State of U.S. Passenger Rail – Washington

To say that passenger rail ridership in Washington State is booming, would be an understatement. Yes, Amtrak ridership is up significantly, rising 20% over the past 12 years, making it the 36th fastest growing state in the country over that time period. But the ridership boom in Washington is really taking place on Sounder, a Seattle-area regional railroad where ridership has exploded nearly seven-fold (675%) since its founding in 2001, rising to an average of 291,258 passengers carried per month as of March 2015, up from 37,583 as of August 2001. In this post, let’s look at Sounder first and then turn our attention to Amtrak’s trends in Washington.

Sounder is an 83-mile, 12-station regional railroad with two lines (North Line and South Line) that terminate at Seattle’s King Street Station. It has been in expansion mode since it opened in September 2000 with service on the South Line with service between Seattle and Auburn, Sumner and Tacoma Dome. In February 2001, Kent and Puyallup opened, and in March 2001, Tukwila opened. In December 2003 with service on the North Line from Seattle to Amtrak’s two stations at Edmonds and Everett, and added a new Sounder-only station in May 2008 at Mulkilteo. In October 2012, the South Line was extended two stops, to Lakewood and South Takoma.

Sounder stopped reporting its ridership numbers to the American Public Transportation Association in April 2005, and didn’t begin again until October 2006, creating an 18-month gap in raw ridership data, and a 30-month gap in reliable averages. But as of March 2005, average monthly ridership was rising steadily, reaching 77,692. It seems to have really taken off during the gap. By October 2007, it had risen to 172,825. I’ve added a grey line to represent a straight line during the gap months.

With the exception of a 26-month period of recession from March 2009 to April 2011, when it fell slightly, Sounder’s ridership has continued to push ever upward. If present trends continue, it’s on pace to break the 300,000 figure in the months ahead.

Sounder’s hub, Seattle, is also Amtrak’s hub in the state. All Amtrak routes in Washington serve Seattle in one form or another. The Empire Builder, to and from Chicago, splits at Spokane, with one part of the train continuing to Seattle, and the other part to Portland, Ore., via four stations in the southern part of the state: Pasco, Wishram, Bingen-White Salmon, and Vancouver. The Coast Starlight originates in Seattle and travels to Los Angeles, and the Cascades, with multiple departures daily between Vancouver, B.C., and Eugene, Ore., via Portland and Seattle. Seattle accounts for half of the Amtrak passengers in Washington State. This pie chart shows the breakdown.

Looking at a line graph, one can see that ridership at Seattle dwarfs the rest of the stations in the state.

Seattle ridership is up 6% over the time frame shown, to 626,623 passengers in 2014. If we exclude Seattle from the graph, we can see the ridership trends at the rest of the state’s stations more clearly.

Ridership at Tacoma is up 18% over the time frame shown. Vancouver is +42%, Olympia-Lacey is +46%, Bellingham is +10%, Spokane is +53%, and Everett is +23%. The fastest growing station in the state is Tukwila, which grew to 28,636 passengers in 2014, up from 8,288 in 2003. The second-fastest growing station is Bingen-White Salmon, which rose to 2,867 passengers in 2014, up from 1,086 in 2003.

Like Sounder, Amtrak, too, has been in growth mode in Washington. Amtrak added Leavenworth to the Empire Builder in September 2009, where ridership has grown 18% from 9,574 in 2010 to 11,307 in 2014. Amtrak added Stanwood to the Cascades in November 2009, and ridership there has grown 6%, from 4,396 in 2010 to 4,674 in 2014.

This stacked column chart shows how the ridership at all of the stations adds up to the state’s total.

Let’s close with a look at the Coast Starlight, an overnight train with sleeper car service that knits together the West Coast. Ridership on the route has been steady in recent years. The big dip in February 2008 was the result of a mudslide that covered 3,000 feet of track in Oakridge, in southern Oregon.

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