The Seattle Center monorail is expected to restart within a couple of weeks, in time for the end of the holiday season. No firm date has been set, but workers are putting some...

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The Seattle Center monorail is expected to restart within a couple of weeks, in time for the end of the holiday season.

No firm date has been set, but workers are putting some of the final touches on one of the two trains that have been closed for safety improvements since a May 31 fire.

“I think there are going to be a lot of people that are happy to see it running, and it will be really great to see it running around Christmastime,” said Tom Albro, executive director of Seattle Monorail Services.

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Normally, the monorail would carry 5,000 to 8,000 riders a day this time of year. Westlake Center merchants say the loss of the monorail, which drops tourists off on the third floor of the center, has hurt business. At the Made in Washington store, for instance, manager Judy Burnside reports sales have fallen by up to one-fourth since the closure.

Opening the monorail by Christmas “would be good because January is a big convention month,” said Burnside.

The city of Seattle loaned Seattle Center $2.5 million to restart the system. That money will be recovered in the next three years from ticket proceeds and an insurance settlement, officials say.

Only one train will be put back in operation. The fire-damaged train will be repaired in the first half of next year.

During the May 31 emergency, about 150 riders were temporarily trapped above Fifth Avenue North as fire spread into the rear of a four-car monorail train. The fire was sparked by a freak incident: a broken drive shaft punctured a metal shroud shielding the electrical system. That triggered an explosion between the train and a power-supply rail alongside the concrete track.

There were no serious injuries during the blaze because firefighters doused it within 10 minutes and trains were evacuated within half an hour.

At the maintenance base, workers were stuffing blankets of fireproofing material into the floor spaces between the attached train cars, where flames shot through during the Memorial Day fire. The fireproofing can resist temperatures of up to 1,800 degrees, said Albro.

His team has made several other improvements: a complete rewiring job, white fireproof paint on the undercarriage, heat sensors, new fire-resistant seats, and new seals to prevent grease buildup. He said it’s “inconceivable” another fire will break out.

Fire Marshal John Nelsen has dropped his earlier plans to require an emergency evacuation drill above Fifth Avenue. The drill is no longer needed because the train upgrades have gone far beyond fire-code requirements, the department says.

“From the fire marshal’s perspective, they’ve made vast improvements,” said Fire Department spokeswoman Helen Fitzpatrick.

Before a restart, the state Department of Transportation’s rail office must also agree that the system is safe.

Outside investigators identified evacuation as a critical issue in a report last summer. Firefighters needed a half-hour to evacuate about 150 riders in the Memorial Day fire — and two hours to empty a packed train of 450 people Dec. 13, 2003.

Albro said final standards are still being discussed. The capacity of a four-car monorail would normally be 400 people.

To allow more time for maintenance, the monorail will run on reduced hours: Mondays through Thursdays 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Fridays 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturdays 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sundays from 9 or 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Service for New Year’s Eve has yet to be determined.

Burnside said Westlake Center merchants are still a bit wary. They have gotten their hopes up about a reopening before, only to be disappointed.

“Nobody will commit to when it is, so we’ll believe it when we see it,” she said.

The monorail was built in 1962 for the World’s Fair. Eventually, it will be demolished to make way for the future 14-mile Green Line monorail.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com