More than 50 Talgo railcars that have served the Amtrak Cascades line since 1998 will be replaced “as soon as possible,” the state announced Wednesday, a day after the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said the lightweight vehicles didn’t adequately shield passengers in the 2017 fatal Amtrak crash near DuPont.
Alon Levy has a blistering response to the NTSB recommendation that is well worth reading in full:
[T]he Talgos on their own, with a typical European locomotive, would not have derailed. Moreover, after the derailment, they stayed upright, unlike the Amtrak coaches in Philadelphia or the Metro-North ones in New York. The reason people died is that the train fell from a bridge. As far as factors that are controllable by the coach builder go, the Talgos performed well.
So why is the NTSB so dead set against them? In three words: not invented here. The Talgos were designed and built in Europe. They are designed around European ideas of crash avoidance. Trains here have buff strength requirements too (and are too heavy as a result), but they’re much laxer than those of last generation’s American regulations, because at the end of the day lighter trains are no less safe than American tanks on rails. Lighter trains, designed to brake more quickly and not to derail in the first place, underlie the superior train safety of Europe to that of the United States – and Europe is downright dangerous compared with Japan, whose ultralight trains kill passengers in crashes at maybe 1/15th the per-passenger-km rate of American ones.
Replacing all 4 Series VI train sets would cost about $100M, according to the Times piece. WSDOT doesn’t have to follow the NTSB recommendation, but it seems like they want to.
It’s fascinating that these trains are ostensibly lighter because they pre-date the 1999 FRA regulations that called for heavy trains. These regulations were blamed for, among other things, excessive wear-and-tear on the Amtrak Acela. Just last year the FRA agreed that the regulations were too onerous and announced new ones that allow for lighter trains. Obviously there’s much more to safety than just the weight of the vehicles (the NTSB was particularly concerned with the separation of the coupler), but it’s somewhat ironic that WSDOT would end up ditching the “unsafe” Series VI just to buy brand new trains that are…wait for it… lightweight like the Series VI.
Again, it would be nice to get a new set of trains for Cascades. If WSDOT is willing to pony up the cash, and if that’s what it takes to get the bypass operational once more, then so be it. But it would be wrong to put too much blame on the trains themselves.
There’s a very American tendency to think that we can just buy a thing that will “solve” safety for us: a stronger train car, a bigger SUV, an airport body scanner. And there are no shortage of vendors at the ready to sell us such things. But the real work of safety is the messy, complicated work of redesigning the way humans interact with one another, and the layers of bureaucracy around us. The kind of stuff you can’t put in an RFP.
Work has begun on SR 522 BRT, with the first BAT lanes in Bothell coming online in late 2020, and Sound Transit’s Stride BRT service opening in 2024. Although phase 1 design recently concluded and the project is now entering the Conceptual Engineering and Environmental process, planners continue to evaluate how to serve the low-ridership Woodinville segment.
The BRT extends from the Shoreline Link rail station along NE 145th where Sound Transit will add bus queue bypasses and signal priority for transit at key intersections. On SR 522, the patchwork of existing BAT (business access & transit) lanes will be filled in to create an uninterrupted lane for transit from 145th to Bothell. In Bothell, the BRT is likely to operate on downtown streets, serving UW Bothell and connecting to I-405 BRT at NE 195th St.
Beyond that, there is a 3.5-mile segment to the Woodinville Park & Ride where the planned service is more basic. The ST3 plan does not fund any capital improvements east of I-405 and the buses operate in general purpose freeway lanes on I-405 and SR 522. The 10-minute headways west of I-405 drop to every 20 minutes into Woodinville.
Expectations for ridership on the Woodinville segment are low. Sound Transit models suggest 8,800 daily boardings on the BRT in 2042, of which just 100 are at the Woodinville stop.
SR 522 BRT, with exclusive ROW in blue and purple. Woodinville segment in green. (image: Sound Transit, click to enlarge)
Like most residential communities on the Eastside, transit commuters are overwhelmingly going to Seattle. But overall travel patterns are more diverse. The greatest number of Woodinville commuters are to Redmond, and many drive to Bellevue. It’s simply that driving is easier than using transit for most Eastside workplaces, but transit is more competitive to Seattle.
This naturally prompts some rethinking about how to fulfill the ballot measure commitment – that Woodinville be connected to the regional high-capacity network – without unproductively expending too many scarce service hours. At a City Council meeting on May 7, Sound Transit explained four options they are exploring. (video here, presentation here).
Representative Project: This is simply the above alignment described in the 2016 ST3 plan. Travel times from Woodinville are about 60 minutes to Seattle, 40 to Bellevue, 50 minutes to Redmond.
Woodinville Connector: This splits the SR 522 BRT line. The BRT would operate only from I-405 to Shoreline. A separate bus would serve the Woodinville segment. Splitting the route would improve reliability on each part, while also allowing a more ‘right-sized’ vehicle to operate in Woodinville. For riders to Seattle, there is an added transfer at NE 195th. For other Eastside destinations, riders need to transfer anyway to get to I-405 BRT, and the service reliability on a connector may make this more appealing. to other Eastside destinations would not be adversely affected. Either the representative project or Woodinville Connector require one transfer to Bellevue or two to go to Redmond.
Bus on Shoulder: This appears less probable because it requires capital investments where no capital funding was identified in the plan. Low-investment improvements, if funded, might speed bus operations on the Woodinville segment, most likely along SR 522. Shoulder-running would allow some savings in service hours and mitigate the reliability challenges of running ‘BRT’ service over miles of general-purpose lanes.
Bellevue Express Route: This would replace the BRT to Woodinville with an express service to Bellevue (and a one-transfer ride to Redmond via the NE 85th station in Kirkland). The available service hours probably wouldn’t stretch to very much off-peak coverage. But this option does provide a direct and speedy connection to other Eastside destinations. Less obviously, it’s even faster to Seattle because it connects with East Link and other Seattle express buses from the Eastside. It has not been decided whether this option would connect to Bothell (which requires some backtracking north on I-405 from SR 522), or proceed directly to southbound I-405 to Bellevue.
This matrix sketches some of the implications for riders. Options 2 and 3 both add transfers for riders, but likely have some upside in service reliability that isn’t captured in scheduled travel time. The Bellevue Express route has the fastest commute times and does not add transfers, but will likely be limited outside peak hours.
Discussions will continue at the staff level and at the Elected Leaders Group. A decision is targeted by late 2019.
The National Transportation Safety Board held a hearing yesterday on the fatal December 2017 Amtrak derailment on the Point Defiance Bypass. The Seattle Times, Trains, and Curbed have reports. Here are a few takeaways, after watching the briefing:
Responsibility for safety was diffused, but the buck stops with Sound Transit. Amtrak, the Federal Railroad Administration, Sound Transit, WSDOT… with so many agencies involved, lines of accountability were unclear. Amtrak’s role, in particular, is ambiguous – the company owns neither the tracks nor the trains, but as the nation’s passenger rail operator it is supposed to oversee pre-revenue testing and certify the plans. In the end, the investigators made one thing clear: “Sound Transit had the ultimate responsibility to ensure that that project, the point defiance bypass, was safe and ready for revenue operations.” Additionally, investigators called out ST, which owns the tracks as the “host railroad,” for providing insufficient signage and schedules for the bypass.
There was a general lack of training. The crew lacked familiarity with the Siemens Charger and didn’t know what to do when the “overspeed” warnings started going off (which was actually a separate issue from the failure to see the curve). Neither the conductor nor the engineer had enough time with this route and this locomotive.
Having been a friend of both Zach and Jim, I am saddened that the equipment they advocated for is being blamed rather than the culture that starts a new route, a new timetable and a new locomotive all about the same time.
“Everyone hated that curve,” the engineer told investigators. The curve was extra sharp connecting the bypass to the main line. The Wall Street Journal reported after the crash that the bypass project was value-engineered to save money, resulting in a sharper-than-ideal curve.
A road foreman even called Amtrak 501's engineer and told him 'remember that curve.' But no supervisor rode in the cab with the crew to make sure they didn't forget.
Positive train control would have helped. Like many recent crashes, having positive train control would have stopped the train more quickly. Furthermore, in the absence of PTC, Sound Transit’s risk mitigation plan was deemed insufficient. PTC has since been deployed.
The future of the Talgos is in the air. The trainset that crashed was a 1998 Talgo Series VI. The Series VI doesn’t meet the FRA’s 1999 safety requirements, which require the train to withstand much heavier collisions (though new FRA regs are different). Extra support cables, which were added to satisfy regulators, were starting to fail. The trainsets are 21 years old and may need to be replaced soon anyway.
No equipment is designed to fully withstand a collision at that speed. Even Rolling Tank-style American equipment crumples in a collision at speed; see other recent Amtrak crashes that have completely destroyed Amfleet cars. That's why *preventing* crashes is the right approach! https://t.co/KfOsCnZOeB
The Series VI need to get a special waiver for each route they run on. Amtrak was given a waiver for the original Cascades route, and received a second one for use on the bypass just days before revenue service began. If they had to re-apply for that waiver today, it’s not clear they they’d get it. The new Talgo Series VIII trains (purchased by Oregon DOT with stimulus funds in 2013) do not require the waiver.
Stimulus funds were not an issue. I was under the apparently mistaken belief that the bypass was pressed into service to hit a deadline set by the Obama administration for use of stimulus funds. The board and the investigators said that wasn’t true. Instead, they said a decision was made in September of 2017 to have the route open by December and the pressure to hit the December date was internal to the agencies.
Many of the issues raised by the report have already been addressed by the various agencies. We’ll have to wait and hear what WSDOT and Sound Transit have to say about plans going forward.
It’s candidate forum time! Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) is hosting events for City Council districts 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7. Tom at Seattle Bike Blog has the dates along with a good summary of what’s at stake:
In some ways, this is harder than passing grand measures because it requires getting dirty and working through the finer details of compromise and change that our city needs if we are going to continue shifting more and more trips to biking, walking and transit. Neighborhood streets need to change. The amount of housing, especially near frequent transit service, needs to grow. Economic, racial and disability barriers need to be torn down. None of this work will be easy, and we will need a Council that is ready to hold the mayor accountable for completing this work.
The vision involves welcoming new people throughout our city (even in single-family zones) while building more affordable housing so those who are here are not pushed out. In this reality, climate change is real and demands action to re-envision our city and prioritize pedestrians, people biking, transit, and our Vision Zero goal of zero traffic deaths by 2030.
Aerial view of a potential OMF site at S 344th St in Federal Way. I-5 and the old Weyerhauser campus are in the background (Google)
The Sound Transit board will likely vote on Thursday not to include a controversial Federal Way Kent site on its short list for a South Sound maintenance base. The system expansion committee voted unanimously on May 9 to remove the site, which hosts several auto-oriented retail businesses including a newly-opened Dick’s Drive-In. It was controversial not only because of the popular fast food chain, but because it would have limited transit-oriented development (TOD) opportunities within the walk shed of a future Link station at Highline Community College.
We wrote about the site and the challenges of another controversial site, the nearby Midway landfill, back in January. Since then, ST has been narrowing sites for consideration. The Kent Reporter, which has had excellent coverage of the maintenance base issue, notes that we’re down to three sites:
Midway Landfill, west of Interstate 5, which has been closed since the 1980s and is owned by Seattle Public Utilities. Estimated cost: $1.3 billion
South 336th Street near I-5, which is the location of the Christian Faith Center church in Federal Way. Estimated cost: $750 million
South 344th Street near I-5, which is an industrial area in Federal Way, includes several businesses: Garage Town, which offers private custom storage facility; an RV storage facility; and Ellenos Yogurt Factory. Estimated cost: $800 million
At the time of the 2016 ballot, ST has assumed that the OMF would be located “in the Federal Way to Tacoma corridor.” Last spring, however, the agency came to realize that the facility would be needed in service by 2026 in order to be ready for the West Seattle link extension, per Scott Thompson, a ST spokesperson. That means placing it further north, either within the Federal Way extension (opening 2024) or very close by, in such a way as to “avoid pre-determining the location of the South Federal Way station.”
The decision to remove the Dick’s site was a good one. While it’s hard to imagine a more anti-TOD business than a drive in restaurant, politics makes strange bedfellows. If the presence of Dick’s today makes it easier to protect a future TOD development site down the road, so be it.
Of the sites remaining, Midway is estimated to cost half a billion more than the other two sites (for context, a West Seattle tunnel is pegged at $700m). While it may seem convenient to raid ST’s bank account to pay for toxic clean up (as Federal Way’s mayor has suggested), surely that money could be used more wisely for actual transit. I’m no expert on brownfield redevelopment, but reading the EPA’s Superfund page about the landfill makes me want to think twice about locating an employment center there.
Fortunately, there seems like an obvious solution. The site at 344th & I-5 scores the best on Sound Transit’s scorecard (see p. 53 of this technical analysis). A collection of low slung auto-oriented buildings across the street from a Walmart, it’s far enough from a station not to interfere with future TOD opportunities. And the price is right, too.
Downtown Seattle and the newly-built Interstate 5, as seen in 1966 (Seattle Municipal Archives)
On May 14, 1969, the final section of Interstate 5 opened between Everett and Marysville, forever changing life in the Puget Sound region and completing a new road link to Vancouver, British Columbia. The last of some 276 miles of concrete and asphalt that had been laid down in sections for twenty years had opened up a new frontier for sprawling communities and left U.S. Highway 99 behind to decline.
Now, at over a half-century old, I-5 is something of a necessary evil in eyes of many who live here. Its use of left-hand exits causes traffic to weave and jam, the use of reversible express lanes creates a bottleneck for reverse commuters, and it creates a visual, auditory, and olfactory barrier between the neighborhoods it slices through. But it is also the backbone of the state’s freight movements and our regional express bus system, which is among the best in the nation.
At 50 years of age, I-5 is now chronically congested, seismically vulnerable, and has maintenance issues that often require emergency repairs during the middle of rush hour. The I-5 Systems Partnership was formed by local governments to study near-term solutions and develop a master plan for the 107-mile central corridor, which stretches from Tumwater to Marysville and includes 60 percent of the state’s population (some 4.3 million people, of whom 3.3 million are licensed drivers).
Last month, the I-5 Systems Partnership published its draft call to action, highlighting several proposed solutions to patch and repair our way out of traffic and misery, rather than endlessly expanding the freeway. The report estimates that $5.1 billion would be needed by 2040 to maintain the freeway and its bridges while also upgrading seismically-vulnerable structures and fix pavement issues. With the vast majority of gas tax revenues needed to pay off debt service for other projects, other funding sources will have to be found, such as a congestion charge or per-mile fees.
The current system of HOV lanes on I-5 are also failing in their own respects, with high rates of SOV violators and only marginal time savings compared to the general purpose lanes during peak hours. To restore some of its reliability, the partnership envisions a system of HOT lanes with tolls and controlled access points on I-5 between Lakewood and Everett. Bus drivers in the HOV lanes routinely have to slow down when passing stopped traffic, as many drivers will make last-second merges at low speeds, which could be avoided by the wider separation (and perhaps concrete barriers) afforded by HOT lanes.
The idea of adding charges to use I-5, a cornerstone of the Interstate System envisioned by the federal government in the mid-1950s, might be heresy to many drivers, but it’s not unfamiliar. The state government had conceived of I-5 in the 1940s as a “toll superhighway” with toll booths and limited entry in the same vein as the turnpikes found in the Midwest and Eastern Seaboard, but the plans were quickly dropped when the federal government offered to cover 90 percent of construction costs for the toll-free freeway.
Beyond the congestion and slowly-crumbling bridges on I-5, we will also need to address another major issue: mitigating the long-standing impact that the freeway has had on its neighboring communities. Seattleites had protested the trench-like design of I-5 through Downtown Seattle even before the first bulldozers and wrecking balls had begun destroying the block-wide swatch along the edge of First Hill and Capitol Hill. The creation and construction of Freeway Park in the 1970s did well to stitch downtown back to a small section of First Hill, and could be a template for building a longer lid for parkspace and other uses, as envisioned by groups like Lid I-5.
Of course, an obvious solution to the I-5 problem is to replace it entirely, which would be the smarter pursuit during this ongoing climate crisis. The I-5 corridor would likely form the backbone of a multi-billion dollar Portland-to-Vancouver BC high-speed (or higher-speed) rail link, and sections could be re-used as right-of-way for the train as it travels through the suburbs that separate Seattle from Everett and Tacoma. Any high-speed rail plan worth its salt would also include regional and local rail along the same corridor, if not the same tracks, serving as an alternate to driving for those outside the immediate catchment area for Link and its short bus feeders.
While we may never be entirely rid of I-5, the least we could do is maintain what we have and mitigate away some of the mistakes made 50 years ago when it was first designed and constructed. Doing so would heal some long-open wounds in the landscape and communities most affected by freeway pollution, while also setting ourselves up for a less ruinous relationship with our beloved I-5.
Longtime readers know that the Mt. Baker Station area, full of design flaws since Link opened, has long had a plan to improve vehicle flow through it. While there have been some incremental improvements in the transfer between train and bus, the “bowtie” plan might have made a bigger dent in some problematic transit vehicle movements.
After facing some local business opposition, the effort morphed into Accessible Mt. Baker in 2015. The most interesting idea was moving the poorly placed Mt. Baker transit center to provide better transfers. And after a modal plan in 2016, the program has been sitting there since.
Anyhow, there’s another community survey out there, with a deadline of May 20th. This area is an important transit hub, but has to contend with a high volume of vehicles. Pro-transit turnout would be helpful.
The diagram below shows what the plan would mean for bus transfers. Instead of navigating the transit center and dropping off riders to cross Rainier and take an indirect route to the station entrance, many buses would instead circle the station itself and provide an optimal transfer experience. The 7 and 9 would keep their current excellent southbound transfer point, and the northbound stop would have a much more favorable location nearer the entrance.
East Link over I-405, May 2019 (SounderBruce/wikimedia)
Sound Transit committee proposes a “preferred alternative” for Ballard West Seattle, punts difficult decisions at West Seattle Junction, Ballard, Chinatown. The full board is next. WSB has a great summary of some of the friction between those worried about “impacts” and those trying to get it done.