The nations only suburban commuter rail line celebrates

Construction has started on the Nyberg Rivers development. Shown here, a rendering reflecting the Seneca Street extension, which was recently approved.
It’s cold on Tuesday morning at the Beaverton Transit Center, as commuters board the TriMet WES commuter train.

Taking her seat near the back of the train, Linda Stamper settles down with a novel.

It’s a routine Stamper has repeated for more than two years as she makes her way from her Beaverton home to work at a chiropractic clinic off Southwest Hunziker Road in Tigard.

“It’s just a quick commute for me, and it makes it a lot easier,” she said. “It’s like 10 minutes, as opposed to 30 on the bus.”

WES — officially the Westside Express Service — celebrated its fifth anniversary on Sunday, and Stamper said she couldn’t be happier with the commuter-rail line, which connects Beaverton, Tigard, Tualatin and Wilsonville.

Stamper has relied on public transportation for years, after congestion on her drive to work became too much to bear.

“(Highway) 217 is terrible, and Hall Boulevard is getting bad, too,” she said. “The traffic around here has always been bad, but it is getting worse. Everybody is finding the side streets to get around.”

Most regular WES riders are heading to or from work, Stamper said. Riding at the same time every day, the riders and conductors have gotten to know one another.

“You see them every day, and they are really pleasant people,” she said. “You get to talking with them, and it’s nice. The (engineers) on it are really nice and helpful.”

When riders first boarded TriMet’s WES commuter train in 2009, they were part of a plan to help ease congestion along the often-gridlocked Interstate 5 corridor between Beaverton and Wilsonville.

WES brought with it a number of firsts. It was the first commuter rail line in Oregon, and the first suburb-to-suburb commuter-rail service in the country.

It was also a gamble for TriMet, which had never offered anything like it before.

“It’s a commuter service, so they are often taking the same vehicles every day,” said TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch. “There is a sort of camaraderie that comes with that. It’s a very different type of service for us.”

It took 16 years of planning, $161.2 million in funding and plenty of headaches to get the program off the ground. Initially expected to open in 2008, the project was delayed several months after the company tasked with building the trains ran out of money. Colorado Railcar finished building the trains only after millions of dollars in bailout money by TriMet.

And the obstacles didn’t stop after the trains started running.

For two years, neighbors in Tualatin complained the trains’ horns were too loud for their quiet neighborhoods. The trains were required under federal standards to blast 96-decibel horns four times at each public crossing.

TriMet had to ask the Federal Railroad Administration to reduce the volume of WES’ horns and form a “quiet zone” in the city, which went into effect in 2011.

When WES trains broke down, which happened frequently, there weren’t any backup trains in stock. Commuters were forced to take shuttles between stations.

WES’ cost-per-rider is the highest of TriMet’s services, costing the transit agency about $13 per rider to operate.

But those hurdles were nothing to the biggest problem: No one was riding.

“It definitely took a little while to get the riders,” said WES engineer David Robertson, who has worked on the line since it launched.

When WES’ doors first opened, TriMet officials expected to see 2,400 people a day swarming station platforms. It averaged half that.

Robertson and fellow conductor Tad Johnson placed the majority of WES’ ridership struggles on the Great Recession, which was taking hold across the country when WES launched.

“It was probably the worst time to launch a service for commuters,” said Fetsch.

Robertson said he watched the train’s initial riders dwindle to nothing. “Hollywood Video closed and then Xerox. All the riders that we had going to Wilsonville just stopped riding,” he recalled.

A service like WES relies on commuters heading to and from work, said Fetsch. When the economy sours, and people start losing their jobs, that’s fewer riders for WES. “Increased ridership means that there are likely more jobs in the area,” she said.

An upswing

Since its launch, WES ridership has seen an upswing, up 10 percent in 2013 compared to the year prior, said Roberta Altstadt, a TriMet spokeswoman.

Average ridership is up 63 percent since 2009, according to TriMet. Today, about 1,880 people choose to ride the train. Last year, 476,000 riders took WES, Altstadt added.

Robertson said people are coming to WES more, and he expects that trend to continue.

“We’re going to get a lot, lot busier,” he said, watching passengers board at Tigard Transit Center on Tuesday morning. “By my second trip of the day, we’re usually full up. That’s when everybody’s trying to hurry to work. There are times when there is nowhere to sit.”

It’s still not where TriMet would like it to be, but it’s a start, Fetsch said. “From the feedback we hear, riders love the service. They love the conductors, and they love the interaction with the other riders they see,” she said.

Johnson said with more people turning to WES for their commute, the train is finally starting to come into its own.

“This year has been crazy so far,” he said. “To me that says it has become a normal word in people’s households. Now, instead of saying, ‘Oh, that’s right. There’s a train,’ it’s much more accepted to think, ‘Should I drive or take the train?’ Almost like in New England, or people that live near the MAX lines.”

Johnson expects the line to top 2,400 riders a day by the end of the year.

“Hey, we can make it from Beaverton to Wilsonville in 26 minutes with three stops in the middle. You can’t beat that,” Robertson said.

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