It’s nearly 8 a.m. as I begin my journey down the long set of stairs into Westlake Station in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, but this morning I will not be transferring to my usual route across I-90 to my office in Downtown Bellevue. Instead, I will be hoping on Sound Transit’s new Link Light Rail line, Central Link, for a test drive!
Why do you ask? I work for TransManage, the transportation service of the Bellevue Downtown Association. We provide services, tools and resources for Downtown Bellevue employees to make the most out of their commute, from planning transit trips to finding rideshare partners, and more. We have a partnership with King County Metro and the City of Bellevue’s Transportation Department who have asked me to write about my experience riding Central Link—the good, the bad, and the ugly. So here you have it:
My first encounter with Link was in September 2008. Sound Transit invited us to take a tour of the new light rail line and maintenance facilities. We began the tour in Seattle and were taken by bus along the line through Rainier Valley to the final stop in Tukwila. At the time, completion of Central Link didn’t seem too far off since light rail cars were already running back and forth on the tracks and we were even able to go inside one to look around. But months of testing still had to be done to ensure safety and proper functionality of the system. Why do these things take so long anyway?
Flash forward to June 18, 2009 when the 13.9-mile Central Link light rail line from Westlake Station to the Tukwila International Boulevard opened to the public (Central Link’s extension to Sea-Tac Airport will open in December 2009). According to Sound Transit’s “ST_TravelLight” Twitter page, Link trains carried 51,000 riders on opening day—over double the ridership Central Link is expected to reach every weekday by the end of 2009. I think temperatures reached over 90° degrees that day. What dedicated light rail fans!
Now back to my ride. It was a few weeks after the grand opening so I had a number of questions running through my head: Who will be riding Link and where will they be going? How will the payment system work? Will there be any bugs or malfunctions? And how will Link be timed with the buses that travel through the bus tunnel?
All of these questions and more were about to be answered with my first ride on Seattle’s new light rail line. As the next train approached I wondered how I would pay my way on. There were new ORCA card readers in every direction, but no check-point or fare gate to indicate that I was a paying customer. Maybe I would be able to swipe my FlexPass in the light rail car? I’d soon find out that was not the case.
Many of you probably saw the headline story Link’s ticket system confounds light-rail riders in The Seattle Times August 12th edition. From reading this article you can see I am certainly not the only one to ponder the complicated fare question, but Sound Transit has been implementing software upgrades to work out bugs in the ticket machines and expects riders will get used to the new payment system over time.
After getting situated for my first leg from Westlake to Stadium I browsed Sound Transit’s “Travel Light: Guide to Central Link light rail” brochure. I soon learned fare inspectors are stationed on the trains to periodically check passengers for their ticket or bus pass. Wish I knew this before thinking I had illegally boarded the train, but now I know, and practice makes perfect.
Central Link makes 12 stops from Westlake Station to Tukwila International Blvd Station so I planned to hop off and on the train to observe the character and amenities of the surface, tunnel and elevated stations. Here’s what you’ll find:
First Stop: Stadium (501 S Royal Brougham W, Seattle)
Funny enough, I was the only passenger who got off at this stop and the only person waiting on the platform for the next train to come. In between rides I took some time to walk around this street-level station. Everything from the ground to the ticket vending machines to the benches looked sparkling clean. Info boards with Central Link’s route map and “how to” ride and purchase tickets were everywhere to help inform riders. I scoped out the ticket vending machines which seemed fairly straight forward; however I’m not sure someone who doesn’t work within the transportation field or regularly purchase a monthly bus pass would find them as user-friendly.
Second Stop: Beacon Hill (17th Ave S & S McClellan Street, Seattle)
What a sight! This station was created with a tunnel boring machine drilling165 feet under Beacon Hill’s surface. High speed elevators take passengers up to street level with the option to transfer to connecting bus routes or store your bicycle in a locker. Aesthetically, Beacon Hill is atthe top. Beautiful glass artwork flies above the station’s platform and deep purple walls set a calm environment. By far my favorite!
Third Stop: Mount Baker (2415 S McClellan Street, Seattle)
This elevated station was also quite striking, especially its size. Mount Baker came not long after the Beacon Hill stop. I got off here and was pleasantly surprised to see about 10 other passengers getting on and off the train as well. I took the escalator down to the main level and saw more colorful artwork that lined the ceiling. As with Beacon Hill, the Mount Baker station has a prominent street presence, which I think is great, simply from a public knowledge stand-point.
Fourth Stop: Tukwila International Blvd (15426 35th Ave S, Tukwila)
This was my final stop before making the journey back to Seattle and then Bellevue. Tukwila Station is another elevated station with access to ticket vending machines, bicycle lockers, and even a 600-stall park & ride lot. Until the extension to Sea-Tac is completed (December 2009), connector buses run every 10 to15 minutes to get riders to their final airport destination—and your Link ticket, bus pass or transfer will get you on for free! Tukwila is where my journey came to an end. It was time to ride Link back to International District Station and transfer to the 550 to get back to my office in Downtown Bellevue.
Overall my first ride on Central Link was a positive one. It was quite amazing how fast the train went and how often a new train would arrive at each station—7.5 minute headways during peak commuting times and 15 minute headways during the off-peak. I’ll probably never need to look at a schedule again! And as with any new infrastructure upgrade it’s given that unforeseen flaws will arise and eventually be worked out. Folks using the system will take some time to adjust to new protocols. And there will be mixed reviews from the community as word travels around about good and bad experiences. But from someone who grew up in Bellevue my entire life and never stepped foot onto our public transportation system until college, I find Link light rail quite the accomplishment for our region. I will eagerly await the Airport Link and University Link extensions, and in 2020, the East Link connection across Lake Washington to Downtown Bellevue. Now I just need Sound Transit to put a line close to my apartment…just for convenience sake.