Waiting at SeaTac/Airport Station
Riders wait for a Link train at SeaTac/Airport Station (SounderBruce)

We are just one week from the opening of Angle Lake Station, completing a heady year of progress for Sound Transit. I hope to see y’all there!

With the disappearance of waiting trains laying over at SeaTac Airport Station, since they are continuing on to Angle Lake Station out of service for pre-revenue testing, the station now has three ways in which queues are forming, but could be handled better:

Photo by Oran, back in 2010
Photo by Oran, back in 2010

1. Riders getting ready to board the train are still lining up at just the three Ticket Vending Machines immediately visible from the airport concourse. There are three more TVMs at the north end of the station, but they are hidden behind a pillar and often going unused while long lines form at the southern TVMs. If nothing else works, then deploy trifold signs pointing to the other three TVMs.

2. There are still long queues to get down from the platform on the escalators. This problem is exacerbated when one of the escalators is broken, and only one down escalator is running (as has been the case every time I’ve been there for the past three weeks). This station should always have at least as many down escalators running as there are up escalators running. We know the escalators can be reversed. We also know that there are surges to use the down escalators (right after a train arrives), while riders preparing to board show up sporadically, and really need only one up escalator.

3. Riders are not expecting 3-car trains, so they don’t make full use of the platform length, and take longer to board than necessary, cramming into the front two cars. Floor arrows or trifolds pointing to the boarding zone for the third car, and announcing that 3-car trains will be running all day (when that happens), should be efficacious in spreading out the passengers. Airport riders especially love to be able to spread out. Let riders know when 3-car trains are coming all day, and point the way with physical signs. This goes for other stations, too.

I’ve been told by ST in the past that passengers are already shifting to the third cars. In my months of observations, I haven’t seen that, except for the mad rush to the third car when passengers don’t see as much space as they would like on the second car, and at UW Station, where the train is sitting and laying over. To the extent that SeaTac Airport station passengers were taking advantage of seeing the third car sitting there, that just went away.

More good micro-news:

1. Thanks to the trains pulling through at SeaTac Airport Station, and not needing to do the slow crossover, the travel time between there and Tukwila International Boulevard Station appears to have dropped from roughly four minutes to dependably just under three minutes.

2. Thanks to the tail tracks at Angle Lake Station, providing more emergency stopping distance, the approach there should be a little faster than it was to SeaTac Airport Station. It is scheduled for four minutes, but don’t be surprised if that estimate gets reduced down shortly after the station opens.

Indeed, travel time between Westlake and UW Station was scheduled at 8 minutes when UW Station opened. Now, it is scheduled at 6 minutes (though, really, it takes about 6 and 1/2 southbound). So, a trip from UW Station to Angle Lake Station was scheduled conservatively as taking 50 minutes before the openings, but will end up taking 47-48 minutes. That said, that is off-peak travel time. Peak trips are going to be slower than that, even if the schedule doesn’t reflect the longer dwell times.

3. King County Metro is doing clever things with the RapidRide real-time arrival signs, which I noticed at Airport Station’s RapidRide stops a couple weeks ago. They now convey the electronic message:

RapidRide riders:
Tap ORCA at stop
board bus at any door.

Otherwise pay as you
board at front door.

It’s not a haiku, but it gets the job done.

RapidRide started allowing off-board payment 24/7 on May 14 of this year.

4. Off-board payment and on-board security patrols could quickly become more ubiquitous, if the county council approves the Executive’s 2017-2018 budget for Metro.

53 Replies to “Simple Fixes for Airport Station Queues”

  1. ST runs three car trains all day, every day on weekends. There is no reason why the transit security guards can’t tell people to spread out either. They just don’t. Neither do ST employees who are often there.

    Also. ST could alternate where three car trains stop. No reason why 3 car trains couldn’t sometimes stop at the 4 car market (make it 3/4) at Westlake et al. This would also help distribute the passenger loads

    1. ST shouldn’t alternate the stop locations. Adding in such a random element runs contrary to the culture of high frequency, high reliability transit that ST is trying to foster. And you really don’t want people doing the quick run/shuffle on the plateform anyhow.

      Riders will get better at using rail. Remember we haven’t ever had real transportation like this in Seattle before (or at least we haven’t had it in most of our lifetimes). People will eventually get better, and ST will slowly improve their signage and delivery.

      That said, my preference would be to have the train stop with the middle of the train in the middle of the plateform. That would encourage people to move to the middle to wait instead of clogging the ends, and if they got surprised by an extra long train there would be extra space to the front and to the aft. And it would minimize running.

      1. The platforms were built for four cars. For one two and three car trains the lead car is always in position two. Once four car trains become the rule which will be in the next ten years then any change in practice will confuse everyone. Perhaps better signage indicating how many cars the next train will have would make a difference. But hard to argue for a change in procedure which would just confused everyone. Keep in mind that by law they are required to stop the trains in such a spot that the tactile straps must mark accessible entry points onto the cars.

      2. John, I gotta learn to read those tactile strips. I had no idea there was a way to know in advance where the train’s doors will be!

      3. Every time I visit Seattle I’m more and more impressed by Link, and this was my first visit I got to ride the three-cars trains. I will say that I was the only person I saw who stood perpendicular to the doors to let people off before I boarded–an ingrained habit from years of living in New York.

    2. I got my full transit geek experience watching Link trains for several hours today between the let out of the Sounders match, the beginning of the Huskies and Mariner’s game and the third car in the train was consistently underused. I even saw a train with a crush load first and second car and the third car had two open seats in the far back section. I was quite impressed the Link handled this trifecta of sporting events so well. There should be written (on the scrolling reader) and audio announcements letting people know that the third car is alway less crowded

      1. I’m starting to see folks join me in standing where I think the last door of the second car is. Then its a couple step turn to the peace and quiet of the third car. Easy peasy and I look like a pro.

  2. The elevators and escalators have been breaking down ever since LINK opened. Did we bring the system in “on time and on budget” at the price of permanently bad performance? Like we did with the Breda fleet, all thirty years it’s been here.

    Anybody we, either we the passengers or we the taxpayers, can either sue of fire to get our money back and our facilities working? On topic here because it’s a symptom of the same disease, but same question for public toilets and Sea-Tac and Tukwila International:

    What crime have we committed to be given seatless toilets, and when do we get our trial?

    Mark Dublin

    1. The escalator and elevator issue needs a fundamental reassessment and targeted resolution throughout the system. The DSTT design was developed almost 35 years ago and loads were never seriously analyzed. ST needs to deal with the issue across the entire system because the only one elevator/one up-escalator design concept is a major failure from the perspective of riders.

  3. I don’t understand why we can’t have ticket machines in the actual terminal. [ad hom]

    Also, IIRC the platform where the third car stops at SeaTac station is very narrow, especially when most everyone has bags.

    I am concerned that we shopped at the bargain basement elevator/escalator store. Remember a few months ago one of the Husky Stadium elevators was shut down for weeks because they couldn’t easily get a part. How does whoever has the support contract not have a cache of every part they could need on hand?

  4. One easy thing ST could do is mark where the doors are. Denver does this. Seattle is apparently unaware of this.

    Another thing, finding orca card dispensers routinely at transit centers is a came of marco polo. Why? They should be ubiquitous.

    [off topic]

    One other thing, All buses need their own lane during high traffic times.

    1. MUNI also marks the door locations in the Market St Subway with a ‘box area’ to keep clear for alighting passengers and a ‘wait here’ area on each side for boarding passengers.

      1. You’re thinking of BART. Muni has the “Boarding Zone” signs on the walls, but no indication on the floor of where the doors will open.

  5. Lines at the SeaTac airport-side TVMs have existed for years. Nothing seemed to raise the issue high enough to resolve the problem. I’m still not sure why simply moving a machine hasn’t been done.

  6. What’s the true story of why the system cannot announce three-car trains? It’s been discussed often on the STB these past several months. It would seem that because Link has to have different destinations and will have to have different lines in the future, it should be easy to change the sign instructions to indicate train length! Saying it can’t be done appears to be a lazy cop-out.

    Let’s keep hammering ST about this until we get a solution!

    1. ST still can’t get real time arrival done right. I seriously doubt they can accurately announce three car trains.

      1. This is true. The real time arrival times at the Capitol Hill station were all screwy today. It fact I saw two men come down the escalator and see the first arrival time listed as 19 minutes and then head back up the escalator–likely to take the route 10 Downtown. The next train actual came in about 2 minutes.

  7. Would it help to extend the dwell time at the Airport station? Having a two-minute or even three-minute open-door wait and letting riders know this would probably help reduce rider anxiety when getting on or getting off.

    1. No. The operator should attempt to close the door exactly at the planned time. This is not a bus where the operator has discretion to alter stop swell time, etc. part of the education for riders is that this is not a bus, things will happen on schedule and people should adapt.

      1. The SeaTac station is unique in that many of the riders are visitors who are not familiar with Link plus many of them have luggage with them so it will take them longer to exit the train and board so to make a flat statement that the operator should close the doors when it is time to do so is wrong when there are still people trying to exit or trying to board.

        It can also takes longer at Westlake Station for people to exit who are coming from the airport as they will have luggage with them.

        I always get amused when some of the posters get all bend out of shape when Link make a bit of a longer stop at a station then they think it should or when a handicapped person in a wheel chair needs to board or exit a bus and the ramp has to be lowered.

        You should be thankful that you are not in a wheelchair or an older person that uses a cane or a walker. Some of you need to lighten up.

      2. We have an obligation to accommodate those who need extra time to get on (already at platform ready to board) or off the train. There should be no question about that.

        However with trains every ten minutes if someone is not on the platform ready to board the train cannot hold for them as another train will arrive shortly. It is only fair to everyone who is there.

      3. I agree that the train should board anyone waiting on the platform ready to get on but the train should not be held if someone is coming up the escalators at the SeaTac Station or any other station.

  8. Brent, I’ll leave out the Port’s conversion of the only ground transit counter across the concourse from the baggage claim area into a police booth always gated and often unstaffed. Where the Airport’s only ground transit information phone id small, black, and marked with a paper card in microscopic type.

    And also, fact that any comparison at all with the transit information desk at Portland Airport should really end all argument on our corresponding agency’s performance on today’s topic. For efficiency of public transportation and treatment of the light rail riding public, what Seattle can afford better, Portland does better by same magnitude.

    But some very ugly and personally insulting treatment from a staff member, whom I’ll gladly and publicly name to his own face, at the Port’s offices at the airport, when I was there on well-intentioned official business as a Sound Transit employee, leaves me convinced that we’re dealing with an agency actively hostile to our system.

    Wasting the money and commercial goodwill of the taxpayers who support both the Port and Sound Transit. The attitude of the public agency at whose terminal gates our boarding problems originate has plenty to do with what happens when people board our trains.

    But to keep this morning’s discussion on station details:


    It’s long past time that Port Commissioners faced its agency’s approach to public transit as an agenda item.

    Mark Dublin

  9. I hope the RapidRide boarding information is doing its job and will be removed soon because it’s taking up time on a real-time information board that should be showing real-time arrivals.

    1. It’s the most accurate information on the sign. The southbound RTA sign at Airport Station gets the time for the next A Line wrong a lot. The feed doesn’t know what to do with buses that are laying over.

      I know I’m in the minority here, but the most useful information would be “approximately every 15 minutes, though occasionally a driver will wait until the next one, and pull out right after him, so he doesn’t have to pick anyone up for that run. So, give or take 15 minutes.”

  10. Travelers waiting for a Link train at the airport station might not be so sanguine about waiting outside when its winter and the temperature is in the 30’s with wind blowing rain sideways under that little roof.

    1. This one always makes me laugh. People contentedly wait outside for transit the world over, and Seattle has a magically gentle climate in which to do so. Yet for some reason you can’t mention airport station w/o someone repeating the fiction of sideways blowing rain or making cooler temps and a little drizzle sound like Hurricane Alley or the heart of a Siberian winter.

      1. Up until now, passengers could wait inside heated Link cars until the cars left. Now, that is no longer possible. For someone flying into Seattle in the winter, a 5-minute walk outdoors from the terminal to the Link station, then waiting in line outside at the ticket machine for 10 or 15 minutes, followed by a wait outside on the platform for a train, might not be the most attractive alternative for a business traveler or tourist, for whom there are many other options between the airport and downtown Seattle.

      2. This issue would also emerge if Seattle extends the FHSC to Roy Street, a few blocks north of the Denny terminus today. In that situation, the wait will be longer on average and there is only a shelter at Denny.

  11. Look at the high percentage of large pieces of luggage and backpacks on those people waiting for the Link train at the airport station in that photo. How many large pieces of luggage, backpacks, bicycles, wheelchairs, etc. does each Link car average per trip, and how much does this reduce the capacity of Link cars to hold actual passengers? One large piece of luggage or one bicycle or one electric wheelchair (aside from the person in it) takes up the space of at least one passenger.

    So, has ST ever said how many possible passengers are displaced by those large objects, on the average Link car, and by how much this reduces Link cars’ capacity to carry actual people?

    Also, when Link first started, and they had people on Link cars counting boardings to check how accurate the automatic counters were, they found that the automatic counters would count large pieces of luggage as passengers. Does anyone know if this was somehow corrected, or not? The theory was that the person’s hand on the handle of the luggage gave off enough heat that, combined with the bulk of the large piece of luggage, the automatic counters counted the luggage as another passenger.

    1. Unless the train is so full that it’s leaving people behind, absolutely nobody is displaced. Even then, there is always the solution of running larger trains and more frequent trains. To imply that everyone carrying a suitcase needs to drive to/from the airport to free up space on the train is completely counter to the reason for building a light rail line to the airport in the first place.

      One solution that ST could do to help mitigate the luggage problem is to put actual luggage racks on board the trains so that suitcases can stack on top of each other, rather than taking up passenger space. The silver line does this in Boston and, while it does reduce the number of seats, it greatly increases the overall passenger capacity.

      1. I don’t understand why luggage racks were omitted, given the absurd headroom afforded by the low-floor street-running design.

      2. The A line in Denver also has luggage racks, however its almost sole purpose it to take passengers to the airport and back. I have to admit, though, it was abit unnerving to stack my bags in the rack but sit abit down the aisle from them. Concerns about possible theft, that I don’t have on the airport shuttle buses I regularly take to rental car lots. I agree we need to lighten up on judging airport passengers with luggage. It is their train too.
        We need to welcome passengers and not merely our preferred ones. When most trains are crushed loaded and we are out of cars or time slots then we can talk. Same with bikes–lets find a way to make it work. I dislike bikes much more than luggage. But hey I’m glad they are using transit.

      3. So Sound Transit has never said how many large pieces of luggage, bicycles, and motorized wheelchairs are on each Link car, on average? Obviously, those things all reduce the “capacity” of a Link car. Many people put luggage on seats, since a lot of luggage is way too big to fit under seats. And even when luggage is stored in the aisles, it takes up space that passengers could otherwise use.

    2. My biggest problem with the luggage bay as it’s setup right now (aside from the double-duty as a bike rack) is that the train shakes so much between Tukwila and Rainier stations that luggage frequently flies out. Overhead racks for smaller stuff combined with bungee cords or straps in the bay for larger stuff would help.

      Most of the time I travel with a small duffel bag, though, and my trick is to just place it behind me on the ledge in the middle section of the car.

      1. Having the third car be one with priority for bikes (including cargo-type, wheelchairs, strollers, and passengers with large pieces of luggage, would really be helpful.

  12. Hmm, I’m flying out of SEA early next Saturday morning and planning to take the first Link train of the morning from Cap Hill to the airport to get my 6:40 flight. Is there any reason for concern when traveling in that odd time hours before new service begins?

    1. With the very first southbound train picking up at Capitol Hill at 4:45, and getting to the airport at 5:34, the question is whether you have an early enough connecting bus (but I never depend on the first bus), and whether an hour will be enough time to get through security. My observations are that SeaTac has a very efficient security regimen.

      The app schedule doesn’t mention Angle Lake Station at all yet, including after this Saturday.

    2. My advice would be to Uber to Beacon Hill Station, where your early train options open up considerably, allowing you to arrive at 4:58, 5:10, and 5:22. I’ve taken the 5:22 arrival train many times for a 6:30 flight, and have never come close to missing my flight.

    3. It’ll be close, luckily I’m not checking any bags. Thanks for the advice. Never thought about going straight to Beacon Hill.

      Yeah, I may need to go with one of those earlier trains to the airport that start shy of downtown. I used to take the train from Stadium Station which timed really well with the owl bus from Capitol Hill for these early morning flights.

  13. Even if an escalator is not working, it can still be used to walk on. So why are they barricaded off from use when broken? This is especially ridiculous given: a) there are no stairs! and b) apparently there is no plan to fix the broken escalators.

    1. They’re not always barricaded off. I was in UW Station a few months ago, and one of the escalators was in an alarm state (some loud buzzer going off). ST Police were telling me just to walk down it.

    2. For the record, there are emergency stairwells at the north and south end of the station. Indeed, every station that forces passengers to use escalators or elevators also has emergency stairwells.

  14. When running 6-minute headways, Link drivers should maintain a fixed dwell time and not hold trains for approaching riders. The next train will be along soon enough. Riders should get used to alighting and boarding quickly, and waiting for the next train once in a while.

    Maintaining fixed dwell times is hard for Link drivers because they are all former bus drivers and trained to wait and wait for arriving passengers. They do need to be reminded that trains are not buses and shouldn’t be driven like buses.

    1. Bus drivers shouldn’t wait for runners either unless either they are early or the route runs every 20 minutes or less. Little is more infuriating than watching a 41 driver hold up everything in the tunnel for multiple runners when the next 41 is probably stuck a tube or two back (if it’s not already in the station).

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