Sound Transit began running test trains Wednesday along the new track between Tacoma’s Dome District and Lakewood, the final stage of preparation before passenger service begins in October.
Over the next few weeks, locomotives will push and pull empty passenger cars along the eight-mile route at speeds up to 60 miles per hour, Sound Transit officials said, so technicians can fine-tune braking systems, crossing equipment and remote tracking operations.
“This is great news for the people of the South Sound,” Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy said Wednesday at a brief ceremony to mark the arrival of the first Sounder train at the Lakewood Station in the 11400 block of Pacific Highway Southwest.
“The start of testing marks an exciting milestone in our progress to bring Sounder service farther south. Soon, more Pierce County residents will be able to take advantage of the first-class service Sounder provides along a 73-mile rail corridor.”
McCarthy, who heads the 18-member Sound Transit Board of Directors, noted that ridership on Sounder trains has risen since last year. Ridership in June 2012 was 12 percent higher than June 2011, going to 245,713 from 219,474, according to Sound Transit records. The Sounder system runs trains through Tacoma and Seattle to Everett.
Sound Transit hasn’t set a definite date for opening the Lakewood extension.
“We’ll start as early in October as possible, depending on testing progress,” rail project manager Eric Beckman said.
When Sounder service is fully operational, 10 trains will traverse the route each day. During peak commuting times, trains bound for Seattle will depart the Lakewood Station as often as once every 30 minutes.
The new rail extension has 17 at-grade crossings, raising concerns about accidents along the route where drivers and pedestrians are not used to railroad traffic.
Train traffic on the route is likely to increase dramatically in about five years, when Amtrak is expected to switch its passenger trains to the Lakewood route from its route along Puget Sound and around Point Defiance.
Sound Transit launched a safety education program earlier this year to raise public awareness about train safety. For the next several days, Sound Transit outreach teams will be at crossings, handing out safety information.
“Trains are fast and quiet,” Lakewood City Councilwoman Mary Moss said at Wednesday’s ceremony. “Everyone needs to take extra caution to obey all warning signs, look both ways and pay special attention when crossing the tracks.”
Three intersections of most concern are in downtown Tacoma. Crossings at East C and East D streets north of the Tacoma Dome are at street level and heavily used by pedestrians. Across Pacific Avenue, the crossing at South C Street is heavily used by pedestrians making their way to and from the Tacoma Rescue Mission.
The three crossings have been equipped with crossing guards for pedestrians as well as vehicles.
Another crossing of particular concern, Beckman said, is at Wilkeson Street in Tacoma, where Bradken foundry operations cross the street and the rail line.
The three downtown Tacoma crossings are part of Sound Transit’s D-to-M construction project, a $162 million project that laid 1.4 miles of rail from Freighthouse Square to M Street.
The D-to-M section was the most complex and expensive part of the Lakewood line because it was the steepest and cut through the heart of Tacoma’s transportation core. The grade in that section is 2.85 percent, Beckman said, a slope that puts it among the steepest rail lines in the country.
Part of the testing that will take place this month and next will be braking stress tests as trains descend toward the Dome District.
When the commuter line opens, Beckman said, no trains shorter than a locomotive and three cars will make the descent because a train any shorter would not have adequate braking capacity.
An early Tacoma trolley line that made roughly the same descent was the site of one of the worst streetcar accidents in American history. On July 4, 1900, an overcrowded trolley car jumped the tracks on the old C Street trestle, killing 43 people.