WA: How an imperfect storm of events disrupted Sound Transit

Feb. 28, 2024
Wind-related power outages, a minor train crash with a motor vehicle, other track blockages and a homicide all either forced station closures or delayed train arrivals.

Feb. 27—Riders on Sound Transit's light rail endured more hassles than usual, as four different kinds of incidents disrupted service between Friday night and Monday morning.

Wind-related power outages, a minor train crash with a motor vehicle, other track blockages and a homicide all either forced station closures or delayed train arrivals.

They all happened a few hours apart.

"It's uncommon to have two days of that kind of interruption," said transit spokesperson John Gallagher. He said it's not clear how Sound Transit could have prevented what he called mainly "external issues" not caused by the agency itself.

Sound Transit's governing board has heard plenty from the public about missed train runs in the past year, mainly during muti-week reductions for major maintenance, such as this winter's replacement of curved tracks near Westlake Station, and the raising of sunken rails near Stadium Station last summer.

Unplanned blockages, like those last weekend, are a different matter.

Here's a summary of the weekend problems, based on the times listed in rider alerts.

* Trains ran at reduced frequency for an hour Friday evening, starting around 5:03 p.m. An explanation wasn't available Monday.

* A minor crash between a Link train and a private vehicle, where the tracks along Martin Luther King, Jr. Way South cross South Orcas Street, caused delays and single-tracking for not quite an hour, starting at 7:45 p.m. Friday. No one was hurt.

* A blockage on the tracks, reportedly in Rainier Valley, slowed northbound service to 20-minute frequency from 7:30 p.m. to 8:27 p.m. Saturday.

* A power outage in North Seattle disrupted service between University of Washington and Northgate stations for nearly an hour, starting at 10:14 a.m. Saturday.

* A Seattle City Light power outage forced trains to single-track around 1 a.m. Sunday, from Roosevelt to Capitol Hill stations.

* Trains were delayed and shared a single track between Tukwila International Boulevard and SeaTac/Airport Station for an hour early Monday, for reasons not explained in the transit alert.

* Trains ran 15 to 20 minutes apart Monday morning downtown, from 6:24 a.m. until 7:21 a.m., as police wrapped up their investigation at the scene of a fatal shooting that occurred just before midnight. University Street and Pioneer Square Stations were closed during some or all those times.

The late-Sunday homicide follows a cluster of violent crimes in mid-2023 in trains, buses or stations operated by King County Metro and Sound Transit. At least five people using Sound Transit or Metro were stabbed or struck by objects in 2023, all of whom survived.

Sound Transit is aware of four homicides since 2019 on its property, but until Sunday night none occurred aboard a train or involved transit riders, Gallagher said.

Sound Transit significantly increased its private guard staffing in 2023, and deployed some of its transit police to rove the trains and boarding platforms, which was unusual before ex-CEO Julie Timm requested that presence last spring. Still, law enforcement remains below full staffing, with 50 of 89 Sound Transit police jobs filled as of mid-2023.

Safety and reliability have been a challenge not only for transit, but highways as well.

There were seven unsolved, reportedly unrelated shootings along freeways in King County this year as of Feb. 20, according to the Washington State Patrol. This month, a person was arrested in Kent on suspicion of a DUI and shooting a state trooper multiple times. As for reliability, a series of 13 weekend lane closures, which began in January to replace broken I-5 pavement in south Seattle and Tukwila, will continue to cause multi-mile congestion for drivers.

Transit engineers are cognizant of power-supply needs and made a couple adjustments since 2022 within its initiative known as "Future Ready," to become more resilient. Contractors have replaced aging power supply lines above light rail tracks in Tukwila and divided the train-power wires downtown so future workers can do maintenance without de-powering the whole downtown tunnel. But last weekend's outages, solved in about an hour, were wind-related problems in the city grid.

A more intractable problem is the 4-mile surface segment in south Seattle, which accounts for most of the route's average of one collision per month, including last weekend, plus occasional non-transit wrecks or crime responses that spill into the median of MLK Way, and clog the train line.

The 1 Line has been averaging about 80,000 daily boardings, a figure transit Don Billen, director of environment, planning and project development, recently said ranks fourth-highest among U.S. light rail agencies. Ridership grew slowly but steadily post-pandemic and could be even higher, if the agency meets its reliability goals.

Only 87% of light rail trains arrived on time during November, the last month reported in Sound Transit's performance dashboard. The rate dipped below 60% during rail repairs in August and September 2023, when trains had to alternate on a single track next to Stadium Station, and downtown trains were suspended some weekends. Sound Transit's performance goal is 98.5% on-time reliability, a 2018 standards booklet says.

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