Tukwila International Boulevard Station Credit: Oran Viriyincy

On August 8, a severe electrical malfunction at the Tukwila traction power substation caused extensive damage to the unit, according to Paul Denison, director of light rail operations at Sound Transit. Following the outage, drivers were given orders to slow acceleration.

Briefing board members Thursday during the Operations and Administration Committee meeting, Denison said an error during installation caused the electrical failure.

“We found the root cause of the failure and it was because of some loose fasteners on one of the busbars,” Denison said. “It appears when that busbar was installed that those fasteners were not properly tightened.”

According to Wikipedia, a busbar is “a strip of metal used to conduct electricity within an electrical substation, distribution board, electric switchboard or other electrical equipment.”

“It looks like it was a one-off unfortunate event that was missed during the install by the contractor,” Denison said. Sound Transit was not able to provide the contractor’s name, or any plans to recover the cost, by press time.

Denison said Sound Transit has proactively examined the other substations in the system, but ST workers cannot easily access these fasteners. To do so, the entire back wall of the substation must be taken apart. So instead, Sound Transit used an infrared camera to determine if the other busbars were producing any additional heat.

“We have not found any other issues to date,” Denison added. “We are going to take some lessons learned and we are going to set up our substations, more than likely, so we will have some access to the back of the substations going forward.”

On September 12, Peter Rogoff, CEO of Sound Transit, declared the repairs an emergency due to the lack of a back-up to the substation.

“If either of the adjoining substations were to fail, a complete of loss of power to Link could occur between the Rainier Beach and Angle Lake stations,” Denison told the committee.

He said the nature of the failure and the complexity of necessary repairs exceeds the capacity of the current staff, requiring an outside contractor. The committee pushed through a motion recommending the full board approve a $300,000 repair services contract between Sound Transit and Siemens Industry, Inc.

Denison said the $300,000 figure was estimated before Sound Transit understood the extent of the damage and the repair is expected to exceed that amount. He said an additional $300,000 has been placed into Sound Transit’s budget for next year, but can’t be drawn down without board approval.

Denison said once the work is completed Siemens will provide a 12-month warranty on the components, material and workmanship of the repairs.

19 Replies to “Installation Error Cause of Link’s August Electrical Malfunction”

  1. We change the way how new Substations are going to be build from now on. An expensive way to find out. But now we know!

  2. Good start, Richard. But make that a little broader. like never put anything important behind a panel you can’t take off with an unpowered wrench, or break open with a little hammer on a chain.



  3. So if I’m understanding this correctly, this repair is going to cost in the neighborhood of $600,000. Is that correct?

    It’s an expensive lesson indeed, but par for the course for this agency it seems.

    “We found the root cause of the failure and it was because of some loose fasteners on one of the busbars,” Denison said. “It appears when that busbar was installed that those fasteners were not properly tightened.”

    How was this not caught at the time the original inspection was signed off on? ST needs to provide more answers on this whole incident, including any recourse they can seek from the contractor/vendor.

    1. I was wondering the same thing. When I replaced my electrical panel, the inspector caught a loose ground screw that was supposed to ground the panel to the neutral bar. You can be damned sure that if any of the bus bars hadn’t been fully screwed in, he would’ve noticed. And that’s a small 200A residential panel, not a *light rail substation*.

  4. Tlsgwm, a $600,000 lesson is pocket change compared to frequent lifetime student debt. Also, compared with inevitable multiple wrongful death settlements from a transit system’s lessons either unlearned or unbudgeted.

    In public service more than private, “Culture” is really just a basic set of habits, with the bad ones deepest entrenched. Such as ingrained resistance to replacing the miserable elevator most necessary to elderly air passengers and their luggage, with something that’ll work no matter how much it looks like it was built in Russia. Especially if it is.

    Has anybody on the Board ever felt enough mechanical trouble in their own hands to ingrain the urge to fix the damn thing themselves and leave the contractors to get torn to shreds by our legal staff? Being in the Age of Enlightenment, attorneys with that bent Founded us.


    Mark Dublin

  5. Just thought I’d better clarify, because my real anger is at seeing someone I respect having to answer for somebody else’s careless work. Certainly don’t blame the journalist. But would like to see some journalism about how much different an inspection budget is compared to what’s needed.

    Still carrying a lifetime’s ill-feeling over buying the Breda buses, I do wonder if low-bid system doesn’t cost more in low-quality work than it gains from bid competition. But airport elevator- the one carrying passengers from the 574 to LINK itself- is doubly disappointing because company is from Finland. That prides itself on first-rate machinery.

    Also know contractual reasons the thing can’t hauled to the dump and replaced, temporarily if need be, with something indestructible that doesn’t leave elderly passengers trying to get up five flights of stairs in the cold wind. BRT to Tukwila shouldn’t even figure in.


  6. It’s quite impressive how infallible the readership of Seattle Transit Blog is. With 20/20 hindsight, an incorruptible dedication to “Do[ing] it Right The First Time”, and an unerring foresight, the STB Commentariat surely is going to be chosen as the next electrical contractor on the next Sound Transit project.

  7. Sound Transit definitely knows who installed this equipment. That contractor should be held financially responsible for the fix. NOT the taxpayer. Busbar connection bolts are always torqued to a specific value given by the manufacturer when properly connected. The installing contractor is totally at fault.

    1. My guess is that they explored the option, but decided against it as there really isn’t much proof that this happened at install or in repairs since, and since its outside the initial warranty period they would have to sue the installer, who claims it was not him, and without absolute proof you have just wasted money.

      1. And the lawyers could end up costing more than the repair.

        This is not a big deal. Unfortunate, but not the end of the world

  8. Sound Transit definitely knows who installed this equipment. That contractor should be held financially responsible for the fix. NOT the taxpayer. Busbar connection bolts are always torqued to a specific value given by the manufacturer when properly connected. The installing contractor is totally at fault. ST is trying to block my comment.

    1. ST is trying to block my comment.

      You’re aware this is a blog run by citizens who care about transit, not an official Sound Transit website?

  9. I couldn’t disagree more with those who have taken the position that this isn’t a big deal. This appears to be a half million dollar plus avoidable expense had a normal, proper and thorough inspection been conducted. Additionally, when one considers the number of issues ST has had with station escalators and elevators, the agency needs to be questioned about their ability to competently manage such contractor infrastructure installations as well as their own internal quality control processes. Imo, the presentation at the Operations and Administration Committee meeting raised more questions than were answered and the agency owes the taxpayers an expanded narrative.

    Speaking of said presentation, the ST representative appearing before the committee, Mr. Denison, didn’t actually offer an explanation as to what caused the electrical failure/fire DURING his report. It was only AFTER questioning by Chair Roberts (thank you Paul Roberts) that we were given any details on the nature of the problem. Had the chair not asked these questions, we may never have been given anything further from ST and that amounts to nothing more than paying lip service to this notion of public accountability.

    I have two final observations. One, it seems to me that those folks who consider this event not to be any big deal fall into the same category as the ST apologists who last year tried to rationalize the agency spending $850,000 on a station opening party. Two, there are many of us taxpayers who have been here from the start and remember when a half million dollar waste could ill be afforded by an agency struggling to get phase one completed. Nevertheless, I’m sure Siemens will be more than happy to take this “pittance” off the agency’s hands.

    1. ST has an investigator on the escalator issue. We’ll see what they say. As to whether ST could have negotiated better contracts, maybe, I don’t know, are there theoretical boardmembers available who could do that? Only somebody with experience running a large transit agency can say how many of these are inevitable vs how many ST should have had better judgment on, and random commentators don’t have that knowledge and haven’t studied ST’s inside.

  10. This is what happens when you award work to the lowest bidder, instead of the lowest QUALIFIED bidder. This is a problem with most public bid projects, in my experience. Very few agencies are willing to do the work necessary to qualify bidders on large projects, and to do the work necessary to disqualify contractors that don’t meet qualifications including, usually, a court hearing. I am a firm believer that our school districts, cities, transit agencies, and other public entities need to start making a better effort to weed out contractors that don’t have the expertise to do a good job. This is par for the course.

    1. It is definitely a problem with public bids — one that ultimately arises from well-intentioned anti-corruption policies. Using subjective criteria like “competence” opens public officials to accusations of favortism. The lowest bidder is a purely objective criterion and difficult to assail.

      The answer, I think, is to write good contracts where there are clear remedies for any quality defects. ST hasn’t gotten back to us as to whether these remedies exist.

  11. Who designs a facility that has to have walls taken apart in order to access equipment? It seems like ST tries to reinvent the wheel with every aspect of Link’s design.

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