Sound Transit acknowledges what was clear to hundreds of people stuck in the Nov. 26 Apple Cup light-rail stall: The agency’s crisis communications and response aren’t good enough to serve the region’s rapidly expanding train network.

An internal audit will be led by the agency’s safety division to examine the response to the Thanksgiving weekend incident. Outside experts may be hired to investigate how a large cable was severed, which cut the power and public-address system in three of the four railcars.

Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff apologized this week and promised to improve incident protocols, as well as public education. While some bigger transit systems have dedicated staff to escort riders and tweet instant updates, Seattle-area agencies are relatively ill-equipped for the occasional and inevitable stall.

The northbound train suddenly stopped and jolted crowds of riders at 8:21 p.m. after the football game between UW and Washington State University in Seattle. Most aboard were left in the dark 1,000 feet beyond University of Washington Station. A train operator and a dispatcher tried to reboot the train control console as some passengers panicked. Soon the control center in Sodo fielded calls from multiple trains delayed across the city.

About 12 minutes after the stall, riders pulled open doors and began walking away, not only inside the blocked northbound tunnel, but through a passageway into the twin southbound tunnel.

An alert dispatcher and approaching train operator may have prevented tragedy, control-center calls indicate.


“Train 5. I’m stopped here at cross passage 23. There are people coming out of the cross passage,” said the operator of a southbound train from Northgate. Immediately after the northbound stall, a dispatcher had held Train 5 at U District Station, then told the operator to proceed. For reasons still being investigated, she traveled slowly and carefully enough to prevent a crash. (The tunnel segment under campus has a 35 mph speed limit, compared to 55 mph under Capitol Hill, to minimize ground vibrations near UW labs.)

“I’d like you to hold there,” the dispatcher said. Eventually, Train 5 became a rescue train, and carried some stranded riders at low speed back to UW Station.

The next day, Sound Transit tweeted that “an unsafe incident developed” because people left the trains. By Thursday, Rogoff struck a more contrite tone in a transit committee meeting.

“It is our fault our passengers were in that position. Some passengers were quite understandably frightened by the incident,” he said. He also apologized to those delayed at other stations.

Rogoff said the issues were “cross-cutting” throughout departments of operations, communications, safety and security, customer service, passenger experience, and also the way Sound Transit oversees King County Metro, which operates light rail.

“We are only grateful we can learn these lessons following an incident with no one injured,” he said.


Sabotage isn’t suspected, because the train could never have gone as far as UW if someone sliced the cable back in the Sodo maintenance yard, said spokesperson John Gallagher. That leaves a possibility of a sagging cable sliced by rails, switches or debris. Rogoff said the agency has theories about the cable break but won’t share those until further investigation. Findings are due in 30 days.

Stalls happen, but the lack of information, and perhaps fears of COVID-19, heightened tensions in the full railcars. The operator had no idea the cable was severed as she tried to restart the train.

“I have people having panic attacks in here, can you make it a little quicker?” she radioed, 18 minutes after the stall. A supervisor arrived four minutes later; moments before that, the operator is heard saying “Sorry” as an angry male voice yells a profanity next to her.

Sound Transit didn’t tweet a rider alert until 10:01 p.m.

“It’s embarrassing. There were a thousand people there and nobody knew what to do,” said Daniel Heppner, who walked off the stalled train with his parents. Heppner worries such mishaps will discourage people from embracing public transit. Sound Transit is building suburban extensions with a goal to someday carry 750,000 daily customers.

There was another stall Nov. 3, when a southbound train stopped on aerial tracks approaching Tukwila International Boulevard Station. A fault in the brake controls was reported.

Passenger Anna Zivarts, who also directs the Disability Mobility Initiative, worried about missing her overnight flight to New York. She heard snippets of announcements, like “safely stay on the train.” A few trains passed until a rescue train stopped and riders clambered across the guideway, she said.


Fast-breaking communications are a challenge for transit agencies across North America, said Kevin Desmond, former CEO of Vancouver, B.C.’s TransLink.

“It’s not easy,” he said.

“They first need to figure out what’s going on. The first few minutes, your instinct is to not tell passengers anything, because it could be a transitory event, maybe take three minutes and we’ll be going again. If the P.A. is working, an operator could say there’s a stall, and not much else.”

In the Apple Cup stall, the cable break disabled speakers to three railcars.

Standard policy by transit agencies is to keep people aboard until staff arrive to escort them. “The safest place to be is on the train when it’s stalled,” said Gallagher. Cross passages are required by federal law, as escape routes from smoke and fire.

“You would want to keep people onboard, because we have an electrified third rail. It’s pretty dangerous,” said Pete Donohue, communications director for Transit Workers Union Local 100 in New York City. Seattle’s light-rail trains are powered from overhead wires, but people walking might fall on the tracks.

New York subways have walk-through passages between railcars, so a conductor can tell people what’s happening end-to-end, Donohue said. That option is not available to Sound Transit, which uses separate railcars that are simpler to rearrange and deploy from the Sodo base.


Washington, D.C.’s Metro, whose equipment deteriorated for decades, is prone to breakdowns. After a derailment Oct. 12, passengers walked out under escort near Arlington Cemetery, and afterward officials offered them $21 fare credit.

In June 2015, two of Vancouver’s SkyTrain corridors stopped for up to 2 1/2 hours, forcing people on 19 trains to wait or walk — after two big system stalls the previous July. TransLink commissioned a 2014 study that prescribed 20 changes, from resilient train-control software to higher-quality loudspeakers.

Nowadays, the “control center and station staff are trained to make announcements in the first one to three minutes of an issue arising,” spokesperson Gabrielle Price said by email. In a worst-case stoppage of multiple trains, TransLink has enough personnel to reach stranded people in 20 minutes, she said. They’re trained to take over SkyTrain’s automated railcars. Communications staff work all operating hours to alert people via social media, text and station-display messages.

“I’ve always advised control centers should have permanent customer-assistance specialists there,” said Desmond, who moved from King County Metro to TransLink in 2016.

Sound Transit does employ station agents, like New York, to assist daily travelers at Sounder commuter train stations and the SeaTac/Airport light-rail station. Other stations lack agents, though extra staff can be deployed for events, like the Oct. 2 opening day of three North Seattle stations.

“In normal operations, it’s expensive,” Desmond said. “In an emergency, having people on the ground continuously with customers, keeping them safe, it’s invaluable.”