"As we extend our light rail system east of Seattle trains will boldly go where no train has gone before – on a floating bridge."
Sound Transit is the regional transit authority for Seattle in Washington and plans to operate a new network between Seattle, Bellevue and Overlake. With many projects in the pipeline such as a floating bridge, a light rail project in Lake Washington and continuous commuter expansion, our reporter Emily O'Dowd spoke to Tim Healy at a very busy time in the company. Working as the Marketing and Creative Services Director we discussed some of the challenges and environmental guidelines which are dictating many current projects.
Emily O'Dowd (EOD): Recently on SmartRail World we covered a story about your involvement in Seattle’s floating bridge, how is the project developing?
Tim Healy (TH): As we extend our light rail system east of Seattle trains will boldly go where no train has gone before – on a floating bridge.
To safely move light rail vehicles onto the floating bridge that crosses Lake Washington, our engineers had to account for the motions of the floating bridge on the lake. They developed prototype “track bridges” with rails resting on bearings and plates that move with changing lake levels and bridge movements.
We tested the bridge prototypes at the Transportation Technology Center in Pueblo, Colorado. We were able to imitate the movements the track bridges will experience under normal and extreme conditions. The track bridges passed all critical tests and they will be able to provide safe and comfortable light rail operations.
Work on the actual floating bridge section began this summer. The light rail extension opens in 2023, providing a 15-minute ride between Seattle and Bellevue.
EOD: How do you go above and beyond environmental guidelines and why is this important for your transit company?
TH: Most people know that taking public transit instead of driving alone is good for the environment. In addition to providing people with alternatives to driving, we’re working to improve regional air quality and investing in local clean energy projects. We recently unveiled an innovative 10-year agreement with Puget Sound Energy (PSE) that allows our Link light rail trains to run on 100 percent clean energy starting in 2019. Under the agreement Sound Transit will purchase wind energy from PSE’s Green Direct program.
In 2015, Sound Transit ( @SoundTransit ) riders saved greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to burning more than 15.6 million gallons of gasoline and powering more than 20,000 homes for a year. By operating Link light rail on green power, we’ll be offering a carbon-neutral alternative to driving that will further improve the quality of our air.
EOD: What other projects have you been working on?
TH: Last November, voters approved $54 billion in funding for one of the most ambitious public transit capital investment programs in the nation's history. By the end of 2017, Sound Transit will be planning, designing or building 24 train and bus projects in three counties. When complete, light rail will extend 116 miles; bus rapid transit will be added to the north, east and south of Lake Washington; and our commuter rail system will be expanded, serving 40 percent more passengers.
EOD: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in the past year?
TH: Ridership on our light rail system has been breaking records. We experienced 80 percent growth in light rail ridership since we opened our University of Washington and Angle Lake extensions last year. Our bus and commuter rails systems are also experience ridership increases and are nearing capacity. Our next light rail extension won’t be online until 2021.
Our challenge on the marketing side has been making the transition from a focus on ridership development to customer care. Our efforts have shifted into ways to retain riders and address some of the problems associated with high ridership such as crowded vehicles and stations.
This has included launching campaigns to build awareness of our ORCA smart card and a new mobile ticketing app launched late last year. The purpose of the campaigns is to reduce crowding at our ticket vending machines, especially for special events.
EOD: How do you predict the industry to evolve in the next ten years’?
TH: To predict how the industry will evolve over the next ten years I think about what has happened over the last decade. Customers, especially Millennials, have grown to expect transit agencies to keep up with their technology needs, particularly the need to be connected. So I think the evolution we’ll see over the next decade will be centered more on vehicle and station amenities than on the evolution of the transit system technologies.
I believe transit agencies will become paperless. Tickets, and likely passes will be eliminated and be replaced entirely by digital media. Trip planning will evolve using virtual reality advancements to help reduce the barriers to people trying transit for the first time. And the first mile, last mile challenge for many commuters will be eliminated by more sophisticated partnerships with companies like Uber and Lyft using driverless vehicles.
EOD: To what extent do passenger demands shape the focus of your business?
TH: Listening to customers has become even more important now that social media has made instantaneous feedback the norm. We actively monitor and engage across several social media channels and track trends and comments to help us address our customer’s needs.
Our successful “Pet Peeves” rider etiquette campaign actually was shaped by the top complaints our customers had about rider behavior. We launched a cross-channel campaign via social and on board trains with cartoon animals demonstrating “pet peeve” behavior and the preferred alternative. The campaign has been well received by our customers and shared extensively on social media. It has also garnered national press.
We also host an online rider panel comprised of a representative sample of our ridership. We periodically survey the panel about various topics. We used the panel to help our operations department determine what amenities riders preferred when new vehicles were being ordered.
Last week's 5 minutes with... Terina Keene, CEO at Railway Children.
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