Saturday, March 13, 2010

Is WES overpriced?

In a prior post, we explored the question of whether WES was underpriced--a legitimate concern for a service which financially, is a decent-sized hole below TriMet's waterline.  Not a get-out-the-life-rafts-and-call-the-Coast-Guard hole, but definitely an all-hands-below-decks hole. 

The pricing analysis, on the other hand, was quite simple--compare WES's fares with similar-length trips on other West Coast commuter rail systems.  In all cases, WES was cheaper--often by a significant amount, and your WES ticket is good for a transfer elsewhere in the TriMet system--whereas with the other services, if you wanted to continue on local transit, you needed a separate ticket or pass for that.

Can I take WES to San Jose?

There's a big problem with that analysis though--transit is not fungible.  A ride on WES is not a substitute for a ride on CalTrain--if you want to get from Gilroy to San Jose, WES won't take you there.  Likewise, an 800 square foot apartment in Hoboken or Rockwood is not a substitute for a similar apartment in Manhattan or the Pearl.  (On the other hand, were a car dealer in Portland to start selling cars for half price; you would likely see significant out-of-area orders--automobiles of the same make and model are  fungible, and a car bought in Oregon is just as good as one bought in Utah). 

This suggests that comparing ticket prices between Washington County and the Silicon Valley is perhaps not as informative as we would like.  It's not useless--if you assume similar cost structures, it's not unreasonable to assume that similar fare structures ought to result--it just ignores the realities of the demand side of the market.

And the market suggests, on the other hand, that WES might actually be overpriced.  Think about it--next to nobody rides the thing.  If it were underpriced in a plato-economic sense, then in theory, the trains would be crushloaded and people would be left behind on the platform--at the very least, they would run near capacity.  The fact that demand is low indicates that few people view the service as worth the price.

But herein lies the rub:  If a service is underpriced from a cost point, but overpriced from a demand point--just what does that mean? 

The Worst of Both Worlds

It means the service, as structured, is Probably Not A Good Idea.  Were it a private concern it would be belly-up already.  Something which is not attractive to customers, yet expensive to produce, is not a business you want to be in. 

But just WHY is WES in such dire straits?  Again, let's compare WES to some of its West Coast brethren; the comparison ignores connecting local transit in all cases. (Data from Wikipedia):

  • WES:  5 stations, 16 route-miles, one line, 1260 ppd (passengers per day)
  • Sounder:  9 stations (3 more under constructoin) , 82 route miles, two lines, 9760 ppd
  • CalTrain: 32 stations, 77 route-miles, one line, 39k ppd
  • MetroLink: 55 stations, >500 route-miles, 7 linkes, 47k ppd.
  • Coaster (San Diego):  8 stations, 41 route miles, 1 line, 6000 ppd.
  • FrontRunner:  8 stations, 44 route miles, 1 line, 4800 ppd.
In all five systems (other than WES) listed above, the size of the network (both in terms of destinations served, and distance spanned), is bigger than WES.  Four of the systems mentioned are in urban areas far bigger than Portland, but even FrontRunner, which connects Salt Lake to Ogden, gets four times the ridership (and is still below its projections).  Another important thing to note is that the other systems listed either operate in giant megalopoli, or run between a major city and smaller-but-important exurbs.  WES connects--Beaverton to Wilsonville.  That's it.  No knock on either town, of course, but there's probably not enough commuter rail business in the corridor to really justify that type of service.  WES might be overpriced even if it were free--and if you're using it to hop on MAX and get downtown, or happen to have a TriMet pass for other reasons--it IS free.

But wait... there's more!

All six systems run on active freight lines for at least part of their routes, and thus are subject to FRA regulations concerning things like crew complement, buff strength, etc.--which imposes a cost penatly compared to FRA-exempt services such as light rail.   All of the other five systems (Sounder, CalTrain, MetroLink, Coaster, and FrontRunner) use locomotive-hauled coaches--commodity rolling stock which is available from many different manufacturers (and has an active used market as well).  WES?   It appears TriMet has cornered the market on FRA-compliant, diesel-powered, made-in-USA DMUs.  While locomotives (even small ones) get worse gas mileage than a DMU, if you're hauling hundreds of passengers per train, it doesn't matter.  The use of DMUs isn't unreasonable given projected volumes (and DMUs have the advantage of not needing to turn around)--but the low volume itself is a red flag--and the fact that TriMet was forced to buy its rolling stock from a single vendor (let alone spend millions to keep said vendor out of bankruptcy until the units could be delivered) ought to have been another red flag--what TriMet was doing wasn't novel; it was simply dumb.

The bottom line is--Beaverton to Wilsonville is not a viable corridor for a commuter rail line.  Portland to Salem, with stops along the way at places like Keizer, Woodburn, Canby/Wilsonville, etc.--sure, it probably would have worked (assuming suitable infrastructure and trackage rights).  But the I-5/217 corridr, if it needs any transit beyond local bus service, would be better served by LRT.  (Or BRT if you prefer).  It's a short, intra-urban line, not an inter-urban one--in short, not a good match for commuter rail.

TriMet may well have done the planning profession a valuable service, by providing a case study of What Not To Do. One hopes that the DoT and other DC bureaucracies in charging of giving the states their money back after suitable begging are paying attention, and will start snickering the next time some local politico proposes a similar project. 

That's three posts now I've done this week dragging WES through the mud--I'll leave the poor thing alone now for a while. 


  1. Most of the systems with which you're comparing WES are also more frequent all day. Caltrain has extensive all day and evening services, for example.

    Caltrain is also just magical transit geography -- a string of downtowns that all grew up around the rail line and still have a strong structural connection to it. You can't replicate that in typical suburbia.

  2. Another excellent point--the limited service times is another reason WES isn't attractive. The fact that northboud service ends around 7 in the evening (last southbound run leaves Beaverton at 7:30) doesn't help either. Many working professionals frequently find themselves in the office after those hours (myself included, much to the chagrin of my wife).

    WES does pass through, or near, several downtowns (Beaverton, Tigard, Tualatin)--but none of these downtowns are particularly dense (Beaverton comes closest). And Wilsonville's "downtown" (such as it is) is located across the freeway from the rail line.

  3. Scotty, your piece on WES has been quite informative. I live in Indianapolis and being a citizens activist (for lack of a better description) want to make sure that we get it right here. There is a crowded NE side burb here that has long been tabbed as the first area to get a rail system and the momentum seems to finally be enough to dig some dirt here. I feel it is important to "get it right" the first time. While WES is suburb to suburb, it still brings up some good points. Frequency. Tax base. All the things you have written about are valid concerns. When I think about our first line being peak only, and the millions that will be spent for comparitively low riders (say... to all day MAX) it just makes me shiver to think of how it could go off and be successful, versus how it could go off and sink.

    Thanks for the insight. I thought I had read a lot about commuter rail pros and cons, but your case study is pretty interesting reading.


Keep it clean, please