I recently fled the Cleveland winter for the happier climate of San Diego traveling as God intended by train. The trip was enjoyable, as trips by air are not. Even off-season the sleeping cars were largely full, a sign others are seeking alternatives to airlines that spit in their customers’ faces. All the crews were very good, a change from Amtrak experiences past. Westbound everything was late, the Southwest Chief by nine hours into LA. But sudden attention by the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to the problem of freight interference seems to have thrown the fear of Mammon into the railroads, as the return trip both the Chief and the Lake Shore Limited ran early. It will be interesting to see if that continues.
The future of the Southwest Chief lies on a knife’s edge because BNSF runs little freight over the old Santa Fe main line. I don’t know why, because their new main line through Texas is congested. In any case, BNSF wants Amtrak to kick in money for track maintenance, which Amtrak doesn’t have, meaning it has turned to the states for help. All have agreed except New Mexico, but if it does not come on board the whole project collapses and the Chief dies. Riding the route both directions shows the heavy dependence of communities along the line on the train, as without it they have no connection to the outside world but driving vast distances, sometimes under dangerously bad weather conditions. Pray that New Mexico comes through.
I cannot pass over the one stupid blunder by Amtrak that is reminiscent of its worst old days. One of my sleepers had just been reconditioned, and idiotically they eliminated the volume control on the speaker in the bedroom as part of the rebuild. What were they thinking? I was almost asleep when “Conductor to the dining car” blasted me awake. Almost asleep again when “announcements” started, again at deafening volume. Could someone kindly inform whoever is in charge of sleeping car rebuilds that we buy sleeper space to sleep, not to listen to a loud squawk box that suggests we are traveling in North Korea?
I finally arrived in San Diego. The San Diego Trolley is one of that city’s amenities and I made good use of it. I bought a three-day pass, once I found the downtown office, which was not easy because signs put it a long way from where it is actually located. I had ridden the Blue and Orange lines before, so I focused on the new (to me) Green Line. The concierge of my very nice Gaslamp District (and restaurant district) hotel, The Horton Grand, told me See’s Candies had closed their downtown store (why?) but that I could easily get to another of their outlets by taking the Green Line to Fashion Valley Mall. She was right, and I made the trip by trolley on and on foot more easily than I could have driven and parked. If friends or family know of See’s, don’t plan on coming home without some.
A three car train (typical consist on the system) pulls into San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot (William S. Lind Photo)
I then took the Orange Line to La Mesa and looped back on the new-construction segment of the Green Line. The engineering and the ride are spectacular, reminding me of Italian highways through the Alps. So was the price tag for its construction. It is built to heavy rail, not light rail standards. Was that made necessary by the terrain? I do not know the area well enough to judge. Has it priced itself out of the market, in terms of more extensions? I would not be surprised, although an extension has recently been approved (the 11 mile project, dubbed the Mid-Coast extension, extends the Blue Line to the University City area north of San Diego). The higher construction cost per mile, the fewer miles we can build. It seems the philosophy behind San Diego’s first line to the Mexican border has been forgotten.
My Green Line train had mechanical problems which brought periodic emergency stops – - the doors seemed to be the difficulty – - and it was taken out of service at the Santa Fe depot. All the trains I saw had two new low-floor Siemens cars fore and aft sandwiching an older high-floor Siemens/Duewag, an obvious U-2 descendent. The new cars rode well and have a classic Railfan seat where you can see forward, but the high-floor cars had more leg room and more comfortable seats. Why does transit equipment design so often take two steps forward and one back? Americans are not getting smaller. If you give them transit equipment that is not comfortable, they will drive.
When it was time to head home to Cleveland and snow, I was easily able to walk the short way to the Convention Center stop on the Green Line and take the trolley to the Santa Fe depot. That saved me a taxi fare and reminded me why cities with good public transit are more pleasant to visit than those without.
William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation
The return of streetcars to a growing number of American (and European) cities is a good thing. New streetcar lines have brought development, increased use of public transport by the middle and upper-middle classes and new attention to the rise of inner cities.
If those of us who welcome streetcar and want to see their presence spread and move forward, we must do more than cheerlead. We must also look at what still needs to be done to return streetcars to the central role they once played in cities.
An article by Eric Jaffe, “Overall, U. S. Streetcars Just Aren’t Meeting the Standards of Good Transit,” published by Citylab on September 3, 2014, addresses some of the actions that need to be taken to make streetcars real transit. Mr. Jaffe identifies three shortcomings: the short length of streetcar lines, their slow speed – a function of the fact that most run in mixed traffic – and insufficiently frequent service. I think he is right on all counts.
As Jaffe notes, frequent service could help mitigate the problems of slow speeds or short lines. Both of those problems require long-term, expensive fixes. Running frequent service is not all that expensive. New Orleans’ St. Charles Avenue line can afford to do it: it offers a car every 9 minutes during morning peak, every 8 minutes at midday and every 10 minutes at night, according to Jaffe’s article. I have ridden that line a number of times and it almost exemplifies the old slogan of many streetcar systems, “Always a car in sight.” That slogan sets the standard modern streetcar lines should aim for.
But as Jaffe notes, looking at streetcar systems opened since 2000,
“few U.S. streetcars run every 15 minutes, or four times an hour, which is generally considered the minimum standard for true show-up-and-go service that eliminates the need to check a schedule. Three systems (Little Rock, Salt Lake City and Tampa) never hit that mark. Two others (Dallas and Portland, Oregon) only hit it at one of three travel periods. The one (Seattle) that does meet the every-fifteen-minutes threshold at each period never exceeds it.
And again, that’s the minimum standard. Good public transportation requires trains or buses to run every 10 0r 12 minutes, five or six times an hour. Only two streetcars (Tacoma and Tucson) hit this mark.”
In all fairness, Little Rock and Tampa are clearly tourist-oriented services, Salt Lake City’s Sugar House streetcar has been up and running for less than a year and Dallas was originally an all-volunteer operation that has just recently grown into a significant downtown circulator. Portland and Seattle should increase frequencies as those systems continue to expand and ridership grows.
For the reintroduction of streetcars to be a long-term success, they must once again perform the large role they had in our cities 100 years ago. That role is central to bringing the cities themselves back. If we content ourselves with lines a mile or so long, running infrequent service and running no faster than urban street traffic, streetcars will be nice to have but not all that important. So here’s what we need to do in order of priority (and difficulty):
- Running streetcars at 10 minute intervals, at most; the goal should be “always a car in sight.” That may require buying more streetcars, which are not all that expensive, and adding more passing loops, which cost a good deal more. But streetcars will not play the role in restoring our cites we want them to play if people can walk the line faster (including wait time) than they can ride it.
- Give streetcars traffic light pre-emption. This too does not cost much, but it significantly raises line speed. Ideally streetcars should get more right-of-way where they do not have to compete with cars; making downtown streets with streetcars in conjunction with pedestrianization can also spur retail sales and spur development.
- Once a successful starter line has shown the community what streetcars bring, start to build a system. A system has many lines, service all the important parts of the city. That costs a lot of money, but if FTA were to get serious about reducing construction costs if could cost less that it does now. If streetcars are to be more than a “ride,” we need streetcars systems, not just streetcar lines.
I can and do endlessly lament the wonderful streetcar systems our cities had and threw away. We did not know it at the time, but we were also throwing away our cities. Their return must also be in tandem, because cities need streetcars. Cars are inimical to the city, and no one wants to ride a bus. For those of us who know what streetcars can do and once did, it’s time to think big.
William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation
California Lifts Ban on Light Rail Transit in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley: Implications for U.S. Transit
Addressing the most apparent weakness in the BRT concept, the California legislature approved and Governor Brown recently signed a bill repealing a 23 year old ban on light rail development in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. The main effect of the bill will be to permit the consideration of LRT to replace buses on the highly successful Orange Line BRT line. The prohibition was instituted in 1991 in reaction to overwrought safety concerns at grade crossings along a 3.5 mile segment of an LRT line proposed to run along an old PE right of way. The right of way last carried passenger rail traffic in 1952. Faced with this prohibition, MTA eventually moved to construct a bus only 14 mile line along the right of way, today’s Orange Line BRT, which opened in 2005 (and was extended four miles in 2012).
Fast forward to 2014, and to the Orange Line’s enormous success. The line now carries almost 30,000 weekday passengers. Unfortunately, this ridership surge has exposed BRT’s greatest weakness, that is, its inability to efficiently respond to large increases in patronage. Consequently, the line is literally strangling on its own success (The service also suffers from a lack of signal preemption at grade crossings, a concession to the local communities along the line, further degrading the service- something that will also impact light rail service if not remedied). Buses have become so overloaded during peak periods that potential customers must wait for several buses to pass before finding room to board. Unable to accommodate demand by coupling vehicles together to better tailor service to demand, as would be possible with light rail, LA Metro has tried to address the line’s popularity by increasing the number of buses. Frankly, this is their only short term option with a bus operation. This has predictably increased labor costs and reduced speeds on the busway due to bus congestion and safety concerns (maintaining safe braking distances for line of sight operations). Moreover, the constant bus traffic has caused premature wear on the paved right of way, necessitating extensive and constant repair to keep the route open.
Numerous grass root organization have already indicated that they will press for the early adoption of light rail to replace the deteriorating bus service. The LA Metro Board has jumped on the bandwagon, voting to authorize a study to examine the potential conversion of the Orange Line to Light Rail. If the line is eventually converted to light rail, it would be the second such action in North America (if you also count the conversion of the previously bus-only tunnel in Seattle to joint LRT/bus operation). Ottawa, Canada, is building its first LRT line to replace a highly successful exclusive bus operation, which like the Orange Line resulted in severe bus congestion. The Ottawa downtown was unable to cope with the weekday influx and egress of a veritable wall of buses to meet demand.
The following cite gives a good rundown on the obstacles one will likely encounter in converting a BRT facility to Light Rail. http://lightrailnow.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/bus-operations-as-precursors-of-light-rail-transit/
The situation might give localities considering a grade separated BRT service pause based on the simple fact that a successful BRT line may become dysfunctional due to increasing traffic and reach capacity when passenger volumes overload a two lane busway.
BRT proponents maintain that BRT is rail-like. While BRT is a welcome addition to the transit inventory and will find many applications in this country, it does not match LRT or even streetcars in a number of basic but crucial aspects. First, capacity: Rail always has and always will possess the ability to respond to patronage increases in the most efficient manner by adding cars to each train. While articulated buses can move large numbers of people per vehicle, they fall short in matching the ability of rail vehicles to expand capacity by training vehicles together, and, importantly, avoiding additional labor costs while meeting increasing demand. Cities considering BRT for corridors with significant ridership potential should seriously consider this aspect when making a mode selection. If BRT is selected, it should be with the recognition that the facility must be designed for easy conversion to light rail. Second, speed: Light rail vehicles (and streetcars) have superior torque in electric motors, affording them the means to accelerate to reach optimal speeds more quickly than diesel or hybrid buses. This all means that the LRV can cover more territory faster, resulting in greater productivity (reflected in cost per passenger) than BRT. Third: energy efficiency: Light rail is more energy efficient in a number of ways, some not so obvious. Like all vehicles, rubber tired buses pay an energy penalty (rolling resistance) in overcoming friction (expressed as a coefficient of friction value) to move forward. However, steel-wheeled LRVs have a much lower coefficient of friction in dry conditions, translating into lower energy requirements, while buses may need to expend up to 40% in additional energy compared to LRT to overcome rolling resistance.
Some Comments on BRT and LRT: When comparing right of way costs, if BRT-lite design standards where sections of mixed traffic are tolerated are applied, the cost per mile can be quite deceptively cheap. The trade-off of course is reduced capacity (present and future), lower average speed and the diminished usefulness of a BRT installation. This can affect the attractiveness of the proposed improvement and generate community opposition when perceived as a suboptimal (cheap) solution, rather than boldly asserting increased capacity, mobility and choice benefits for potential patrons. True BRT with exclusive rights of way and well designed stations will approach LRT prices as Cleveland’s Health Line has demonstrated. Cleveland (and the Orange Line) also demonstrates that quality service on separate rights of way will attract solid patronage numbers (and potential capacity issues).
Whether the short term advantages of BRT, mainly capital cost, outweigh the long term advantages of LRT, can be determined through dispassionate analysis. While generalities in comparing BRT and LRT are sometimes useful, every corridor will possess unique qualities that should bracket the advantages (short and long term) of either mode. The shortage of capital dollars notwithstanding, we think the potential of a corridor should inform the selection process.
Some Verities: Each locality must examine and weigh each corridor’s qualities, while withstanding the withering fire from ideologues who will disparage all rail alternatives as too expensive or not cost effective. They will champion BRT because it appears cheaper or even oppose any transit proposal based on ideological predispositions (think Nashville). Finally, highway supporters will view every non-highway capital expenditure as robbing them of their irrevocable claim to all transportation dollars (think San Antonio). While most metropolitan areas depend on healthy, vibrant downtowns to remain attractive, growing conurbations, many areas where suburban interests dominate will lose sight of this basic, but crucial fact (think Atlanta). This will be to their long term detriment.
As conservatives, we believe that light rail and streetcars represent better long term value because of their efficient and effective crowd-carrying capabilities, their ability to help spur quality economic development and solid growth, and their ability to encourage and cement neighborhood cohesion and vitality, and hence promote traditional values. An increased role for rail also lessens our reliance on the automobile, which in turn, reduces our need to make huge defense expenditures to protect our foreign sources of oil (we still import 40% of our domestic oil needs). While BRT is a good alternative, LRT (and streetcars) represents the best long term value in corridors with high potential.
Some Final Thoughts: The Orange Line dilemma has brought welcome attention to the LRT versus BRT discussion. The debate is a healthy one but must be based on the merits, an honest assessment that points to the mode best suited for a particular corridor. Based on the results attained by the Orange Line, LRT would have been the best initial choice and the region could have avoided the future expense of conversion, which may now come due.
We are confident that LA Metro will be able can hash out the issues (and find the money) and devise a conversion plan that will usher in replacement LRT in an orderly and cost effective manner. Trying to accommodate future patronage growth in the Orange Line corridor through bus-only measures will likely prove to be a frustrating and ultimately futile exercise.
Glen Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation