Starting October 1st Metro will begin to actively platoon buses between 2:30-6:30pm, in addition to having fare inspectors at the rear doors, called “loaders”, at some bus bays from 4-6 pm in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT). These changes are an effort to mitigate the large delays which will be caused by the elimination of the Ride Free Area (RFA). We have written about that extensively here, here, here, and here. Metro has already implemented some obvious and low-cost changes, like adding a 2nd Link “sweeper” at Westlake Station and allowing inbound buses to pull as far forward as possible.

Platooning will occur when multiple buses entering the DSTT arrive at the same time. Buses that stop at the forward bays (A Northbound and C Southbound) will enter the tunnel first, decreasing the likelihood that they will need to stop twice at each station, thus reducing delay. This will add delay to SR-520 and I-90 buses at tunnel entrances but will reduce overall delay during travel through the tunnel. From my understanding this idea was part of the original plan for tunnel operations but has not been implemented until now.

The second change is for loaders to be located at the highest ridership stops in the tunnel, which include all bays at Westlake and University Street Station as well as two loaders at Bay C at International District Station. Loaders will stand at the rear door of buses and check the fares, allowing ORCA card users or those with a transfer to enter at both doors. This will reduce loading time at these select stops but will still result in increased boarding time over current conditions at these bays. All other bays will be pay as you enter via the front door only, the slowest boarding system possible. Passengers paying with cash will still be required to pay as they enter at the front door as no mitigation for this has yet been identified.

While living in Stockholm loaders were deployed at all major bus-rail transfer points during peak periods. From my experience there, loaders need to be clearly identifiable even from existing Metro employees and security personnel and must actively manage passengers, especially when the rear door is further from where people are waiting. Passengers also need to know that if they walk towards the rear doors, that loaders will hold the bus for them, or else people will stay in line at the front of the bus.

All in all this is good to hear but really is the least Metro could do to mitigate the already poor speed and reliability of the tunnel, which will likely get worse following elimination of the RFA in September.

56 Replies to “Metro to Platoon Buses, Use Loaders in DSTT”

  1. Adam I think you read it wrong:

    Loaders will …[allow] ORCA card users or those with a transfer to enter at both doors.

    Loaders will not process tickets, transfersor cash fares.

    1. Not “processing” transfers sounds like a recipe for inefficiency. The whole point of these loaders is to speed up the boarding process in the tunnel. If a person with a paper transfer tries to board at the back door, the loader can do one of two things:
      1) Wave them through.
      2) Inform them that the policy is for ORCA card holders only to board at the back door, and that people with paper transfers must get in line with the cash payers, wheelchair users, and others to board at the front door.

      Which option fills the bus quicker?

    2. Read it right, wrote it wrong… same difference though. Thanks for the correction. I wrote it wrong because in any sane system transfer holders would obviously be able to use the rear door.

      I think I understand why this is the case but it’s pretty stupid to require someone that already paid to use the front door. This will just confuse people. This is a shining example of Metro trying to do something better but getting hamstring but bureaucracy and lack of vision.

      1. This is ridiculous.

        First, there should be no paper transfers.

        Second, there should be no cash payment in the tunnel.

      2. I can understand sending transfer users to the front door, especially if they need to upgrade the transfer.

      3. If they need to transfer, they need an ORCA card.

        In fact, if they need to board the bus in the tunnel at all, they should pay before they reach the platform.

      4. While I agree with Kyle, this announcement definitely qualifies as moving in the right direction!

      5. I also don’t disagree with Kyle – but the proposal is what it is. I was only suggesting a reason why transfers could not be used at the back door.

      6. Transfers probably need to be counted at the farebox for statistical gathering. The handheld ORCA readers probably don’t have that feature.

      7. I actually like the idea of giving only ORCA holders the express line at the back of the bus. It says “You could get in this line, too, if you get an ORCA.”

        The fun part is watching the cash payers push past the ORCA users to get to the party seats at the back of the bus.

  2. “Passengers paying with cash will still be required to pay as they enter at the front door as no mitigation for this has yet been identified.”

    Make the tunnel ORCA-only. There are multiple TVM at each tunnel station.

    Also cards should be cheaper. Maybe free when you load $20 or buy a pass?

    1. I thin the ads on the sides of buses say that they are waiving the card fee if you load at least $5. But that may be at only some retailers or something; I don’t really know,

    2. ORCA should be free. If you want to discourage people from throwing them away, have a small *refundable* deposit on the card. *Refundable*.

      If this were done, it would be possible to get far more people to switch to ORCA.

    1. The problem is ‘paid for what?’… A metro trip? How many zones? An ST express bus? How many counties? Link?
      Even if we had a flat fare, the $ has to get allocated to ST vs. Metro.

      1. This could all be solved with money*. But Metro wants to pretend that removing the RFA saves money.

        * New Metro ticket machines at each station, plus good signage, plus ticket roaming ticket checkers on the buses at both ends of the tunnel.

    1. Yes. Its the SL Access card. When I was there they only had time period passes, no e-purse functionality… but then again SL and most European transit agency strongly push people in to longer time-period cards rather than single trip payment in the US.

  3. This should be comical as the doors on the DE60LFs are wide enough for two people to board simultaneously while there will only be one loader on one side of the door.

    Sounds like a decision was made by someone who never rides the system!

    1. Even though the back doors are wide enough, in my experience people still board one-at-a-time. It drives me nuts.

      1. I agree. I think interior seat configuration contributes to that. We need more 2+1 seating, especially close to doors.

  4. It looks to me like allowing inbound buses to make their stop anywhere has helped quite a bit. I almost never see buses lined up beyond the back of the platform anymore, and I used to see that all the time.

    I hope they won’t be holding inbound buses full of passengers unless there’s a front-bay bus right behind at least two of them. The buses that really have to stop at the rear bay will be empty as they’re held, so it’s not such a big deal for them. It already seems to take an excessive amount of time to get inbound buses from the north through the staging area and into the tunnel proper; I think more delays there wouldn’t be perceived very well.

  5. Why don’t bus operators attempt to do platooning all the time, without the help of supervisors? If buses are waiting at Convention Place Station or International District Station, why don’t the Bus A/C buses go first?

  6. So are they going to line up busses in all four slots, or just in the two bays? For example, if a 41 and a 71 pull up in bay A, are all the people going to have to scramble to get to the correct doors, or will the 41 and 71 always stop in the same spots in the same order?

    1. They will still use the Bays, so for the 41 and 71 it won’t matter. However if a 255 comes when a 71 or 41 comes the 41 or 71 will go first followed by the 255.

  7. Agree with two comments above: one, that fare collection aboard Tunnel buses will delay service, and two, that every Tunnel passenger should have fare already paid when their foot hits the platform- not the bus step.

    Also think that farebox use in the Tunnel is a needless waste of both operating time and serious money spent in designing Tunnel stations for off-board fare collection.

    Agree with the idea of platooning buses, but plan needs to be more aggressive. No Tunnel bus should have to make more than one stop per station. And no Tunnel vehicle, bus or train, should have to stop at all between stations.

    But however things stand in September, one measure is critical to having next shakeup be anything but a disaster: start practicing in service right now. It should not take long for everybody involved to see reality, and know how to deal with it this fall.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Sometime during the early days of Tunnel operation (ca. 1991), I saw what was obviously a test or training run with a four-bus platoon. Back then, “old” Metro was talking about a second order of dual-mode buses and diversion of additional lines into the Tunnel. This was not carried out.

      Mark Dublin’s point about practice is well taken: during the initial Tunnel operating period, the “average” bus required significantly longer to travel between the “end stations” (Convention Place and International District) than schedules permitted. I remember hearing of one report that a bus required 20 minutes “end to end.” Lack of operating experience was the major apparent problem.

  8. I don’t see the benefit of retaining two bays. The tunnel stations are basically downtown bus stops, but without the capability to do skip stops. How often do four buses actually arrive at once? It would be more efficient to use the normal downtown bus stop rules and have the fourth bus in line stop a second time if needed, especially during the periods when they’re not staging.

    Also — this almost cries out for a technology solution. In the tunnel all the buses are the same length, so you could identify four individual boarding locations. They know electronically which buses are coming and in which order (which makes the failure to provide that on dynamic signage painful), so with some more electronic signs people could prepare themselves by queuing up if only that information was provided just like they do at the Bellevue Transit Center.

    My bigger concern is for the surface streets. I haven’t seen any indication that Metro is preparing the massive customer outreach campaign they should be to train passengers to exit using the rear door (and preparing the drivers to allow it!) This system won’t work without a totally new understanding by riders about how to ride the bus. I hope they’re giving this some thought!

    1. I should have added – Wonderful News that Metro is paying attention to tunnel operation in a new way. Bravo!

      1. I like that idea. It’s used similarly, but with manual control, at the Rental Car Facility at SeaTac. Every coach has an RFID tag, and every tunnel segment has an RFID reader at each end of the tubes.

  9. So, 10 operators will get to pick “loader” duty? This sounds like a scam to jack up the cost of the RFA conversion, and then blame the minority party on the county council for losing money through the conversion.

    Nothing against the operators, but this work is waaaay below your skill level.

    I can just see the right-wing fbloggers making fun of loaders getting $30+ an hour.

    1. These are 2-hour-per-day shifts. Odds are it would be tacked onto the beginning or end of a driving shift, rather than a standalone shift.

      Sure you could try and get a contract through some temp agency to provide $10/hr labor for it, but turnover on a 10 hr/week position would be insane, and you’d need to constantly be training new hires. It’s like rush-shift workers at restaurants or retail – sometimes it’s just better to pay a full-timer overtime than to try and hire/train a reliable employee who’s willing to work 10 hours a week at shit pay.

      1. Certainly, there are other positions (tunnel clipboard holders and fare enforcement officers) who could have done this.

        Are you saying this is an overtime pick? The fbloggers will really be all over that.

      2. Oh, and by shifting operators, trained at great expense, to the low-skilled/low-stress loader pick, that means someone else has to be trained, at great expense, to take their place doing the highly-skilled operating job. We’ll be taking senior drivers off the road during peak to do non-skilled work, and replacing them with the most junior part-timers.

        Those junior part-timers will be making half of what the loaders are making per hour, and not making ends meet. That’s just a whole lot of wrong, and further ammo for those saying Metro is full of fat.

      3. Or, look at it this way: 10 of the most senior operators get to pick 20-hour shifts of loader luxury duty, making 5 FTEs of operators. If this is actually an OT bonus pick (and I get the feeling that’s not what it actually is), then the cost of the loaders is 7.5 senior operator FTE’s … well, maybe a little bit less once you factor in the sunk cost of benefits.

        That’s a sizable chunk of lost bus service.

      4. I think that having operators do this is a mistake. Agree on the “below skill level” issue as well as being a P.R. flummox. Also, operators are being told – especially with Rapid Ride – that our role in fare collection will be reduced. This is going the other direction. I know of no provision in the contract that defines the job of “loader” either. As far as pick goes, I wouldn’t touch this one myself.

  10. As stated above, I believe the station platforms of the the Transit Tunnel should be “fare paid zones” only. Maybe if the upper levels of the stations (since they are not used for anything really)could be the locations to install fare gates. Although this would almost eliminate fare evasion in the Transit Tunnel and not on other parts of the bus routes, it would be a step to make the Transit Tunnel as efficient as possible for loading and unloading of buses and light rail.

    1. That only works if (1) all the fares are the same; and (2) fare checkers are hired to patrol the tunnel platforms.

      Fare enforcement is outside the operators’ job description (while, apparently, holding an ORCA reader is not), so the county would have to spill out money to hire the fare enforcers. The need for the enforcers would be for all tunnel hours, not just PM peak.

      1. The fares don’t have to ALL be the same, they just have to be the same on all the BUSY routes. It’s still possible to check “did you pay the extra fare” on less-busy routes.

        Both your points are well-taken however. You would need fare enforcers. And you would need a simplified fare system. Seattle *badly needs* a simplified fare system *anyway*, though…

  11. BTW, pay-as-you-enter is not the slowest boarding system possible. That would be pay-as-you-exit.

    1. Actually, pay-onboard-as-you-enter-and-also-pay-onboard-as-you-exit, which has been used occasionally historically to implement two-zone systems with cash-only payment, is probably the slowest system which has ever been used.

  12. The other day I got stuck on a train multiple times between tunnel stations. The Link driver came on the PA and told us that we were stuck behind “an Aurora Village bus”… and each time he made the announcement, he sounded more and more annoyed.

    It’s bad enough now. I dread Fall when the station just might grind to a halt. Either get the buses out or make the stations pre-paid or ORCA-only zones. It can be done.

    1. Clearly the best solution is for riders to pay before reaching the platform. Why the hell is it so hard for Metro to do that? The tunnel stations were all designed for it.

      1. Payment for rides on LINK are tap on/tap off and charged by distance traveled. Not so, Metro buses, which use a one-tap system.

      2. If we make all tunnel routes single-fare, then we could still have pay-once-as-you-enter. Let people tap off and be reimbursed the $1.75 if they ride completely within the tunnel. Split in-tunnel trips between ST and Metro proportional to the number of buses/trains being run in the tunnel.

      3. One of the benefits of the fare change is to incentivize using Link for intra-tunnel trips (which is ideal, as they have the fasting boarding and deboarding). So, I see any way to reduce bus fares within the tunnel as counterproductive.

      4. There should really be no problem in making the tunnel platforms a ‘paid zone’. Hell, this was solved 100 years ago in Boston’s streetcar tunnels (now the Green Line). What is the *problem*? So it requires a slight change to the fare system. Just do it!

  13. Will the loaders have any say on how many can fit onto a bus? i.e. will they be able to say “Sorry folks, bus is full!”? There is a lot of clever packing in around the rear door and I’m curious if some of that will no longer be allowed.

  14. What I see happening is going from having two payment systems downtown — PAYE and free — to having four or more systems:

    (1) PAYE, at the front door.
    (2) Pay at the bus TVM (on 3rd Ave only, but not in the tunnel), and show your ticket at the front door.
    (3) Tap at the rear door (in the tunnel only, during PM peak, when a loader is available).
    (4) PAYE, at the front, during peak, with an ORCA, and ask that the zone setting be set to one zone, so that you don’t get charged for two. This is honor system, of course, and means that you’ll be taking up as much time as, or more than, a cash-and-change fumbler.

    If we can’t get ORCA VMs adjusted to sell tickets for tunnel buses, then we can bring some low-cost bus TVMs into the tunnel stations to print out the different bus tickets.

    There ought to be a policy of no fare-zone-fumbling on the ORCA readers downtown. If you get on a two-zone bus, you pay two zones. If you want to pay for only one zone, tap off within the first zone. (Switching the zones on the readers should be a straightforward operation performed once or twice during a run.) The same works just fine for inbound buses, too. There is no reason to have zone fumbling, and plenty of reason and programming methods not to do it.

    1. I understand that in London, not wanting to implement tap-on-tap-off for buses, they simply made the bus fare flat. That is also an alternative.

      There are multiple sensible ways to set up fare payment, but it seems like Metro is incapable of considering them, despite the fact that people at this blog have been pointing out what is done in many other cities… so indeed, it does sound like there will be four or more different payment/boarding procedures. Yuck.

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