Posts in Category: Commuter Rail

Third generation commuter rail *

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In 1985, 7 U.S. cities had commuter rail systems. Today, 14 (including Salt Lake City, above) do. Those new starts differed in significant ways — especially in level of service — from the existing systems. But now we may be seeing a third generation of commuter rail. The good news is that it offers more frequent and more reliable service. The bad news is that it costs more.

The first generation systems — Boston, New York (below), Philadelphia, Baltimore-DC, Chicago, San Francisco — date from before the 1920s. Railroads never made money on commuters, but they made a lot of money as the dominant mode for freight transportation, so they could afford to spend money on passenger rail facilities. They also had an incentive to do so: the industrial executives who decided which railroad to ship their freight with were often commuter train riders, as were railroad executives’ friends and neighbors (it’s no accident that the cities with the best commuter rail systems were those with railroad headquarters.) This money bought excellent infrastructure: double, triple, and quadruple track, grade separations, flyovers at junctions, electrification, elaborate terminal stations reached through urban tunnels. That long-lived infrastructure still sustains those cities today.

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The second generation systems were born in a different world. In the 1970s, the U.S. railroad system seemed on the brink of collapse. Some major railroads were in bankruptcy; others were weak. Industrial decline was taking traffic away from urban rail lines, trucks were taking much of what remained, and a series of mergers made many lines redundant. Railroad executives, having seen two decades of contraction, were in a cost control mindset. When transit agencies looking to build low-cost suburban transit looked for railroad lines, the railroads were glad to rent space on their tracks or sell lines outright. Sometimes, those sales were the only thing keeping weak railroads afloat.

Thus, second generation commuter rail was transit shaped by opportunity. The goal was minimal investment. This usually meant operating trains on single-track lines, using occasional sidings to pass other commuter and freight trains (as in Dallas, below). It meant simple stations (though many of the old downtown stations had survived to be reused), diesel power, and a lot of grade crossings. This was cheap. But, as usual, you got what you paid for. he old commuter rail lines in Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia operate between 50 and 90 trains a day on over 10 lines each; New York has multiple lines with 100 trains a day. The second generation commuter lines often run only at rush hour, and only in rush hour direction. 10 to 20 trains a day are typical; some lines have only 8.

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But the era that created second generation commuter rail has passed, too. Freight traffic is increasing; the railroads are dealing with problems of growth, not the problems of decline. Surplus rail lines are few and far between, and active lines don’t have much spare capacity. Railroads now regret the opportunities they lost in the line sales of the 1980s and 1990s, and, since they have no problem getting money from investors, they don’t need to sell lines for cash.

But the demand for commuter rail hasn’t gone away. In fact, it’s greater than ever, and more political support for transit means more federal, state, and local funding. That assure we’ll see more commuter rail. But it’s going to look different.

For a hint of the future of commuter rail, go to Utah. Ignore the empty deserts: Utah is surprisingly urban. Most of the state’s population crowds in a narrow strip along the Wasatch Front. The resulting traffic congestion is nonpartisan, and thus conservative Utah has become a major transit supporter, with 69% of Salt Lake City metro area residents voting to tax themselves for transit. But it’s also at the core of the Western railroad system, with Union Pacific lines radiating out to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Omaha, and Denver, and the intermountain west’s biggest industrial cluster surrounds those rail lines.

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Thus, there were no spare freight rail tracks to be had. So the Utah Transit Authority bought a strip of land alongside the freight rail line from Union Pacific and built 38 miles of new passenger-only railroad from Salt Lake City to Ogden. Previous commuter rail lines have upgraded signal systems or added a few sidings. But there hasn’t been a new line this long since before World War II.

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So what does $611 million buy, besides new tracks, 7 stations, locomotives, cars, and a 2,000 foot bridge to separate commuter rail from freight rail on the approach to Ogden?

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It buys a lot of service. FrontRunner every 30 minutes in each direction all day long, from 4:00 AM to midnight. That’s 74 trains a day. And, since they are the only traffic on the railroad, they’re fast (79 mph) and on time. 30 minutes isn’t quite “don’t need to look at the schedule” frequency, but it gives riders a lot of choices: what to work late? Go home early on a Friday? See a basketball game at night? Commuter from Salt Lake to Provo rather than the other way around? No problem. It also buys “futureproofing”: add more tracks and you could run every 15 minutes.

But here’s a caveat: commuter rail is only a good deal if it goes where people want to go. Fast, frequent service to nowhere is useless. In older cities, commuter is integrated into the urban fabric. Downtowns grew around stations like Grand Central in New York, so passengers are dropped off within walking distance from work. Front Runner’s station is a mile from Downtown; it’s a convenient transfer to light rail, but a transfer nonetheless. In older cities, commuter rail is also integrated into the suburban fabric: stations are in town centers, a short walk from stores and residential neighborhoods. In Salt Lake, the stations are parking lots off of the freeway. Salt Lake’s TRAX light rail line extends from the center of Downtown 5 miles south to Sandy. That line cost $300 million to build; it exceeded expectations with 20,000 average weekday riders. After a $118 million extension to the university, the system now carries 53,000. FrontRunner cost more to build but carries only 4,800.

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Still, Frontrunner may be the face of the future. Other cities face the same freight rail challenge. Houston commuter rail, for example, will require new tracks to get inside 610. New Mexico and Maryland have built new rail lines to go to places that didn’t have tracks before.

Frontrunner is also a flashback: this is the kind of rail infrastructure we were building 100 years ago. With dedicated tracks, flyovers, and frequent service, third generation commuter rail looks a lot like first generation commuter rail.

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The way to Santa Fe *

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I’ve seen a lot of commuter rail (and I mean a lot: 15 of 18 systems in the United States), so it’s not that easy to impress me. But I rode New Mexico’s Rail Runner for the first time last week, and I was blown away. I’d go as far as to call it the best recent commuter rail startup in the United States.

Why?

Start with the most important criterium: it goes where people want to go. It connects Santa Fe and Albuquerque, the two most important cities in New Mexico; half the state’s population lives in that corridor. The Albuquerque station is Downtown, right on Central Avenue, next to offices, lofts, and restaurants.

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Santa Fe has two stations: one is next to the major government office complex (the station is closer to the front door of one office building than most of the parking lot is) and the other is Downtown, a third of a mile from the State Capitol and half a mile from the Plaza.

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To connect the two cities, New Mexico actually built more than 15 miles of brand new railroad line, much of it in the median of I-25. That’s a notable departure from the typical philosophy of “we’ll run the trains where the tracks happen to be already,” and the crowded trains out of Santa Fe (I had trouble finding a seat on the 4:10 southbound) testify to its success.

Growth restrictions in Santa Fe have made it a very expensive place to live, and Indian reservations restrict growth to the south. But, thanks to the state government, Santa Fe is a major employment center. That means a lot of people are commuting into Santa Fe from Albuquerque and its northern suburbs, and the Rail Runner serves that travel market well. Trip time from Santa Fe to Albuquerque, 60 miles, is an hour and a half, and the intent is to reduce that to 1:15. By 2025, freeway travel times are expected to be at 2 hours. And commuter rail is a productive trip, too: the trains have comfortable seats, tables to work on, and electric outlets for laptops, and wifi is on the way.

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The Rail Runner is well connected, too. Of course, there are park-and-ride stations, but 9 of 10 stations have local transit connections, too. The Downtown Albuquerque station is at the main bus transit center, with connections to the “Rapid Ride” bus on Central Ave. (which connects to the major hospital and the university) and the proposed streetcar line. Amtrak and Greyhound operate out of the same facility. There’s a nonstop airport connection bus, too, that meets the trains. Schedules for connecting bus routes are available on the Rail Runner website, and Rail Runner tickets are good for free rides on Albuquerque and Santa Fe local buses. A new regional transit district plans to increase feeder bus service. And, yes, there’s room for bikes on every train.

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The schedules aren’t as frequent as some other systems — this is not the densely populated Northeast, after all — but they’re pretty comprehensive. The first northbound leaves Albuquerque at 4:23 AM; the last train of the night leaves Santa Fe at 9:30. There are trains in both directions all day, and there is midday service. Current schedules are limited by long sections of single track, but the new alignment was designed to add a second track, and they are making the most of the track they have: the southbound train met a northbound at a siding without stopping, which is only possible if both trains are on time.

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But the best part of the Road Runner is the customer service. The crews are some of the nicest I’ve met: they were smiling as they collected tickets, and once, when a passenger wasn’t paying attention and realized too late we’d reached his station, they actually stopped the train for him after we’d started moving again and re-opened the doors. Every station has complete information posted on schedules, fares, and connecting transit. The web site is complete. Tickets are sold on board with cash or credit cards, or you can pre-purchase them on the Web and print them out. A lot of the regular riders I saw were wearing their passes on Rail Runner-issued lanyards so the crew was able to check their tickets at a glance. Everything looks classy: the web site, the stations, highway signs pointing to the stations, the information kiosks, the newspaper racks, the cloth seats, the schedules, and the trains all have the distinctive rail runner logo and colors. In fact, when the doors close, the sound is not the usual buzz but a distinctive “beep-beep.” Everything seems to say, “we’re proud of what we do.”

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The line is also very neighbor-friendly. A lot of the crossings were retrofitted as quiet zones. And the last few miles into Santa Fe, built along an existing rail right-of-way, include a hike-and-bike trail (still under construction, but already well used) running alongside.

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Two years ago, I noted 8 habits of highly successful commuter rail lines. The Rail Runner manages them all:

1. The ideal commuter rail line improves on current transit options.
2. The ideal commuter rail line makes use of unused rail capacity in a corridor where highway capacity is scarce.
3. The ideal commuter rail line serves more than commuters.
4. The ideal commuter rail line has a city at each end.
5. The ideal commuter rail line offers good connections to multiple employment centers.
6. The ideal commuter rail line serves long trips.
7. The ideal commuter rail line connects to local transit.
8. The ideal commuter rail line has stations you can walk (or bike) to.

Rail Runner is a remarkable achievement for a small state. Albuquerque is the 60th largest metro area in the country, on par with Dayton, OH and Omaha, NE. Santa Fe is the 282nd, smaller than Muscles Shoals, AL. The whole state has only 1.9 million people, fewer than live in Houston city limits. In that context, 4,000 riders a day is pretty good (It beats Shore Line East into New Haven and Altamont Railway Express into San Jose, CA, for example.)

Morever, the whole thing was implemented in only five years: in August of 2003, Governor Bill Richardson asked the department of transportation and the local council of governments to study commuter rail and the legislature to fund it. The first trains ran to the southern suburbs of Albuquerque in July 2006, and the line to Santa Fe opened in December of 2008. A small team did all of this, with minimal bureaucracy, and they based what they did on a lot of data: for example, fares were decided on not based on an arbitrary fare box return ratio but on phone surveys of what people were willing to pay. There’s a great report (84.3 MB Microsoft Word) available from NMDOT on the Railrunner website with a lot of background.

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A lot of parts of the Rail Runner story aren’t easy to repeat. The existing railroad line which makes up most of the route carried relatively little freight traffic but had been maintained to 79mph standards for Amtrak service; Burlington Northern Santa Fe was willing to sell it as well as the rest of the line all the way to the Colorado border to the state, nearly 269 miles of mainline track in good condition with room for double track for $75 million. That’s a great deal. But the standards of service, and the quality of the experience, are worth emulating. And so is the political leadership that make it happen.

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The power behind commuter rail *

For 70 years, in a period where transit and railroads underwent massive change, one thing has remained constant: the propulsion of choice for any new American commuter rail line is diesel. But that was before $125 a barrel oil. If we build commuter rail in Houston, it’s worth asking how it ought to be powered.

The diesel locomotive has a lot going for it. Diesel is easily portable and packs a lot of power per pound. The external infrastructure is simple; trains can even be fueled directly from a tank truck. Diesel locomotives are off-the-shelf, they share most of their components with common freight locomotives, and it’s easy to find people who know how to maintain them.

But diesel pollutes, it produces greenhouse gases, and it’s gotten a lot more expensive. And there are alternatives.

The gold standard for railroad propulsion is electricity, as it has been since it was invented. Electric locomotives are quieter, more powerful, longer-lasting, lower-maintenance, and more energy-efficient than diesel. They emit no pollution from the vehicle itself, and if the electricity is provided from hydroelectricity, wind, solar, or nuclear, they do not pollute at all. In passenger use, electric trains lend themselves to powering every axle, which increases acceleration and reduces trip times. And the electric motors can be used to brake the train as well as accelerate it, returning energy to the system, saving 15% or more.

Electric propulsion has only two downsides. One is minor: the visual appearance of the wires. Modern systems are very simple, and it’s worth noting that the extremely appearance-conscious Swiss have no objection to errecting them in their treasured mountain landscapes. The second is more significant: perhaps $6 million a mile to install the wires. That immediate cost is what taxpayers and shareholders see. But on a heavily travelled route, the lower operating costs –and better service — can justify that. The world’s busiest railroad systems — Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Japan, China, India, Russia — all have significant electric routes. In the United States, New York, Philadelphia, D.C./Baltimore, and Chicago have electric commuter rail, and San Francisco is preparing to electrify its line.

No other alternative to a standard diesel locomotive is as common as electricity. But there are other viable technologies. Hybrid locomotives are in use for freight trains, and they could easily be adapted to passenger use. Likewise, natural-gas powered locomotives are a proven technology. Both are still dependent on fossil fuels. But another proven alternative is not: in 1955 the West German railways introduced ETA 150 battery railcars, which could carry 86 passengers 180 miles at up to 60 mph on one battery charge. 232 were built, and they remained in everyday service for 40 years. Could 2008 technology do better?

In 1998, with oil at $20 a barrel, diesel propulsion might be an obvious choice for commuter rail. In 2008, with $125 a barrel, it seems foolish not to consider other options. Whatever the choice is, it will stick for while: commuter locomotives last for 20 years or more, and electric infrastructure is cheapest when it’s done at the same time as track upgrades.

Above, the worst of both worlds: MBTA’s Boston-Providence route is one of two U.S. commuter rail lines that runs entirely under electric wires but uses diesel locomotives.

8 habits of highly successful commuter rail lines *

20 U.S. cities have commuter rail lines; others are talking about opening commuter rail. Should they? The best way to answer that question is to figure out what commuter rail does well. Those other cities can give us a good idea of why successful commuter rail systems are successful.

Here are eight criteria for the perfect commuter rail line. Only a few lines meet all of these. But nine of the top 10 commuter rail systems in the United States meet at least seven.

1. The ideal commuter rail line improves on current transit options.

This seems obvious, but it’s worth remembering that transit on steel wheels is not automatically better than transit on rubber tires. Commuter trains are big, so in order to fill them they can’t run more frequently than every half hour during rush hour and maybe every hour during midday, and they need to stop at multiple stations to fill up. Also, unless there happens to be an existing rail line right in the middle of an employment center, most riders will need to transfer to get to work. All of that is worth it it your other option is buses stuck in freeway traffic, but not if you could take a reliable non-stop bus that uses reserved lanes.

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2. The ideal commuter rail line makes use of unused rail capacity in a corridor where highway capacity is scarce.

The way to implement commuter rail quickly and cheaply is to find a freight rail line that isn’t heavily used, so only relatively minor upgrades are needed to get trains running. Where freight rail lines are already busy, adding passenger trains means adding tracks, and that can get expensive, particularly when the right of way the tracks are in is narrow.

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3. The ideal commuter rail line serves more than commuters.

Rush hour only service is not an effective use of equipment. On some lines, each set of locomotive and cars makes only one trip inbound in the morning and one trip outbound at night. That’s not much benefit from a $9 million piece of equipment. A route that has ridership during the day, in late evening, and on weekends will get more use out of the same equipment and infrastructure.

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4. The ideal commuter rail line has a city at each end.

If there’s an employment center at each end of the line, you’re serving two rush hour commuter flows. You’re also serving a whole other kind of trip: people traveling from one city to another.

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5. The ideal commuter rail line offers good connections to multiple employment centers.

Not everyone works Downtown. For example, Houston has least four other major employment centers in the urban core: the Medical Center, Uptown, Greenway, and UH. People who work in those places should have access to good transit, too.

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6. The ideal commuter rail line serves long trips.

The biggest advantage of trains over HOV or HOT lanes buses is comfort. A train has a smoother ride, wider seats, and the ability to get up during the trip. Commuter trains can also offer work tables, power outlets, wifi, restrooms, and an onboard coffee counter. These things don’t matter on a 20-minute trip. But they really make a difference on a 1-hour trip.

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7. The ideal commuter rail line connects to local transit.

Commuter rail can only go where railroad lines are. That means most riders will need to connect to another mode of transit on at least one end of their trip. To For connections to major activity centers, that needs to be high quality, frequent service, not just local buses. But it’s also important to have transit service in other places, to allow those who can’t drive to get to the stations.
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8. The ideal commuter rail line has stations you can walk (or bike) to.

Transit is inherently pedestrian-oriented: there’s no way to have a car waiting for you at both ends of your trip. Having a car waiting at one end — park-and-ride — works, but it’s inherently inefficient, not only for the transit system that needs to provide 200 square feet of pavement for each passenger but also for the passenger who still needs a car to use the system. Putting stations where people can walk to them — not just at employment centers but also in suburban communities — works better for everyone. You still provide parking lots, but you don’t need to provide them for everyone.

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Some examples:

The most successful commuter rail systems in the United States — New York, Chicago, Philadephia, Boston — are over 100 years old. They meet all of these criteria. They have an unfair advantage, though, because cities and towns grew around them. The Downtown stations are really Downtown; the suburban stations are in small town downtowns; and the systems use high-quality infrastructure — often separated from freight rail — that dates to the 1920s or earlier.

So let’s consider more recent successes. Caltrain stands out. It’s been around for a long time, too, but it’s experienced dramatic ridership growth in recent years: 18,000 in 1985, 32,800 today. Why? It connects two major employment centers — San Francisco and Silicon Valley — so northbound and southbound passenger flows are nearly matched. It stops in lots of places where people want to go: small town downtowns with stores and housing, Stanford University, San Francisco airport. That creates all day demand, and Caltrain meets it with all day service: first train at 4:30, last train at 10:30, and trains at least every at least every 30 minutes. It connects at 5 stations to 3 different urban rail transit systems. And — last but not least — it parallels an extremely congested highway on a double- and triple- track rail line with virtually no freight traffic.

Another success is Virginia Railway Express, which connects Northern Virginia suburbs to Washington D.C.. It’s blessed with excellent station locations in the suburban office centers of Alexandria and Crystal City and two stations right in the Downtown core. Many of its suburban stations are in small town downtowns. It also has excellent connections to the subway system (at four stations) and comprehensive local feeder bus service.

The biggest commuter rail system implemented in the United States since World War II is in Los Angeles. MetroLink has seven lines, generally shared with freight rail but considerably upgraded and improved. It’s a truly regional system, with lines reaching as far as 90 miles from Downtown LA, connecting to cities like San Bernadino, Anaheim, and Oceanside. It also has local transit connections: the vast majority of MetroLink riders transfer to the Red Line subway to get from Union Station into the Downtown office core. MetroLink also connects to another commuter rail system — San Diego’s Coaster — and to frequent Amtrak service to San Diego and Santa Barbara. MetroLink’s biggest asset, though, is incredibly congested highways.