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Why Sound Transit is not rolling out more 3-car light rail trains

Southbound trips

Northbound tripsSound 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.

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 1.45.45 PMEven 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.

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14 thoughts on “Why Sound Transit is not rolling out more 3-car light rail trains

  1. That seems reasonable, but I have to wonder how they’re counting passengers per trip. My guess is they’re using ticket sales/passes, which of course are easy to count, but since they don’t have mandatory enforcement I’m wondering if they adjust for the free riders. Even my wife, who rides it daily now, doesn’t swipe her monthly pass every day, and she’s told me about how a group of homeless people have figured out the best stations to get on and off at to avoid the metro cops (she’s heard them discussing it on the train). That method of counting also ignores all the people traveling to/from the airport with their luggage, and all the space (and seats, since people think their luggage deserves a seat) that takes up.

  2. At some point in recent years, the definition of “crush load” on a Sound Transit rail car (sent from Japan as a kit from Kinkisharyo, assembled in Everett) was changed from 200 to 250. Email me at if you have any details on when and why the switch was made.

    • Well, lets do the math, if 74 standing have 4.4sqft each, that’s a total of 325.6sqft. Divided by 178 for standing crush load means each person on average has about 1.8sqft. I think that’s a fair estimate, ever been to Japan? It’s called a crush load for a reason.

    • Do they factor in multiple bikes per car and luggage in that? Because yesterday a lady managed to take up 5 seats with her luggage, and bikes usually take up the space of at least 2 people, unless they are using the hooks — which there need to be more of since bikers frequently have to put them by the door or the handicap seating.

    • Most of the Saturday trains I’ve been on have been fairly well-trafficked. Most seats taken, comfortable amount of space, a few people standing if they’re only going one stop. Seems normal and healthy.

  3. I think some of the people running the numbers should try to do a few commutes at rush hour and see if the numbers match up with how it feels. Seems like most time I board recently it is a “crush” to get on.

  4. Seattleites are going to need to get used to standing on Sound Transit trains. Most big cities that have subways, seating is at a premium, and commute hours means being jammed elbow to elbow on the train.

  5. What is the duration of an average trip? Seattle is tiny so I can’t imagine it being too long. Only in Seattle do people complain that they can’t sit down and have to stand to close to someone else for a few minutes.

    Have these people never traveled in other cites mass transit systems?

  6. The crowding of the doors is definitely a thing. I pushed my way through a wall of flesh the other day to find the entire center aisle of the train empty. Anyone understand why this happens? My only guess is that people are terrified of missing their stop (even though every car has two sets of doors).

    • This is not uncommon in a lot of cities. Not so much in places that have long had busy subways like NYC or Boston. But I have definitely seen it a number of West Coast cities where crowded subway/light rail is a relatively new thing. Combine this with all those tech employees moving from to the city from various suburban towns and colleges across the country, and you get a local culture that just doesn’t “know” how to ride the subway properly.

      Hopefully will evolve over time. In the meantime, keep on shoving your way in!