Public Interest Transportation Forum

Open Letter Number One

from Citizens for Mobility

Released for Distribution November 11, 1999

If, prior to embarking on the ambitious program of power plant construction that came to be known as WPPSS, this region had taken a hard look at what it was getting itself into, it is fair to say that we would have pursued a different alternative -- as indeed we much belatedly did. We believe the region is facing a similar situation once again, this time concerning not electrical power but transit.

Attached is the first in a series of open letters that briefly examine some aspects of the Sound Transit light rail plan. Given the passage of I-695, we think such an examination is timely. At the conclusion of this series we will address the question of alternatives. The subject of this first letter is ‘Would putting rail into the downtown Seattle transit tunnel increase its capacity?’ Our conclusion is that it would not.

The undersigned do not hold ourselves out to be transit experts. However, we have been assisted by individuals who are. We are confident that independent experts who are free of any financial stake in the system will, if asked, fully corroborate the points made in the attached document.

Emory Bundy
Donald Padelford
Jack Alkire

Steering Committee
Citizens for Mobility

(Citizens for Mobility is an association of concerned citizens dedicated to promoting cost-effective, environmentally-friendly mobility solutions to traffic congestion in central Puget Sound Area.)

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The Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel: Would Conversion to Light Rail Increase Capacity?
MSWord 6 format

This document is also appended next:

The Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel

Would Conversion to Light Rail Increase Capacity?


Sound Transit has released a document entitled "Downtown Seattle Transit Operations" dated 10/08/99. This document, which has been widely distributed to stakeholder groups, purports to show that light rail use of the downtown Seattle transit tunnel would have almost twice the capacity as bus. The document is wrong. One reason for this is that it assumes headways (time between trains) that are simply not credible. But the most glaring reason is that it compares bus operations under which no standing positions are taken, to rail operations under which they all are. Why the document assumes no standing passengers for bus operations we do not know and will leave for others to address.

What a better analysis of the facts shows is that under all realistic scenarios, bus tunnel capacity is the same as or greater than rail.

The 10/08 document and accompanying materials are predicated on 2 minute rail headways through the tunnel. Based on these headways as well as the assumption that every seat and every standing position in every train could be filled, the potential capacity of the tunnel is calculated to be 32,000 people per hour [1]. The document compares this with a stated bus capacity of 18,000 people per hour. However, these figures are erroneous.

First, as noted above, in this comparison no standing positions are shown for buses --- an egregious, to say the least, oversight (assuming that it was an oversight). Taking into account standees increases the bus figure to 26,400 per hour [2]. Second, real world comparisons are even more favorable towards bus and less favorable to rail than this, since 2 minute rail headways are unrealistic. The Sound Transit Final EIS shows peak headways of 5 minutes. Using this number lowers the rail figure to 12,672 per hour [3] through the tunnel, less than half the bus figure. The fairest "apples to apples" comparison, using all-seated capacities, produces an even grimmer picture for rail vis a vis bus [4]: 6,912 vs 18,900.

The 10/08 document assumes a Phase II (or later) eastside rail line to achieve the stated headways, based upon staggered arrivals from the south, then the east, then the south, etc. But even if the headways indicated in the EIS were cut in half --- in the process achieving the best surface light rail headways in the nation, possibly the world --- even in that case, bus would still have more tunnel capacity than rail. And what if, as many observers believe is likely, an eastside rail line were never built? What then? Then we are left with severely and permanently impaired transit capacity --- as well as an enormous debt load that would cripple the implementation of more cost-effective mobility solutions.

The above figures are tabulated below.



Rail 5 minute

Rail 2.5 minute

Seated and Standing




All Seated




Obviously other figures could be calculated [5]. But they all lead to one conclusion: Bus transit equals or betters rail in the downtown transit tunnel. Outside the tunnel, as will be shown in a later letter, the advantage tilts even more decisively towards bus. Furthermore, the fact remains that planned rail service in the tunnel will have less capacity than current bus service [6].

One other point. The 10/08 document indicates that after conversion of the tunnel to rail, downtown Seattle streets would be burdened with something on the order of 500 buses per hour during peak periods (up to 597). Such a bus activity level would pretty much "max out" the capacity of the surface streets to absorb them, leaving no slack in the system to accept additional non-rail operations. It would also lead to permanent and severe traffic congestion and concomitant air pollution, possibly violating federal limits. And it would badly degrade the downtown social and natural environment.

It is important to note that the above paragraph holds true no matter what the real rail capacity of the tunnel might be. Even if there were one train per hour, the downtown streets would be capacity saturated from day one since with rail existing bus service is forced onto downtown streets. A well designed bus alternative, on the other hand, would make full use of the tunnel from the outset by shifting surface routes to tunnel operation, thus preserving as much surplus capacity on surface streets as possible.


Sound Transit's 10/08 comparisons of bus and rail capacity are wrong. Bus transit will achieve as great or greater tunnel capacity as rail. Furthermore, as shown above, it will do so with better effects on the social and natural environment. The rationale for converting the transit tunnel to rail was to increase capacity and free transit from congested surface streets, but the light rail plan fails in both respects. Relative costs of rail vs. its alternatives will be examined in subsequent open letters. All we will state here is that it is clear new transit patrons can be acquired for well less than $150,000 apiece, which is Sound Transit’s projected cost for each new rail passenger.

Respectfully submitted,

Citizens for Mobility


1. the potential capacity of the tunnel is calculated to be 32,000 people per hour

30 trains/hour x 4 cars/train x 132 people/car x 2 directions = 31,680 people/hour

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2. increases the bus figure to 26,400 per hour

Since the document and accompanying materials contain no figure for bus standees, one has to be derived. Using the 5.1 square feet per standee that is used for rail, we believe that a figure of 25 standing passengers is conservative (there could be more). When added to the 63 seats on a tunnel bus, this gives 88 passengers total. Using the figure contained in the materials of 150 buses per hour per direction gives a bus tunnel capacity of:

150 buses/hour x 88 people/bus x 2 directions = 26,400 people/hour.

Note that on a fully loaded basis, 28% of bus passengers are standing while 45% of rail passengers are doing so.

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3. lowers the rail figure to 12,672 / hour

12 trains/hour x 4 cars/train x 132 people/car x 2 directions = 12,672 people/hour

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4. produces an even grimmer picture for rail vis a vis bus

rail: 12 trains/hour x 4 cars/train x 72 seats/car x 2 directions = 6,912 people/hour

bus: 150 buses/hour x 63 seats/bus x 2 directions = 18,900 people/hour.

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5. Obviously other figures could be calculated

For instance the accompanying materials indicate 150 buses per hour per direction maximum, while the 10/08 document itself implies 145.

If one wants to get very conservative about how many buses the tunnel can take (far more conservative than the 10/08 document itself), a figure might be 120 per hour. Likewise realistic minimum tunnel headways for rail may be 3 minutes (whether this frequency can be achieved outside the tunnel is, however, very questionable). Using these figures produces a figure of 21,120 people/hour for both modes.

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6. have less capacity than current bus service

current: 145 buses/hour x 88 people/bus = 12,760 people/hour

planned: 12 trains/hour x 4 cars/train x 132 people/car x 2 directions = 12,672 people/hour

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Last modified: February 07, 2011