Taking Light Rail to SeaTac Airport

When it came time for my return flight from Seattle to San Francisco, I thought it might be interesting to try public transit to the airport. I was staying with a friend on Capitol Hill, just northeast of downtown, and a short bus ride to the Central Link light rail that runs to Seattle Tacoma International Airport, about ten miles south of the city.

P1230232

The first step of the journey involved taking a seven-minute bus ride down the hill to the Westlake station at Fourth and Pine Streets. The bus stop was just a block from my friend’s house and a handy free iPhone app called OneBusAway (developed by the University of Washington) let me know exactly when the next bus was coming, minimizing my waiting time. The ride ended up being free because one of the other waiting passengers had accidentally been given two transfers on his connecting bus, so he gave one to me. Normally, it would be a $2.25 ride.

P1230234

The Westlake station will be the northern current terminus of the light rail line until 2016 and announcements on the bus made it easy to tell which stop to alight at. Going down two flights of escalators, I found a small ticketing lobby with easy to use self-service ticketing machines. The machines take both cash and cards. “Orca” is the name of the multi-modal fare card in the Seattle area. It stands for “One Regional Card for All” and is, of course, the proper name of the killer whales found in nearby Puget Sound – clever.

P1230236

From the ticketing lobby I descended another level to the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel. This 1.3-mile tunnel opened in 1990 and provides a convenient, congestion-free path for buses and light rail trains through the heart of Seattle while also providing passengers protection from the elements while waiting. It seems to be a useful piece of infrastructure.

P1230237

My adult ticket – $2.75 one-way to the airport. Travel time to the aiport from downtown is 36 minutes, not much longer than what a trip by car would be, without the worries of traffic – and in Seattle, there is usually traffic.

P1230239

Signage in the station was clear – different bus lines stop in different sections of the platform – and there were staff members present to answer questions. Frequency of the light rail runs from every 7.5 to every 15 minutes, depending on the time of day. I had less than a five-minute wait before my train arrived.

P1230240

Many passengers boarded at this first station, including several who were clearly going to the airport. Average weekday ridership for the 15.6-mile route is about 25,500, growing at a steady but modest pace.

P1230242

The two-car trains have a capacity of 74 seated and 126 standing passengers, although it would be hard to imagine that many people standing in this train, especially with the number of people bringing luggage aboard. With the airport as an important destination, there is a surprisingly small amount of storage space for luggage.

Leaving Westlake station, the line passes nine stations at a pretty quick rate, stopping at a station every two or three minutes. The final two stations, though, are much further out with nine minutes between the tenth and eleventh stations. This is a long distance for light rail to run with no stops and as far as I can tell, the route includes no provisions for in-fill stations to be added. 

P1230249

Two minutes afer leaving the second-to-last station, you pull into the SeaTac Airport station. This neatly organized station has a view of the north end of the airport terminal and signage directing you to the airport is clear. Unfortunately, it is an open-air station and I imagine that it gets very unpleasant waiting for a train in the winter. It looks, though, like the usually have an outbound train waiting in the station so passengers do not have to stand out in the elements for long.

P1230251

A view of the airport light rail station, which is built northeast of the parking garage and is connected via a pedestrian bridge and walkway that is partially protected from the elements. Sound Transit, the light rail operator, says it is a four-minute walk to the airport terminal. That would be a brisk four minutes, especially if you have luggage, and would only get you to the northernmost corner of the terminal. For most people, especially those not flying Alaska Airlines, ten to fifteen minutes would be a better estimate.

P1230246

View of the hometown airline, Alaska Airlines, from the light rail station.

I’m a fan of public transit and am glad that one more city in America has made its airport more accessible via transit. The Central Link light rail is convenient to use, reasonably comfortable (of course it was unseasonably pleasant weather when I rode it), and offers a good return on money for time. If you live anywhere near downtown (or along the light rail route), it is a compelling alternative to a taxi or private car. Of course, not everyone in Seattle lives near the light rail, which is always the challenge of public transit. Still, my overall impression of the Seattle light rail is a positive one.

 

Horsing Around in Omaha

While in the US, we flew back to Kansas City for a few days visiting family, then drove to Omaha for two nights to visit Andy and Sugi, whose wedding we had just attended in Maui. To make the trip even more fun, we brought my six- and nine-year old nieces along. The main event: ride one of Sugi’s mother’s horses.

P1010961

On the three-hour drive north to Omaha, we skirted around a rather imposing storm front, managing to stay dry most of the way. The first evening at Andy and Sugi’s house was a bit of a challenge as the girls were supposed to share a bed but the younger one takes a long time to fall asleep. Her older sister couldn’t take it, so decamped to our bedroom, where we set up a comforter, blanket, and pillow on the floor.

DSC_2435

The next day, we headed to Sugi’s parent’s house outside of the city. Sugi’s mother has three horses, one of which is very gentle and perfect for children to ride. When we first came into the barn, I think the girls were a bit apprehensive. The older one, Emily, is a little more reticent than her sister, Ava. (Photo courtesy of Andy.)

DSC_2475

We each took turns saddling up and riding for a little bit, first in the indoor riding area and then outdoors. (Photo courtesy of Andy.)

DSC_2516

Don’t I look like an old pro? (Photo courtesy of Andy.)

P1020257

We had the girls wear a helmet for safety’s sake. Their reactions to the horses were interesting to watch.

P1020310

If you aren’t familiar with horses, I can understand how you would be a little in awe of them. They’re awful large, especially when you are a child.

P1020357

We pose with our ride and Sugi’s mother, Myra. Many thanks to her and her husband Mike for their hospitality. The girls had a great time and helped brush the horse after the ride.

P1020320

P1020326

Andy and Ava seemed to be the perfect foil for each other.

P1020372

We stayed for dinner at Myra and Mike’s house, which was a mixture of foods (including grilled items!) that included several things that spoke to Myra’s heritage growing up in a Japanese-American household on Hawaii. There were a few dishes that the girls were unfamiliar with, but for the most part they gamely gave everything a try.

DSC_2649

After dinner, it was some time for Dance Nation!

DSC_2679

You can probably guess which song Andy and I were dancing to.

P1010969

Sugi and Emily share some dessert at brunch the following morning.

P1010973-001

After brunch, we went to the old Union Station in downtown Omaha, home of the Durham Museum, a science and technology museum geared towards children. The station’s lobby has wonderful period sculptures, including this businessman reading the train schedule.

P1010985

Downstairs at the station, there are several refurbished train cars you can walk through, to give you a sense of what life was like on the Union Pacific line back in the day.

P1020007

Everyone enjoyed hanging out in the lounge car.

P1020034

In the science part of the museum, we enjoyed an exhibit about puzzles. This one involved four people working together to raise and lower a “hot air balloon” to land on targets on the landscape. Each person controlled a rope that was attached to one of the four sides of the balloon. It took a lot of cooperations, communication, and coordination in order to land on the targets.

P1020044

Ava and Uncle Tawn pose next to a sculpture of a soldier and his sweetheart waiting for a train to depart.

P1020052

Ava and Andy got along quite animatedly.

P1020478

It was a fantastic two days in Omaha and I hope Andy and Sugi weren’t too overwhelmed by our nieces!

 

My Action Photo

The entertaining MyWinningPhoto site here on Xanga hosts weekly themed photo contests. Last week’s theme was “Action” and, unfortunately, I didn’t get my photo submitted by the deadline. Nonetheless, I thought I would share it with you.

P1200830

Taken on the Thong Lo BTS Skytrain platform with a Panasonic Lumix LX3 – f/5.6 with a shutter speed of 1/1.3 seconds, a 24mm lens, and an ISO of 80. Hope you enjoyed – and don’t forget to go vote!

 

Riding the Taiwan High Speed Rail

When booking my flight back to Bangkok, I was able to find a cheaper fare if I included a 15-hour layover in Taipei.  Not only did this save money, it also afforded me enough time to finally take a ride on Taiwan’s High Speed Rail system.

P1190085
A trio of trains sits in the winter sun at Zuoying station, the southern terminus of the Taiwan High Speed Rail. 

I’ve prepared a seven-minute video that tells the whole story, embedded below.  Or else you can just browse a selection of pictures and descriptions below.  Your choice.

After a nearly 15-hour flight from Los Angeles, of which I managed to sleep more than 10, I arrived in Taipei a few minutes before 6:00 in the morning.  My extended layover had caught the attention of EVA staff, who met me at the entrance to the security screening for connecting passengers.  The agent wanted to know what I was going to do for that length of time.  If I was going to go into the city, she explained, they wanted my boarding pass back.  That way they would know when I had returned and checked in again, reducing the uncertainty of a potentially missing connecting passenger.

Not keen on doing that, I explained that I was going to go through security and wait in the lounge.  “Okay,” the agent said, “but if you come back please stop by the customer service counter and give us your boarding pass.”

“Sure,” I lied.

P1180424

For this final leg of the trip, I cashed in some miles and upgraded to business class.  The only reason to do this is that the lounge facilities are nicer and there was a risk I’d end up having to stay in the lounge the whole time if my plans to go into the city went awry. 

P1190019

First thing upon arriving in the empty lounge was to take a shower.  My tote bag contained three changes of clothes: one for the previous night in LA, one for this morning after arrival in Taipei, and a third for the end of the day before heading home to Bangkok.  One key to comfortable long-haul travel is to be able to change your clothes every so often.  Fifty hours is too long for one outfit!

P1190022

After the shower and a shave I enjoyed a spot of breakfast from the lounge.  The food is better than you might expect and there is a variety of both western and Asian food.  A latte helped wake me from my drug-induced drowsiness and steeled me for my day ahead.

On the way out of the lounge, I explained that I was going to go out for a while and inquired whether I would have any problem re-entering the lounge since they had already taken my invitation card.  “No worries, sir,” I was told.  “Do you want to leave your bag in a locker?”

That was a helpful offer as I would otherwise have had to pay for a rental locker in the main terminal building, something that isn’t very expensive but made for one more step.  My bag securely stored in a complimentary locker in the lounge, I walked back downstairs through security (explaining to the guard that I had gone the wrong way and had meant to go to immigration), passed the EVA agent who had spoken to me about getting my boarding pass (didn’t make eye contact; just kept walking), and continued to Immigration, where I was the last person in a modest queue.

P1190026

After breezing through Immigration and Customs, I followed the signs to the High Speed Rail shuttle bus.  This is U-bus number 705.  The ticket counter is inside the doors and the service, which runs every 20 minutes or so, was just 30 NTD (about US$1).  Interestingly, I had thought that it was a free service, but it seems to only be free for the return portion.

P1190036

The Taoyuan HSR station is a ten-minute drive from the airport.  The station itself isn’t much to look at from the outside, although the interior is clean and inviting.

P1190029

Across from the HSR station is the construction site for the Taoyuan Airport MRT line, which will provide direct rail service to the airport starting in 2013.  This will ease some of the load off the High Speed Rail as there seem to be many passengers who use the HSR to connect to and from the city, causing a surge of passengers on this approximately 36 km portion of the route.  Once the MRT line is open, the High Speed Rail will be used by the longer distance passengers while local passengers can just use the MRT.  It will also provide an easier connection for passengers riding the HSR from points south and then connecting to the airport, eliminating the bus ride.

P1190034

The interior of the Taoyuan station, modern but plain.  Lots of clear signage, though.

P1190103

The Zuoying station, the southern terminus of the HSR, has a much more spacious looking terminal, similar to many recently built airport terminals.  

After purchasing my tickets and stopping by Starbucks for another latte (they have Starbucks at each of the HSR stations, save one, as I learned in the seat back pocket magazine), I descended to the platform and waited less than five minutes for my train to arrive.  Service seems to run about once every half-hour, although there are some express trains that run in between, skipping many of the stations on the route.

P1190051

For the southbound journey, I bought a ticket in the economy cabin for NTD 1330, or about US$ 44.  This is for a roughly 300km journey that took 1 hour, 40 minutes.  An airline ticket (although the HSR has resulted in a significantly reduced the number of flights offered each day) is about twice that much and takes about one hour, not including check-in time, etc.

The seating is five-abreast in seats very comparable to airline economy class seats.  With the exception of three of the cars, seats are assigned.  Unassigned seats cost NTD 1260, a modest discount.

P1190060

While I haven’t done a lot of train travel, I can understand the appeal.  These seats are similar to an airplane’s but have much more legroom and the ability to get up and move around the cabin any time you want.  Compared to the experience on an airplane these days, the train sure looks like a nicer way to travel. 

P1190111

The train also offers two cars of business class, which I tried on the return trip.  The fare for the same Taoyuan to Zuoying is NTD 1760, a 32% premium over economy class.  For the money you get a wider seat – only two-by-two seating – and several other features.  Notice, though, that the carpet in the aisle is badly worn.

P1190112

Legroom is even greater than in economy, with wide armrests to ensure you aren’t elbowing your seatmate.  The footrest confused me a bit.  The only position it folded to was nearly on the floor of the train, which doesn’t raise your feet very comfortably.

P1190115

Several channels of music are available, although you have to bring your own headset.  In this day and age, I wonder if anyone is not already traveling with their own digital music player?

P1190116

The business class seats also come with power plugs in case you want to recharge your digital music player, phone, etc.  Interesting that they are not the three-prong grounded plug.

P1190052

The back of each tray table has a map showing the amenities on the twelve-car train.  These include a trio of vending machines as well as several lavatories.  There are also phone booths but they do not actually have any telephones in them.  Maybe just a quiet spot in case you need to make a call?

P1190128

Attendants roll up and down the aisles with snack carts, featuring drinks and food items.

P1190130

My business class ticket entitled me to a free beverage (coffee – not too bad, actually), snack mix, and a chocolate cake/cookie thing.

My overall impression of the system, which reaches its fifth anniversary on January 5, is very positive.  The timing was perfect, as I had listened to a KQED podcast about California’s High Speed Rail Commission just a few days before and was thinking about the pros and cons of building a high speed rail system there.  There is also an initiative here in Thailand to get Chinese investment to help build four high speed rail routes, so I was very keen to have the chance to actually try high speed rail.

Ultimately, high speed rail is an expensive proposition.  But it is also one that can be very convenient to use and bring a lot of benefits to a state or country, not the least of which is a reduction in automobile and aircraft trips, which are less efficient than rail.  I’m not saying that high speed rail is necessarily the right choice for California or for Thailand, but it is certainly worth exploring.

 

Skytrain Sukhumvit Extension Opens

Transit Map 2011-08 

Another piece of Bangkok’s transit network puzzle fell into place on August 12, as the 5-station extension to the BTS Skytrain Sukhumvit line opened.  After more than a year’s delay caused by a problem ordering track switching mechanisms on time, passengers can now travel all the way to Soi Bearing (Sukhumvit 107).  This extension gives access to the Bang Na district, a very congested area of the city that has long been in need of additional mass transit.

P1150939
Updated map on the ticketing machine obscured the day before opening.

The BTS Skytrain, the first of Bangkok’s three rail transit systems, opened in December 1999 and currently operates a 55-km network composed of two lines and 32 stations.  An average of about 472,000 trips are made on the system each day, with many days exceeding the half-million mark.

P1150956

The five new stations all have the same design with the the tracks running through the center of the station and two platforms on the outside of the tracks.  An improvement in these news stations, along with two stations on the Silom line that opened last year, is that the roof covers the entire space.  The original stations have an opening in the area over the tracks, resulting in passengers being partially exposed to the elements, especially the when the sun is lower in the sky.

P1150958

One improvement – all the new stations have elevators.  Most of the stations in the system do not have elevators, making travel by train inconvenient for people in wheelchairs (who would have a hard time with most of Bangkok’s sidewalks, too) and parents with strollers.  In front of the elevator doors are three safety posts, the purpose of which is not clear.  Perhaps they are meant to keep someone from rolling out of the elevator and onto the tracks.  I guess if someone was backing out they may not see where the edge of the tracks is, although they would have to travel a couple of meters before reaching it. 

P1150952

One challenge to mobility is that the stretch of Sukhumvit Road on which these new stations are built, has narrow sidewalks.  The placement of station stairs and escalators essentially blacks the sidewalks, leaving no room for wheelchairs or strollers or even for two people to pass each other.  This seems like a problem that could have been overcome, although I have noticed that the traffic lanes actually narrow as they pass beneath the stations, so perhaps squeezing out more space was impossible. 

P1150982

Fortunately, there are signs of some amount of foresight in the construction of the track viaduct and support structure.  At the point between Udom Suk and Bang Na stations, the track viaduct is wide enough for two pairs of tracks.  In the picture above, just above the pedestrian bridge, you can see the end caps for two additional tracks.

P1150983

Turning 180 degrees and looking southeast along the tracks, the left side of the next support beam has a pad on which one of the track viaducts could rest.  The train track passes between two levels of the expressway at Bang Na.  One of the planned future extensions, although there is no specific timeframe in which it will be built, is to have a spur line branch off from the main Sukhumvit line and head northeast along the expressway.  This extension would include a stop at the BITEC convention center.  Currently, the closest station (Bang Na) is about a kilometer away, although an indoor walkway is being constructed to connect the station and the convention center and looks set to open in a few months.

P1150997

The problem with the new five-station extension is that it is projected to add some 100,000 additional trips to the system each day, but during rush hour the system is already at peak capacity.  This view of Asoke station, taken at 6:30 pm on a weekday, is too typical. 

P1160003

The layout of station entrances, something that would be difficult to change significantly, is narrow and results in ticket machine lines running into the fare gate lines running into still other lines. The entrance areas at the new stations seem to be wider, which will hopefully help.  Another thing that would help at existing stations is to remove small retail kiosks adjacent to the fare gates.  These consume real estate that could ease the congestion of foot traffic.

P1160012

The capacity problem is less about station entrance design, though.  It is primarily an issue of not enough train cars.  There are 35, three-car Siemens trains on the system.  Last year, following the opening of two new stations on the Silom line, 12, four-car Bombardier trains were added, running exclusively on the Silom line.  This additional capacity was immediately swallowed up.  In October 2010, the operator of the Skytrain ordered an additional car for each of the three-car trains, although it seems these will not arrive until at least next year.  Also next year, an additional four-station extension will open on the Silom line.  Dr. Pichet Kunadhamraks of the Ministry of Transport’s Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning, indicated by email that he thinks these additional train cars will satisfy demand.

Earlier this year, the Transport Minister asked for residents’ patience until 2015, by which point some 60-plus kilometers of additional rail lines will have opened, adding to the approximately 103 kilometers currently operating.  It will be interesting to see whether these new lines and extensions open on time and, if they do, what impact they have on the city’s traffic.  Bangkok is a city that would be well-served if it had a comprehensive network of rail transit.  It would also be well-served by a bus network that feeds into that network, rather than largely duplicating it.  That, however, is a topic for another day.

 

Singapore Light Rail and New Urbanism

During a March visit to Singapore, I decided to ride the subway out to the nether reaches of the island to visit the light rail lines.  Singapore has three light rail lines that form four loops connecting to stations in the rail-based public transit network.  They were built with the express purpose of serving master-planned housing estates, giving residents a door-to-door rail service that allowed them to get around without increasing road-based traffic.

The light rail itself is clean and efficient, with the automated cars running regularly on elevated tracks that weave between housing towers.  Below is a video that overviews my experience on the system, including a startling discovery I made about how technology is used to solve a perhaps unforseen privacy problem.

Matters of urban planning and design have always interested me and for a short while in university I was an urban planning major.  Examples of transit-oriented land use, like the developments that surround the light rail lines in Singapore, make me think about ways that similar lessons could be applied in the United States.

Suburban Sprawl

A country with a plentitude of land, since World War II development in the US has been oriented towards the automobile, resulting in more and more sprawl and fewer and fewer neighborhoods where one can walk from home to anywhere useful.  With rising fuel prices and ever-increasing congestion on the roads, it amazes me that there has been continued resistance not only to public transit, but transit-oriented development.

Orenco

There are a few examples in the United States of what is sometimes called “New Urbanism”, a design philosophy that promotes more walkable and transit-friendly neighborhoods that include mixed use buildings – shops, businesses, and residences in the same general area.  Not unlike traditional older neighborhoods in an urban environment, there are small shops on the main streets, some apartments overhead or in the surrounding blocks, and then single-family dwellings set further back.  Orenco Station, a neighborhood in the Portland, OR area is a good example of this type of planning.

(Comparing the “suburban sprawl” photo earlier in this entry with the master plan for Orenco Station, you’ll notice that suburbia has a lot of dead-end streets, which means there’s always a long way to go to get out of the neighborhood.)

Promenade2

Some defining elements of this new style of development include:

  • The neighborhood has a discernible center. This is often a square or a green and sometimes a busy or memorable street corner. A transit stop would be located at this center.
  • Most of the dwellings are within a five-minute walk of the center, an average of roughly ¼ mile or 1,320 feet (0.4 km).
  • There are a variety of dwelling types — usually houses, rowhouses, and apartments — so that younger and older people, singles and families, the poor and the wealthy may find places to live.
  • At the edge of the neighborhood, there are shops and offices of sufficiently varied types to supply the weekly needs of a household.
  • An elementary school is close enough so that most children can walk from their home. There are small playgrounds accessible to every dwelling — not more than a tenth of a mile away.
  • Streets within the neighborhood form a connected network, which disperses traffic by providing a variety of pedestrian and vehicular routes to any destination. The streets are relatively narrow and shaded by rows of trees. This slows traffic, creating an environment suitable for pedestrians and bicycles.
  • Parking lots and garage doors rarely front the street. Parking is relegated to the rear of buildings, usually accessed by alleys.

grand-way-in-st-louis-park-mn

As I look at these design elements, I see of list of things that have a whole lot of “pros” and very few, if any, “cons”.  While the US will never go the route of Singaporean style land use – there’s no comparable acquiesence to the wisdom of the government, for starters – it does seem that a more comprehensive approach to land use would benefit the United States and our quality of life in the decades to come.

Further reading: Interesting blog entry titled “Five Causes of Suckiness in American Architecture“.

 

A Map to the Future

As the city grows, as business and tourism rebound after the political upheaval of the past few years, Bangkok’s rail transit gets increasingly crowded.  Following the opening of a two-station extension, the first across the Chao Phraya River, the Skytrain recently put into service new four-car trains on the Silom line.  At the same time, they have ordered additional cars that should arrive in the next year or so to enlarge the existing three-car trains, all of which will be placed on the Sukhumvit line.

Riding on one of the new trains recently, I was surprised to look at the system map posted over the door and discover nine stations that I had never seen before.  In a fit of extreme advance planning, the maps show not only the five stations that are scheduled to open at the On Nut end of the Sukhumvit line in August 2011, but also the four stations that will be added beyond Wongwian Yai station, across the river, sometime in the later part of 2012.

P1100463

Needless to say, the advance planning didn’t include the “Future Stations” stickers, so for several weeks passengers were scratching their heads, wondering whether the new stations had surreptitiously opened.  The stickers have been added, though, so now everyone can admire all of the new stations they have to look forward to.

Along those lines, Tawn and I were on the northwestern outskirts of the city this past weekend visiting friends’ new baby, and we came across two sections of new rail construction, one definitely the “Purple Line” and another that was a bit confusing.  It is either part of the Purple Line or else may be part of the Red Line, although I didn’t realize they had started building it.

In any case, I’m excited to see that some significant signs of progress are being made in extending the mass transit infrastructure here in Bangkok.  It may take a few more years of pain, but the results should be well worth it.  All we need to do now is to integrate the buses routes into the rail system and we’ll really have something going!