Atomic Taco (Flickr)

Last week we reported that, in a bid to improve tunnel operations and ULink reliability, Route 550 would be surfaced to 4th Avenue westbound each weekday afternoon. Confirming the change, OneBusAway showed trips departing Bellevue from 2:35-5:25pm as running on the surface.

But in an email update, Sound Transit’s Bruce Gray says the agency is backing off the idea for now:

Wanted to drop you a quick note about the 550. Those inbound trips in the afternoon will not be coming out of the tunnel initially. We’re going to keep that in our pocket as an option to roll out quickly if needed to keep things running smoothly after the big [Metro] service change on the 26th

27 Replies to “Route 550 Staying in Tunnel for Now”

  1. Can’t speak to this from an operational standpoint, but from a customer experience standpoint this is good news. East Link (even in its current, temporary bus form) should remain in the tunnel for wayfinding purposes if nothing else.

    1. Agreed. Since route 550 is the “shadow” route for East Link, it should stay in the tunnel.

      Maybe there’s some other route which they could put on the surface if needed. I think 550 is the only route which is going to become East Link, so it could be literally any other route.

  2. Also with the Routes 71-72-73 out of the tunnel after this Friday, I cannot see any problems, since there will be less buses in the tunnel. However, there will be occasional calls on the radio for inbound buses to use surface streets for breakdowns in the tunnel. I think ST’s bigger problem will be overcrowding of LINK, as already witnessed today (and UW and SCC are on Spring Break now, just thinking what happens next Monday – Off topic).

    1. That force Sound Transit’s hand on 3-car trains (and expanding the fleet) sooner than expected. I like the New Jersey transit solution of expanding their light rail vehicles with extra segments, which is a much cheaper alternative for fleet expansion:


      This would make a 3-car train about the same length as our current 4-car trains, with even more capacity. And it would look cooler and provide more seating options.

      We could also seriously use more bike space on the trains. Apparently Copenhagen charges extra to bring a bike on, and this could help manage demand.

      1. Can anybody who knows trains think of any reason not to do this? For instance, how long will it take, and what will it cost?


      2. @Mark Dubin

        The only concerns I can think of are whether or not the maintainence facility can handle expanded cars and if they can make the tight westlake turn.

      3. The big problem is always who is up and running and building what right now.

        Chicago just signed a deal to replace its 1980s fleet, but those cars were not too long ago rebuilt by Alstom. Fastest and cheapest might be new light rail car bodies with the relatively new running gear from under those cars.

        Then again Alstom has a production line going for the Ottawa cars and Bombardier has a 50 mph version of its 100% low floor car for the Toronto cross-town line. It could be cheap and easy to extend production of those for Seattle rather than come up with something unique and different just for Seattle.

        Hell, Ottawa won’t need the cars it currently is receiving for some years yet. Plop a 1500v power module on the roof from the French suburban network and borrow those for a few years until ST gets its own additional fleet or until Ottawa actually needs them.

    2. What was the overcrowding today? How much and when? I took it at 10:30am from Westlake to UW and ridership was disappointingly low: a dozen or two but not as many as the 71/72/73X were. More people got on or off at Capitol Hill. Of course it’s just the second day.

      1. Keep in mind UW is on Spring Break this week, so there’s much lower ridership to/from UW in general.

      2. A train broke down in the Beacon Hill tunnel during peak, so ST had to single-track for awhile. Apparently there weren’t any northbound trains through the DSTT for 20+ minutes, so the first few that made it were slammed.

        I caught one northbound at Westlake around 6:30pm and there were a few empty seats and a good number of standees. Not crowded, but more people that I was expecting.

      3. I rode in from Columbia City Monday morning. The 7:32 train we expected to take arrived late and could not fit everyone waiting at the station. That was Columbia City…so it probably took on no more passengers all the way downtown. The next train was not crush loaded, but also arrived slightly late and was very full by the time it reached ID.

  3. Any thoughts on how to direct people travelling between stations in the DSTT to use Link and not buses? During peak times Southbound buses get bogged down by commuters headed to Sounder and similarly in the AM travelling north from Int’l Dist.

    Is it reasonable to not allow boardings on terminal routes (like 550 north), or even to not allow exits within the tunnel on originating routes? The second is likely less so, I doubt a bus driver is going to keep someone on their bus who doesn’t want to be there.

    Keeping Link moving through the tunnel should be the priority and with 3-car Link sets every 6 mins it should have the capacity too. Thoughts?

    1. Years ago Metro used to ask people not to board express buses for intra-downtown trips. It would probably not be viable in the tunnel because all buses are supposed to stop at all stations anyway and people are used to taking any bus or train down to Intl Dist or Spokane Street if it goes there.

  4. 1. Put a bag over every fare box before bus enters Tunnel. “Proof of Payment” warnings are already on platforms. For awhile, fare inspector at every staircase good enough.

    2. Give security guards quick course in both wheel-chair assistance and transit information. Smoothly operating system is security measure #1 for these people.

    3. As much as possible, have supervisors at portals dispatch buses into the tunnel in whatever order works best- possibly sorting inbound and outbound, for instance.

    4. Which should maybe be first: Get drivers and supervisors trained up to speed in working as a team. Have heard appalling things lately.

    Like that Metro hasn’t given any instructions yet on changed condition. And worse: that their instructions have always been: “Just enter the Tunnel when you get there”.

    Do those four things and DSTT will be able to handle the 550 just fine. Though system will still work very well with only the 550 and the 41. Short headways. Very heavy loads. And both of them express routes to single destinations.

    Run the DSTT as always, and fire department might just order the buses removed. As I doubt I’ll be the only one to publicly insist they do so. Platforms are barely wide enough to handle evacuation of one train-load.

    And one bus blockage at any station could back up trains all the way to both the U-district and the Airport. Which will take a lot more coordination to clear than above control measures will need to keep moving smoothly.

    Mark Dublin

  5. Link LRV are not really off-the-shelf items. ST uses unique 1500 volts. See the draft 2016 SIP page 116 to see when they plan to procures more LRV.

    1. Yes and no.

      Chicago suburban trains are 1500v, and there is a fair amount in Asia and Europe.

      Also, that figure is heavily a nominal number. A few years back TriMet tuned the substations on the west side of the river to produce closer to 900v rather than 750v. It’s within the range of the equipment and saves them a bit of line losses. The difference between 750v and 1500v might not be as great as it might seem from the numbers themselves.

      1. The general operating envelope is roughly +/- 25%, so 750v nominal works out to ~560-940v. 900v would clearly be within the envelope, but the low end of 1500v nominal is 1125v, well above the top of the envelope for 750v nominal equipment, and a 1500v nominal system could easily “drift” up to over 1800v. 750v nominal equipment simply isn’t rated to handle those voltages.

  6. By same criteria, probably also good, and fair, to include the 101. That way, all three major directions will have a straight fast bus ride.

    But Scott, your second paragraph scares me. Because of all suggestions this morning, that’s the one that’ll probably get implemented.


      1. Many thanks, QA. A what kind of a phone- I hate! letting a goldurn phone get smart with me! But you know, I was wondering why I had to get so much longer of a cord when U-Link opened.

        Well, still glad I upgraded from those two cans and a string. But good side was that if that NSA ever tried to spy on me, I could see the extra string attached to the main one and tie it to the bumper of a streetcar.

        Hey, QA- what’s that NSA anyhow? And who’s Edward Snowflake?


  7. The inbound 550 takes up so little time, with almost everybody exiting the bus and almost nobody entering the bus, that this decision should be a no-brainer. Especially with the 71, 72, and 73 already gone from the tunnel. Moving the inbound 550 upstairs would have almost no impact on tunnel operations, but losing the direct connection between the I-90 ramp and the downtown tunnel would have a large impact on people who ride the 550.

  8. I understand the logic of the decision but this is disappointing news. One bus is too many in the tunnel. They cannot reliably load/unload without risk of significant delay. With more people on more trains a small delay snowballs quickly. Wheelchairs, bus breakdowns, and people paying in nickels are all commonplace scenarios that introduce delay and uncertainty. The trains should run on time! (Not really too concerned knowing there is an end date to joint ops and certainly looking forward to the day when the only place gas guzzlers can slow the train is the Rainier Valley.)

    I predict they pull this out of their back pocket sooner than later anyway. I think just the added dwell times for the trains themselves when offloading crush loads will strain the system at 6 minute frequencies.

    Off topic but I got a really cool sticker on Saturday that shows the current and potential future light rail lines in the region. I’ve already found it very useful when discussing our bright future with coworkers and other non-transit wonks. Anyone know where I can get another?

    1. It’s probably a Seattle Subway or Transportation Choices Coalition map, so more wished-for than definite. What’s definite is the ST2 extensions. For that you can get a map from ST but you’d probably have to make the sticker. As to “potential” future lines, ST’s proposal is all up in the air but we’ll know more after tomorrow’s board meeting. Seattle Subway’s map is basically everything ST says it wants plus their own additions and tweaks; if you give it to a coworker they may be disappointed if it doesn’t turn out like that.

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