With Airport Link now two weeks old and the 194 on its deathbed, I think it’s worth talking about what transit options are good for people who do fly late at night. Yesterday an author on the Slog had a bad experience with Link on a Sunday night trip, but she didn’t have to, and I’d like to address the concerns she raised.
On Sundays, Link runs 18 hour service instead of 20 hour service – it starts an hour later and ends an hour earlier. When the Slogger made comparisons to other cities, she compared their weekday service to Link’s Sunday service. In addition, as we’ve noted before, the last northbound train on any night doesn’t go all the way to the end of the line. From the airport, it goes to Mount Baker, then goes out of service. This is typical of any system – as Linda Robson mentions in her response to the Slogger, Tokyo, Paris and London all take trains out of service in the middle of lines.
No matter what, a train has to end up at base at the end of the night, for cleaning and maintenance. A transit agency has a choice – they can end the train at the end of the line and bring it back empty, or they can go ahead and carry passengers for the partial return trip just in case someone needs to use it. Sound Transit does the more friendly thing – carrying passengers. This means that at certain points during the day, an unscheduled “extra” train runs along part of the line, and late at night, the last trip for each light rail vehicle will end near the maintenance base.
Tonight’s extra service is those same trains, normally going out of service, essentially doing one more southbound trip than they usually do.
But enough about Link – you can get home from the airport on transit until long after the last airplanes come in. The 194 has always stopped running very early – around 9pm. Before Link opened, airport travelers would take the 174 after that, and it has trips even at 1:30 and 2:30 am (and as late as 3:30 from downtown to the airport). Those trips are now split in two – but the service isn’t going anywhere!
So today, not only do you get later downtown service with Link than the 194 offered, you still get the same late-night service the 174 has always provided. The only confusion is that route 124 provides service from downtown to Link Tukwila to meet 174 buses stopping at the airport. Late at night, one bus becomes the other, so you don’t have to worry about it. Starting when the 194 is canceled in February, the buses will stop at the SeaTac/Airport Link station instead of in the terminal now as well, so you’ll always go to the same place to get transit, train or bus.
There’s one more piece here. Let’s say an airport traveler on a Sunday night accidentally takes the last Link train and gets dropped off at Mount Baker. There’s a 7 a few minutes later to get them the rest of the way downtown. They’re never stranded (although this is a good argument for visitor passes so they don’t have to pay twice).
There are, of course, ways to make this better. Signage at Mount Baker could direct users to the transit center for late-night service. The Link readerboards (when they’re operating) would be a great way to say “7 downtown, across the street, 8 minutes”. The same should happen at Airport Station, perhaps with an announcement directing passengers to the bus after Link goes out of service. And in the future, we should find a way to fund extra trains at night, much like Phoenix has – but take note, we’re not going to get 24 hour service. The systems that do that (NYC and a couple of lines in Chicago) all have more than two tracks, so they can do maintenance while operating on a reduced schedule.
As it stands, we’re a city of 600,000 with airport service comparable to cities with 6,000,000. We can make improvements, but remember that our system is brand new – it’s only going to get better.