Friday Finally, End Analysis

After the week, or pseudo week of commuting I’m glad to be out of the suburbs and back downtown.  Every trip has turned into a 10 minute bus trip, with super frequent service, or a short walk between 5-20 minutes.  No necessity for a car, no necessity to visit a gas station, no necessity for dealing with traffic.

The WES is awesome, don’t get me wrong, but I’m glad to be back downtown where everything is within a stone’s throw.

First, the absolute negatives.

  • TriMet got ripped off by Colorado Railcar.
  • TriMet paid WAY too much for equipment that is not standard and should have gone with traditional equipment.
  • TriMet hasn’t aligned the transfers and other parts of the WES appropriately.
  • TriMet does NOT have a green vehicle unless they remedy their lack of ridership.
  • The politicians won’t be harmed enough by the overruns, and will take too much credit for the positives.

Now the positives.

  • Portland & Western is doing an amazing job running the WES.  Words like flawless, impressive, relaxed, and endearing come to mind when riding the system.
  • Portland & Western has a great mechanism for spreading the word about passenger rail and provides a good example (amid the negatives) of how to setup and operate on local carrier lines with good cooperation.
  • The WES, because of the new tracks, definitely helps out rail traffic in the corridor and extends the freight capability of rail.  This is by FAR a good thing, probably in some ways more important than the WES passenger runs.
  • The county gains a competitive advantage because of this rail line upgrade.
  • The WES is without doubt more comfortable, more up scale, more reliable, and internet ready than any other thing in the TriMet Fleet.
  • The politicians now have a tool to provide an example of partnerships between public and private entities to further desires and requests of the public.  This is a mix of positives and negatives, but mainly is positive.

Ridership:  The peak I saw was 40+ for one single trip.  This is acceptable from an environmental point of view, but still far too low from an economic and budget point of view.  The City of Portland, Metro, and TriMet can’t keep making decisions that build out infrastructure and such at such high prices for such minimal return.  They HAVE to meet more of the existing demand and stop running off on their fantasy trips to commuter rail land.  They HAVE to make sure ridership demand actually exists before doing these things.  I’m glad they built the WES, I think it can serve a good purpose, and it can provide a great example of what to do and not to  do, but overall should they have built it? No.  Should they have upgraded the tracks, or at least provided cheap, tax free, loans and such to get the tracks upgraded?  Yes.

If anything commuter rail could be setup in areas around Portland that could and would be far more utilized.  Salem to downtown Portland, Eugene to Portland, there are a host of places.  Hopefully, the next option is to get service to Salem, somehow or in some way.  Hopefully they can do it without too much cost or unnecessary shutdown of companies.

My best wishes go out to the awesome Portland & Western Crews running the WES, and to TriMet, I hope you guys get some serious ridership increases so they system can prove viable!  Keep rolling, and I’m sure I’ll be out to ride again some day.  Until then, I’m back to 100% urbanite lifestyles.

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9 Comments

  1. Adron, the first-year ridership might not necessarily be the shape of things to come. A good system will have ridership grow over the years.

    When L.A. started reintroducing rail travel, the conventional wisdom was that we had spent billions running empty trains. Not only that, but if you had tried to forecast based on existing bus ridership, L.A. should have prepared to decommission all public transit assets, not build for growth.

    Yet, oddly, less than 10 years after light rail had been reintroduced, L.A. had the busiest light rail line in the country and transit ridership had finally begun to rebound.

    So you have to take a long view about this.

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  2. I assumed first year ridership wouldn’t be too high. But it’s a bit below even my lowball estimates, which causes me a bit of fear. I really do want to the line to be uber successful. I’d like to see decent DMU style service all over the area (we could definitely use it).

    The other part I fear, is that I don’t see Portland attracting too much business to the area in which it runs. Unless they have a magic trick to pull off, the area has already lost a few big employers in and around the area. Another few in the Wilsonville area aren’t doing too well. Thus my increasing concern that the start line isn’t going to be so starter if the ridership doesn’t pick up.

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  3. "Yet, oddly, less than 10 years after light rail had been reintroduced, L.A. had the busiest light rail line in the country and transit ridership had finally begun to rebound. "

    It should also be noted that the Los Angeles basin has a higher percentage of "trips taken by transit" than Portland does; somewhat ironic but true.

    Los Angeles has a far greater transit network, and decent bus connections can be found at each rail stop. Los Angeles builds transit for the sake of transit – moving people. Transit Oriented Development comes after the need to move people is accomplished.

    In Portland, we have already lost sight of actually moving people. WES wasn’t built to move people, it was built because it was sexy and we could. Even the FTA didn’t think the ridership was there, but had its professional analysis overridden by Congress.

    IMO, I think in ten years WES is going to follow the ill-fated commuter rail lines in Vermont, New Hampshire and upstate New York that didn’t make sense there. Are there places where commuter rail in our region could work? Absolutely. But our region is so bent on "development oriented transit" and making Fred Hansen look sexy in front of something that we aren’t going to make a bold, progressive step that L.A. did when it formed Metrolink some 15 years ago.

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  4. Yeah, Portland does need another dose of "let’s move people" versus "let’s build stuff that looks neat-o".

    As for workable commuter lines, the first two I can think of would be Vancouver AND Camas areas. Both have ROW that could have extra tracks added, and BNSF has already proven they’re perfectly happy running passenger trains (ala Sounder).

    The other corridor is to run to Salem. WES could be extended along that corridor, but currently it doesn’t really connect all that it should…

    …that however gives me an idea though. It’ll be in a future write up. đŸ™‚

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  5. Eric, you understand L.A. pretty well. It’s not to say L.A. is necessarily better than Portland, but each area has its own strengths and weaknesses.

    Our Metro does not have the land-use authority vested within the agency, like in Portland. In fact, California government is famous for its junior high-school like modus operandi. It is reflected not only in the intelligence of who gets put into office, but since we are a democracy, the electorate as well. :>

    Our governance is very much like a junior high school in that it is divided into tiny cliques deeply suspicious and resentful of outsiders. So, the transit agency clique must negotiate with a municipal clique, which must then deal with many subcliques (utilities, school districts, etc.) on its own.

    This is what prevents development oriented transit, not any lack of will on the part of any agency.

    Yet it is also a plus. The sad thing about L.A.’s rail development is that it is fundamentally a remedial system. Metro Rail is our equivalent of the community college "fundamentals" courses that bring students up to the level to where they should have passed with a C average somewhere in high school.

    We do have a great bus system, but the problem is that it is the wrong mode for the levels of ridership we have. Our NTD stats show that Metro carries an average of 58 passengers per hour per bus. Essentially, our stats are saying that we are running at sitting capacity plus a dozen or so standees — averages across as many as 2,100 buses in service a day.

    You get very high levels of service, but consequently you get very unreliable service, too. We need to add rail just as a capacity measure. Rail can carry multiple volumes that our buses do, plus faster and more reliably.

    We can pretty much dispense with the conventional Right Wing (the usual suspects) and Left Wing (Bus Riders Union) anti-rail knowledge. Why? We are not working on a blank slate. We have very high ridership, and it is best to focus resources to where the ridership is. Then, this helps elevate less busy corridors by adding more service.

    I wish I could say that what L.A. had done was progressive. L.A. did remedial learning about 30 years too late, sadly. And I don’t think there will ever be enough money for the kind of system L.A. needs, let alone what it wants.

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  6. They need to extend this thing to Salem. In fact, I think WES so far is pretty clearly a phase-one project. I was told by a rail guy the other day that the tracks and trains are rated for 99 mph operation, but P&W self-limits to 60. Probably has something to do with stopping distance. Now, if they get this thing extended to Salem, and have an express run or 2 at full speed, then we’re talking about a real commuter train.

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  7. I think in a sense that having separate agencies is a good thing. Right now TriMet and Metro are literally in bed with each other; both agencies are dominated by Portland folks (three of the five TriMet board directors are from Portland, with only one from Washington and one from Clackamas Counties). So Portland literally dictates everything.

    In Seattle (King County) and Los Angeles, the transit agencies are not just transit, but transportation departments. King County Metro is just one unit of the King County DOT. LACMTA and OCTA (Orange County) both have extensive non-transit functions, including regional planning, freeway response, toll roads, etc.

    In Portland, many people complain that ODOT is so highway-focused but in reality this is by design and frankly a good counterance to Metro which is transit-oriented and dictates how TriMet spends its money.

    Los Angeles isn’t perfect but I think it was forced to make decisions that are leading it in a certain direction. Yes, many bus lines (and the BRT Line in particular) are now over capacity. In Portland, when a bus line is over capacity nobody cares. The focus is on rail based transit where no transit exists, while not improving existing services. A logical approach is to take our network and progress it forward – bus becomes articulated bus becomes BRT becomes trolley bus becomes streetcar becomes light rail; instead of trying to rebuild transit patterns.

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  8. Regardless of mode, Metro & City of Portland do seem to force new service over enabling existing service. Which is very frustrating. They have a number of bus lines that seriously are over capacity and they don’t do anything about it. Why, I’ll admit, they do seem to focus on rail. The crux is, they don’t seem to even focus on rail to resolve over filled bus lines, they just go and plant it in places that don’t even have proven service yet.

    This is an ongoing problem which really does need to be resolved. Oddly enough, more for Portland folks than for ones in the surrounding counties.

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  9. Excellent observation, Adron — the 12 line is particularly overcrowded, especially during the shoulder-hours, and yet Portland/Metro/TriMet won’t do a damn thing because of local opposition to rail-based transit (in particular Streetcar). So, "do nothing" because they’d rather push light rail somewhere else.

    Who loses? The riders who are trying to do the right thing and use transit.

    Reply

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