Smoother sailing for light rail riders after weeks of repair

Sound Transit rail passengers are enjoying what is expected to be many months of easier riding, after the agency reopened both downtown Seattle tunnel tubes Monday, after three weeks of major maintenance.

New tracks were installed along a 90-degree curve from University Street to Westlake station, where northbound tracks were gouged and worn down, causing too much distance between rails.

“The ride is going to be a lot less jerky, and less bumpy throughout the curve,” according to spokesperson John Gallagher.

Barring some nasty surprise, there won’t be another big disruption until the weekend of June 1-2, when a weekend closure is expected downtown. Electrical work will be done near International District/Chinatown Station, that will join the existing 1 Line to the future 2 Line across Interstate 90 to the Eastside, which opens in 2025.

After that, there undoubtedly will be other disruptions, as Sound Transit retrofits old components of the 35-year-old tunnel, such as ventilation fans, fire-alarm circuits, leaking walls, lighting, or aging station entrances. New escalators should start arriving in late 2024 at International District/Chinatown Station, followed by others this decade.

“To keep things in a state of good repair, we’re going to have to do work,” Gallagher said, but no more extended station or track closures are now scheduled.

Ridership data won’t be reported for weeks, but thousands took official advice to find bus alternatives or work from home, after they encountered crowds and long waits at first. Some may have used taxis or their personal cars. By last week, some morning railcars operated just one-fourth full.

During the repairs, trains arrived 26 to 30 minutes apart, alternating in a single tube, instead of usual 10-minute frequency. Contractors replaced 500 feet of rails, and 58 boxes containing signal equipment that had been damaged by thousands of bus tires from 2009-19, causing occasional signal failures.

During four weekends, downtown stations and tracks closed entirely. On Monday, trains moved at below the typical 20 mph speed in the curve, while some minor “cleanup” work happened, Gallagher said.

A crucial question is whether long outages — on the heels of last summer’s slowdown, to raise sunken Sodo tracks — will repel passengers, or will they return?

Last year’s average was just over 80,000 boardings per day, and broke past 90,000 in July because of record-setting event days. However, the 1 Line was forecast to carry 120,000 or more because of new Northgate, Roosevelt and U District stations in 2021. Those three stops were busy, but downtown stations last year served only 77% of 2019 clientele, as office and retail activity lagged.

Sound Transit doesn’t have predictions or plans to woo back frustrated riders, beyond thanking them for their patience.

Transit officials hope that new service, at eight Eastside stations sometime this spring, followed by the Northgate-Lynnwood line this fall, will generate public enthusiasm, Gallagher said. “It’s going to be an exciting year for us.”

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