The future of commuter rail in Portland

A discussion of the future prospects of commuter rail (including WES) in the Portland area.

Many will consider the title of this post to be preposterous. Many consider Oregon’s only true commuter rail, the Westside Express Service, or WES to its friends, to be a dismal failure, and are not eager to repeat the experience. Indeed, WES suffers from low ridership compared to many of TriMet’s other lines, and makes up for it with much higher operating costs. I’ve been rather harsh on the service myself.

Whatever the merits of WES, however, it would be premature to assume that commuter rail has no future in the Portland metropolitan area.
Not your typical commuter rail line

Many of the problems with the line are well-documented. It is expensive to operate, its ridership is low (around 2,000 riders per day–an improvement, but a drop in the bucket compared to the 120k+ per day that MAX gets). In some local circles, it seems to be giving commuter rail a bad name. But is that fair?

WES has many attributes in common with other commuter rail lines, such as Sounder in the Seattle metropolitan area. Its hours of operation are geared towards the peak commute times–weekday mornings and evenings; the line takes a break during midday and has no late-night or weekend service. Its twice-an-hour frequency is also appropriate for commuter rail applications. Inter-station spacing is more typical of commuter rail (WES has an average stop spacing of about 3.5 miles), although if anything, its stops are a bit closer than many other commuter lines. Stops are intended to serve entire communities, rather than being on neighborhood or street scale. And unlike a rapid transit line, WES runs on existing freight lines.

However, other attributes of the service are atypical. Rather than connecting major cities with prominent exurbs, WES connects four suburban cities. The overall size of the system is short–a single line spanning less than 15 miles; many other commuter systems involve multiple lines spanning dozens or even hundreds of miles. And the price for a single ticket–the cost of a single ride fare ($2.30), is far less that other commuter rail services, even for trips of comparable distance. And many commuter rail systems are separate from local transit agencies–your WES ticket lets you transfer anywhere else within TriMet; for many other commuter lines, local transit at either end of the trip is a separate purchase.

There are many ways in which WES does not “fit the template” of commuter rail–or at least of the numerous successful systems in the country. Many of the characteristics of the system identified in the previous paragraph are more typical of mass transit than of commuter services. The line is, in many ways, an attempt by Washington County to get mass transit on the cheap–i.e. without paying the capital costs necessary to build a dedicated, dual-tracked right-of-way necessary for frequent bidirectional operation free of FRA regulations. In other words, a technology which works well in one role is likely misapplied.

And there’s some evidence this misunderstanding might continue.

What’s next for WES, anyway?

The Wilsonville to Beaverton corridor is identified as one of the “near term” corridors by Metro’s High Capacity Transit System Plan, published in 2008. The plan document, written before WES opened but in anticipation of the service, apparently considers the current service offerings in the corridor (WES, along with the local bus service provided by the 76/78/96 lines) to be inadequate in the long term, and identifies it as a corridor for future high capacity transit development. The HCT document itself leaves the question of what mode should be used open, but the parent webpage contains the following language concerning the project [emphasis added]:

The plan calls for a focus on three transit corridors for investment in the near-term: the corridor in the vicinity of Powell Boulevard, connecting Gresham to downtown Portland, the corridor in the vicinity of Barbur Boulevard/Highway 99, connecting downtown Portland to Tigard and possibly Sherwood, and the WES commuter rail corridor that connects Beaverton to Wilsonville, which could see WES service upgraded to all day service with trains running at 15-minute intervals.

Many readers, familiar with the problems associated with the line–limited service hours and frequency, enormous operating expenses, and reliability issues, might react to that idea with outrage or bemusement. Going from peak-time weekday service every 30 minutes, to all-day service every 15 (which I assume would include weekend hours as well), involves 4-5 times the number of runs as currently done–how can TriMet afford that? And what of Portland and Western Railroad, which still is in the business of running freight trains on the tracks in question (and whose need for freight operations is reportedly one constraint on the service hours WES can provide)? And ignoring the issue with competing freight operations, much of the line is single-tracked (and the stations are single-platform), further limiting the number of trains which can be run.

It appears that Metro seems insistent on making WES look even MORE like rapid transit, and less like commuter rail, if the intent is to run all-day service at fifteen minute headways (thus meeting TriMet’s rather dubious definition of “frequent service”).

However, a recent change in US law makes the prospect a little less daunting.

Making heavy rail a little bit lighter

In 2008, President Bush signed into law (over the objection of many of the nations’ railroads) the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which mandates the installation of so-called Positive Train Control systems on the nations FRA-regulated railroads by 2015. Positive Train Control is essentially a system whereby all trains in a region of track are placed under the control of a central computer system which monitors them (and the status of switches and other equipment along the line) and is capable of stopping trains should risk of a collision occur. PTC does not replace an onboard engineer–it is only designed to prevent train-train collisions, not watch out for other obstacles–but once implemented, it will lead to several other FRA safety requirements being loosened in PTC-enabled regions. Among these are the “buff strength requirement”, essentially requiring lead railcars (including DMUs) to be built like tanks, as well as replacing traditional block signalling systems–thus allowing more trains to safely occupy a given line. Whether this will ultimately affect crew requirements (the 2-man crew on WES is also courtesy of the FRA) is unclear.

However, to me this is barking up the wrong tree–even if forthcoming changes in the law make the tree not as difficult to scale. If a rapid transit line is needed in the corridor, then a rapid transit line should be built–a commuter rail line is not the answer. It probably would be possible to build MAX adjacent to the WES right of way (with intelligent deviations where it makes sense, such as direct service to Washington Square, Bridgeport Village, and Wilsonville Town Center)–but the fact that we DO have WES in operation provides a better option: conversion of the parallel bus corridor (76/96) to BRT of some sort. Right now, the current bus service, one of TriMet’s more popular lines, suffers from numerous bottlenecks as it meanders down Hall Boulevard and Boones Ferry. But were the right-of-way to be upgraded in key spots (and stops to be consolidated), it could become a compelling service offering. And having WES in the same corridor to handle the too-good-to-ride-the-bus crowd, mitigates one of the key objections to BRT–lower levels of ridership.

What else?

Enough talking about commuter rail doing duty as rapid transit–let’s talk about the prospect of commuter rail serving as commuter rail. Right now, the closest thing we have (besides WES) is the Amtrak Cascades service. While Amtrak trains are frequently used by commuters, especially over longer distances, they are fundamentally designed as long-haul services for travelers, not medium-distance runs for commuters. Amtrak’s Salem-to-Portland fare is $13, higher than a typical commuter ticket over a similar distance. Trains run only once every 3-4 hours. Many amenities, such as checked baggage, are irrelevant to commuters. And the service passes by many towns on the route.

But there are quite a few possibilities that have been discussed.

First in the pipe is the Southwest Corridor project, which looks at providing high capacity transit to the corridor lying roughly along Barbur Boulevard, between Sherwood and downtown. The corridor has “MAX” painted all over it in yellow and blue lettering, but the page at metro wants us to know that many modes, including commuter rail, are under consideration. It ought to be obvious that commuter rail as a complete solution is nonviable–there are no existing tracks serving the length of the corridor that a commuter rail line can run on; but commuter rail might work as a partial solution providing between Sherwood and downtown via Tualatin/Lake Oswego/Milwaukie, while another mode handles the Portland-to-Tigard stretch. This project is probably a good ten years at least from completion, but commuter rail is explicitly mentioned as an option at this early stage.

Beyond that, the HCT Plan, on page 46, includes analysis of several potential commuter rail corridors connecting the Portland metropolitan area to various exurbs. Several, including runs to Scappoose, Sandy (an interesting inclusion given the lack of an existing rail line), and Hood River were deemed to be unworkable; but two were called out as possibilities.

  • Commuter rail service to Newberg. The line discussed in the HCT Plan would run between Newberg and Beaverton (on existing tracks), presumably sharing the Nimbus and Tigard stops, then crossing over to the old Red Electric line, crossing back over the existing WES service in Tualatin, and continuing on to Sherwood and Newberg. (This is different than the Sherwood-Portland service mentioned above). The prospect of continuation of the line past Newberg was not discussed–but were it to go to Newberg, getting to McMinnville wouldn’t be difficult–the “hard part” of this proposal is the Rex Hill stretch between Sherwood and Newberg due to track conditions.
  • Extension of WES to Salem. The old Oregon Electric line on which WES runs continues right on to Salem, and doesn’t see much freight traffic (though is reportedly in poor shape). It does, however, pass through or near the communities of Donald, Woodburn, Brooks, and Keizer before reaching Salem. A proposal to route HSR through Tualatin and along this line has been met with criticism, but a southward extension of WES might be a sensible thing to do. Track conditions are an issue, as is the fact that a few sections of bypass track will likely be necessary–the OE line doesn’t serve the Salem train station.
  • The HCT also mentions one other corridor which is interesting for this analysis–a second-tier rapid transit corridor connecting the Clackamas area (specifically Clackamas Town Center) with Washington County (specifically Washington Square), running through Lake Oswego. Were a full wye to be built at Willsburg Junction (where the UPRR mainline and the Tillamook Branch join, just north of Milwaukie), it would be possible to make this trip mostly on existing track. Obviously, this idea suffers from a similar flaw as WES itself–this is probably better suited as a rapid transit corridor, not a commuter rail line, and the existing tracks are not exactly a direct route–but it could be a possibility.

A few other “no-brainers” not discussed in the HCT plan.

  • Portland-Salem service. As pointed out above, the current Amtrak offerings don’t function well as commuter rail; this is a corridor just crying out for commuter rail service (which runs more frequently, has a lower fare, stops at towns along the way, and eschews the need for baggage handling and sleeper cars). Either the existing UPRR tracks or the Oregon Electric line discussed above would be viable candidates.
  • Service to Washington State. Service connecting Portland to Vancouver, or potentially to other northwest Washington cities (Camas/Washougal or even Kelso/Longview) is also another possibility. A reader asked in another thread if this has been studied–I’m not sure if it has. The HCT Plan seems to have excluded any analysis of service in Washington.
  • Extension of WES to Hillsboro. Mentioned for completeness, really; but another long term rapid transit corridor called out in the HCT is the TV Highway corridor between Beaverton and Hillsboro (or even Forest Grove), presently served by the 57. Extension of WES to Hillsboro along the Tillamook Branch, possibly with an intermediate stop in Aloha, might be a useful thing to consider. The 57 corridor has also been the target of BRT proposals, and a BRT/WES duplex might serve a similar role as proposed here.

All of these proposals are likely a decade or more into the future–but they are all possibilities. But (beating a favorite drum yet again), if gas prices continue to go up, they may be considered sooner than you think. At any rate, commuter rail is a proven and successful transit technology when used in the right places. There’s ample evidence that the local example is a bad example, but it would be wrong to write off the future of commuter rail in Portland based on the WES experience.


30 responses to “The future of commuter rail in Portland”

  1. I’m guessing the biggest obstacle in running commuter trains on the existing tracks between Vancouver and Salem is existing freight traffic. The UP tracks in Southeast Portland are pretty heavily used as it is (I can hear the horns as I type this, in fact). On the other hand, they can’t be completely maxed out if ODOT is hoping to increase the number of Cascades trains on the line.

    As an aside, if we want to get some revenue out of WES, maybe we should start collecting fares? I took a ride on it once and the conductor on board didn’t check anybody. I mean, why have a conductor, then?

  2. Dumb question:

    Why is rapid transit rail “light rail” and commuter rail heavy? Why don’t they have light commuter-style comfy-seat trains running on lighter track with less operating costs?

    Also, nice to hear about PTC. Will anything ever be done to obviate block signalling on light rail systems? Are there places in the MAX (or streetcar?) lines where the less-than-efficient signaling is currently slowing things down?

  3. Given that there is a conductor on board WES, there isn’t much excuse for failure to collect fares. That said, the line is ridden by a good number of “regulars”, many of which may be known to the conductor to have passes.

    WRT to the issue of “comfy seats”…nothing here has anything to do with the weight of the rolling stock, per se. “Comfy seats” are more prone to vandalism and such than are the hard plastic chairs on MAX. This topic leads to a whole host of socio-economic issues that can be uncomfortable to discuss, but suffice it to say that “premium seating” of this sort on transit lines geared towards suburban commuters is not something unique to WES. The C-Tran express busses between Vancouver and downtown Portland are well-known for their nicer amenities, and have riders who swear that they’d rather drive than switch to MAX if and when it crosses the Columbia.

    If nothing else, having an on-board conductor does discourage passengers from using a pocketknife to carve their initials into the upholstery. :)

    At this point, signalling is not the source of MAX bottlenecks; the ability to pay for operators is the biggest bottleneck. MAX is FRA-exempt, and I don’t know what other legal codes regulate its operation, but non-block-signalled light rail systems are certainly possible. The light rail system in Hong Kong’s New Territories (which runs 1 and 2 car trains similar to MAX) doesn’t use block signalling, and trains frequently “bunch” and follow each other down the line. It’s also common to see more than one train parked at the same platform on that system. I do not know if local law prevents similar operation here.

  4. Yeah, I do agree that even though the WES line didn’t work as well as hoped, that Commuter Rail can find a good niche in the city. As it usually is lately, it all boils down to money and even though we have hardly anything now at TriMet (although I’m not sure TriMet would even be pulling it off) having a 15-20 minute Portland/Vancouver rail line instead of the 30+ minute long proposed Yellow Line only scratching the surface of Vancouver would be a godsend.

    I actually think the WES would work (and for that matter, the entire system) much better if TriMet remembers that the more you take, the more you lose. If TriMet tried improving WES and other modes of its transit, it’d get more riders and more of other profits, therefore getting more revenue. At least… it makes sense to me.

  5. Well, the WES is only a failure because it doesn’t go far enough. Extend that puppy to Salem, and you’ll have all sorts of state employees, legislative staffs, etc. riding every day.

    One element of commuter rail I’d like to see would be east from downtown. As our region grows, we’re going to be having more commuters from outside the UGB (hopefully better-planned than the Bellevues and Issaquahs of our neighbor to the north), and it would be killer to see us utilize a commuter rail out the Gorge, past the airport and through Cascade Locks, Corbett and out to Hood River, allowing those smaller communities access to jobs in the city and Portlanders access to the beauty of the Gorge.

    That way it would certainly double as a tourism-booster that would see great ridership on weekends as Portlanders head out to HR for wine, beer, kiteboarding, fishing, snowboarding, rafting, etc.

  6. I think that WES from Wilsonville to Beaverton would really make more sense as an all-day rapid transit system than a “commuter” line. In addition, there may be value to a second WES “rapid transit” line from Beaverton to Milwaukie and/or Clackamas. Color-code the two WES lines as the Gold and Silver lines in the regional rail system, and run them on 20 to 30 minute headways — which would mean 10 to 15 minute headways from Beaverton to Tigard.

    Scheduling issues permitting, there could also be “true” commuter trains on those tracks running from Beaverton to Salem at much lower frequency. There might even be opportunity for a commuter line out Yamhill Valley to McMinnville, if the track quality could be affordably improved and demand is there.

    All those trains, plus freight, would make the tracks very, very busy, assuming it’s even possible to handle that much traffic. But if freight could run in the evenings, when “Gold” and “Silver” traffic is hourly and commuter service is done for the day, it might be viable.

  7. How in the world can an exceptionally expensive low-density-suburb to low-density-suburb transit system possibly work, especially with so much free parking in the suburb of destination? IOW, what needs to be done to entice folks to trade a simple private journey from an attached garage to a reasonably convenient parking lot for one usually involving at least three different vehicles and almost always taking significantly longer?

  8. I think its interesting to note that we don’t have a single-seat ride to downtown with our “commuter” rail. Where are these folks commuting to exactly? There isn’t a ton of employment withing walking distance of the WES

  9. There’a a lot of employment at the office parks near the Nimbus station, but the line does have relatively strong anchors.

    Beaverton TC provides connections to MAX, from which much of Washington County’s high tech can be reached.

    At the other end of the line, WES is probably the best way for commuters living within the TriMet service district to reach Wilsonville and transfer to the SMART system. The other options to get to Wilsonville are the 96, which only goes so far as N. Wilsonville; not reaching Wilsonville Station, and the SMART 2X line, which requires an additional fare. (The intra-city SMART lines which all converge at the station are free, the connector lines to Tigard, Canby, and Salem charge a fare).

    But the quality of local connections around WES is an issue. This is especially true in Tualatin, where the local TriMet service leaves a lot to be desired. OTOH, the city isn’t particularly dense (

  10. There’a a lot of employment at the office parks near the Nimbus station

    True, but it’s not all in walking distance. I say this as someone currently on my lunch break in one of the Nimbus offices – I’m situated closer to Scholls Ferry than Hall, so it’s a little over a mile to walk to the WES platform. The 43 bus solves that problem nicely when it runs, but for whatever reason there is not a 43 for every WES that goes through. For example, there are eight WES trains toward Wilsonville every morning, but only four 43s that make the Nimbus business park loop, so incentive to ride WES in the morning to Nimbus is low (I personally take the 62 and walk, and there are several people on my bus who do the same in the morning but take the 43 to WES in the afternoon).

    I know in the last round of service cuts, the Nimbus loop of the 43 was saved from the chopping block, but if that ever goes then there will be even fewer people riding WES out of Hall/Nimbus, because there isn’t that much time saved walking a mile for a 5 minute ride to BTC than there would be to just wait for a 62 and ride that north.

  11. EngineerScotty said: That said, the line is ridden by a good number of “regulars”, many of which may be known to the conductor to have passes.

    He still should have checked mine, though.

    EngineerScotty said: “Comfy seats” are more prone to vandalism and such than are the hard plastic chairs on MAX.

    For what it’s worth, London Underground trains cushioned seats. Can anybody more familiar with that system tell me about the state of vandalism on those trains?

    Regarding the issue of extending WES down to Salem, that still seems like a round-a-bout way to get people to Portland, which is where most people are trying to get to.

    Nick S.: For information, you can view the Oregon Rail Plan that ODOT composed.

    Thanks for finding that. The 2006 study didn’t consider many factors, such as ridership estimates and concludes with a rather vague, “Determined that benefits to costs of commuter rail was not as favorable as other modes.” The 1999 study had a bit more information, but that’s a little outdated, isn’t it?

  12. Thanks as well for the info on the Oregon Rail Plan. A few things to note.

    * Cooperation of the freight railroad whose tracks it will run on is generally vital. One reason WES is actually running is that the Portland and Western railroad, which holds leases on the rails (and may own some of them outright), was willing to work with the county on the project, and makes money off the service. (Somebody has to). The mainline freights, though, tend to be hostile to passenger rail, and more likely to engage in rent-seeking behavior (one of the cost estimates for a Portland-Vancouver commuter rail line was “up to $750 million dollars”–which tells you that when the study group called BNSF to inquire about the possibility, they were given a shopping list of capital improvements–and BNSF is the nicer of the two mainline railroads in town). Getting one done that involves the mainlines, unfortunately, requires a bit of arm twisting. If a commuter rail line ever runs on the Tillamook Branch through Milwaukie and LO, it may well be worth it to find a way to connect the branch line to the “Samtrak” line, simply to not have to deal with UP as much.

    * Many of the studies consider the lines in question in isolation. A commuter line from, say, Salem to Kelso would be far more useful than the sum of a Salem/Portland, Portland/Vancouver, and Vancouver/Keslo project, simply because of network effects. Portland/Vancouver is a distance better served by transit (or express bus) than by commuter rail; but as part of a larger network of lines it would be a very useful segment, especially if C-Tran were to expand its connecting service to the Vancouver Amtrak station.

    * Given what we know about the CRC project, I’m tempted to view any study commissioned by that lot with a grain of salt. :)

  13. Unfortunately Portland & Western apparently feels very burned by WES after losing customers, not replacing old access points, daytime use issues, and the fact that Metro (with Wash. Co. and Trimet) promised the whole line double tracked, which obviously got cut somewhere… From ODOT’s findings it doesn’t look like P & W will want to cooperate with a Salem extension until that additional track is laid. I’m beginning to think that the track promise is the reason for the corridor being on Metro’s top priority list. P & W also said “not a chance” to using the Tillamook branch for commuter rail (which Amtrak could overrule by Fed law for Cascades and Coastal Starlight, but Trimet could not).

    As for Trimet, they have said “not a chance” for being involved in a WES extension to Salem siting jurisdiction and service focus as reasons (you know, other than the PR regarding WES). Trimet has made it clear that a regional/State entity needs to be created to manage WES to Salem (and hopefully passing existing WES liabilities along with it is my guess).

    Anyway, my 2 cents (from ODOTs materials and news sources).

  14. I have to think that improved rail via the I-5 corridor is the most cost-effective option in Oregon. Amtrak already has the rights to the track, we just need more frequency.

    It would be nice if OR could show the initiative of WA for inter-city rail.

  15. Hmm, I see why the Scappoose line might have been rejected — it didn’t go far enough. I see this as the St. Helens/Astoria corridor, potentially even with trains to Longview, WA interlining on the same stretch. This would have to be a coordinated land use/transportation/economic development plan, not just a commuter rail turnkey operation, but I see it also as one of the great opportunities to spread some of the economic development wealth from the Metro region out to the dark, foggy northwestern corner of the state. (Of course, my vision would include a new campus for the Oregon University system in Astoria to anchor this new rail line… so, it really would be a big effort…)

  16. The theory behind WES is a sound one; i.e., acknowledging the previously neglected need for suburb-to-surburb transit. However, as previous posts have indicated, the actual execution has been a mixed bag.

    The small number of stations and generally fast running time give WES a speed advantage, but it’s hamstrung by lack of frequency and limited hours of operation. Also, being tied to an existing ROW has led to a huge missed opportunity at the Nimbus stop: the lack of access to Washington Square. (A dedicated shuttle connecting the stop with the mall as well as nearby business parks could help tremendously, as could a pedestrian bridge spanning 217/Scholls Ferry between Cascade Place and the mall.) On the other hand, the stop at Tigard TC is a huge plus. Downtown Tigard boasts a great deal of potential – it’s a charming area set just far enough away from the congested main drag known as 99W – and I could see the area around the transit center enhanced and developed with a minimum of effort.

    Regarding a possible future rail line, it looks like Milwaukie MAX is a done deal and Lake Oswego Streetcar could be as well, but a good alternative to both (or at least the latter) might be a line connecting Union Station with Milwaukie, Lake Oswego, Lake Grove, Tualatin, Sherwood, etc. on the existing ROW.

  17. Dan,

    Sorry, but I think your speculative ideas have no merit whatsoever.

    It seems you’re falling for the same train of defective thinking that built WES. Only now you’re suggesting spending millions more for all sort sorts of amenities to encourage more ridership for the sake of encouraging

    The “The theory behind WES” was never sound as most of it’s use is too short and better accomplished by continuing to drive past the station a few more minutes to get to where one needs to be.

    Why park and get on a train?

    There may be some level of need for suburb-to-suburb transit. However, there never was any established need for a WES rail version of it.

    How does “The small number of stations and generally fast running time give WES any advantage?

    The lack of frequency and limited hours of operation is due to the absence of any need at all. With off peak hours having no problem driving why would any meaningful numbers of people want to drive to the WES and use it to go a little further? Whatever for? To go to the mall?

    Give me a break. Although TriMet claimed it would when hyping it, it doesn’t go to the mall.

    But you want to pay for a shuttle and build a multi-million dollar ped bridge somewhere as if that get’s it closer?

    The station is near Hall and there is already a sidewalk. It’s too far away.

    But again even if it were closer, why ride it to the mall when driving is convenient? You seem to ignore the fact that people have to get in their cars and drive to WES in order to use it.

    But you declare it would “help tremendously”???? Tremendously? I can’t even imagine what you are dreaming up.

    And then you imagine some scenario or people who find “the stop at Tigard TC is a huge plus”.

    A plus for what? To visit potential? “It’s a charming area?

    You can “see the area around the transit center enhanced and developed with a minimum of effort”??? Enhanced and developed with what, by who, with whose money?

    What does minimum effort mean?

    Milwaukie MAX is getting more egregious as Wheeler says the state is bonded out and the illusion of the local match falters.

    The Lake Oswego Streetcar is WES at over twice and cost with even less potential.

    The amount of money you are willy nilly willing to spend on fatally flawed concepts is amazing.

  18. If the fed’s are handing out money you better believe that Trimet will be there first in line.

    Whether it actually makes any sense or not doesn’t matter.

    If its $$$ we will get a study done proving that we need it as a “transit investment for the future”.

    I will never ever understand all this talk about building this and that on the one hand and on the other hand talking about how broke “we” are.

    Am I the only person that sees the hypocrisy at work here?

  19. * Juke, in answer to your question regarding the seats and vandalism on the London Underground:

    The London Underground trains do have upholstered, padded seats.
    A high ridership, even at off hours, means that the train cars are occupied by multiple people. I think this discourages vandalism.
    Londoners, in general, are educated and cultured. It’s a very expensive place to live. Certainly, more educated and cultured than the average city. This isn’t the provinces, after all, this is the capital of the country and also one of the alpha world cities. The riders are probably less likely to vandalise then someone from, say, an east Portland suburb.
    Interestingly, the London Overground does not have upholstered seats. This is an expanding set of commuter rail lines that have been consolidated under the TFL. These trains are generally not all that nice, and the ride isn’t anywhere near the comfort of the Underground. I think you can chalk this up to a few things, but one of the factors is certainly that these lines often serve outer suburbs and the populations of these areas are generally not as educated or rich as inner city Londoners.

    * Commuter rail can work really well, especially in tandem with LRT and streetcars and buses (as Bob says in the original post). I would highlight the Salem route, through an expansion of WES, as the most likely to succeed in the near future.

    * Alternatively, what do you guys think about a Salem route with two separate termini?

    Terminus A would be Beaverton on the WES track.
    Terminus B could be in the vicinity of Downtown Portland via Milwakie. What are the chances of something like this?

  20. Thanks for the thoughtful and thorough, as usual, review of commuter rail.
    I think its a bit early to call WES a failure, given the economy of the last two years. The 85 Swan Island ridership went from over 500 per day to just under 300 due to all the layoffs on Swan Island. Fewer employees means fewer riders!
    I did a trip plan for the woman who complained about the commute to Downtown via I-5 from Tigard that was in the local rag. Tigard TC to Beaverton TC is 10 minutes on WES with wifi, then 7 minutes to walk over and get a good seat on the Red Line MAX for the 22 minute ride thru the tunnel to Pioneer Courthouse Sq. Not bad.
    The Blue Line to Gresham did not post great numbers in the late ’80’s, but like freeways, MAX, Streetcar and commuter rail (including WES) can be transformative causing where people live and where they work to shift and ridership to grow. But that takes time, more that WES has had to date.
    That said, if it had been up to me, I would have extended the Red Line to Wilsonville or maybe just Kruse Woods. Washington county thought they could do HCT on the cheap; you get what you pay for.

  21. Metro’s model had first year’s WES ridership at 2400 per day. It ended up being less than half of that. As bad as the economy is, we’re nowhere near 50% unemployment. Didn’t the Great Depression peak at about 33%?

    IIRC, the model had WES providing 4,000 rides per day by 2020. Its ops cost has been bouncing around $1,000 per hour and it has about 24.5 service (not revenue) hours per day. So even if it ever achieves projections it would still cost about $6.13 per boarding ride (C/BR).

    Here’s a table derived from the TriMet’s latest (Fall 2010) Route Ridership Report of all bus routes which have a C/BR higher than $6.13:

    Line—Rides—C/BR—-Daily Ops Cost

    WES—4000—–6.13——24500.00 (2020 projection)

    The point of all this that even if WES lives up to its projections, we can expect that it will still be draining over 3/4 as much as the 20 current (recession-era) lowest performing bus lines while serving fewer people and (directly, at least) a far smaller geographic area. Many of those bus lines provide the only transit within walking distance while WES only provides an complimentary express service to existing bus lines.

    That’s not a success story.

    If WES does reach those projections while TriMet charges premium fares – a surcharge of at least two dollars per ride regardless of type of ticket or pass – then it would be possible to call WES a success. It would still need to be subsidized, but at a much more realistic level somewhere near TriMet’s average.

  22. Swan Island did not see 40% of its workforce laid off, but I think its clear that transit riders are, by and large, a more vulnerable segment of the workforce…younger, lower paid, etc.
    Sure glad the 85 Swan Island is not on that ugly bus cost/ride list.
    And the good news is that while Fed Ex Ground fled (with the Port’s help) to Troutdale, a mile from the nearest bus, UPS on Swan Island starts a 75% transit subsidy March 1.
    Back to WES, two of the worst employment years in memory do not make for a fair test of this experiment. If it could run with one Op, it would be doing a lot better.

  23. I don’t think Yamhill County would be an option in the near future. Anti-Portland and anti-Metro sentiment runs strong in our county! Also again why don’t they just build new tracks right along I-5 instead of dealing with early 1900’s routes that often have many difficult curves and go through town,impacting local livability in those areas?


    Interoperability of railroad lines

    Commuter/Heavy Rapid Transit trains
    with inner-city linking

    Dear Readers,

    All of those problems, described in several brilliant analyses by “EngineerScotty”, could be solved ingeniously by so named “Tram-Train” systems made in Germany originally and now upcoming all over Europe.

    The key-point of success are direct connections having the right-of-way, from the countryside straight to the midst of market-/workingplaces and shopping centers, without making the passengers having to change their trains.

    This was made possible in a very cost-effective way by the innovation of multi-purpose hybrid-lightrail vehicles (AC/DC or DC/Diesel propulsion), using existing railroad tracks which are already there and switch over to new or existing inner-city streetcar tracks whereever it is necessary to come closer to the centers of traffic demand.

    This would offer completely new perspectives for the connection of Portlands region in future in general and for the deadlocked projects in particular, such as “Lake Oswego Streetcar”, “Rogue Valley Commuter Rail”, “Lightrail Oregon City” or a change of the “WES” operation, etc.

    To give you an imagination of what we`re talking about, see our following TV-Trailer.


    Please take a special note, that this example is taken from the german city of Nordhausen. A city with right now just ! 47.000 citizens !. So it`s without any words that those systems must be easy to finance in your region then.

    Other examples in Germany can be seen in the Area
    of Karlsruhe, Kassel and Saarbrücken. Just google.

    With kind regards and support from Germany,
    LTE GmbH, Heidelberg

  25. A major problem is FRA regulations. The same laws that require WES be built like a tank also essentially prevent the construction of “tram-trains” (rail services that act like streetcars in the city center, then switch to the freight rail network outside it). The same is true for S-Bahns (rail services that run as grade-separated metro downtown, and on the freight rail network outside the urban core)–another rail topology common in Europe but unheard of in the US.

    In both cases, it’s not possible for FRA-compliant tracks to connect to non-compliant tracks: were the Portland Streetcar or MAX to have a connection to the mainline freight network, then the entire system would come under FRA jurisdiction. Thus, rather than the integrated rail systems found in Europe, US transit systems are kept physically segregated from the national freight system.

  26. While googling around, found this ODOT document on a proposed WES extension to Salem. It’s a study document, not part of any planning activity, so consider it accordingly, but here it is.

  27. Huh. Looks like the cost per ride would be almost $12, assuming annual operating and maintenance costs of $9.25 million for the whole line and daily ridership of 3,000 people. Even assuming $5 or $6 tickets for the full length Salem-to-Beaverton ride, that would be a pretty steep per-person subsidy.

  28. Still better than WES. :)

    And the comment concerning the FRA above is relevant–a big reason WES costs so much to run is that it has to a) be built to absurd buff strength requirements, and b) have a two-person crew. A conductor (one who can ensure fare compliance, as well as perform other customer service functions) becomes more useful on longer trips than on shorter ones–particularly if (paid) refreshments can be provided–but it is an added expense that FRA-exempt rail (i.e. MAX and Streetcar) need not incur.

  29. It is such a surprise that the 2006 ODOT study concluded that it was a bad idea as an alternative to the CRC (note sarcasm). When the I-5 bridge was shut down or repairs in 1997, there was a commuter train set up between the Couv and Portland and it was very successful. I can’t believe we are looking at light rail to Vancouver and not looking harder at a Commuter Rail Train. Light rail is going to be 15 minutes just to get from downtown Vancouver to the Expo Station in Oregon. Then you have 20+ minutes to get to Rose Quarter. It would be a 15 minute ride on a Commuter Rail train from Vancouver to Union Station. CRC is a bad idea that doesn’t appear to be able to be stopped. I like to think of it as putting a bigger funnel on the same size hose. You still have a mess at the Rose Quarter with the I-5/I-84 interchange. Commuter rail is the way to go…..

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