Video by Oran.

PubliCola’s recap of yesterday’s Link light rail rider alerts shows that we either have a train system that is unreliable at providing service or reliable at providing riders messages. Or, more likely, somewhere in-between.

Two of yesterday’s four delays were delayed to buses in the downtown transit tunnel. The joint operations there will likely be a headache for the years to come, but of course Metro would probably like to remind you that there are more bus riders who use the tunnel than Link’s system ridership.

55 Replies to “A Bad Tuesday”

  1. ST’s refusal to provide riders a schedule for service when they reduce surface for maintenance makes the service worthless for anyone who needs to reach the airport, make a connection to a bus, get to an appointment or otherwise values their time. Telling us that Link will run every 30-40 minutes without giving a schedule makes the service useless, and tells us that ST just doesn’t care about providing useful service. This is happening 2-3 times/months and is an unacceptable way to treat riders, unless the goal is to have them drive a car, take a taxi or not go.

    On Saturday and Sunday morning, October 9-10, from the start of service until 9:30 a.m. each morning, Central Link light rail will operate approximately every 30-40 minutes due to track maintenance

    1. blame the folks on MLK … it takes a lot of time and work to modify switch frogs so they don’t make as much noise

      1. It is the fault of the folks on MLK that the Link switches are noisy? What, did the people who live there choose what switches to use and install them?

      1. M – Seriously? 30-40 minute headway estimates (note, the 10 minute gap there) and then look up at that horrific table? Or, ST could say that the trains will depart on the 5’s and 35’s at each end of the line and then it would be easy to make that calculation.

      2. What I’m trying to say is ST should keep to a solid maintenance schedule. Every 30 minutes, not a varying window of 30-40 minutes, should be the norm as it would be easier to predict when to get to a station to get your train.

      3. The fact that the headways are 30-40 minutes, means that if you were to make a schedule based on the starting train, by the third train the “estimates” could be off by as much as 30 minutes. Effectively off by an entire trip, which is in other words useless.

      4. That was exactly my point. I can estimate travel times, but I can’t devine departure times. If they said every 40 minutes starting at 6am, ie.6:00, 6:40, 7:20, 8:00, 8:40, 9:20 – OK, can use that. But to say every 30-40 minutes with no schedule means you have to allow 85 minutes for a 40 minute trip.

  2. Pet Peeve – the Rider Alert Emails you get with the boilerplate “We thank you for your patience”…

  3. I was there yesterday and if I hadn’t had time to kill before the Sounders game, I would have been pretty frustrated. One of the Metro hybrids wouldn’t start up at University St for about 10 minutes. Right after it finally started up and moved down the tunnel, the signs started announcing a Link delay due to a breakdown in ID station, so I assume it was the same bus.

    The parade of backed up buses was pretty crazy and the first following Link train was packed. Not quite rush hour Tube style, but not too far behind.

    I was pleased to see the signs and announcements start up before too long, so that’s an improvement.

    1. Oh so that’s what happened. I stood in Pioneer Square station for 12 minutes before anything came by southbound. The 216 around 5:20 pm probably was the culprit. There were 15 buses that poured through after that in 6 minutes, followed by a train that’s packed. The train sat and waited to enter Inernational District Station for about 7 minutes for the buses to clear out.

  4. GEESH….welcome to my world!

    I have a bus schedule that tells me a bus is due to show up at say 2:42. I call my not so trusty bus time number when it hasn’t arrived by 2:52 and instead of “your bus will arive in 3 minutes” get “your bus is “scheduled” in 20 minutes” which means tracking isn’t working, which happens quite a bit.

    Another pet peeve of this now from the dark ages bus rider is, my schedule like all schedules have “time points” yet when I called to complain about the bus bein early at the PRINTED time point I was told this “time point” is not a HARD time point. A bus driver told me later that while Spokane street is a HARD time point, my stop is an approximate, read that “bus comes when the driver feels like it” time! SO WTH is the point of a schedule if it means absolutely NOTHING to those who catch the bus at a particular TIME POINT???

    I knew LONG AGO that busses and trains in the tunnel would be problematic. Add the lack of proper maintenance of busses due to I’m guessing less hours put in and of course there are more delays. Also driver error is a factor as there seem to be a LOT more PT drivers who can’t figure out how to recycle thier air, etc.

    Here’s an idea..learn to live with it, or you’ll just give yourself an ulcer. Just as there are unexpected things that can happen while driving your car, bike or whatever, so to will unexpected things happen with busses light rail and trains.

    1. Bus-Time is pretty much obsolete, as discussed in another recent thread. Apparently OneBusAway works better, but I was at Convention Place Station recently going northbound and we waited for long enough for two 70-series buses to go by, two buses OneBusAway said were coming, and never came.

      1. The only problem is that OneBusAway is missing the 347, one of the connectors between CT (Mountlake Terrace) and Metro (Northgate). I like the service and use it primarily, but missing the 347 makes it a bit difficult for those of us on the border.

  5. We were headed to the Sounders game too. Our family and a friend were just about to tap in when we heard the automated message. It’s good to have the information, but frustrating to have no context to pair it with.

    The message simply said there was a problem in the tunnel at Westlake. There was no sense of the scope or scale of the problem, no sense of whether trains were moving at all. We would have appreciated a human voice with real information.

    So we decided to send one of us home to fetch the car. And when we finally got there, the trains were moving just fine. Very frustrating.

  6. Why don’t they have a tractor (for lack of a better word) to get stalled busses out of the tunnel? I’ve seen two buses die in the tunnel and the back-ups that develop are amazing.

    I suppose the answer is money, but transit is a pretty essential component of out transportation system; when it fails we’re all screwed.

      1. they cant use the center lane because of safety reasons with the new signalling system as i understand it.

    1. I thought they said they were going to have tow trucks stationed at each end in case something like this happens. One thing is the buses are not completely dead, eventually they started up again. If they tow a bus away the passengers need to be given alternate service.

      1. So what? It’s better than delaying the entire tunnel.

        The instant a bus is giving trouble in the tunnel, they should kick the passengers out and move the bus. Until the bus is out of the way, the other buses should use the center area to get around the problematic one.

    2. They use a big tow truck for that. I saw that being done in the bus tunnel yesterday. The tow truck was pushing a bus through the downtown tunnel.

      What I would like to know is what is going to happen when a Link train breaks down inside the downtown tunnel? Are those tow trucks powerful enough to push a 2-car Link train, which would be several times heavier than an articulated bus?

      1. My understanding is that either of the two cars is capable of moving the other when it has a problem. So, as long as the problem isn’t with the OCS a broken down train should be able to clear itself. I assume they’d take it out of service, though,

      2. 1. One car breaks down. Second car takes it along.

        2. Both cars or single car break down. Have another train pull/push it.

        3. Power fails. Use ST’s rail truck (the Brandt) to tow it away. ST used those trucks to push trains unpowered during testing.

      3. How long do you think it would take to get the rail truck into the tunnel and get a disabled train pushed or pulled out of the tunnel? I’m assuming the rail truck is based at the SODO maintenance facility.

        Let’s say a northbound train is disabled between Pioneer Square station and University station, with several buses in the tunnel between the disabled train and the south end of the tunnel. How would they get the rail truck into the tunnel past the buses? Can buses back out of the tunnel?

        I can just foresee it being a little complicated to get a big truck into the tunnel to push a train out, and the process taking quite a bit of time.

      4. How is that any different if it were a bus instead of a train?

        By the way, the truck is not limited to the rails. It runs on tires and has retractable rail wheels.

      5. One difference is that the disabled bus I saw in the tunnel was parked in the center of a station, so both buses and trains were able to move past the disabled bus in both directions until the tow truck arrived. A disabled train would not be able to sit in the middle of a tunnel station — it would be blocking traffic in one direction until it was moved.

        The other difference might be where the tow truck for trains is stored vs where the tow truck for buses is stored. There may be a tow truck for buses very near the tunnel. Whereas the tow truck for trains might take longer to arrive at the tunnel.

        Also, buses can be towed in either direction to exit the tunnel. Trains can only exit the tunnel at the south end for now, so northbound trains would have to be towed or pushed south on the northbound tracks, which means all buses or trains on the northbound lane would have to back out of the tunnel, it seems to me. Is it feasible to back articluated buses through the tunnel? It seems to me that might be sort of tricky.

        Or you would have to tow the train all the way north to the stub tunnel, then tow it all the way south to get out of the tunnel, which would delay traffic in both directions, and take a lot longer than just towing a bus out the north end of the tunnel.

        Are you sure they used a rail truck to push 2-car trains? Or just single Link cars?

      6. Of course they can pull 2 Link cars but never had to so far (except maybe when that train derailed by the yard). That truck is used on mainline railroads to push freight cars around yards. Some short lines use them as locomotives.

      7. How often have you seen a disabled train in the tunnel? Electric trains are pretty dang reliable, subway systems all over the world run day-in and day-out for decades without trains becoming disabled in the tunnels.

      8. Did I say “never,” Norman?

        According to the MTA the mean distance between failures for vehicles on the New York City subway system in 2009 was 153,201 miles, for the bus system it was 3,921 miles. And that’s for one of the oldest and busiest subway systems in the country.

    3. There used to be 2 large tugs for pushing stalled buses out of the tunnel when it first opened, sadly these were disposed of several years back.

    4. What I don’t understand is why the buses have to turn their engines off? That seems to be the #1 reasons for stalls. It’s rare to see buses stall on surface streets, but I’ve seen drivers wrestle many times to get the engine restarted.

      Is it for pollution control in the station? Could that be handled with extra ventilation?

      Seems like you either figure out why the buses have a hard time restarting and fix that/train the drivers, or you keep the engines running so you avoid that risk.

      1. It would be an interesting experiment to have the software changed with the hybrid bus so the engine does not shut off at stations. All other “Hush” mode settings (throttle limits, auxiliary heater lockout etc) could stay the same providing emission reductions.

        Climate control system could operate also – which would really be nice on warmer days.

        Might be worth a try.

  7. That “light rail service will be delayed until further notice” message was repeated every ten seconds at Convention Place station around 6:20pm. That’s excessive but it’s better than no message at all. If I were taking a train, I’d be headed upstairs for the 7, 36, or 124 — but you can’t expect visitors or occasional riders to know that. (If I had a flight to catch, I’d also worry about the 124 getting me there on time.)

    That was my second problem Tuesday. The first was realizing that the 71/72/73’s scheduling was not fixed in the service change. At NE 43rd southbound: 5:43 (71), 6:01 (73), 6:03 (72), 6:12 (71), 6:31 (73), 6:32 (72). I waited from 5:40-6:05, then three buses came all together. But the second was a block behind and also had a wheelchair customer, so most people crowded onto the first bus (and those on Campus Parkway probably didn’t even know a second bus was coming). The first two buses were both packed: I was standing on the second. Just sayin’ there’s enough ridership for 5-minute intervals or a Link train.

    Then I got into Convention Place and there was another delay, persumably because the tunnel buses were bunching up.

    1. Ugh that drives me crazy. Who found those “efficiencies” and did they not even look at the schedule before messing it all up?

  8. While this doesn’t involve Tuesday, it was my first experience on Link and overall it was great. I’ll take it again, but don’t get many opportunities to do so. It does relate to the service consistency issue however.

    I had to get to the airport on Wednesday afternoon. So I hopped the Streetcar then walked to the tunnel, tapped in and waited for the next train. It was easy because I read this blog, but if I was new, what those tap in machines were would have been confusing. I figured out that the “train” symbol meant train, but it wasn’t overly obvious at first where I was to wait for the train. The train and bus symbols looked similar so the train signage didn’t stand out. Unless I completely overlooked something.

    It wasn’t very crowded and fairly quiet until right before the train showed up. Great! Lots of teenagers off school for the most part and lots of people heading to airport. Right as the doors closed at Westlake, and announcement came over the speakers. But for the life of me I couldn’t understand a word that was said. Other people were saying, “What? What was that?” to their neighbor so I wasn’t alone. At the next stop the announcement was more clear. That there was an accident on the tracks and we’d have to de-board the train, bus to the next stop, then re-board the train. Since I had time to kill I thought I’d see how smooth this went. A similar thing happened to me in NY and that was super easy.

    So we get to the “last stop” and the announcement states that we all have to get off and “catch a bus at the bus stop on the street that will take you to the next Link stop and to the airport.” So I get off and look around. I can go left or right. But which way is the right way? A couple other airport bound peoples were similarly confused. So following the crowd we make our way to MLK. There was no one directing us to the right area, no signage (in NY they taped up paper print outs everywhere so you couldn’t miss them that let you know exactly where to go and what would happen to get you to the airport). A huge crush of people ended up waiting at a small bus stop area for a bus. What bus? We had no idea since it was just stated “the bus will take you…”

    Several airport bound people ended up in cabs at this point. Some got on a bus that stopped at the bus stop but there wasn’t room for everyone. I was almost ready to get a cab because time was running a bit short when someone from the station above yelled, “Take THAT bus!” Lo and behold there was a bus reading “Link Bus Connector.” Why in the world we were not told to take this specific bus in the first place is beyond me and would have solved much confusion.

    It took a while to get past the crash but the next train was there right away. It took me an extra hour to get to the airport so I am glad I had a cushion of time. Otherwise, I could very well have missed my flight. I don’t blame Link for the crash but the transition could have been communicated better.

    And IMHO: that IS a long walk from the airport stop to the airport itself. And it could be miserable in the winter with the north walkway completely exposed. My parents would never be able to make that walk due to health reasons. I didn’t mind, but was slightly surprised by it.

    1. They now show the Link “shuttle” bus stop locations on the station area maps.

      I agree on the unclear announcements. The pre-recorded ones are very clear but the operator’s voice is unintelligible most of the time.

      1. Really? I wasn’t aware that the maps showed that. I did see a map but had no idea a temporary bus would be shown on it. Being temporary and all.

    2. The announcements are normally duplicated on the electronic signs. I assume that’s an ADA feature. But I’m not sure if they were in an unexpected situation like this.

      Recently ST said it was hiring a full-time person to make announcements in case of abnormalities in service, and to gather passenger information from the operators. Is that person in place yet?

  9. There seem to be clusters of bus breakdowns in the tunnel at the beginning of each new pick. A few drivers pick tunnel routes and end up with a new model of bus. Training ensues on the job.

    That’s just one of my gripes with the tunnel plan.

    I still don’t understand why incoming buses have to stop at the signs, instead of wherever there is room along the platform. … or why the signs aren’t moved to give the best statistical chance of fitting the most buses at one time along the platform (but with room to maneuver around stalled buses). Perhaps three different bus stops on each platform would work better. The lost time from not figuring out a much smoother algorithm hits us taxpayers in the wallet.

  10. Even the basic working signage on a good day is terrible. For example, I take the south King street stairwell to Sounder. I always want to see the number of minutes to departure for the Southbound trail. Sometimes it’s there. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the northbound train is there, sometimes not. All I want to know is should I be strolling, or skipping, to my Sounder seat!

  11. OK transit people, speaking of tunnel problems, I’d like your opinion on this (genuinely, not just looking for validation):

    The other day I was waiting at Convention Place Station about 6:00 PM for a bus towards Northgate. Just as the last bus in a waiting group was about to depart, a person walked up to the driver and started asking questions, apparently about which bus or platform to get on. The person asked the driver several different lengthy questions. While this was going on, at least five 60′ articulated buses backed up behind this bus, stacking all the way around the curve in the grade down to the tunnel.

    I finally got fed up at the directions-seeking person, who in my view had singlehandedly shut down the tunnel and was inconsiderately holding up hundreds of people, instead of reading a sign or asking another passenger for directions. I loudly stated “Wrap it up, you’re holding up all those buses.” (That’s all.) The directions-seeker did so; this being Seattle, though, some other dude immediately started making sarcastic remarks at me about being in such a hurry.

    I’m curious: Do people think it was rude for the person to block the tunnel? Rude for me to say aloud what I said, suggesting they were behaving inappropriately? Both? Neither? Is there an amount of time beyond which it ceases to be appropriate to hold up the transit system asking for individual help?

    1. True Story: Conversation between ATC and a small plane pilot in Chicago.
      Pilot: Could you repeat that instruction, please, I’ve broken my pencil. (to approach control)
      ATC: Sir, your in O’hare airspace now. We’re very busy. Next time, stab yourself, and write it in blood!
      To Bus Drivers. Slam the door, and get moving. It’s very busy down here.

    2. “I loudly stated ‘Wrap it up, you’re holding up all those buses.’ …This being Seattle, though, some other dude immediately started making sarcastic remarks at me about being in such a hurry.”

      I had a similar infuriating experience on the #8 recently. It was already massively overcrowded, already 10 minutes behind schedule (having barely gotten from Lower Queen Anne to Dexter), and the worst of the Denny traffic was already visible ahead of us.

      Someone with an oddly-shaped bicycle but without a clue started trying to wedge it into the last remaining spot on the bike rack. And failed. And kept failing for more than 2 light cycles. (These are not short light cycles.)

      I yelled that it’s incredibly selfish to hold up that many people for that long with your incompetence, especially when you have another wheeled vehicle at your immediate disposal. And, naturally, I got the “shush” treatment.

      I got off the bus at the next stop (Denny & Westlake) and proceeded to beat the bus all the way up Capitol Hill on foot!

      Metro riders are passive to the point of stultifying stupidity sometimes.

    3. From my experience, the best transit systems (in terms of my perceived efficiency/speed of them) segregate the operators of the transit vehicles from the passengers. All transactions (ticket purchases, information gathering) should be completed prior to boarding so the driver can concentrate on driving. The friendly banter just slows everything up.

    4. If in the tunnel, the operator should point the endless quetioner in the direction of the security/ambassadors. The ambassadors have plenty of time to help people with lengthy questions, or at least point them where they can find the answers. The operator has no such time.

  12. Metro would probably like to remind you that there are more bus riders who use the tunnel than Link’s system ridership.

    So, what if the East Link tunnel proposal in DT Bellevue was designed to provided mixed service?

    1. Verily, a worthy suggestion. It would take the City of Bellevue focusing on how to design such a joint-use tunnel that would work with the bus routings, before such an idea could get off the ground. That seems like a better use of their remaining transit study money.


    1. I’d much rather fix the tunnel to allow trains (and buses) to flow through at optimum speed, and provide the connectivity that comes from sharing the platforms.

      Fixing the tunnel algorithm doesn’t require calculus. It just requires some obvious changes, like allowing buses that are deboarding to stop anywhere along the platforms, so several buses can be using the same platform at once, enabling all of them to get through faster. Plus, space the bays to allow a deboarding bus to move ahead of the bay 1 boarding bus(es), then allow space for another deboarding bus, followed by bay 2 boarding buses, and then the final space for additional deboarding buses. I can’t for the life of me come up with any reasons deboarding buses should stop at boarding bays, unless there are no buses trying to board at that bay.

  14. A few minutes ago I got home and saw a Metro alert in my mailbox. It mentioned an unspecified delay to the ST 560. This “incident” – important enough to warn the traveling public yet so nebulous that it can’t be described with words other than the word “incident” – must have happened sometime in the past few hours when I’d been away. But ST didn’t say when. So I concluded from the only available evidence – the time stamp on the mail, that the “incident” happened sometime shortlybefore 6:54 p.m. this evening.

    Since they also didn’t give any ETA, I looked at the message again and saw that it was now 5:04 p.m. Yes, this incident was still waiting to happen more than an hour and a half in the future.

    Then I noticed a telling detail appended to the time stamp, “-500,” which meant that it was a message carrying a time stamp in Eastern Time – New York time, Boston time, Miami time.

    How about using Pacific Time? And how about stating the time that the incident happened in the mail itself? How about offering your institutional best guess, based on what must be lengthy experience, of the usual amount of time that buses will be delayed because of this kind of incident? 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes… more than that? And how about

    Oh, a hot new update has just arrived in my mailbox! Half an hour later than the first one. In other words, a few minutes before 7 p.m., which again is an hour and a half in the future. I think that means that it was sent three hours before the time stamp, since Seattle is three time zones away from Boston. That should be about 4 p.m. But it’s 5:30 now. What the heck is going on here?

    Ah yes, the wonders of daylight saving time. This new mail was actually sent at 5 p.m. instead of 4 p.m. That explains it. UDT (GMT) isn’t on daylight savings time and we are. No, no, that still isn’t right somehow. It was 5:30 when I received the hot new update.

    That means that this rocket-like form of communications took half a freaking hour for Metro’s update, which they are so proud of distributing, to get from some guy’s office PC in colorful downtown Jackson Street to me here about four miles away.

    Damn, even I could do better than that. Seattle, believe it or not, is chock full of people who understand how to get mail from one side of town to the other in a literally seconds, and sometimes milliseconds.

    And what was the information content of this second communication? Here it is: Any delays should begin to subside. That’s literally the complete total of the information in it. Everything else simply repeats the sparse and uninformative wording of the earlier message.

    No word on the current amount of the delay, which they obviously know and I don’t, that I could use to help figure whether I’ll make or miss a connection. But as sparse as this message is, I wish I’d gotten it half an hour earlier when it was fresh.

    Any chance of that, Metro?

  15. Overall, I think the one-car train experiment has gone okay so far. Saturday was a miscalculation, but showed that ST can react within a couple hours.

    The later evening one-car trains have been plentifully spacy, as the arrival of autumn thins out the crowds hanging out downtown.

    Algorithmically, it takes about an hour and a half to adjust the frequency or capacity of the whole line. (That’s the time it takes a train to do a round trip.) 6:00 to 7:30 damps the number of trains down from 11 to 8 for the frequency reduction. 7:30-9:00 or so takes care of bringing four more trains out of service and splitting the remaining four, with a certain amount of operator non-operating time added for four operators to be shuttled from the O&M base up to the stub tunnel. (This means adding an extra minute of travel time for four northbound trains to stop at the O&M oft-bemoaned hut, unless the operator has time to walk up to SODO Station, for which I think the passengers would be greatful.)

    I’d still be content having Link service end earlier *if* the savings were used in part to provide an overnight shadow bus. Many blue-collar folks need the night owl service to get to and from their graveyard shifts.

    Or consider a two-car overnight Link plan that provides half-hour frequency terminating at Stadium Station. If, for some reason, one breaks down, then the other keeps going around it. A bus goes to rescue the stranded passengers. If the bus is too slow, the other train will come in 30 minutes and pick up the passengers (except where the space between them is uncrossable). The morning maintenance crew can handle moving the stuck car in due time. If the operator of the second car gets shuttled back to the O&M base, he can bring a third car online, and continue to work around the stuck car that will wait until the morning maintenance shift.

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