Transit Blog

This article is a  response to and article written by David Salaverry,  the founder of the California Conservative Action Group. The article - California High Speed Rail: Part One, Arguments For posted on Fox and Hounds was an interesting slant on California's High Speed Rail project. We take it for granted that liberals will vote for HSR and conservatives won't. David takes a different tone and introduces a few reasons why the GOP should take a lead on building this infrastructure and I've taken it upon myself to add a few thoughts to his words.

Thank you for writing with this perspective David Salaverry.  I'm afraid that if the GOP doesn't start thinking about getting something done they may not be in office anymore. At some point people will see the GOP as the "No you can't have education, No you can't have infrastructure, No you can't have transportation, No you can't live here and work". If you say no to everyone no matter how good your intentions there won't be enough people to vote for you because you're completely ineffective at doing anything but shutting stuff down. The Democrats on the other hand may end up being the "Yes they spent a lot of money but at least some of their stuff worked". It's sad that "some of their stuff worked" would be considered a success but in comparison "none of their stuff worked because they didn't do anything" is a failure to do anything.

At one time in history the GOP was the anti-slavery, pro-American enterprise, pro-infrastructure party. Now they're the "you can't have money unless you're a defense contractor" party. This is a sad state for the GOP party and I think only when they start losing seats in congress will they think about addressing the real issues. You could make the argument that the Democrats aren't doing anything right too but that would be a different topic. Currently we're discussing the GOP and High Speed Rail.

The crazy thing about HSR is that it does work in most nations they build it in. Operating costs are cheaper per passenger mile (7-9 cents) than airlines (12-14 cents) and in those countries the HSR breaks even or even makes money (TGV makes $1.6B a year helping to offset local trains deficit).  I haven't quite figured out why the GOP is so against passenger rail because we're not exactly inventing something new and risky. I've come up some possible reasons. Most are arguments I've heard in forums.

  1. It costs money and spending ANY money is bad. This doesn't make sense because just upgrading the freeways and airports for the increased population for the next 30 years costs the same as the HSR as the cost analyses for California showed.
  2. Trains are old technology, planes are the way to go. This 1950's era thinking is old technology. HSR has proven to be the most efficient for trips from 100 - 500 miles. Just because these folks have never traveled beyond their local Walmart doesn't make it not so.
  3. Environmentalists push trains since they emit less Co2. Is there a negative to lowering Co2 that I don't know about? Even if global warming is a hoax making less pollution is generally considered a good thing.
  4. Putting everyone on public transportation is socialism and we don't want to be Russia. Airplanes are public transportation... we all ride together. With trains you ride in comfort.
  5. We don't like the idea that the government would own the infrastructure instead of private enterprise. Two words - Freeways and Airports. Both are owned by the state and both work wonderfully for their intended purpose.
  6. Liberals like trains and we can't support them. This is how you get nothing done in Congress. At some point people will have had enough and stop electing you. Try to agree on something once in a while. Your career may depend on it.
  7. Only rich people could afford to ride it. Like airplanes and cars. Driving your car one mile costs 55 cents. Only a fool thinks their car costs the price of gas. Everyone has to do maintenance, pay for insurance, tires, depreciation etc... The more you drive it the less your car is worth and the closer you get to having to buy a new one. Driving 500 miles (HSR's maximum) will cost you $250 whereas the train would cost you half that. Even planes are cheaper than driving at that distance. Save your car for driving short distances where it's the best mode of transportation.
  8. It won't go where I want. Trains go between cities and I'm a conservative so I live in the country. This is actually a VALID reason which is why you should be in the planning process. Trains have the ability to stop in smaller towns whereas planes don't. HSR could have an advantage if you live in the country.
  9. I don't want my tax money going toward something I'll never use. Currently about 30% of freeways are paid for directly by people who use them by way of gas tax. The rest comes from taxes collected from people who will never use that freeway. Currently Amtrak's dilapidated network of 70s era trains have an average farebox recovery (ticket sales) of 55% or nearly double that of freeways. Amtrak relies less per passenger on subsidies than freeways. HSR if done right will break even as it does in most countries thus having a lower burden on taxpayers not using it.
  10. I'm all for private companies like airlines providing my transportation, not government inefficienciesIf you think those private enterprises are surviving because they're more efficient you may surprised to learn they're heavily reliant on subsidies.  Airports are run by the government as is the FAA, and the TSA. Most every flight is subsidized to keep the airlines solvent. The subsidy varies depending on which airports the flights use and how popular it is. The average flight out of LAX is only subsidized $9. However, a direct flight from Spokane WA to Irvine CA is subsidized roughly $200. 

I'm sure there are other arguments but I haven't thought of them yet. Comments?

 Note: This post will mean a lot more to those of you living in the Seattle/Tacoma/Olympia area and attempting to use public transportation. It's meant to be humorous but based in reality in a sort of depressing way.

The original Sound Transit announcement for reference.

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Your current transit news from your transit news correspondent Haywood Jablomey.

Sound Transit remaps the 574 route to connect with the Sounder which goes in the OPPOSITE direction. So for those people traveling from the Airport to Seattle who want to transfer to the Sounder they can now do it at Lakewood… 35 miles from the city.

Pierce Transit after a massive service hour cut adds the 400 route to duplicate the service offered by the Sounder. Sound Transit counters by canceling a portion of the 578 route that duplicates what the PT 400 duplicates of the Sounder route thus saving tax payers $12 which is handed over to Piece Transit and immediately applied to it’s million dollar shortfall easing the tension between Piece Transit and all the cities that pay for it but it no longer services.

Sound Transit add Sunday service to the 578 for all the people who can’t connect to it using Sounder or Pierce Transit 400 due to there not being any weekend service on either.

Sound Transit discontinues the downtown Tacoma portion of the 586 because countless other services cover that route including the Oly Express which doesn’t stop at Tacoma Dome on hours ending with consonants on days ending in y (unless it’s raining then there’s a 50/50 chance due to the letter y not always being considered a vowel) resulting in 605 riders to the U District moving from a 2 seat ride to a 3 seat ride either 30%, 35% or 48% of the time.

Sound Transit extends Sounder south to get closer to 820 parking spots which couldn’t seem to squeeze near the 2283 already available stalls at Tacoma Dome Station thus encouraging people to drive south to park so they can catch the Sounder north back past their houses giving working husbands and wives a second chance to wave to their spouses and check on their lawns. Nobody else notices since the Oly Express still won’t make any sort of intelligent connection to the Sounder effectively keeping the 59x buses annoyingly full.

To discourage people from taking the Sounder Commuter Train Sound Transit has doubled the frequency of both the 590 and 594 in commute direction only thus making better use of empty parking spaces in the city that so far have not been fully utilized because in the past the buses were busy carrying people around. Coffee shops expect to see an increase in ticket sales from the hordes of ST bus drivers milling about during the day. It’s been proposed that cardboard “Occupy Wall Street” signs be added to their uniform so people won’t notice they are in fact employed bus drivers with nothing better to do.

Afraid that there may be some good news buried in the changes somewhere for at least ONE line Sound Transit has doubled the service runs of the 592 bus but stops short of actually delivering passengers anywhere useful. Options are to take the Sounder, walk a block to board the Link and travel one or two stops further north or south. Proposed changes are intended to either leave 592 riders stranded or irritated. Either is acceptable. Rumors of a conspiracy by Jamie Oliver to force long transit connection in an attempt to “slim Americans down” go unfounded. Rumors of him being awarded a second TED prize for an upcoming speech however just will not go away.

Not to leave a sour taste in anyone’s mouth Sound Transit has added ONE extra ST 510 run per day to Everett. It isn’t presently clear at what time a day it runs and it’s existence hasn’t been proven.

And that’s it for this week folks. Have a happy new year.

 

I've already posted my Regional Transit Plan and will have an update in the future. I put a bit of emphasis on the Seattle Monorail because this article was supposed to be published before the Regional Transit Plan but I didn't get it out. With that in mind I'd like to review the Seattle Monorail and give my additional thoughts on it's usefulness and where it falls down.

Many people think of the Monorail as a tourist trap and not an important transit link in Seattle. I too have thought this way but then I also thought the Tacoma Link was worthless until I went to Tacoma to ride it and realized that it's a very useful train that takes the stress out of going from the Tacoma Dome to anywhere downtown. Being free you just hop on and hop off whenever you want. It's like having one long escalator along downtown Tacoma. Is the Monorail as useful though as a transit option?

There are several advantages of train in general over their street bound bus equivalents - they're consistent, they're more comfortable and they usually have right of way.

These are not constants and can be said for certain types of bus travel as well but for the most part trains trump buses because of these three things. Consistency is a very important ingredient - one the bus people don't get. People will ride transit if it always does what they expect it to do without surprises. Nobody likes the feeling of being on a bus going the right direction and then have it suddenly take a turn and you don't know if you should have gotten off. Buses cause stress. I have many bad stories of riding buses in foreign countries where I didn't know exactly where I was going (and can't ask the driver). I don't have one similar bad train story - trains are consistent. If someone says "get on the number 8 and get off at the commerce station" it's easy and works every time. This should not be ignored. Trains generally have more room so more comfort. Buses can be pretty awesome though and a quick trip to Mexico would prove this. However, there's something about the motion of a train that just can't be equalled by buses. A bus lurches forward then back on acceleration and braking, then makes 90 degree turns, wallows over bumps etc.. A train rocks side to side and clacks down the tracks - which tends to be very soothing and welcome. The worst trains are about as nice as the best buses. As for my last point trains usually have right of way but in the case of Portland's MAX, Tacoma Link, the S.L.U.T. and parts of Central Link they might be in the streets with the cars which is unfortunate. Monorail however, by design always has right of way which returns us to our subject.

 

The Seattle Monorail was put in 50 years ago as part of the World Expo in 1962 and goes from Westlake Plaza to Seattle Central. There's been many plans to extend it but none have prevailed. Now the monorail soldiers on as a tourist attraction and to be honest is a bit run down. The train cars are no longer being made but Seattle has a copy of the plans if they need to manufacture any new parts. Malasia recently built entire trains from those designs although you'd think they could have just built a new style monorail had they thought about it for a moment. Let's take a journey on the Seattle Monorail then we'll talk about it's usefulness.

The reason we decided to use the Monorail was to go to Pikes Place Market. You might be thinking that we could have just parked at the Market but parking there is extremely expensive and hard to find. You do get about an hour free I believe at a parking garage near the market but an hour gives you just about as much time to get to the market, take on photo of a flying fish and get back. We were there for the day to enjoy the Artisan Food Festival and it was Sunday so street parking was free. It's fairly easy to get street parking on Sunday near Seattle Center so instead of feeding a greedy parking garage we decided to park near Seattle Center and pretend the Monorail was a valid form of transportation. Following is our experience.

We bought round trip tickets at Seattle Center Station near the Center House for $13 ($4 adult, $3 for youth and $2 for seniors I think) total. That's about what we'd pay at the parking garage near the Market but this way we get to see Seattle Center, ride a Monorail, peruse Westlake Plaza AND go to the market. More bang for our buck. Since the Monorail is elevated you wait on a platform high above the ground under a covered roof. What makes monorails different from other elevated trains (Central Link light rail) is that it has one "rail" that the train straddles as opposed to two rails that it rides on. The Monorail is also a rubber tired train so the ride is different. I'm not endorsing rubber tired trains as I have my gripes about them (reverberations at speed) as well but just noting it. The loading platform is completely level and to board you have to zig zag through two levels of railing separating you from the train. This I'd assume is to keep people from falling off the platform when the train is not in the station. Since the Monorail only goes back and forth there's a drivers seat on each end. When it pulls into station the driver walks from one end to the other to drive it back the other direction. The Seattle Monorail controls have been updated over the years and include an LCD screen and other goodies. Part of me wants to know why there's a driver at all though in this modern day. the Toulouse Metro and many Airport skytrains operate just fine with no driver on board. I'd envision a modern version of this to not have a driver. It's not like you're going to run into anything on the route.

As the Monorail leaves Seattle Center station it passes through the strange metallic blob of  The Experience Music Project and makes a right turn toward downtown Seattle. The EMP was a later addition and built over the already existing Monorail. As the Monorail gains speed it makes it's biggest turn to the left and leans several degrees over the side of the rail so you can look straight down out the left side of the car. For this reason I always sit on the north side (left going to Westlake, right going to the Seattle Center). My mother however, sits on the opposite side for the very same reason. Along the straight away the Monorail approaches 45 mph and because of it's rubber tires I don't think it could do anymore even if the line was longer. I've mentioned rubber tired trains reverberations earlier. At slower speeds they're a bit smoother than metal tired trains or maybe the bumps are just more rounded. Metal tired trains do the clickity clack think and the bumps are sharp. I've decided though through experience that a rubber tired train does NOT improve the experience, just change it. The ride on the Monorail is surprisingly bumpy.

At the end of the journey which comes far too soon the Monorail makes it's last right turn and pulls up next to Westlake Plaza.  The old station used to be in the middle of the street but they later squeezed both tracks up against the building and they're so close together that only one monorail can be in station at a time or they'll collide. Because of the nature of a monorail you can't just walk across the tracks to exit like you could a metal wheeled train so a very strange metal walkway extends to meet the train. This walkway has enough moving parts that it causes the maintenance crews never ending grief.  It might also cause some people who are afraid of heights grief.

As you leave you have the option of taking an elevator to the street level two floors down or entering Westlake Plaza and using the escalators. Westlake plaza is a shopping mall with restrooms and a food court so we usually dash through it, use the facilities and gawk at the Seattlites in their flannel shirts, sandals with socks and nose rings. Just kidding about the flannel.

The point of this experiment was to see if the Monorail could be a valid form of mass transportation in Seattle and I say it is or at least can be with some slight changes. One criticism toward the Monorail is that it doesn't go anywhere. I think this is a bold statement since the Monorail only goes to the two most touristic spots in the city. I'd consider that somewhere. I think what people are getting at with that statement is that you can't commute with it and unless you're a tourist or just going between Westlake and Seattle Center it's mostly worthless. This is true to a degree and following is my solution.

 

Currently the Monorail is run as a separate entity for the City of Seattle. It's also supposedly the only transit solution in America that actually makes money. Curiously it's also one of the only transit solution in America that doesn't serve the populous of the city it resides in. Maybe that's why it makes money. Most of Seattle's transit systems take payment in the form of the ORCA card. If you take a ferry, an Everett Transit bus, Community Transit bus, Sound Transit Bus, The Sounder Train, Link Light Rail, Metro Transit bus or Pierce Transit bus you can pay and more importantly transfer with your ORCA card (Tacoma Link is free). There are a couple of transit options left out – The S.L.U.T. (but if you flash your ORCA they'll let you on, I think it's just that they don't have ORCA machines), InterCity Transit (Why InterCity? Why?) and the Monorail. I believe that these three need to get on board and I'll explain why. InterCity needs to take the ORCA because being a rebel only works for certain movie actors, it doesn't work for bus companies, especially ones that connect two other transit options that both use ORCA (Pierce and Metro) so wake up and smell the coffee. The S.L.U.T. Doesn't take them because of a lack of vision on the part of King County Metro – they just didn't put in the pay stations. The Monorail is run like a tourist attraction and is making money so why would they even want to take ORCA? Because the trains aren't full and we are finally getting serious about transit (and trains) in Seattle. Does adding one mile of rail to the ORCA when buses already cover that route make sense? Yes, for consistency. I see buses driving down 4th avenue and I'm sure they go to the Seattle Center but I've never ridden them. I'd rather pay the $4 or walk the mile than get on a bus and possibly end up somewhere else. People will probably tell me to consult a bus schedule but with the Monorail I don't have to – I just get on and this is my point. Allowing the ORCA would allow people from the North Suburbs to arrive via Sound Transit 510/511 buses at Westlake Center and transfer to the Monorail to Seattle Center. It would allow people coming from the Link Light rail or South of the City via the Sound Transit 594 bus or even from the Sounder Commuter train (with a free transfer via Link Light Rail) to transfer at Westlake to the Monorail to go to Seattle Center.

As short of a ride as it is this IS an important link for residents – not just tourists. Just by adding an additional turnstile and an ORCA reader at each end we could add the ability for locals to transfer. Tourists will continue buying round trip tickets for $4 just like they do now because it wouldn't make sense to buy an ORCA card just for one ride. Not only would the Monorail make the money they're currently making but they'd also keep a portion of the money paid on the ORCA card. They'd be even more profitable than they currently are and ridership would go up. Current headways are 10 minutes which are shortened to 6 minutes during special events. With increased ridership and very little additional overhead headways could be shortened to 6 minutes with one train. For special events the second train can be deployed to shorten headways to 3 minutes.

 

In summary, if you're heading to downtown Seattle on a Sunday when street parking is free then parking near Seattle Center and taking the Monorail may be a great option. You'll still pay for the Monorail but the ride is fun and it helps support a historic icon. However, if they ever start accepting the ORCA you can then just leave the car at home and ride other forms of transit into the city to take the Monorail. I urge Seattle to make this move.

So while I'm dreaming let me express a couple of my negative feelings toward the monorail and my proposed solutions.  From the train the view is excellent. From the ground the views pretty bad. The Monorail tracks from the ground are ugly so let's just get that out of the way. The way I look at it is the Monorail will NEVER be extended and as such the ride will never be any longer. Because it only takes 90 seconds to get from one end to the other and because the ride is so short we have options. In Toulouse the metro doors stay open 15 seconds exactly and trains come by every 60 seconds. We can't have headways like that unless we run two trains but I don't think that's necessary. If we have the train in the station for 1 minute on each end we could run about 3-4 minute headways using one train. With 185 passenger per train load we could move 3600 people per hour which is roughly what the Central Link light rail does with 10 minute headways. Granted, that would be max capacity for a single beam monorail but I'm not sure it's a problem since it's just between two stations. The reason I'm yammering on about a single beam monorail is the aesthetics factor of our current system. in order to support two trains we have two parallel beams end to end and the supporting columns are quite large. This all creates a very heavy, industrial visual statement that is neither appealing or pretty. I think that if the current dual beam monorail was replaced by a single beam and the supports halved in size we'd have a very unobtrusive system that would blend into the view of the sky. A single beam is very narrow and without the V shaped supports supporting two beams and the massive pillars holding it up would be a great visual improvement. Am I talking about replacing the current monorail with a new one? Isn't the same idea as the Green Line that was going to cost $125 million dollars a mile? No, all I'm talking about is a concrete job of replacing pillars and beams. The trains stay the same, the stations stay nearly the same etc... I don't think the cost would be that huge.

Another change I think should be made at the same time is to bring the Westlake Center station nearer to the ground. As the train rounds the corner on 4th and Stewart the train should dip down along Westlake Center to second story level and there should be an escalator to street level then another escalator down into the transit tunnel to ease transfers from the S.L.U.T., surface buses and the Central Link. Also with just one beam the radius of the three curves could be lessened so it can maintain a bit more speed. Maybe it would only amount to a 15 second savings but in combination with 45 second boardings one train could push a 3 minute headway. One of the reasons we have two trains on two beams though is so they can do maintenance on one train while using the other. With one beam and one train we'd lose this advantage so all maintenance would have to be done at night when the monorail isn't running.

That's enough dreaming for one day. None of it will ever happen because this is Seattle and we Seattlites revel in transportation misery.