Transit notes from downtown Seattle

The Transit Tourist takes a look at other transit systems across the globe from the first person perspective of a visitor. What can Metro learn from how these other systems treat the uninitiated – and often bumbling – tourist?

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King Street Station in Seattle.

amtrakI recently took a trip to Seattle via the Amtrak Coast Starlight, which departs right from our very own Los Angeles Union Station. If you’ve never taken a long train trip, it’s worth a try– yes, it takes a lot longer than flying or driving, but it has its own charms.

The dining car is one: you get a pretty decent meal and you get to meet other travelers. (This worked out in my favor as I met one of the Trails&Rails volunteers at a dinner and he gave me some great tips on buses in Seattle.) The observation lounge car offers some great views of the Cascades, and if you book a sleeper roomette (code for really tiny bunk) you get access to the historic, beautiful Pacific Parlour Car where you can also watch movies and indulge in libations not allowed while driving.

train view

The view from Coast Starlight.

There are also showers on sleeper train cars, and now I can take showering on a moving train off my ‘things I never knew I needed to do’ list.

The ride is long though — 28 to 30 hours, so make sure you can take being in an enclosed space for that long.

The Coast Starlight ends at King Street Station in downtown Seattle, a historic station that underwent restoration last year and looks absolutely gorgeous. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have much to offer outside of being a transit facility, a fact that is somewhat disappointing as it’s right next to CenturyLink Field and Safeco Field (home to the Seahawks and Mariners, respectively) and could easily serve as a lovely place to hang out before or after sporting events, in my humble opinion.

In any case, once there I got around by boat, bus, train or walking. No car was needed to get around and I rode all the transit downtown Seattle had to offer.

bus kioskKing County Metro operates the majority of the buses in downtown Seattle, and they have quite a range of buses. It was normal to see a diesel bus followed by a hybrid electric bus followed by an electric trolley bus. Fares range from $2.25 during off peak to $2.50/$3 during peak hours. Free transfers are offered within a two-hour travel period. The most interesting thing about Seattle buses is that pets are allowed! Small animals that fit on your lap or in small carriers travel for free, while larger dogs — service animals excepted –must pay regular adult fare. (Please be reminded that this is most definitely not the case on Metro buses and trains.)

Their Metro also operates the water taxi to West Seattle, a fun and fast way to get across Elliott Bay. The water taxi cost $4.75 cash or $4 if you have an ORCA transit card.

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Transit Tunnel Westlake Station. Buses and trains share the road.

The Transit Tunnel in Seattle is pretty unique because both buses and trains share the tunnels. King County Metro and Sound Transit run buses in the tunnel, and it’s also where you can catch the Sound Central Link light rail train to Sea-Tac Airport (more on that later). There are no gates to get into the stations–you either pay when you board a bus, or you can “tag” your ORCA card at one of the free standing validators. The validators are much smaller than the ones we have here in L.A., making them easy to overlook…but because they’re small they are placed everywhere, so it’s not too difficult to find one.

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Speaking of the ORCA card, the card design was highly disappointing. I was hoping for something more whale-ish…more black and white, I guess. The card also cost $5–a big shock when TAP cards only cost $1 from the TVMs. As far as I could tell, the easiest way to use the card as a tourist was to load it with cash. It’s accepted by most of the transit operators in the area; you can even use it to pay for a ferry ride. (But it’s not accepted on the downtown monorail.) I had heard about the vaunted Regional Day Pass pilot program, but couldn’t find a place to buy one. Oh well!

Before leaving Seattle, I took a ride on the streetcar. The First Hill Streetcar wasn’t open yet, so I had to settle for the South Lake Union Streetcar. It’s a quiet, smooth ride that costs $2.50 and takes you from downtown’s shopping center to the very scenic Lake Union. Cars come every 15 minutes. It’s not exactly the most convenient way to get around considering the number of buses running in Seattle, but it is fun. Perhaps the reason that so many cities — including Los Angeles — have been pursuing a streetcar.

Finally, to get to the airport from downtown Seattle: the Central Link light rail train can get you there in approximately 40 minutes for $2.75. You get some nice views of CenturyLink and Safeco fields along the way and a quick tour through suburbia before pulling into Sea-Tac Airport Station, which is also served by buses. The station is connected to the main airport terminal by a covered skybridge and it takes about two minutes — five minutes if you move leisurely — to walk over.

Nifty check-in kiosks are right at the skybridge entrance to the terminal. And in case you didn’t get enough of train travel on your way to the airport, there are underground people movers inside Sea-Tac that connect the main terminal to the separate concourses.

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24 replies

  1. When I’m in Seattle, I usually stay at the BW Pioneer Square Hotel (the historic Hotel Yesler), in Pioneer Square, within walking distance of both the train station and the Central Link. While I normally take a cab between the hotel and the station, I once, because of a personal financial crisis, trundled two bags from the hotel to the station, diagonally across the Pioneer Square historic district, with a heavy camera bag over my shoulder.

    My last trip to Seattle, I flew home, because I didn’t have the time to take the train, and I took the Central Link to SeaTac, trundling my bag (thankfully, only one) the much shorter distance to the Pioneer Square Transit Tunnel headhouse. I found the system quite pleasant (and the airport station quite convenient), although I had some difficulty finding a place to keep my bag out of everybody else’s way.

    The Central Link is an excellent example of what I’m talking about, when I speak of having a direct, all-rail, downtown-to-airport connection, in discussions of the Crenshaw Line. It falls short of having a stop right AT the train station, but (given my experience trundling two bags, at a dead run, between First/Yesler and the train station, trundling bags between Third/Yesler and the train station is no big deal, a bit easier than the equivalent in Boston, and certainly far easier than our currently envisioned peoplemover-and-two-seat-trolley-ride between LAX and downtown, or peoplemover-and-three-seat-trolley-ride between LAX and Union Station.

  2. I wish the Source would allow us to edit comments after posting. I am always catching mistakes too lute.

  3. I go to Seattle a few times a year, but Amtrak is not at the top of my method of choice to get there.

    Alaska Airlines runs deals from time to time where it costs as little as $79 one-way to go from LAX-SEA and the flight is 2.5 hours. Even including the time it gets me to get to LAX, it’s still cheaper and faster to fly than taking Amtrak.

    Furthermore, Alaska Airlines is a partner with American Airlines, so I get to rack up frequent flyer miles on AAdvantage program. I get to collect those miles between LAX-SEA and use them for free trips to Asia and Europe.

    You really can’t do that with Amtrak. Amtrak does have a frequent rider program called Amtrak Guest Rewards, but you really can’t redeem those points other than domestic US Amtrak travel, whereas my AAdvantage miles can be used to get free flights on American and its alliance partners such as Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, or British Airways.

  4. The last time I flew on Alaska Airlines, my seat was cramped, my flights were delayed because of poor maintenance and poor flight crew discipline, and my bags took a detour through the Island of Lost Luggage. And that wasn’t the only unpleasant experience I had on Alaska Airlines, either. (And I don’t think I ever had a truly pleasant one.)

    I gave my travel agent very clear instructions: in the future, if given a choice between putting me on Alaska Airlines, or on The Mrs. Grace L. Ferguson Airline and Storm Door Company, she should put me on Ferguson.

    On the other hand, in over three decades of Amtrak travel, I’ve had EXACTLY ONE unpleasant train trip.

    And as for Amtrak Guest Rewards point redemption, I’ve never actually had a reason to redeem my points for anything other than train tickets, but in fact, you can redeem them for car rentals through Hertz, hotel stays through Choice, Hilton, or Starwood, cruises through Celebrity, and various dining, entertainment, and retail gift cards, and they can evidently be exchanged for other loyalty programs via something called “points.com.”

  5. samtrak1204,

    When you’re working in the corporate world, you need to get there the fastest and the cheapest way. Accounting is not going to approve a 30 hour $400 Amtrak ticket to Seattle when Alaska Airlines can get you there for $79 in 2.5 hours.

    Using Acela Express in the East Coast makes sense. Using Amtrak from LA to Seattle here doesn’t. Now if there were a cheap high speed rail system between LA and San Francisco that is as cheap as flying, then that would make sense.

  6. James Lampert,

    You need to realize there are different types of travel. Personal travel and business travel are two different things. Personal travel, you make the decision. But in the corporate world, which makes up a lot of travel these days, you’re not the sole decision maker as it is in personal travel plans.

    Even if I wanted to go there by Amtrak, they will look at the travel plans and simply deny it. They will look at it and say it’s why did you charge $400 on your corporate card to go there by Amtrak that takes 30 hours when Alaska Airlines gets you there in 2.5 hours and $79 one way. That’s how things work in the corporate world.

    In sharp contrast, when it comes to going from LA to San Diego, Amtrak Pacific Surfliner is a cheaper and faster option than making that 101 mile trip by air. LAUS to San Diego Santa Fe on Amtrak is about $30 one way and takes 3.5 hours.

    By air, going from LAX to SAN means you ride on a dinky and cramped commuter jet which costs $400 for that short haul trip and although it’s only 30 min in air, when you factor in all the hassles of air travel like fighting traffic to get to LAX going through TSA security theater, the time it takes is not much different than taking Amtrak between a short distance such as LA and San Diego. So using Amtrak Pacific Surfliner for business travel from LA to San Diego makes sense.

  7. A valid point. And I routinely accept far more spartan transportation and accommodations on the rare occasions when it’s for business: after all, in such cases, I’m going somewhere to do a job, or take a class, not to spend my days touring museums, zoos, and natural wonders) Although under certain circumstances, I’d be more than happy to take a lengthy train ride to get to a business destination, at my own personal expense.

    Be patient on the high speed rail. And support it, not its detractors, naysayers, NIMBYs, and other dedicated enemies.

    As it is, we do have cheap corridor service (albeit no faster than the Northeast Regionals) between L.A. and San Diego, and between the Bay Area and Sacramento. I’ve ridden both. “California cars” aren’t as comfortable as Superliners, and the onboard food isn’t as good, but it sure beats driving.

  8. TRAIN OF THOUGHT
    In Europe when one mentions he or she is going to Paris, London, or Amsterdam (for example) the instant reply is “What train are you taking?”

  9. samtrak1204,

    You can’t use use an one-size fits all statement like you stated when travelling in Europe can mean anything from long distances spanning from Iceland to Russia or short intercity distances such as Madrid to Barcelona.

    The correct statement should be “in Europe, when one mentions he or she is TAKING A SHORT INTERCITY DISTANCE TRAVEL to to Paris, London, or Amsterdam, the instant reply is ‘what train are you taking?”

    If you’re specifically noting “Europe” as going from London to Paris, taking the Eurostar from London St. Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord is a viable option than flying from LHR-CDG.

    If you’re specifically noting “Europe” going from Paris to Amsterdam, taking Thalys from Paris Gare du Nord to Amsterdam Centraal s is a viable option than flying CDG-AMS.

    If you’re specifically noting “Europe” travelling within Spain such as going from Madrid to Barcelona, taking the AVE from Madrid Atocha to Barcelona Sants is a viable option than flying MAD-BCN.

    These are comparable to short haul distances where train travel makes sense like LAUS to San Diego Santa Fe or from Boston South Station to NY Penn Station.

    That being said, taking the train from Los Angeles to Seattle spans 953 nautical miles (which the miles that I get credited when travelling on Alaska Airlines) or 1,135 miles by surface. At ranges like that, it’s not a viable option to take rail travel. Even in Europe, one will choose to fly direct from AMS-ATH (approx 1,179 nautical miles) than taking the train between Amsterdam and Athens.

  10. If everyone in Europe takes the train to any destination in Europe, why does Europe have low cost carriers such as Ryanair and easyJet serving cities between major European cities?

    Because there is a market for it. There are places where train travel doesn’t work due to the distances between the two cities or even impossible to do because it may involved travelling over large waters.

    Dublin, Ireland to Rome, Italy?
    Reykjavik, Iceland to Warsaw, Poland?
    Madrid, Spain to the Canary Islands?
    Brussels, Belgium to Athens, Greece?
    Zurich, Switzerland to Bucharest, Romania?
    Stockholm, Sweden to Lisbon, Portugal?
    Istanbul, Turkey to Moscow, Russia?
    Prague, Czech Republic to Edinburgh, Scotland?
    Helsinki, Finland to Marseilles, France?
    Berlin, Germany to Athens, Greece?
    Amsterdam, the Netherlands to St. Petersburg, Russia?

    Don’t make any statements without giving much thought or knowledge of European geography. Europe is a lot bigger than you think.

  11. Former OC guy here, been living in Seattle for 6 years and I love it. In 30 years of living in SoCal I probably took the bus 10 times. Here in Seattle I use the bus daily because it’s so convenient, frequent, and way less hassle than driving. Link Light Rail is a phenomenal way to get to the airport. Unfortunately, due to the current alignment, I don’t have much other use for the light rail – however that will change in 2 years when the “University Link” line opens and I’ll have a station 2 blocks from my house in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. It will be even better in 2023 when light rail extends even further north, as well as east across Lake Washington to Bellevue and Redmond. There’s a grass roots organization called Seattle Subway (www.seattlesubway.org) advocating for even more expansion of the light rail system, check out their site for more info and a very inspiring vision of what could be. Another GREAT news source for anyone interested in learning more about transit issues here in the Puget Sounds is the Seattle Transit Blog (www.seattletransitblog.com)

    One small correction to the article: the photo labeled as “Transit Tunnel Westlake Station” is actually the Pioneer Square transit station.

  12. Anna, could you please fix the broken link referencing Metro’s pet policy (“….this is most definitely not the case on Metro buses and trains.”)

          • OK, thanks.

            Reading this, below, it indicates to me that a small dog in a secure carrier is allowed even if it is not a service animal. Is that correct as it meets ‘one’ of the conditions.

            Charles Carter

            6-05-030 Animals

            A. Animals are not permitted in Metro facilities or vehicles, unless one of the following applies:

            1. The animal is in a secure carrier;

            2. The animal is a certified police or security animal and is accompanied by a peace officer; 4 or

            3. The animal is a service animal, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and is accompanied by a patron. A Metro representative may ask whether an animal is a pet and what service the animal performs for the handler.5

            B. Handlers shall maintain control of their animals. No animal is permitted in a Metro facility or vehicle that is not under the control of its handler or poses a threat to a Metro representative or patron. A non-service animal may be ejected if it unreasonably annoys patrons.

            C. Handlers of animals shall promptly remove all animal waste from Metro facilities and vehicles. Leaving animal waste in a Metro facility or vehicle is prohibited.
            D. Handlers must ensure that an animal shall not deprive a patron of a seat or block an aisle.

          • That’s correct. A small dog in a carrier is allowed on buses and trains. The dog does not have to be a service animal.

            Steve Hymon
            Editor, The Source

  13. Seattle native here. The policy on pets may say, small carrier, but honestly, everyone just walks on their dog. From poodle in Capitol Hill to Australian shepherd in Fremont or beagle in Ballard. It’s important to remember that dogs, for a significant portion of the population, are their children. They share seats, go on hikes together, get premium food and healthcare, and will be found outside restaurants across the city on a sunny day. There are even dog bowls at most neighborhood coffee shops. I’ve yet to be on a bus where anyone was hostile to a dog, or visa versa. Quite to the contrary, the arrival of a dog passenger usually improves the solemn silence that can take hold of so many Metro busses.

  14. Hi Anna!

    I caught your post on seattletransitblog.org. The ORCA card is a source of tension among transit users here. The card is $5, Metro (Seattle’s) and another agency still use paper transfers and troubleshooting is difficult when you loose one. However, it is still a huge step from cash fares and our former passes.

    The Day Pass is actually available at all TVMs. Due to our agency’s lack of ability to communicate clearly to riders, the option for the Day Pass is buried deep within the menu sections of the TVM. Only transit nerds can find it.

    The Double Decker coaches mentioned above are worth riding, even just for a few stops. I hope you will be able to enjoy an expanded rail system and new electric trolleys the next time you are in town!

    • Hi Reyes,

      Darn that elusive Day Pass! Good to know it’s available, I guess it takes a real native to be able to figure it out. 😉

      I look forward to going back for a visit once the new street car line is open.

      Anna Chen
      Writer, The Source