Following the Apple Cup football game on November 26, a period when Link trains should have uneventfully whisked riders to their destinations, passengers across the system were instead impacted by a major service outage.
At about 8:20 p.m., a packed Link train came to a sudden halt in one of the new tunnels north of University of Washington Station. Within a few minutes, passengers inside the dark and disabled train, lacking instructions on what to do, began exiting into the tunnel.
Passengers began moving down the walkways in both the northbound and southbound tunnels, triggering actions to stop service in both directions. It took about a half hour to collect passengers on rescue trains that moved carefully through the tunnels.
Sound Transit’s poor communications turned the challenging situation into an extremely frustrating experience for riders.
Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff apologized and subsequently commissioned a detailed internal audit, committing the agency to learn from its failings.
Staff today reported to the Sound Transit Board’s Rider Experience and Operations (REO) Committee on draft internal audit findings, as well as an array of follow-up actions. The staff presentation can be found here and the draft audit report here.
Before delving into Sound Transit’s poor communications that evening, let’s first examine why the incident should never have happened.
What happened to the train?
The train, made up of new Series 2 light rail vehicles that had recently been put into service, left the University of Washington Station heading northbound and became disabled after about 1,000 feet.
The cause was a rod protruding upward between the rails. The rod was sticking out far enough to snag and nearly sever the cable bundle that serves as the train’s electronic spine.
It was one of many protruding rods in the tracks beneath UW that are there to secure equipment that helps prevent electromagnetic interference from impacting important UW research.
The audit found that the contractor for this section of the Northgate Link Extension trackway, which opened October 2, had failed to follow the design drawings’ instructions to cut the rods.
Sound Transit’s procedures for commissioning the new extension to Northgate should have caught that the rods had not been properly shortened per the original design.
In addition, the audit found that Sound Transit’s process for commissioning the new Series 2 trains should have included tests simulating the heavy passenger loads that were present after the Apple Cup, causing trains to ride lower.
A further opportunity to avoid the incident was missed after the Northgate Link opening.
King County Metro, which operates Link under contract to Sound Transit, began seeing marks and damage on the bottoms of trains. Within a few days, they traced it to the protruding rods.
Work got underway to shorten the rods, but the problem was not sufficiently escalated or expedited. The work had not been completed by November 26.
The corrective actions that staff outlined before the REO Committee emphasized the completion of the rod-shortening work, and actions have also been taken to ensure cables on the new trains do not hang too low.
Sound Transit and King County are working together aggressively to clarify and improve work processes, including creating a new Executive Oversight team to ensure that every audit finding is addressed fully.
Poor passenger communications
Additional actions taken thus far, and others that will continue to be taken, place focus on the poor passenger communications that the audit addressed.
The first communications problems happened on the disabled train. The train came to a rapid and safe halt as designed, but the train’s damage left the operator in an unprecedented situation.
The train’s controls went dark along with the lights, and the operator had to use an emergency backup radio to communicate with the King County Metro Link Control Center as she tried unsuccessfully to reboot the train.
The audit found that the dark controls led the operator to conclude the train’s passenger intercom was not operational. After 12 minutes of trying to restart the train, she made an intercom announcement that proved otherwise.
However, it was too late to direct passengers to stay onboard to wait for the rescue train. The passengers had begun exiting the train eight minutes earlier.
The most important mission of the evening was ensuring the safety of the passengers.
It is true that if passengers been instructed to stay onboard, the rescue would have been completed more quickly and safely. But the passengers cannot be faulted for not knowing this.
Confusion at stations, and no announcements
Meanwhile, people gathering at stations throughout the rest of the Link system did not receive information about why the trains weren’t coming.
In normal instances, staff in the Link Control Center could have used centrally broadcast updates via intercom, but the ability to control the intercoms centrally didn’t work due to a necessary repair that is now completed.
Sound Transit’s failure to serve its passengers on this occasion reinforces how essential it is to maintain fully functional intercoms and to have backup provisions in place. The audit found that staff who responded to the stations didn’t know how to use each station’s local intercom. That is being fixed.
Updating staffing strategies
During weekday commuter hours, King County Metro maintains dedicated communications staff in the Link Control Center, but they were not present during the Apple Cup event.
The lack of this dedicated staffing on November 26 contributed to a failure in using the electronic signage at stations to communicate the service impacts.
By early 2023, Sound Transit will co-locate its own passenger communications staff within the control center during all Link operating hours. Until then, Sound Transit and King County Metro will ensure dedicated staffing during major events, and updated protocols will be followed for other times.
Actions to support timely rider alerts
Without communications staff in the control center, the role of issuing rider alerts via texts and emails, as well as via the web and Twitter, were the responsibility of an offsite Sound Transit staff member who was not contacted in a timely manner. The first rider alert did not go out until 10:02 p.m.
Protocols have been updated to require rapid notification of internal staff, with additions of backups and procedures for positively verifying assigned parties are acting.
Starting in the first quarter of 2023, passengers will benefit from the completion of a multi-year effort to install a new passenger information management system (PIMS).
This system will offer greatly expanded abilities to centrally control customized information for each station via intercoms and electronic signs.
Expanding exercises and training
Going forward, Sound Transit and King County Metro staff will participate in expanded exercises and training to better verify their readiness to serve passengers.
Our commitment to do better
The Apple Cup failures demonstrated the necessity of work to uphold our commitments to our passengers and the communities we call home.
Update on follow up
On June 22 staff uptated the Sound Transit Board of Director's Rider Experience and Operations Committee regarding the final audit and the agency's response and corrective action plans.