I have travelled the Sounder train just once, a lovely trip from Everett to Seattle, then back again later that day. The passenger compartment was spotless, newish, and comfortable. The route takes one along Puget Sound, up close and personal, with the Olympic Mountains forming a gorgeous backdrop. I thought, if I were commuting this would be the way to go.
Evidently not that many people agree. Despite the horrible congestion along I-5, no matter when, commuters still favor their cars, and this is a problem. Traveling by automobile burns excess carbons and wastes countless hours sitting idly in a barely moving goo—and cars and gas are expensive. Yet, taking the train may be worse.
As Bill Sheets has been reporting in the Everett Herald, the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe line suffers from scores of mudslides, the result of combining lots of rain and impermeable hilltop surfaces with steep slopes adjacent to the tracks. Sheets:
The hillsides along the tracks between Everett and Seattle are the worst slide area for trains in Western Washington, said David Smelser, a high-speed rail program manager for the state Department of Transportation.
The problem, he said, isn’t just the slopes — it’s the runoff from developed areas above the slopes along the route.
Oh, I should point out that the Everett-to-Seattle journey is anything but “high-speed.” It is relaxing and, as I said, lovely, provided the sun is out and the landscape visible.
The more fundamental problem with Sounder is the route. First, it doesn’t actually go through or connect population centers. Second, the rails are owned by BNSF, which has priority. Thus, the commuter train runs only a few times in the early morning and late afternoon. Outside those narrow windows, you’ll have to take a bus or hitch a ride if you’re stuck in Seattle and need to get home sooner.
On these pages I’ve consistently railed against our collective stupidity. It is displayed front and center on public transportation. In a word, it sucks, if it exists at all.
A few years ago I looked at vehicle miles travelled. Here’s a chart showing the number of gallons of gasoline consumed annually from 1983 to 2008, assuming 24 mpg. (According to this site, the average was 23.1 in 1980 and 24.7 in 2004.)
The good news: consumption began tapering off in 2006 and 2007. The bad news: there’s still a lot of gasoline being consumed by driving cars and trucks.
What about carbon emissions?
Burning carbons is a bad idea, as anyone even vaguely familiar with the science of climate change can appreciate. Washington state, given its high percentage of hydroelectric power, emits less carbon dioxide than coal-dependent states. So the transportation sector leads the way in carbon emissions (2010 EPA data).
Initiative 937 requires electric utilities that serve more than 25,000 customers to gradually increase the amount of renewables in their supply portfolios as they maximize their conservation potential. But we were already a “green” state, with most of the electricity generated through hydroelectric facilities. We’re becoming even greener, as utilities add thousands of megawatts of wind energy. Still, the state has not seriously addressed its transportation sector.
The simplest way to do this is to get people out of their cars and trucks and into trains. But the Sounder route will not do it. Here’s a rough illustration of the path (white line along the water to the left).
The population centers rim I-5 and not the water. So, why didn’t the powers that be select a train-dedicated corridor somewhat parallel to the freeway?
We can imagine how expensive, not to mention disruptive, it would be to acquire the real estate. Years of sprawling development have gobbled up the most desirable locations to build tracks.
Yet, and here’s the tragedy, it would be far less expensive had Puget Sound Transit purchased the proper path, built the line, then ran dozens of trains each day at all hours—than the aggregate costs of so many thousands of motorists buying their own private vehicles and the fuel to run them. But we’re wedded to individual solutions while disdaining public strategies that would be cheaper and far more convenient.
In a few years those of us still kicking will finally have an epiphany. We’ll realize that we’ve really screwed up in our obsession with the automobile. But it will be too late, far too late, to do anything. If only we had acted sooner, most will be force to confess.
Quite the legacy.