Photo by “Beast Mode” AVGeekJoe / flickr
Link Light Rail had its busiest year by far in 2016, and saw its largest ridership growth ever, with ridership growth surpassing the original year’s ridership for similar periods of time, counting from the opening of University of Washington Station and Capitol Hill Station. It is still settling into its new routine after the opening of Angle Lake Station in late September.
Calls continue for running 3-car trains as much as possible, to deal with occasional but frequent crushloads. Having only three-car trains could probably be done, at the same scheduled headway, at great expense, and possibly messing up some plans for what happens after the buses get kicked out of the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel in the next few years (as, once ST rolls out service, frequency, or capacity, it is loathe to undo it later).
Today, I’ll offer some suggestions to improve Link operations that can be done regardless of the 2- or 3-car train debate. The first four impact what will be in the printed schedule that comes out in March.
1. Remove the minute of padding in the schedule at SeaTac Airport Station. It does not take four minutes to get there from Angle Lake Station or from Tukwila International Boulevard Station. We have the video evidence that ALS to SAS can be done in 2:45. Nor does it always take at least a minute for passengers with luggage to board or deboard. Thanks to the schedule padding at SAS, operators often have to wait half a minute or more after everyone boards before the scheduled departure time allows them to proceed. Some operators keep the doors open, and some keep the doors shut, while waiting for the departure time. If drivers could save half a minute each way at SAS, that would be another minute of break they could get.
2. Differentiate between peak and off-peak travel times. Thanks to higher ridership and longer dwell times, peak trips take longer. The schedule ought to reflect that. Not only would it give riders more accurate information, but it would also reduce the chaos of trying to maintain peak headway when drivers are perpetually behind. This applies not just to Link, but to every bus route.
3. Publish and announce the fact that only 3-car trains are running on all weekends and holidays. If in the future ST decides not all weekends merit all 3-car trains, it can publish that change in the schedule. But few are expecting the 3-car trains, even on weekends, since it isn’t being announced, so the third cars continue to be undiscovered stretch limos.
4. Try out having only one southbound bus bay in the DSTT. Route 106 left the DSTT permanently in September. Perhaps Bay C can handle routes 101, 102, 150, and 550. I’d be surprised if it can’t, given that Bay A has 26 outbound buses and 13 inbound buses during the PM peak-of-peak hour, while Bays C and D each only have 12 outbound buses, and 9 inbound buses between them, during that time. It would be nice to test the possibility for a week sometime in the winter.
|Route||Northbound (Bay A)||Southbound (Bays C & D)|
|101||3||4 (Bay C)|
|102||0||4 (Bay C)|
|150||4||4 (Bay C)|
|ST Express 550||6||12 (Bay D)|
Removing Bay D would clear the platform space for passengers to wait for the second train car (currently partially blocked by the 550 riders queue), and reduce crushloads on the front car, where they occur most. It might also make it easier to install between-car barriers.
If Bay C cannot handle all four routes, then have routes 101, 102 and 550 at Bay C and 150 at Bay D.
5. Install floor markings on the platform that show where the doors open, and that encourage boarding riders to stand aside while other passengers deboard. Do it for where the doors would be for 3-car trains, too, but have verbage that not all trains have three cars. (This is already in the planning, but so far just as a pilot project in Westlake Station, and only through the end of joint operations.)
6. Install last-departure count-up clocks at University of Washington Station and Angle Lake Station. These would be similar to the clocks at Mt Baker Station and Rainier Beach Station. Headway control is one of the keys to avoiding unnecessary crushloads.
7. Install between-car barriers in all the stations, not just because it is the right thing to do for passenger safety, but also because the barriers help passengers position themselves to board either the second or third train car, depending on how long of a train shows up.
8. Make fuller use of ORCA Boarding Assistants. The boarding assistants are drivers who work for King County Metro, which is responsible for DSTT operations. They can be asked to do things like let the waiting crowd know whether the next train is 2 or 3 cars long. I continue to see crushloads on the front car while the third car is quite spacious. Letting the crowd know there will be a third car would allow passengers to migrate thusly on the platform, and make better use of the third cars.
The boarding assistants can also assist in getting passengers to get out of the seats that have unfortunately been installed in the wheelchair space so that riders in wheelchairs have a much smoother boarding experience. [I’d suggest removing all the seats in the wheelchair spaces, but that is a macro fix.]
9. Have 3-car trains leave University of Washington Station up to a minute late whenever they are alternated with 2-car trains. That will help even out the loads, give in-the-know riders a signal to migrate to the rear-car waiting area on the platform, and reduce the train bunching caused by alternating 2- and 3-car trains.
11. Do as the county council requests, and get rid of the nation’s most-expensive-by-far fee for acquiring a bus smart card (the ORCA card). If some sort of incentive is needed to keep riders from treating the card as disposable, it need not be more than 25 cents. $5 is EXTREME OVERKILL for the purpose, that has forced a lot of expensive workarounds for occasional and cash-flow-challenged riders.
12. Upon vanquishing the $5 ORCA CARD fee, require use of a fare medium other than cash when boarding a bus in the DSTT.
I’m not taking sides on whether 3-car trains should run all day. ST has Service Standards and Performance Measures that help guide that decision. But these remaining suggestions apply if ST goes that direction:
I. Give drivers longer breaks during peak at Angle Lake Station in exchange for trading off trains, so the loop can be done with as few trains as possible. Because there are only 62 light rail vehicles in the fleet until at least 2019, and 10% have to be reserved for maintenance, minimizing trainsets in the peak loop is the key to maximizing 3-car trains in the peak loop.
II. Make sure to install the clocks suggested in item 6 above so that drivers who arrive at a terminus after the previous train leaves will have some guide as to when the previous train left.
III. Run all 3-car trains always, announce and publish that all trains will be 3 cars, and deploy the floor markers, so that riders will take advantage of the third car. The difference between running mostly 3-car trains and all 3-car trains is significant in operational impact. It might take 18 trains to run the loop, even with the improved smoothness from all 3-car trains. That still leaves 8 spare LRVs, more than enough to keep the 10% spare ratio. It doesn’t allow for a spare train. So be it. The smoothness from getting riders used to 3-car trains ought to outweigh the occasional hiccup from not having a spare train. Hopefully, running the loop with 17 trains becomes feasible as DSTT throughput improves.
If ST moves to all 3-car trains off-peak, it should do it right and go all-in, not just do it halfheartedly to assuage complaining riders.