I Rode Link Light Rail & Lived To Write About It. Have You?

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Story by Ralph Nichols
Photos & Video by
Oran Viriyincy

With Sound Transit’s Link light rail trains running at last between Tukwila and downtown Seattle, it was time to experience this new commuter option. So with my girlfriend, I boarded a train for a round trip from the South 154th Street station late on a busy Seafair Saturday afternoon.

With lots happening downtown, we weren’t surprised to find the station’s main parking lot full. (Tukwila has Link’s only free park-and-ride lot, like those at several Metro bus stops around King County, although there is private paid parking near the Beacon Hill station.) But there were a number of empty spaces at the overflow parking lot across the street.

Five minutes after parking, we bought our tickets – $5 per person for the round trip – and one minute later boarded a train that had just come in. With trains running from Tukwila every 10 minutes at that hour, this gave us 9 minutes to look around on the inside before our journey north.

Each $4 million electric-powered car, with electricity from overhead wires, is 95 feet long – three times longer than one of Metro’s articulated buses. Each car can seat 74 passengers and accommodate a total of 200 riders with standing room only, and each train consists of two cars. The trains travel at a maximum speed of 55 mph on the elevated track near Tukwila and at 35 mph on the ground.

The train doors closed – rather quickly it seemed – at 5:50 p.m. Soon it pulled out of the station, right on time. Less than half a mile down the track, we agreed the ride was not as smooth as expected; still, the vibration isn’t bad at all. And the train moves along at a steady clip without delays for vehicles when streets intersect with the tracks.

Station stops took far less time than I expected. Passengers got on and off with ease and without delay, and we moved right along. Here is how our station stops went:

5:59 p.m. – Arrived at the Rainier Beach station.

6:00 – Depart.

6:02 – Othello station.

6:03 – Depart.

6:06 – Columbia City station.

6:07 – Depart.

6.10 – Mount Baker station.

6:10 – Depart … and head into the tunnel under Beacon Hill.

6:12 – Beacon Hill (tunnel) station.

6:13 – Depart … and back into daylight.

6:15 – SODO station.

6:15 – Depart.

6:17 – Stadium station.

6:18 – Depart … and enter the downtown bus tunnel.

6:20 – International District/Chinatown station.

6:21 – Depart.

6:23 – Pioneer Square station.

6:23 – Depart.

6:24 – University Street station.

6:25 – Depart.

6:26 – Westlake station, the end of the line.

Twenty-six minutes from Tukwila to midtown Seattle via the Rainier Valley. Not bad.

When we left Tukwila, there were about 12 riders in our car including us. Picking up more riders at most stations along the route (none at a couple), usually ranging from an additional 6 to 12 at each stop, our car was almost full of seated riders by the time we reached Westlake. No one had to stand. As we stepped off the train, it looked like its other car had carried about the same number.

Getting from the train to street level – at Pine Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues just below Nordstrom – is easy, as is returning to the train, which we did about an hour later. On the return trip, which took the same time, only 16 people were riding in both cars and only 8 beyond the Mount Baker station. It is logical to assume, given the number of cars still in the parking lot when we got back to Tukwila, that southbound ridership was much higher after events wrapped up downtown and people headed home.

Above ground, the view from a train car ranges from interesting, even scenic, along the elevated track north of the Tukwila station to very drab through part of Rainier Valley not far up the line.

A trip on Link light rail is comparable to a ride on Portland’s MAX, although a good stretch of that line parallels Interstate 84 – the major highway into that city – rather than winding through nearby neighborhoods along the way.

Sound Transit has reported that Link light rail carried an average of 12,000 riders per weekday in its first five days of regular paid service, and 16,900 riders on July 25 and 15,100 on July 26 during the first big Seafair weekend, when both the Mariners and Sounders also were in town.

With service on to Sea-Tac International Airport scheduled to begin in December, Sound Transit projects 26,600 one-way trips daily (13,300 round trips) along its 16-mile light-rail route by the end of 2010. The current trip from Tukwila to Seattle is 14 miles.

A footnote about our trip: While the actual travel time from Tukwila to Westlake was a reasonable 26 minutes, it took another 9 minutes to drive from my home and park, then another 14 minutes to get into the station, buy tickets, board a train and wait for it to depart. Riders who take light rail from other stations must walk, ride a bicycle or take a bus to get there since they have no park and ride lots.

Convenience, including time and destination, may be the determining factor for riding light rail for many commuters. I might take light rail from Tukwila to a Mariners game or dinner in the International District, but would not do so from, say, Columbia City due to lack of parking. At the same time, I probably would drive to SODO to shop or the Othello community to go to the park.

Regardless, once you’re moving on a light rail train, it’s a comfortable trip in good time to your stop. Still, at $2.3 billion for this line, it’s one expensive commute for the convenience it affords.

If you haven’t yet ridden Link light rail, here’s a video by Oran Viriyincy:

This section, approaching Tukwila Intl. Blvd., has the steepest grade in the system. You can hear the motors as the train climbs.

So…have YOU ridden Link light rail yet? Please take our poll or Comment below…

Have you ridden Link light rail yet? And whaddaya think?

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3 Responses to “I Rode Link Light Rail & Lived To Write About It. Have You?”
  1. janet says:

    We loved the light rail! Rode it yesterday to the International District for Dim Sum. What a day. First time on the train. First time in the District. First time for Dim Sum. Afterwards we went downtown shopping. Now my husband has another excuse for not buying anything…..”don’t want to carry it back on the train.”

    As a long-time “L” communter in Chicago, I can tell you it’s much cleaner, better air-conditioned and less crowded. Plus it leaves on time.

    We plan to use it everytime we go downtown, except on game days, where we understand it’s jammed.

    And for $7.50 for the day, it beats driving and parking. That’s for one senior and one regular adult. Plus we have the added benefit of not buying anything!

    I strongly urge all Burien-ites to give it a try. Our next train adventure will be to go to lunch in Columbia City.

    I noted the same as your ‘train-guy”, lots more people get on and off in the in-city stops. Makes me almost thankful to have the airport in our backyard. Almost.

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  2. Fred Feiertag says:

    I’ve been commuting on the Link trains three days per week since it started. At first I thought that it was taking longer than my former Metro bus route. It does take a few more minutes, but it is cleaner, quieter, and a nicer experience.

    Having the ticket enforcers checking that you have paid is a bit less welcoming, but that happens less than half of the trips.

    The depature from the Tukwila station give a fun almost roller coaster sensation as the train drop down the hill towards the mall formerly known as Southcenter. Is it worth it? Can’t say but I’ll think about that as I ride it six trips a week.

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  3. Ted in Des Moines says:

    Rode on the new light rail for the very first time on Thursday. The occasion was the Seahawks vs Raiders pre-season game, which was a first time for me and my friend to attend a game at Qwest Field. When I arrived at the Tukwila station at 5 PM I found parking to be more than a little challenging. Clearly no parking existed here. Across the street the overflow parking was not much better. I finally parked about 2 blocks away in the post office back parking lot. My friend parked in the parking area beyond Key Bank. I noticed that the parking area between the shipping center and the post office had a parking attendant and they were charging $5 for parking on a lot I’m sure is already public. The ride on the train was very enjoyable and I felt we made very good time especially during the Seahawks venue. It would be good to have a more direct and safer route to and from the two stadiums.

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