Sunday, July 19, 2009

Light Rail: The Bad and The Ugly

Although the light rail is far and away the best thing to happen to the Seattle public transportation scene in decades, there are some glaring downsides which just make me wonder if Sound Transit hired a bunch of monkeys to design it rather than transportation experts from around the world. Here are some of them:

Elevators in the Beacon Hill Station. Carpeted elevators at that. First, there's a reason that almost all underground mass transit systems the world over have escalator access. Drunk guys who like to pee in secluded corners. Guess what an elevator is? It's going to reek of piss for weeks afterwards. Assuming it only happens once in a while. Additionally, escalators break down into a staircase. An elevator breaks down into a cage, as demonstrated by this video. And even if people don't pee in them, guess what? It rains in Seattle. People coming into the station need to get on the elevators. They're going to take their wet feet with them, because the elevators open into the outside. Who in the world thought carpet was a good idea for this?!

Broken Escalators. Tukwila's station had both escalators broken when I was there on Saturday, and everyone had to walk down the steps, wait in line, then walk back up. At least they were working on it. And Westlake had one broken escalator on Sunday which was roped off, but no one was working on it. Newsflash for Sound Transit: a broken escalator becomes a set of stairs. Let people use it.

Readerboards. Each station has an LED message board which says "Sound Transit". What I expected is for it to say "Next Train: 5 minutes" then "Next Train: 4 minutes", and so on. I asked a number of Sound Transit employees and got a variety of explanations, but everyone agreed that it wasn't going to display the ETA for the next train. Most of the reasons centered around the argument that the headways are so short, it doesn't matter when the next train is coming. That's completely dumb. If I just missed a train and need to wait 14 minutes for the next one, I want to know that. Even if the next train is coming in 5 minutes, I want to know that. It's really useful to know how much time I have to kill.

Another Sound Transit employee told me that the technology to do the tracking was brand new and hadn't been designed into the trains. And that buses were starting to get it, but because it's GPS-based it wouldn't make sense for the light rail. Again, I call your bluff. Sound Transit please tell your employees not to make wild-ass guesses when they don't know. The light rail goes through the downtown transit tunnel alongside these same GPS-enabled buses. Either the solution works for both, or it doesn't work for both. And it's absolutely unacceptable to have a brand new system with brand new trains without this capability. Sydney has it. Melbourne has it. Frankfurt has it. Brussels has it. Amsterdam has it. It's not a new or unusual technology. Surely Seattle has it too -- obviously the trains need to know where they are to avoid hitting each other.

I emailed Sound Transit about this issue. Their response? The readerboards are actually owned by King County metro, so they'll forward my request. In the downtown tunnel shared with buses? Maybe. Along the rest of the light rail route? Those are definitively owned by Sound Transit.

I eventually found this post on Twitter by Sound Transit which indicates that realtime arrival information is coming in the next two months. At least it's coming, though no one seems to know about it.

Swaying. When the train sways back and forth, that indicates the track was poorly installed. This problem is particularly apparent in the 5 mile elevated stretch between Rainier Beach and Tukwila. There's no reason that this problem shouldn't have been uncovered in the weeks of testing and fixed before launch.

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