How Do Mudslides Affect Sounder North’s Low Ridership?

Sounder North average weekday ridership (Data: Sound Transit)

Sound Transit has a problem that needs solving. As expressed by their Citizens Oversight Panel, it is this: “the tax-payers and transit users of Snohomish County will not be well served if the high-cost Sounder North line continues to run well below capacity while the much lower-cost ST Express bus routes run overloaded with passengers standing in the aisles.”

Far from defending Sounder North, Seattle Transit Blog applauded the panel’s report, calling it “a pretty devastating evaluation of the north line as a regional mobility project.”

The high costs derive from both the establishment of the Sounder North line between Everett and Seattle (Sound Transit paid track-owner BNSF $258 million for permanent rights to use the tracks, and for upgrades necessary for passenger rail, $57 million for stations, and $42 million for trains), and from operating costs.

In the Seattle Times, Mike Lindblom puts a $29-per-passenger dollar amount on the Sounder North service in 2010, excluding capital costs. (The COP report puts operating costs at $32 per passenger in 2011. In comparison ST’s bus service from the north has a $5-per-boarding cost.)

As if to cement its snakebit reputation, the day after the Times story, a Sounder North train then hit a semi truck trapped on the tracks when signal arms came down.

But if most everyone can agree that there’s a problem, the question of what to do about it remains. The panel’s advice to Sound Transit is to find a way to increase average daily ridership to 2,400 within eight years, roughly double the current 1,125 riding weekdays now. That’s fine advice, but one can assume that Sound Transit has been trying that already. As you can see from the graph above, ridership hasn’t budged–at least in an upward direction.

So what, given Sounder South’s popularity, is holding Sounder North back? People can reel off lists of reasons: a limited walkshed (and driveshed, thanks to limited parking spaces at stations); inconvenient, infrequent schedules; a lack of stops (only the Mukileo and Edmonds stations were built, despite initial plans for Richmond Beach and Ballard stations as well); a higher fare; a more complex overall commute; and so on.

But as Lindblom mentions, where there’s a will, there’s a way: On Seahawks Sundays special Sounder North trains carry up to 3,000 passengers. So the potential is there, if people are determined to get to Seattle. Two trains leave at 10:15 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., and return beginning 15 and 35 minutes after the game is over.

What can be changed? Due to subarea equity agreements, the service can’t simply be cut off. It would have to be made up in some way.

Sound Transit wants to add station parking spaces (“in Edmonds 156 stalls are at 97% utilization and in Mukilteo 63 stalls are at 89%,” says the COP report). They can’t add trains (the agreement with BNSF is for four roundtrips per day), and it would be difficult to improve the schedule by and large (BNSF wants “prime time” for its freight trains, including those extra coal trains you’ve been hearing so much about).

ST does hope to tweak the schedules by a few minutes to tie in better with ferry schedules at Mukilteo and Edmonds, but the four Sounder trains will still leave Everett in that general 5:45-to-7:15 a.m. window, and return between 4:05 and 5:35 p.m. (Yes, it does seem unreasonable to have three out of four commuter trains leave before 5 p.m.)

It’s $4.50 to ride the whole way from Everett to Seattle and vice-versa, but ST believes that its ridership isn’t particularly price sensitive, because they are using ORCA cards paid for by their employers. Since they are only getting 11-percent farebox recovery, it isn’t likely they can budge on price.

With Sounder North trains running at 30 percent of capacity, ST also plans to transfer two to four coach cars to a new Sounder South trip late next year.

What is not in Sound Transit’s control, however, is mudslides. The track, and its condition, is in BNSF’s hands, per the lease. It’s difficult to sell daily commuters on the reliability of rail when 70 Sounder North trains were canceled during 2010-11, and 33 in 2011-12. During that especially rainy 2010-11 winter, the 48-hour rule came into effect five times.

(BNSF says the primary concern is safety, to make sure more mud isn’t on the way, but as a Seattle Transit Blog commenter notes, mudslides create freight backups that need extra time to clear without passenger trains in the way. Other commenters ask whether there isn’t demand enough to run a single Sounder line from Everett to south Seattle.)

ST has arranged “bus bridges” so that rail passengers aren’t stranded, but it’s pretty much a given that on some cold, rainy, dark morning or evening, Sounder passengers will find themselves taking the long way to their destination, instead of relaxing in comfort. The buses pressed into service are often over-crowded, forcing passengers to stand the whole way. If this happened 70 times one winter, wouldn’t you consider just taking the bus–or driving–to begin with?

Looking at the top chart, you see that ridership takes a full year to recover ground from the disastrous 2010-11 winter. After seven train trips were canceled in November 2011, daily average ridership fell by 300 in December. I can’t show causation, but nothing like that happened the same period in 2009, which had no train-canceling mudslides. In 2010, ridership fell by 175 daily boardings in December, but then there were eight canceled train trips in December.

I would argue that the most significant factor in maintaining ridership, and building it through good word-of-mouth, is the elimination of canceled trains due to mudslides. When I look at Sound Transit’s ridership history (see Impacts to North Line Ridership), it seems miraculous that there are 1,000 people so dogged they won’t let 30 canceled trains in January 2006 (and 44 in March 2011!) keep them from showing up at the station at 5:45 a.m. on a winter morning. (That last is for effect; obviously not everyone shows up for the 5:45 a.m. train.)

I harp on this because while in retrospect these still seem large numbers, that still doesn’t compare to the sense of uncertainty passengers must endure, day after day, during these peak-mudslide seasons. The good news is that WSDOT applied for and won a $16.1-million Federal Railroad Administration grant for engineering and mitigation of mudslides: “Approximately $6 million for engineering and $10 million for mitigation projects/construction,” says ST’s Kimberly Reason. We’ll have to see if that’s commensurate with the scope of the problem, or if Sound Transit can pressure BNSF into taking more action. This winter, so far, augurs to be what’s known as a “neutral” year, which can be particularly stormy.

3 thoughts on “How Do Mudslides Affect Sounder North’s Low Ridership?

  1. Not even to the end of December yet and this thing has been down more than operational due to mudslides. Can’t wait for an update on this story for this winter. So far has been terrible with all these mudslides. I think there has been one every day this week. More importantly, looking forward to seeing when and what the fix is they come up with to stopping the mudslides from disrupting the service.

    1. Yep, Jim, looks like it might be another winter for the mudslide record books. Sometimes I think they should just switch to alerting people on days the Sounder *is* running, rather than the other way around.

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