Seattle’s LINK Light Rail

LINK Light Rail Seattle

Seattle, WA. Sound Transit LINK Light Rail (c) 2012 C. Walton

Seattle, The Emerald City.

Seattle is an interesting place to ride public transit.  It’s streetcar system is run by the City of Seattle, it’s bus system is mainly operated by King County Metro, but its light rail system is operated by Sound Transit (for the Puget Sound region).  The light rail is simply called “LINK,” not to be confused with Tacoma LINK in Tacoma, WA, a free streetcar line also operated by Sound Transit.  Even though Sound Transit LINK Light Rail is run with King County Metro operators, the fares for the light rail are set by Sound Transit.  There aren’t any zones in this system, but fares do range from $2.00 to $2.75 depending on how far you are traveling.  It is safe to say, however, that within the Seattle city limits, the fare is $2.00, compared to Metro which is $2.50 within the city limits during peak periods and $2.25 all other times.  Much like many other light rail systems in the country, this system is a Proof-of-Payment (POP) system, with no turnstiles (unlike Los Angeles) and no fareboxes on board (unlike SEPTA).

Seattle’s LINK Light Rail has only been in operation about 5 years and operates a fleet of 62 Kinkisharyo updated light rail vehicles (update of a design used by the HBLR) with bright LED destination signs, subway-style door chimes, capacity for about 200 passengers, and the iconic Sound Transit “wave” scheme found on everything including buses and commuter trains.  They can travel as fast as 55 miles per hour with about 15 miles of light rail between downtown Seattle and Sea-Tac International Airport and points in between such as Mount Baker, SODO, Beacon Hill, Rainier Beach, and Tukwila.  The first 30 cars were built in 2008 for the current Central LINK, with 32 more cars in 2012 for future expansion.

All platforms are built to handle 4-car trains, although single-car and two-car train consists are used most often.  With planned extensions to the University of Washington and Northgate (University LINK) coming in 2016-2020 and to Bellevue and Mercer Island (East LINK) coming in 2020, there should be sufficient cars for all lines to have two-car trains or for University/Central LINK lines to run three-car and/or four-car trains.  Most of the line is private right-of-way, with sections of street running (between Mount Baker and Othello Stations), noise-dampening elevated trackways (between Othello and Sea-Tac), deep underground tubes (Beacon Hill), and multimodal transit facilities (The Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel).

Sound Transit originally proposed this system back in the late 1990s, around the time when growing financial and moral support for Seattle Monorail expansion dwindled.  The city wanted to see the expansion of the monorail to areas north and south of the city including Sea-Tac, Federal Way, Northgate, Shoreline, and Greenwood, much in the fashion of planned LINK extensions.  However, the cost of maintaining the current monorail from Westlake Center to Seattle Center grew to a point where it didn’t appear feasible to region voters to keep funding it or expand it.  The Seattle Monorail was designed with technology from the 1960s and it grew very costly to find parts to maintain it, let alone extend it.  Supporters of monorail expansion argue that monorail expansion would have been cheaper than building light rail, that the elevated trackways would be less visually cluttering of the streetscape below, and that the trains would be quieter and vibrate less than conventional rail trains such as light rail.  After many years of light rail vs. monorail debates, the voters finally gave in and chose light rail as their mode of transit to complement the bus system.


The Central LINK runs through downtown Seattle in a mile-and-a-half-long shared transit tunnel which is also used by several local and express bus routes, including Metro #41 (Downtown-Northgate-Lake City), #71/72/73/74 (Downtown-University District-Lake City/Jackson Park), #101/106 (Downtown-Renton/South Renton), and #216/218/219/255 (Downtown-Bellevue-Kirkland/Issaquah/Sammamish), and Sound Transit Express #550 (Downtown-Bellevue).  There are five tunnel stations: Westlake, University Street, Pioneer Square, International District/Chinatown, and Convention Place.  All except Convention Place are served by LINK trains.

Trains run every 10-15 minutes during most of the day, and a platoon of buses manages to squeeze into that 10-15 minute window between the train that left and the train coming in.  The buses are equipped with special transponders that alert the control center that there are buses in the section of track where the trains need to occupy.  When a train enters the tunnel, it occupies signal blocks to protect it from other trains on the same track.  It also protects the train from occupying a station if there are buses berthed in front of it and alerts buses to keep out of a station occupied by the train in front of it.  Trains run in the tunnel from 5AM to 1AM, and thus bus operating hours are extended from the 6AM-7PM in the pre-LINK days.  Quite a show during the rush hours as buses are stacked on top of each other while platooned between trains, still a show but not nearly as busy during the off-peak hours.

One of the more interesting sections of the Central LINK is the non-stop elevated section between Tukwila International Blvd Station and the Rainier Beach Station, almost 5 miles without stopping.  It includes a portion of the route which runs alongside Interstate 5 and another portion high above SR-518, with some of the most stunning views of the suburbs and the Cascades.  Also of note is the the Beacon Hill Tunnel, a three-mile tunnel linking SODO, Beacon Hill, and Mount Baker, with a deep underground station much like HBLR’s Bergenline Avenue Station.  The trackside walls are in a deep blue color, while the station tiles are blue and grey, as a homage to the maritime nature of the city.  My favorite part of the LINK light rail is the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT), especially during the rush hours, where trains mesh with buses (hybrids only, but some diesels slip in) and offer riders many options to travel to, from, and through Seattle.  Running light rail trains finally run with buses in this tunnel has always been a goal since the tunnel was built in the 1990s as a shoe-in to rapid transit service…and seeing them run together in a tunnel environment is nothing short of amazing.  The street-running portion of the line, between Rainier Beach and Mount Baker Stations, is quite fast as Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd is a wide street with traffic lights and crossings every 1/4 mile or so, allowing trains to reach speeds of 25 to 30 MPH.  In SODO (South of Downtown), trains run along the SODO Busway from Royal Brougham Way to Stadium Way before buses have the option of heading to surface streets or the DSTT with LINK trains.

The cars themselves are modern-looking though a bit on the bland side, though the livery makes up for it.  The system doesn’t have any major track configuration oddities except maybe for the DSTT, so there isn’t anything that would amaze like in Portland, but the travel time from the airport to the DSTT is roughly 30 minutes, similar to Portland’s Red Line from PDX to City Center.  They are carbon copies interior-wise to the HBLR cars except for minor design differences and a presence of readable side destination signs, located in the side windows of the A and B sections as opposed to the C section of HBLR cars.  Same car, different design, but updated.  The propulsion systems in these cars sound similar to a Metro-North/LIRR Bombardier M7 or a WMATA Alstom 6000-series car, and the suspension is much smoother than most other low-floor cars, including the HBLR cars.  Sound Transit really made a great system that is fast, clean, efficient, and reliable, which other systems can use as an example to improve their light rail systems.  The one thing that strikes me about these cars that HBLR’s cars don’t have are individual flat screen door panel monitors on both side of the cab allowing operator to see each side independently.  These have the feature to colorize the screen while in stations and de-colorize while in between stations.  An impressive feature that makes it easier for the operator to do his/her job.

I would most certainly visit Seattle’s LINK Light Rail again when they complete the University District portion of the University Link in two years.  It should make for an interesting system once the two LINK lines combine into one, at least operations-wise.  As more LINK lines are built, buses will start to be plucked out of the DSTT or eliminated altogether.  When the LINK first opened, the #174 (Downtown-Tukwila-Federal Way) was removed from the tunnel and shortened to Tukwila (RapidRide A Line replaced the rest of the line), while the #194 (Downtown-SeaTac-Federal Way I-5 Express) was eliminated altogether.  I can imagine that the 71/72/73/74 might run only from University District to points north, leaving the 43, 49, and LINK to serve U-District to the DSTT.  The 76 and 77 might be shortened or eliminated.  Once the East Link opens in about 2020 or so, I can imagine the 550 being eliminated altogether and the 216/218/219 might be shortened to Bellevue Transit Center.  The eventual goal is to run the LINK by itself in the tunnel as buses take to surface streets, although I would leave some routes down there such as the 101/106 to Renton since there is no rail service there.



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