Man in wheelchair waiting for the lift to get on a Sound Transit bus

In 2005, Sound Transit put buses manufactured by Motor Coach Industries (MCI) into service on routes serving Pierce County, replacing old Orion high-floor buses. The MCI bus, similar in style to a long-distance intercity coach, received positive ratings from riders for its quiet and smooth ride at highway speeds. Two years after the MCIs debuted, Community Transit began trialing a completely different kind of bus to replace its aging articulated commuter buses. It brought in a double decker bus from Alexander Dennis.

Dubbed the ‘Double Tall’, it is the first double decker transit bus to operate in the Puget Sound region. When time comes for Sound Transit to replace the MCIs sometime after 2017, with the procurement process beginning a few years before then, double decker buses should be considered as an option. Why? Because double decker buses are more versatile, more accessible, more capacious, and have a few operational advantages over the MCIs.

The consequence of the MCI’s very high floor design, results in a comfortable bus that is less friendly to seniors and people with disabilities. The MCI’s floor is at least a foot higher than standard high-floor buses, resulting in steeper and larger steps. The process of boarding a wheelchair user is more complicated than on a low-floor bus. Combine that with the MCI’s narrow aisle and single narrow door and you get a recipe for delays at downtown stops resulting from the design of the bus.

While I am not a regular rider on routes that use MCIs and my experience is purely anecdotal, I have seen enough cases of long delays that would frustrate any transit rider. I’ve seen a driver spend 10 minutes at the Federal Way Transit Center getting the lift to work on a 574 (shown in the photo above). In downtown Seattle while waiting to board a 578, it took 5 minutes total for the lift to let someone in a wheelchair exit the bus. That 5 minutes accounts for over 10% of the total travel time between downtown and Federal Way.

The driver has to exit the bus to operate the lift. Multiple seats must be folded up and moved around to make room for a wheelchair. It is a step backward in accessibility from not just low-floor buses but also standard high-floor buses. This is the biggest weakness of this kind of bus. The Double Tall bus does not have this issue and a few advantages over the MCIs.

The Double Talls do cost almost $300,000 more than an MCI at $830,000 per bus but consider their advantages, which I think make up for the additional cost. The Double Tall seats 77 passengers with standing room for 20 on the lower deck. That’s 20 more seats than the MCI and 17 more seats than the articulated buses it replaced, while taking up less road space. The Double Tall’s lower deck is essentially the same as a low-floor bus, with the standard ramp and securement positions (and possibility for passive restraint). It has two wide doors for quick boarding and deboarding. And unlike articulated buses, the Double Tall works well in snow and icy conditions. The great views from the upper deck are icing on the cake.

All these features make double decker buses more versatile than the long-distance commuter oriented MCI, having proven themselves in high traffic urban environments like London and Hong Kong and here in Seattle as suburban commuter buses. With Double Talls regularly running between Seattle and Marysville, the same distance as Seattle to Tacoma, there is no doubt they would work just as well or better than the MCIs.

47 Replies to “Comparing MCIs to Double Talls”

  1. The only concern is their height. Community Transit can only operate these buses on certain routes because of limited height restrictions

    1. A lot of ground was covered in the previous post on CT’s 23 double talls… in particular some major destinations they can’t serve.

      There is also the issue of what the buses will be used for after Lynnwood Link opens.

      1. Run them on local routes. CT has done that with the New Flyer Inveros. Hopefully when Lynnwood Link opens, there’ll be plenty of demand for feeder bus service.

  2. It seems crazy to ever buy a new bus without a ramp or kneeling capacity. I see lifts as a short-term fix that has lasted far too long.

  3. Great post, Oran. I’ve always hated the MCIs from an operational standpoint. One door? Seriously?

    1. High steps going to the airport? with no space to put baggage carriers except in the narrow aisle? Yuck! (I realize there is a self-fulling prophecy that this is for airport worker commuters, not people catching flights.)

      The MCIs going downtown don’t bother me so much during peak because riders can hop on the next one while the wheelchair is loading on the front one, and all the seats do get filled once the lift operation is complete. However, other buses on 2nd and 4th will need to leave a space cushion to avoid getting stuck behind an MCI using the lift. (The same goes for getting stuck behind trollies on 3rd, but their lift operation is much faster.)

      I’ve seen too many Metro operators who don’t use space cushions. This isn’t just an operational efficiency concern in boarding zones. This is a basic safe driving concern.

      1. Tim: I have been on the 574 enough times to know that the underparts of the bus have *never* been used for luggage.

        I’m not sure if that is a PT/ST policy or not

      2. It’s not ST’s fault that suitcases without wheels have become so yesterday. The overhead compartments probably seemed like a good idea at the time.

      3. I rode the 574 today and asked the operator about the underboard storage area. She said they aren’t allowed to use them.

      4. Some of those cargo bays house equipment actually. The front left one stores the WDOLS and other Orca equipment.

      5. My mother hates the 594 because she has a small roll behind bag. Enough so that I tried to get her to use the Sounder and if the schedule hadn’t been impossible she would have.

    2. One door isn’t that big of a deal. I’ve commuted on the 577/578 and have ridden them when they were Metro routes on New Flyer artics. The bus essentially becomes one door due to Pay as you Enter or Pay as you Leave. With the elimination of the RFA, there will be no more PAYL, so that long line that normally exists in the aisle while exiting at the Federal Way TC will now exist outside the bus in the CBD.

  4. The MCIs were among the first buses that I rode regularly when I started using transit. I would make a weekly roundtrip from Parkland to Lynnwood to see my girlfriend (now wife), and I’ve gotta say, they were a dream to ride on. Their choice always baffled me though, between the capacity deficiencies compared to the 511 and the serious disincentive for wheelchair users I wondered what exactly the criteria for selection were. The single door never bothered me, I never experienced much on/off boarding, it was mostly all on or all off, but I wasn’t riding during peak times and my experience is purely anecdotal.
    I really hope the Double Talls get a look during the next procurement. One thing I’m curious about, can the DTs clear the Tacoma Link catenary lines? I don’t have the time to do a thorough Google search for the info.

    1. I linked to the previous post on this topic above. It doesn’t answer about the Tacoma Link catenary, but it does give other problems with Tacoma Dome Station.

    2. I don’t know the specifics, but I don’t think PT wants artics. They used to have some of Sound Transit’s New Flyer artics until they got moved to CT and/or Metro, can’t remember which.

  5. Think about how many stops a Greyhound bus on an intercity route makes in any one city. That’s the basic design criterion in the boarding capability of the MCI’s. In Seattle, problem could be solved by having 590-series routes terminate in a loop around International District tunnel station, with single stop on 5th south of Jackson.

    Double-talls are a good ride, though stair-case doesn’t make for fastest passenger access. Same as above might work at CPS. Lynnwood and Everett 60′ routes should long since have been in the DSTT.

    Mark Dublin

    Mark Dublin

    1. NJTransit has used MCI buses (or similar ones) for decades … nothing new having ST use them

      1. Just curious: Do NJ Transit routes in question require multiple close-spaced stops also used my 2-door buses?

        I can see these buses being ok for work with a very limited number of stops- like one downtown, think Port Authority terminals in New York or Bay Bridge terminal in San Francisco- and one or two at suburban transit centers. I like to ride them too.

        But every tool to its best use.

        Mark Dublin

      2. Yes. Those buses are excellent for point to point expresses. The NY/NJ buses have the luxury of a dedicated off-street boarding spot, unlike ST’s buses which make multiple stops on congested downtown streets. In a post-RFA world, the delays are only going to get worse.

      3. That sort of begs the question, should Seattle have a similar bus terminal facility to Port Authority say near ID/King Street?

    2. Agreed. I’ve often thought Seattle needs to yank most of the peak hour buses out of the downtown core and replace them with trunk routes that feed into transfer centers for long distance express buses. Roughly CPS for Northbound routes, possibly Stadium station for Southbound/Eastbound.

      Link could easily run a dedicated feeder train through the tunnel to collect passengers and get them to the buses. Upside: All those express buses don’t have to fight through downtown traffic. Downside: Transfers and the need for a large transfer facility

      1. You’re thinking something along the lines of a PABT type terminal for seattle. Makes sense, and it works in NYC with all the commuter buses. Convention Place station makes a good candidate for it. although i’m not sure how you’d build a LINK station there (probally not cheaply i’m sure)

  6. “The Double Tall seats 77 passengers with standing room for 20 on the lower deck. That’s 20 more seats than the MCI and 17 more seats than the articulated buses it replaced, while taking up less road space.”

    So, the double-talls capacity is easily 97. Articulated buses seat about 60, and they can hold 20 standees in the front section and at least 10 more standees in the back section, behind the joint in the bus, for a total capacity of 90 for an articulated bus. This is the capacity I have always used for articulated buses, but some posters on this site have disagreed with me on that.

    Is there anyone on this thread who does not think an articulated bus can easily accommodate 30 standees? I think there are approximately 30 overhead hand straps on an articulated bus, suggesting that they are designed for about 30 standees.

    1. Actually, the capacity of E500 can be up to 110 because the standing room is enough for over 20 people. That means E500s have more advantages than MCI.

      I just wonder, why does ST not consider E500s for CT-operated ST routes? I think it could be not a problem for 510 and 511 since there are already E500s serving the areas where 510 and 511 are serving.

      1. Theres also an advantage to standardize the fleet types, which makes equipment reassignement easier if need be. A standard diesel or hybrid coach (40 or 45″) can be moved to any property, 60ft coaches can move inbetween CT and KCM, whereas a double tall could only live at CT. ST has moved coaches around in the past, although its not a common occurance.

  7. What kind of buses are those new BoltBuses? They have fewer seats, but they also have a bathroom. I was told by a BoltBus driver last week that they are doing very well, and plan to add more buses and more scheduled trips in and out of Seattle. You can also pay in cash at the curb without a reservation, if there are seats available, which costs $25 from Seattle to Portland. There have usually been about 10 or 15 seats on each bus which are not reserved, so far. The drivers said those trips have been taking exactly 3 hours.

    1. well at least the East Coast ones are Prevost X3-45s … but they come from Greyhound’s (and Peter Pan in New England) fleet so whatever they are normally using I would imagine

  8. How does Sound Transit determine which routes get the Double Talls? For example, would the route 550 from Bellevue to Seattle get them? Besides them being too tall for certain routes/roads, what other factors go into ST deciding a certain route will never get them?

    1. Well community transit uses their double deckers on its commuter routes that have the demand and the overhead clearance to support them.

      Sound transit’s MCI buses are used only on routes operated by pierce transit. They are primarily used on their 590 series routes (excluding 596) but they’ve been used on the 574, 577, 578 and 586. They tried it on the 566 but didn’t work too well.

  9. I think Metro would benefit from Double-talls as well (as long as the routes are not clearance-restricted), maybe some double-tall ETB’s as well.

  10. The real nightmare was when Pierce Transit tried running a few MCIs (as well as “Bus Plus” cutaway vans) on Route 1 in the days immediately following the fueling station explosion… luckily that didn’t last long before they realized only the ST Phantoms were anywhere near suitable for running on local routes.

  11. I’m pretty sure the MCI’s are not friendly for folding bikes. I’ll take my onto any Metro operated bus but can’t imagine trying to maneuver my Brompton through that narrow isle, despite it’s compact size. Some of the older racks used by Sound Transit won’t hold 16″ wheels.

    In short: I use my Brompton to know that, except for an overloaded bus, I’ll be able to get onto the bus with my bike. The MCIs are a notable exception. I’d be reluctant to try an bring my Brompton with me to Tacoma except on Sounder.

  12. Took the MCI from Seatac to Tacoma. Yes, they are comfortable, but we could have saved at least 5 minutes on the trip if the bus had been low floor. The handicapped loading and unloading is very time consuming. I’ll trade schedule for comfort any day.

  13. I hate the MCI coaches. They’ll never see me ride them as a ‘choice’ rider. Oh, sure, they have a smooth ride and seem to have effortless acceleration, but I hate the loading/unloading process. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve watched my connecting bus arrive at Federal Way TC and depart again while I was still waiting to get off the MCI bus. Burned too many times, won’t do it again, started looking for a used car. Regardless of the RFA situation, I find it *very* valuable for a bus to have 2+ doors for boarding (in case of pay-as-you-leave) or deboarding (in case of pay-as-you-enter). Saving time is important, whether at the beginning of the trip or the end.

    So, in short, I’d love for Sound Transit to replace MCI coaches with double-deckers, wherever possible.

  14. First, I have not ridden the CT ‘decker’s, however I have ridden them in Victoria and seen some demo units floating around. I will say that I am not overall impressed with them, Compared to the MCI, for able bodied passengers you are moving the chokepoint from the front doors, to the upper level stairwell which is probably slower than an MCI (since you probably shouldn’t move the bus with people actively going up and down the stairs). Wheelchair loading would be faster though, and that is a disadvantage of the MCI design.

    Secondly, there are a lot of facility issues regarding the purchase and implementation of decker’s (or even articulated coaches). There is a very good chance that you’d have to rebuild your fuel house, bus wash, and maintenance bays to handle decker’s if the roof and ceilings are not high enough. Considering on a lift, you would have to have enough room above the coach to lift it say 8 feet off the ground and not hit anything above it (say 30-40ft of clear space above the maintenance bays), along with bay doors high enough to permit the coach to enter and exit the bay. Your bus wash would have to be rebuilt to wash a double deck vehicle (with all clearances, plus brushes to handle that much vehicle), and same for the fuel house making sure you have enough vertical clearance for the coach to pass through and be serviced. Articulated coaches have a similar issue, where instead of height you need to make sure you have enough room and turning radiuses to handle a 60ft bus, plus an extra set of lifts for the 3rd axle, and enough room to maneuver a coach into and out of the service bays. When a facility hasn’t been designed for this type of vehicle, or if you were not lucky enough (as in CTs case) it can be expensive, or impossible to retrofit without totally new construction. So onto of what it cost you to purchase the vehicle, you can be looking at several to tens of millions dollars’ worth of facility reconstruction to handle the new vehicles.

  15. ST should certainly look into double-talls for it’s CT operated routes and they are worth considering for the PT and MT operated routes.

    MT should also consider Double-Talls for some of its routes as well.

    Of course there are issues with fleet standardization, maintenance facilities, and clearance on the routes themselves that may make them a poor choice regardless of the operational advantages they may have. Still worth considering as older equipment needs to be replaced.

    As much as I love the ride on the MCI coaches, the problems in loading and unloading make them a poor choice for routes in our area. ST should not replace them with similar coaches when it is time to retire them.

  16. I work on Int Blvd in Seatac and take the 574 everyday from Lakewood since 2007. To me there’s no better ride than the MCI. The new buses ST is running since a few weeks are too low and when you sit in the first section, you can barely see what’s going on outside since seats there are so low. For those who say handicapped loading takes too long in the MCI I reply that I barely see one handicapped loading in any month. Would rather say every other month or so. (I do take the 574 at different times of the day, morning, afternoon and night). I do admit though that it is at times inconvenient for passengers with bags. Sometimes operators leave the handicapped section seats pushed back then people can place their bags here.

    1. Oh boy, I have a whole lot of things to say about the low-floor Gilligs but to sum them up: they suck.

      It’s not that the seats are too low. Rather, the windows are too high, compared to other low-floor bus models. Next time you see them, look at the amount of extra space between the front wheel and the bottom of the window.

  17. At first glance the use of Double Tall seems like a good idea. However, due to high limitations the are not practical. There is also the issue of maintenance. It takes a very high maintenance bay to work on them. Since Pierce Transit operators them for Sound Transit there are no facilities for them. The will not be able to enter the Tacoma Dome Station which is where all but one express route goes through. They were looked at a few years ago but the restrictions made them unusable. The MCI’s were a bad choice by Sound Transit because of the problems already talked about. It would have been better if they had purchased the newer articulated coaches.

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