Picture of derailed Link train from KOMO.
Picture of derailed Link train from KOMO.

Yesterday’s Link derailment near the O&M facility in SoDo caused no injuries and no passengers were on-board, but the incident did cause significant delays for riders on other trains. Unfortunately for those elsewhere on the line, communication with at least some riders as pretty abysmal:

Comment by Gary — 2009-11-17 — 16:31:13
I flew back into Sea-Tac last night and took the light rail from Tukwila to the International District, boarding at 9:45 pm. Let me share my own experience. It was not a “minor delay of 10-20 minutes.” The trip to the International District took 1 hour and 20 minutes rather than the usual 30 minutes. The train would just stop for extended periods without moving in the Rainier Valley. There were no announcements of what was going on. I only found out what was going on by calling my wife on my cell phone and asking her to check the news. I pressed the intercom button on the train to call the operator and ask what was going on, and no one responded. There was no alternate bus made available, we were just stuck on the train. While I understand this was an accident, Sound Transit really needs to do a much, much better job of communicating with its ridership and reacting to a contingency next time if it wants to attract and retain riders.

We’ve been harsh on transit websites recently, but what about Link’s speaker systems? Link’s still working out its kinks but there’s just no excuse: It should be policy to tell riders when any substantial delay occurs and why it’s happening.

58 Replies to “Comment of the Day: The Wife’s Cell Phone”

  1. This is getting ridiculous. It’s happened SEVERAL times already. Major delays (signaling problems the first week, when that 550 broke down in the DSTT) and riders don’t even get a chance to know what’s going on? Come on. We can do way better than this.

      1. Yes Cindy, thank God Bellevue is dependent on cars, which always get you there safely and on time.

  2. Sound Transit isn’t good at admitting they screwed up. Or communicating their errors.

    And not replying to the speakers or having them work?! What if there were an emergency on the train and the driver was unaware.

    Oh Sound Transit…

    1. Sound Transit doesn’t seem to be communicating a two-day-in-a-row cancellation of Sounder Train (7:20AM Arival in Kent, north bound)too well either. The first day most folks had heard of it before they left for the station, but there seemed to be more folks surprised this morning. Anyone know what the cause is and if it will happen three days in a row?

      1. That one was on the alert emails. If you’re using Sounder, you need to be signed up for those – but Sound Transit needs to hand out literature showing people how to sign up.

  3. I haven’t heard a peep from Sound Transit on the communication issue. There needs to be a plan in place that’s executed the moment something like this happens, because as soon as a train stops, there are people waiting and they don’t know why.

    1. I agree but should ST be the go to guy here or should it be KC Metro which, after all is paid to operate this thing. An response to a shutdown in the line is going to have to involve a large number of bus reroutes and it seems leaving this all in the hands of Metro would make more sense. ST buys, builds and designs but they don’t really seem to want to be in the operations end of things.

      1. Regardless, Link has ST branding and the large populace understands it to be Sound Transit’s, so they should be dealing with communications and PR. How many normal folks know that Metro actually operates Link? Very few people, I’d presume.

      2. I have no desire to jeopardize my job by being critical of Sound Transit, but I agree with everyone here that Sound Transit did not do a good job communicating with passengers, especially at the station platforms. They’ve even publicly admitted that. They don’t always do a good job communicating with their operations staff either (i.e. operators, etc…)
        In addition to commenting on The Seattle Transit Blog, everyone needs to vent your frustrations directly to Sound Transit, let them know how displeased you are/were.
        Telephone:(206) 398-5000 Fax:(206) 689-3360 E-mail: main@soundtransit.org
        Customer Feedback Form:
        http://www.soundtransit.org/About-Us/Contact-Us/Customer-Feedback.xml
        All this information can be found on the Sound Transit web site.

        ~”It should be policy to tell riders when any substantial delay occurs and why it’s happening.”

        It IS an operational policy that if there is a delay of two minutes or more, an announcement shall be made informing passengers of the delay. The canned announcement “we are experiencing a service delay, the train will be moving shortly, we apologize for the delay” satisfies this requirement.
        Please be aware that your operator does not always know the details behind a particular delay, and therefor cannot make information specific announcements.

        A tip on “canned” announcements: When the announcement is that a train is being held “due to traffic ahead”, if it’s in the Downtown Transit Tunnel it means there is a bus at the platform ahead, and the train is waiting for the bus to leave. Out on MLK it’s usually to keep interval spacing between trains. SDOT has complained to Sound Transit that trains mess up the traffic signals when they bunch up on MLK… so the control center tries to keep trains at least 7 minutes apart, especially during rush hour.
        “We are experiencing a service delay” is a more general announcement, just meaning that the trip is going to take a little longer than anticipated.

        Please note that the intercom to the operator is for emergencies only. If you have an emergency and don’t get a response right away, re-push the button and speak to the operator, stating the nature of your emergency.
        Operators are becoming apathetic to the emergency intercom calls because 99.9% of the time people are pushing that red button on the bottom of the spring-loaded seat thinking it’s the seat release. Operators generally just cancel the calls, because they’ve answered so many calls that have turned out to be mistakes.

      3. The button on the seat is so that a person in a wheelchair could easily reach it.

        They should put a tiny sticker with a warning mark (a triangle with an exclamation mark inside) on it. That should say don’t push this button unless you have to. And red is too similar to the door button next to it.

      4. I’ve already made that suggestion to the Rail Safety Department. I saw the officer take notes on my comment, and he agreed it was a good idea. Whether it’s been given due consideration or not, well, I haven’t seen any action being taken.
        On the other hand, how many people take the time to read signs on the buses or the trains? I drove a Metro bus for almost 15 years, and people still asked me if it’s ‘pay as you enter’, or ‘pay as you leave’, even though there’s a sign on the front of the farebox that tells you.

  4. A lot of transit agencies have communications issues. Some have resorted to using Twitter where I live. Every little bit helps I guess.

      1. I wonder if there is a revenue stream opportunity for Sound Transit to lease cell phone rights in the DSTT and the beacon hill tunnel sections. That would solve the lack of twitter ability while waiting for a train or bus.

        Maybe the extra $ could speed up U-Link by a few weeks?!?

  5. Communications response was unacceptable. I’m not a transportation planner, but isn’t an effective communications strategy during service disruptions something you sort out before opening day—and certainly after a couple of other minor disruptions? The disruption itself doesn’t bother me at all, so long as it’s not the beginning of a pattern. But they need to figure out this communications thing soon.

  6. At least 67 employees at Sound transit make over $100,000 per year. With all that brain power, then can’t figure out a way to get someone to regularly update the rider alerts on their website, or train Link operators to answer intercom buzzers, or train control center coordinators to make announcements to all Link riders?

    1. Train control center coordinators, in the event of a “situation” have enough to deal with in getting the proper response moving. This is the same for Metro’s coordinators.

      With Metro facing a $50+m hole in their budget where do you think they are going to come up with the additional money to focus on getting last minute information out when their resources are likely having to deal in real time with that information; i.e. bus involved in collision; train/car accident? I’m sorry, they need to focus on ensuring that all passengers and operators are safe and any and all medical/police response are notified. Better than half the time Metro operators aren’t aware of what a problem is. When Metro does provide information people don’t read it or listen to it.

      Let’s take a really simple example. I was riding a route 8 last night from Lower Queen Anne to Capitol Hill. The destination sign on the bus said 8 Capitol Hill…not 8 Rainier Beach. At the bus stop on John St at 15 Ave E the operator asked the few remaining passengers what their destination was. All but one of us responded Capitol Hill, the stop behind Group Health. The remaining passenger was too busy on his cell phone. The operator continued to the next and last stop. When the operator turned off of E Thomas St onto 16 Ave E, this passenger had a major fit demanding to know where the bus was going. Not only was the bus signed correctly, the operator went an extra step to make sure that anyone going beyond Capitol Hill would be able to exit his bus at John/15 Ave E for the next 8 heading for Rainier Beach and all points in between. Three of us waited to make sure that the operator wasn’t left alone with this guy out of fear for the operators safety.

      How many times is traffic at an absolute stand still and a passenger asks a bus operator what the problem is? The usual response is…we’re stuck in traffic. Operators, train or bus, shouldn’t be asked to call the coordinator to find out what the problem is. How is this going to help? Most of the time it isn’t going to do anything but tie up a resource unnecessarily.

      Let’s go down and look at Patrick Nance’s comments of 11/17/09 at 20:27:19….”we would be waiting at the station for a little while. That little while ended up being about 25 minutes. ” While this is a simple comment from the train operator he or she has absolutely no idea how long that little while is. If he or she had provided a specific wait time, say 15 minutes, heaven forbid if that train isn’t moving in the stated amount of time.

      Then let’s look at Tim also from 11/17/09 at 21:08:43 responding to Gary’s comment…wherein Gary hit the EMERGENCY communication buttom to find out what the delay was. I have to side with Tim and am thankful that the train operator didn’t respond.

      Folks it isn’t a perfect system and it will never be a perfect system, nor will everything change immediately, you can always drive yourself or call a taxi and put your safety in the taxi drivers hands.

      1. Mark,

        I agree with much of what you say – and I don’t. As an operator, I actually *want* to keep my passengers informed of major delays. Your examples of people not taking responsibility for knowing where they’re going, reading timetables, listening to announcements etc. is spot-on. On the other hand, there are times when drivers shouldn’t be kept in the dark for bigger events so that they can pass the information on to their passengers (those who will listen, anyway).

        Case in point: a few weeks ago, I was driving the #10 in the afternoon. A passenger got on the bus at 9th and Pine and asked me what was going on in the tunnel. As I hadn’t heard anything over my radio, I said I didn’t know. The passenger who got on said that nothing was moving down there – and hadn’t been for the last 20 minutes. I called the coordinator for information. She said “nothing is going on in the tunnel”.

        As I continued on my route – I saw lots of passengers standing at stops on the street level near tunnel entrances at 5th and again at the International District Station. Come to find out later (when I got off my bus and was able to turn my phone on since we’re banned from having our phones on while in operation – got the STB tweets once I fired up my cell) that not only was something going on in the tunnel, there was a major breakdown that brought all tunnel based train and bus traffic to a hault for nearly an hour. This was going on at the time I called the coordinator and she said “nothing is going on in the tunnel”.

        Now it would have been very helpful information for me, particularly as I told my passengers who were headed for tranfers in the tunnel that I had been told that the tunnel was doing fine, rather than directing them to surface routes or letting them know how to get to Stadium Station to connect with Link. Instead – I send them down the tunnel to a frustrating wait – making ME look like an idiot too.

        Communication is a major problem at ST/Metro, and I’d love to see a task force specifically to address the issue – with a solution that involves administrators, technology, coordinators, and drivers all.

      2. Given that every train and every station have a PA system and a scrolling information display I find it hard to believe Link operations can’t make an announcement in every in-service train and station as well as put a message up on the information display. Just a simple “track blockage, expect delayed service” would be enough to keep many passengers from being frustrated wondering where their train is or why the damn train is stopping and waiting. I know coordinators have other things to do during an incident, but is this really too much to ask?

        I know I’ve heard coordinators make announcements over the in-bus PA on metro before about service disruptions, why can’t this be done for link where you have the advantage of a PA at every stop as well as information displays?

      3. I know they have this ability in Link Control. When we were training in the tunnel, before it opened, they were demonstrating how much coverage the cameras had – One of the people in Link Control typed in a message to all of us as we parked a bus in front of the platform and walked around the tunnel for a quick tour. I don’t recall the message but it was obvious that they could see us and that the message had been entered into the system in real-time.

  7. I would add that the Metro Customer Service folks on the phone actually had a crumb of knowledge this time when I called. In September I called Metro and asked a Link question after being redirected there from Sound Transit. The response: “They [Link operations] don’t really communicate with us.” I asked if there was a different number I could call. I was told there wasn’t. If anyone here comes across a phone number at the Operations and Maintenance facility, go ahead and publish it, please – that’s who I’d call in the future!

      1. What difference does it make where she picked up? It isn’t her responsibility to keep Sound Transit’s customers informed about the efficiency or inefficiency of their train line. ST messed up and did it in a very big way. Oooooo, can’t wait until the real Winter storms kick in in January and February – Power outages, snow, trees coming down, etc…..

  8. Oh the vicissitudes of operating transit. It is so much easier when one’s role is planning and building.

  9. Coincidentally, I, also, came back from a trip and took Link back to Seattle last night.

    I boarded a train (on the south platform) at Tukwila Station around 9:45pm or so and, after a few minutes of waiting, the driver told us that, because of some track work that was being done, we would be delayed for 10 minutes or so and that the bus route 124 would be an alternative option for getting to downtown. A few minutes later, he let us know that the other train (on the north platform) would actually be leaving before he was slated to. We (the passengers) were specifically assured that the train would wait for us and so we all switched platforms. The other train took several minutes to get going but finally did around 10pm.

    Upon arrival to Rainier Beach Station, our new driver told us that we’d be delayed for a few minutes longer. After two or three minutes, we continued on to Othello Station, arriving around 10:20pm.

    At Othello, we were told that, if I remember correctly, only a certain number (3?) of trains were being allowed on the tracks at any given time and, as a result, we would be waiting at the station for a little while. That little while ended up being about 25 minutes. The driver would intermittently come on the loudspeaker to apologize for the delays and to reassure us that we were still going to get to our destinations. To be honest, I was dozing off through much of the Othello delay but I know he came on the loudspeaker at least three or four times.

    While I remember continuing on to Columbia City, I was definitely pretty asleep until the announcement of our Sodo Station arrival woke me up. I had heard (from STB, I think?) that Link was being re-routed around Beacon Hill and so I, unfamiliar with the rail alignment, was eager to see where exactly we’d be taken. Naturally, I slept through it.

    Although the drivers involved never mentioned, to my recollection, a “derailment”, it seemed like both were reasonably communicative, even if the extent of the Othello delay was hedged a bit. For what it’s worth, I learned that the loudspeakers on the trains aren’t particularly “loud” as I definitely had a little trouble hearing what was being said.

    In any case, that was my experience last night. For anybody interested, my train was #120A.

    1. Naturally, I forgot one of the more important details. I arrived at Westlake Station around 11pm, if memory serves. All in all, it took about an hour to get from terminus to terminus last night on my train.

      I suppose that if I had to put myself in the shoes of somebody who doesn’t keep up with STB or necessarily even have the ability to look something up (on my phone, for instance), I would feel like Sound Transit had a pretty clumsy night last night.

    1. How could the passengers know it wasn’t an emergency if the operator hadn’t told them why they stopped? He could at least say, “We’re stopped for an indefinite time; I don’t know why.”

    2. More importantly, how could the operator judge that it wasn’t an emergency if the button had indeed been pressed. We don’t even know whether the operator could hear! Besides, it doesn’t say on the phone what kind of emergency qualifies and what kind doesn’t. A derailment certainly is an emergency of some kind.

      1. A derailment of another train somewhere else on the system doesn’t qualify as an emergency on your train, and is not a valid reason for you to contact the operator via the emergency intercom to ask “what’s going on?”.

      2. That said – there should be room for some agreement that keeping customers informed to the best of our ability should be a paramount focus of basic customer service. There is likely a fair amount of agreement as well that ST and Metro both have some serious issues in that regard. I’m not talking about the unrealistic expectations of some that amount to “why can’t you beam all information directly to my brain when something goes wrong”, but simply letting operators (train or bus) know what’s going on so that they can pass the information on to passengers – and expecting them to do so.

        If the operator isn’t getting good information – or any information – then they should at least be attempting to reassure passengers that they’re trying to get it, and that there’s no immediate danger. Something along the lines of “folks, there appears to be a delay up ahead. I’m hoping it will be brief and we’ll be on our way shortly. I’ll pass on any information I get as soon as I get it. Thanks for your patience.”

        One reason I kind of dread the coming advance of on-board enunciators (the train already has a sultry female one) is that making PA announcements is an opportunity to talk to the passengers – a connection that I value as a driver.

    3. More to the point, how do the passengers know the operator isn’t dead from a heart attack or something? That would be a likely assumption if he hasn’t made an announcement and isn’t responding to the emergency button. The passengers have no idea whether they’ll be held up for another five minutes, an hour, all day, or what. Maybe they have a flight to catch or another transfer to make. It’s like when a plane is stuck on a tarmac and the passengers can’t get out of it.

      In one swoop, Link has fallen to the least-responsive light rail system in the US. Who ever heard of a delay of more than five minutes without an announcement? Half an hour is almost the entire length of the line, and while waiting for an oncoming train on a shared track may be common on Amtrak, it’s not expected on Link. And Amtrak would have made an announcement anyway.

      Hopefully this will be ST/Metro’s snowpocolypse to improve communication. Even if it requires hiring a passenger-communication agent who has time to make announcements, it would be worth it. I have a hard enough time convincing my Rainier Valley railskeptic friends that Link is not an expensive boondoggle that runs almost empty and screwed up their bus schedules. I worry about taking my friend for his first ride and it’ll stop at all the lights or make one of its mysterious stoppages, and he’ll say, “See!”

      Also, SMS and Twitter may be a good supplemental way to disseminate information, but not everybody has a web-capable phone or unlimited text messages. So other modes, such as in-car announcements and radio/TV announcements, are important too.

      1. c’mon Mike, make some sense. The operator stopped the train at a station platform, opened or enabled the doors, then he/she had a heart attack. That’s really the assumption you would make? I’m quite sure that very few operators failed to at least play the canned announcement about a service delay.
        None of my passengers were prisoners of the train while being delayed at the station, as I had the doors enabled for their use at any time.
        Regardless of the circumstances, what does it matter? Mechanical things break down… planes, trains, buses, automobiles. The plight of the person that missed their flight, although regrettable, is not the first person this happened to, and won’t be the last. Wise travel planning and time means taking contingencies into consideration as well. It’s obviously better to arrive at the airport for your flight early than late, and I’m not talking about the bus or train that gets you there 30 minutes before your flight.

    4. Plus, the signs on Link for riders with reduced mobility instruct them to ~ “use the emergency intercom to call the driver if you need extra time to exit the train.” Therefore, even ST envisions using the emergency intercom for routine use.

      1. … for people with reduced or impaired mobility, exactly! Not for other passengers to distract the operator and ask, “what time is it?” “When does the train leave?” “What’s the delay time?” “What’s going on?”.

  10. wading through all this I’m more convinced this is a KC Metro issue more than an ST issue. Of course there’s the financing (oh yeah, some body has to pay, best not be me).

  11. Take heart, there were some communication “difficulties” during the first few weeks of the LRT launch here in Phoenix. However, METRO was jumped on after those complications and after an accident (like the derailment of a train here in Phoenix)communication with passengers and station platforms was great. Busses were used to shuttle passengers about until the system was back “on track!” Sorry for the silly pun. I think as soon as ST has the kinks work out it should be a much smoother experience during the next significant event.

    1. I contacted the control center and asked if KCMetro was running a bus bridge between stations, and their response was “no”. I told them I just wanted to keep passengers informed about all their possible travel alternatives.
      Evidently Sound Transit felt the delays in trains single-tracking it both north and south weren’t significant enough to warrant having bus drivers run the same route via roadways.

  12. Maybe it’s time to get Jesse, ha :P but in all seriousness maybe sound transit needs a little bad publicity to encourage them to change their act. I wasn’t able to find anything on their website even mentioning the incident, let alone acknowledging their poor communication with customers. Where’s the accountability?

  13. Bruce Gray of Sound Transit acknowledged openly, even while the incident was underway, that public notification along the line should have been better.

    http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2010286917_webdereail18m.html

    Regarding the snarky commenter about high salaries — while not directly relevant, I do think that when you’re paid as well as Sound Transit’s folks (or Metro), you go the extra mile for customers when a problem happens, in any organization. The train maintenance crews and Gray spent hours in the rain, but there should have been others out talking to commuters. Metro Transit had a similar lapse in last year’s ice storm, and has come back this year with better emergency information staffing and strategy.

    — Mike Lindblom, Seattle Times

    1. The average rider (not STB reader) expects that of the agencies. Heck, judging from the tone of most of the comments, STB readers expect that of the agencies! Bruce Gray is a great guy and I think most of the ST folks were doing the best they could, but I would have to agree with previous comment that there is a need for a good cross-agency communication task force. Should be able to do a better job with existing resources – it’s clear there are some tools that weren’t deployed here.

  14. For what it’s worth, lack of communication isn’t just a Sound Transit problem. I lived in London for several months and commuted daily via the Tube. The train would frequently just stop – no idea why. Sometimes we were told the issue was “Signal problems” other times the dreaded “leaves on the tracks” – but no notification of how long the wait would be.

    Knowing what I know today, I would have purchased a bike instead of an annual Tube pass.

  15. Its an ongoing problem at Metro and ST. The drivers for the most part do their best. No one is on the bus just to ride the bus. We are all trying to get somewhere… drivers included. The problem is two fold. One is that emergency timelines are difficult to guage (will it take 10 minutes or an hour to fix this…) and then getting the right word out in a manner that works.

    Announcements are made constantly to Metro drivers via headseats (please lift your headset for a message… general to all or route affected) Some dispatchers and drivers handle this well. Others not so much. For us trying to get somewhere, we are recalculating options (do I hop off and try to take alternate route blank, or walk or cab or call or what….)

    Then there is safety. Delay length is unknown… do I fudge and keep the grumbling masses aboard, dry and warm and hope they fix it soon… OR… wish them luck, dump em and wait it out.

    Last years snow the 70 series ended at 65th and 15th.. every driver (I watched 8 of them) all properly said End of the line, hop off and a shuttle will be along to take up to 35th… problem was there was no shuttle. Three hours later we had gotten the elderly rides with cars that had chains… and the rest of us hoofed it.
    never saw that shuttle…

    Better use of that hand set could go far if someone just had the gumption to take charge and make a decision.

    1. I agree. There should be someone tasked to distribute information via existing tools across agencies.

      Metro has (and uses) a central PA function that is able to make PA announcments to all buses from the control center via the system radio. Information regarding system delays major enough in nature to warrant blanket PA announcements are possible. I imagine that sometimes it is difficult during an emergency to have all bus channels available to make regular announcments. The coordinators may also be too busy managing the emergency to make PA calls on a regular basis.

      I am not aware that Link controllers have the ability to directly make PA announcments on Link trains via the radio. They can (and do) request rail operators to make PA announcements – this also can be limited if the Link controllers are busy managing the emergency.

      Link controllers also have the ability to “push” announcments and status sign messages to each Link station including the DSTT. This also can be limited if the controller is busy managing the emergency.

      Each Link station has PA systems usuable by personel at the station (DSTT stations excepted maybe).

      Since Link controllers manage all rail activity outside of the DSTT and both rail and bus activity in the DSTT, Any emergency quickly increases the controllers workload making it likely that making announcments (or requesting operators to make them) get missed due to other tasks. Any abnormal movement along the Link mainline requires communication and authorization from the Link Controller – highest priority below the emergency.

      Perhaps there needs to be someone else in the room who is tasked with getting the information out via all methods during an emergency.

      1. After seeing “Pelham 123,” I think they need someone like Denzel Washington down there. But since one commenter already mentioned ST employees’ high salaries, I don’t think hiring Denzel would help that situation – maybe we could include him in ST3? If you saw the movie, you know the guy has a talent for managing transit emergencies.

  16. Now really, what do you all expect with Metro operating Link?

    It would be easy to go on endlessly about the lack of presence of Metro personnel on the street during “events” to provide explanations and instructions to customers. But I will not. Metro’s organization is generally so less-than-half-assed in its communications to customers that it is really scary to think that they occasionally win awards for quality – how awful must other systems be for Metro compare favorably??

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