WES: going off the rails

stagecoach

“We’re in a fine fix, my friends.”  Stagecoach. 1939.

TriMet is buying 2 more train cars for WES, the Westside Express Service train that runs a 14.7-mile limited schedule between Wilsonville and Beaverton.

Hey, why not? When things are going downhill, double down.

On May 25, after just six minutes of consideration, TriMet’s Board of Directors voted unanimously to approve bidding on the purchase of two used Budd RDC passenger diesel railcars from Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) for a total of up to $1.5 million. An additional $550,000 is expected to be needed for retrofit work to make the cars service-ready.

“We need to plan for ridership growth,” TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch told The Oregonian. “Staff believes that these cars would meet the expected demands for the growing WES service for at least the next ten years…,” Neil McFarlane, TriMet’s general manager, said to the Board in a May 25 memo.

Oh sure, plan for massive ridership growth.

In early 2009, TriMet predicted WES would have 2,400 daily riders its first year of operations and 3000 by 2020.

But things started to go south quickly. WES began operating in February 2009. By Dec. 2009, weekday boardings averaged 1,140. By June 2010, the last month of Fiscal Year (FY) 2010, weekday boardings for the year averaged 1,200, less than half the number TriMet had predicted.

TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen told The Oregonian it was way too early to say if the agency’s heavy-rail gambit was a mistake.

He was wrong.

In FY15, weekday boardings averaged just 1869. Equally disturbing, operating costs per boarding on WES are stubbornly high at $13.50, versus $2.83 on busses and $2.14 on MAX.

Operating cost per boarding ride measures the direct cost of providing each ride. Operating costs are expenses for labor, energy and expendable supplies to provide transit service and to maintain vehicles and plant facilities. It does not include general andf administrative costs, interest or depreciation.

WESgraphwithkey

Here we are in 2016 and the situation is still appalling.

As of April 2016, the most recent month for which I was able to obtain data from TriMet, average daily boardings in FY16 are just 1,779. Operating costs per boarding ride are also still substantially imbalanced, at $2.67 for busses, $2.01 for MAX and $12.56 for WES.

The WES figure translates into a fare recovery ratio of operating costs of just 8.1 percent. Operations costs are expenses for labor, energy and expendable supplies to provide transit service and to maintain vehicles and plant facilities.

And these figures don’t even take into account the $161.2 million spent to build WES.

Even if WES reaches 3000 average daily boardings, operating costs per boarding ride will remain much higher than for busses and MAX.

The fact is, WES is a train wreck.

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