Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Tunnel Visions: Seattle's Link Light Rail

Every once in a while I hop out of New Westminster, land in some other city with some other light- or heavy-rail transit system, and look around at different ways of getting around by rail, whether it's on the ground, under it, or above it all.

Seattle is another one of those cities whose reputation precedes it. From where I grew up in the grinding, posterboard sameness of the Central Ontario suburbs, Seattle was always the epicenter of cool--an incredible, happening city filled with interesting people where awesome things happened, a forward-thinking place that left the hidebound East in the dust. Sure, this is true to a limited extent if you squint, but not nearly as much as you're led to believe from a distance... but that's true with all things. As the Amtrak Cascades pulled out of Portland's Union Station this past June, I was eager to find those spots where reality managed to live up to the hype.

When it comes to Seattle's light rail transit system, there is no hype. Therefore, literally my very first experience with it came in the form of some guy in Westlake Station grousing at a busker and then overturning a garbage can and screaming incoherently, all while I was trying to ignore everything and buy a ticket. But you can't ignore something like that.

Sure, that's just a hopefully isolated incident, but it was telling in its way. I didn't need the four days I spent in Rain City to come to the conclusion that Seattle has the worst rail transit system for a city of its size among any I've experienced. I mean, even Phoenix's is better--Phoenix, the city of desert and sprawl and an empty downtown on weekend mornings. Seattle acts like the New York of Cascadia, but when it comes to getting around it's more like Poughkeepsie.

Not that I have anything against Poughkeepsie. I just doubt that its transit is up to the standard set by New York City.


A southbound train departs SODO Station.

The first thing I need to establish is that describing this network as Seattle's Link Light Rail isn't strictly accurate. Not only is it not just Seattle's, but it's not even a unified system. Link Light Rail, owned by the regional transit provider Sound Transit, consists of two physically separated lines--Central Link, which serves Seattle and is the main spine of the system, and Tacoma Link, which serves Tacoma, is separated from Central Link's southern terminus by about twenty-three miles, and was actually finished first. I didn't have an opportunity to get myself down to Tacoma, so this overview is thus limited to just the Central Link.

The fact that I have to make that sort of explanation, something I've never had to do for any other transit network I've studied, really sets the bar for me.

The Central Link consists of one line, beginning in the north underneath downtown Seattle at Westlake Station and ending in the south at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, with a total of thirteen stations for good luck. Outside of downtown it proceeds along a pretty strict north-south axis, if for no other reason than local geography forced Seattle itself to develop in the same manner.

The nature of the areas that the Central Link serves, however, make it distinct from a lot of other systems. Sure, the Phoenix light rail may pass through a lot of hollow-seeming areas, like downtown Phoenix, but it links up with places like downtown Tempe and Papago Park and Sky Harbor International Airport along the way. For the Central Link, the airport is more of a destination in and of itself. That's not a bad thing, mind you. There are plenty of cities out there that are only connected to their airports by buses, and if you haven't tried to carry your luggage home on a bus, you are surely missing some kind of fun.

In Seattle, it felt less like the airport was one of the potential destinations along the line, and more like the line's route was specifically chosen to connect to the airport. Again, nothing wrong with this on the surface, but here's where Seattle's rather stark urban geography comes into play. Travelling south from International District/Chinatown Station, immediately adjacent to the city's train station and close at hand to the downtown core, you will encounter Seattle's two primary stadiums, and then you will be surrounded by warehouses. Further south, the neighborhoods transition into a more residential character along Martin Luther King Jr. Way, but they give the impression of neighborhoods that didn't previously have transit service, the way that rapid transit or light rail lines in other cities were built along former streetcar routes.

At least, that's what it seemed like to me. My experience with these areas is admittedly superficial. The point is, though, that there don't seem to be many trip generators outside of the northern and southern termini. Construction is underway to extend the light rail north, deeper into Seattle proper, but service isn't expected to begin on those lines until at least the early 2020s. If you're talking about extending it down to Tacoma and finally combining the system into a coherent whole, you'll more likely be waiting until the 2040s before you see something like that.

Central Link ticket machines at SODO Station. Hmm, with a slogan "ride the wave" you think it'd have made sense to call the system something like "Wave Light Rail." Unless that was thought to be stupid.

Ticket vending machines are pretty much the same anywhere, so I'm not going to belabor the point. Where the Central Link differs from the crowd is the manner in which it charges fares. Despite its simple layout, there are fare zones here, and not the usual kind of zones where the core city is zone 1 and the inner suburbs are zone 2 and so forth. Instead they're based on distance, where each mile of the trip adds five cents to the $2.00 base fare, with the resulting zones depending on the station you're starting from. Even day passes are influenced by this structure; rather than the "pay one price, get unlimited use" that's standard elsewhere, on the Central Link a day pass is just twice the one-way fare between the two specific stations you intend to be travelling between.

Yes, it's strange. No, I don't know why it's done like that. It is, at least, better than the system used by King County Metro, operator of the Central Link. There isn't even such a thing as a day pass on KCM buses. Because, you know, the prospect of getting around Seattle wasn't irritating enough already.


The high, curved roof of Pioneer Square Station not only keeps people in the station from asphyxiating, but may make it more welcoming to claustrophobes than underground stations elsewhere.

When it comes to transit downtown, the Central Link and Vancouver's SkyTrain have an element in common; their routes in the core were determined by the route of the pre-existing infrastructure they use. In Seattle, this is the 2.1 kilometer long Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, opened in 1990 to give buses an alternative to Seattle's traffic-clogged streets. Structurally, the tunnel stations are reminiscent of something you'd find on the Montreal Metro, and they're the only transit stations I know of where the same platforms are shared between light rail and diesel hybrid buses.

Beyond the downtown tunnel, designs are varied. Many of the stations, like SODO and Columbia City, are built at grade in the right-of-way, while a few are elevated or underground. Each station has its own unique logo to represent each station, like the Fukuoka City Subway or the Mexico City Metro--Rainier Beach is a stork, Pioneer Square is a clipper ship, and so on. These logos are used on the ticket machines when you're selecting the active stations, and they do help to bring a touch of character to the system.

With the immense scale of the tunnel stations, it's likely they'd be able to handle any length of train that Seattle's demand could require, and outside of it the stations are generally built with future expansion in mind. Eyeballing it, they look to be able to accomodate four-car trainsets, double the size that are in use today, but it's evident that some prepatory work would have to be done before that extra platform space could be comfortably used. At some stations, there aren't enough shelters to cover even the footprint of the two-car trains that are used today, and the misery of waiting for a train in Cascadia rain isn't exactly going to endear a lot of people toward using transit, I'd imagine.


A Central Link train waits in what I believe to be International District/Chinatown Station.

The trains themselves, at least, were familiar--Central Link uses the same Kinkisharyo rolling stock as does Phoenix, and what's true for one is true for the other, though the air aboard the trains I was on did seem somewhat stale; in a city like Seattle, with overcast skies a fact of life, it's not necessary to constantly run the air conditioning to make sure the passengers keep breathing.

I actually don't have anything else to say about them, really. They're powered by pantographs, they seem to run smoothly, and their digital rollsigns make it easy to know where they're going, which presumably would become a factor only on occasions when they're short-turned. They're low-floored and there is plenty of seating room and they're generally clean except when people flout the "no eating" rule. What else is there, really?

Ease of Access and Ease of Use

There are no barriers to entry at Stadium Station.

In some respects, the Central Link reflects what Vancouver's SkyTrain could have been. You won't find any turnstiles on the system; instead, when you're entering and leaving you'll hear the constant electronic beep of ORCA cards touching the readers. The unified electronic card of the Puget Sound area, ORCA seems to be extremely common among Seattle's transit riders. The fare inspector who came through the train with a handheld reader seemed almost bemused that I had a paper ticket to present instead, the same way you might react to someone seeking to purchase a movie on VHS. I'm not sure whether fare evasion is a significant problem in Seattle, but it does demonstrate that electronic farecards and turnstiles don't always have to be combined.

Like other new-built systems, Central Link stations are unstaffed save for the cleaning crews that pass through and some security personnel here and there. If you're having an issue with one of the ticket machines, there's nothing to do but hope some other traveller comes by who can give you a hand. Depending on where you are, though, even that may be unlikely.

The Central Link connects marginally well to the rest of the urban transit network. At its Westlake terminus, it's only a few flights of stairs to the Seattle Center Monorail, and the southernmost stop of the South Lake Union Streetcar is only a block or so away. I'm not sure to what degree intermediate stations beyond the tunnel are connected with the bus system, but at Tukwila International Boulevard Station--originally the southern terminus until the line was extended to Sea-Tac, literally on the other side of the highway--there's an impressive array of bus connections underneath the towering railbed. There's plenty of information provided at the stops here, from route maps and arrival times to full-on system maps and fare information for King County Metro's bus system. That sort of integration is necessary, of course; with the light rail being as limited as it is, and directly serving such a small area of the city, most passengers would likely be relying on the bus system for outlying parts of their journey.


It was hard writing this, as hard as I've ever experienced writing about a transit system. In other cities, I've found it to be easy--there are plenty of new things to find, curiosities to trip over, and weaknesses to exploit. In Seattle, I had a hard time coming up with strengths. Whenever I tried to take myself onto the Link it was an ordeal, simply because from all appearances there was nothing particularly interesting for me to take it to, and I don't think it was just the fact that my hotel in Queen Anne was a bit of a walk from the nearest railhead. Plenty of times I just didn't step on the Link at all, because I couldn't think of anything it would take me to that would be worth the money it cost me to get there and back again.

Honestly, I found it an embarrassment. If it was a city like Spokane, say, that operated such a system, I would be far more understanding. The simple fact of the matter is that Seattle is not only the prime city of modern Cascadia, but it has been so for over a hundred years, and it nevertheless waited until the twenty-first century to get serious about building a system with rails on--and even then it's not much. The Central Link, as it exists in 2012, strikes me as the result of "well, we've got to build SOMETHING, so what's the easiest and cheapest route to do?"

Sure, it's still in its early stages, and last week Sound Transit officially broke ground on the 4.3-mile extension to Northgate, and when it opens in 2021 or wherever it does it'll significantly expand Seattle's transit-accessible area. What gets me is that I feel like Seattle is pursuing these early stages way too late. Especially for a city with the reputation of Seattle, what's going on now would have been more appropriate back in 1982. If that was the case, Seattle would have a far bigger, more comprehensive transit network, one far more appropriate to its size than the current Central Link.

That's what there is, though. Especially when it comes to higher-order transit, sometimes people just have to take whatever it is they can get.

Previous Tunnel Visions


  1. This has been killing me! That big yellow T in the blue circle on the top picture! What is that? It is a logo for transit, transportation, tunnel???? OR for what? I lived in Seattle this fall and that logo is hanging downtown at the stations, but what does it stand for???? I have been googling non-stop for months now and my brain feels fried! I need to know!! I am starting to panic because I am realizing that I won't find an answer. But it is soooooo weird. Why have that "logo" hanging if it does not stand for anything! It must! I need help!!! And now I read this post you made, and I am hoping that you can help me before I go ballistic! Please be so kind :D

  2. As I understand it, the "T" just signifies transit, or possibly "train." It's a fairly common tourist- assistance sign in my experience; Vancouver uses the same sort of signs as well.

  3. Look at the light rail station, it looks pretty good and passengers would also be having great service before travelling.
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