Welcome to real transit, Seattle

The commuter-rail train ride from Mukilteo to King Street is a glimpse of the mass transit DNA, now arriving in Seattle on Track 2.

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Sounder at King Street Station in Seattle. (Sound Transit)

The commuter-rail train ride from Mukilteo to King Street is a glimpse of the mass transit DNA, now arriving in Seattle on Track 2.

You would love my commute. Not the time spent, at least not in sum, but the train, in particular. Even as I spend every day in public, with the shop, it is not as public as the transport. And it may, in simple fact, be the weird particular ingredient that keeps NYC, and to some extent Chicago, sane and beyond the grit that should otherwise ruin them.

Mine is a mini, a 35-minute train ride, from Mukilteo to King Street Station Seattle, on a new Sounder train that rattles somehow worse than an old one, in seats upholstered from a failed Boeing database of fabric and taste, seats fit for no form, with an overhead rack so misproportioned that every arrival warns to not hit your head. There is no mass transit DNA in this state, there is only the Company DNA, and the only company was Boeing, All work starts somewhere between 6-8 and gets off before 5, so there are no trains after 7 am and none later than 5:30 and none on weekends.

The system bears no relation to customers other than workers, none to tourists nor day travellers. It has, however, made a wonderful link to professional football and baseball games, leaving two hours before many home games and departing one hour after conclusion, however long that may be. The game trains are packed, bringing down the Everett/Mukilteo/Edmonds corridor fans much happier to not have an auto for this fest.

It is the people, during the week, that is what you would love. It is the only time in the Northwest that you are with such a cross section. Restaurants are only a slice, traffic is an isolation, home has few neighbors, we have no public square nor weather for one. Such a crew, the people — Jimmy Carter is there, and Billy Bob Thornton, they sit together, a couple Tammy Fayes, one Emmylou Harris, six balding male nerds in our car, their HR boss (a fine-humored woman from Finland), a skittle of youths, man and woman, heading straight downtown to their Dot.Com aeries. Even a kind of Steve Ballmer, in an open-faced database way, is there, not wearing a jacket, as the winds and rain howl and he helps a passenger up onto the railcar. He is followed by a stern medical commuter, pulling her wheelie that has only plastic wheels and sounds, in the early morn, like a muffler dragging — a sound so corrosive it could be the swab before waterboarding. There are even two men in felt fedoras, as it once was in straighter times.  

The train does not quite meet the ferry, but they are in negotiations about collaborating. The Sound Transit employee, with his umbrella and brochures, will cheerfully admit he has no certain information when the train is coming and no power as to when it will depart.

There are no gazers on the train, as the route meanders down the coast along the water's edge across to the Olympics, but computers and cell phones have stolen all that attention. No one looks up or out: that time has been long sold, and killer whales could do the hokey pokey in the morning Sound and only a prompt would bring the viewers.

Much of the winter has seen the tracks closed by mudslides. They seem benign enough but they have the momentum of error, the error of plopping your trophy home far too close to the cliff's edge. As we travel down hill to Seattle, it is a rare presentation of hillside hopes — hope of stairs, hope of forts, hope of playhouses, hope of platforms — and few have won. Most are crippled, strange visions of Home Depot joints and connectors that only held through Labor Day, and now, like Libyan rebels, just want to go home. There are even brief glimpses of stolen viewpoints, plastic chairs sneaked down on the hillside to hold a moment. The crews, mobilized to keep this now popular transit open, must have many moments that are vignettes of the hobo, sneaking the view.

We never do see any cars on this route, and soon are crossing the Ballard Locks (no one down there as yet in March) past the parking lot for the National Guard, the new Whole Foods, the Sculpture Park, and dark tunnel behind the Market and finally King Street station. With luck, the train from Tacoma is not up yet. Those trains fill all their cars to their brim, making the rush up stairs slow going, for there are ten people with ten speeds, and the stairs, from both ends of the train — stairs that once looked like the oddest idea of all, are swamped with the outrush. This is transit, and for Seattle, this is its first act.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Peter Miller

Peter Miller is owner of Peter Miller Books, a store in Seattle specializing in architecture and design books. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.