Nothing Like a Commute from Olympia to Seattle, Washington

I boarded the train this morning at 10:30am with a scheduled arrival of 12:00. That, overall is not a bad commute compared to the nightmare of those that currently commute in from Olympia. Currently the various bus trip, which includes a transfer to either a second bus or to the Sounder, is a very long trip. I’m also not one to encourage long commutes, I think they are inherently bad for society and for the mental health of individuals attempting to make these trips.

However, if the trip must be made, which a lot of people do, the train should be a viable option. There is demand, there are tracks, and soon there will be an even shorter route that will take about an hour and 15 minutes instead of an hour and a half. The problem is that Sound Transit hasn’t mustered up the strength or money to extend as far as Olympia yet, and Amtrak Cascades (which would be a perfect candidate) can’t seem to organize their trains to run along this route.

But if I were to dream nice things for the commuters of Olympia that come into Seattle, here’s a viable (and net operationally profitable option!).

  1. Take one of the train sets, which there WILL BE SPARES soon based on the arrival of two new train sets that Oregon/Amtrak has purchased. Put this single train set on an Olympia to Bellingham route for an early morning commute. Leave Olympia at 6:50 or 7am for a 8:15 or 8:30 arrival in downtown King Street Station Seattle.
  2. Take that same train that arrives at 8:30 and add another train that goes to Bellingham – at least during the College School Year – and have it depart for Bellingham around 9:00am.
  3. Have that train turn in Bellingham for the southern trip back toward Seattle, departing at 3:30pm for Seattle, arriving and departing from Seattle at or around 5:30pm.
  4. Arrive back in Olympia at around 7:00pm.

This is just one thought. With two new train sets coming online, it is absurd to keep them unused. There are routes that will garner and build ridership. Not using them is an absolutely waste of taxpayer money. They’re paid for, the Cascades are easily operationally profitable (at least between Portland and Seattle) and could easily be used and become a net asset to the route.

In a later entry I might dream up another route that would be a good idea. One of the most obvious I may outline is a new schedule for Portland to Seattle. There are a ton of flyers in the morning (that leave PDX at around 5:00am) that would happily take the train instead of flying. I don’t want to wish Alask Airlines ill will, but environmentally, economically, and mentally it would be better to shift this short route to passenger rail travel instead of having people fly.

So what’s your thoughts? Any route ideas? Maybe Spokane, somewhere else, or even Bend?


  1. Some ups and downs here:

    First, I would like to see an earlier train from Portland to Seattle, and a Later train from Seattle to Portland. (maybe vice versa)

    Train 509 already leaves at 5:30pm to PDX, and is the 506 equipment from PDX.

    Many would like to see ST go farther South, but the question is can you get OLY on board? Citizens of an area vote to become part of STs district, and therefore pay into ST thru a few taxes. Once that (Pt Def) bypass is finished, Sounder could become a reality to OLY. Run one, maybe 2 trains to OLY, while the rest will (in Oct) term in Lakewood. Amtrak is *not* the answer here. PDX-SEA corridor is so busy, you can not buy 10-trip tickets or a monthly pass for anywhere along that line, meaning the “commuter” would have to buy a ticket for each journey. I really don’t see Amtrak adding the option either, this corridor is the Cascades bread & butter. For the weekly traveler/commuter, I would like to see my first option above, in any case. Amtrak also wont let you buy multi-ride tickets for SEA-EVR because of Sounder, and Sounder passes are good on Amtrak Cascade trains SEA-EVR ONLY!

    It is possible to take the 594 to Tacoma or Lakewood (depends on the day/time of travel) and xfer to a 6xx Intercity route to OLY, with proper planning.

    Now, in terms of Sounder…In Los Angeles, Metrolink enters San Diego County a few times a day (almost a 3hr commute from LA to Oceanside), and people use it. When I lived there just 3 trains a day in each direction served Oceanside, now its up to 5 I believe. Tho I am not sure how the funding for Metrolink works, but being they operate commuter rail only, i suspect its a bit different than ST….but goes without saying anything is possible here.

    As far as Bellingham, While it seems like a good idea to run extra trains, the amount of people i see on/off when I go thru there can all fit in one cascades car, so I honestly don’t think the ridership is there for that just yet. During the holidays, they could defiantly use a dedicated SEA-BEL tripper (that maybe connects from 500 & the Empire Builders arrival), since 516 will sell out to SEA bound pax due to BEL Pax going thru.

    So I agree with Commuter Rail to OLY, it just Amtrak won’t be that train. The terminal points you suggest dont align with crew change points, and could overall raise the cost of fares (more than the somewhat gouging price they already are) to accommodate the travel etc etc. Also, theres no where to stash trains in OLY. Get ST Sounder on-board tho, and all that could change.


  2. 1.) Their “not being used” is a misnomer. They are slated for PDX-SEA expansion following the completion of the ARRA funded improvements for the corridor in 2017 (or sooner).

    If they got used for a non-core service between now and then, that would establish an unplanned increased service level in a pattern not currently supported. So then when 2017 (or sooner) rolls around, WA-DOT would either have to a.) buy yet more equipment to maintain this Oly service *and* fulfill the corridor frequency increases that were already planned, or b.) cancel this Oly service and transfer the trains to the corridor.

    2.) Amtrak will move to the new Tacoma alignment as soon as it is completed. Construction is presently underway. They are not “unable” to move. It’s a done deal, has been for years, no matter what Lakewood based NIMBYs like to claim.

    3.) There is no Amtrak service to downtown Olympia because there is no rail route through Downtown Olympia. It is likely this will not change in the next 20 years or longer.

    4.) WA-DOT has not yet reached their planned full build-out of present Cascades services. Until their operating target has been reached (between 60 and 90 minute headways in PDX-SEA, lesser levels on SEA north) there is unlikely to be additions to the operating patterns. In short, if there’s money to operate a service that does not now exist, it will go to the already burgeoning core route of PDX-SEA, as there the need is greatest.

    5.) There is no Sounder service to Olympia because Thurston County is not part of PSRTA. Unless or until they join PSRTA this will remain the case.

    6.) Should Thurston County join PSRTA, extension of Sounder to Olympia will prove difficult, more so than the present Lakewood extension is proving. Lacey created a series of roundabouts that block the right-of-way of the previous “St. Clair Line” branch from near east Lacey through to downtown Oly. Also, this branch reached the city center via a large curving wood trestle, now also gone. The former will likely cause political opposition from Lacey, the latter great expense.

    The only alternative is to run to Centennial/Lacey station as present, then hook onto the UP Olympia Branch north into Oly’s downtown. This is longer in both distance and time, but is the only viable route for Sounder.


    1. Thanks for catching me up on this. I’ve not been paying attention to the progress on the SEA – PDX line. Mainly because it just seems years behind the efforts that were started 10+ years ago. I’m glad it is being worked on, would be happier if it was happening faster. …and as I was saying in the blog entry. It’s just merely me dreaming about prospective “extras”. 🙂

      Personally, I have no plan or hope of seeing such service in the United States unless they bring in market forces – such as dropping subsidies on oil encouraging even higher ridership & demands. Until then, it’ll be slow progress as usual.


  3. Not all *that* slow.

    2017 is only 5 years from now. These improvements and their attendant service increases will be here before, say, Link to Redmond, or the Columbia River Crossing, or possibly even the First Hill Streetcar. Remember too that ten years ago, Cascades did not exist, and there were only two chintzy amfleet trains running between PDX and SEA, with a ridership of 95k a year. Now, a decade later, there are double the number of trains but, more importantly, over ten times the ridership. Considering that only ran $300 million, that’s nothing short of some of the fastest and most astounding rail success stories in North America. With that track record I don’t think I doubt WA-DOT’s ability to achieve future goals.

    The problem right now is the bureaucratic hurdles of getting to construction.

    For the Tacoma cutoff, there’s additional problems relating to Sound Transit also being a partner. For the main corridor improvements, the problem was with getting the FRA to release the funds in a timely manner, and then additional problems as the FRA attempted to create, from scratch, a set of strings to attach to the monies they were dispersing, despite the fact that in many instances (such as with WA-DOT and BNSF) there’s already a healthy working relationship. In short, FRA Bull in a China Shop hindering rather than helping construction. However the investments that will be made will be spectacular for on-time performance and increased capacity, such as a third main track in the Longview-Kalama area with a speed limit of 110.

    There are *lots* of reasons for slowness but it may not be as slow as you think. In a few years the changes will hit rather rapidly as construction phases are entered.

    As the end of this decade nears, WA-DOT’s plans will be very very close to completion. The issue then is that one phase will be wrapping up, so what ought the next phase look like?

    1.) Where do we go after that? E.G. higher speeds? Even more frequency? Electrification?
    2.) Complexities of serving Canada and customs — can there ever be frequency here similar to PDX-SEA?
    3.) Will Oregon ever get their act together, or will it constantly run unimaginative and sparse schedules to Eugene?

    There are many reasons this corridor will never (virtually speaking) be a 220 mph Japan style operation. But it could realistically achieve 110 or even 150. And continuing to increase frequency is achievable. So the future is very bright. The biggest problem is getting the USDOT to streamline funding processes, something Oberstar wanted badly to do — and then he lost his seat in the Tea Party push.


  4. The big downfall to SEA-OLY transportation is the location of the Olympia rail station. It is in the middle of nowhere at least 10 miles from the capitol. I understand there complex historical reasons for the lack of mainline rail to downtown OLY, and it would cost a $1B or so to build it now.

    The problems can be minimized if Intercity Transit ran a mini-bus route between OLY Station and downtown Olympoa, timed to meet each Amtrack arrival. Then it would be at least feasible for someone in SEA or TAC to take rail transit to the State Capitol. The trains are already running – let’s make it useful.


    1. Yeah, I agree about the timing, but as far as a bus being available, they do exist. Arriving every once in a while. So it is possible to get to downtown – just not in a timely manner based on the train. I bet though, if they had a downtown express – maybe with 1-3 stops between the station downtown – it would be a boon for the train, the station, and downtown. Throw in a little advertising and you’d have at least 20-30 people extra per train to and 20-30 per train leaving I’d bet. Well … at least if the frequencies increased. I believe that is a bit of the problem right now too.

      The other problem though, is that Olympia is a sprawling catastrophe for transit. 😦 Downtown totally kicks ass, great little place, but getting anywhere outside of Olympia gets difficult real fast.


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