Another Little Improvement For Amtrak Cascades

Every year or two, we get rid of one more place where people can cross the train tracks. This time it’s one we’ve all been holding our breath for – Royal Brougham. The state, city, and federal governments (not to mention several others) are about to start work on elevating the roadway over the track, increasing safety for sports fans and increasing reliability for our trains.

The amount of freight going through here is immense. What seems to happen at this crossing is that a freight train will pass by, and someone will walk out behind it, assuming it’s safe – only to be hit by a train coming the other way, on the next track over. I’ve gotten to sit on a delayed Amtrak train down at Spokane Street to wait for the coroner more than once.

It’s easy to blame individuals for walking on the tracks (and seriously, how dumb do you have to be to go around the gate?), but that doesn’t solve the on-time performance problem this creates, or the delay for cars and people when a train is moved through the intersection on the way to and from King Street Station and the yard. So we’re slowly removing the problem crossings.

There are a few others funded – I think they’re all between Seattle and Tacoma, as that’s probably the most heavily utilized track in the region, and it goes through downtown Kent, Auburn, Puyallup, and Sumner – cities that will probably continue to grow as our commuter rail service matures and expands.

Here’s a map. You can see the new overpass there at Royal Brougham, which includes a very square looking little loop to get back to ground level. There will also be a pedestrian elevator on the west side with a ramp on the east – this will make it slightly more of a pain in the butt to get over to light rail. The big curved line is the offramp connection from I-90 to the existing Atlantic St. overpass. By the way – note that a single grade separation, a new offramp, and an intersection rebuild costs over $180 million (unless I’m mistaken, and that cost includes the Atlantic overpass as well, but still). These projects are not cheap – it always gets my goat when people say things like light rail are ‘too expensive’. Relative to what? This is the same as the cost of two elevated light rail stations.

$700 Billion…

…I’m just sayin’.

These are the high speed rail corridors the USDOT has identified in their overall plan. If your rail line is on one of those green lines, and we ever pass an Amtrak funding bill with grant money for high speed rail, you can get those grants. Note that Amtrak Cascades is one of those corridors.

Given that the California project is $40 billion (although that’s not all of those lines), I’d say we could get most of this done for $700 billion. This could be our new Apollo project  – it would create jobs all over the country, we’d probably end up building at least one new railcar company (as well as helping the ones we have), and you can bet this would spur more renewable energy development.

While we need a New New Deal for infrastructure, we don’t really have the money. Especially not if we’re giving it to banks.

Making the Seattle Streetcar more attractive

The Seattle Streetcar – the hidden stepchild very few know about. It hides in South Lake Union, known commonly and jokingly as the S.L.U.T by some. The question many wonder – How do we make the Streetcar more viable and popular among the residents of Seattle. There are a lot of ideas, many which the City of Seattle has already taken a firm stand on. Everyone has their opinion on where they would love the route to go and I agree with all of them, however there is an important segment that would benefit greatly – Serving the Central Business Core of Downtown Seattle.

While I understand that the City of Seattle would like the SLU Streetcar to continue down First Avenue, this is a route that should be avoided. It would make the connection to the 1st Avenue Streetcar but that is where it ends. There hasn’t been a lot of forethought by the City of Seattle in this regards of making the connections much more seamless than painful and cumbersome.

These are my ideas for the Seattle Streetcar network;

Downtown Core routing;

This route will be an extension of the SLU route by continuing Southbound on Westlake in the Right-hand lane. The stop for the Southbound will be at 5th and Pine, next to the Seattle Monorail Station. The route will continue South with stops at University Street, Marion Street, James Street, and Jackson Street. The route will then turn Right onto Airport Way and Right again onto 4th Avenue South. The route will return North on 4th Avenue with stops at Weller Street (Sounder Connection), Main Street, James Street, Marion Street, Seneca Street, and Pine Street. The route will turn Right onto Olive Way followed by the shallow Left to reconnect to the SLU line.

This routing would bring in the best possible ridership, it would capture passengers from Sounder or Amtrak, provide connections and easy walk to Qwest or Safeco Field. It would provide a transfer to the Waterfront Streetcar (Ahem), First Hill Streetcar, and a short walk to the First Avenue Streetcar. The cost would be about the same as the initial segment – The reason for this being the additional 4-5 streetcars needed to cover the gap of the route. This routing could increase ridership upwards of 4,000-6,500 a day at 12 minute intervals.

Jackson Street Streetcar;

The routing for this Streetcar is perfect for the most part but I would make some changes in the International District. The line should continue West to Occidental Avenue where it would turn left. The line would continue down Occidental until 1st Avenue then turn Right on First Avenue back to Jackson Street for it’s continuing run. This will allow the new development at Qwest Field to populate more and serve the stadiums, King Street Station, and the future condos and apartments going in soon. I would also propose the Streetcar going as far as 31st Ave/Frink Park. This would serve some of the Leschi/Mt. Baker residences. This routing would provide at least 2 school connections (Leschi and Washington Middle School) – Ultimately, this should go all the way out to the High School and eliminate the KC Metro # 14 and those buses redirected to the 1, 2, 3, 4.

That is all that I have on this subject for now…What are your thoughts on this? Would most of this be prohibitive enough that the city should ignore it? How would you feel about a line going through Downtown?

M Street to D Street Connection News

It appears per the WSDOT website that the M Street to D Street connector also known as the Point Defiance Bypass for Sounder and Amtrak trains is currently under funded by as much as $14.9 million dollars. It is currently unknown what may be cut in the project itself or if the City of Tacoma or Lakewood would fork over the extra money to supplement the lack of funding.

This project delays multiple projects such as;

Extending Sounder to South Tacoma and Lakewood stations which just opened this past weekend.

Adding an additional 2 Amtrak Cascades trains between Seattle and Portland (after 3 other projects are installed as well, not just the sole reasoning for delay)

A trip reduction for the Amtrak Cascades service between Seattle and Portland that could save almost 6 minutes.

For more information, check out the WSDOT Folio of the project or the main project page.

In Context of The Future

When I talk about transportation, I keep coming back to one overarching theme. People will ask me what I think of biofuels, or a new bus route, or I’ll end up talking to someone about density or the design of a building, and they all fit together. What will keep working – what will still be here – in fifty years? In two hundred? In a thousand? Where can we make decisions now that will save the next generations from some of the disasters we’ve wrought? How can we build cities that will be adaptable – but not too adaptable, as we don’t want them reconfigured on a whim?

Sure, oil is a little cheaper this month. There’s still a finite amount of it, and it’s still more trouble than it’s worth in the long run. We need a future in which the vast majority of our trips by number are on foot, and by mile are on transit. That means a very dense core – not necessarily 40 stories, maybe just 6 or 8, but completely full of storefronts, restaurants, bars, clubs, kiosks, schools, everything that people do. I’m here on this blog because cars simply aren’t a part of that core equation, and transit is. Density caps out way too low with cars – wide streets and parking garages dampen livability dramatically, the more dense you get the more car infrastructure you need, pushing density down again. The train just needs a tube through the middle, even your platforms can be filled with people doing more than just going from A to B.

Regardless of what seems most cost effective this year or next, or what people seem to ‘want’ or what kind of houses people are buying right now – what matters is not now. Sure, more buses are great. Spending a lot on a short term fix when you don’t have a long term plan isn’t. What matters is what our infrastructure and urban layout looks like in twenty or fifty years when fuel simply isn’t available for working class Americans. You can’t build those solutions in a single regional transit package – but you can take a step, and you can start calling in the state government and federal government to help once you have something they can help fund.

I guess I’m just trying to remind you that this isn’t all we get. Proposition 1 is fantastic – it’s a good blend of today and tomorrow – but there will be more, and soon. The city wants more streetcar lines soon. The state wants to improve Cascades service between a lot of our major cities and towns – they want to buy trains and keep upgrading the track. The FTA and Amtrak stand to benefit greatly from Obama and Biden. We can work to strengthen our urban growth boundary. There are all these things that are worth fighting for, and I see a lot of fighting about piddly little things that work themselves out or are an annoyance at worst.

Want to solve something? Get newsstands and food vendors in the transit tunnel after Link opens. Build mixed use next to a train station. Help convince the city to refuse permits for concrete walls abutting sidewalks. Those things will matter in fifty years.

Are People Finally Noticing How Poorly Funded Amtrak Is?

It seems like it. The day after Biden mentioned Amtrak twice in his speech at the Democratic National Contenvtion, Amtrak is all over the news. This AP article mentions Biden’s connections to Amtrak. This Reuters piece highlights what Amtrak’s poor funding gives us: trains that are usually slow, usually overcrowded and late more often than they ought to be. This Bloomberg Piece talks about Amtrak’s rising ridership – it’s up 14% this year from last year, and last year was a record – and some of Amtrak’s plans to handle the new riders.

Biden: Good Pick For Rail

Here at STB, we generally don’t make endorsements for candidates – though we do make anti-endorsements – but I want to write a post about what a rail enthusiast Joe Biden is ahead of his speech at the Democratic Convention today. Biden commutes to work eachday on Amtrak, and has for 30 years, sponsored the recent Amtrak Reauthorization bill and had this to say about Amtrak:

For 30 years, I have witnessed Congress dangling a carrot in front of Amtrak’s eyes, funding it just enough for it to limp along.  And I’ll tell you, this has to stop.  Now is the time to commit politically and financially to a strong, safe, and efficient passenger rail system.

Biden’s son is even on the Amtrak board, and is a big advocate for the agency. In a bit of partisanship, I’ll point out the McCain is not a big fan of Amtrak.

No point to this, but it’s nice to see someone who is an advocate for inter-city rail service getting so much attention. Surely, it’s a lot better than this.

Challenges for Amtrak

As we all know, Amtrak’s ridership has been booming all over the United States. Corridor trains are selling out more often, while long distance trains are a hit among college students with school coming back into session soon. With the recent surge in fuel prices, people are looking at new ways to beat the pump and Amtrak has been hugely popular as a clean and friendly way of getting around.

In recent weeks, there has been several articles about Amtrak now hitting its upper capacity limits, including in the Wall Street Journal. This is a big problem for several reasons:

1. Turning somebody away because there is not enough room should not be an option. The exceptions are our own Amtrak Cascades and the Northeast Corridor’s (NEC) Acela train, which can not add cars as easily as say the Amfleet (as pictured above), Horizon, or Superliner cars.

2. To have the Government take Amtrak as a serious mode of transportation, Amtrak needs as much exposure as possible.

3. Higher ridership figures will benefit studies of and proposals for High Speed Rail, such as the California High Speed Rail Project (which is a good thing, we need HSR).

4. Overcrowding leads to delayed trains because baggage is lost, people have fallen asleep past their station, etc.

What’s most bothersome is that there shouldn’t be any capacity issue. Amtrak has 70+/- serviceable Amfleet passenger cars stored in the Delaware and Bear shops in the Northeast Corridor. Along with these cars are an additional 20+/- serviceable GE P40 locomotives. Amtrak should be talking to Congress on getting these cars and locomotives either rebuilt/refurbished as soon as possible to reduce the overcrowding on trains.

The Amfleet cars are good for at least 80 passengers per car and most corridor trains run between 3-5 cars. This would be an additional capacity of upwards of 400 passengers per train. At 5 car trains each, Amtrak has enough cars for an additional 14 train sets. Realistically, it would be more like 11 or 12, keeping a car or two at each of the terminal locations as a spare. If Amtrak does have more than the 70 cars however, 14 train sets is easily possible. 14 train sets times 400 passengers each train = 5600 potential passengers for these train sets a day, or 2,044,000 passengers a year – And this is only assuming the train is one way at maximum capacity. Make it a round trip and it doubles. Also, trains can be utilized on a corridor several times over.

Amtrak as it stands now is doing excellently in terms of ridership, but it could be doing even better. If Amtrak was granted the money to rebuild these cars and locomotives, Amtrak could start adding service to these strained corridors in less than 6 months time. This would also give Amtrak a cushion with these spare train sets for new service, including the once talked about Seattle – Pasco via Stampede Pass route. Another example use of these extra cars is to replace a broken-down dedicated train set. The Acela and Cascades service have been both pulled for serious mechanical issues. When this happened, Amtrak had to cut services of other trains to provide coverage. This should absolutely never happen.

Amtrak’s corridor trains, excluding the NEC, operate on freight railroad tracks, which is the other major hindrance to Amtrak. Signal issues, or freight trains that are moving slowly or stalled, or just freight congestion period can easily slow a passenger train down by hours. Long-distance trains suffer from this even more.

In order for Amtrak to establish high speed rail, the State and neighboring freight carriers would need to come to a better agreement on how trackage rights work. All of the freight railroads claim that new rail construction is required and would be used for passenger movements only. The maximum speed would be 90-110mph. At a maximum speed of 110mph, it is fast enough to cut travel times by upwards of an hour and a half depending on curves in the corridor. Our Amtrak Cascades corridor could achieve speeds up to 110mph South of Olympia, which would reduce the travel time between Seattle and Portland from 3hr 30 minutes to 2hr 23 minutes (assuming use of the Talgo Tilting equipment).

And finally, the most important thing to any passenger operations is the maintenance of the track. The video below shows the Amtrak Cascades at speed going over a very rough grade crossing. This is one of many issues with aging infrastructure that face these passenger trains all around America.

Amtrak Cascades going over rough crossing in Kalama, WA

Second Amtrak Cascades Delayed

This wasn’t reported in any of the local news papers but The Vancouver Sun covered the story regarding the delay of the second Amtrak Cascades train to Vancouver BC. The required siding in Colebrook has been completed for some time now and is now on the hinges of the Border Patrol.

I guess the Canadian government doesn’t want the extra tourism and money that the second train would bring in. Not to mention the extra relief from the Border.

Falcon’s news release last year stated: “In its first full year of operation, the second Amtrak passenger train from Seattle to Vancouver is expected to bring approximately 50,000 travellers to Vancouver, injecting an estimated $13.9 million into B.C.’s economy.”

If the second train does start, it will be the 3/4 car Superliner train set that has been on that run for a little over a year now as the State of Washington refurbishes the Talgo Trains. So far 2 of the 3 train sets have been refurished; The Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams. The Mt. Hood should be completed by the end of August.

BNSF Updates

Here are some updates for BNSF. This mainly pertains information for Sounder Commuter Rail and Amtrak.

Construction for the Seattle – Tacoma corridor is 95% completed. What remains is fixed some of the rough spots that have been created from drainage pipes that have broken under the right of way, which creates "mud pumpers" You’ll notice this mainly in Georgetown.

The biggest reconstruction program was completed last week with BNSF relocating the main lines closer to 3rd Avenue S from Royal Brougham in Downtown Seattle to Spokane Street. Technically, the BNSF mainline is 3 main tracks from Royal Brougham to Black River/Tukwila (Or just North of I-405 in Tukwila)

Construction from M Street to D Street for service to Lakewood is slated to start this Fall. Of course, this date has changed several times in the past. When I see equipment on that line, I will believe it.

BNSF has started major construction on the Everett – Seattle route. Earlier this year, BNSF installed a new crossover in Blue Ridge which enables trains to cross over to a new track at 50mph. The agreement with BNSF and Sound Transit is to double track the corridor between Seattle and Everett. This improvement will benefit freight mobility, Amtrak, and Sounder Commuter Rail services.

The next major work over the next month is adding a new track between Milepost 7 and 8 on the railroad or just North of the Ballard Railroad Bridge (Known as Bridge 4, Bridge 6.3, BNSF Mainline Bridge Tender, etc) When this work is completed, work will shift to Balmer/Interbay/Magonlia for another mainline relocation and double tracking.

The Balmer project will take about 6 months to complete. This project will remove one set of cross overs between Cedar Street and Vine Street on the Seattle Waterfront for a higher speed single 30mph crossover. This will allow BNSF and Union Pacific trains access into the Louis Dreyfus grain terminal at Terminal 90 without stopping and blocking all of the grade crossings on the Waterfront. The relocation will convert a storage/holding track into a main line and the current main 2 track will be then become main 1. The double tracking will begin at Galar Streer to W Fort Street or Milepost 3.3 to 5.4.

Once the Balmer work is completed, the section crews will begin prep work for Edmonds in 2009. Edmonds will receive the same as above, double tracking but a new station will also be built here. Amtrak and Sounder both stop at this station but the station needs to be moved in order to place the new track through town.

Finally, in late 2009, BNSF will finish double tracking between Milepost 27-28. What this will leave is the 1 mile of single track right of way between Howarth Park and Everett. A new tunnel needs to be constructed but not funded to make the entire corridor double tracked between Seattle’s King Street Station and Everett Station. This one mile segment is what will prevent Sound Transit from adding additional trains between Seattle and Everett unless BNSF’s position changes regarding additional for the North route.

If there is any other questions regarding this or freight mobility, please let me know and I’ll do my best to answer any questions.


Transit Report Card : San Francisco

Martin usually does the transit report cards. This time I’m posting about a place where I know transit fairly intimately.
Segments ridden:


Most Muni Metro Routes

The ‘F’ Heritage Line
Muni Buses

Scope: C+
BART covers the Eastbay well, parts of the San Francisco well, but only goes one station past the airport toward Silicon Valley in the Pennisula. Not only that, it doesn’t serve Marin County at all. In order to serve Marin, BART would need to be extended north and west across the city, and a bridge over, or a tunnel under, the Golden Gate would need to be built. So unless transit money gets a lot easier to come by, I don’t expect this to happen for a long time.

The Muni Metro’s six lines are something between Link and the SLU streetcar. They only cover the parts of San Francisco south and west of Downtown. The F Heritage Line does go along the Embarcadero waterfront to Fisherman’s Wharf, but that route is mostly for tourists and has relatively low capacity. The planned E Hertiage Line will continue to all the way to Fort Mason. There is a future plan to put the T Third Street into a new “Central Subway” that would cross the Market Street Subway and extend to North Beach, but funding for that extension has only been partially secured. Even then, the entire northwest portion of the city is only served by bus, though a BRT route has been planned for some of that area, currently Geary and Van Ness

Service: B+

BART runs in the City and downtown Oakland with five or six minute headways, but the suburban commuter portions have much longer headways, sometimes as long as fifteen or twenty minutes. BART runs from 5am to a little after midnight. Capacity maxes at 1500 per train. Muni Metro runs on ten minute heads at peak times, and service is from 5 am to about 1am. A single-car Muni train can hold up to 250 people, and a two-car train can carry 500.
Caltrain runs 98 trains per day, most of them local trains that stop at nearly all 28 stations. Some trains, designated “baby bullets” make just four stops, and there are other levels of express trains in between. ACE runs four trains per day, and Amtrak Capitol Corridor runs 32 trains per day.

Routing: B

Much of BART in the Eastbay runs near or parallel to highways, partly because of cheaper right-of-way, but also partly because of how these communities developed. In the 1960s and 1970s, building next to highways was all the rage.
Muni covers the south and west parts of the city well, most on that area aren’t farther than ten blocks from a Muni line or Bart.
The Pennisula toward the south is only served by Caltrain, which stops far from job centers in the South Bay and in the City. Caltrain runs parallel to 101, but through the historic downtowns. This routing is not perfect, but surface-rail corridors are difficult to come by. Many reverse-commute San Franciscans are taken from their Caltrain station to work by company-shuttle, and into city commuters are forced onto a transfer at Fourth and King station in San Francisco

Grade/ROW: B-
BART, like all third-rail systems, is entirely grade-separated. In San Francisco it’s entirely underground, and it’s also underground in Downtown Oakland, in Berkeley, and in a couple of the cities south of San Francisco, outside of that it’s elevated.

The Muni Metro is underground in the Market Street Subway, which makes for nine underground stations. Some of the other portions run in there own right-of-way, the new T-Third street is almost entirely in it’s own center street right-of-way, much like Link in the Rainier Valley. Ironically, the right-of-ways and subway sections of the Muni Metro are the major reason the Muni Metro still exists: in the 1940s and 1950s when streetcars were being taken out, the five lines that had their separated right-of-way couldn’t be replaced by buses.
The commuter rail lines, Caltrain, Amtrak Capitol Corridor and ACE, obviously run in their own right-of-way with grade crossings.
San Francisco is the second densest city in the US, and easily the densest in the West. Many of the suburbs are also very dense: Oakland, Daly City and Berkley, among others, are in fact much more dense than Seattle is. Part of this is because of age of these areas, but there has been a lot of development around BART stations.
One of the main impetuses for the new T-Third street was the development of areas served by the line, including China Basin, Mission Bay, and Hunter’s Point.
Caltrain is running in a 19th-century rail corridor, so it runs through the historic downtowns of most of the cities it serves.

Culture: A-

San Francisco is one of the few cities in America where driving is not the majority. More than 35% of commuters take transit, and another 20% bike. San Francisco is also one of the few cities where nearly everyone knows where the transit lines are. East Bay commuters have been pushed away from driving by $4 tolls across the Bay Bridge, and reliable BART commutes. However, Marin County is only served by Golden Gate Transit, which runs relatively few buses, and most commuters along the Pennisula, in and out of San Francisco, still drive.
San Francisco’s rail network is far suprior to Seattle’s, but the major modes are relatively analogous. Caltrain is like Sounder, BART is what Link could be with expansion, and I think the Muni Metro is a major inspiration for Seattle’s Streetcar network. One thing Seattle can learn from Muni is that two-train stations are worth it; you never know when transit demand will out-pace supply by huge amounts.
BART can also be a lesson: make sure to get commitment early when building transit systems. Marin County to the North dropped out early in the BART planning process, making it virtually impossible to extend BART there now, and Santa Clara county, to the south, now wants BART, but is forced to build it through the East Bay because San Mateo county was so opposed to BART. Also, duplicating highway corridors by may be the best way to serve current population and residential centers, but does not create future transit-orient development to the same extent new corridors might.
Also, Caltrain has 98 runs per day compared to 18 for Sounder. But Caltrain gets just 37,000 riders per day compared to 11,000 for Sounder. How can you run more than five times as many trains, through a far more dense corridor and get fewer riders per run? It’s simple: charge a a reasonable amount to ride (fares top at $11 for Caltrain), go to downtown job centers (Caltrain stops at few), and provide adequate parking (I know, I know: more parking is heresy). ACE and Amtrak Capitol Corridor show that suburb-to-suburb rail can work, but it needs to go through job centers, and again, parking is hugely important.

Finally, density is important. San Francisco is dense, as are a number of the older suburbs. But the South Bay, where a lot of growth has been over the last twenty years, is very low density and sprawling. Same thing goes with the areas East of the hills in the East Bay. San Francisco could have absorbed more of that sprawl, but, like Seattle, made a choice to try to “perserve” the 1960s way of life. What happened? The 1960s way of life was lost, but along the way so was affordibility and scope. Now there’s a huge region that is difficult to serve easily by transit, has chronic “natural” challenges like wild fires and floods (we just get floods here), and surprising congestion. Our area still has a chance to avoid sprawl and geographic expansion on the level seen by the Bay Area, let’s hope we can get everyone on board.

I contemplated whether to write about the South Bay’s VTA system, but I decided that system was worth a post of it’s own.

Thoughts on the Amtrak Funding Bill

Frank over at Orphan Road has been keeping track of the $15B Amtrak bill that just passed both the US House and Senate with a veto-proof majority. A lot of this bill is for grants, so this could mean something for Seattle.

The first thing the bill does is ensures Amtrak can operate for the next five years without fear of losing funding. Amtrak wasn’t designed with a consistent funding program, so they’re unable to issue bonds like Sound Transit does – they’d have no way of paying them back, because they can’t levy any taxes. Basically, this means Amtrak service gets worse every year as their equipment ages and the small portion of track they actually own slowly becomes the worse for wear. This bill will buy Amtrak some new equipment, and it funds some capital upgrades so they can improve service in the Northeast Corridor, the high speed line between Washington DC, Philadelphia, NYC, and Boston.

Some background before we go further: In Washington, we have a partnership between the Washington State DOT (WSDOT) and Amtrak to provide more service than Amtrak would normally be able to fund. I’ve never been clear on exactly how the costs are split up (Brian might be willing to comment to that), but the state owns most of the trains themselves and pays for most of the service we have. This partnership service is a route called Amtrak Cascades.

Cascades currently runs four daily round trips from Seattle to Portland, one Seattle to Vancouver BC, and one Seattle to Bellingham – although that last one will be extended to Vancouver as well sometime in the next year. The Oregon DOT also funds two round trips from Portland to Eugene. In 2007, the Washington State routes got more than 675,000 riders, the vast majority of those riding between Seattle and Portland.

When there’s bad traffic or a big border delay, this service is already often faster than driving. It takes 3h30m from Seattle to Portland, and 3h55m from Seattle to Vancouver. This really isn’t consistently competitive, though – so WSDOT has a nominally 20 year plan of incremental upgrades to get Seattle-Portland down to 2h30m, and Seattle-Vancouver down to 2h45m. This comes from a lot of small projects, and a few big ones, like building some new segments of passenger-only track on which we could operate at 110mph, instead of the current 79 (and often slower).

Back to the bill: There are two types of grants this bill offers that could affect our service very positively. The first is that it offers grants to develop state passenger corridors. Guess what Amtrak Cascades is? This bill provides $2.5 billion in matching grants, where the federal share can be up to 80%, for state corridor projects. The other type of grant is for the 11 corridors in which the federal government thinks high speed rail is a good idea – these total $1.75 billion. Guess what kind of corridor Amtrak Cascades runs in? Now, we might not get a penny of this money, because the California High Speed Rail Project has a $10 billion bond issue going before voters this November, and their plan is very competitive, but there’s a good chance we’ll get some of this money to improve intercity service.

We Need a Light Rail Vote This Year

Coming from our discussion over the last day of where to put our next rail spine, I want to make the case for voting to extend what we have this year, in the November general election, rather than delaying for two years.

The big argument for waiting until 2010 is that we’ll see light rail in operation for a year – people will have a chance to ride it. I think this would have a positive impact, but that impact would be much smaller than the huge positive turnout impact of presidential and gubernatorial elections. It seems that most of the potential riders – those who will be directly affected – are already galvanized. They’re either aware of and looking forward to having the system online, or else they’re shaking their fists at Sound Transit for causing construction delays and road closures. Having rail open won’t change the minds of anti-transit detractors, it’ll just give them two more years to think up new smears.

This year we will really benefit from strong turnout for the top of the ticket. Barack Obama is on the ballot – easily the most well spoken and charismatic Democratic presidential candidate in decades. Voter turnout was astronomical in the primaries, with some states seeing higher turnout than previous general elections. One of the reasons we failed last year was because it was an off year – there were no good candidates bringing people to the polls, only initiatives. Many of the regular off-year voters are motitvated by anger and frustration with government, and are very likely to vote against propositions and referenda. If Obama wins this year, we’ll be in a prime position to compete for the first new Federal Transit Administration grants from a more transit friendly administration.

High gas prices will work for us this year as well. Yesterday we saw a $15B Amtrak reauthorization bill pass the US House with a veto-proof majority, after a similar showing in the Senate, on the heels of big increases in ridership on all of Amtrak’s routes, including our own Cascades. We’ve seen Sounder ridership jump dramatically, with most of the Sounder South trains standing room only, and overall ridership up some 30% over the same period last year. My bus to work is packed as ever, despite new service coming online recently and some of the trips only 5 minutes apart. The cheap gas is $4.39 down the street from me – and that’s up from $4.29 a few days ago. If those prices keep up, we’re going to keep seeing the ridership gains we have been, which means more people aware of and interested in a better way to work. We don’t know what gas prices will be like in 2010 – some of our current run-up in oil futures is due to speculation, and some of that money will return to securities as the real estate bust smooths out.

This year, constitutents are looking for solutions. Government at all levels is commonly criticized for being behind the times, being unable to respond quickly to changes. We shouldn’t wait two years before submitting a plan to voters, when they are looking for something now. This is a great chance for Sound Transit to show that they have a plan and they’re ready to take action. The fact that the retooled ST2 plans are accelerated works strongly to our advantage – and with University Link construction beginning next year, to the untrained eye Sound Transit will get credit for groundbreaking only months after a vote. You can’t buy PR like that.

Look at all the things 2008 gives us: High gas prices make people want an alternative. Unprecedented gains in transit ridership show that we have strong and growing demand. Obama and Gregoire ensure that we’ll have great progressive turnout who will support transit projects. Let’s put ST2 on the ballot this November.

Transit Report Card: New York City

Third in an occasional series where I wildly generalize about a transit system based on limited experience.

Segments ridden:
More or less all of the Manhattan Routes
D train to Coney Island & Downtown Brooklyn
7 train to Shea Stadium
Various approaches to Yankee Stadium
Bergen County NJ Transit Line (Waldwick – NY Penn Station)
PATH: Pavonia to 14th St
Staten Island Ferry

Scope: A+
If you’re reading this blog you probably know that the subway more or less blankets the city. But what you might not know is the extent of the commuter rail system, which covers all of Long Island, half of New Jersey and deep into Connecticut and upstate New York. Look for yourself; it’s truly massive.

And don’t forget the PATH subway system into New Jersey and run by the Port Authority, as well as the Newark and Hudson Shore Light Rail systems run by New Jersey Transit.

Service: A+
24-hour service on the subway, unparalleled anywhere in the world. As for commuter rail, I rode into the city on a Sunday and found myself with 36 trains a day in each direction to choose from.

Routing: A
Not an A+ because there’s very little in the way of routing that bypasses Manhattan. The city could use some ring lines like they have in Tokyo, London, and Paris.

Grade/ROW: A+
As with all third-rail systems, no pedestrian or auto is ever going to get anywhere near the track.

New York has extreme density where there’s rail transit, not so much where there isn’t. On the other hand, the not-so-dense places would give the average resident of, say, Greenwood some sort of aneurysm.

Culture: A+
Undoubtedly, the city in America where it’s most foolish to own a car, unless you go into the outer suburbs a lot. If not here an A+, then where?


If you have even a little bit of transit tourist in you, get thee to New York City before airfares go up again. Driving is a nightmare, parking can cost over $20 for a half hour (plus tax), and the subway system approaches perfection (unless you require wheelchair accessibility, as I discovered when trying to cart around a baby stroller on this trip).

If you’re a total cheapskate, get a hotel out in the suburbs and take the commuter rail in.

What’s a little frightening is that with all the transit options available, there used to be more. There are tons of transit tunnels and stations abandoned at the peak of the automobile age. The city tore down dozens of miles of elevated track in the last century as well. And yet the system still carries more daily riders that all the nation’s other systems combined.

Smart NYC travelers fly into Newark and take one of the various New Jersey transit options into the city, rather than suffering through a 2-hour AirTrain and Subway slog into Manhattan from JFK.

Multimodalism is at its best here. At Penn Station, for instance, you have Amtrak, PATH trains, commuter rail, 6 subway lines, and God knows how many buses all coming together in one gigantic terminal. The Newark airport has an AirTrain system that connects all the terminals with not only the car rental complex, but also a train station that supports both commuter rail and Amtrak.

This kind of integration makes it plausible to nearly eliminate “puddle-jumper” aircraft, since outlying residents can simply take the train to take advantage of the many destinations available out of the New York airports. I think this kind of thing is very useful as gas prices skyrocket and scarce landing slots have to be devoted to bigger aircraft.

I’m told there are a few traditional tourist attractions in the city as well.

American Bullet Trains?

There’s action in Congress to pour $14 billion into improving the tracks between New York and Washington, reducing the travel time from 2:45 to under 2 hours. Hooray for that.

It’s still early going, of course. Besides budget-cutting zeal and NIMBYs, there are two big things to worry about. First, stations may be added for political reasons, defeating the “express train” concept:

The Wilmington [Delaware] station is Amtrak’s 11th-busiest in the nation, so Castle said he would “fight like heck” to make sure any high-speed trains stopped here.

I won’t comment on Wilmington specifically, but we can expect to see this kind of thing all along the line.

Secondly, they’re looking for a public-private partnership. Now, I’m not ideologically opposed to this kind of thing if it gets projects done. But if one of Amtrak’s few profitable routes gets cannibalized by a private operator, that can only hurt service elsewhere in the nation.

TGV image from Flickr contributor vorgefuhl

Final South Sounder Project now with pics!

Starting this Friday, BNSF Railway will start cutting over the new main line relocation project which will move the normal main tracks from it’s current location to the new construction tracks between King Street Station and South Lander Street. The new main line will enable faster trains between Lander and Spokane Street shaving a few minutes off passenger train schedules.

At Lander Street, the main line will curve from it’s current location and shift to the right next to the Seattle School District building. The garbage cars and coal train approaching me were in the way to see the new tracks.

The schedule is as follows

May 1st – 3rd – BNSF installed new crossing gates at Royal Brougham and Lander Street which will protect the new tracks. This also includes quad gates at Royal Brougham to prevent pedestrian incidents. (Completed and Operational)

Friday, May 23rd – MUD Track cut over – This is the Eastern track of the 5 tracks at Lander Holgate Street.

Saturday, May 24th – Main 2 (Northbound track) cut over…since this is CTC (Centralized Traffic Control) trains can run on either main in either direction

Sunday, June 8th – Main 1 (Southbound track) cut over…read note above.

The Lander Main (Main 3 – Work Lead Main for Argo and Stacy Street Yards) is set for cut over June 16. On June 17, track speeds go up! F20/P20 will go to F35/P50 at Stadium. This means 50mph passenger trains between Holgate Street and Spokane Street.

At Holgate Street, shows the new Stadium control point and cross overs and new gates.

Looking the other direction towards Lander Street

The old Main 1 and Main 2 tracks be turned over to Amtrak for switching, storage tracks, etc between Royal Brougham and Lander Street. The photo below showing Sounder approaching on Main 1. The new main lines is on the left on the photo.

Once all of this work is completed, it is to be said that construction will start on the new Amtrak/Sounder maintenance facility. This will be a medium sized facility with a new State of the Art Indoor Wash Rack, Wheel Truing building, Machining shop that will handle medium service repairs, a new PIT track, and 7 more storage tracks that will hold a 14 car train sets. I’ll get more information on this later to make sure this is correct but the last I heard on this was 2 months ago from Amtrak themselfs.

We’ll see.

Want to see the progress of the Seattle Construction Project? Check out this post which has been following the construction projects since 12/31/2005 !!

Editors Note: I do not include the Lakewood Extension as part of the “BNSF South Sounder Project”

Sounder locomotives to get "Hot Start" and new gen sets

Good news for the environment

Our Sounder train locomotives are about to get outfitted with a new system that will not only save fuel, but will benefit the environment as well.

The Sound Transit Board on Thursday approved the purchase of equipment that automatically shuts down a locomotive’s engine when it’s idling for long periods of time. The system, through Rail Systems, Inc., also automatically starts the engine when necessary.

Because engine idling will be reduced by an estimated 34 percent, the system is expected to cut a total of more than 1.8 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions a year from the agency’s fleet of 11 Sounder locomotives. It will also provide significant fuel savings and reduce noise pollution where the locomotives are stored at night.

The contract, approved Thursday by the Board, is for $230,596. The agency was also very pleased to learn that the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency has designated a $100,000 grant toward the purchase of the equipment.

The work will be done at Amtrak’s Los Angeles, CA Redondo Yard.

Sound Transit is also installing new generators for Head End Power, or “HEP,” the main engines in a modern locomotive, from the CAT company. This will switch them from the existing, fuel thirsty 12 cylinder engines to a new fuel efficient 6 cylinder design. This work is being done at CAT in Tukwila, Washington.