Sounder at King Street Station in Seattle. (Sound Transit)
After more than a decade of planning and anticipation, on October 8, Sound Transit (ST) began Sounder commuter rail service to and from Lakewood, adding a full eight miles south of the double-deck trains' previous terminus in Tacoma. Initial ridership has been underwhelming.
In the first 17 days of revenue service, a total of 237 passengers boarded the five daily trains, on average, at the two new stops, South Tacoma and Lakewood. Prior to the release of the actual data last week, ST had forecast 380 to 530 daily boardings within the first two years of operation.
To reach that anticipated level in October of 2014, by which time a planned sixth round-trip will have begun, ST will need a 60-125 percent increase in ridership. By comparison, the first two years of service to Everett, on the north Sounder route, saw ridership growth in the 50 percent range, also with the introduction of one new train [See graph.]
“It'll take a while for people to get in the flow of things,” was the reaction from Stuart Scheuerman, who chairs ST's Citizen Oversight Panel (COP), a committee of volunteers appointed by the ST board. “I'm sure it'll make its quota, if not exceed it.”
“Not bad,” Sounder operations manager Martin Young rated the ridership, emphasizing that the forecast figure is for two years out.
“It's still too early to cast doubts on the service,” cautioned Lloyd Flem, executive director of All Aboard Washington (AAWA), the state's passenger-rail advocacy group.
As to how ST might get the figures to the forecast level, AAWA president Loren Herrigstad said, “My biggest concern is that Sound Transit is not designing Sounder stations for our Puget Sound climate. They’re designing stations as if we were warm and sunny California."
In his capacity as president, Herrigstad has toured the Lakewood extension, but when traveling to Seattle he bypasses the new stations to pick up the Sounder in Tacoma. "The South Tacoma shelters are very light and not adequate. The Lakewood station has almost no place to wait under when it rains, except in the parking garage. There's no restrooms at either Lakewood or South Tacoma, no heated waiting area, and no place to get a snack or a coffee, nothing. The Lakewood Station garage does have three restrooms, but they're for the ST Express and Pierce Transit bus drivers only."
“We would probably have some opposition from taxpayers” about building more elaborate facilities, Young responded, “when that's just not the way we do it in transit.” Sound Transit service planning manager Mike Bergman noted that the trains pull in at Lakewood at least a few minutes early, and are open for use of their facilities, or to get out of the wet, as soon as they arrive.
The less-than-stellar figures won't help Sound Transit in the wake of recent grousing over the performance of the more lightly trafficked north line service. Last year the Sounders' recovery ratio – that is, the percentage of expenses defrayed by fares – stood at a respectable 32 percent for the south line, but only 11 percent for the Everett route, according to a September COP report.
Although it notes that ridership on the north route has been averaging only about 140 passengers per three-car train, the report, in its own words, was “not suggesting that Sound Transit dismantle the existing north Sounder service,” the report gave that eventuality at least some credence merely by mentioning it.
By contrast, the per-passenger-mile cost of the Lakewood trains, even if their ridership remains as is, may mark an improvement over the cost of their predecessor Sounders, which only went to and from Tacoma. It's a matter of a few extra miles of service without a whole new train. The increased ridership, while not huge, spreads out costs.
“We're benefiting from infrastructure already in place,” Young explained. “Transit systems tend to grow because you've got that initial spine, and you can put the legs on it.”
Overall, the Sounders' operating performance figures fall within the middle range for U.S. commuter rail systems, but Sound Transit's upfront capital costs invite more skepticism. The provider pays dearly for its access to the BNSF tracks. It has committed over $46 million for a perpetual easement access rights – for each of the four additional round-trips to be launched on the southern Sounder route between now and 2017. At a return of 3 percent, that $46 million would give BNSF $1.38 million a year without touching the principal. ST paid BNSF only $33 million for rights to operate each of the south line's nine existing round-trips, but those rights will expire after 40 years.
The key question thus becomes, How might ST reduce price tags for certain capital investments — perhaps leaving more money for the shelters Herrigstad would like to see? Coaches and three-thousand-horsepower locomotives that are only used a few hours every weekday cost a lot per unit of service provided. In ST's case, each coach provides just shy of 47,000 rides yearly, below figures for three smaller-market commuter systems (Which are these? Let's name them.), according to the national transit database.
Seeing the north line service as the over-dimensioned, struggling cousin of the south, some have posited the possibility of replacing the north Sounder's expensive locomotive-plus-coaches trains with diesel multiple units (DMUs). DMUs are essentially rail coaches with truck engines underneath the floor; no locomotive is needed to pull the cars. In July 2010, when ST was weighing the purchase of new equipment, an Ohio DMU manufacturer, U.S. Railcar, approached the provider with the DMU idea; the north line's four locomotives and 12 coaches would then have gone to beef up the south line's expansion. Ultimately ST rejected the opening and purchased three locomotives.
“After you get to a couple of car lengths, it does become more efficient to have the locomotive and cars,” Young explained. “As your system grows, all you do is add a car.”
In fact DMUs can be coupled together just as most other trains' cars can; they can also pull non-powered trailer cars. When that was pointed out, Young stated that rethinking the 1996 Sound Move plan, which launched the Sounders, “would not be cost-effective after already making the fleet investment. For the ridership level we have, the more traditional coaches plus locos make more sense."
He added that, in the last year, the north line's ridership has grown by 14.7 percent, while the recovery ratio has also improved. COP's report used data up through 2011.
At South Florida's Tri-Rail, whose commuter system is exceptional in its use of both DMUs and locomotive-hauled trains, operations manager Brad Barkman told Crosscut that his DMUs travel 4/5 mile on a gallon of fuel, while his locomotives, pulling a similar number of seats, go less than half a mile. “They're doing fine,” he says of the DMUs. Tri-Rail is currently comparing the two modes' performance attributes in detail.
Something with the north line is going to give, however. ST is planning to reduce its three-car Everett trains to two on some trips late next year, and move the freed-up cars to the south line service. The key question in the meantime is whether the so-so patronage in Lakewood and South Tacoma will persist. That could muddle plans and push long-standing criticism of the agency over a certain threshold, particularly as regards its capital decisions. That in turn could threaten both existing services and future expansions. The other alternative, of course, is further economies.
This story has been updated since it first appeared. See note from the author below.