Sounder to pull cars from north line, send them south

EVERETT — Sound Transit is pulling coaches off some Sounder North commuter trains starting today to expand service in Pierce County where ridership is greater and demand is growing.

Two of the four trains traveling round-trip between Everett to Seattle will be shortened by one coach, according to a Sound Transit spokeswoman.

The move will save an estimated $275,940 a year on the route, which suffers from weak ridership and costs taxpayers roughly three times more per boarding than Sounder South, where those coaches will be part of added service between Lakewood and Seattle.

This shift has been on the drawing board for awhile as Sound Transit officials watched ridership climb steadily in Pierce County and almost not at all in Snohomish County. In July, the south line averaged 10,568 boardings each week day compared to 1,215 on the north line. The train runs from Everett south in the morning and then heads north in the afternoon.

And the change comes a year after the transit district’s Citizens Oversight Panel suggested shortening the Sounder North trains to save money.

“We had been talking about it even before the COP report. We’ve been tracking the ridership on the north line for some time,” said Sound Transit spokeswoman Kimberly Reason. “We wouldn’t be taking cars away if they were consistently at capacity every day.”

They aren’t, and it’s why officials in Everett and Mukilteo didn’t express concern Friday.

“It is not unexpected. It doesn’t affect service. It doesn’t affect ridership,” said Pat McClain, executive director for governmental relations for the city of Everett. “Maybe the only thing the riders would notice is they may have to share a seat with someone else.”

Sound Transit runs four trains round-trip each weekday between Everett and Seattle with stops in Mukilteo and Edmonds. Until now, each of those trains consisted of three 140-seat coaches, also referred to as cars, plus a locomotive.

Starting today, trains departing Everett at 6:45 a.m. and 7:15 a.m. and those leaving Seattle at 4:05 p.m. and 4:33 p.m. will be reduced to two coaches and a locomotive. Under federal rules, trains must run with at least two cars.

Reason said the two cars are essentially being borrowed for use elsewhere in the system. There is no time frame for bringing them back.

That probably won’t occur until the northern trains fill up on a regular basis.

Ridership on Sounder North dropped in the most recent quarter. There were 66,190 travelers on the weekday commute trains between April 1 and June 30 of this year compared to 71,121 in the same period a year ago.

July’s average 1,215 boardings per day represented the highest tally since February, according to figures compiled by the transit district.

While Sound Transit is pulling coaches off trains, it isn’t considering reducing the number of trains, Reason said.

Rather, the focus is to get more people on board. Two challenges that have discouraged ridership: too few parking spaces at stations and cancellations caused by mudslides that close tracks, sometimes for days at a time. The district is trying to attain an average weekday ridership of 2,400.

“We’re committed to seeing what we can do to build ridership on the north line,” she said.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com

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