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Originally published March 16, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 16, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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Sound Transit begins light-rail train tests in Sodo

Sound Transit began regular testing of its new light-rail system Thursday in the Sodo neighborhood of Seattle, adding a new kind of vehicle...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Sound Transit began regular testing of its new light-rail system Thursday in the Sodo neighborhood of Seattle, adding a new kind of vehicle to the busy streets.

Trains go north-south alongside the Sodo Busway, where they cross Royal Brougham Way South, South Holgate Street and South Lander Street.

Two trains will roll along the one-mile route, mostly at low speeds. Police officers and flaggers will accompany them, until the train signals are certified as reliable, said Ron Lewis, light-rail deputy director. More trains will be delivered and tested as the year goes on.

Frequent testing will expand this summer to the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, which is now being renovated to fix design mistakes from the 1980s, and to provide level boarding for passengers in wheelchairs. The Sodo crossings will be gated, because drivers are used to seeing gates at the nearby BNSF Railway mainline tracks, Lewis said.

Rail-safety tips

Motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists near Sound Transit trains should keep the following in mind:

• Trains are electric and quiet. You may not hear them coming.

• Trains can travel in any direction, on any track, at any time. Do not walk on the tracks.

• Stay away from track switches. They're powerful and can move at any time without warning.

• Trains may be tested at any time, day or night.

• Never race a train or try to beat it through an intersection.

• Do not drive across the tracks until there's plenty of room for your car on the other side. If it won't fit, don't commit.

• When riding a bicycle, cross the tracks at a 90-degree angle to prevent your tires from getting stuck.

Source: Sound Transit

But Rainier Valley, full of multifamily housing and small businesses, will not have crossing gates. Instead, all-new street and train signals will be timed to stop other traffic.

Light-rail trains are more quiet than freight locomotives and trucks, so pedestrians need to stay alert. Despite the name, each railcar weighs more than 50 tons — a train going 35 mph needs more than 200 feet to make a hard emergency stop.

"Whatever you do, don't try and beat a train signal," Lewis said. "Don't stand on the tracks. Keep an eye out for trains coming through."

New radio ads warn that track switches can move and trap someone's foot between the rails.

Bigger safety challenges are coming next year, when tests expand to Rainier Valley. Trains would come six minutes apart in each direction, mimicking a real-life rush hour.

The road to light rail

A look ahead to when the first two stretches of Sound Transit's light rail are scheduled to be completed:

Fall: Downtown transit tunnel reopens for buses, after retrofit is done.

Late 2008: University Link construction to begin for a three-mile tunnel from Westlake Center to Husky Stadium, with a station at Capitol Hill.

Late 2009: Sixteen miles to open for light-rail passengers between Westlake Center and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

2016: University Link tunnel to be completed.

Sound Transit will install state-of-the-art safety features there, including refuge platforms for pedestrians who can't make it all the way across the tracks, in the median of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South.

But with 28 vehicle and pedestrian crossings along the valley trackway, there are many spots where a mistake could cause a crash — one reason neighbors complained about the surface-level route years ago.

By late 2009, when service is under way from Westlake Center to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the public will have been exposed to more than two years of safety messages.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or

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