INTRO: A 55 km commuter rail line is due to start running between Seattle and Tacoma next year. This is the first stage in an ambitious 10-year programme to develop commuter and light rail routes throughout the Puget Sound region

BYLINE: William D Middleton

’AMONG THE major US urban areas without a rail transit system’, says Paul Bay of the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority, ’there isn’t any that has a greater need for one than Seattle.’ RTA’s light rail transit director points out that downtown Seattle is shaped like the waist of an hour glass - hemmed in by Puget Sound to the west and Lake Washington to the east, with residential areas extending far to the north and south, and east of the lake.

High density development, high downtown employment, and the large University of Washington campus just north of the city centre all contribute to a heavy demand for public transport in this north-south corridor. The city’s constrained street and freeway system has become badly congested, and it has become increasingly difficult for the bus network to meet this demand.

Today, Seattle is at the centre of an urban area that stretches along a north-south corridor of nearly 100 km, from Everett, to the north, all the way to Tacoma, south of Seattle. With a current population of 2.5 million, the three- county region embracing more than 50 towns and cities is expected to grow by another 1.4 million over the next 25 years.

The need for some form of urban rail network has been evident for years, but the region has had extraordinary difficulty in finding a way to develop it. As early as 1962, when a short monorail line was installed to link the Seattle city centre with the Worlds Fair site, there were proposals that it be expanded into a regional network. That idea never went anywhere, nor did the results of a proliferation of studies and reports that followed over the next several decades. Voters turned down proposals for a rail system in 1968 and 1970.

By the end of the 1980s, however, the need for a rail solution was becoming clearer, as population and congestion growth in the region continued at a high level. A majority of voters in a 1988 advisory referendum wanted the Seattle Metro government to accelerate planning for mass transit, and by 1990 the government had developed a Metro 2000 regional plan embracing both light rail and commuter rail.

An important first step in implementing such a plan came in 1993, when voters in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties approved the formation of the RTA to develop a regional transit system. Less than two years later, however, the voters turned down the RTA’s overly ambitious plan for a $6.7bn commuter rail, light rail and express bus system.

A new RTA plan was back on the ballot in November 1996, this time a more realistic $3.9bn, ten-year regional transit development programme. Voters in all three counties approved the plan, together with 0.3 % motor vehicle excise fee and 0.4 % sales tax increases over a 16-year period to finance a local share of the costs. To be developed over a ten-year period, the Sound Move plan, as RTA calls it, includes:

* 40 km of light rail, including a north-south route linking downtown Seattle with the University District, and with southwest Seattle and SeaTac Airport. A separate 2.6 km segment will link downtown Tacoma and a regional transportation centre at the Tacoma Dome.

* 130 km of commuter rail, extending north from Seattle to Everett, and south to Tacoma and Lakewood.

* Direct access ramps to a state-funded north-south High Occupancy Vehicle expressway, and 20 new regional express bus routes.

Commuter rail first

The first part of Seattle’s new rail network to begin operating will be a 55 km segment of the Sounder commuter rail route between Seattle and Tacoma that the RTA expects to open by the end of 1999. Further investment will extend the service north from Seattle to Everett and south from Tacoma to Lakewood over the next two years. The full route will have 14 stations, with an additional three stations subject to funding availability. Most will have park-and-ride facilities, and will be linked with regional and local bus services.

In central Seattle, Sounder trains will use King Street station which hosts Amtrak inter-city services. Under a separate project funded jointly by the federal and Washington state departments of transportation, the City of Seattle, and local transit agencies, the station is scheduled for major restoration and renovation over the next few years.

At Tacoma, Sounder trains will run into a new transportation centre at the Tacoma Dome sports and entertainment facility. Completed in October by Pierce Transit, the local transit agency, the centre will form an interchange between the commuter trains, RTA’s light rail line to downtown Tacoma, and regional and local bus services.

While both Union Pacific and Burlington Northern & Santa Fe routings are still under consideration for the Seattle - Tacoma service, a BNSF route is considered most likely to be adopted. Additional tracks, some track remodelling, CTC and other signalling work will be required to add capacity in the corridor, which is already heavily utilised by freight trains to and from the ports of Seattle and Tacoma. Seattle - Everett service will use the BNSF main line along Puget Sound.

Initially, service will be limited to peak periods only, with some ’flip-back’ and run-through schedules. Later, mid-day, night and weekend schedules will be added, but these will require additional capacity enhancements in the rail corridor. Contract operation of the service, with a barrier-free ’proof-of-payment’ fare collection system, is planned.

RTA is currently initiating contracts for the remaining environmental studies and engineering work. Equipment will conform to what has become the North American standard for most new commuter rail systems, with push-pull sets of diesel locomotives and bi-level coaches. Tenders should be called early in 1998 for 12 locos and a fleet of about 60 bi-level coaches, with entrance doorways at the lower floor level. Between 12 and 24 of them will be cab control cars.

Puget Sound commuters got a taste of commuter rail early in 1995, when the RTA operated a seven-week TRY RAIL! demonstration service with leased GO Transit equipment in the Everett - Seattle - Tacoma corridor. Over 35000 riders were carried on 100 or so trips, which ran during weekday peak periods, on mid-week and weekend excursions, and to Tacoma Dome basketball games.

Light rail links

Operations on RTA’s Link light rail network will begin with the 2.6 km, five station line connecting the Tacoma Dome interchange with the centre of that city. This is currently scheduled to open between 2001 and 2003. The main 38 km, 19 station north-south line will be completed in two stages between 2004 and 2006. The first phase will be a mixture of surface and elevated tracks extending south from central Seattle through the Rainier Valley to SeaTac International Airport.

North of the city centre, the line will run in tunnel for nearly 6 km under First Hill and Capitol Hill to the University District. Whilst more costly than alternative surface alignments, this route will link the three largest employment centres in the region, as well as connecting its densest residential area and largest regional transit market. The full LRT line is expected to generate a daily ridership of about 110000.

A third light rail segment, extending north from the University District to Northgate, serving two more stations, will be added to the system during the 10-year plan period only if extra funding can be identified.

Forward thinking a decade ago, when Seattle planned its 2 km, five-station electric trolley bus tunnel, has already given RTA’s light rail line a route through the city centre. While signalling and power supplies for the light rail line must be added, the twin-bore tunnels were built with future rail clearances in mind, and even have tracks in place. Initially, the tunnels will continue to be used by King County Metro’s articulated, dual-mode electro-diesel trolleybuses as well as the LRVs, but it is planned to convert the tunnel to exclusive LRT use as rail traffic grows.

RTA is planning to adopt conventional modern LRT technology for the Link network, including a barrier-free, proof-of-payment fare system. To equip the first phase line at Tacoma, which will initially require only three or four LRVs, RTA is likely to ’piggyback’ on another agency’s order for conventional high-floor vehicles. However, for the main line through Seattle, the RTA favours a low-floor vehicle, probably with AC propulsion. An order for between 60 and 70 vehicles is likely to be placed in about three years’ time.

Beyond the 10-year plan

Looking beyond the limit of the current plan, the RTA board has already adopted a long-range vision of further network expansion following completion of the current programme. However, any further capital expansion of the rail network will require another vote within the RTA district. If a second phase of construction is turned down by the voters, RTA is committed to rolling back the special taxes to the level required to operate and maintain the initial system.

RTA director Bob White sees ’the end of 10 years as a good opportunity to renew our mandate ... I expect there will be a demand for expansion of light rail, commuter rail, and bus services. A major question will be what happens on the east side?’

Much of the long-range vision, not surprisingly, parallels elements of the RTA’s ambitious plan that was rejected by voters in 1995. Potential rail lines include a commuter rail extension south from Lakewood to DuPont, and light rail extensions north to Everett and south to Tacoma. Service to the east side of Lake Washington would be provided by a second north-south rail line through Bellevue. Light rail branches would extend north to the Ballard district in Seattle and east to Redmond and Issaquah. The latter would operate across Lake Washington over a 1.8 km floating highway bridge, which was providently designed with future light rail in mind when it was built to carry Interstate 90 in the mid-1980s.

CAPTION: Seattle residents had the opportunity to sample commuter rail in the summer of 1995, when RTA hired a trainset from Go Transit to operate ’Try Rail’ services between Everett and Tacoma for seven weeks

CAPTION: Commuter rail and light rail services will connect at both Seattle and the recently-constructed Tacoma Dome interchange

CAPTION: University Street station in the cross-Seattle trolleybus and light rail tunnel

CAPTION: Entrance to the Seattle trolleybus tunnel at Convention Place station, showing the light rail tracks laid when the tunnel was built

Puget Sound choisit l’option ferroviaire integrée

Un ligne de 55 km doit entrer en opération entre Seattle et Tacoma l’année prochaine. Il s’agit de la première étape d’un ambitieux programme de 10 ans pour développer les lignes de banlieue et de métro léger à travers toute la région de Puget Sound. William D Middleton examine les plans d’extension des trains d’abonnés au nord vers Everett et au sud vers Lakeside ainsi que les projets de construction de lignes de métro léger desservant Seattle et Tacoma

Puget Sound wählt integrierte Bahnoption

Im kommenden Jahr soll zwischen Seattle und Tacoma ein Pendlerzugbetrieb über eine Strecke von 55 km aufgenommen werden. Dies ist der erste Schritt in einem ehrgeizigen 10-Jahres-Programm zur Entwicklung von Pendler- und Stadtbahnstrecken in der gesamten Region von Puget Sound. William D Middleton betrachtet Pläne für den Ausbau des Pendlerzugbetriebs in den Norden nach Everett und in den Süden nach Lakeside, und für den Bau von Stadtbahnlinien für Seattle und Tacoma

Puget Sound recoge opción ferroviaria integrada

El año que viene se prevé el inicio de un servicio de cercanías de 55 km entre Seattle y Tacoma. Se trata de la primera etapa de un ambicioso plan de 10 años que desarrollar