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Riders slow to return to the Sounder commuter train

In 2022, the Sounder saw about one-third of the ridership levels than before the pandemic in 2019.

SEATTLE — People lined up outside the Sumner Station waiting to hop on the last train of the morning.

“You get back into the routine and get used to it, but it certainly feels a little strange at first,” said Jeff Whitten. It's his second day back commuting. 

Whitten began working from home once the pandemic hit in 2020, “The train doesn’t seem to be as crowded as it was before.”

And it’s not. In 2019, Sound Transit's Sounder commuter train averaged around 17,000 riders a day, in 2022 that number was closer to 5,000. The numbers are far different than those on the light rail, which has exceeded pre-pandemic levels with the addition of three stations.

Max Bommarito has been taking public transportation from Tacoma to Kent for three and a half years. 

“Yesterday on the way home you couldn’t get a seat, so it seems pretty full to me,” he said.

The lower ridership is also having an impact on the fare percentages used for operating costs. In 2019 that number was 31%, in 2021 it dropped to 5%. Sound Transit told KING 5 their goal is 23%. Data from 2022 hasn’t been released.

Along with saving time stuck in traffic, those like Charlene Wilson who uses the train to get to work, said it’s a necessity. 

“Interest in public transportation is really important and I think investing in it is really important because it changes all of our lives whether or not we know it,” Wilson said.

It’s a problem being seen across the country, according to Tacoma Councilmember and Sound Transit Board Member Kristina Walker.

“Commuter trends have changed so we’re going to look at it from a different lens in 2023 than we would have in 2019,” said Walker.

Meanwhile, riders are hoping more routes are added. 

“We’re always going to be looking at where ridership is and reevaluating. What I will say is we are at a point where we might reevaluate mid-day trips,” said Walker.

Walker said any changes would involve the community and BNSF railways.

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