A few weeks into Connect2020, riders are enduring the result of some failures of foresight. Planning any train trip requires a 15-minute buffer that makes it nearly unusable for short-haul trips, where the train’s speed advantages matter less.
The Central Link line is neither futureproof nor robust. The intention to build rails on I-90, though not voter-approved for most of the period of tunnel retrofit for Link, was well-established. A trivial amount of additional track, where it intersects the track in use, could have avoided the current pain entirely.
Furthermore, more liberal placement of switchovers would not only have allowed much lower headways today, but would also have made the system more resilient in the event of car crashes and other incidents on the track (like train maintenance issues).
At this point it is customary to write off all poor pre-2009 decisions as the bad old days. But ST is still poised to make the same mistakes. Already facing unavoidable huge disruptions for Graham St. and Boeing Access Road, it may do so avoidably at the firmly planned 130th St Station, to say nothing of unapproved but likely extensions.
There are numerous neglected opportunities to make this period just a little bit less painful for riders.
Bikes are banned at Pioneer Square station due to crowding concerns on trains and on the station platform. But there’s no good rationale for banning them at off-peak times, particularly evenings and weekends, except to make the rules less complicated. Forcing riders to use 2 elevators, bike down second avenue, and then use a third elevator is not a sufficient substitute. Sound Transit says they did this “out of abundance of concern for safety.”
The holidays would have been a wonderful time to “soft launch” the service disruption, when ridership was lower, and would have allowed them to finish a couple of weeks earlier. Instead, they waited for the big return-from-vacation weekend and the first big day back at work. ST says simply that “Q1 is our lowest ridership time of year,” which is both true and oddly inconsequent.
The segment of the line that must be single-tracked is between Westlake and Stadium, so the headways are limited there. But it would be plausible to run the trains at higher frequencies between Stadium and Angle Lake, and Westlake and UW,. These segments would serve plenty of trips, and provide excellent bus transfers to continue further downtown. ST says there would be “some real train bunching” thanks to turnaround times if they did this. This is a very complicated discussion for another time, but suffice it to say I find this argument unconvincing and would like to revisit it at a later date.
But overwhelming all of these annoyances is the total lack of any indication of when any train will arrive, reminiscent of living by an isolated 1980s bus stop with no posted schedule, rather than a 21st century rapid transit system. It is the single biggest obstacle to making useful trips on the train today.
The one good idea here was to publish a schedule for the train, but there was insufficient testing to verify that schedule was realizable. There was no backup schedule or backup set of entries in the real-time data system that would at least allow easy access to the next scheduled arrival. There is not even a manual attempt to post next train times at heavily manned stations, which would at least make the perceived wait shorter and tell people if they should just go catch a bus. ST says they have no plans to publish an updated schedule.
This system is 10 years old, and Sound Transit still either doesn’t always know where its trains are, and/or has no means of sharing that info beyond a system that has days-long outages and is not flexible enough to react to operational incidents.
A few good ideas
Any constructive criticism should mention what’s going right as well, besides the 12-minute schedule that was overcome by events. Absolutely flooding the system with staff has helped to clear up confusion. The transfer at Pioneer Square is as seamless as possible, partly thanks to extraordinary staff effort.
The choice to run trains in their degraded state, rather than a total shutdown, was a wise one.
Finally, it would have been much worse if construction was not running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. At least this will just complicate a season of rapid transit, rather than the better part of a year.
Thanks to coming “infill stations”, this is not the last time Sound Transit will need a big service disruption. Hopefully they record the lessons from this one.