I pondered the title of this article for a bit because we're currently struggling over the future of trains in America. One party wants to break up Amtrak into the NEC or Northeast Coridor (40% private) and then leave the current Amtrak to die on the vine trying to manage the rest of the non-profitable lines. The other party put 8 Billion into HSR (high speed rail) lines and wants to spend more. Amtrak has said it will cost about 100 Billion to rebuild the NEC. So having read Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service--A Year Spent Riding across America by James McCommons I know a few things about the history of passenger rail in America. For those of you who don't want to read an entire book about the history and current state of passenger trains in America I ran across a PDF entitled On the Wings of the Zephyr
The Rise and Fall of America’s High-Speed Streamliners (click to download). This tells the story of the Pioneer Zephyr an advanced high speed train in America. It left Chicago in the evening and arrived in Denver first thing in the morning. The average speed was 77 mph and it topped 116 mph. These numbers look a great deal like our current Acela high speed train in the Northeast Coridor. They also look a lot like the proposed high speed rail line between Orlando and Tampa that was refused by the current Florida Governor. As we struggle to get even single lines built it's hard to imagine that at one point in time the United States had 49,000 miles of high speed rail lines. The top 10 fastest scheduled passenger trains in the world were American. The year? Nineteen thirty-four! Yes I said 1934. Steam engines gave way to diesel and American wanted to prove it's chops so we built (using private money) a high speed rail system with entire trainsets engineered in America. The Pioneer Zephyr trainset (97 ft) weighed a total of about 200,000 lbs including engine. That's about what the engine on a modern Amtrak weighs by itself! Weight costs money - the more a train weighs the more stress on the tracks, the more diesel fuel it uses, the more it costs to pull. The freight railroads say it costs $1 to pull one ton (2000 lbs) 50 miles. With this train weighing about 1 million pounds less than our current Amtrak Superliners it makes sense that it would be drastically cheaper to run.
It all came to an end for various reasons. Diesel locomotives were required to have a fireman onboard even though they no longer had fires to tend to. A days pay was calculated by 100 miles traveled so the Zephyr engineer and fireman were paid for one week every day they worked. This was good for the engineer and fireman but bad for the railroad. To discourage traveling during WWII 15% was added to train tickets. Between 1945 and 1953 this raised 1.4 Billion dollars for the US treasury. The tax wasn't lifted until it was all over. Speed limits of 79 mph were placed on trains without specialized switching gear that would cost 500 Million dollars (current dollars) to install. During this same period of time the US Government started directly subsidizing airlines and indirectly subsidizing the airline industry with fixed airmail prices. In 1946 the Airport Development Act called for construction of 2000 new airports and provided 500 Million (1946 funds) to build them. By 1960 they'd spent more than 2 Billion on airports. The Federal Aid Highway act of 1944 authorized $500 Million per YEAR for highways. This however, wasn't enough so Vise President Nixon (yes tricky Dick) proposed a 50 Billion dollar highway plan (remember this is 1954 money equivalent to 1 Trillion dollars today). The entire United States budget was 71 Billion so 50 Billion on one project was immense. This would be roughly equivalent to us spending 2 Trillion today on one project. In 13 years the Airlines portion of intercity travel went from 6% to 39%. After 28,000 miles of interstate highway was opened 49,000 miles of passenger rail track was closed.
Was it even possible for passenger trains to compete with the deck stacked against them? Probably not. By 1971 the private passenger rail companies wanted out of the business and the government handed them a carrot. Amtrak would be created to relieve them of the burden as long as they let Amtrak run on their rails. So the next time someone complains about Amtrak's subsidies remember that the entire airline and car infrastructure was built on trillions of dollars of tax money. Ironically the political party pushing in those days for tax subsidies to create this infrastructure and ultimately kill off an entirely independent private industry were the Republicans. Quite the change of philosophy in relation to now. Now the same party wants to end subsidies to Amtrak. Maybe the goal is the same but it can't be about dollars can it?
Current Amtrak trains average about 45 mph and have only a fraction of the track that we used to have. Most every small town in America had a passenger train station. It doesn't bother me so much that one technology would replace another, what bothers me is how much it cost American tax payers to unbalance competition and how much it's ultimately cost us in the end.
I spend enough time on Seattle Transit blogs yammering on about transit so I decided I should probably start posting something in my own transit blog. Since a blog cannot be a blog without a log.
Part of my frustration with local transit (local as in the U.S.) is that it takes forever to do anything. In the amount of time that it will take the U.S. to build it's first real high speed rail Mexico will be done with theirs. Mexico? We're competing against Mexico and losing. The reason is that Mexico decides to do something and then does it. Here in the land of the free we decide to do something then sit in commitree meetings for the next 20 years trying to address every single person's objections. The last time we had any guts we built an amazing freeway system - that was 50 years ago.
China is another one. Yes I understand the issues with human rights and all of that but we're talking about transit. in 2005 China decided to build a metro system in Shanghai. Now they have the largest metro system in the world having just passed London. By 2020 they plan on adding extensions to it that by themselves equal the size of the New York City subway!
There's argument over how the size of metro systems are measured but no matter as this is a very large and they've done it in record time.
What keeps us from doing this? We have to take into consideration everything before pushing one shovel into the ground. How much will it cost? How much noise will it make? How will it effect the environment? These projects are expensive but so are the alternatives. How much co2 is dumped into the air now and how much wear and tear is put on the highways in addition to the cost of expanding/widening them? How much longer would our cars last if we had a faster, more reliable way of getting to work? I'd like to see a REAL cost analysis on transportation. We have had transit projects shelved because of environmental impact. Environmental Impact of million sof drivers driving to work every day? According to the U.S. Census Bureau 77.3% of all commuters drive to work and are alone in the car. What's the environmental impact of building cars that wear out in 7 years from high mileage, producing trillions of gallons of gas a year, paving roads, repaving roads and repairing roads in addition to the impact of exhaust being dumped into the atmosphere? I'd like to see these numbers but I think that digging a trench in the ground and filling it with tracks is less than the above mentioned items. Not to mention that Paris, London and Budapest are still using their 100 year old metro systems. Cost? Spread it over the next century.
There will be more posts on China, they're also in the process of building the largest high speed rail network in the world.
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.
We have the Amtrak Acela that's capable of 150 mph but it hasn't exactly caught the rail world on fire because the states it passes through limit it's speed to just above what a normal Amtrak train could do. In addition to that the Federal Railroad Administration dictated ridiculous changes to the design in order that it never be competitive to other forms of travel. It was a failure from the design stage on. Of course they'll say that doubling the weight of the train artificially makes it safer for the passengers but we know that doesn't make sense because the builders of it are the same companies (bombardier and Alstrom) that have been building the famous TGV trains for 30 years. If anyone knows about safety it's these guys.
In their defense the Amtrak team just bought what was basically a proven TGV design and had planned on running it on upgraded rails. The FRA changed all of that and made them modify the design in case it came in contact with a Freight train. I don't know about you but I don't think that adding weight to a passenger train traveling at 150 mph is going to make the situation that much better if it ends in a head-on collision with a freight train – I really don't. The best practice is to just give the passenger train right-of-way which never happened. In addition to that the extra weight has shortened predicted equipment times between failures from 400,000 miles to 20,000. The Acela can not succeed no matter how hard Amtrak tries.
With President Obama's 10.5 Billion dollar shot in the arm high speed rail looks more promising even if it will be state owned and local. It's not a perfect situation but at least we're taking one step forward. I was sure that California would be the first to have a high speed train but $2.5B just went to Florida which has already purchased the right-of-way from Orlando to Tampa. Eventually they want to have high speed rail from Pensacola to Miami and most other major cities down both coasts. Two and a half billion dollars doesn't build much but it will get them started.
Florida's first train will only do 120 mph but also will only cost $3.5B so they only need to raise 1 Billion dollars.The trip between Orlando and Tampa will take less than an hour which will make it faster than driving. See Florida's high speed rail site.
If you're curious about how the nearly bankrupt California is faring check out their High Speed Rail site. Their proposal is a lot more agressive and will cost a great deal more but with the amount of people living there will be in greater need.
Washington, the greenest state in the Union has Rapid transit as well in the form of buses that get to their destination in exactly the same amount of time as the old ones, are uncomfortable to ride on (irritating regenerative breaking), stop half as often, have very little room because of a horribly inefficient design where bikes are lined up not unlike a bike rack, the drivers are rude, the stations are extravagant when a platform and shelter would have sufficed, are NOT in the same places as normal bus stops making transfers difficult and it only cost us $34,000,000. We love you WA but why do you have to be so stupid?
You don't realize how bad things are until you experience the opposite. Without darkness there is no light. I have mixed feelings about rail travel in the US. If it seems as though I'm bouncing around between topics bear with me, they'll come together in a moment. To give some background before I start I have to say that I've logged about 15,000 miles on Amtrak in the past and about another 5,000 to 10,000 miles on other train systems all over the world. In addition I've flown about a quarter of a million miles or enough to circumnavigate the earth 10 times. I took my first train ride in 1993 from Pasco WA to Las Vegas. For about the first day of the trip I felt a bit embarrassed because I always thought people who took mass transit were poor uneducated folks with little other choice. - a train was just a bigger Greyhound. If you were someone you drove of flew. How little did I understand trains. I started noticing business people taking the trains, grannies seeing family, workers commuting and more. I realized that normal people took the train.
Back to the future... We started our most recent journey by taking a bus to downtown Seattle to the historic King Street Station. Seattle is like many cities in that we had competing rail companies who built competing passenger rail stations. The interesting part is they built them across the street from one another. Union Station got funding to renovate because it is used for the new Light Rail Station. King Street Station across the street is just starting the process of restoration and the Venetian Piazza St. Marks style clock tower definitely looks better as does the new roof tiles. It might be easy to say that Seattle really only needs one passenger rail station and we should combine our money but how do you decide which of the 100 year old stations to keep? The answer is you keep both as comical as that is.
At some point during the last couple of decades some idiot decided to modernize the King Street station and put in lowered ceiling tiles covering up a truly amazing molded ceiling and a second story balcony. What's worse is they actually chipped molding from the walls so they could plaster over it to get a smooth surface. There used to be a beautiful wooden ticket booth which is no longer and a Lady's waiting room which doesn't get used. The stairway from the street is closed off and the street level parking lot is a hangout for bums and trash. However, funding is starting to tickle in and the clock tower is being cleaned, the clay roof tiles are being replaced and new lighting for the 15 ft clock is being fitted. Inside the station they have a media board showing the future plans which include tossing out the water stained roof tiles, restoration of some of the marble pillars, a new walkway up to street level and a restoration of the outside of the building which will open up space for businesses etc.. The old Lady's only waiting room may be made into a cafe or restaurant.
So let's get to the meat of the question here. Why? Why bother with this old crap when we have at least three eligible airports that could service the area? OK, now the part about my mixed feelings with rail travel. I spend a lot of time in Europe and especially France where high speed rail has all but killed air travel and I have to say that I love trains. The idea of taking a taxi to some airport where I have to take my shoes off, scan my bags and then wait at a gate to be crammed into a tin can with a bunch of other half sick travelers coughing on me and babies screaming is very very unappealing. Because of the amount of time it takes to get to airports, get checked in and get your bags and get away makes any journey under 6 hrs subject for replacement by high speed rail. Longer journeys the planes speed overcomes it's inefficiencies. So is there any hope for Amtrak and why am I yammering about such things? I just spent 4 hrs on the Coast Starlight for the first leg of our journey so it's fresh in my mind.
What Amtrak does wrong.... Let's start by the ridiculous and painful process of going from the idea of taking the train to actually walking on. I went online and bought my tickets with a promotion code (Never pay full price for Amtrak, there's always a promo code somewhere). I then had to go to a station to pick up the tickets where they made me sign each one to combat fraud as they said. Fraud? What, someone is going to masquerade as me on the train? If Safeway did this we'd have to sign each squash to keep someone else from cooking it. Anyway with tickets in hand we proceeded to the King Street Station two days later. My perception may be skewed a bit but in France I show up at the train station 15 minutes early (or whenever to be honest) and walk up to a kiosk to buy my ticket after which I walk onto a train. The whole process takes 15 minutes tops from the time I decide to take a train and get one one. With Amtrak having a ticket is only the beginning. You now have to stand in a long line to turn it into a boarding pass. Once you have your boarding pass you need to move to a new line which is waiting to get on the train. Why would there be a rush to get on the train? Because seat assignments are done at the train car door! Thats right, a person is standing there with a map and a market to scratch off where he wants you. A kiosk that can assign seats on purchase would replaced this entire thing. The one nice side effect of this process though is you don't have conductor coming through to punch your ticket. With Amtrak when you're on you're done. The other thing Amtrak does wrong and I'm not sure they can fix it is the train routes are generally slow and not very frequent. However there are 4 trains a day from Seattle south which isn't wonderful but it's good enough that you can choose a schedule.
What they're doing right.... This is also from my experience today. The Coast Starlight is a double decker Superliner train similar to their flagship Empire Builder. I've always been a fan of the double decker trains. An Amtrak Superliner is a completely different product than say a French TGV. The TGV is an all business experience more like an airplane ride (but not so Walmart). TGVs have about as much room per passenger in economy as airplanes have in business class. There's very little difference between first class and second so unless the ticket prices are close we always ride second class. Unless you knew the specific differences you wouldn't be able to tell. The TGV experience is about getting to your destination as quick as possible with relative comfort. The Amtrak Superliner experience is drastically different. Immediately upon entering the train you will notice that you have an insane amount of room in your coach seat. I measured 5 softbound novels from my upright setback to the one in front of me. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that is a lot of room. I'd estimate roughly 45 inches between seats or roughly equal to a first class airplane ticket. The seat width is as wide as the first class airplane ticket as well. When you fold down your tray you have to then slide it toward you about 6 inches before you can put anything on it. The seat reclines about 2-3 times more than an economy airline seat and a second lever props up a leg support and a third pops up a bar for your feet. The overhead luggage compartment has enough room for a rugby team and if that's not enough there's more space at the car entrance. Because they're double decker the second level (the main level) doesn't have to deal with train wheels so there's 37 rows of seats in the car which is amazing considering the space between them. The lower level is for first class and sleepers in addition to the bathrooms which also will surprise you. A couple (that's right, a couple per car) are small like airplane bathrooms and then there's at least one large one where you can plug in all your electronic shavers, blow driers etc... The lower level also houses additional luggage storage although if I were you I'd lock my bags if I couldn't monitor them.
Not only do you have way way more room than on an airplane the train gets going quickly because they can load all cars at the same time. I think we were off about 15 minutes after we started boarding. Each seat has power plugs which are a godsend and a quick stroll through the cars will show many people taking advantage of them with laptops and pods everywhere. Speaking of which if you get bored in your oversize seat you can take a walk. The Coast Starlight also has a bar/lounge car with observation deck which is where I love to just sit and read and watch the scenery pass by the wraparound glass windows. Downstairs from the observation car is the food counter where they have the usual cardboard pizzas and AMPM quality hamburgers. There is about 12 tables where you can sit an eat your food before returning to your seat. If you want more of a personal experience (and more costly) you can snag one of the attendants as they walk through the car and get a reservation to eat in the restaurant. The restaurant car is complete with white table cloths and nice food but you have to be fast because there's several seatings and if you don't get a reservation you're limited to the bar car or bringing your own. Speaking of which you can bring your own food and drinks (yes liquids!) avoiding the whole can of soda for two bucks situation completely. I remember times when I was passing through Portland and had a layover when we'd run down the street to the Burger King and buy a couple of $1.39 Whoppers and take them on the train. I'm sure there's probably limits to what you can take on board (like your weber smoky mountain smoker) but they're not real strict about it. The train ride goes by very casually and without disappointment. On the Amtrak you feel like you can take as much time as you want to get where you need to be and for good reason, you have to. The trip from Seattle to LA takes 40 hours. Amtrak is not crappy rail travel, let me just say that right now. However, they're rarely on time, they're not fast and they're not always cheaper than flying. My first Amtrak trip cost me $177 from Washington to Nevada round trip. That was cheaper than any plane ticket then. Now I can fly for less than that. The train would probably cost more.
So back to my original quandary. Should we do something about rail in America or let Amtrak go the way of the dodo? I say do whatever to bring us up to the same level of Japan, China, France and Germany or leapfrog them. A modern train with right a way could do Canada to Mexico in 10 hours or less and would be full the whole way because unlike an airplane they pick up people on the way. Before people jump on me about taxes and subsidies let me say one thing, the TGV system in France makes money. That's right it makes money and is usually full. The TER (inter region) do not make money and need to be subsidized. So in this country where we're afraid to pay one cent in taxes unless it's put to good use bombing a small country to protect our civil liberties we should think about just using rail for these high profit lines. I would think that Vancouver BC to San Diego would be one such line as well as Boston to Miami and Chicago to NYC.
On a less idealistic dreamy note Amtrak would do well with newer rails and more right of way. It took us 4 hrs to get from Seattle to Portland which isn't that much slower than driving and a heck of a lot more enjoyable. If the Superliner could get up to speed or stay at top speed longer it could equal driving and still be more comfortable. More trains, a bit more speed and keep them full so the ticket prices could be lower and I think we'd have a winner. It's no TGV but I think it could be profitable. Also there's the feel element. I just like riding trains. I like the rhythmic rocking motion and I like the fact that I can do other things on them. Buses are cheaper but I hate them. A good bus can't compete with a bad train in my book.
On arriving to Portland we exited the always nice restored Union station. A short walk to the Chinatown station put us on the red line light rail. Thirty minutes later we're at the airport. I'm fairly impressed by how much light rail Portland has put in compared to Seattle. We've managed 1/5 the amount of mileage and only after two decades of talking about it and it still doesn't really go anywhere.
Tomorrow we fly to Georgia. Yes you heard me Georgia then we turn and fly to Mexico City. It's the long way but I'll pick up some miles and I got the tickets for a song. The plane leaves at 6:30 and our Comfort Suites is going to start breakfast at 4 so off to count sheep I go.
My mother travels across four transit systems to go from her house to mine and in an effort to improve her quality of life we took a day trip to try out some new alternatives. Her trip usually ends up including getting on 5 buses in 5 cities and taking 4 hours. I started thinking about a way to make this trip easier and possibly faster and that usually means using rail. Buses are good for wandering through neighborhoods picking up people who want to go to the mall but not so good at carrying large numbers of people from one city to another. The Seattle area has been very weak in the mass transit area for many years. I remember watching a movie that took place in the 70s where the main characters job was to solve the transit issues in Seattle – in the 1970s! Since then not much has been done.
If you have tried riding the bus in your area you've probably become very frustrated with the bus schedules. Most buses are not consistent and run more often at one time of day then the other times making it hard to remember when to catch it. If you want some perspective just check out ITA's 603 bus that goes from Olympia to Tacoma. It happens to be the only bus that spans Fort Lewis so if you live on one side of Fort Lewis and have to get to the other side you're at complete mercy of the 603 bus schedule. This schedule makes all other buses look sane. Sometimes it stops in Lacey, sometimes it stops at the Tacoma Dome. It NEVER does both (except for that one time in the morning). It has 12 stops and it never stops at more than 7, it all depends on when you ride it which stops it stops at. It's insane, it really is.
So this brings me to Tacoma. From Tacoma to the North Seattle area things get better. A little after 4 in the afternoon there is a Sounder heavy rail train that goes from Tacoma to Seattle. Fifteen minutes after it arrives (98.8% on time) another Sounder heavy rail train leaves for Everett. This is the only time in the day that this happens. The only time you can go all the way through the other way is to leave Everett at 5:45 am and you only have a 6 minute layover in Seattle. If you miss that second train you're there for 7 hrs or continuing on the bus. To see if this was a viable way to get from Tacoma to Mukilteo we set out on a little journey riding both the rail systems in the region that we've not yet ridden – the Sounder and Tacoma Link.
My trip to Tacoma was as you would expect – my bus came 5 minutes early and had I not been trying to cross the street in the middle of the rain with a rolling bag and a bright red umbrella the driver wouldn't have stopped and I would have missed all my connections. He drove like a crazy person to the Lynnwood transit station and got there 10 minutes before scheduled arrival. This means all of those people trying to catch that bus are still standing out in the rain. Buses can't be early! I was supposed to have a 10 minute layover but an ST511 commuter bus pulled up as I arrived and I boarded and it pulled away. So either it was 20 minutes early or 10 minutes late. I'm not sure but I can tell you that it wasn't on time either. Sound Transit buses have an 88% on-time record. The 511 commuter at 8 in the morning was about half full and about as comfortable as a bus can be. In Seattle I walked about 4 blocks and stood under an overhang for the ST 594 which then almost empty took me to Tacoma Dome station. Total transit time – 2 hr 38 minutes. Total cost - $3.
The Tacoma Dome station looks massive on the map but in reality it's just a large parking garage for the Tacoma Dome with Pierce Transit, Intercity Transit, Sound Transit and Greyhound bus stops one side and a Tacoma Link Light Rail stop on the south side between the parking garage and the Freighthouse Square (more later). On the opposite side of the Freighthouse Square the Sounder heavy rail commuter train boards. To make things complete about a block down the street is the Amtrak station. They've done a pretty good job of having one central location for everything. It would be nice if the Amtrak station was a bit closer though just so people don't have to ask as you won't see it just by looking around.
My next leg was to board the Tacoma Link light rail for the grand fee of nothing. Yes it's free which I was to find out later was liberating. According to Sound Transit it costs about $3 a person to run Tacoma Link so they're losing $3 a rider. This compares favorably with the Sound Transit buses which cost $7 a person to run and they charge $2.50 resulting in a $4.50 loss. The interesting thing is they're losing $3 per rider all the while having a Sound Transit driver, attendent and Security person on board. How cheap would it be to run if there was only a driver? The Tacoma Link reminds me a great deal of Portland's MAX light rail as it runs in the street and the cars even feel familiar. I was really critical of Tacoma Link because it seemingly doesn't go anywhere and it's basically a street car that can get stuck in traffic. I'd compared it to the SLUT in downtown Seattle which also gets stuck in traffic and doesn't go anywhere (South Lake Union?). However, upon riding it I realized it goes everywhere you would want to go in Tacoma (sorry Tacoma), does so every 10 minutes, is comfortable and stress free. And it beats the buses because it gets priority it seems. The free aspect is more than just saving money. It means that you can step out of any shop, hop the Light Rail and get off at any other shop without thinking about it. They also come often enough that you don't have to think about it. There's a sort of freedom here that I like a lot.
My initial ride on the Tacoma Link took me to the Theater district to pick up my mother and daughter who'd ridden the dreadful 603 bus across the great Fort Lewis divide. For the next 4 hrs we wandered Tacoma, the Theater district, it's many antique shops, took pictures of various live performing theaters, old buildings etc... We visited the old Union Station which is now a Federal Court House, ate cupcakes at Hello Cupcake, walked the bridge of glass and generally had a great time. Freighthouse Square at the Tacoma Dome station is a pretty decent experience as well. There are many local shops housing art, crafts and even legos. There are also many vacant stores that I think in time would be filled considering the Freighthouse Square's location. Freighthouse Square also has a small food court that reminds me of Crossroads Mall in Bellevue. We ate Indian for $7 a plate which was surprisingly much better than the real Indian restaurants in Lynnwood (which to be honest is not a high bar).
Getting the Sounder back to Seattle was a very easy task. Inside Freighthouse Square there is an area where you can swipe your ORCA card if you have one or buy a ticket at in the wall kiosks. Boarding is as easy as swiping the card and walking on the train. These trains are Bombardier double decker cars that lean into the turns much like a French high speed TGV car. The Sounder is not a high speed train in the same regard as the 200 mph TGV but it could if the tracks were solid and straight enough achieve 110 mph if allowed. Currently all trains in America are limited to 79 mph because of a lack of automatic safety stop functionality. The seats in the Sounder aren't particularly comfortable nor are they large (but the aisle is huge) but they still trump the bus because you can get up and move around if you wish. Leg room is better, some groups of seats have a table between them and supposedly there's free wifi (although I couldn't get it to work). There were about 4 stops between Tacoma and Seattle including Puyallup, Auburn and Tukwila. I looked up the Tukwila stop and found it to be about a 1 mile walk to the Southcenter Mall which is closer than you'll get on the Central Link Light Rail.
We arrived at Seattle's historic King Street station and had to tap our ORCA a second time to let it know we'd ended our journey. Total cost for me was $4.75. We had 15 minutes or so to tap our ORCA cards again to get on the northbound Seattle to Everett train. The Tacoma to Seattle train was a great experience. It covered decent amount of ground in the one hour it took to get to Seattle. The train outran the cars part of the time and barely took longer than driving. Driving is only faster because the route is more direct. There are plans to improve this line with an additional 4 trains per day and an extension to Lakewood Transit Center which would be an improvement. I wish for my own selfish reasons that at least 2 of those 4 trains are during reverse commute times so I can go to Tacoma in the morning and return in the evening.
The Northbound journey from Seattle to Everett was a bit of a mixed bag. In relation to the Tacoma – Seattle link it's slow and doesn't really stop at enough places. It's a pretty ride and still more comfortable than taking the bus but there's only 4 trips a day (as opposed to the current 9 to Tacoma which will increase to 12) and they're not really scheduled very well because they leave from Everett *very early in the morning. Return trains aren't bad. To help matters Sound Transit has partnered with Amtrak to allow passengers to go into Seattle on the two Cascades trains at 10am and then again late at night. Problem is this is only for monthly pass holders so people like me that only ride Sound Transit on occasion can't take the Amtrak trains and also they don't stop at Mukilteo making them again not very useful to me. I think the north Sounder could be improved a bit by adding a couple of stations and more trains. Both of these things are in the works but this track is very busy so there's not much else they can do. They really need to run rails down the middle of I-5 and fly the Sounder down them. I think the 45 minute trip from Everett to Seattle would be halved. That's just fantasy though. It takes Seattle years just to run trains on tracks that already exist. Another blunder by people who make transit decisions that don't ride transit is to put the parking lot between the Sounder platform in Mukilteo and the Ferry terminal. I'm sure the Sound Transit engineers didn't think much of it but people who are transferring between buses, ferries and rail have to walk between them. By putting the platform on the far end of the parking lot people need to walk across the parking lot to make the transfer adding valuable minutes onto their transfer. The reason I see this as important is because we missed our Community Transit bus. We got as far as pounding on the sides of the bus as it was pulling away. The connection time is 13 minutes if the train is on time. I've already said they have about a 99% on-time record but ours was 3 minutes late which made us miss our bus. The alternative was to catch an Everett Transit bus to Rucker and then the Swift back to Lynnwood and our local bus home adding 40 minutes to our journey. The other other solution was to wait for the next Community Transit bus which wasn't coming for another hour.
Outside of the Community Transit being incompetent (who pulls away while people are pounding on your bus?) the experiment was enlightening and positive. My suggestions to Sound Transit follow.
Add more trains to the Seattle to Everett line.
Add more stops to the Seattle to Everett line.
Move the platform to the near side of the parking lot in Mukilteo
Add trains to the schedule to allow people to travel through Seattle both directions, not just to it.
Add more trains to the Seattle to Tacoma line – again see number 4.
Lengthen the Seattle to Tacoma line to Lacey
Numbers 1, 2 and 4 they're working on. Number 3 will probably never happen because moving a platform to save 2 minutes doesn't make sense to someone making decisions who doesn't have to make that transfer. An alternative would be to adjust the schedule so it arrives a 5 minutes earlier. This would relieve the stress for both bus and ferry. Sound Transit is extending the Tacoma line to Lakewood which is a start. What we really need is an alternative way to get across the Fort Lewis divide thus my recommendations to go to Lacey. With a feeder bus to Olympia I think we'd be in good shape.
If you live in Tacoma or Everett use the Sounder, it's a much better experience than riding the bus. If you want to go from Tacoma to Everett that 4:25 train works really well. If you want to go back to Tacoma you're out of luck so take the bus. This whole trip was fun in that we got to try out some new forms of transportation, got to run around Tacoma and get to know it better and we're planning a future trip where we to Tacoma to see the Glass Museum, the Washington State history museum and the Tacoma Art Museum. They have a deal on Wednesdays where you get access to all three museums for $22. Add that to lunch and the Sounder trip and you're looking at $40 for a day of fun and culture.
As for satisfying my original objective I realized that including the Sounder in my mother's journey to my house isn't any faster but the experience is a great deal nicer. The would cost her about $2 more but she says that it's worth it.
While demonstrating that you can use BASH for more than system administration I put together this script that accesses OneBusAway's ReST API to show what buses are coming to your stop next, their scheduled arrival time and their real arrival time (for King County Metro). You can download it from the Downloads section if you wish -
This script was made on Ubuntu Linux using BASH 3.2 and requires wget and xml2. Wget is usually installed on Linux but I had to install xml2 so I have the script checking for that. wheresmybus3.sh (1 kB)
Syntax: wheresmybus.sh stop_id
Example: wheresmybus.sh 1_400
Route Number: 358E
Destination: DOWNTOWN SEATTLE VIA AURORA AVE N
Actual Arrival Time: 0 Minutes
Scheduled Arrival Time: -8 Minutes
Route Number: 2
Destination: MADRONA PARK VIA E UNION ST
Actual Arrival Time: 0 Minutes
Scheduled Arrival Time: 4 Minutes
If you don't know what the agency number is (and who does?) just leave it out and wheresmybus.sh will give you a list. The example above would show the arrival times for King County Metro's stop number 400. Output will look like this.