Apple Cup tram stand shows Sound Transit’s communications strategy needs to evolve

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

An internal audit will be conducted by the agency’s security division to review the response to the Thanksgiving weekend incident. Outside experts can be hired to investigate how a large cable was severed, knocking out power and the public address system in three of the four cars.

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

The northbound train suddenly stopped and rocked crowds of passengers at 8:21 p.m. after the football game between UW and Washington State University in Seattle. Most on board were left in darkness 1,000 feet beyond the University of Washington station. A train operator and a dispatcher tried to restart train control console as some passengers panicked. Soon Sodo’s control center responded to calls for several delayed trains across the city.

About 12 minutes after stalling, the riders opened the doors and began to drive away, not only inside the blocked northbound tunnel, but through a passage in the twin southbound tunnel.

An alert dispatcher and approaching train operator may have averted the tragedy, calls from the control center indicate.

“Train 5. I’m stopped here at communication passage 23. There are people coming out of communication passage,” says the operator of a southbound train of Northgate. Immediately after the northbound stall, a dispatcher held Train 5 at the U district station, then told the operator to proceed. For reasons still under investigation, she traveled slowly and cautiously enough to avoid an accident. (The tunnel segment under campus has a speed limit of 35 mph, compared to 55 mph under Capitol Hill, to minimize ground vibrations near UW labs.)

“I would like you to stand there,” said the dispatcher. Eventually, Train 5 became a rescue train and brought stranded passengers back to UW Station at low speed.

The next day, Sound Transit tweeted that “a dangerous incident has developed” because people have left the trains. On Thursday, Rogoff struck a more contrite tone during a meeting of the transit committee.

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

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

“We are only grateful to be able to learn these lessons following an incident with no injuries,” he said.

Sabotage is not suspected because the train could never have gone to UW if someone had cut the cable in the Sodo maintenance yard, spokesman John Gallagher said. This leaves the possibility of a sagging cable cut by rails, switches or debris. Rogoff said the agency had theories about the cable break but would not share them until further investigation. Results are expected in 30 days.

Stalls are happening, but lack of information, and possibly fears of COVID-19, have heightened tensions in the full wagons. The operator had no idea the cable had been severed as she attempted to restart the train.

“I have people having panic attacks here, can you speed it up a bit?” she communicated by radio, 18 minutes after the stall. A supervisor arrived four minutes later; moments before this, the operator is heard saying “Sorry” as an angry male voice shouts a profanity next to her.

Sound Transit did not tweet a driver 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 got off the broken down train with his parents. Heppner worries that such incidents will discourage people from taking public transportation. Sound Transit is building suburban extensions with the goal of one day carrying 750,000 daily customers.

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

Passenger Anna Zivarts, who also runs the Disability Mobility Initiative, worried she might miss her overnight flight to New York. She heard snippets of announcements, like “stay safe on the train.” A few trains passed until a relief train stopped and passengers climbed onto the guideway, she said.

Fast communications are a challenge for transit agencies across North America, said Kevin Desmond, former CEO of TransLink of Vancouver, British Columbia.

“It’s not easy,” he said.

“They have to understand what is going on first. The first few minutes your instinct is not to say anything to the passengers because it could be a transient event, maybe take three minutes and we’ll be on our way. If the AP is working, an operator might say there is a stall, and not much else.

In the Apple Cup booth, the cable clipped the disabled speakers of three cars.

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

“You would want to keep people on board, 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. Seattle’s light rail trains are powered by overhead cables, but people walking can fall onto the tracks.

New York’s subways have crosswalks between cars, so a conductor can tell people what’s going on from end to end, Donohue said. This option is not available for Sound Transit, which uses separate wagons which are easier to rearrange and deploy from the Sodo base.

The Washington, DC subway, whose equipment has deteriorated for decades, is prone to breakdowns. After a derailment on October 12, passengers came out under escort near Arlington Cemetery, then officials offered them a $21 credit.

In June 2015, two of Vancouver’s SkyTrain corridors shut down up to 2.5 hours, forcing passengers on 19 trains to wait or walk – after two big system dropouts the previous July. TransLink commissioned a study in 2014 which prescribed 20 changes, from resilient train control software to higher quality speakers.

These days, “control center and station personnel are trained to make announcements within the first one to three minutes of an issue,” spokeswoman Gabrielle Price said by email. In the worst-case scenario, multiple trains stopping, TransLink has enough staff to reach stranded people in 20 minutes, she said. They are trained to support SkyTrain’s automated cars. Communications staff work all hours of operation to alert people via social media, text messages and station display messages.

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

Sound Transit employs station attendants, like New York, to assist commuters at Sounder commuter rail stations and the SeaTac/Airport light rail station. Other stations are understaffed, though additional staff may be deployed for events, such as the Oct. 2 opening day of three North Seattle stations.

“In normal operations, it’s expensive,” Desmond said. “In case of an emergency, having people on the ground constantly with customers, ensuring their safety, is invaluable.”

Jose P. Rogers