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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.