Earlier this week I had a chance to sit down with Ron Tober, deputy chief executive of Sound Transit, to talk about Link reliability. Tober has extensive bus and rail experience – he oversaw the startup of Charlotte’s LYNX system, once headed up King County Metro, and has experience in several other cities.
On time performance has been much better in the last month than it was in the first quarter. Tober showed me more recent data – without weekend and night maintenance, trains have been on schedule about 90% of the time, and headway reliability has been well over 90%.
For now, though, that’s about all we’re going to get, and Sound Transit can’t do too much about it, largely because of the downtown tunnel. More after the jump.
The tunnel agreement between Metro and Sound Transit was hashed out at a time when Sound Transit had very little political clout – just after it became clear that Link couldn’t be built in the original timeframe for the money available. The agency was essentially in a position to take what it could get – and what it got doesn’t provide many guarantees for service reliability. As a result, Metro can run up to 60 coaches per hour in the tunnel, even if they impact Link performance. Right now, Metro peaks at 56-57 per hour during rush hour, leaving Link waiting if a wheelchair needs to board or something goes wrong with a bus.
Tober said this agreement comes up for renegotiation in 2012, to be signed again in 2014, well before University Link opens. This is when Sound Transit will be able to work for changes – to improve Link’s performance, allowing trains in the tunnel earlier and later, and reducing the number of buses in preparation for increased service frequency. If we want all-night Friday and Saturday service, for instance, this is when to push for it. This is also when it’ll be determined how long buses remain in the tunnel – Tober says it’s possible joint operations will continue even after University Link opens, simply because there are so many more bus than train passengers, and they’d be put on congested surface streets.
In the meantime, Sound Transit is taking small steps to improve things. They’re looking at stationing wreckers (bus tow trucks) at both ends of the tunnel to clear broken down buses immediately. This summer, they’re also hiring a special incident response employee to work in the control center and ensure both riders and operators know what’s going on in case of a problem. This person would put up information on the electronic readerboards and website and trigger better audio announcements in case of a delay or closure. Supervisors at tunnel stations are also being trained soon to deal with problems on train equipment like they currently can with buses – so minor malfunctions don’t cause a delay while waiting for a technician.
The other major point of concern is overall train operation. Metro’s operators don’t have a strong incentive to be on time, and while many are fantastic, it only takes a couple of slow starts in the Rainier Valley to miss a light cycle and delay a train. While I didn’t get any specifics, it sounds like Sound Transit is looking at ways to improve this as well, and hopefully we’ll hear more in the coming months.
I also brought up concerns about the lack of realtime arrival information (actually, I wouldn’t shut up about it). Sound Transit’s train monitoring system didn’t go online as smoothly as originally hoped, and continues to be updated and worked on. As this provides data about where each train is, it could eventually lead to realtime countdowns at stations, but, of course, no promises. I stressed that these are very necessary during maintenance, when trains are running an unknown, low frequency schedule – but there’s no concrete plan.
In short, Link reliability is something Sound Transit is working on and it will improve over time, but it won’t run like clockwork until there are enough riders to justify removing buses from the downtown tunnel – potentially not until Link reaches Northgate, and high ridership buses such as the 71, 72, 73, and 41 don’t need to go downtown anymore.
I’ll be meeting with Tober again next week, so if you have questions, I’m happy to ask him then!