Apparently the two-minute warning is the best we’re going to get without infusion of money technology. Via ST spokesman Bruce Gray:

By contract [with GE Transportation Systems] we only provides a 2-minute warning and a train arriving message. We do not have plans for continuous count down arrival clock.

The rest of the explanation below the jump.

… many properties have tried and some have struggled with delivering accurate feedback of the arrival time. These systems require that the vehicle’s position and speed be known so that updates to the arrival clock can be made in real-time. In order to get the position and speed of the vehicle we would need either GPS or vehicle telemetry sent back in real-time. Since we operate in tunnels in both Downtown and Beacon Hill this would make GPS unusable until the trains exit the tunnels and reacquire the satellites. As for sending the data back we do not have a data radio on board the vehicles. We are operating on the KCRS [King County Radio System] trunk radio system which provides us with voice only radio. We do not have an easy way to get the telemetry data back from the vehicles to recalculate the arrival time and make the appropriate updates. Yes many other technical solutions exist but they all come at a cost that was not in the original scope or budget.

We picked an approach that triggers our message based on track circuits, train schedules, and departure times from previous stations with an adaptive algorithm that provides the 2 minute warning and train arriving message. We want to give our patrons the most accurate information that we can.

Decent digital radios (or more sensors) would solve a lot of transit problems.  They would provide better real-time arrival information for both buses and trains.  In principle they could also fix some signaling problems associated with the current system.  Sounds like a good project for an enterprising UW grad student!

140 Replies to “Next Train Announcements as Good as They’re Going to Get”

  1. Can I just say, this is incredibly stupid. I respect Bruce, but it’s not a brain science. There simply has to be an alternative. In this day and age, it can’t really be that expensive contrary to how he’s making it sound. 1000s of systems throughout the world use these sort of real-time notification systems on railways, subways, light railways, and bus stops. If you don’t have one in Europe you’re not serious about transport. But Seattle can’t get this right? Give me a break. Even here in Ireland they seem to get it right and this country is incredibly f***ed.

    Okay, rant aside, we really need to get REAL real-time electronic signs up at all Link stations, the railway stations, and at key bus stops throughout the City of Seattle and transit centres.

    1. I agree, and I’m wondering just how much money was spent on those electronic signs that so far do nothing a couple of static signs couldn’t have done.

      1. I completely agree and I still can’t believe this wasn’t included in the original planning and execution of our light rail system.

      2. Considering Metro spend $1,100 on each of those little flashing lights that they affixed to certain bus stop posts around the county, I would imagine ST spent many tens of thousands of dollars on each electronic sign.

      3. I suspect Sam means the stop request lights that are posted at some stops – I’ve seen them primarily on Aurora between the Battery Street Tunnel and the Aurora Bridge. I assume they were put in place to make it easier for drivers to know when there was a passenger wanting a stop, since the average speeds on Aurora can get relatively high outside of rush hour traffic, and if no one wants the stop the driver can maintain a higher speed. At least that’s what I think :)

      4. The strobes are common on the eastside as well. Along 148th for example if someone is sitting in the shelter it would be difficult for a driver to recognize someone is waiting for the bus. I was thinking the other day that it would be cool if this request for stop was somehow communicated (perhaps wirelessly) to a system that could then do route prioritization for circulator buses or perhaps some of the very sparsely used off peak suburban/rural routes (sort of a DART lite approach). The information could also be fed into a learning algorithm to optimize schedules based on demand.

      5. There’s one on Sand Point Way and 65th too, although I don’t see why it’s needed.

        There’s also the circle of LED lights that have appeared in a few shelters.
        These appear to be just for light, although I don’t see why they position them in front of the shelter roof pointing in, rather than in the middle of the ceiling or the back where they’d be more effective as reading lights.

    2. I think you’re misunderstanding what Bruce said; it’s not that the technology is difficult or expensive, it’s that it isn’t in place already and if SoundTransit or Metro took on the project they would need to do a full investigation of available technologies. I think Martin’s right about this being a great project for a grad student… they could certainly get something going fast and if there were problems SoundTransit could just pull the plug since it was just a student project.

      Actually maybe this 16 year old could do it for us:

      1. He said:

        Which means it’s not part of the budget. But, you’re right, if someone can come along and get this done for them, that would be sweet. I wonder if they’d be open to that? Nevertheless, I still think they should make an overall effort to expand reader boards across the transit system outside of Link. I doubt they’re evening thinking on that level yet, but I could be wrong.

      2. Ooops, sorry, never used the blockquote before. I meant to quote: “Yes many other technical solutions exist but they all come at a cost that was not in the original scope or budget.” Guess I’ll stick to normal quotes…

      1. How about ‘arrival time system’, ‘trip time notification’, ‘wait time system’? Let’s call it what is it.

    1. Because it provides the rider with a sense of knowing when the vehicle will be there, a sort of assurance that enables them to relax for the time being and do other things with their time at the stop. In a complex system with multiple vehicles going to different destinations it provides them with the knowledge with which one will be next. This helps with the chaos on platforms or on footpaths.

      1. Not to mention it lets you know if you have to rush to the platform or have time to say reload your ORCA card at a TVM. At longer headways it lets you know if you have enough time to go grab a coffee.

      2. It’s only of benefit to those people who are on the platform at the time the announcement plays. Once it’s played, it disappears. People approaching the TVMs have no way of knowing if they have time to reload their ORCA or not — only if they are present the moment the announcement plays.

        Yes, I’m disappointed too in these limitations.

      3. which is why they should have a clock, like they do for the SLUT.

        It’s not rocket surgery. There must be a signal in the system somewhere that the driver sends to the base to tell them when he leaves a given station. Just use that, plus the average travel time to the next station, to update the signs.

        At the very least, for the Seatac station, they need a “next train departing” arrow, and a countdown for departure time. That should be pretty easy. You don’t need GPS to tell you when the driver plans to leave. He could update it just before he goes down for his break. When i got to the platform at Seatac, there were two trains waiting. I quickly rushed to get in one, lest i be left there. 2 minutes later the driver came up the stairs and signaled to us in the wrong train that the other train was the one that was leaving next. Had the driver been already in the train and preparing to leave, I would have had little indication of which train I needed to rush to, nor would I have known i needed to rush.

        Having a countdown clock on the lower level of that station would be helpful for those coming down the walkway.

        I find it hard to believe that ST had the billions it takes to build the thing, but can’t spare $15k for an automated, semi-accurate countdown clock. Do we need to have a referendum on that?

      4. Transit Guy:

        When people get to the platform and have a good experience, they are more likely to ride again. That’s why basically every rail system implements this – it’s an incredibly cost effective way of getting ridership.

      5. I’m currently living in London, and the arrival information here for both buses and the underground is great. It isn’t a one-time message, but continuously displayed. The first line is fixed, and always shows the next train/bus, destination, and time until arrival. The second and third lines show the next several transit vehicles, scrolling vertically as necessary to show up to the next 15 minutes worth (which here could be as many at 5 or 6 trains, as they maintain 2-3 minute headways most of the day).
        When one train is delayed, I can see that immediately, and decide to take a different route, or walk to a different station

        Even with the very tight headways, of the system here, it’s still good to have accurate arrival information so that everyone is informed. An informed rider tends to be a satisfied one.

      6. Would be sweet if some signs at the station entrances, well before the platform, could show this info. I’m sure there are instances where someone arriving at a station would have a bus alternative and can make the decision of which method to use before being on the platform. I remember taking muni in SF and often arriving on the platform only to find my train won’t arrive for well over 20 minutes. I could do a lot of walking in that time.

      7. Exactly Pete.

        Additionally, if you want to head toward Heathrow 5 on Picadilly you wouldn’t want to take the Heathrow 1-4 or Uxbridge branches, which is why sometimes the headway isn’t *actually* 2-3 minutes, but 3 trains later in reality. The same could be said about the buses that share common corridors. Obviously Link doesn’t yet have the issue, but it will and I think Pete sums up the Transport for London model very well. Very handy.

      8. I think – from experience, and I might be wrong – that the streetcar arrival signs are just lighted boards that show the next train based on the schedule. I’ve been burned and missed a streetcar because of these.

      9. Chris,

        Though without any retail within Link stations, where would you get that cup of coffee anyway?

        To me Link is like going to a 5-star restaurant where everything is perfect until dinner is served on paper plates and in Dixie cups. The fundamentals are solid but they neglect he low-hanging fruit that could radically improve the front-end user experience.

        A simple rider request: why can’t we have in-station newsstands, coffee shops, buskers-by-permit-and-audition, next train arrival boards, more platform-level ORCA readers, no bell ringing, timely and ubiquitous information in the event of delays, and staff on hand to answer questions?

      10. “Though without any retail within Link stations, where would you get that cup of coffee anyway?”

        Beacon Hill Station is directly across the street from a grocery store, and just a few feet away from a (soon to open) espresso shop, and from a little store that sells fresh-made tortillas. :) If we had a sign at the elevators that always told us when the next train would be, it would be easy to grab a coffee before the train sometimes.

        But I agree that I’d like to see more vendors near the stations, though I’m hoping some of that will be coming soon.

      11. Could you please tell me the name of the little shop that sells fresh-made tortillas? (and if you know, whether they are a morning, afternoon, or all-day delicacy?) I’m there!

      12. La Bendicion. They have fresh tortillas, 35 for $2, and they have tamales that are supposed to be great (I haven’t had the tamales). I don’t know if there’s a specific time of day to get these things, though. Anyway, it’s just a couple of doors north of the station on Beacon Ave.

      13. I thought Link was supposed to be so reliable and so frequent that one could relax at the platform without a sign telling us the train will be along shortly. And besides, at many platforms, when the train is two minutes away, you can see the train coming. The signs are a waste of money.

      14. Stop stating your personal beliefs as fact. Research backs up that having an immediate cue about when the next train is coming the moment you walk onto the platform makes people more comfortable with transit and more likely to ride.

      15. I’m not trying to be intentionally obtuse here – but WHY does having up to the second information about the next arrival time (particulary when the goal is for trains to run every 7 minutes anyway) make a difference to anyone? I’m not questioning your data as I’m certain that folks surveyed would have reported just that. But as a cultural matter – why is that so important? What difference does a few minutes make? If folks miss one train – can’t they just catch the next?

        I understand that there are people who want this; that some see its absence as inferior to European systems they’ve seen, etc. But given the very real and very significant financial outlay to make this kind of thing happen – shouldn’t there be an examination of why it’s important other than “folks seem to like it”?

        Jeepers guys – we just got the trains, and they’re awesome. Are we so determined to find fault that we’re not only critical, disappointed etc. but really visibly angry that there’s no digital display telling us to the second when the next train is due so that I can make a last minute mad dash to the latte cart to get a drink that isn’t allowed on the train anyway?

        Is this really a priority worth investing millions of dollars more in?

      16. As someone who has ridden on systems that have realtime arrival info and rides daily on ours that doesn’t the difference in the experience is pretty huge. It really is SO nice to have that information IMO. For a multi-billion dollar system, designed from the ground up to have not spent the 30-40 million (total guess) on something that really improves the quality of service just seems silly.

      17. “WHY does having up to the second information about the next arrival time (particulary when the goal is for trains to run every 7 minutes anyway) make a difference to anyone?”

        Because sometimes the train is delayed and you’d like to know when it will actually arrive.

        Because Link has not promised 7-minute headways full time. North Link will be more frequent, but I don’t think south Link has promised more than the current schedule, which is every 10 minutes off-peak and every 15 minutes after 10pm. And it’s currently every 20-30 minutes on maintenance nights.

        Because it makes passengers feel better to see how many minutes they have to wait. Even staring at the number makes people less bored and irritated than just sitting there. It’s a basic aspect of usability, so it should be a high priority. (But not higher than extending the line.)

      18. So – serious now – ST should spend millions of dollars so that some people can have a “number to stare at” so they’ll “feel better”?

        How many people is this really an issue for?

      19. Looks like Toronto recently went through the same thing. It cost them $5000 per station. But perhaps they already had the infrastructure, who knows.

        And Jeff, you’re fine with ordering a pizza and then hanging up without them telling you when they will deliver? They’ll get it there eventually. Or how about sitting on a delayed plane? We’ll take off eventually.

        It’s not about the time itself, but knowing the time. If you don’t have that information you feel out of control of the situation. I’m sure there’s been some psychological research done on this topic somewhere.

      20. Good line from that article:

        This system uses the block signal system for subways and GPS for buses and streetcars.

      21. NSBill,

        [b]you’re fine with ordering a pizza and then hanging up without them telling you when they will deliver?[/b]

        I don’t know about you – but the last time I ordered pizza they said it would be “about a half an hour”. I didn’t get the exact time to expect my pizza to arrive, nor did I receive continuuous updates until the guy in the red ballcap showed up at my door.

        Still looking for some sort of benefit besides “it will make some people feel better”. Without the kind of tax structure that is seen in Europe on these systems you folks are making comparisons to – I doubt you’ll see a whole lot invested in “feel better” frills.

      22. “…the last time I ordered pizza they said it would be “about a half an hour”. I didn’t get the exact time to expect my pizza to arrive, nor did I receive continuuous updates until the guy in the red ballcap showed up at my door.”

        If you order from Domino’s on their website (not that it’s the best pizza, but…) you actually do get this. They tell you how long you can expect to wait, and then you can follow the pizza through the whole process in the web tracker. “Brian started making your pizza at 6:24 pm.” “Your pizza went into the oven at 6:26 pm.” “Mike left the store with your pizza at 6:35 pm.” It seems to be accurate, too.

        And you know what? It’s really nice. As well as fun. So why do you think Domino’s went to the trouble of putting in a tracker if it’s not necessary? Maybe because they realized that making it easier for the customer to know how long things are taking and whether their pizza will show up on time enhances the customer experience and increases sales.

      23. Those Toronto displays look exactly like what Montreal has, except Montreal only has them at a few major transfer points. Seems to me that if you could sell advertising with them, plus the benefit of news, it could help fund something more robust.

      24. lilnemo: Papa Johns does the same thing IIRC. Also UPS/FedEx have similar systems.

        Jeff: It is basic human psychology. Look up ‘Uncertaintity Aversion.’ Human beings avoid uncertaintity to the greatest extent possible.

    2. In a survey of 488 OneBusaway users, access to real-time information:

      Increased overall satisfaction with public transit
      Reduced the amount of time spent waiting at stops
      Increased the number of public transit trips taken on a weekly basis
      Increased perceptions of safety (think waiting at a sketchy stop late at night)
      Increased the amount people walked in a given week

      Plus, people seem to like it.

      1. Can I just say, ‘I love OneBusAway!’. Thank you, Brian. Now we just need to get it at transit centers and major bus stops.

      2. It’s fairly common to be on University Way waiting for a 7*X, and OneBus will say “NOW” for the arrival time. The bus is actually being held up around ten minutes or so, so the arrival time is all but useless.

        So the technology is not perfect, but it’s substantially more helpful than simply a 2-minute notification (and last I checked, OneBus works with Link now… I’m assuming it just takes data from the official schedules, though).

    3. To begin with real time arrival information would demonstrate that ST is on par with other rail systems in the world. Puntuality is a standard performance measure of train, bus and air travel.

      The decision making behind the spokesman’s statement appears to be “we tried, and can’t do it with the $ we set aside”. It isn’t so much the end result of settling with just a 2 minute notice, but the unwillingness/inability to implement this modest courtesy is a big f.u. to transit riders.

  2. Ummm… I think that people would agree that the information provided by a service like OneBusAway regarding when the next train will be there would be adequate. Why can’t we at least get that?

    1. Well, as someone who uses OneBusAway on an iPhone, it’s not that helpful when in a tunnel, because I can’t get any phone signal there. And tunnels are where I most often catch Link. :/

      1. We need cell phone access in the tunnels. Esp. as U-Link and part of North Link will be underground. I asked ST about this but haven’t heard anything. Cell carriers will pay a transit agency significantly for exclusive access. I got Verizon in large part because it works in WMATA stations and tunnels.

      2. As I understand there are some concerns about mobile phone relays interfering with the system used for relaying transit and public safety radios in the tunnels.

        Furthermore given some people’s very poor cell phone etiquette it is good to have some enforced quiet zones when riding transit.

      3. I don’t think the phone etiquette issue is worth keeping everyone from getting a cell phone signal, though. Some people leave food and garbage in the trains, too, but that doesn’t mean we should make it impossible for people to carry a bag of groceries on the train just because some people are jerks.

      4. Well if ST/Metro put up displays showing the OneBusAway information it wouldn’t really matter if there was a cell phone signal or not since the displays would presumably be hardwired.

      5. But I think the point made by the parent post was that Sound Transit could simply display data from OneBusAway on their readerboards that spend the majority of their time simply saying “Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel.” (or whichever station it is at).

  3. Was this something that was expected and planned from the beginning, or was this problem discovered during testing? And do the other systems with tunnels and realtime like DC Metro and BART use a technology other than GPS?

  4. What the heck? I don’t think their arrival information needs to be 100% accurate. Something as good as what onebusaway will give you is just fine. The “two minute” garbage is unacceptable compared to what is availible elsewhere including on the SLUT.

    Normally I don’t find much to really blast Sound Transit about, but this is just stupid. Considering all of the rail systems with real time arrival, I doubt every single one of them is using GPS or telemetry radios.

    Somebody really fucked up when they wrote the specs for this. The fuckup was compounded at every stage the specs were approved and by everyone who didn’t raise a red flag and say “hey wait a minute, systems with ancient radio and signal systems manage to give real time arrival info”. For that matter how come the link trains weren’t equipped with something similar to the AVS system Metro has in its buses?

    1. Couldn’t agree more, it’s hard for me to understand how this technology would not be included and seamlessly implemented in a brand spanking new 2.4 billion dollar system. Completely Ridiculous.

      The Copenhagen S-Train operates in tunnels and out in the open and has wonderfully accurate realtime arrival information. Also it’s first line opened in 1934.

      I ride Link from Tukwila at least bi-weekly and the worst part about the 2 minute arrival, aside from not being very useful in principle is also not very accurate. I watch the clock in the station and from the announcement the train will arrive anywhere in between 2 and 5 minutes later.

    2. What you said. This is ridiculous and I don’t buy for a second that it can’t be done correctly. The two-minute warning is better than nothing, but only barely.

  5. The only system I know of not using decent arrival messaging for their trains is the 120ish year old “el” Trains. The “el” has just a one minute arrival warning and a schedule that my iphone app gets, but is most of the time fairly inaccurate. And even they plan to have it in the next couple years, while being FLAT BROKE (to the tune of hundreds of millions or perhaps a billion, not sure, see different numbers every time…)

  6. I agree this is pretty disappointing. I will do my best to get whatever real-time arrival data is available (such as it is) into OneBusAway, but it helps if the community let’s the transit agencies know that this is a priority for them.

    Link is a little weird in that it is nominally a Sound Transit service, but day to day operations are handled by King County Metro. Thus, there is some question about who is actually responsible for providing this data. If any of you were at the Transit Developer Workshop held by King County Metro last fall, you’ll probably recall the game of hot potato as reps from ST and KCM argued about who might ultimately provide this data.

    In either case, let the agencies know that getting better real-time arrival info at the signs and public real-time arrival info for services like OneBusAway is a priority for you. Send emails to:

    Or even start emailing GM’s directly if you are feeling bold.

  7. How is ST going to ensure safe operation of trains through a mostly dark subway system, when 2.5 minute headways are needed. Knowing where all the trains are, at any given moment is pretty basic (Trains 101). Moving blocks have to give feedback to a computer somewhere!

    1. Agreed, that’s my argument too. They obviously have block occupancy detection equipment, that is more than likely feeding data back to LCC. Once you know what block a train is in, given the distance to the next station and speed restrictions in all blocks between the current block and the station it would be trivial to calculate when the next train is arriving. If a train gets delayed the estimated time can tick up until it hits the next block and a new estimate can be generated. Sure the system wouldn’t be 100% accurate, but better than this 2 minute nonsense.
      I still don’t even get the POINT of a 2 minute warning; it doesn’t help when you show up at a station and want to know if the next train is in 15 minutes or 3. At best it’s a “gather your things and prepare to board” warning. Besides, at most stations the 2 minute warning goes off after you CAN ALREADY SEE the vehicle; way to go ST, you duplicated the functionality of my eyes, thanks!

    2. This is unrelated! There is no safety issue!

      The signal system knows where the trains are. Connecting that to the arrival signs is the part that’s missing.

      1. Right, but the claim being made by ST is that they would need GPS, radios, etc to know this information. If that were true, it would be a safety issue, but it’s obviously not true, so ST’s argument is bogus.

  8. This sounds like a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good. We get nothing useful because they’re fixated on perfect accuracy.

    When I use OneBusAway I do so to get a *sense* of things, i.e. are the buses running on time or late. Granted there is only one train route and trains are expected every 7 or 10 minutes, but still, they should have an *idea* of when a train is expected and be able to make an *educated guess* as to when it is going to arrive. I think that people would find that beneficial, and that they should strive to provide at least that much.

    1. they should have an *idea* of when a train is expected and be able to make an *educated guess* as to when it is going to arrive.

      They, and you, can make an educated guess as to when the next train is going to arrive. Check the schedule. No awesome technology required.

      If the trains can’t keep the schedule, spend the money fixing that, not on screens that tell me that I need to keep waiting.

      1. Delays will be the exception, not the rule, so checking a schedule or relying on knowledge that the next train should arrive within some 10 minute period isn’t going to be useful when there are delays.

        People want to know when the next train will arrive because they may have just missed the last one (and perhaps don’t know it), or because there may be a delay and they want to be informed about it, or for the simple reason that there WILL be a next train.

        Delays are a fact of life with any transit system, not because they are bad, but because nothing can be so perfect, or the costs to create such a perfect system would be huge. So that’s the reality and there is no amount of money that can fix that problem. So notification systems are a logical thing to have in place. Saying, “If the trains can’t keep the schedule, spend the money fixing that, not on screens that tell me that I need to keep waiting.” ignores that reality.

      2. “Check the schedule. No awesome technology required.”

        What? Seriously, the basis of the system was that schedules aren’t necessary because the train runs relatively often. For example, I don’t know exactly what scheduled time my train to work runs. I just know that if I get to the station at a particular time, a train will show up within a few minutes and I will get to work on time, whether I wait 1 minute or 10 minutes for the train. I have no clue what the schedule says, and I doubt that 1 in 100 riders does either. And, based on the wait times I’ve had for trains, I’m not certain that they generally keep that tightly to a schedule anyway. My wait time always varies somewhat even when I get to the station at the same time.

  9. What a joke. In general, I’ve been very disappointed with the way light rail has been implemented in Seattle. This is yet another symptom of a larger problem that can only be classified as ‘amateur hour’.

    Arriving train information is standard all over the world. Even for bus systems and streetcar systems, it is common to have next train arrival information. ST went through the exercise of installing expensive display boards, and now we’re being told they cannot be used for their intended purpose.

    This is just another implementation blunder. Another is the unreliability of the system, due to signaling issues along MLK, sharing the tunnel with buses, and also a line that seems much slower than it could be. Then, you add in the disjointed fare structure and the half-assed attempt by Metro to coordinate with buses, and it seems like there are a lot of missed opportunities.

    I am a rabid light rail supporter and I think light rail can be successful in Seattle. It’s just sad and disappointing to see such a half-hearted, amateurish approach to implementing this system. There are a lot of small and relatively quick fixes that could be made, but there doesn’t seem to be momentum to change. I really hope ST and Metro can get their act together – problems now create credibility issues that may come back to bite in future elections.

    1. Amateur Hour is a phrase I keep coming back to when describing transit in Seattle. It’s really pathetic… top to bottom.

  10. Really? Some of you people must just be way to important to wait 3.25 minutes on average for the train. Headways of 7.5 minutes during peak is really good. I like just showing up, and hopping on the next train. Even if I know when the 59x bus is going to arrive, I have to get their 10 minutes early to make sure that I’ll get a seat. Personally, I can wait a few minutes for light rail without making a federal case out of it.

    1. “Even if I know when the 59x bus is going to arrive, I have to get their 10 minutes early to make sure that I’ll get a seat.”

      So in order to get there 10 minutes early you admit you need to know when the next bus is going to arrive.

      Listen, it is simple: a system that can only tell you that a train will be there in 2 minutes is useless, plain and simple. Might as well just announce that trains are pulling into a station then, like they used to in olden times.

      However, a system that provides a relatively accurate estimate of how long it is likely to be for the next train to arrive is useful in many ways. Even if the only information points ST could use were the station stops themselves I would think that would provide enough data to extrapolate estimated arrival times at subsequent stations. There are many ways to skin this cat – ST just need to stop over engineering the problem and pick one.

      1. You already know the train will be there in 7.5 minutes or sooner. You guys are trying to make a big deal out of saving yourselves only a few minutes. That’s all I’m saying. And as a taxpayer and a transit user and supporter, if I have to wait (or you have to wait) a few minutes but I save a little cash, I’m ok with that.

      2. You’re entirely neglecting the issues here. ST2 will add 2 lines to the central part of the system meaning that A) people need to know which trains are coming next and B) how long the wait is going to be. I don’t know if you’ve been to London or something like it, but even as tourist that has visited numerous times I’m not sure what the headways are. People whether they live here or visiting may not know the daily headways for the service or rarely use the services. It’s extremely useful and I think if you look at OneBusAway’s survey results, this might help paint a picture that we need it.

      3. Look. Nobody is going to effectively teach you how to be a transportation engineer in a comment thread, and your personal “feelings” about how things “should” be have basically no bearing on reality.

        The fact is, having confirmation of an impending train arrival makes people more comfortable using transit. That’s why almost all systems have this – it improves ridership at low cost.

        Stop trying to turn people into “whiners” because we want to make the system good.

      4. To all the folks talking about Link’s headways and schedule, may I say that they’re of little use. I daresay they’re of even less use than Metro’s notoriously unreliable bus schedules & headways. If a bus breaks down or an accident blocks its route, the buses behind it can usually go around it or be rerouted, so even if that first bus never shows, you can be reasonably confident that one will show up before two headways have expired. With Link, however, with the notorious lack of communication to the public, the second a train is late I immediately start worrying because I have no way of knowing if it’s a delay of 5 minutes or 50 minutes.

        I don’t own a car or even know how to drive, but it’s things like this which make me loathe public transportation and make me very sympathetic to those who stay in their cars. When you’re driving, walking, or biking you have options and you can continually figure out your ETA if traffic, accidents, street closures, etc, pop up. When you’re on transit, it’s all out of your hands. Real-time arrival info gives some of that sense of control back. Knowing that bus X is going to be 15 minutes late, you can choose to take bus Y instead, or at least let people know that you’re going to be however many minutes late.

        The handful of times I’ve ridden Link I’ve felt like I had absolutely no control over my situation. No idea when the train’s coming, no cell reception to receive tweets or call someone to check the web for me, no convenient alternative routes to catch. Link was supposed to be so much less stress than the bus, and yet it’s become in my book something to be avoided if possible.

      5. “No idea when the train’s coming, no cell reception to receive tweets or call someone to check the web for me”

        I’m not unsatisfied with Link as you are — but I agree that the lack of cell reception in the tunnels is really, really frustrating sometimes. Sure, it means I don’t have to listen to people’s stupid cell conversations, but it also means I don’t have a way to check on system delays and such. (And ST really needs to make it a priority to ANNOUNCE them and display them on the readerboards!)

    2. The thing is, it’s not only 3.25 minutes. The trains can’t keep schedules because the signal coordination along MLK is not working as well as planned. Further, the whole buses+trains concept in the tunnel adds delays too. On top of that, the occasional driver switch-outs in SODO.

      We were sold a system based on reliability and predictability. Unfortunately both of these features are somewhat lacking as currently implemented.

      1. First the average wait might only be 3.5 minutes, but it is nice to know if you just missed a train and have another 6.5 minutes before the next one or if there will be a train in just a moment.

        Also the headways aren’t always 7.5 minutes even if the trains are on schedule. Some times they are 10 minutes and some times even 15 minutes.

        Though I do agree the trains need to stick to their headways as much as possible. When the headways are at 7.5 minutes the trains should arrive as close to 450 seconds apart as possible.

  11. Decent digital radios (or more sensors) would solve a lot of transit problems.

    Digital radios would do nothing to solve the problem. Changing the modulation from analog to digital would not suddenly make trains trackable.

    More sensors would work. RFID, like Metro uses in the tunnel, would work great and could tie in to existing systems well.

    1. I think Martin might have been referring to the fact that the existing analog radio network for King County Metro doesn’t have any excess bandwidth for data channels for thinks like real-time arrival information, while the new digital radio network that KCM is upgrading to in the near future will have more bandwidth for this sort of thing.

  12. Lame! They should be able to do better — and they should do better.

    Q: Does the 2-min only announcement also apply to end-of-line train departure info?

    Whenever I’ve been at the end-of-the-line on Max I’ve always found the train departure countdown to be vey useful. I wouldn’t think the limitations that Bruce cites regarding trains en route would apply to an LRV waiting for departure at the end-of-the-line.

  13. At Westlake (southbound platforms) … when the sign gives you the 2 minute warning … it inevitably enters the station 30 seconds later … so apparently they cannot even get that right.

    1. I think I know why this happens. Our schedule allows two minutes to travel from Pine ST to Westlake station to allow for the times when there are buses at Westlake which cause the train to wait between Pine ST and Westlake. When there is no delay – it takes less than a minute to get to Westlake. The two minute warning must be triggered when the train enters the track circuit just as it leaves the stub.

      However if the train left Pine ST on schedule and got to Westlake in 30 seconds we would wait at Westlake until scheduled – two minutes after leaving Pine ST. If we were late leaving Pine ST then we would potentially leave Westlake before the two minutes shown on the sign.

      I haven’t witnessed the sign behavior at stations outside of the DSTT as a rider yet but I suspect the two minute warning is more accurate due to the greater distance between stations and the less chance of a train getting delayed.

  14. I’m in the minority here, but all I want to see is the *order* of the buses and trains in the tunnel. Ideally maps of the tunnel (posted at several places along the platform) would have little dots showing the general position of the bus/train (and obviously labeled which the route numbers).

    I just want to know that I can ignore the 10 buses that appear (since via the map I know my bus is not among them). Currently dancing around with everyone else trying to get a glimpse of the route numbers gets tiresome.

    1. Buses will eventually be kicked out of the tunnel and operate on the surface only. Thus any money spent doing what you suggest would eventually be money wasted, unless of course you do it on the surface for buses only.

      If you want bus order arrival info on the surface, then that is an issue to work with Metro and not ST/LR.

    2. I agree with you. My commute includes a transfer from a surface bus, down into the transit tunnel at Westlake (or sometimes University Street). I ride from there to the International District (I work very close to the International District station), and then do the reverse commute in the evening. My employer gives me a transit pass, so the fare discrepancy between the bus and train doesn’t matter to me. I also don’t care whether I take a bus or a train. I’m happy to ride the next vehicle that comes by.

      I don’t think my use case is all that uncommon. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that most people who board a vehicle in the tunnel ride that vehicle past the end of the tunnel, but I see quite a few people like me who just stay on for a few stops and don’t care what route they get on.

      Here’s the problem:
      * The buses and trains have different fare payment mechanisms. If I take a bus, I have to tap my Orca on the bus (or not at all if I ride during the free ride time). If I ride the train, I have to tap my Orca at the top of the stairs (or on the platform at Westlake. If I go to University Street this option isn’t available).
      * I currently have no way of knowing which type of vehicle is coming next. Especially at University Street, I have to guess. Either tap the Orca at the top of the stairs and wait for a train, or don’t tap it and wait for a bus.

      I’ve actually sometimes tapped the Orca at the station just to become eligible to take the train, seen a bus come next, rode the bus, and tapped the Orca again at my destination (as if I actually rode a train). I’m sure I’m not the only one inflating Link’s ridership numbers in this way. I just want to get on the next vehicle that comes, and tapping the Orca at the station gives me that option.

      To fix this problem, I see a few solutions. Any of the following should work for my use case.
      1) Put arrival info on the boards upstairs in the station. That way we will know what type of vehicle is coming next so we can decide whether or not to tap the Orca card upstairs.
      2) Put Orca readers on the platform at all stations. That way we can see the next vehicle coming and have time to tap or not tap the Orca accordingly.
      3) Give the trains an identical ride free policy to the buses.

      1. “I’ve actually sometimes tapped the Orca at the station just to become eligible to take the train, seen a bus come next, rode the bus, and tapped the Orca again at my destination (as if I actually rode a train).”

        If you can, get on at Westlake southbound or ID northbound where there’s a platform reader. Then you can tap in right when the train arrives, or if you tap in earlier, you can tap out if you decide to take a bus instead. If you tap out at the same reader within a few minutes, it cancels the charge.

      2. That’s a good workaround, but only for that station. No offense, but why suggest an inconvenient way for the passenger to avoid this rather than have the Metro fix the placement of the readers?

        Why card reader placements weren’t thought out better is beyond me…

      3. That would be the best option of course. I’ve advocated that ever since Link opened. But we can’t force Metro/ST to do something they refuse to. I imagine they’re balking at the cost of the readers.

        (They won’t be needed after buses leave the tunnel, but I don’t see why they can’t be redeployed elsewhere then. But buying them now does mean a capital expense now rather than in several years.)

      4. It’s weird that there isn’t an ORCA card reader on the NB platform at Westlake Station…I assume there are a lot of riders transferring from rail to bus there.

  15. I’m okay with this. I’ll take any of more frequent buses, new buses, cleaner buses, more shelters, more bus lines, more trolley lines, better-trained drivers, better-paid drivers, more security, etc etc instead of super-precise technology telling me when the bus I’m already waiting for is going to turn up.

    There are more important things to spend money on.

    1. Once you expriance this sort of system in operation it is hard to go back to not having it. It really does make the user’s transit expriance much more enjoyable.

      Q: Does the app “One Bus Away” work in the tunnel for buses? Could it be made to work for Link LRV’s to?

      1. Real-time tracking for KCM buses does work in the tunnel, but the technology used to do so is probably not easily (aka cheaply) transferred over to Link.

      2. Link already has real time tracking in the signal system. I’d really like to see an explanation from ST as to why that can’t be piped into their arrival signs.

      3. You’re not the only one. Given the planned headways once U-Link and East Link are up it would be absurd if the control center didn’t know where trains were within 30 seconds (and even that would be frighteningly unsafe). Bruce’s explanation about a lack of data channel from the train may be technically correct, but clearly that kind of data must exist in the system somewhere.

        Riders looking for arrival info don’t care if it comes from the train or the signaling system, and anything within a minute of accuracy would probably be fine. A “continuous count down arrival clock” as Bruce mentions would really be overkill when a simple “[Destination] in x minutes” display would do. I wouldn’t expect anything closer than “<1 minute" for the time. With the current system, they could as least leave "<2 minutes" on the display after playing the announcement.

      4. Of course the signalling system know where the trains are, but signals work on a simple block-occupancy system. A block can be very long depending on station distance and operational speed. Just knowing that a block is occupied gives you no information on when a train will arrive at point up the line. The most you could do with the information is to estimate when a train will arrive, but that estimate goes right out the window when a train is not moving, because the location of a train within a block is not known, or what speed the train is moving within that block. I’ve seen huge inaccuracies in systems where the train arrival time is estimated by signal block occupancy, like on the commuter lines in England, where the sign will say the train is arriving in 1 minute, and then the train will arrive 10 minutes later. This happens because the system has no way of knowing that the train is stopped in the block that is 1 minute away. This is why real real-time arrival systems have to be based on GPS or the “signpost” system that Metro uses for buses. However, at this time the signpost system is being phased out during the transition to Metro’s new radio system. Maybe after the new radio system is implemented we’ll see real GPS-based arrival info, although that won’t help in the tunnel

      5. How far apart are the stations on the commuter lines you’re referring to? I could certainly see a system where the stations are miles apart having this problem, but in an urban rail system where the stations are close together you should be able to get reasonable accuracy from block occupancy alone. And after that it’s all about the algorithm – if the algorithm notices that a train has been in a block for an inordinate amount of time, it could stop giving an ETA and report it as delayed. And if a train is delayed for an extended period of time due to an accident or whatever, then they really ought to use those fancy expensive “variable message signs” to display, you know, a “variable message” explaining what the hell is going on instead of leaving people in the dark while telling them to report suspicious packages to Metro employees or security officers.

    2. shabadoo – the cost/benefit of this is MUCH better than the cost/benefit of adding more buses. This is a one time cost that gets you better ridership forever.

    3. This isn’t an “either/or” proposition, and evidently you’re not paying attention to the comments being made here. No one is suggesting we need a “super-precise” solution. The problem is ST seem to think that either they provide such a “super-precise” solution or they’ll supply essentially nothing. I think that we can settle for something that less than “super-precise”, and we can do that AND have “frequent buses, new buses, cleaner buses, more shelters, more bus lines, more trolley lines, better-trained drivers, better-paid drivers, more security, etc etc”.

  16. We’re really not looking for more precise information, just more information… and this should be possible with the data they have now.

    The system knows when each train is about 2 minutes from each station, and we know the average time between each station, so you could use that data to calculate the arrival time for every station farther down the line from that train. All we need are rough estimates- I don’t care if it’s 4 or 5 minutes, but I do care if it’s 2 or 10!

  17. While I am slightly disappointed, I never understood the need to have real-time info for a system that so far only consists of one line, the trains come frequently enough that waiting shouldn’t cause too much anxiety. If they still don’t have a decent real-time info system when there are multiple lines running through the tunnel then I will be disappointed. Until then I wish they would focus on having real-time info for buses downtown with some kind of interactive system for looking up schedules. That would be truly useful and make it much less stressful for new transit users or users who need to take a route they’re unfamiliar with.

  18. “Sounds like a good project for an enterprising UW grad student!”

    Exactly! I may not be a grad student anymore, but I’m confident that with signaling data I could build a reasonable algorithm for predicting train arrival times.

  19. One bus away uses scheduled arrival times for Link. Is there any reason why that information couldn’t be posted at each station along with the two minute warnings until a more elaborate process can be devised? We would come across like buffoons when our schedule goes out the window but hopefully that would encourage us to be more forthcoming with alerts that could get Link status information out to each station.

  20. I’ve often wondered if broadband over powerlines would be an appropriate way for light rail trains to communicate (not to mention provide internet access).

    This certainly sounds like a case of overengineering. If your doors are opened, you’re stopped at the station. Now tell everyone waiting in the next few stations you’ll be there at (scheduled time) + (how late you’re currently running). It’s not like you can perfectly predict train arrival if you have its exact current location and speed anyway.

  21. Just put a count-UP timer on the readerboard. That’s what Moscow and St Petersburg do. It zeros out when the train leaves the station, and counts up the Minutes:Seconds until the next train resets it. That doesn’t require any fancy communication, it just needs somebody to press the reset button or install a sensor. That tells somebody whether they just missed a train, and lets them estimate when the next train should arrive and whether it’s late.

    1. Wow. They can do this in Russia with their tech? Yet ST can’t do it with our tech?

      I think we need to work on ST to get this improved — surely they can.

  22. At minimum, ST has overpromised. They said real-time arrival information, which people naturally understood as a continuous readout or at least “10 minutes, 5 minutes, …” A 2-minute warning is no more extensive than “the train is in the previous station”. It’s good for knowing when to gather up your belongings, but not for waiting for trains. If this was all we were going to get, we should have been told that.

  23. I take Link nearly everyday now with my bicycle from Othello to University station and its turning out to not be as we were told over and over it would ..i’ve been patient and hoped the kinks would be worked out by now. The real or near-time info is unreliable, the surface (PLEASE NO MORE UNPROTECTED SURFACE ROUTINGS FOR ANY FUTURE LINK LINES) interaction with lights, peds, and cars on MLK is def messing things up–that needs to be be fixed even if cars have to wait another 1 minute at lights. My last two afternoon trips returning from SeaTac have taken over 1 hour and 30 minutes from deplaning (directly walking with carry on) to university station–this is greater than my average transit trip (involving connections with 2-3 transit agencies )from JFK or EWR to downtown Manhattan. The 194 never, ever, in 7 years of taking it back and forth to Seatac, took as long as my last 2-3 LINK journeys. Perhaps an hourly, direct transit tunnel to SeaTac 194 should be reinstated until all concerned agencies can repair some of these serious flaws?

    Really, honestly, when routing LINK above ground the lines need to be either slightly elevated or protected by posts the length of the surface run–such a large part of St. Louis’s line and many parts of MAX in downtown Portland.

    I think that before any more lines are approved ST, Metro, and SDOT really need to all get on the same page and solve a few of the problems analyzed/listed on this blog. The analysis provided here has helped explain many of the problems to me, but there are only so many times a problem or solution can be explained away to me before my support for future LINK expansion slips away–and I count myself a huge supporter of transit as a non-car owner.

    And a decision not to permit the future installation of rail lines on a new 520 is a critical error. A future tunnel or bridge near Magnuson is never gona happen not in 100 years mark my words friends.

    1. I agree that some other rail transit agencies seem to work better than ST’s LINK, but NJ Transit’s EWR to Penn Station connection is not one of them. It’s ridiculously expensive (~$15.00 each way), is not all that fast (considering it’s heavy rail, totally grade separated, and is less than 10 miles to Manhattan), and it can take forever to get from the terminal to the train station (there is no walking option). Portland’s Red Line MAX is an effective/efficient airport to downtown connection…NJ Transit is not.

  24. This is Mass Transit 101 kind of stuff… anyone who has traveled even just as far as Portland and has ridden MAX knows that an accurate countdown of next arrivals/departures makes the transit experience much better (they even do it for the train AFTER the next train). You are an idiot (and I don’t often use that term) if you argue against investing in something so useful(and feasible). That this information technology is not already running is beyond the pale…it is not cutting edge technology.

    I will always be a fervent supporter of rail transit in our region, but as one commenter said above, there have been times when LINK has seemed like amateur hour.

    1. I should add, that on MAX they show the arrivals for the train after the next train for each line, so that can be the next 6 arrivals. They even do it for buses on the new and improved transit mall. It allows me to time the Green Line to Union Station (for my 6:15pm train back to Seattle) so I know if I can grab some food and not be late.

    2. The same applies for anybody who has traveled to South Lake Union and ridden the SLUT. I believe it has arrival info for the next two trains.

  25. Uh… If the system knows when a train is two minutes away from or arriving at a prior station, shouldn’t that be enough information to predict an arrival with reasonable accuracy? Seems like a waste of money on reader boards that don’t show next bus/train info nor system disruptions. In any event, it seems like Sound Transit is attempting to reason with faulty logic for why we’ve got what we’ve got.

    Contrast this to San Francisco where so many BUS stops have realtime arrival and indeed it does seem like the system is fairly PlaySkool in comparison.

    1. Tell me about it. Champaign-Urbana (200,000 people surrounded by corn) has this for their buses and they say that it’s not feasible for Seattle’s brand-new billion-dollar rail system? Give me a break.

  26. For LINK…who cares — it comes every 15 minutes. Max wait time is 14:59 minutes.

    For Sounder they have these “3 minutes to board, 2 minutes to board”, but you know what — they are canned! If the train is late, it says “The Train has Departed”.

  27. In DC, real-time arrival signs were installed in 2000, but it took quite a while to get them working correctly. The signs list the next 3 trains: what line, how many cars, direction, and minutes away. You can now see this on their website too. DC also has something long predating this technology (the first segment opened in 1976) which I haven’t seen anything like elsewhere: platform lights that start blinking when the train is approaching. I kinda miss those.

    In general, I’d say we should follow the model of airport arrival and departure TVs for transit; times for the next few vehicles in all directions should be shown continuously. I remember seeing such a system on Paris’ RER commuter rail network. There’s a practical use to knowing if you should take a different route or mode to get where you’re going, and it’s valuable to be able to call someone (e.g. doctor’s appointment) to tell them you’ll be late, why, and by how much. One of the comments I recall hearing a lot when the signs started working in DC was how much people liked knowing as soon as they got to the platform whether they’d just missed a train or one was about to arrive. And they have lines with 2+ minute headways at rush hour; it’s easier to shut the doors on a crowded train and go when people can see the next train is 1 minute behind it. 15 or more, not so much.

  28. 120 comments so far about real time info when you know a train is coming within 10 minutes at most? I agree that we should look for low cost ways to address this issue, but it is hardly a big deal.

    1. Again, there are two big issues. First, 10 minutes is idealized. In reality, there are delays, and transit users like to know about these things. Secondly, studies (and common sense) show that knowing how long your wait will be makes it feel like less time than simply waiting without knowing how long it will be. If you want to increase ridership and increase satisfaction with the service (both of which are probably essential to promoting future expansion of the system), arrival information is (or should be) a cheap and easy way to do so.

  29. So is there a plan to get real realtime going, or is it just a hazy possibility for the future?

  30. The whole concept of this to me is mind-bafflingly simple.

    First, if the train is going southbound, and they know it is two minutes away from Pioneer Square, then can’t they (with reasonable accuracy) deduce that the train is four minutes away from International District/Chinatown, and approximately six from Stadium Station?

    Couple that idea with the fact that, as fewer buses occupy the tunnel, the estimates will become more accurate. Furthermore, the predictions can be GPS-reinforced once the trains are out of the tunnel. (I’m sure it would not be difficult to create some RFID sensors throughout the tunnel as well, for when GPS in unavailable).

    Sadly, all of these seem like experiments that one person could complete as a hobbyist activity. The fact that it is possible to a high degree of accuracy with something as sporadic as buses that are constantly stuck in traffic, means that it is more than possible with trains that have a relatively controlled right of way (and far more sensors along the track).

  31. Why don’t they just use the same track-circuit triggers to send estimated arrival times to the message boards further down the line? This wouldn’t be accurate enough to provide countdown clocks in seconds, but it would be certainly be enough for “next arrival in 6 minutes” messages.

    (I briefly scanned the other comments and didn’t see anyone else suggest this. It seems incredibly obvious to me; apologies if anyone else has already said this and I missed it.)

    1. This is what I was thinking with my previous post – if the system knows the location in order to give two minute and “now arriving” information, then it should be easy to estimate the arrival for all the downline stations. I think maybe what’s going on here is that the sensors only interrupt whatever is on the local PA/VMS at a given station. That’s to say, each station seems to be linked to a couple sensors that just insert the messages – so instead of an integrated realtime arrival system, we have a whole bunch of individual “here comes the train” systems.

      Certainly operations knows the train locations, but the arrival announcements appear to be driven by something in addition to or instead of the actual signaling system. Given access to that information, I think it would be easy to calculate a reasonably accurate estimated arrival for the downline stations.

  32. Somewhat related to the non-use of the variable message signs, if Metro and Sound Transit can push text messages on transit disruptions to Twitter then why can’t they push them to the VMS’s inside the transit tunnel and Link stations? At least do it during rush hours.

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