Sound Transit may consider it an encouraging problem to have that the chief complaint among riders of its recently expanded light rail system is that trains are sometimes overcrowded. During last week’s Sound Transit board meeting, members asked transit officials to respond to public demand for more capacity and explain why more three-car trains are not running on the mostly two-car system.
It turns out that even with the huge boost in ridership since the Capitol Hill and UW stations opened in March, Link light rail is still well within its capacity on most trips.
“We cannot guarantee that everyone will have a seat during peak hours, nor was that how the system was designed or funded,” said David Huffaker, Sound Transit’s deputy executive director of operations.
In order to decide when to add more cars, Sound Transit sets capacity standards that measure how many passengers in a car are seated compared to those standing. In a car at “planning load”, all 74 seats are taken and 74 passengers are standing with about 4.4 square feet of personal space. A car at “target max load” has 120 standing passengers and one at “crush load” has 178 standing — the point where people waiting for a train will have to wait for the next train to board.
So what would it take for Sound Transit to add more three-car trains? Currently, average trips during peak hours exceed the “planning load” about 40% of the time. If peak trips began to exceed the benchmark more than 60% of the time, Sound Transit would add more capacity.
“We’re within the acceptable capacity ranges given our current demand, although there are some trips that exceed the target but do not meet the thresholds for changing out level of service,” Huffaker told board members.
Crush loads are rare — only a few have occurred this year. The first one came on the first weekday of the Alaskan Way Viaduct closure in May, according to Huffaker. The vast majority of trips are well below the planning load, meaning most passengers are getting a seat.
Even so, people are riding light rail more than ever. 1.8 million people rode Link light rail in June, up from 1.6 million in April. Ridership in June was up 69% compared to June 2015. CHS wrote about peak daily ridership nearing 60,000 in April. Sound Transit officials say the first 80,000 passenger day will likely happen sometime this summer.
Service standards, which drive service and staffing levels, are reviewed every few years. While Huffaker said Sound Transit has room to add trains on certain trips, he said the budget is limited. Running longer trains means leads to part replacements, shortens the life of the fleet, costs more electricity, and increases the maintenance schedule.
To help reduce crowding on trains, Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff said planners are working to better anticipate when three car trains would be needed. An image of a huddle of penguins posted in some cars encourages people to not crowd the door.
Sound Transit board member and City Council member Rob Johnson asked officials to consider a similar campaign for what to do with a bicycle. He said he has witnessed more than one heated exchange between cyclists and passengers trying to board or exit a train.
The Sound Transit board also made a key vote during its July 28th meeting that clears the path for the first of five sites around the Capitol Hill Station to start getting developed. The board approved a $2.65 million sale agreement of Site B-North to developer Gerding Edlen during its Thursday afternoon meeting. The Portland-based developer will be handing over its right of purchase to Capitol Hill Housing, which will develop and own an 86-unit affordable housing project on the site that runs along 10th Ave between John and Denny Way.