From signal lever boxes to computerized control rooms.

44 Replies to “Sunday Open Thread: Controlling Trains”

  1. Wonderful, thank you. Kent used to be my corner of the world and I commuted to London by train, Sidcup to Charing Cross, the Dartford Loop Line. Often standing room only, even back in the sixties.

    1. @1:15: Looks like a bridge similar to the AmGen helix bridge at the bottom of the view.


        The Michigan Central ran these from Detroit up to Traverse City. Some cars had freight doors for milk cans and tractor parts. Many passengers had fly-fishing gear.

        Look tougher and more rugged outdoors than those admittedly pretty English carriages, don’t they? Miss these units, along with the country that felt like building them.

        Whose return I hope I live to see, except this time without the racism.

        Mark Dublin

      2. I’m actually from Traverse City, but I never saw these- they were before my time. The only trains at had in TC was a “dinner train” that occasionally caught fire and had to be shut down.

        There has been some hope in recent years that passenger service could return, but I have no idea where the money would come from (the state of Michigan has had issues even providing its citizens with clean water)

  2. I know this is a bit of a newbie question, but why do most Seattle transit supporters prefer a Ballard via UW alignment over a Ballard via Downtown alignment for Link in ST3?

    1. A few reasons I can think of:

      1. It has nearly as good ridership projections for much less money than Ballard-downtown.

      2. The current Ballard-UW route (44) is basically unimprovable as a bus route, while Ballard-downtown isn’t so bad even as a bus route.

      3. Ballard-UW still allows for Ballard-downtown (via UW), and for not much more time. In comparison, Ballard-UW (via downtown) is much more time than direct Ballard-UW.

    2. Also, it will be quicker to build. Ballard to downtown requires (at least according to ST) another downtown tunnel built. I also wonder if going over the ship canal would take a long time (as opposed to around it)

    3. Also, a “crosstown” line under 45th/46th/Market allows service deeper into Ballard – could stop at 15th/Mkt for transfer to D Line, then stop at 24th / Mkt which is much more central to Ballard’s density

    4. Yeah, what Skylar said. I think Mike Orr put it this way: Ballard to UW gets you both Ballard to UW, and Ballard to downtown. Two birds with one stone, so to speak. It isn’t intuitive, since driving takes so long, but if you do the math (and I did — it is only a couple minutes longer.

      One of the big advantages (if not the biggest) is that it integrates much better with crossing bus service. This, along with the second advantage that Skylar mentioned (the bus route is extremely fast — probably faster than driving in the middle of the day, let alone rush hour) means that there are a bunch of trips that are competitive with driving, even if they are a few miles from the train. Greenwood to Capitol Hill. Lake City to Ballard. Fremont to Montlake. As I said here:, Seattle is really not a land of high density locations. Most of the ones we have will soon have light rail (before ST3). But we have lots and lots of medium density areas. This makes the Vancouver/Toronto model (run frequent trains and connect them to bus lines) quite appropriate for us. Ballard to UW does this much better than Ballard to downtown.

    5. Some other things to consider:

      Ballard to downtown isn’t really a line. It is several lines. One should serve Belltown and one should serve South Lake Union on its way to Fremont. A third should be a cross-town line that connects the existing line, the Ballard line and the Fremont line. Instead, this proposed line attempts to do bits of all of that.

      Ballard to UW also has no water crossing, so that whole mess isn’t a factor.

      Ballard to downtown goes through Interbay and along Elliott, and there just isn’t too much there. It means fast running, but ideally you put money into places where people want to go. There’s a lot more between Ballard and UW than between Ballard and Lower Queen Anne.

      1. I agree. Ballard to downtown is a corridor — a trunk and branch corridor. Whatever bus service they build will simply extend from either end. There is no significant perpendicular bus service because Magnolia is too sparsely populated to the west and Queen Anne is too steep on its west side.

        Ballard to UW is the opposite, It manages to cut right through one of the few areas in the city that has a real grid, and the density to support it. That, plus the ability to serve the three largest urban centers* in the state of Washington make it an obvious choice.


    6. Ballard-UW would NOT be cheaper. Service to Ballard would overwhelm the downtown tunnel, so a new tunnel would be needed from Westlake to International District. If you built Ballard-UW instead, that means a new tunnel from UW to International District (since the Ballard traffic would be in it that much longer).

      1. >> Service to Ballard would overwhelm the downtown tunnel

        Nonsense ( The idea that hundreds of thousands of people will be coming from Lynnwood to overwhelm our poor little choo-choo trains is a myth. We are nowhere near as dense as Vancouver, yet they have two lines that converge and carry people just fine. Besides, ST has done a marvelous job of making sure that ridership won’t be too high by eliminating obvious stations (First Hill, Madison and 23rd, etc.).

        The whole point of spending billions of dollars on a train system is to carry massive numbers of people. Not to ensure that you can spread out, and relax on your way to Shoreline after work, but to ensure that you can get around all day, everywhere, in a timely manner. You might have to stand up for that section between downtown and the UW at rush hour. You may have to move out of the way as hundreds get out, and hundreds get on. Oh, the horror. Don’t worry, though, by the time the train leaves the city, three will be plenty of seats.

        Besides, let’s assume you are right. Let’s assume this is wildly popular. Isn’t that a good problem to have? Doesn’t that mean that farebox recover is sky high, and that we do all we can to increase headways? Of course it does. What then? What if, after all of that, our system is overflowing and we need to do something. How about this for a crazy idea: we run more buses. Run more buses along Aurora. This links together South Lake Union and Belltown with Greenwood and Phinney Ridge. This means people will stay on the bus from the north end to get to that part of downtown. It also means people from Ballard will get off of the train and take the bus to take the express. Run more buses along Elliot. As Skylar said, Ballard to downtown is fairly fast right now. Making it faster is pretty cheap (you simply leverage what we already have). Run a bus from Ballard to Belltown. As it turns out, even if this investment is made, Metro plans on doing exactly that, by building the 1015, shown here: Assuming the train doesn’t take that lane, the bus can be plenty fast to Belltown. A similar train could, at worse, slog through traffic to lower Queen Anne. If we really need it, we can then build another tunnel, just for buses (WSTT). That is much cheaper than rail, as it doesn’t need another bridge, or three hundred million spent raising it above a roadway that has no significant cross streets. Just give it signal priority and some minor fixes and it will get downtown at roughly the same time as it takes to round the horn. If you are headed to South Lake Union or Belltown, you take the bus. If you are headed to Westlake, central or south downtown, you take the train. Still worried about capacity?

        Build what makes sense to build now. Maximize ridership and functionality. If you really have a system that is ridiculously popular, then solve that problem later. Folks in New York have been living without a Second Avenue subway for a very long time, and I don’t think they would trade places with us in a minute. Building a wildly successful — too successful – system beats the hell out of the alternative, which is spending billions and still being left with a transit system that is much worse than driving for most trips (which seems to be what we are headed towards).

      2. Ross,

        I am not sure I can fully agree for peak hour congestion on Skytrain. They were having some serious reliability issues for awhile and Canada Line has been nicknamed Cambodia Line by a few transit nerds in Vancouver given it is filled to the gills and will not go above a 7 minute frequency due to the P3. Mind you it is efficient transporting 130,000 people per day. In all honesty Broadway has needed more for quite a bit and I am not sure if Evergreen line will put more pressure on Expo during peak hour which even last year you are pretty much trying to squeeze into crowded trains to go downtown. I would worry about after Lynnwood running out of capacity given the Northgate extension is expected to add about 50,000 riders a day to the system. I would guess at least 20-25k would be added from existing buses and truncations of peak hour routes to all day connections to Link stations but we will see what happens.

        I would agree on building a wildly successful system makes a lot of sense. Crowding says we need more and I am curious about soutbound AM loads from UW because some capacity might be gained from people getting off at UW but if North Seattlelites are taking up that capacity then you have an equivalent of the Orange Crush in the making without a way to easily up the frequency. We haven’t even figured out if the newest trainsets will have another vestibule to increase capacity on the high floor sections but I hope that would be taken into account with next generation vehicles.

  3. Haven’t taken a poll, Lukas. But I think best answer is like this. Shortest distance between two points is always a really tempting rail line.

    But an underground river, an oil field, or a sunken fishing fleet in front of your boring machine changes calculation. Reason further discussion needs a tunnel engineer and a crew foreman.

    For Ballard, I think most of us will go along with whatever we can start the fastest. Worst problem in Seattle is to get moving at all.


  4. Nice topic Oran – ‘Controlling Trains’ takes on new meaning when Americans visit nearly any modern foreign country.
    Passenger trains are the fastest, safest, cheapest, and most comfortable mode of transportation over all others. Most of the rest of the world demands it. We ask our few class one railroad barons for it and they laugh at us, or pull a Trumpy ™ and demand the goose lay yet another golden egg.
    Seattle to Portland is a mere 180 miles, city center to city center. We routinely drive it in 3 hours or more, or spend about the same time flying there after the meet and greet from TSA lines, after being sure we arrive early.
    I’m about to board a Spanish AVE train, covering 220 miles in just 2 hours, and this isn’t even considered high speed by todays standards.
    When citizens demand their next politician take the pledge to take back our ROW’s using Eminent Domain, and tell the FRA and it’s rulers to pound sand, we’ll always be scratching the margins to shave another minute off the Talgo Milk Run.

    1. Should have qualified “…safest, fastest,…” , for medium distance travel between cities.

      1. Right, exactly. Seattle to Portland is exactly the distance where trains make a lot of sense. Seattle to Chicago, not so much. It really is a shame that we spend too much time and money trying to make the second one palatable, while ignoring an investment in the first one.

        As much as I would love to see fast Seattle to Porland service, I would be thrilled with fast Seattle to Vancouver BC service. It really is a shame they don’t do the security checks while the train is running. It makes no sense, really. Check passports and check for drugs while the passengers are staring out the window. Run the dogs through the luggage area right before it leaves. In both cases, I fail to see the drawback to doing it that way. If you aren’t allowed into Canada, then they mark you as such and kick you off at the next stop. If you are looking for explosives, you want to find them as soon as possible. So doing all that, while also making the train run a bit faster, would make getting up to our nearest big city a lot more fun.

    2. My most recent trip to Portland, I looked schedules and chose the 3 hour 15 minute bus ride over the 4 hour train ride. It turns out that when there’s no traffic, the scheduled 3 hour 15 minute bus ride is actually just 2 hours 45 minutes. Sadly, I don’t see the Cascades ever getting to 2 hours 45 minutes in the foreseeable future.

      1. What’s really sad is chance of being stuck in traffic for two hours and forty five minutes aboard a vehicle with one tiny toilet. And no place to get coffee while I’m waiting.

        If that was my choice, I’d fly one of those prop-jets out of Sea-Tac where the seats don’t recline. At least when we did get in the air, I’d probably be in Portland sooner.

        And halfway into Downtown on MAX.


      2. But Point Defiance bypass isn’t the only improvement. WSDOT, for example, has a big project on speeding things up in Kelso, where’s there’s a big railyard that causes delays, for example, and I believe this will shave another 10 minutes. Lots of little things add up.

  5. I’m curious about Metro’s policy on boardings/deboardings when not at a designated stop. My wife and I were on the 31 going to Fremont on Wednesday. We had just turned onto Fremont from 35th, and were just short of the stop area due to a rush-hour bridge opening (side note – what’s up with opening the bridge at 5:45PM? Thought that wasn’t allowed). The driver would not open the doors despite the bus being adjacent to the curb, since we were about 20′ short of the stop zone.

    A 62 immediately pulled up next to us in the left lane. That driver started boarding/deboarding while in the left lane. People were milling through the traffic lane to get to the bus. Fortunately there were no mobility-impaired riders that needed to get on.

    That seems like it must be against policy, or does Metro really allow that much leeway for their drivers?

    1. Strictly speaking, drivers are not supposed to allow passengers to board/deboard outside of a zone. The exceptions are the Night Stop program and for obvious immediate safety reasons (bus is on fire or whatever). In practice, some drivers are a bit more willing to bend the rules than others. However if a supervisor were to spot them, they’d likely get written up.

    2. I get why the rule is in place, but it would be nice to give drivers more flexibility and common sense. Sometimes at crowded stops there’s a dance where a bus is at a stop, a 2nd bus pulls up behind halfway in the stop zone. 20 people start walking to the 2nd bus, but the doors don’t open. 1st bus leaves, 2nd bus pulls up then opens doors, so the crowd has to walk again.

      On the other hand, there have been (rare) times where a bus is gridlocked at a light. There’s nobody waiting to get on at the stop after the light, so the driver just lets people off at the near side even though it’s not technically a stop.

      Sometimes drivers could do things that bend the rules, but make the trip more efficient, which in turn saves people time and Metro money.

      The rule I’m curious about. If a bus is loading at a busy stop, and a 2nd bus is coming along, when is the 2nd bus allowed to skip the stop entirely and let the 1st bus to all the loading? Do drivers have a way of signalling that they have ample capacity to not need the 2nd bus to help out?

      1. Skylar, Jason, and Larry, more important than the “The Book”, a driver has to know what’s likely to happen next, and how fast. And then right after that or simultaneously.

        For 31 driver here: “How long ’til lane clears and I’m holding traffic behind me while my door’s open? And how many passengers will need a detailed explanation before they get off?”

        For 62 driver: “What if somebody breaks an ankle on the long step to the street?” Let alone “How fast can a bicyclist try to get through all these fenders and bumpers if they’re really late?” Also, “How will every driver here including me know when all these people out of the street?”

        And- if you were a supervisor on-scene, what would your take be? 31 driver would get quiet thanks if grateful passengers all got off safely in good order. Somebody trips over a bush- different matter.

        62 driver? Good supervisor would order 4-ways on, and personally firmly assist passengers to the sidewalk, standing between them and oncoming traffic. And then…What would YOU do to the driver?

        If Metro, before and after the merger has always had one dangerous and expensive weakness, it’s always been ability to train drivers to handle anything to do with passengers under stressed conditions.

        Also what used to be called “indoctrination.” Meaning necessary habits of mind. Like instinctive cooperation with every co-worker on shift. And also employment-securing understanding cost of the price of ten insulted passengers in a close election.

        DSTT joint-operations were designed with above paragraph as a given. Luckily, between now and 2019, fully achievable corrections will recover 25 years’ lost operating time.

        Mark Dublin

      2. Thanks, Mark. Just so it’s clear, I’m not really criticizing either driver. That stop is really bad, and has gotten worse after the 62 was added. At peak, there’s something like 24 buses/hour, at least half of which are articulated, all going through a stop that barely has enough room for one coach even without traffic and the bridge going up.

        I really don’t know what can be done to improve it, short of putting a stop on the bridge approach itself, but that would be tricky with the bike lane.

      3. One thing that might help would be to make the right-hand lane buses and right turns only between 34th and 35th. Running the 62 with 40-foot buses would also help. From what I’ve seen, outside of rush hour, the extra capacity of the 60-footers is simply not needed.

  6. Interesting to see all the single car or 2 or 3 car trains in the first segment. What are those called again, and did we end up making any progress on being allowed to have them in the US?

    1. Toronto is using a.version legal here on their airport train service.

      Lots of other issues such as cost of operation and the fact that they aren’t mass produced exist too.

    2. Yes, several DMUs are being used throughout the US. I am not sure how many are being used on freight operations directly.

      1. A couple of operations use off the shelf Eutopean cars, but use temporal separation as they are considered light rail cars by the FRA safety rules.

        SMART in California and TriMet’s WES are using FRA compliant DMUs. I don’t know what the status is of the one in Alaska or the several used by TriRail in Florida.

    1. Could happen, Joe. Any special agenda item? The ones that aren’t boring are always nerve-racking, but I thought this last one was pretty positive.


      1. Ah, Keating was a good PM for Australia. There’s a musical about him. He was from the left-wing party, mind you. Unfortunately replaced by the awful John Howard from the right-wing party, who at least was not as bad as the excreable Tony Abbott from the right-wing party, who actually got thrown out by his own party.

        (Yes, this is completely off topic.)

  7. Mic, what did I ever do to you besides several years of snide remarks? Serves me right, though, those low-seniority winter vacations taking pre-digital film freezing to death waiting at Pittsburgh busway stops to prove in 1983 that joint-use really worked.

    But literary world owes you big-time. Hemingway barely got out of Spain alive, making him leave behind all those forgotten works on public transit. Bet he saw the same stitch of machine-gun bullet holes I did along that streetcar route. Spanish “One Percent for the Arts”.

    Too bad his editor had stock in a California bus company secretly owned by GM. “For Whom the LRV Bell Tolls” would’ve made Literature my major. But wonder if you’re noticing same depressing thing I did in Sweden:

    Gothenburg has signaled queue-jumps so nothing jointly-op’d has to stop. But now that average European can afford to pull up to a McDonald’s drive-in window in a car, view out the window of those great bathroom equipped purple trains has more cars every year, moving slower.

    Would also like your take on most important difference I see between the US and Europe in general. How many countries could Europe make out of 300 million people inside 4000 x 2500 square miles of borders?

    Ask a Basque who put him in the same country as an Spaniard. Before he goes back to setting the fuse. Or a Venetian about the Sicilians. You’ll learn what dirty Italian word is for “Arab”, not meaning recent refugees. Same with Neopolitans about those Germans.

    Who wonder the same thing about Prussians, Bavarians and Alsatians. Current events daily prove that fantastic electric trains,streetcars, and health care don’t give a country of five million people a snowball’s chance in Hell anymore. Let alone a poor country.

    Northern hemisphere’s last desperate hope is a massive exchange: We get Europe’s passenger transportation. In return for our knowledge of how create the European Union. And we can also give Vladimir Putin his buddy Donald Trump in return for advice on a very long national railroad.

    And also how to extend the Route 7 to Ellensburg.


    1. Your snide remarks were never noticed, as you deal in concepts and not personalities – big difference.
      My take away from all the history lessons experienced in museums, palaces, churches and ruins going back to Roman times is this. Cultures that rely too heavily on the city state through ever higher taxes are eventually doomed to collapse of their own weight.
      When average citizens quit producing or having value-added incentives, but rely on existing wealth to sustain growth, the end can’t be far away.
      America is at its height of prosperity and I hope we don’t lose sight of societies that proceeded us. Remaining prosperous will be an ever increasing challenge as climate change increases demands on government to keep things ‘normal’. Eventually the funds run out, and the printing presses for money grind to a halt. Relocating millions from the eastern seaboard is not going to be cheap.
      As far as extending the route 7 to Ellensburg, I’m all over that one, provided it’s electrified all the way. I want to extend my ‘no-dewire’ record past 2 months.

  8. First regret, Mic, that I didn’t go for some Local 587- represented slot where my performance, attitude, outlook, and attendance record were the only drug test I needed. Meaning I’d have vacation seniority to be on LINK to Sea-Tac as we speak.

    With a few months’ advanced notice, my Russian language teacher might forgive me for being so lazy (sounds worse in Russian) and start channeling my mother’s Dad from Kiev.

    Future of Route 7, Ellensburg, the Seattle Transit Blog, and our country’s politics depend on joint fact-finding visit. Because I think a week or two at Southern Russia’s version of Atlantic Base would help relate all that building-stone to the bones buried under it. And their owners’ take on government.

    I hope our country is nowhere near the height of it’s prosperity, though that’s always decided in retrospect. Climate is always changing. Also germs and viruses, about which latest news means, historically, worse trouble than ocean levels.,

    But one thing about Government: Bet me that soon as we walk into whatever Russian is for “Bull Pen” we don’t each get a glass of vodka slammed down in front of us with a demand we drink to Vladimir Putin. Whose only fault is he’s not Stalin.

    Because people’s oldest fear isn’t tyranny, but its opposite. Regarding which, while Sweden and Finland might as well be Portland to Seattle with Russia, different view of Government, including national defense, in a nutshell:

    To extent a country is truly democratic, its people view their government as a machine tool to accomplish together what they can’t achieve individually. And as BART and DC Metro presently remind us, the world’s best machinery needs design updates and permanently never-deferred maintenance.

    And above all, a constantly refreshed, trained, and upgraded operating personnel. One way or another, I personally think our country’s existence now depends on universal trade school education in every sense. Top item in our real Defense Budget.

    BTW: ETA Sea-Tac?


  9. The signaling system methodology partly explains the idiotic signalling system in the tunnel where a train can not enter a station until the bus in front of it has completely exited the station and vice-versa. If we pretend, for a moment, that the train is moving at 100 mph instead of 5 mph, and that the driver can’t see a stopped bus in front of him, it all makes sense. And, if you squint really hard, you can also pretend that buses can’t pull up behind a train, like they can behind another bus because, well, there’s a train involved.

    1. asdf2, at either five or .05 mph, a LINK car can crush a bus like it was a beer can with a standing passenger load. The Feds and the Seattle Fire Department probably thought awhile before allowing anything with a fuel tank into the DSTT in the first place, let alone in the same tunnel with trains.

      Holding buses until a train is out of sight makes less sense. But nowhere near as little sense as Metro’s 25-years-long waste of the rest of a signal system specifically designed to provide smooth and controlled operations in every phase from bus-only to rail-only.

      Or take a single measure that can save fortunes in operating time cost-free. Like controlling order of tunnel entry, and timing of dispatch. And running tunnel routes to headway, not schedule.

      Or real cause of serious train delay: an standing load train held in the tube for five minutes at rush hour over a fare dispute or discussion aboard a bus. All fixable a zero capital expense. But one good side for public ownership:

      None of Veolia’s shareholders would touch the DSTT with the rear coupler of a mile long train of tank cars.


  10. When is ST’s Thursday board meeting? I’m limited to phone and it won’t show the June schedule.

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