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Linda Thomas
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Even when the Sound Transit commuter trains are just sitting in the station overnight, they are idling. That's by design. The trains operate with an Automatic Engine Start Stop system designed to be more fuel efficient and eco-friendly than turning the engines off and restarting. (Photo by Rick Hawkinson)

Why do Sounder locomotives idle when trains don't run?

Mud can stop a Sounder Train.

Lately, a man who climbed a tree near the rail tracks in Seattle, and mechanical problems have halted the Sounder commuter trains too.

One of my KIRO Radio listeners wants to know, why is it even when the trains aren't running, they're still idling?

"Why don't they shut the locomotives off, like we do with cars?" Ken, from Everett, wonders. "The Sounder trains they leave running for days on end."

In a voice mail he asks, "Are they a money losing thing that's losing even more money" through fuel consumption even when the tracks are blocked by a mudslide, or at night idling?

This has been one of the worst winters on record for passenger rail service in the Puget Sound region - even without significant snow.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe noted 200 slides, and about 50 of those blocked the tracks. Mudslides led to the cancellation of 134 Sounder North train trips, compared with an average of 20 cancellations per season. Sounder North had 26 days of disrupted service this season.

It's true that even when the commuter trains are just sitting in the station overnight, they are idling. That's by design.

Sound Transit has a total of 14 locomotives. The trains operate with an Automatic Engine Start Stop system (AESS).

Since the locomotives use water, not anti-freeze, the AESS keeps the engines at "idle" when the ambient temperature falls below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Otherwise, the water in the engine would freeze, says Sound Transit's Kimberly Reason.

Also, the AESS also automatically shuts down the locomotive when the train has been stationary for 20 or 30 minutes. So, engines that idle for long periods are idling because the outside temperature has fallen below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

The purpose of the system, approved back in 2008, was save on fuel costs and emissions, and Sound Transit says it has.

Sound Transit achieved a 1.5 percent savings in Sounder fuel usage, which translates to 16,764 gallons of fuel not expended, due to the AESS and Wayside efficiency projects. Using the average cost of diesel fuel in 2011 at $3.21 per gallon, this translates to a savings of $53,584.

That fuel reduction amounts to 186.3 tons of CO2 not released into the atmosphere. So, while Sounder ridership increased, the amount of CO2 per rider decreased slightly from 10.5 pounds per boarding to 9.6 pounds.

As for Ken's comment that it's a "money losing thing," let's look at the numbers.

Sounder commuter rail boardings were up 11 percent for the last quarter. However, Tacoma Link light rail boardings declined by 3 percent and taxpayers subsidize the service between Snohomish and King Counties.

The daily Sounder trains between Everett and Seattle are one-third full, serving about 1,125 passengers per weekday. That's far short of the 2,400 to 3,200 rides projected when the deal was made in 2003 to put commuter trains on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight tracks.

A citizen oversight panel says if the number of passengers doesn't double by 2020 Sound Transit should consider shifting money to express buses.

The report from last fall said, although "members are very sympathetic to the sense of ownership, pride, and equity that Sounder North represents in Snohomish County… we believe that, in the long-term, the tax-payers and transit users of Snohomish County will not be well served if the high-cost Sounder North line continues to run well below capacity while the much lower-cost ST Express bus routes run overloaded with passengers standing in the aisles."

"At a certain point in the future, Sound Transit may have to come to terms with a reality that one of its services is not living up to a reasonable definition of viability."

The panel, chaired by Stuart Scheurerman, concludes "accepting the status quo of low ridership and high costs on North Sounder is not acceptable."

By LINDA THOMAS

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About Linda
Linda is the morning news anchor and features reporter for KIRO Radio. This is her local news blog, with an emphasis on social media, technology, Northwest companies, education, parenting, and anything else that grabs her attention.

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