Sound Transit weighs more night and weekend trips on Seattle-Tacoma train line

Ridership has plummeted on the route, which operates most of its trains at traditional weekday rush hours.

By: - October 26, 2023 12:26 pm

A Sounder train makes its way into the Tacoma Dome Station in 2021. (Sound Transit)

Ridership on Sound Transit’s Sounder South train line, which connects Seattle with the Tacoma area, is about half of what it was before the pandemic, a trend the transit agency blames on the lasting rise of remote and hybrid work.

With this in mind, the agency is asking riders for feedback on whether they’d like service changed to add more midday, evening, or weekend trips. This would be instead of prioritizing longer trains during rush-hour peak periods, as the Sound Transit’s strategic plan now calls for.

Even if Sound Transit’s board decides to press ahead with expanding night and weekend service, it would be a while before schedule changes could take effect since they would require negotiations with freight railroad BNSF, which owns most of the tracks used for the line.

There are signs of an appetite for added service at new times.

The Sounder South, or S Line, has seen crowded trains when there are big sporting events or concerts in Seattle, like this summer’s Taylor Swift show and the Major League Baseball All-Star game.

“The best performing one is the Seahawks game train on Sunday,” explained agency spokesman David Jackson. “It’s crush capacity, generally.”

Jackson said one question Sound Transit is trying to answer with a rider survey it is conducting for a few more days is whether people would take the train for more routine leisure trips into Seattle.

He also noted how rush hour peaks across transit aren’t as heavy as they were pre-COVID. Trips are more spread out throughout the day as many people work from home in the morning and go in late, or leave the office early and finish work from home.

Ridership data for September show S Line boardings totaled about 137,000. That’s compared to roughly 308,000 boardings in September 2019. It’s a similar story in other months, with ridership on the line down 55% to 72% in each month of this year from 2019 levels.

The train line runs between Seattle’s King Street Station and Lakewood, with stops in Tukwila, Kent, Auburn, Sumner, Puyallup, and Tacoma.

Currently, the regular schedule includes no service after 6:30 p.m. or on weekends, although Sound Transit typically runs 20 to 25 trains each year on the weekends for special events.

The survey on the service changes is open until Sunday, Oct. 29. The findings, along with other research and an equity analysis related to the possible service changes, will be included in a report to be delivered to Sound Transit’s board next year.

Sound Transit’s survey on the S Line can be found here.

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Bill Lucia
Bill Lucia

Bill Lucia is the Standard’s editor-in-chief. He’s covered state and local policy and politics for a decade, nationwide for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and in Seattle for Crosscut.