Next train sign at SeaTac/Airport Station
Next train sign at SeaTac/Airport Station

Sound Transit finally began using the variable message signs (VMS) at SeaTac/Airport Station to tell passengers which train is next to depart for Downtown Seattle. The message, “THIS TRAIN TO SEATTLE”, is put up on the signs next to the train to depart. The other set of signs continue to say “Welcome to SeaTac Airport”. There was one case when they were wrong. Signs were pointing to a train going out of service and returning to the yard. Another train arrived shortly and when the out-of-service train left the station the signs switched to the correct train. That suggests the signs are operated automatically though I do not know for sure.

This is a good development in informing passengers and hopefully leads to some kind of next train countdown display, which we all are hoping for without any indication it’s going to happen. Past solutions that Sound Transit used include sandwich board signs and manually switched lighted signs at Tukwila International Boulevard Station before Airport Link opened.

47 Replies to “This Train to Seattle”

  1. the only problem is that people won’t see this when they arrive up the escalators …

    1. We asked Bruce Gray shortly after our post on the sandwich boards, and his response was that they were already working on trying to get the VMS boards up for that function.

      1. Which is better, useful signs at a limited number of stops (that account for the largest portion of boardings, I believe), or useless signs at 100 percent of stops?

  2. I haven’t ridden Link in a few months — is there also a departure countdown? They have that in Portland for end-of-the-line trains and I find it to be really useful.

      1. That brings up another question about “northbound/southbound train arriving” messages. I hear the “train arriving in 2 minutes” message at most stations, but sometimes I hear the “train arriving in 1 minute” message and I could swear I used to hear a “train arriving in 4 minutes” message as well. Do we know what is standard and does the train operator or someone in the control center activate these messages?

      2. An alternating countdown clock on the VMS would be fine, but I certainly wouldn’t want ST to add more PA announcments. The ones they have already are too much.

        Hopefully ST works this out and continues to improve the VMS.

      3. It would also be nice if they corrected the audio on the trains too so that they could be more concise…I don’t need to be told I’m arriving at a “station” every time, I think that can be taken for granted. The VMS boards at king street can also only display one departure at a time, instead electing to display the train number (who cares!?) instead of freeing up the space to put two times to two destinations.

  3. This has got to be embarrassing for ST to now just implement this feature over a year after the Link was implemented. I know that the SEATAC station wasn’t operational at the initial opening, but this is a system that could have been worked on and implemented when the SEATAC station opened.

    Let us forget about all of the other existing transit agencies around the world that not only have this notification of which side a train will be departing from, but also arrival time information.

    Why do we insist on always reinventing the wheel!??!

    1. Well, you see Seattle is different it has to with our soils/geography/rain/neighborhood councils/funding mechanisms/Mariners/Tim Enyman

      1. Part of the problem has to do with the large percentage of the line that is in tunnels. Some of the more standard off-the-shelve train tracking systems that other systems use just don’t function very well in tunnels, but I’m sure there are ways around this.

      2. it isn’t complicated to add detection devices to the track or the OCS that can detect when a LRV passes by … this generally works better than GPS as it can be installed anywhere and everywhere (can be added to every Catenary support pole if they wished … after that it’s just a matter of the computer figuring out the speed and distance to the next station.

      3. How can you run a railway without knowing where your trains are at all times? The signaling system and control center should know when a train is occupying a block, so why can’t that info be used to provide arrival information? It already is to a limited extent with the existing warnings. Or they really don’t know?

      4. I suspect they could develop an algorithm/program to populate a countdown clock from existing data available at the control center. It can’t be that hard.

        I suspect the lack of a countdown clock has more to do with priorities and budgets then with a real lack of data. I just can’t imagine that ST had “countdown clocks” as being very high on the list when they were still fighting serious battles just to get Link Phase I built.

        Countdown clocks can always be added later…..hopefully ST does.

      5. Every system is different. You can’t just plug-and-paly these things like it is some sort of iPhone app.

        And I’m sure it isn’t the highest priortiy down at ST, nor should it be really. It would be nice, and I hope they do it, but it doesn’t need to be done right now.

      6. No, I get that one system does not fit all, however the technology to track where a train is and then feed that to a custom system exists. Our Link is not unique. It’s a train on rails. Implement the hardware, customize the software.

      7. More to my point, I guess… It would have been cheaper to implement this from the beginning rather than retrofitting the tracks/guideway/whatever to include conduit and the electrical work necessary.

      8. I doubt there is any retrofitting of anything required to make this happen, at least not on any major scale.

        And, although it would certainly be nice to have (particularly at the end stations), with only one line in operation it really isn’t that high a priority. Build more lines and start developeing inter-line transfers and it *might* become more critical, but I doubt it.

      9. It is necessary to have at end stations – especially when you have trains parked on both side of the tracks – to know which one will be next to depart. More often than not, the one train will have its doors closed and the other one open, but that’s not always the case.

        This is a non-issue for stations mid-line because signage should say which direction each side is traveling, or at least note it’s final end point.

      10. Your insider here…

        As I understand it, the software (GE) is not fully complete yet. Yes, we know where the trains are at all times. The train schedules are programmed into the software. We can see (flashing/color changes in train numbers) when a train is late from schedule.

        The system that controls the reader boards (VMS signs) is on another computer and server.

        I am happy to have the 2 minute warning, it is a start.

      1. Sigh, way to be short-sided ST. I don’t know. I figured that they would have looked at other systems around the US and world and found what features customers actually found useful. Maybe they found out that people hate real-time information?

        Sorry for being a Debbie-Downer on this one, but it just baffles me that this two-minute warning was considered sufficient. When Portland can have real-time arrival information displayed downtown for both their buses and MAX on flat screen TVs and the London Tube, which has been around for over a century, was able to be upgraded and have this implemented, here we are with a *brand new* rail line that can’t even give us the 2 minute warning and the correct time of day until several months later from opening. Heck, it took how long to have signs telling customers which side of the platform the next train will be leaving from at an end-station? I guess they assumed that so long the operator of the train knew, everyone else would magically know…

      2. I don’t think Portland has flat screen TV’s at all their stations. I know Vancouver doesn’t. I hope these are many things that ST will add later on to the stations here as well as real-time arrival information.

        The US really does this so bad. The Asian systems are amazing…too bad we don’t follow their leads.

      3. Well, because we have multiple transit agencies serving downtown Seattle, who would be responsible for the planning, design, and implementation of the system that would display upcoming arrivals for buses? Who would be responsible for the bill for shared stops?

        To my knowledge, there is no common system between these agencies that are keeping track of their fleet. So, will Metro install it’s own signage, and then ST and CT their own screens/displays? Or will they actually work together and get something done? Or will the other agencies make their arrival time open-source much like Metro does and have a 3rd party (example: Onebusaway) design the software to display arrival times?

      4. I understand the reasons for not wanting to merge the regions transit agencies together, but would something like this be so bad:

        A three-year contract approved Wednesday by Triangle Transit trustees will make the agency responsible for planning, marketing and management of DATA, the Durham Area Transit Authority.

        DATA will still be the city’s bus system, with the Durham City Council paying its bills and retaining ownership of buses and bus stops. Triangle Transit will propose annual budgets and recommend service improvements, but the City Council will make the decisions.

        Read more: http://www.newsobserver.com/2010/06/24/548713/triangle-transit-will-run-data.html#ixzz0vmacsHzX

        Triangle Transit is roughly analogous to ST (although much smaller), in charge of long term planning and coordination for a three county area.

      5. We don’t even consistently get the two-minute warning announcements at Beacon Hill Station. More times than not, it works, but I keep noticing times when no warning is played at all.

        Anyway, it’s 2010. The lack of real-time info is not acceptable.

  4. It’s nice to see the VMS finally doing more than just periodic safety warnings. Here’s an idea I had this morning, working on the assumption that from the Link control center, they know whether trains are running on time or not:
    -When trains are running on time, the signs at stations are set to show countdowns based on the schedule. That’s what OBA has currently, and it seems to usually be right or very nearly right.
    -When trains are running off schedule, the VMS system is switched to the arrival system currently in use.

  5. I’ve seen a number of befuddled riders ask which direction they need to go to get downtown or to the airport. I don’t think we have much at any station indicating which direction is which.

    1. Sorry, I know some people are directionally challenged but Seattle is north and the airport is south. Perhaps cell phones should have a compass feature.

    2. I have to agree there. There should be better signage at the platforms themselves. Big words like “Northbound / Seattle” and “Southbound / Airport” would be nice, especially at Beacon Hill, Tukwila, and Mount Baker.

      Then again, I have stood between the NB and SB tracks at Royal Brougham and had people ask where the Link station was.

  6. I still don’t get this. It takes less time to drive to the airport, you can park closer to the terminal and you don’t have to schlep your bags as far. I get the environmental stuff but people in King County like their cars. If you want to get people out of their cars (which light rail does not do) then you have to make it convenient.

    1. $2.75 (or free if you already have a pass) to get to the airport or $40 ($80 Round Trip) for a taxi. If you decide to park at the airport, it’s $130 per week. That may not be enough incentive for you and Susan Hutchinson but for many others, that’s enough.

    2. There’s only so much we can do for people who love their cars. We’re building the most efficient transit system for those who want to use it. (Or rather, we’re encouraging ST and Metro to build the most efficient transit system; they don’t always listen to us.) If you prefer to drive, fine. But if gas reaches $10 a gallon, or your car breaks down, or you don’t want to pay $30+ for a shuttle, or you become unable to drive, the transit system will be there for you.

      If you choose to move toward a transit corridor, it’ll be even more convenient. King County has not clearly defined its long-term transit corridors yet, but the Link lines, RapidRide lines, and most frequent bus routes provide a starting point.

      In the meantime, please give the planners some credit — those who study and analyze mobility and transit routes every day. Most of them say that a single light rail route is more equivalent than several express bus routes with the same destinations (even if the travel time is the same or slightly slower). By “efficient” I mean in terms of fuel used, simplicity (only need to know one route), flexibility (choose any station, or even change your mind en route). One bus could not make all the Link stops at the same speed, due to street configuration, stoplights, traffic, etc. So it would have to be several bus routes covering different origins-destinations along the line. Anyway, the point is we’re trying to make the transit system more efficient so it can serve the greatest number of trips for the greatest number of people most conveniently. But mass transit will never be the equivalent of a car going door-to-door with a private trunk for luggage. Still, both driving and transit have their advantages and disadvantages, and some prefer transit. And others do not have the car option. And someday in the next few decades, the car option may only be available to the ultra-rich. So we need to build the most robust transit system as soon as we can.

      There are specific problems with Link’s configuration, but not all of them are ST’s fault. The airport station is where it is because the Port and TSA wouldn’t allow it to come into the airport. Mitigation factors could be added, like a moving sidewalk and — I don’t know — enhanced luggage carts of some sort.

      1. Forgot to mention frequency. If you combine several bus routes into one train line, it can have the frequency of all of them. Or at least down to the 10-minute, 5-minute, or 2-minute level, beyond which it doesn’t matter. I do think that when ST2 Link is built out, it will cause the biggest revolution in transit use the region has seen since the 1930s. It won’t turn it into DC or NYC, but it will make transit in general seem more viable and worth investing in.

        It’s the network effect. If one house has a phone, it’s useless. If a few houses have a phone, it’s better. If everybody has a phone, it transforms how people communicate. Right now we have a situation where some people have a good transit route (meaning relevant to where they want to go, fast, and frequent). Link won’t bring a good transit route to everybody. But when rail fans start raving about how conveniently they can zip across from Bellevue to UW to SeaTac to Roosevelt to Qwest Field to Whole Foods (Roosevelt or Hospital) at any time with only a 10-minute wait and no traffic, others will try it. Right now they can’t because it doesn’t serve most of the popular destinations or neighborhoods. But when they do, they might find it nicer than driving, or they might not. But they’ll know it’s available as an alternative.

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