The Sounder

The Sounder is the commuter rail service that is operated by Sound Transit in the greater Seattle metropolitan area.

In November 1996 the voters in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties approved a $3.9 billion plan to create Sound Transit for the purpose of providing a regional transit system consisting of 82 miles of commuter train service between Lakewood and Everett, primarily using existing tracks, as well as about 25 miles of light rail and an express bus network. The funding comes mostly from a 0.4 percent sales tax and a 0.3 percent motor vehicle license tax.

At present there are two separately operated Sounder routes, both of which begin at King Street Station in downtown Seattle and run in opposite directions on Burlington Northern's heavily trafficked main line.1 A major extension is under construction south from Tacoma, and an additional route has been proposed for the Eastside.

Regular service is operated on weekdays only.2 It is provided by a specially built fleet of 75 Bombardier bi-level coaches and 11 EMD diesel electric locomotives3 using a push-pull operation.4

The South Line

The first line to enter service, and by far the most popular of the two, is the south line, which extends 40 miles south to Tacoma and has a total trip time of about an hour.

There are currently seven stations on the south line: Seattle, Tukwila, Kent, Auburn, Sumner, Puyallup and Tacoma Dome. Tacoma Dome station, also known as Freighthouse Square station, is served by a 1.6-mile light rail line completed by Sound Transit in 2003 that connects it with downtown Tacoma. An additional station has been proposed for North Sumner.

Service was begun in September 2000 with two daily round trips. A third round trip was added in September 2002 and a fourth in September 2005. Two more round trips were added in September 2007, one of which is a reverse commute (i.e., outbound to Tacoma in the morning and back to Seattle in the late afternoon).

Sound Transit plans to add as many as three more round trips by the fourth quarter of 2008, of which one might be a second reverse commute, thereby bringing the total number of daily round trips on the south line to nine. This is the number that had originally been promised to be in service by the end of 2002, but which was not attained due to funding difficulties and delays in projects to increase track capacity. When all nine daily round trips are finally running, this would provide a total capacity for the line of more than 45,000 boardings daily,5 and the morning and evening windows to catch a train would be extended to three hours each. Sound Transit has also considered starting a midday train service, although this would require modification of its existing contract with Burlington Northern.

Although ridership got off to a slow start, it has continued to grow, largely due to the greater convenience provided by the increasing number of trains. On August 13, 2007, the first day of a construction project on the parallel I-5 freeway that temporarily reduced the number of lanes, south line ridership set a new record of about 12,000 daily boardings, according to Sound Transit. And although it tapered off after the construction ended a few days later, it remained higher than before the lane closures started. This strong growth resulted in a 33 percent jump for the third quarter of 2007 for total Sounder ridership as compared with the same quarter of 2006, making commuter rail the fastest growing by far of Sound Transit's three transit modes (i.e., 11 percent for express buses and 6 percent for the Tacoma light rail line).

This growth trend is expected to continue as more trains are added and additional cars (currently a maximum of seven) are added to each train. Additional factors that are likely to promote ridership are population growth, transit-oriented development (TOD) near the stations, rising gasoline prices and worsening traffic congestion.

The North Line

Front view of blue locomotive in station
(click to enlarge)

The newer, less popular and more troubled north line runs from King Street Station 35 miles north to Everett. The trip takes slightly under an hour.

Sound Transit originally promised to have six daily round trips in operation by the end of 2002, possibly including a reverse commuter run. However, the start of service was delayed for three years until December 2003, at which time a single daily round trip began running. A second train was added in June 2005, and a third was added in September 2007. A fourth train is scheduled to begin running in the third quarter of 2008, which is the maximum allowed by the contract that was finally signed with Burlington Northern.

At present the north line has only three stations: King Street, Edmonds and Everett. Construction of a fourth station, at Mukilteo, was finally begun in September 2007 and is scheduled for completion around the middle of 2008. Proposals have also been made for additional stations at Broad Street (at the north end of downtown Seattle), Interbay, Ballard and Shoreline.

Ridership was averaging roughly 160 boardings on weekdays before the second train was launched, about half of what Sound Transit had originally predicted. Even with the addition of the second train, it was only about 800 during mid-2007.

The problems of the north line are largely due to the fact that it uses a mostly single tracked coastal route, in contrast to the double tracked, inland route of the south line. The plan to add a second track has necessitated the filling in of some beaches and wetlands, which, in turn, has required complex and lengthy negotiations with various levels of government entities, largely regarding environmental issues (in part because of the listing of salmon under the Endangered Species Act); this has resulted in serious delays and a large increase in costs. Track upgrading and other fixed costs for the line have nearly quadrupled, to $385 million, since the voters approved the project in 1996. Moreover, occasional landslides and consequent track closures have also made this line less reliable than the south line.

The Lakewood Line

The Lakewood line is an 8.2-mile extension of the south line using rebuilt tracks of the historic Prairie Line, which Sound Transit purchased from Burlington Northern several years ago. This line extends from near downtown Tacoma and through the growing suburb of Lakewood.

The Lakewood line will add two new stations to the system: Lakewood and South Tacoma. Construction of the former was begun in March 2007, and construction of the latter is scheduled to start in early 2008. Both will initially be served by express buses to Tacoma instead of by trains.

As with the other lines, plans for the Lakewood line have run into unexpected obstacles, resulting in a delay in the start of service far beyond the originally scheduled 2001. The biggest problem has been with regard to construction of a 1.2-mile track connection across a busy street to Freighthouse Square. Among the issues regarding this section is that crossing the street at grade would allow the line to be opened by the autumn of 2008 but would trigger federal safety rules that would limit it to only nine round trips daily.6 On the other hand, construction of an overpass would allow unlimited rail traffic, but it would increase the total cost of the Lakewood project by as much as $55 million (to $265 million)7 and could delay opening of the line until late 2011 or early 2012. There is also pressure from business owners in the area, some of whose properties would be taken, who claim that neither option has been sufficiently studied and who want an independent examination of the effects on the area's economic development, traffic and environment.

Two possible future north-south extensions for the initially planned 82 miles of commuter train service, both likewise using existing tracks, have been discussed. One is south from Lakewood to the state capitol at Olympia; the other is north from Everett, perhaps as far as Bellingham.

High Costs

The most fundamental and persistent criticism of the Sounder has been with regard to its extremely high costs. Total track payments and other fixed costs for the north, south and Lakewood lines are now expected to reach $1.2 billion by the end of this decade, which is about twice Sound Transit's original estimate. This is far above the cost for other commuter rail systems, and the gap is particularly startling when taking into consideration the fact that this expenditure does not include acquisition of the tracks (with the exception of the Lakewood line) or the construction of entirely new lines and only allows Sounder trains to make a relatively few round trips per day.

This situation is largely a result of the massive payments that have been made to Burlington Northern, which claims that they have been necessary in order to increase the capacity of the two lines so as to not interfere with its growing freight service. In addition to the double tracking of the north line, capacity is also being increased through the installation of additional track switches and signals on the south line so that trains can operate in either direction on either track and through the relocation of the main line tracks near King Street Station8. Critics claim that the size of the payments reflects differences in bargaining power more than true costs.9

Sound Transit points out quite correctly that the cost per passenger is continuing to decline as the number of passengers increases and as the high fixed costs are thus spread over more passengers. However, Sounder operations on track owned by Burlington Northern will likely always be expensive, not only because of the initial huge payments to Burlington Northern, but also because increases in the numbers of trains beyond those initially planned will require still further large payments to that company, which will most likely continue to have the greatest bargaining power.

In contrast, there has been little criticism of the quality of the service provided by the Sounder on either line. Rather, there has been considerable praise, including regarding its reliability, speed, comfort and reasonable fares. However, Sound Transit critics point out that it would be difficult to avoid providing decent service given the vast expenditures that are being made.

The Eastside Line

There has been growing momentum recently towards also utilizing the Eastside railroad for commuter rail service. This secondary main line, which runs approximately 42 miles from Renton in the south to Snohomish in the north, is well suited for commuter rail service because of its generally excellent location, the fact that the track is in satisfactory condition for an initial pilot service (and can be upgraded relatively easily and inexpensively), and the fact that it is in the process of being purchased from Burlington Northern by the public sector (thus eliminating the need for massive payments for track use).

The line passes through or near most major destinations on the rapidly growing Eastside,10 which is catching up with Seattle in terms of population and economic activity. And it parallels I-405, the most congested freeway in the state of Washington and whose congestion is expected to continue to worsen despite massive expenditures for further widening.11 Because of the large and growing population along the line together with a larger number of promising locations for stations, it is possible that it could, in fact, have significantly more ridership potential than the north and Lakewood lines.

This route also features an extremely low start-up cost, in contrast to the other three lines. This is because the track could initially be used basically as is. It has been estimated by Eastside Rail Now! that a simple three year trial service consisting of several round trips daily could be implemented for a total cost of less than $10 million.12 The line could be upgraded gradually in order to increase speeds, improve the smoothness of the ride and boost capacity at a cost far lower than the cost of constructing new rail lines in the region.13

Although the political leadership was not initially interested in the use of the Eastside railroad, the situation has been changing quickly as a result of several factors, including growing outrage over the relentless efforts by King County Executive Ron Sims to scrap the railroad as quickly as possible and replace it with a bicycle trail (at a cost of many tens of millions of dollars to the taxpayers), the resounding defeat of Proposition 1 on the November 2007 ballot (and the consequent rise in interest in lower cost, more effective and more immediate solutions), the growing concern about global warming, and the recent confirmation that the costly BNSF Corridor Preservation Study (which had been used by advocates of scrapping the railroad to justify their position) is fundamentally flawed and should not be taken seriously.

1This is the only remaining north south rail line west of the Cascade Mountains other than Burlington Northern's lightly used secondary main line through the Eastside. Traffic consists mostly of long, double stacked container trains destined to and from the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma, and thus it has continued to expand as a result of the continued growth of shipping through the ports. The Port of Seattle estimates the value of this freight at roughly $50 billion annually. The line also accommodates Amtrak's long distance passenger trains (to California and Chicago) as well as the gradually increasing number of Amtrak's Cascades regional passenger trains (which run as far as Vancouver, British Columbia and Eugene, Oregon).

2This service is strengthened by the Amtrak Cascades regional service, which runs on the same tracks and serves some of the same stations (i.e., Everett, Edmonds, Seattle and Tukwila) as well as a separate but nearby station in Tacoma. Further enhancing this complementarity on the north line is the Rail Plus program, which allows riders to use Sound Transit and other passes on the Amtrak trains and to use Amtrak tickets on Sound Transit trains.

In addition to regular weekday runs, special trains are run to and from King Street Station for some sports events in Seattle on weekends. For example, five trains were scheduled to run to and from each Seahawks football game at Quest Field in December 2007, three on the south line and two on the north line.

3Each of the 85-foot, double-decked passenger cars has a capacity of about 140 seated passengers and a total of about 360 passengers inclusive of standees. Features include on-board restrooms, worktables, surge-protected outlets for laptop computers, Wi-Fi, wheelchair accessibility, overhead storage/luggage racks, bicycle racks and tinted windows. The low-level platform doors permit a full carload of passengers to enter or leave within 90 seconds, thereby minimizing station dwell time.

Because the number of trains being operated was originally much lower than the ultimate target, Sound Transit initially leased many of these locomotives and passenger cars to several other commuter rail systems around the U.S., including in Virginia, New Mexico and Southern California. Most of them have now been returned, and the remainder will arrive in the near future when their leases expire.

The trains are operated by BNSF crews, and train schedules are coordinated by the BNSF main dispatching facility in Forth Worth, Texas. Maintenance is performed by Amtrak at its Holgate Yard Facility, one mile south of King Street Station.

4The locomotives are always on the south or west ends of the trains (except when operating on the short section of clockwise-looping track at the end of the line in Everett), and there is an operator's cab in the last car on each train for use in northbound running. Push-pull operation, which has become standard for commuter rail systems in the U.S. in recent decades, eliminates the need for the costly and time-consuming switching of the locomotives at the end of each run.

5This is based on seven passenger cars per train, each with a capacity of 360 riders (including standees). Each train would thus have a capacity of 2,520 passengers.

6While nine daily round trips would be sufficient for Sound Transit's currently planned service, it would prevent future growth as well as use by Amtrak and freight trains. This route would be preferable for most Amtrak trains because it would be shorter than the current route around Point Defiance. Freight usage would likely be limited to only occasional, short trains and only emergency use by longer trains because of the steep grade heading southward from Freighthouse Square. Burlington Northern would nevertheless benefit from the new connection because it would increase freight capacity on its existing, and partially single tracked, main line around Point Defiance by removing most Amtrak trains.

7Fortunately, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), Burlington Northern and the City of Tacoma have indicated that they would be willing to help pay for the grade separation project.

8This relocation of BNSF's two main line tracks a few dozen feet to the east will eliminate the need for Sounder and Amtrak trains to cross that line when moving between Amtrak's maintenance facility and King Street Station. It will also make it possible to increase the train capacity of the station. Construction is already under way and is scheduled for completion in late 2011.

9Burlington Northern's strong bargaining power is fundamentally due to its near-monopoly on rail lines through Seattle and its consequent ability to ask any price that it can get away with politically. And, of course, it has a great deal of political clout because of its monopoly position and its great wealth. Also, the railroad is highly experienced at negotiating, whereas Sound Transit is just a beginner. In addition, Burlington Northern can effectively utilize the excuse that its freight traffic, which is of tremendous importance to the local economy, is likely to continue to grow and thus it needs the funds to assure adequate track capacity.

10The railroad passes (a) through downtown Renton and a short walk to the Renton transit center and to Renton park-and-ride facilities, (b) near The Landing (a large mixed use project being constructed in North Renton) and near Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park, (c) across I-90 (which could become a major bus transfer point) and near Factoria, (d) near downtown Bellevue and directly through the future growth path of downtown to the east, as well as a short walk to the rapidly expanding Overlake medical complex, (e) next to the SR520 park-and-ride lot and a modest shuttle bus or bicycle ride away from Microsoft's headquarters complex in Redmond, (f) near downtown Kirkland, (g) through the Totem Lake area (which is slated for major redevelopment as a high density, mixed use neighborhood) and a short walk to the large medical complex centering on Evergreen Hospital, (h) adjacent to downtown Woodinville, (i) through Maltby and (j) a short walk to downtown Snohomish.

Bellevue already has the second largest urban core in the state, and it could eventually become one of the biggest in the western U.S. if present trends continue. A station at the intersection with NE 8th Street would allow train passengers to reach areas throughout the downtown core as well as peripheral areas via a brief shuttle bus ride. There has been much interest in starting a local circulator bus service in downtown, and such a station would be a logical stop for it. In this context, it should be kept in mind that King Street Station is a considerable distance from many destinations in and around downtown Seattle and that many Sounder riders transfer to buses or walk significant distances to reach those destinations.

The ridership potential of this line would be further enhanced by extending service over existing tracks to Everett or beyond in the north and to Tacoma or beyond in the south as well as by constructing several short branch lines.

11For more about I-405 and its chronic congestion, see The Great I-405 Boondoggle, Eastside Rail Now!, January 2007.

12See Request for Funding in Sound Transit's 2008 Budget for a Three Year Pilot Commuter Service on the Eastside Railroad, Eastside Rail Now!, October 2007.

13Estimates for a substantial upgrading, including new ties, rail and ballast, for the entire line range from less than $40 million to more than $200 million. The latter figure would include additional long sidings in order to make the line suitable for use as a high-speed freight bypass. This contrasts with roughly $200 million for a single mile of Sound Transit's light rail line currently under construction and at least $325 million per mile for its proposed East Link light rail line from Seattle to Bellevue.

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This page created April 2, 2007. Updated December 16, 2007.
Copyright © 2007 Eastside Rail Now! All Rights Reserved.