zargoman/Flickr (file photo)

Last Monday night I happened to witness a service disruption on Link. It was not Sound Transit’s finest hour. I got the story from Link Operations Director Paul Denison via spokesman Geoff Patrick:

The service disruption began after a 7:57 p.m. departure from Westlake experienced a brake fault and had to be removed from service. Several minutes later we began turning trains back at Stadium. The malfunctioning train was cleared at 8:46 p.m. and we were back in full revenue service within about 15 minutes… the first voice announcement in the tunnel was at 8:36 p.m., which was a half hour after train service in the tunnel was suspended and is not up to our standards. Paul wanted me to relay to you that while there will be delays from time to time, we recognize that how we communicate with our customers determines how well [we] did in responding… Paul is going to look into this further since the control center didn’t do as good of a job as they are capable of in this instance.

There were well over 100 people on the platform at Westlake. It’s a shame that some of them probably don’t have enough experience with the system to know that this is rare, and are now telling their friends that Link is fundamentally unreliable. But I’m not here to slay Sound Transit; disruptions happen. The communications breakdown isn’t acceptable, but people drop the ball sometimes and they’re going to look into it.

Instead, this episode emphasizes how useful real-time arrival information is. It’s a nice-to-have during rush hour, but when headways are long — particularly during construction or service disruptions – they’re critical. It’s another level of redundancy that prevents fiascos like Monday from occurring.

32 Replies to “Real Time Data is Not Just for the Good Times”

  1. Does sound transit or metro plan on putting cell antennas in the downtown transit tunnel and beacon hill station? That way smart phone users could use onebusway in the tunnel

      1. If you look at the renderings for the original bus tunnel environmental impact statement, the platforms all have what look like overhead real-time arrival information signs.

        This was in 1983.

    1. Only if it gets stuck in a tube. With proper approval, and enough space, we can pass – I’ve done it at least once. The spacing was tight enough that I could only get the front door close to the platform so everybody had to enter and exit that way.

      I think they even have procedures to run buses down tubes the wrong way but I don’t recall if it has ever happened in practice or if that was a procedure from the pre-Light rail days. I checked my training materials and couldn’t find any information on it.

      1. I recall seeing the one-tunnel operation plan in the original Downtown Seattle Tunnel Project Operations Plan, and if I remember right it mentioned that it could be used if a train was stuck, once the tunnel was converted to mixed-mode operation (which, at the time that plan was written, was expected to be no more than 10 years).

  2. Word to the Sound Transit Board on real-time arrival information: Please just do it. Paul Denison is too good a railroad man to have to waste his time making excuses.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Tempting conclusion. But Sound Transit has a good defense in its progress with current U-Link boring.

      Problem I see in Seattle is that voters in general and passengers especially won’t make the effort to get onto their elected representatives to get ongoing defects corrected. Staff’s recourse is to make excuses- since they can’t explicitly tell voters to tell reps to vote them the money to get the job done right.

      Voters shouldn’t have to be told. This is our transit system. Officials above are all our employees. A lot of e-mail to our representatives, with term “ADA” emphasized should do the trick on this one.

      Mark Dublin

      1. Meant comment on voter participation to apply to comment on agency competence. Still haven’t got order of entry down completely.

        Mark Dublin

  3. When a business, or in this case, a transit agency, can’t even do the simple, little things very well (making a timely announcement), how can I trust that they will be able to do the big things well?

    1. I had the same reaction. Sound Transit has the one dinky line, no connections, a finite and small number of trains to track at any one time, and it doesn’t apparently have a plan in place that triggers a real-time announcement immediately when something like this happens. The conclusion I draw is not “let’s get some cute techno whiz bang thing the cognoscenti can figure out online.”

  4. My mobile device doesn’t get a signal in the tunnel. How about making loudspeaker announcements?

  5. I wonder how hard it would be for the LCC to make regular service status announcements during rush periods about the status of the system – not just Link, but Metro’s tunnel routes as well – in the style of TfL’s announcements on The Underground. Even if nothing is wrong, hearing regular announcements that all is well helps build confidence in the system, and build good will for the time things aren’t working perfectly.

    1. Sure thing, Alert Level 1 (Claxon) “Everything is operating normally”

      (Before 8pm there is a Customer service rep who is supposed to do the messages.)

    2. Please use signs, not loudspeakers to announce the status of service. It is extremely obnoxious forcing everyone to listen to the same messages over and over again every couple of minutes. Visual signs are much more considerate.

      1. They do have both loudspeakers AND scrolling signs, which is an ADA requirement, but the “robo-voice” announcements sound so unnaturally artificial, often with the emPHAsis on the wrong syllABle, plus the voice is about double normal conversational speed, with no natural pauses between words like an actual human speaks, so that they’re practically unintelligible. The service disruption announcements seem to be the worst in this respect.

      2. You have no idea how hard it is to get “Sam” (the voice software) to pronounce things correctly. You should hear her say “Snowqualmie”.

  6. I certainly hope that during the entire time that service was suspended in the tunnel, the variable message signs were doing NOTHING but constantly looping the message:

    Link service temporarily suspended. Please board shuttle route #97 on surface

    If the boards were just sitting there saying “Pioneer Square station” interspersed with the usual public safety messages, why do we even have them?

    1. Indeed the point is that there were no such announcements until 8:35.

    2. Question: In this case, as buses were still in the tunnel, why did they have #97 on the surface? Are there not enough DE60LF(R)s to use some for shuttle directly underground?

  7. I was stuck in a similar situation last year during rush hour at University Street Station. There were no buses or trains for over 45 minutes and not a single useful announcement was made over the PA, nor the reader boards. But what annoyed me the most was that there were 4 supervisors on scene and not a single one of them bothered to go to the platform and let people know what was going on.

    What they should do is can the useless security guys and have actual station supervisors who can answer questions, relay information to riders during disruptions, and handle security duties.

  8. “Instead, this episode emphasizes how useful real-time arrival information is. It’s a nice-to-have during rush hour, but when headways are long — particularly during construction or service disruptions – they’re critical.”

    Damn right. Especially during weekends when the tourists come to town… and not just me! More and more hotels are making reference to the light rail spine – even the Bellair Aiporter Shuttle is marketing light rail as a connector!

  9. This is insane. The result of a single malfunctioning train should be having to wait for the next train…not waiting 4 or 5 cycles…over an hour!

  10. This makes me wish that we had the type of information that the Stockholm system has. In the subway (and with many of the busier bus stops), there is real time information about the arrival of the next train that is accurate to the minute (Bus estimates are within a minute or two). When something goes wrong (actually wrong), a real person gets on the horn and makes an announcement about what happened and how long they expect it to be. That information is also put up on the signs if it is something more than a minute or two, which are scrolling dot matrix. They do that at that station and the next couple of stations that are affected.

    To put it in the Seattle context, that would basically mean that all of the stations in the DTT would have real time information scrolling on it that tells why the trains have stopped and when they can expect to be back up, and in the Westlake (and likely University Station… maybe even all of them, since we have so few) there would be actual announcements telling people what happened.

    That’s something that should be doable here without an issue. What would be even more impressive is if there was a back up plan like the Stockholm system has: If the train goes down and starts to really affect the system… there’s a whole network of replacement buses and bus stops that kick in. Basically, Stockholm has a back up BRT system that kicks in automatically when the subway or the other trains go down. That might be too much to ask of Metro and Sound Transit, but using the installed dot matrix signs to actually give us information shouldn’t be that hard.

  11. I am guess that the individuals responsible for this screw-up do not and have not ever either used or been dependent on transit? They commute to and from work in their cars and have never known what it is to be an actual user of a transit system?

    This is a problem at transit agencies throughout the USA.

    And it needs to end.

  12. I was also trying to use Link at the moment this situation occurred. I walked up the platform at Stadium Station as a northbound train was arriving. As I got to the platform to wait for a southbound train, the northbound train announced there was a stuck train in the tunnel and that it was going out of service. All passengers were directed to deboard and a supervisor lead them over to the adjacent bus stop.

    I was left as the only one on the platform and a fare enforcement officer along with the train operator asked if I was headed north or south. I told them south and the operator told me to get on the stopped train as they were planning to turn it around. Another operator boarded with me who said he was working the task of reducing 2 car trains to 1 car for the evening.

    I lucked out by being in the right place at the right time – I was surprised there was no email notification until it was all over. Metro is usually pretty good about sending out notifications, even if the delay is only 5-10 min. Guess someone was asleep at the wheel or they didn’t have the right information at the right time.

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