By Nick Christensen
The Hillsboro Argus
TUALATIN - On a cold, drizzly morning, Garrett Biggs sits on a comfortable cloth seat and is whisked to work.
The ride is quiet, comfortable and, for the most part, empty. As one of 1,800 daily riders on TriMet's WES Commuter Rail, Biggs pretty much has the train to himself.
Washington County's commuter rail train has not met expectations in its first six months of operations. Its average daily ridership of around 1,200 is half of its projected first-year ridership.
Those 1,200 rides, including Biggs', are expensive. TriMet spends $19.73 for every rider on WES, not including debt service. Bus lines carrying about 1,200 passengers a day cost about $4 per passenger to run.
"But I think this helps in the long run with everything, rather than $19," Biggs said as he prepared for his five-hour workday in downtown Portland.
And, he said, it's much better than a bus. If taking WES home isn't practical, and it often isn't with the first train south leaving Beaverton at 4 p.m., Biggs takes a bus that creeps along Interstate 5.
"If I'm going to pick sitting on a bus, in traffic, or on a train where you know you're going to make it through, I'd take the train," Biggs said.
Biggs' concerns about practicality are one of the two biggest drags on ridership on the commuter rail line, which opened in February and has not seen ridership grow since.
The train doesn't run between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., forcing mid-day commuters like Biggs onto a bus. And for West Linn resident Erica Malcolm, who is a student at Pacific University's Health Professions Campus in Hillsboro, it sometimes means leaving school earlier than she wants to make the last train back to her car. The last run leaves Beaverton at 7:33 p.m.
"At a certain point I can't stay at school anymore," she said. "I wish it came more often."
Wilsonville resident Carl Kirkpatrick, on his way to the Social Security Administration offices, agreed.
"I do feel this area would be much better served if they operated after 8 p.m. and on weekends," he said. "If you work any overtime, there isn't enough time to make the connections to ride it."
Washington County Chairman Tom Brian, who helped spearhead the project in its decade of development, said he's heard people ask for a midday option.
"One of the things people are concerned about is if they go to work, if they're working part time, or if one of the kids has a problem at school, how do they get home?" Brian said.
The other drag on ridership has been the economy. Relatively low gas prices have kept people in their cars, and layoffs in Washington County's tech sector have kept potential riders at home. A WES conductor said he lost 60 riders from one company's layoffs earlier this year.
"This service is targeted to commuters, and with record high unemployment, obviously the ridership is lower than we had anticipated and growing more slowly," said TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch. "As the economy begins to rebound, we will restart our outreach efforts."
Fetsch said the costs are comparable to other commuter rail lines, ranging from $11.42 per rider on the Puget Sound's Sounder trains to $15 per ride on the commuter rail line in the Salt Lake City area. A soon-to-launch commuter rail system in Minneapolis is projected to cost $19.38 per ride, Fetsch said.
But don't look for service to increase anytime soon.
Part of the problem is the complexity of the operation. TriMet runs the line in conjunction with the Portland and Western Railroad, and under strict guidelines from the Federal Railroad Administration. There aren't many passing zones on the track - the two trains running the line at any given time right now cross paths at the Tigard station, midway down the line.
And with a fleet of three engines - TriMet is considering adding a fourth - maintenance requirements limit the amount of time trains can run the rails.
So for now, the biggest focus is on increasing awareness of the train.
"I've had a lot of people come up to me and say they love riding it," Brian said. "Once people have tried it, they really like it. With continued education about it, and word of mouth, it will grow. We have to be patient with it a bit."
BEAVERTON - In eastern Washington County, there's a small community on wheels, a group of friends who recently met, who only see each other once or twice a day, but share a bond and conversation every morning or afternoon.
WES is different from TriMet's other transit lines in many ways, but perhaps none is more striking than the sense of camaraderie among its riders.
Earlier this week, Pat Roby, who works at St. Vincent's Hospital, and Steve Tapp, an IT worker in Beaverton, started chatting about Oregon State football on a southbound WES train leaving Beaverton Transit Center. Conductor Dave Robertson joins in the conversation, mocking the Seattle Seahawks as Tapp returns the grief about the Oakland Raiders.
"You get to know your conductor," said Ellenmarie Murray, who was sitting next to Roby as the train whizzed past stalled traffic on Highway 217.
The conductor, who patrols the aisles, controls the heating and air conditioning and checks fares, is likely the linchpin for conversation on the train. Robertson knows his regular riders, chatting with many of them through the course of the ride. Newcomers to WES join in, and friendships are born.
"Customer service and interpersonal skills were primary in what I was looking for," said Jeff Lowe, TriMet's WES manager. "What you're seeing is more than I could have wished for because they truly have taken to the art of engaging their passengers."
The conductors are employees of the Portland and Western Railroad, from which TriMet rents the track space. Portland and Western's union contract required WES trains to have a conductor.
"With the smaller trains, and the ridership we currently have, it's worked out to be an excellent mix," Lowe said. "I wish there were more riders on the train, and we're working to do that. Until that happens, we'll entertain the folks we have."