called for, like maybe west of Ballard, train can do street-running one block and terrific view of both Mountains and Sound the next.

    Honest, though….no rush about it.

    Mark Dublin

  11. The more I think about it, the more I would simply plan on killing Sounder North once Lynnwood Link gets here. That means no major investments, but train service would continue until then.

  12. in addition to money, another opportunity cost is the equipment, engines and cars; they could be shifted to South Sounder. North Sounder has always been a loser. it should have been obvious to all when the BNSFRR did not sell the windows for two-way service. ST has voted to kill several bus routes, bus projects, and Link stations.

    1. That’s a great point about the opportunity cost related to the potential redeployment of assets to Sounder South.

      As others have stated above, the calculations do also need to account for the offsetting replacement bus service costs (capital and O&M). I don’t see any scenario whereby CT would have the funding (or the desire frankly) to supplement their current frequency on routes like the 417, so the onus would fall on ST to create new STX service.

      One other factor that hasn’t been included in the discussion thus far are the sunk costs of the debt service expenses the SnoCo subarea has incurred,and continues to incur, related to Sounder North’s capital costs. This isn’t a minor thing for what is the smallest subarea in the district. For example, for the period 2009 thru 2016, the SnoCo subarea spent over $100M in total debt service payments. (Admittedly, this isn’t all just commuter rail; early STX service capital outlays also required the agency to take on debt per the Sound Move financing plan.) By comparison, the subarea spent just shy of $114M for system expansion capital costs during this same time period. One needs to factor in this additional sunk cost pertaining to the incurred debt.

  13. The only future Sounder North has will be as an extension of the ferry routes. If Whidbey and North Kitsap grow as bedroom communities it will be very helpful to have train service coordinated with the ferry schedule. Unfortunately ST and WSDOT have never been very good about working together.

    1. Will the West Sound counties pay for it? Sound Transit should be focusing on benefiting the residents of the Snohomish subarea.

      1. Maybe? I don’t know. I just said that’s the only hope for the useful future Sounder North has.

    2. It is a very difficult thing to pull off, and besides, you are better off just running passenger ferries directly to downtown Seattle.

  14. What happens to the track usage fee paid to BNSF? If we’ve already agreed to pay a fee, I don’t think we would save very much by axing the service. That extra cost should be a factor.

    As a matter of principle, I’m all for finding ways to not pay BNSF while providing transit service. It’s like agreeing to be a lifetime renter when there’s just one place to rent and there’s no rent control. If ST can “move out”, I say go for it!

    1. Those easements are sunk costs. Per the staff report accompanying ST Board Resolution 2003-22:

      “Resolution No. R2003-22 – Authorizing the Chief Executive Officer to execute a Purchase and Sale Agreement between the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company for the purchase of real property interests required for Everett to Seattle Commuter Rail Service.
      Through the Purchase and Sale Agreement, Sound Transit would purchase under threat of
      condemnation four perpetual easements with which to operate four round-trip, peak-direction-only Commuter Trains (one for each easement) between Everett and Seattle:
      • Closing of First Easement
      • On December 17, 2003
      • $79 million payment
      • Closing of Second Easement
      • In December 2004
      • $79 million payment
      • Conditions of the Closing of the Second Easement are:
      ♦ BNSF providing to Sound Transit on or before March 31, 2004, plans, specifications
      and design documents completed to 30% level of completion for the Second Easement Improvements (i.e., projects within Seattle), and Third Easement Improvements (i.e., projects between Seattle and Everett—not inclusive), in accordance with the
      Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and Record of Decision (ROD).
      ♦ BNSF providing to Sound Transit on or before January 9, 2004 a preliminary estimate of the wetland impacts resulting from the Second Easement Improvements, Third Easement Improvements, and Fourth Easement Improvements (i.e., projects in Everett: Lowell Siding, Delta Yard, and other project elements in the Everett Loop).
      ♦ BNSF providing to Sound Transit on or before February 29, 2004 a more precise estimate of the maximum area of wetland impacts resulting from the Second Easement Improvements, Third Easement Improvements and Fourth Easement Improvements in accordance with the EIS and ROD.
      ♦ BNSF providing to Sound Transit on or before August 31, 2004, plans, specifications
      and design documents completed to 30% level of completion for the Fourth
      Easement Improvements in accordance with the EIS and ROD.
      ♦ If the permits for Lowell Siding are denied or deemed unobtainable prior to the
      closing of the Second Easement, then BNSF will have the option to not close (with no second $79 million payment by Sound Transit and no trains beyond Train #1).
      • Closing of Third Easement
      • In December 2006
      • $50 million payment
      • Conditions of the Closing of the Third Easement are:
      ♦ If the permits for the Third Easement Improvements are denied or deemed unobtainable prior to the closing of the Third Easement, then Sound Transit will have the option to not close (with no third $50 million payment by Sound Transit and no trains beyond Train #1 and Train #2).
      • Closing of Fourth Easement
      • December 2007
      • $50 million payment
      • Conditions of the Closing of the Fourth Easement are:
      ♦ If the permits for the Fourth Easement Improvements are denied or deemed unobtainable prior to the closing of the Fourth Easement, then Sound Transit will have the option to not close (with no fourth $50 million payment by Sound Transit
      and no trains beyond Train #1, Train #2, and Train #3).
      • Post Closing Options
      • Resale of Second Easement to BNSF – Following the December 2004 closing and $79
      million payment to BNSF, if the permits for projects within the City of Seattle do not appear to be likely to be obtained, Sound Transit would have the option of “selling back” the easement to BNSF for $27.5 million without interest. Such a determination would be made no sooner than November 2006 and no later than November 2010.
      • Resale of Third and Fourth Easements to BNSF – If the respective closings for the third
      and fourth easements do occur, and the $50 million payments for each respective easement is made to BNSF, and Sound Transit is subsequently unable to obtain said permits (or deemed unlikely to be obtained), then Sound Transit would have the option of “selling back” such easements to BNSF for $50 million each (without interest). The option for the third easement must be exercised no sooner than December 2008 and no later than December 2012 and for the fourth easement no sooner than December 2009 and no later than December 2013.”

      1. The argument in the post treats this all as unrecoverable sunk cost. None of the savings suggested depend on getting money back from BNSF.

        However if BNSF can put the capacity to use, it should be possible to sell them back for something. Probably less than ST paid, but not nothing either. Makes the case for cutting Sounder stronger if some of the past capital costs can be recovered.

      2. “The argument in the post treats this all as unrecoverable sunk cost. ”

        Oh, of course; that was fully understood when I read your argument. Whether ST can negotiate a deal to recover any value from any of these “unused” permanent easements remains to be seen (though I’m quite skeptical of that actually happening).

      3. Why not? BNSF has more potential customers than it has freight capacity. And couldn’t ST lease the time slots to freight trains since it owns them?

      4. ST could potentially trade the leases for those on Sounder South or for Sounder South track improvements. I’m not sure how it would fit into subarea equity, but BNSF doesn’t care about that.

      5. The problem is, I don’t know how you negotiate with BNSF in good faith. If the only options are to accept whatever low-ball number BNSF offers or take nothing, Sound Transit has no negotiating leverage.

      6. ST has not even discussed the issue with BNSF or studied it yet. It’s premature to say what would happen. It all depends on how keen BNSF is to get those leases back. It keeps saying it’s reluctant to commit to more passenger time slots because it has more lucrative freight options and a capacity constraint.

      7. “And couldn’t ST lease the time slots to freight trains since it owns them?”

        The short answer to that is no. First of all, it’s inaccurate to refer to what ST actually purchased from BNSF for $258M as leases. They are land easements and as such convey no possessory interest (like a lease). Secondly, the easement agreement that the two parties entered into stipulated the intended use the grantee was being awarded. Sound Transit would be in violation of the conveyance if they attempted to do what you’ve suggested. A new agreement between the parties would be needed. I’m just skeptical that BNSF would be willing to play ball here.

      8. Dan,

        Why would BNSF pay anything for the “easements”. We refer to them with the shortcut term “slot”, but it’s not like the schedule is hard-wired into the CTC system in Fort Worth. If there are no Sounder trains running and BNSF needs/want to run a freight, it will run a freight.

      9. I think this easement situation may put cold water on extending South Sounder to Smith Cove, which some advocates have wanted. It does make me wonder if the “peak direction” stipulation could be exchanged for sending four trips on South Sounder north to Smith Cove — although what happens to the empty trains after Smith Cove is a detail that might “de-rail” the idea.

      10. Al, there is enough capacity at Interbay to dedicate half a yard track to daytime storage of a couple of South Sounder Trains. The biggest technical problem would be getting the crews to and from the trains.

      11. The problem is, I don’t know how you negotiate with BNSF in good faith. If the only options are to accept whatever low-ball number BNSF offers or take nothing, Sound Transit has no negotiating leverage.

        Sound Transit has something that we can assume is valuable to BNSF. Otherwise BNSF ripped us off, and sold us something worth way more than it is worth to them (which is quite possible). I doubt that is the case — I think they want that back. Sound Transit can just hold on to it, and wait until BNSF makes a good offer. BNSF has an incentive to do the deal sooner, rather than later, because it makes money right away.

        It is really not much different than the way that labor and management negotiate. If there is a strike, then both sides lose. Thus there is no incentive for a lockout or a strike. Yet they happen all the time, because both sides want the better deal. If North Sounder is no longer being used, then it is essentially a strike/lockout. That could continue indefinitely, but both sides have incentive to make a deal.

      12. My understanding is the easement negotiation process is highly regulated. BNSF has leverage insofar as the current law allows them to place a high price on their ROW capacity, but they cannot misrepresent. So a better comparison would be arbitration, where BNSF cannot be unreasonable or they are at risk of a neutral 3rd party (I think the FRA) siding with ST in a dispute. My understanding of the specifics is very hazy.

        I do believe the most valuable part of the North Sounder easement is in the downtown tunnel. Simply getting N Sounder out of the tunnel, whether it is by truncating at Interbay or simply suspending operations, is of value to BSNF as it alleviates a key choke-point.

      13. @RossB
        “I think they want that back….”

        Do we really know that? Is there freight movement being constrained today because of these four ST easements? I’d be happy to read any relevant linked sources you could provide that discuss the matter.

        “If North Sounder is no longer being used…That could continue indefinitely…”

        Perhaps. But that comes with some inherent risk for ST as it would allow BNSF to make a claim for an abandoned easement.

        One needs to keep in mind that the expensive ST easements we are talking about here are most likely easements in gross (as opposed to appurtenants), which are generally not assignable or transferable with the exception being commercial easements in gross (like with a utility). It all comes down to the precise nature of the property right conveyance and having not seen the actual P&S agreement and the easement documents I can only speculate as to the type involved. With that being said, even within the confines of a commercial easement in gross, there are limitations to any future apportionment of rights based on the original stipulations made in the easement agreement. The language of the granting clause itself largely determines the nature of the property interest conveyed. Likewise, the right to further assign or divide an easement is subject to the original limitations of the granting clause, such as its proposed use or the burden to be imposed upon the owner of the underlying fee.

        Sorry about getting so in the weeds on this. I thought my response was needed to dispel the notion that it’s a simple matter with regard to ST being able to “sell off” these easements they’ve purchased from BNSF for Sounder North.

    2. Interesting. At least ST isn’t paying annual usage — although I wonder how O&M costs are covered for things like track upkeep, signal control and related ongoing expenses.

      Can this permanent easement be sold or leased to another party? Is there any market for it?

      At least this appears to hold the easement in perpetuity regardless if Sounder North is operating or not. Maybe BNSF would even find it advantageous to buy it back.

      1. “Maybe BNSF would even find it advantageous to buy it back.”

        That’s exactly what Dan was referencing in his reply immediately above.

  15. Also just this minute remembered: That orange monster of a locomotive? Bus or car, I forget which, but at King Street Station, brief conversation with the engineer.

    Just for the occasion, his work uniform included a Viking helmet, horns and all. Though am also told by sources close to the former Nordic Heritage Museum, that while there might’ve been horned helmets for ritual, the Norseman’s battle headgear was a lot more functional than showy.

    Public Art budget for Ballard station might want to include one of each.

    Mark Dublin

  16. This was from the Citizen Oversight Panel in their 2019 report released in February 2020:

    “Ridership on Sounder North

    “For several years the COP has expressed concerns about the relatively low ridership and high cost per rider on Sounder North. The COP also recognizes the Agency’s long-term investment in the line, which includes slide mitigation measures, additional parking, and other station access improvements identified in ST3. For these reasons, the COP has removed this issue from its list of ongoing concerns.”

    In other words, they took the issue off the table. The reasons listed are not particularly convincing, as none of the investments seem to induce much more demand for Sounder North.

    More importantly, I am not sure how a politically-acceptable resolution to ending the service could happen. Clearly, there is a Sounder North advocacy working on its behalf. While we may all agree that there are better ways to spend ST money, a convincing service alternative and PR effort would be needed to counter this advocacy.

    1. “For these reasons, the COP has removed this issue from its list of ongoing concerns.”

      It’s a remarkable paragraph. I think the translation is “if you’re going to keep shoveling money into this whether it gets any ridership or not, we’ll find something more productive to be concerned about”.

      1. “It’s a remarkable paragraph. I think the translation is…”

        Agreed. That would be my take on what they said here as well. I think it just goes to illustrate how ineffectual the COP has been in actual practice. Didn’t the SAO examine this relationship in one of its audits like a decade or so ago? Well, here we are again.

  17. As a north-end resident myself, I was excited to see the Sounder make its debut in Snohomish Co a little over 20 years ago. But as time has passed and commuting patterns have changed, I now realize it is a boondoggle. Its budget should be shifted to ST Express investments in Snohomish Co instead.

  18. Joe, are those automated vehicles of yours going to be given right-of-way as completely reserved as the one for SkyTrain, in other words a horizontal skyscraper elevator?

    If not, can promise you that if it involves anybody of mine, first negligent injury will cost you enough of a settlement for high speed rail to Anchorage. Public Administration PhD, maybe, but I’d like to see honest long-term balance sheet on unloading conductors’ work on drivers.

    Lot of passenger information and assistance never got delivered. And loss of conductor’s patent facial disapproval for misbehavior had to be made up over a lot of years by somebody,

    However, based on up-close personal observation, all’s forgiven if you just bring in Oakland Airport’s cable-pulled People Mover. In addition to that shiny cable looking really cool, it works.

    Maybe resonance of Andrew Halliday’s classic draft-horse rescuers in SF, though don’t think your Everett line will be either this steep or traffic-challenged.

    Mark Dublin

    1. The sparse publicly available documentation for the ST3 proposal of a spine-to-Boeing factory spur was that it would be 100% grade elevated. Just like SkyTrain in Vancouver, BC.

      1. Thanks, Joe. Give my best to the Valley and all the way over the Mountains at least to Winthrop, though maybe while you’re at it all the way to Metaline Falls. Sometimes miss Marblemount a lot.

        Mark Dublin

  19. I encourage everyone to go look at Google Streetview around the stations. The land use is pathetic. There are several blocks that don’t even have sidewalks around Mukilteo and Everett stations. There’s hardly even a reason to run a bus to the Edmonds or Mukilteo station areas. With the existing land use, train service is always going to be a money pit.

    But there are other options besides continuing or ending service. Rezone the areas around all the stations (which are low density), and sell off the parking lots next to the stations to developers. Of course, it looks so desolate around these stations that maybe the demand just doesn’t exist. In which case, the service should definitely be killed.

    Take that money and put it into bus service where people actually live, shop, or work.

    1. “…that maybe the demand just doesn’t exist.”

      That’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room that ST keeps trying to pretend is a kitty cat. The issue is the corridor and resulting station locations, as you’ve alluded to in your closing comment. Half of the walkshed is eliminated right from the start and nothing changes that basic fact. I live in the Edmonds area but the distance from my home to the Edmonds station is double what it is from my home to the Lynnwood TC. When Lynnwood Link comes online in 2024/25, my best option to get to downtown Seattle is taking Link, not Sounder. The Lynnwood TC/Link Station will be closer, easier to get to and using Link will allow me to avoid the time penalty of looping back from S. Jackson St that Sounder requires (besides giving me way more station options and destinations).

      Personally I’d rather see my ST tax $ spent on speeding up delivery on other capital projects in SnoCo.

    2. I generally agree, but you would need more than 4 trips a day to attract development. It’s not just the immediate station areas, but extremely car-oriented development in Snohomish County in general that contributes to creating few good transit markets.

    3. I’m not sure of the specific constraints, but I could see development concerns about tsunamis, earthquake liquefaction and landslides depending on the parcel. Edmonds doesn’t appear to have an over-crossing for fire trucks so that may also be an issue.

      I’ll add that four leaving trains at morning peak is probably not enough of an incentive for better TOD. It pales in attractiveness compared to Link having 60 trains leave for a similar three-hour morning peak just a few miles away.

      1. Don’t forget about the time penalty for any North Sounder riders who AREN’T headed to the S. Jackson St. area and who are forced to double back northward to reach their final destination “downtown”.

      2. That’s why a simple investment of a few hundred thousand dollars would boost ridership.

        When the Tukwila station was first built as a temporary structure, at that time the cost was about the same as a split-level home. Essentially, a gigantic deck with the same amount of lumber as a whole house.

        Brian Bundridge has spoken about creating a stop at Bell St. just north of the North Portal.

        It only needs to be a simple platform at first.

        There are many who work in the Belltown area, and the even the downtown area who avoid Sounder North because it’s too much of a time penalty back-tracking. The bus ride from the north might be the same as the Sounder-to-Link/bus-and-back trip.
        They opt for the 1 hour bus ride, because they can sleep most of the ride, especially when in slow traffic.

        As far as ridership from Edmonds and Mukilteo, well they’re both their own worst enemy. They should be upzoning next to the stations, and a few developers have tried, but have been thwarted by heigh-limit restrictions.

        I know ridership dropped off a bit when the Kitsap Transit Fast Ferry from Kingston started. The time advantage was worth any difference in cost (if there was one to the riders)

  20. Maybe the problem is the train itself?

    Instead of a traditional locomotive towing passenger cars, Sounder should use the passenger cars with on-board diesel engines.


      Andy, classification is “DMU” for Diesel Multiple Unit. Passenger railcar with its propulsion package under the body, instead of aboard a separate locomotive.

      The ones of my youth were awesome- Michigan Central had a wonderful single-car ride from Detroit to the top of our “Lower Penninsula”.

      Because it served pre-suburban working farm country, in addition to its passenger compartment, the coach had a freight compartment where if you looked in, you could note that you had either an engine-block or a whole tractor for a fellow passenger.

      In addition to a dozen full mik-cans.

      Also works just fine with electric propulsion too. May they never go extinct.

      Mark Dublin

    2. The problem is the location of the track along the shore, which cuts the walkshed/cachement area in half and is west of where 80% of its constituents live. It’s on a narrow hillside which is prone to mudslides, and regulations or BNSF require it to suspend passenger service for 48 hours after mudslides even though freight can run sooner. DMUs offer a lower-cost option for future routes, but it’s not clear how they would improve the passenger experience or ridership on existing routes, and the existing trainsets are a sunk cost that still has several years of life.

      Sounder in South King County is in the middle of the population concentration with a cachement area on both sides and stations in central downtowns. That’s partly why it’s so successful. In Pierce County the alignment is decidedly “odd” (that’s a technical term), but Sumner and Puyallup stations are still central downtowns with a population concentration in all directions. Tacoma Dome is in an odd location and bypasses downtown Tacoma, but that’s where the railroad is, and it again has population in three directions. Tacoma Dome to Lakewood is reasonable given the desire to go to Lakewood, one of Tacoma’s largest concentrations. This all is what makes Sounder South so successful.

    3. Ok I don’t really think this would pencil out but the comment did lead me to finding out this hilarious tidbit

      “The New York Central Railroad strapped two jet engines to an RDC in 1966 and set a United States speed record of 184 mph (296 km/h), although this experimental configuration was never used in regular service. ” –

      1. There it is, Ness. Easy to look at, easy to maintain, simple, and above all, tough. Don’t know which is the most treasonable travesty:

        The United States pulling its own bus and train-purchases off the world market? Or doing the same to itself. What DO we presently supply the world with besides bargain weapons for sadistic tyrannies? In return for bargain access to the oil in which we’re now drowning.

        Pray I live to see the day when the likes of any President on that committee could serve same function for the United States of America, and return the above qualities to the streets beneath its tracks, within our own borders.

        St. Louis and its fine Car Company (sorry, didn’t make any Tesla’s though Elon might do well to study design simplicity in preference to making threats and showing off) performed well and are welcome to compete should they choose.

        But being still locally-loyal to my own long-time service area, a trade for Boeing, perhaps? Reduced negligent homicide charges for the people who sent two world-class airliners into the sky as flying coffins in order to maintain profitability, in return for a long Seattle future of both aircraft and street rail vehicles personifying the PCC’s, rather than the Vertols.

        Starting with first work order tomorrow morning: Catenary-wire SR99 from the “Shops” along the river all the way to Seattle one direction, and the other, trailing-in to an overdue express line from Boeing Access to existing wire to the Airport.

        Like Franklin Roosevelt would’ve put after his own generation’s word positive future three-letter word for “freshly pertinent”:


        Mark Dublin

    4. Many less populated areas around the world uses this type of train to carry passengers. It would think it will be more cost effective.

    5. A huge portion of the cost is based on only using each train, and each crew, once per day for two hours. It’s a very short trip and only one direction, so the crew can’t make multiple trips per day.

      All of these fixed costs are not going to be solved by using a different type of equipment.

  21. I think that Sounder North is probably not worth it, even just with the opportunity cost argument. It seems like an awkward case where it’s so expensive to run that the cost per rider is ridiculous, yet the frequency is low enough that to make it good enough to attract riders would require dumping even more money into it.

    But it seems to me that there is no politically palatable way of getting rid of it until Lynnwood Link opens in 2024,5,6. When that happens, I think it would be possible to cancel it and have special frequent Link shuttle routes from former Sounder stations. Link (from the north at least) seems not too difficult to sell to former Sounder riders (especially those who have come to hate mudslides).

    In the meantime, it seems that ST has no business running both the 510 and Sounder north during the same hours. What I would probably do is cancel the 510 during Sounder hours (so shoulder-peak trips remain), and try to increase Sounder frequency to 20 minutes or better. At the very least, for the Northgate restructure, having Sounder north as an option is the perfect excuse for ST to truncate the 510 at Northgate like everything else (want a one-seat ride to downtown? Then take the train we pay way too much for).

    Finally, as long as Sounder north is running, the fare should be reduced to the regular ST Express fare. It’s no surprise that when faced with a $5 train that is infrequent vs a frequent bus that doesn’t take that much longer for a significant amount less, people choose the frequent bus. It seems silly to pretend that such a high fare makes much of a difference in the ridiculous cost per rider anyway, before you factor in riders that would choose the train if it cost the same as the bus. I think reducing the fare to $3.25 would actually reduce the cost per rider significantly with more people riding, plus it avoids needlessly alienating people who have a hard time affording Sounder.

    1. “special frequent Link shuttle routes from former Sounder stations”

      Shuttle routes to where the Sounder riders live, not to the Sounder stations themselves.

      1. Sure, and that’s the advantage of a bus (which is that it can go basically anywhere). In practice this can be a bus that has a neighborhood tail that runs to the Sounder station, then runs express to Link. I don’t necessarily think it makes a ton of sense to run these frequent routes, but it makes a ton more sense than Sounder north right now. This could be a compromise position.

        A selling point could also be for park and ride Sounder users is that a certain number of them will be on the tail of the bus, and that, though it’s a two-seat ride to a different train, they don’t even have to get in their car anymore. I am doubtful that ST could market this that well, but I think it’s a good idea.

    2. What I would probably do is cancel the 510 during Sounder hours (so shoulder-peak trips remain), and try to increase Sounder frequency to 20 minutes or better.

      I doubt that would work out. Running the train is simply more expensive. You wouldn’t get any additional riders, and quite possibly, you would lose some. The bus serves more destinations, and the 510/512 combination is simple, and works well. There is no decision making — riders downtown take whichever bus arrives. In contrast, riders close to the end of rush hour would wonder if it is worth it try to get to the train station, or simply wait twenty minutes for the next bus.

      Finally, as long as Sounder north is running, the fare should be reduced to the regular ST Express fare.

      I doubt that makes a difference. North Sounder is luxury transit. For some, it works out extremely well. For others, not so much. I doubt you would see a big increase in ridership if it was cheaper. Keep in mind, ridership on the 510 is not huge. It only gets about 1,000 people each way. So it isn’t like everyone from Everett is avoiding the train and taking the bus — they simply aren’t taking transit to Seattle. Even if every single bus rider switched to the train, ridership would still be extremely small — and this is after you invested more money in additional service.

      1. If not a lot of people ride the 510 or the train, it seems weird that ST runs both. Especially since they’re going to be pretty strict about truncating service at Link stations with future openings (the exception being, funnily enough, the 510). It’s a little different with Tacoma since there are a lot of people riding the 590.

        The Sounder having only one stop in Seattle is certainly a weakness. But I’m not sure it renders Sounder a non-viable option for downtown Seattle generally (otherwise why run it at all, north or south?).

        I think there’s a decent chance that just lowering the Sounder fare would move a large fraction of 510 riders over. Lots of people regard the train to be better, otherwise no one at all would pay nearly double the fare. And it just seems ridiculous to have a pretty high cost for a mode of transportation that obviously isn’t intended to come close to turning a profit, and is meant to move very large numbers of people.

    3. Take “Mudslides” off the hand-waving-reason-to-cancel-Sounder-North list.

      Mudslides haven’t been an issue for at least 2 years. They’ve done enough mitigation work that there was only one moratorium imposed last year.

      1. I’m not saying that mudslides are the honest-to-goodness reason to cancel it. There are plenty of better reasons. But since mudslides have an outsize influence in peoples’ memory in comparison to their actual impact, it could be an effective part of the argument to make people more OK with a bus to Link trip instead of an expensive Sounder trip.

  22. Alex, one calculation that needs to be given the weight it’s owed on the Balance Sheet that counts: rescue and relief from being trapped in traffic. Wanna go get fined?

    Have a patrol car stuck next to you in motionless traffic, while the officer cites you for picking up you cell phone to call your boss to explain why you’re late. Something enough victims ought to go address with a class-action lawsuit and legislative lobbying campaign to get a wrong law changed.

    Can’t prove it, but will bet more than one coffee that the real culprit, the video game lobby, is using phones as a diversion top take the heat of of them.
    ‘Scuse me, officer, but in my years driving sixty-footers with wire overhead, no “beef” about an occasional “mike” or communications-phone in my hand with my coach in motion.

    So before you pull my Sounder, just remember the calculation that Crap Costs. To the point $5 might be a real bargain for reading time, refreshments, a rest-room, and protection for a real steep avoided ticket.

    Mark Dublin

  23. They should end Sounder North move the trains to Sounder South and start work on splitting the line into two

  24. And just to “true in” my note to Ness to align with today’s topic of the Sounders, won’t be first time I’ve postulated a level of electric train-set enough heavier-duty than the Kinki-Sharyo’s and the Siemens,’ whose most conspicuous level of capacity is that they can carry restrooms.

    Could maybe comfortably share road-bed with both Link and what’s now called Sounder. On trackway regionally free of both level grade-crossings and intrusion by any living thing but birds.

    Who connected with Boeing deserves jail, that’s up to the jury. But in view of past proud performance, Bill Boeing’s name deserves to be restored to honor and live.

    Mark Dublin

  25. From a previous post S. Sounder is planning to add more rolling stock. Now is the time to transfer the money from S. to N. subareas instead of adding new. That’s something else that shortens any delay in Link opening. Politically/face saving you structure the transfer as a lease and call it a temporary suspension in service.

    1. That contract to add enough cars for 8-car trains was just approved. But there will be further rounds to get to the planned higher frequencies and 10-car trains.

      1. Unclear from that post what exactly was approved. I’m assuming what was approved was the money to go out and buy/bid additional rolling stock? If so, then buying/leasing the equipment from one subarea to another is like finding what you were looking for at a bargain price. Conversely, if the decision is deferred and there’s no need for that rolling stock when the do terminate N. Sounder then it will be surplussed for next to nothing. It seems we have an opportunity window to make some lemon-aid.

  26. While rising sea levels aren’t necessarily an immediate concern for Sounder North, longer-term investments for passenger rail along the BNSF line between Seattle and Everett might not seem all that great when high tides start inundating low-lying sections of track.

    1. Depends how far inland we’ll have to move the track to get the line high enough it won’t flood. With modest civil engineering, taking advantage of new techniques, trackage could stay scenic for a long time.

      Though I’ve said before that for other reasons like speed and modernization, it might be time to think of present track in terms of scenery, and shift both intercity, and read both “International” and “Transcontinental” to Magnetic Levitation track a ways from the water. Like in linear tunnels under the Cascade chain all the way to Chile, as well as short-grass lands East and West of the Chain.

      But along with conveniently writing whole categories of passengers out of both transit rosters and the human race in the name of Essentiality, blanket “No” on contentious shifting of funds between service areas or regions.

      Whatever the Verdict, the legal profession always wins.

      Mark Dublin

  27. And if the turf war goes from court to politics, victors always hate transit for existing.

    Meantime, people I respect have finally convinced me to just “chill” about the evil of taking a wrong “tap” to criminal court. Whatever details I don’t want to know, I’m currently relaxing in my Freedom to have no idea where the money is really coming from.

    Also confident that when COVID is OVID, transit will just do like my other three or four steady creditors and deduct whatever it needs from my checking account and send it wherever it’s needed most. Leaving me free to dispute any amount at glaring variance with the usual.

    Right now, my lender’s staying up nights looking up ways to reward me with new “specials” for always paying off my ‘card on first of the month. So likewise, ST will always know that just having my ORCA card is reward enough for me.

    Just like Paul Simon and “Kodachrome.”

    Mark Dublin

  28. I’m a South line rider who works for a large regional company with its HQ in Renton. I gotta say, I think ridership would greatly increase if they ran the line straight from Everett to Lakewood and back. I have alot of co-workers whom commute from up north but don’t take the train because of the difficulty of connecting to the south line. As the cost of having office space in Seattle increases, companies are moving south. Giving northern employees a straight shot would be enticing.

  29. Sunk cost fallacy of the money BNSF has already extorted from ST, meet great idea of adding more stations:

    Sell/lease the North Sounder daily travel allotments to Amtrak, and run more Amtrak service between Vancouver and Seattle. If the service is continuous between Vancouver and Portland, that takes care of the desire for better connections between Edmonds and Rentonish. Yeah, I know, the fare would be more, but we’re talking about employees who can get their employer to cover the free pass, and at least in one case, an employer who can get the state to pay for the pass, if it really is more than a rounding error cubed.

    If I were riding that Amtrak service, stopping at all the Sounder stations for one minute (not however many minutes it takes Amtrak to do their 19-century boarding process that feels like no women were involved in setting it up) would make the service feel even more useful, and would surely add ridership.

    If Canada isn’t interested, work with Amtrak to add more service that at least gets to Bellingham, a rather popular stop on all the bus trips I’ve taken to Vancouver.

    This would also be more useful than a high-speed line that skips Everett and Bellingham altogether while stopping in some random town where a future Transportation Committee Chair happens to reside when the route is set. Everett, btw, saw zero riders get on or off there on all the bus trips I’ve taken that happened to stop there, but that is a set of two trips.

    1. I’m of similar mind here, at least in the short-term, finangle some way to move those easements to Cascases , and have the Rail-plus program.

  30. Could Sounder North also serve Marysville, Arlington,Conway, Mount Vernon, and Burlington?
    I remember reading about how traffic was getting bad on Route Head 9.

    1. It’s theoretically possible and makes some sense in a utopian world — but I see at least two major institutional hurdles.

      1. There is no agency to fund operating the line as well as pay for building station improvements. Those places are outside of the ST district.

      2. The current BNSF easements for Sounder trains end at Everett. I’m not sure but the track north of Everett may not have capacity. That would have to be negotiated once the first hurdle is addressed.

      The other option could be to build new track so BNSF easements wouldn’t be needed. The issue there is routing a new track through highly environmentally sensitive areas — and of course hundreds of millions of funds to build it.

    2. This would make good sense, but Al identifies the two issue – 1, would require a new funding source, and 2. no idea the situation with BNSF tracks.

      But definitely a great idea. A great design may be to drop 4~6 stations in Marysville and Arlington to collect riders and then a long run into downtown Seattle. Adding a 2nd tract to the existing BNSF alignment across Union slough could be a cheaper alternative to adding HOV/bus lanes on I5 north of Everett? But still looking at >$1B investment

      If ST transferred their easements to this new entity (a commuter rail division within Community transit??), that could be a good way to salvage the sunk costs. But this would be pretty far into the future.

    3. The state studied Everett-Bellingham commuter rail, and Auburn-Maple Valley. It never went anywhere because the counties and cities didn’t want to pay for it.

  31. To the fine comments already posted the only way Sounder North would ever be viable is if it was included in the planned high-speed rail (HSR) line to Bellingham and Vancouver, Canada. Customers would pay a premium for a limited stop service that would connect with Link and buses for local service. The stations would be designed with sidings or a third track to avoid delaying HSR trains.

    1. The riskiness of the track maintenance (landslides) and the narrowness of the track right-of-way seem to make the current corridor terrible for HSR.

      That said, light rail too far from a Downtown with hefty parking cost is also a suboptimal choice because it’s slow and stops over a dozen times. I’d feel much better about ST3 if the tentacled extensions beyond Federal Way and Lynnwood were designed for eventual trains at 80 to 130 mph rather than light rail at 55 mph. I don’t think leaders and many supporters that pushed ST3 fully understood how excruciatingly slow these segments will feel, and naively thought that getting direct service eclipsed the much slower speed.

    2. Real HSR requires much straighter tracks. About the only current infrastructure it could use is possibly some of the existing tunnels close to the termini, and those might not even fit well with the rolling stock.

      I’m also not sold on the business case for building super-fast trains that only the wealthy can afford between Vancouver-Seattle-Portland, that will then add random stops in the districts of committee chairs rather than in the obvious spots of Bellingham, Tacoma, and Olympia-ish.

      I’ll be happy with faster trains than now that stop at the key destinations, with boarding time under two minutes and vastly-improved frequency.

      Cal HSR is a study in how impossible it is for our political process to produce an HSR line that makes sense.

      And it will get built way too late to stop the climate catastrophe, even if it actually did anything to reduce car trips (which it probably would not, since it does not take away automobile ROW).

      1. Better frequency and modest speed improvements are nearly as useful as a shiny new line for a fraction of the cost and much earlier timeline.

        A Seattle to Portland express only needs to get under 2.5 hours to be faster than an airport trip after adjusting for travel & wait times to/from the CBDs. 175 in 2.5 hours is only an average speed of 70, something than can be accomplished without needing a new alignment

  32. Here are some ideas for improving the performance of Sounder North. Apologies if I’m repeating things above, I haven’t had time to scan the whole thread.

    1. Increase the number of stations. More stations = more riders, period. How much more depends on land use. The one area I didn’t see mentioned above is Richmond Beach. Ballard, Interbay and (maybe, see below) Piers 70/66 all make sense. Richmond Beach does too.

    2. Increase the population living near stations. Richmond Beach is intriguing because it adds a 5th city to line, Shoreline. The question is whether the city would permit more density and traffic near the station as it has around LRT stations. Similarly, politics in Edmonds and Mukilteo have shied away from density, whereas Everett is embracing it. Ballard and Interbay are on course for more density.

    3. Terminate the line in Interbay after Ballard Link opens. Riders from the north would be able to access the full LRT network from here, which would be a more functional terminus than KSS or Pier 70. And it would eliminate the need for riders to backtrack from KSS. The key to this would be the ability to schedule train movements for maintenance in Sodo as needed.

    4. Increase frequency. This is the toughest one. The north line is strategically more important for BNSF than the south and has less capacity. Perhaps the railroad would be open to a more compressed schedule, or to selling more easement for track time. A long short either way, but another option for providing a more stable service for riders.

    ST owns the track rights in perpetuity. So if it is possible envision a future with more stations, more density, and better connections to the regional system, then it’s possible to see value in holding those easements on the public’s behalf and preserving the service while it continues to mature.

    1. “ST owns the track rights in perpetuity.”

      On the Sounder North line, ST owns four peak direction easements in perpetuity and that’s it.

      Your suggestions would require new easement puchases (frequency) and significant capital investments for new stations and related facilities. Where are these funds coming from and why do feel so strongly that the investments are warranted despite all of the aforementioned shortcomings of the corridor (as a commuter rail line)? Why wouldn’t north end commuters simply access Link directly once Northgate and then Lynnwood Link are operational?

      It seems to me that you’ve fallen into the sunk cost fallacy trap.

    2. More stations doesn’t equal more riders. For example, Rapid Ride improvements usually involve stop diets. I wouldn’t assume additional stops equals more riders, particularly given the large time penalty to start/stop a diesel locomotive.

      2 & 3 are good. 4 is a hard less in the context of scare dollars.

    3. More stations on Sounder North would gain a few riders but not many. For ST to fund them and negotiate with BNSF would require a vote in ST4.

      ST4 may never happen now that Link is approved to Everett Station and Tacoma Dome, more people may work from home long-term, and Snohomish and Pierce taxpayers are grumbling about their ST3 taxes.

  33. Sounder North is the equivalent to a gaping hole in my spare bedroom wall. A visitor looking at my home might say something like “Hey, why don’t you get rid of that, it’s costing you a ton in home heating bills,” while my response, “Oh, I don’t care, someone else is paying my home heating bills.” Or, put in a transit sense, you have an ORCA pass that you never use and someone asks you why and you said, “I don’t care, my workplace pays for it.”
    We shouldn’t be so free and easy with our tax dollars. If something isn’t penciling out, whether it be Sounder North or a parking garage, we should put our tax dollars elsewhere. With Sounder North, there have been express buses from Everett, Mukilteo, and Edmonds the entire time, so there was absolutely zero reason to duplicate that service. I would have much rather had a BRT loop to Boeing from downtown Everett and Mariner Park & Ride. I would have rather had the north direct access ramps at 164th completed. I would have rather had bus access ramps at 128th (Mariner) and at 526 to southbound I-5. Most of us individually wouldn’t pour $ into a money pit, and neither should taxpayers. They/we deserve fiscal responsibility.

  34. Thought: Perhaps the 99 line that people keep pushing would be better as “Sounder North” rather than as a Link light rail.

    Fully grade separated EMU railcars barreling down 99 would be great. I’d imagine that the acceleration on actual EMUs is better than trying to make light rail do a train’s job.

Comments are closed.