Confusion, potential sprint across dangerous tracks after Amtrak, Sounder station merger

Changes at the Tacoma Sounder train station at Freighthouse Square have left passengers confused and, in some cases, missing their trains.

The situation could become more confusing when Amtrak begins using a new station this month.

On Dec. 18, Amtrak trains will quit using the station at 1001 Puyallup Ave and move operations to a new station at Freighthouse. That’s when all Amtrak trains that currently travel a shore route along Ruston Way, Chambers Bay and Steilacoom will begin using a line that parallels Interstate 5.

Sound Transit, the operator of Sounder, has been using their Freighthouse station since 2003.

To accommodate the new trains, a second track and boarding platform was added at Freighthouse.

Because Amtrak passengers are more likely than Sounder passengers to have baggage, all of Amtrak’s trains will use platform 1, adjacent to Freighthouse.

That means when an Amtrak train is scheduled to arrive in Tacoma, any Sounder trains arriving at the same time will use platform 2.

Platform 2 is on the opposite side of the tracks and can only be reached by crossing the tracks on D Street or climbing a ramp from East 26th Street.

While it’s a short walk compared with train stations on the east coast or in Europe, it represents a hike for Tacoma passengers accustomed to boarding their train just feet from the station.

In preparation, Sound Transit began boarding and deboarding some of its trains on platform 2 on Nov. 13. The move affects five northbound trains and three southbound trains.

The transition hasn’t been smooth.

Signage alerting passengers to the move is barely an inch high on sandwich boards scattered around the station. A station agent is on scene to help direct people but has to cover two long platforms.

“They’re getting used to it. Very rarely do we have anybody who doesn’t know anymore,” the station agent, who declined to be identified, said last week.

While regular commuters quickly caught on, the change is still catching occasional users by surprise.

“I always tell people, ‘When you’re taking a train, know the schedule, arrive five minutes early,’ ” the station agent said last week.

In addition to the longer walk, passengers who are caught on the wrong side of the tracks on D Street when a train approaches get stuck behind crossing guards. After they wait for the guards to go up, they don’t have enough time to catch the train, unless they run.

Making matters worse, sometimes the guards don’t go up at all when the train is in the station but not blocking D Street. Sound Transit is working to fix that problem, said spokeswoman Rachelle Cunningham.

But some passengers aren’t waiting for crossing guards to go up before ducking underneath them.

“We can’t stress how dangerous this is — a rule of thumb is to expect a train on any track coming from any direction at any time,” Cunningham said.

Crossing tracks while guards are down has led to the deaths of two people at McCarver Street in Tacoma in the last two years.

Only passenger trains and occasional Tacoma Rail cars use rails that pass by Freighthouse. BNSF Railway freight trains will continue to use the main line which winds along the waterfront.

Sound Transit will begin a Facebook ad campaign on Dec. 15 warning of the danger, Cunningham said.

“The message will be more explicit in warning people about the danger of crossing a track when the crossing gate is down,” she said.

In addition, warning signs will be added as soon as weather permits, she said.

The state is also concerned about the public becoming accustomed to the speed of Cascades trains. Sounder trains travel up to 60 miles per hour on the route to Lakewood while Amtrak trains will be moving up to 79 miles per hour on their way to Nisqually.

The state has enlisted Seattle Seahawks’ Doug Baldwin to spread the message.

One fix that might be beyond Sound Transit’s or Amtrak’s control is scheduling.

BNSF controls the tracks (from Fort Worth, Texas) and has the authority to sideline a passenger train if one of its freight trains is using a needed track.

Those delays can add a few minutes for a Sounder train coming from the north or hours for the Amtrak Coast Starlight, which begins its northbound run in Los Angeles the day prior. It, and the state department of transportation’s regional Cascades trains, can pull into Tacoma at unscheduled times, potentially conflicting with an arriving Sounder train.

When that happens, a Sounder train scheduled to pull in at platform 1 will instead be diverted to platform 2.

“The station agent will usually be able to direct people to the correct platform,” Cunningham said. Usually, the dispatchers in Texas will have enough time to notify the Tacoma station agent of conflicts.

But not always.

“In certain circumstances there might not be enough time for them to make that call, and passengers will have to move quickly to the other platform,” Cunningham said.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor