Link train awaiting departure at University Street Station. (Photo by author)

On Tuesday, Sound Transit announced it would be maintaining 10-minute light rail frequencies north of Stadium Station during its upcoming “Future Ready” maintenance projects. This major positive change stemmed from pressure by transit advocates (including The Urbanist) concerned with the rider impact of the earlier plan reducing Link service to 20-minute frequencies throughout the entire 1 Line corridor during four weeks of work periods, starting initially in mid-July.

A work period in late August and early September has been postponed due to sporting events, with new dates yet to be determined. The revised plan should reduce rider delays and train crowding, particularly in the northern section.

However, the “Future Ready” maintenance intervals will continue to be a major strain on South Side riders, who will still suffer from infrequent 20-minute headways. Plus, later Future Ready phases will bring similar work at Othello and Rainier Beach Stations, where platform tiles and mortar will also need replacement, within the next year, which again impacts Rainier Valley riders hardest.

The plan dictates that, starting July 11th, Sound Transit will run trains every 20 minutes between Angle Lake and Northgate Stations and layer on additional service so that between Stadium and Northgate Stations trains run every 10 minutes. This means that peak-hour service in the northern section will be below normal, but it will ensure that the much higher ridership section of the 1 Line maintains service closer to normal. Southbound riders north of Stadium Station will need to be vigilant in paying attention to which train is a through-train as denoted on headsigns, though transfers can be made at Stadium Station when southbound trains terminate there.

“These Future Ready projects will pack a lot of work into a few months and will be disruptive to our passengers, but it’s important to do it now to avoid bigger headaches down the road,” said Sound Transit Interim CEO Brooke Belman in a statement. “We have been scrutinizing our plans, looking for ways to reduce impacts, and we thank our passengers for their patience and advance planning as we tackle this necessary work.”

Last week, Sound Transit said that it had planned to operate consistently with longer four-car trains during the service disruptions, increasing the overall capacity available for trips operating. The agency reconfirmed that this remains the plan with the revised operations. Sound Transit has often been running trains with three-car sets lately.

Service disruptions in July (and a future work period to be determined) are due to closure of one track at a time around Columbia City Station. Sound Transit plans to replace substandard and damaged tiles and mortar beds on Columbia City Station platforms. The agency said it isn’t fully sure why the platform degraded so quickly, lasting just 14 years instead of the expected 40-year lifespan, but the agency is planning to rebuild it with a more durable design.

The track closures do present genuine operational constraints. For one, complementary crossover tracks are 2.3 miles apart north and south of Columbia City Station, so trains will have to navigate these switches, operate on a single track, and clear signals, which takes at least four minutes. Another constraint is trains in both directions will have to share a platform at Columbia City Station, which presents additional dwell time factors. Moreover, trains running contra-flow will not benefit from transit signal priority, which otherwise helps shave a few minutes off run times through the Rainier Valley in ideal conditions. Together, this all adds up timewise with trains going in opposite directions on a single track. Tightening the allowed travel window could present serious operational headaches.

Equity concerns about different service levels on the 1 Line are sure to be raised about the new plan, especially with the Rainier Valley taking the heavier hit on service reductions to accommodate the work. This is layered onto the inequity of the Rainier Valley having most of the at-grade light rail in the system, which means collisions with cars turning and people crossing already occur fairly regularly and bring service interruptions and unfortunately traffic deaths. Most new sections of light rail have been and will continue to be grade-separated, as Sound Transit learned the mistakes of its initial line.

Nonetheless, riders will be getting an improved and safer station as part of the needed maintenance work, with the agency now running as much transit service as reasonably possible.

To further ease the pain, Sound Transit’s communications efforts will be raised to help riders know which trains go where and how the service disruptions will work. The agency plans to use a “robust passenger communication plan, including rider alerts, announcements and station signage,” according to Sound Transit’s spokesperson John Gallagher. Online trip planners and mobile apps will get updated schedules as part of GTFS data pushes. One way to mitigate the low frequencies in the Rainier Valley would be make transit fare-free during Future Ready work in order to offset the burden borne by riders in that section.

The Future Ready revision news comes just two weeks after The Urbanist ran a story on the planned service disruptions, which raised many questions about why Sound Transit wasn’t using a variety of mitigation strategies to run as many trains as normal as possible. The agency is now instituting one of the strategies suggested in the story. Whether or not the other Future Ready projects will also be less disruptive than originally announced to the public remains to be seen, but Sound Transit has promised to release details later this summer on the next phase Future Ready in the fall. In the coming months, riders will surely be eager to see refined service plans that better keep them moving.

This is a developing story with more details to come. Doug Trumm contributed to this reporting.

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Stephen is a professional urban planner in Puget Sound with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. With stints in great cities like Bellingham and Cork, Stephen currently lives in Seattle. He primarily covers land use and transportation issues and has been with The Urbanist since 2014.