Monday, 23 July 2012

SEATTLE Urban Rail Systems

After Denver and Salt Lake City, I have spent the last few days in Seattle (16-20 July 2012). Arriving on a 2-hour flight from SLC, it was good to find a train going directly into the city centre. With a large number of passengers being first-time users, there should be a manned info point at the ariport, as long queues may form in front of the automatic ticket vending machines with people trying to figure out which ticket they need (although generally the machines are easy to use).

Seattle has a rather diverse transport system, and it could be explored in just two days, too. However, I wanted to spend more time here to explore what I find is a real city, lively and with quite a large densely built-up central area, not just a few blocks of downtown and the rest never-ending faceless suburbs.

There are three different types of urban rail systems, plus a commuter railway and the streetcar in nearby Tacoma. Let's start with the oldest:


The monorail connects the Westlake hub, Seattle' major shopping area, to the Seattle Center, where the city's landmark stands, the Space Needle, plus various other attractions, so every visitor to Seattle has to go there at least once, and many use the monorail, as it is also a fun ride. It costs 2.25 USD (no ORCA card accepted) and takes about 5 minutes. The monorail runs about every 10 minutes, and as far as I have observed, it is the red train in the mornings operating on the eastern beam, and the blue train in the afternoons on the western beam. I'm not sure whether this is always so, and whether this is done deliberately to get nice photos from the sunny side! The Seattle Center station is a proper two-track (two-beam) station with an island platform for boarding and two side platforms for alighting. The downtown station, however, has only one side platform on the second floor (level +2; third floor in American buildings), with the two beams side by side floating above the street. So when the red train is in service on the eastern beam, platform extensions are rolled out over the western beam, acting like individual bridges to all doors. First time I saw something like this! Might be adopted on some metro systems....

The monorail was built for the 1962 Expo (they are celebrating its 50th birthday), and despite its retro style offers a relatively smooth ride. Compared to the new Las Vegas system, its trains are wide and you can walk through all three cars. All in all, the most pleasant monorail I have been on.


Maybe a 100 m from the downtown monorail terminus is also the downtown streetcar terminus, although a bit hidden one block north of busy square in front of the Westlake Center. The streetcar, opened in 2007, is also fun to ride, especially when you're tired and too lazy to walk, otherwise you might probably reach your destination faster walking! Too many traffic lights with long waiting times, and the inbound tram also takes ages to switch from the double-track section towards the single-track terminus. The line now serves a very European-style new development between Thomas and Mercer Streets, mostly occupied by online store Amazon. Just south of Lake Union, there are road works going on, which obstruct the trams at times.

I'm not quite sure who operates the streetcar, on their website there is a note saying “The City of Seattle and King County Metro operate the Seattle Streetcar without regard to race, color, and national origin...”, but King County Metro doesn't really mention it separately, although it is listed as their line 98. Unlike their buses, the trams are not yet equipped with ORCA card readers, so the drivers tell you just to get on without paying if you wished to use an ORCA card ....

The Inekon vehicles are small and cute, with level access at the two main doors in the central low-floor section. There is yet another single-leaf door with steps to the raised area above the bogies, next to the driver's cab on the right side only (in each direction of travel). Depending on the stop, doors open on the left or on the right (at the downtown terminus at both sides). The stops are rather basic, some with shelters, and basic info, which includes operating hours but not frequencies! The next-time indicator seemed to work only at the downtown terminus, showing a tram every 15 minutes. This means that two vehicles are enough for daytime service, with a third held in reserve (each painted in a different colour!).

Construction of a second line has just started along Broadway in the Capitol Hill neighbourhood, while the once popular Waterfront Trolley is gone for good. Judging by the colour of the asphalt, the track has mostly been paved over only recently creating more parking spaces for cars (what else?). That this is permanent can be seen by the well-placed curb stones at intersections and a new road layout on the southern stretch. I was hoping that it would be brought back into service when the new streetcar line is complete as this will actually end close to King Street station where also the old Waterfront Trolley ended. This route is now replaced by bus 99.


Officialy labelled “Link Light Rail” and shown in timetables as “Central Link light rail”, this is so far Seattle's only light rail line. It belongs to the second generation of modern light rail systems in the U.S. and thus has now common features like low-floor access. The Seattle light rail probably is unique world-wide as it includes an underground section which is shared by buses! The light rail system is operated by Sound Transit, a company otherwise responsible for regional bus services in the metropolitan region (whereas most urban buses in Seattle are run by King County Metro). Trains run every 10 minutes during daytime hours and every 7.5 minutes during the peak period.

The 25 km line can be divided into five sections:

  1. Downtown tunnel: from Westlake to south of International District/Chinatown station – this section runs in twin bored tunnels with very spacious stations opened for trolleybus operation in 1990 (in fact they were hybrid diesel/electric buses operating as diesel buses outside the tunnel and switching to trolley operation through the tunnel). The section was later rebuilt to accommodate the new light rail line (there were initial provisions with tracks laid, etc, but these had to be replaced anyway, and the trackbed was lowered). The three fully underground stations belong to the most impressive underground structures in the U.S., especially Westlake and Pioneer Square. Westlake has a large mezzanine level running above the entire station with openings over the platform areas and several direct accesses to adjacent department stores or malls. Pioneer Square and University Street, however, are open spaces with “balconies” at each end, with dimensions similar to the Washington DC Metro. I guess the platforms are about 100 m long, if not more. International District/Chinatown station is a subsurface station with a partly open ceiling and entrance structures on the surface in a style you might also find in some German cities. Pioneer Square and Westlake, however, reminded me more of the Moscow Metro with elegant finishings in granite and marble.
    The buses now sharing the tunnel are no longer trolleybuses, but special low-emission diesel-electric buses with an additional battery. There is a description on the King County Metro website, and in fact you don't smell any diesel exhaust fumes. I don't know why they couldn't maintain the trolley wires, as trolleybuses and trams often operate next to each other, like in San Francisco, Zürich or Geneva. Somebody who understands electrical issues better may be able to explain this.
    The buses serve one more station just outside the northern tunnel portal at Convention Center, but this is not served by the light rail trains, for which a stub for reversing was built right under Pine Street diverging east from the original bus tunnel. This stub is also the starting point for the northern extension to Capitol Hill and University of Washington, now under full construction and opening in 2016. At University of Washington, my first thought was, why is the station so far from the central area of the campus? Probably the cheapest site to build such a station??

  2. The SODO section (south of downtown) is a typical light rail route with a few level crossings along an otherwise segregated alignment. This includes two at-grade stations, Stadium and SODO, located adjacent to the SODO Busway (which also has numerous at-grade intersections).
  3. After SODO, trains climb onto a viaduct, pass a triangular junction leading to the depot, before entering the Beacon Hill tunnel, with a deep-level tube station of the same name. At 49 m below street level, it is one of the deepest stations in the U.S. There are four fast lifts taking passengers to the surface. The twin tube tunnels continue east and emerge onto another viaduct, which accommodates the elevated Mount Baker stations. So this section can be qualified as “full metro”.

  4. Just after Mount Baker, a ramp takes trains down to street level, and although throughout on a reserved lane in the middle of Martin Luther King Jr Way South, there are several intersections which reduce travel speed. Notably at Graham Street trains may have to wait for a long time to get a green line in the general traffic cycle. There are three surface stops on this section. South of Rainier Beach station, there are reversing sidings, but I'm not sure whether these are used in regular service. I did not understand why this initial line has to take this detour to serve this area as it does not seem to generate that many passengers, instead the trip to the airport is lenghtened in time.

  5. About 1 km south of Rainier Beach stations, trains again climb onto an elevated structure and remain there for most of the remaining section to the Airport terminus. It is a long run to reach Tukwila International Boulevard station, and this section required significant gradients, caused by topography. The line was also built on a rather high structure to fly over several freeway junctions. A stretch between Tukwila Intl Blvd and the Airport is at grade in the middle of the airport access road. The long distances between stations on this metro-like section make me wonder why they didn't choose a proper metro alignment for the entire line (on the other hand, why doesn't Denver built a light rail to the airport with similar characteristics?). The giant Tukwila Intl. Blvd station is a major train/bus interchange. The Airport station is directly at the airport, but to get to it you need to walk through a multi-storey car park. The trains reverse in the station, there are only short stubs beyond the platform (a short southern extension is planned for the mid-term future).

All in all, the light rail line has a very modern appearance. The Japanese trains run smoothly, even on the faster sections, but are a bit too small, they get crowded quickly with airport passengers carrying loads of luggage, although there is a small area for luggage and bicycles available. The middle section is very narrow and with people sitting there it is even hard to walk through without luggage. They have bus-type seating in the raised end sections, but making you look towards the train centre, not the driver's cab. The low-floor middle section has mixed seating with some folding seats. The doors are all opened by the driver.

The stations are all equipped with modern indicators, but apparently they don't work properly as they don't show the next train, there is a permanent “Welcome to xx” message displayed and the current time. Otherwise stations are all pleasant and in good shape, some with island platforms (SeaTac/Airport, Rainier Beach, Beacon Hill – though separate in two London-style tubes, Stadium). Besides the station names, there are also symbols, which like in Mexico identify each station! Most stations are enhanced with artwork.


Sound Transit also operates the northern and southern commuter rail lines, one to Everett and the other to Tacoma. But these are really just commuter railways, with 7 trains from Tacoma to Seattle in the morning and back in the afternoon, but only 2 in the opposite direction. The northern line has 4 trains inbound in the morning and 4 back home in the afternoon (some Amtrak trains may be used, too). So if you want to go to Tacoma by train to see the streetcar, you have to get up very early and spend long hours in Tacoma (there is not that much to do there...), or take one of the frequent buses down and come back on one of the two afternoon trains, as I did. They take about the same time (50-60 minutes). I was surprised how well looked after the stations are for having only this small amount of daily trains.


The lack of a clear unified fare system is certainly the most negative part of the Seattle transport system. There are several bus operators with their own fare system, and transfer between them seems to be impossible unless you pay with an ORCA card, a modern smartcard system, which can be a monthly pass (I honestly didn't understand this product, which is not a monthly pass found in the rest of the world giving you unlimited travel in a designated area) or an “e-purse”, i.e. you just add value to it (basic cost of the card is 5 USD) and then tap on/off as you travel, but no discounts. It does, however, grant you free transfer even to other operators. On buses you tap on only once, on trips into the downtown area as you board, and out of downtown as you exit the bus, which makes sense as the downtown area is a free-ride zone on buses, but NOT on light rail! So if you are in the tunnel, you can hop on a bus for one or two stations for free, but the light rail train would cost you 2 USD. On light rail you need to tap on and off, as it has a tiered fare structure, maximum 2.75 USD to go all the way to the Airport, rather cheap, in fact, considering the Airport is some 20 km south of downtown.

Seattle does not offer any kind of unlimited day pass, so the ORCA card seems to be the best choice, but like in Brisbane, I find it hard to keep track on how much I spend, and I was actually surprised when the reader said “low value”, when I thought that there must be a bit more left. So if the system doesn't work correctly, it may be difficult to prove that you were charged too much. I think there should be something like a daily top, like in Dubai. Most people, however, still pay cash on buses, which also delays the buses a lot, as it is often not easy to feed a long-used 1-dollar note into those fare boxes.


Despite the deficient fare system and confusion with different bus operators, Seattle boasts one of the best bus systems in the U.S., I guess. Bus stops are mostly equipped with timetables! And many of them even have a map! In the downtown area, there are triangular info posts, with all necessary details. So, here you can actually explore the city without preparing each single trip exactly on the internet or with the help of individual bus schedules. There is no printed overall map available, instead they refer you to the internet (but hardly anyone will have a printer at home to print out a poster map!). Sound Transit distributes a free timetable booklet with some maps in it. What is a bit confusing is the fact that most bus routes that are supposed to terminate in downtown actually continue as another route, but this number change is done upon entering the downtown area. To go to King Street Station I had chosen to take bus 15 or 18, for example, but at the stop I boarded, these had already changed their numbers, so they were difficult to identify! What is wrong with keeping the same number across the downtown area? 

Seattle also has a large trolleybus network, similar to that of San Francisco, and thus one of the largest in the western world. Many trolleybuses run on the surface along 3rd Avenue, thus above the downtown metro tunnel, from where they spread out in all directions in what is a very hilly city.



  1. Seattle has day passes for the Sounder trains and the Central Link. I am not sure about the buses as it isn't made obvious on the Sound transit site, but I think that it is possible if one pay for the day pass with an Orca card.

    Unfortunately I haven't looked at the machines carefully enough when I was in Seattle.

    These passes cost twice the fare of a single trip. Obviously one may have to buy the most expensive fare (from example from Westlake to Seatac a day pass would cost $ 5.50) if one intend to visit several areas around the Central Link route.

    The price of monthly passes, as you may know,depends on the price of the return trip you make most often. The cheapest monthly pass is $18, the most expensive $189. For all passes this means 18 return trips a month.

    Should one want to make a trip once a while outside the scope of the monthly pass, one can use the e-purse in the Orca to pay for it.

    I don't know if this is done automatically, as they do in Japan, where a trip--outside the route most often used--always cost less on a smart card than if one paid cash.

    You wondered why the Central Link route goes along the Martin Luther King Jr Way for a long while.
    3 major reasons, I think:
    1-it was/ still is a lower income area where people may not own a car or can't afford to use it all the time.
    2-There is a lot of potential in the area for redevelopment. Already there are lots of new apartment buildings and stores since the Central Link opened.
    3-(should be with #1?)It was likely the easiest cheaper route to use.
    I am J-L B from Vancouver..the URL didn't accept it..

  2. Thanks for you extensive reporting on our area's transit. One correction and some updates:

    The extension south of SeaTac airport to S. 200th Street is at Angle (not Angel) Lake.

    Sounder South Line now has nine trains to/from Seattle mornings and evenings. Two are reverse runs. Five now start/terminate in Lakewood, south of Tacoma.

    The fare-free zone for buses downtown was eliminated this past September (2012). Now everyone pays upon entry, regardless of whether going to/from downtown.

    As for the Central Link route plying MLK Way South, in addition to what J-L B wrote, I think there was an issue of federal funding, which required laying tracks through "underserved" (read poor, minority) areas. True, there has already been quite a bit of TOD along the line, all for the better. I myself occasionally take Link to Columbia City, an up-and-coming district, which I would never do by bus.

    While it does seem like the University of Washington station is not centrally located vis-à-vis the campus, it does directly serve both the stadium and basketball arena (not to be taken lightly) AND the sprawling UW Medical Center. For those young and healthy enough, the walk to central campus is not long. In addition, the next station along the line currently being planned and actually starting to be built, the U-District station, will be closer to some areas of campus than the UW station itself. The University administration did not want a station in the thick of the campus, in any event.

    1. Thanks for your updated and corrections, Angel Lake just sounded so nice...
      As for the location of the Univ. of Washington station, it still isn't very convincing to me. Looking at the satellite image again, it is clearly visible that this was the "easiest" location, fair enough to avoid any trouble. Of course, the University doesn't want a construction site within its central area for 3-6 years with all the nuisance that brings, but placing a station right outside a stadium is generally not a good idea, either. Big venues generate extremely big crowds of passengers within a very short time, so it is advisable to disperse the crowd a bit between the venue and the station, as the station will not be able to cope with those crowds, especially with a light rail system. I can already see guards blocking the accesses and allowing only a few people into the station ... Anyway, the station is there now, and indeed U-District station will be much closer for many students, and also closer to cafés and shops.... So maybe they should rename the two stations, the first into Husky Stadium, the other UoW.

    2. Link, or Link light rail is the official name. They use "Central Link" to differentiate it from the short (soon expanding) streetcar line in Tacoma (Tacoma Link). Expansions of the system are given their own temporary names (ULink, Northgate Link, Lynnwood Link, East Link, etc...) until the projects are completed. In the end, the line running North-South will be the "Red Line" and the line running East and North will be the "Blue Line" with other colors selected when additional lines are constructed.

      There were a number of reasons why the University of Washington station was placed by the stadiums. 1. they generate a huge amount of traffic for games 2. as mentioned, one of the city's major hospitals is right there, 3. the University didn't feel that it was appropriate to have a major public transportation access point in the middle of campus for crowd and security reasons, and 4. UW does a lot of delicate research work in physics and there were concerns that the trains would cause undue vibrations and generate excess electrical interference. That being said, the tunnel which will travel under the campus will feature a special "floating-slab" construction method as well as specially forged (ultra straight) rails and as much electrical isolation as possible to minimize problems.

      Finally, in addition to the shared bus/light rail tunnel, Sound Transit will also be building the first light rail line (East Link) that will travel over a floating bridge in what are today's interstate 90 HOV lanes.

  3. So how on earth did you just review Seattle's effectively nonexistent rail system somewhat favourably to Vancouver's? I realise that the skytrain/West Coast Express are no great shakes, but in balance, they are in a league many many times better than Seattle's, and the ridership is there to prove it. Instead of focusing on the idea that Vancouver has a full metro from the city centre to the airport, you merely maligned it's engineering shortcomings. I have been on many systems far greater than Vancouver's, but Seattle's is not one of them. With a bizarre bus/train tunnel that ends up crunching everything to frequent halts (they could've looked to the SF MUNI to see that they should've avoided a tunnel giving way to at-grade) and LRTs that appear every 30 minutes on Sundays, and frankly not all that much more frequently during the week, it is truly one of the worst.

    1. Dear Anonymous,

      this is not meant to be a comparison between Vancouver and Seattle, although on tends to compare nearby things. First of all, I wrote the Seattle impressions before I had even been to Vancouver. As for the Seattle LRT weekday headways, just check the timetables and you'll see it is among the most frequent in the U.S. among Light Rail systems. And frequency can be increased more or less easily if required. As for the LRT/Bus tunnel, my guess is that sooner or later the buses will have to go as more light rail trains come into the tunnel. As of now, the buses don't disturb the train, rather vice versa.
      As for Vancouver, I think it has become clear that I consider the older Skytrain lines excellent, the engineering shortcomings on the Canada Line can hardly be solved, this is why I insisted on it. If the continue with the same untalented engineers, than they will get more crap lines, and Vancouver certainly deserves better, that was my point.

  4. *its engineering shortcomings. whoops.

  5. Glad you have some updated pictures of the new Capital Hill and University Stations. These have made a tremendous difference in ridership (increasing close to 80% per day, from 35,000 average to 60,000).

    Actually the first University Station is very well connected to both the University main campus as well as the very large University Medical Center complex. This was accomplished with a series of fly-over pedistrian/bicycle bridges which provide a good way to avoid the very heavily traffic streets below.

    The 2nd University station (completion by 2019) is more for the commercial district to the west of the University though it might be closer to the North campus buildings.

    I myself live a 10 minute walk (5 minute bike ride) to the Othello station which is bustling with activity these days (and there's new apartment buildings being constructed at the site) so infill in the Rainier Valley section is definitely happening.

    Thanks for your great web site and hope you visit us again sometime!

    Seattle Mike


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