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.