Sound Transit will run its Rainier Valley light-rail trains 20 minutes apart instead of every eight to 10 minutes for a few weeks this summer, so crews can replace worn-out Columbia City Station tiles.

These service cuts will occur July 11 to July 24, then again Aug. 19 to Sept. 1. They reduce light-rail capacity by half for travelers between Stadium Station and SeaTac, where people can expect crowded railcars. The north- and southbound trains will alternate on a single track around the Rainier Valley construction zone.

Those same yellow, ceramic tiles are prematurely cracking and lifting at Othello and Rainier Beach stations, where repairs are expected next summer.

But there’s a glimmer of good news.

Sound Transit walked back its harsher original plan announced May 31, to reduce the entire 1 Line including downtown and the University District to the same 20-minute frequency during tile work.

Instead, every other train going south from Northgate Station will turn back northbound at Stadium Station, so they maintain normal 10-minute frequency between Stadium and Northgate stations, the agency announced Tuesday.

(Sound Transit also decided Tuesday to change its previously announced dates of Aug. 22 to Sept. 4 for the second round of tile work; this new timing allows full service during a Huskies football game Sept. 3 and a Sounders FC match Sept. 4.)

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Sound Transit managers initially thought reducing the whole system to 20-minute frequency was the best option because riders wouldn’t be confused, and trains would be more easily synchronized.

Transit riders pounded the agency in social media and public comments, while The Urbanist called the plan “Tile-maggedon.” To degrade service sends the wrong message, activists said, now that trains are refilling after the worst of the pandemic. Low frequency would compound public frustration over escalator failures.

Suraj Shetty, executive director for operations, said “the feedback we’ve gotten” caused officials to rethink the plan, and maintain 10-minute frequency for most of the 66,300 or so daily passengers.

Extra trains through the city core can turn back north between Stadium and Sodo stations, using the spare “pocket track” that normally helps provide extra trains for sports fans after games.

Passengers in North Seattle who are going past the stadiums, including trips to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, should board trains that display “Angle Lake” signs, rather than trains that say “Stadium Station,” said spokesperson Geoff Patrick.

But he warned that even slight problems can thwart the 10-minute timing. Chances are, some passengers will wind up switching trains at Stadium Station if they’re continuing south.

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Mossy grout

The ceramic platform tiles are breaking prematurely, Patrick said, after just 13 years. The adhesives beneath are failing. Water seeps in, water freezes and water thaws, further prying the tiles from concrete base.

There are 940 of the 1-by-1-foot yellow tiles on each side of the Columbia City Station floor, a visual cue to avoid the platform edge, and tactile guidance for vision-impaired persons.

A walk-through Friday morning showed 25 cracked tiles on the northbound boarding edge, and 15 on the southbound side. Neighboring Othello Station was missing at least three tiles entirely, and there’s a quarter-inch bump in the middle of the southbound platform where tiles lifted and a person might stumble. Moss grows in the grout, during this unseasonably wet spring, and the three valley stations have the most weather exposure.

This isn’t the first tile failure blamed on weather and failed adhesives. Sound Transit spent $250,000 in 2013 to replace loose tiles at SODO Station. According to the 2022 budget, tile replacements at multiple stations will cost roughly $4 million.

Shetty said damaged Rainier Valley tiles are being repaired or changed monthly but that’s not sustainable. To date there are no reports of falls caused by bad tiles, Shetty said.

“It’s an unacceptable long-term risk that someone can fall into the trackway,” Patrick said.

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The new tiles will be 2-by-4-feet, made of polymers instead of porcelain, and fastened using screws. All those changes should make the station edges more durable and less porous, he said.

A longer commute

Sound Transit will blanket its 24-mile system with signs and audio announcements closer to the July 11 start.

About 29% of all light-rail passengers board a train at Sodo Station and points south, where the worst disruptions will happen.

More repairs and inconveniences are coming.

Tile replacements are the first of five projects that Sound Transit calls Future Ready. The second will reduce train service the weekends of Oct. 21-23 and Nov. 11-13, for improvements to the overhead power wires downtown. Other phases will improve signals and add track switches.

Shetty said the agency wants to finish these jobs before 2024 when new lines open to Lynnwood, Redmond and Federal Way — and an obstacle like tile repairs would delay thousands more travelers.