Public Interest Transportation Forum -

Sound Transit's Commuter Train Between Everett and Seattle Costs so Much that it's Illegal

Costs per passenger far exceed those for the bus service operating in the same corridor.

Concerned about low ridership, the Sound Transit Citizen Oversight Panel (COP) has conducted a study of the Sounder North Line, which began with a formal presentation of cost and ridership data to COP by Sounder management on March 1, 2012.  Excerpted data from that briefing are posted here (pdf).

On September 27, 2012 the COP issued a report on its study results to the Sound Transit Board of Directors, with a summary cover letter, here in pdf.  The report states, "We do believe that the Board and the public should be aware of just how costly this service is and what the implications are of continuing to allocate scarce resources to an underutilized service when the alternative express bus service is running overcrowded every day with standees in the aisles, at a much lower cost."

The Power Point slides used by COP for the briefing to the Board are available here in PDF.

The COP study concludes "the status quo of low ridership and high costs on North Sounder is not acceptable." The report advocates the agency take steps to increase ridership, but does not recommend shutting down the service even if ridership remains low, alleging that the existence of this costly, poorly patronized train is supported by leaders and many other citizens in Snohomish County.

The COP report makes no mention of Washington State law RCW 81.104.120 described below, which PITF asserts establishes a justification for shutting down Sounder North.

Amazingly, Sound Transit has placed a photo of Sounder North prominently on the cover of its April 2013 Sustainability Progress Report (right). Based on the COP report, the present status of this train is a poster child for unsustainable public transit service. Choosing a picture of a four-car train -- which has already been reduced to three cars for lack of customers -- is at best ignorant, or worse, a cynical insiders' joke. The fact that Sound Transit used Sounder funds to turn 380 acres of Snohomish County farmland into a salt marsh salmon habitat may compensate for environmental damage to the shoreline corridor, but it does not compensate for the outrageously high expenditures that could be directed toward more efficient transit service.

Matt Rosenberg in Public Data Ferret  reported shortly after the COP report came out: "Sound Transit spokesperson Kimberly Reason ... emphasized the agency has made a considerable investment in commuter rail to Snohomish County including more than $200 million to BNSF for an easement to use the freight line’s tracks; and that voter-approved plans also bind the agency to continuing North Sounder service. She did say that to improve North Sounder ridership, ST is exploring leasing space for surface parking near the Mukilteo and Edmonds stations, considering improvements to bike and pedestrian access, and continuing research and marketing efforts. Adding to ST Snohomish County-Seattle express bus service is a non-starter, she said, because the agency is at peak hour capacity in that respect, and because adding new coaches would require unfunded spending for the rolling stock, plus maintenance. Reason also asserted that in the long term, Puget Sound regional roads will become less and less viable due to congestion and that train transit (commuter rail and light rail) will become a better and better option compared to buses or cars."

Contradicting Sound Transit's last point in the previous paragraph, Puget Sound Regional Council forecasts that expressway delay in 2040 will be lower than today.

The response of the Sound Transit Board to the COP report is in a letter (pdf) dated October 26, 2012.  It concurs with the recommendations in the COP report and also indicates that the agency is unwilling to consider canceling the service and replacing it with buses that serve the same corridor.  Of further interest in light of the landslide season that began in the following month is this paragraph from Sound Transit:

The COP’s report notes the unexpected level of challenges we have experienced with mudslides on the
steep embankments adjacent to the shoreline tracks. We have had successful discussions with the
BNSF Railway Company to relax, under certain circumstances, its rule that in the past automatically
halted train service for 48 hours following a mudslide. Each mudslide incident is now being examined
with greater local BNSF discretion to determine the extent of the interruption, based on further mudslide
risk. While we will continue to put riders’ safety first and err on the side of caution, we anticipate this will
restore service more quickly after very minor slides, reducing the number of missed trips. We are also
pleased about the recent $16 million Federal Railroad Administration grant to WSDOT to help stabilize the worst of the mudslide-prone sections.

The landslide challenges should not have been "unexpected" because they were clearly documented in the December 1999 Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Sounder North.  The Geotechnical Report for the EIS on page 12 found that along the BNSF tracks between Seattle and Everett there were over 100 locations where slides had occurred between 1996 and 1998, that the slides are getting more massive, and that “much of the terrain…is too high and steep to be effectively stabilized by [existing] methods over the long term…"

Review of the landslide problem for Sounder North in Seattle Weekly, April 11, 2013.

In addition to landslide problems, the service offered by this train is also degraded by by high tides on Puget Sound, next to the shoreline track.

Sound Transit provides weekday commuter rail service on the tracks of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe mainline between Everett and Seattle. There are four trains in the morning peak commuting period, and the four trains return to Everett in the evening peak.  There are intermediate stations in Edmonds and Mukilteo.  The full route is 35 miles in length. 

It's a beautiful ride along Puget Sound, but this train costs taxpayers about $8 million per year to serve approximately 550 daily round-trip commuters. This equals a taxpayer subsidy of about $16,000 to each of these commuters every year, at the same time that a frequent, all-day express bus service from the same agency covers the same route, going to the same destination with a similar travel time along the I-5 HOV lanes. Ironically, many customers of this train live on Whidbey Island or in north Snohomish County, outside of the Sound Transit taxing district.

Picture at right of Sounder running along its shoreline track is from the Sound Transit Rider Guide online.

In the life of this train since December 2003, the maximum ridership achieved was 1,200 one-way boardings per day.  In the fourth quarter of 2011, the ridership averaged 1,013 per day.  The forecast made in 1996 for daily ridership by 2010 was 2,400 to 3,200 boardings daily, and it was on the basis of this predicted ridership that the train was established.

Sound Transit reports that the capital investment to establish this train has been $368 million.  The majority of this investment was $258 million paid to the BNSF for an easement to use its tracks.  The operating costs in 2011 were $9.1 million, 1/3 of which was paid to BNSF, 1/3 to Amtrak, and 1/3 for Sound Transit's own expenses, according to Sound Transit management at a March 1, 2012 briefing to the Citizen Oversight Panel.  The cost per boarding was $32.38.  Only 13% of this cost was recovered in fares.

Sound Transit reports that the costs are higher than planned in 1996, and the ridership lower.

Before this train was established, the Washington State Legislature in 1990 established a legal framework for commuter rail in the State, codified as RCW 81.104.120.  This law states, "Transit agencies and regional transit authorities may operate or contract for commuter rail service where it is deemed to be a reasonable alternative transit mode. A reasonable alternative is one whose passenger costs per mile, including costs of trackage, equipment, maintenance, operations, and administration are equal to or less than comparable bus, entrained bus, trolley, or personal rapid transit systems." 

In simple terms, the train is supposed to be less expensive than using buses.

The minimum current passenger cost per mile can be approximated as the $32.38 cost per passenger boarding noted above divided by the 35 mile route length, that is, 93 cents per passenger mile.  This would come out higher if we took into account that many passengers board/exit at Edmonds or Mukilteo and thus travel less than 35 miles, certainly raising the per passenger mile cost to over a dollar. It also would come out much higher if capital costs were included.  However, let's assume 93 cents, because the train costs way too much even at this level.

The determination that the RCW 81.104.120 law requires is whether 93 cents per passenger mile is equal or less than riding a bus on the same route.  We can show that the train cost is much higher than the bus cost.

In the 2012 Service Implementation Plan, Sound Transit has calculated and reported the cost per boarding of its Regional Express Route 510 bus between Everett Station and downtown Seattle as $4.67 on weekdays. When divided by the same 35 route miles, the cost per passenger mile calculates to 13 cents per passenger mile, or 86% less than the Sounder train.

While our analysis makes an assumption that all passengers travel between Everett and Seattle, more detailed data would show a similar result if the Edmonds and Mukilteo customers were considered separately. These cities are also served by bus service to downtown Seattle.

The historical record from 1994 Resolution 24 of the Regional Transit Authority indicates that Sounder North train was expected to operate at a passenger mile cost of 33 to 38 cents, which even incorporated capital costs.  This was based on a plan to attract 4,600 boardings per day.  Bus costs were stated as 40 cents per passenger mile, with no methodology stated on how this cost was calculated, but undoubtedly including capital costs.  Because 38 cents is less than 40 cents, the Sounder North Line train in the 1990s passed the reasonableness test of RCW 81.104.120.

Now, experience can replace theory. After many years of operation during which Sound Transit marketing programs had plenty of time to attract more ridership, the passenger mile cost of the train is not equal or less than the bus, but much more.

Because of these cost figures, PITF asserts that the Sounder North Line train can no longer be considered a reasonable alternative transit mode under RCW 81.104.120. Sound Transit should declare this train to be illegal and discontinue it.  Resources no longer needed to operate it could be committed to strengthening Regional Express bus service in the corridor between Everett and Seattle.

To enforce the law, somebody has to take action. After his own research along lines similar to this page, citizen taxpayer Will Knedlik of Kirkland has filed a lawsuit to stop Sounder North Line (pdf) and to force other related results.

For those who seek a scenic passenger train ride along the Seattle to Everett corridor, service on the Amtrak Cascades twice per day would be ongoing even after Sounder North Line ceased operation. Washington State ferries also provide an opportunity for any citizen to enjoy scenic views of Puget Sound and its shoreline.

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Last modified: April 30, 2013