Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Transport: Riding Central Link

A Sound Transit Central Link light rail vehicle manufactured by Kinki-Sharyo arrived at the International District station in Seattle, Washington on 23-December-2009

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - On 19-December-2009, Sound Transit's Central Link light rail extension south to Sea-Tac International Airport opened. With no free preview on the first day and holiday crowds expected, I waited until 23-December-2009 to take my first ride ever on Seattle's first true rapid transit system in the modern era. Sound Transit had opened Central Link between downtown Seattle, Washington and Tukwila on 18-July-2009.

A Central Link train passed underneath the tower at Sea-Tac International Airport as seen from the airport station on 23-December-2009

The new airport station has been somewhat controversial since it is located across the parking garage from the terminal. While certainly the mean distance to airline ticket counters is higher than at the bus stop, the station is actually closer to the airlines at the north end of the terminal, and Sound Transit's estimate of four minutes walking time to the building seems about right. Furthermore, the position of the station allows for a planned straight-forward extension to the south, eventually all the way to the Tacoma Dome.

An interesting mural along the transitway in the SoDo neighborhood of Seattle, Washington was noted on 23-December-2009

As Sound Transit has adopted a "1% for Art" policy, the line includes some interesting artwork, including reflecting sculptures at the airport station, a stylized magnifying glass at Columbia City, and the underground Beacon Hill station has been described as the "$1 billion underground art gallery." Yet, some of the best art visible from the trains actually came from the Urban ArtWorks project, which created the SoDo Urban Arts Corridor on buildings along the former 5th Avenue, now a transit corridor through the SoDo neighborhood.

Note the "mountain" symbol for the Mount Baker station in Seattle, Washington, part of the accessibility signage of the Central Link light rail noted on 23-December-2009

Amongst the things that impressed me about the system was the use of a pictogram in addition to the station name in system signage. For non-native speakers of English, this can be a big help--but some of the symbols did seem a bit strange. A mountain for Mount Baker and even an anvil for SoDo (once a heavy industrial era) make sense, but a deer for Othello and a dove for Columbia City (especially when a heron for Rainier Beach is just two stops away)? There had to be better choices for some stops; Sound Transit's explanations don't strike me as terribly convincing.

This gate prevented buses from entering the Transit Tunnel in front of an approaching Central Link train on 23-December-2009

The most operationally interesting aspect of Central Link is that it runs in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel along with buses. Interesting gates ensure that buses do not enter the corridor in front of approaching trains, and the signaling system ensures that buses move in groups on a schedule through the tunnel so that everything can run on time. It's quite a sight at rush hour to see the choreography underground--and having used both, it's a much smoother ride on the rails than on rubber tires in the tunnel.

The Central Link tracks were elevated around the International Boulevard station in Tukwila, Washington, with a view of the hills all around on 23-December-2009

The Transit Tunnel is a key element in making Central Link a rapid transit system. Even the section along Martin Luther King Junior Way that is not grade-separated seemed to have transit priority signals, as the trains hustled right along. The contrast with Portland's MAX light rail system, which sometimes feels painfully slow in the downtown core, is striking. Central Link may be a much more expensive system per mile and may be taking much longer to build, but it will offer clear advantages over other transportation alternatives. The Puget Sound region is finally doing something impressive in public transit.

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