Light-rail passengers huddled by the hundreds on the Capitol Hill and Stadium station platforms Friday morning as downtown detours led to full trains and half-hour delays.
The mess could last two weeks, until Sound Transit inspects a hole in Westlake Station’s ceiling, the agency said. After that, repairs to what spokesperson John Gallagher called structural damage could take more time and possibly disrupt service.
Some commuters frantically asked transit personnel for help Friday. A university student was told he should find a bus. Others saw the news or a transit alert and allowed extra time. Fare ambassadors and customer service agents shouted directions, waving toward trains like an airport tarmac crew.
“It’s my first day of work. I just got hired at Seattle Union Gospel Mission. I’m supposed to work in the kitchen,” said Kathie Nguyen, 21, who paced the Westlake Station platform and sang “Hallelujah” (the version from the movie Shrek). Nguyen said she left Bellevue at 6 a.m., taking three buses just to reach the snarl at Westlake Station.
“I’m just singing to pass time, and for the people here. I feel like it’s soothing to them,” she said. After boarding a southbound shuttle train at 7:46 a.m., she changed trains again at Stadium Station to reach the kitchen near Othello Station, a total journey of more than two hours. Fortunately, her boss is understanding, she said.
Trains in both directions were running only on the southbound side every 32 minutes each way for most of Friday at Westlake, University Street, Pioneer Square and International District/Chinatown stations. Outside of downtown, service was every 15 minutes. Normally trains arrive every eight to 10 minutes.
By 6 p.m., Sound Transit had passengers transferring at Pioneer Square Station instead of Stadium Station, which allows the downtown shuttle train to change directions more often. Staff with bullhorns at Westlake Station told crowds it was a now 20-minute frequency.
During the two-week reduction, people traveling between the north and south sides of Seattle must change trains at Capitol Hill Station to go toward downtown, Rainier Valley and SeaTac; or change trains at Pioneer Square Station to go toward downtown, the University of Washington and Northgate.
CEO Julie Timm notified the transit board Thursday afternoon leaks were found in the concrete lid at Westlake Station after “demolition work along the Pine Street sidewalk.”
It was punctured Tuesday above the northbound boarding platform, while a contractor was removing a clock foundation.
This corner was the site of the whimsical Bill Whipple question mark shaped clock, built in 1988 to complement the transit tunnel. it was removed from its footing last year. The 1928 Ben Bridge Street Clock, which spent many years at Fourth Avenue and Pike Street, will be moved to the Fifth Avenue and Pine Street corner, switching places with the question mark clock, a Landmarks Preservation Board statement said. Ben Bridge Jeweler, preparing a new flagship store at 501 Pine St., is named on a city permit as the responsible party, and didn’t immediately reply to an interview request Friday.
The incident did not involve city crews or contractors who are renovating Pine and Pike streets this year, the city’s waterfront office confirmed.
Normal train service continued for two days, as riders avoided a small taped-off part of the northbound platform. But the damage “was more significant than originally thought,” an update said. Plywood sheets covered the small gap.
Sound Transit hasn’t provided a technical description as of Friday afternoon of why the hole is dangerous, despite tweets earlier by Timm hoping to do so. She visited Westlake Station in the afternoon with safety, engineering and other staff, saying, “The damage doesn’t look bad from the surface. It’s what you can’t see that is requiring these safety measures.”
King County Metro recommends bus lines 101, 124, 150 and 594, which stop next to Stadium Station and go to Westlake. Riders between Capitol Hill Station and downtown can ride Metro’s 10, 11 and 49 lines, while Route 36 connects Beacon Hill and downtown. Four frequent RapidRide lines on Third Avenue stop near one or more light-rail stations.
So far, there are no plans for extra buses downtown, amid a shortage of operators and available vehicles, Metro spokesperson Al Sanders said.
Give and take
Service seemed inconsistent early Friday, while transit crews established a rhythm. .
Two shuttle trains went north during the 7 a.m. hour before the next shuttle arrived going south, which caused confusion.
John Merritt, of Austin, Texas, going south to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, said he and his wife boarded a full train marked “Angle Lake,” but it was actually going northbound and fellow passengers shooed them off. The stations lacked accurate train-arrival signs, but by the 8 a.m. hour a train operator’s public-address comments and the outdoor speakers at Stadium Station gave boarding updates.
“The good thing is they’re used and packed up,” Merritt said as his wait stretched to 30 minutes. “In Austin we have light rail and nobody rides it.”
John Q. Greene, of Lynnwood, said he’s accustomed to breakdowns from his past years riding the Washington, D.C., subway, so he allows extra time to reach work at the VA Medical Center on Beacon Hill.
“I’m from the East Coast so I can give and take,” said Greene, wearing a Baltimore Ravens cap. “Sometimes the system messes up, and some days it sings. It’s a give-and-take relationship.”
About 400 people were waiting when his shuttle train reached Stadium Station, to ride north into downtown and beyond. But it was suddenly pulled out of service. Security staff told people already boarding the train to walk off; one commuter described an injured or passed-out man inside. Another shuttle train arrived 10 minutes later.
Friday’s machinations point to a built-in weakness — there’s no crossover switch at University Street Station that could make service more flexible during a sudden disruption. The same dilemma required closing all four stations Feb. 14, when an emergency ventilation fan failed at Pioneer Square Station.
Sound Transit doesn’t have any near-term plans to add switches, Gallagher said. Doing so would itself cause construction disruptions.
Light-rail ridership has been on the increase post-pandemic, averaging 74,000 passengers daily as of February, and some days over 80,000 last fall. Northgate Station has surpassed Westlake as the busiest spot.
A resilient spine for the 24-mile corridor, and future trains to Bellevue mid-decade, is paramount for the overall success of regional transit, since a second downtown tunnel won’t be built until at least 2035.
The downtown tunnel, completed in 1989, will need hundreds of millions of dollars of retrofits, fire-life safety equipment, escalators and elevators this decade, along with temporary passenger detours during installation jobs.
Seattle Times staff reporters Daisy Zavala Magaña and David Kroman contributed to this story.
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