Ridership and Parking Utilization on the Providence/Stoughton Line

Inspired by a vocal discussion on Twitter last night

Park-and-Rides are one of the most controversial topics in planning and transit circles. Some contend that such facilities encourage unnecessary car use, while others believe that in the right circumstances they can reduce car usage. One example of a notoriously unsuccessful Park-and-Ride facility that came up on Twitter last night is the massive garage at the extreme southern end of MBTA’s Providence/Stoughton line, Wickford Junction, Rhode Island. Opened in 2012 at a cost of $44 million, the station includes a massive, 1100-space garage that is supposedly aesthetically modeled (on the outside, presumably) on the historic Lafayette Mills building nearby. Suburban American kitsch is the best kitsch.

Via RIDOT on Flickr, here’s the garage as completed….

https://www.flickr.com/photos/ridotnews/7024336895/in/photolist-gzomVm-nHRdSt-gzoRik-bGHyBv-btNL87-bGHyCP-bGHyB6-bB1Hmv-fcKxb2-fdfL2F-jpWUCw-bB1HoV-bo6R33-bB1HqH-bQ8mot-bB1uiP-bo6BX7-bo6C1m-bo6BWh-bB1ukc-bQ8nwt-9CYAmB-bQ8qMv-bBdL6S-bQkRiB-bQkRnT-bQkRoD-bBrbNb-bBrbSw-bBrbLw-bBrbFC-bBrbHY-bQkRpa-bBrbEy-bBrbHb-bBdFxm-bBdxKQ-bQ8i4x-bBdC8o-bBdwN5-bBdEhG-8imtV1-bBdyNN-8iif8M-b9Ap7H-jpWUW7-bo6BYA-bo6C2y-bB1unF-bQ8oJX

And under construction in 2011.

Wickford Junction Station 4

The payoff for all of that investment? A massive, staggering number of riders–a full 159 inbound boardings per day in 2013, as you can see in the handy-dandy ridership map provided by the MBTA in their 2014 Blue Book.

There are few words for the amount of fail that the Wickford Junction project represents. To (perhaps) justify the investment, the station would need to attract nearly seven times the number of boardings it currently sees every day. And that’s to say nothing of the in track, trains, and crew costs that were necessary to extend commuter rail operations that far south in the first place. The overly rosy projections for Wickford Junction ridership date back as far as the 2003 Environmental Impact Study RIDOT conducted for the commuter rail extension, which contains the following helpful predictions:

2003 EIS

2003 EIS

Given the dire situation in Wickford Junction, then, I was intrigued by the situation along the rest of the Providence/Stoughton Line (and by the system as a whole, but hey, let’s start with one line, that’s easier to get a handle on). Here’s a spreadsheet with ridership numbers and parking capacities at all of the stations between Wickford Junction and Hyde Park (I decided it would be silly to look at Forest Hills and Ruggles, where things are complicated by the presence of the Orange Line). Ridership data is from the map above, parking data is from the MBTA website.

Since the sheet doesn’t display well on WordPress, full link is here. In graphic format, the patterns look like this:

Thanks to my partner G for Excel help!

Thanks to my partner G for Excel help!

A few things jump out.

1. The Rhode Island stations south of Providence are obviously a hot mess. If money had to be spent on extending MBTA service down there, the way to do it wasn’t to build fancy stations and then only run a few trains per day. Frequency matters. That should have been obvious from the beginning, but it’s exceptionally clear now.

2. Providence is a nice example of an urban station that doesn’t feel the need to provide huge amounts of parking to attract riders. New Haven could learn a lesson.

3. At the highest-ridership suburban stations on the line (South Attleboro, Attleboro, Mansfield, and Sharon) parking capacity is only about half of boardings, suggesting that many people do indeed walk or get dropped off (these station don’t have much in the way of feeder bus service–Sharon I know for sure has zero).

4. Stoughton and the Canton stations are an interesting case. Parking capacity doesn’t come close to matching the number of boardings–but according to the MBTA’s data, each station has 40% or more of its spaces available on a given day. Stoughton and Canton are relatively walkable despite a dearth of feeder bus service; presumably, many people walk or are dropped off at these stations, and others park for free on town streets to avoid MBTA parking charges.

5. Despite its entirely car-dependent location, Route 128’s parking remains underutilized by several hundred spaces, even taking combined MBTA and Amtrak ridership into account.

Conclusions

A few lessons seem apparent. First, MBTA and the agencies it works with have a problem with overestimation of parking demand–and in that, they’re certainly not alone among American commuter rail operators. Not every lot along the Providence/Stoughton line is underused, but the more monumental ones (Wickford Junction, T.F. Green, Route 128) certainly are. Operators and planners should let the demand for parking come to them, rather than trying to anticipate how it will develop. By all means, reserve space for a garage if necessary, but don’t built it until demand makes itself known. And for god’s sake, tell the locals to charge for parking too, or they’ll take away all of your paying parkers! And remember, even at the best-utilized park-and-ride stations on this line, it certainly appears that around half of riders don’t park to ride the train.

Second (and this may seem obvious, but MBTA and friends don’t seem to have grasped it) the quality of the built environment around the station matters. One of the CityLab articles I linked to at the top argued that distance from the city center should be the determining factor in the decision to build a Park and Ride facility; I’d substitute characteristics of the local built environment. Providence/Stoughton stations that are embedded in relatively walkable areas–Providence, Stoughton, Canton Center, Canton Junction, Hyde Park–exhibit very weak parking demand. Old New England towns don’t exhibit a linear progression from urban to suburban, and planners should pay attention to that. I don’t have much of a problem with Park and Rides in very suburbanized areas, but we shouldn’t be expecting people to drive half a mile from home to the station if they can walk it.

Frequency Works, Again

Last month I posted a quick note on the importance of frequency in transit, spurred by some research I’d done for my ongoing research project. Here’s another one, this time courtesy of the Philadelphia suburban rail system (today’s SEPTA Regional Rail). From this 1958 article in The Nation:

A similar experiment, is now being attempted on commuter lines serving Philadelphia–so far with a similar result. Philadelphia appropriated $160,000 on the promise of the Pennsylvania and the Reading to step up commuter and off-hour service to the northern residential suburbs. The Philadelphia, city fathers explained that they did not regard the $160,000 as an actual subsidy, but merely as an underwriting of increased operational costs, to see if improved rail service would take some of the clutter of cars off city highways. If this could be done, the pressure for ever larger highways, ever more bridges and tunnels, ever increasing parking facilities would be eased, and a subsidy to the railroads, even from the taxpayers’ standpoint, would justify itself.

The New York Herald Tribune reported last month on the Philadelphia experiment at the end of the first month of a six-month test period. The Pennsylvania had increased the number of trains on its Chestnut Hill run by 33 per cent to thirty-six daily; service was stepped up to every fifteen minutes in rush hours, every half-hour in off-hours. The Reading boosted the number of its trains from thirty-three to thirty six daily, Saturday service on both lines was almost doubled, and cheaper fares were tied in with bus-line  transfers. The result: In the fourth week of operation, the Pennsylvania carried 4,133 more passengers than it had in the test week of October 6, before the plan went into effect, a gain of 14.8 per cent; and the Reading picked up 2,422 passengers in the same week, an improvement of 7.6 per cent over its test week in May. For the entire four weeks, the Pennsylvania gained 11,128 additional riders; the Reading 7,099. The effect on city traffic already was observable; 600 fewer automobiles a day were coming into the city from the suburbs.

Philadelphia hopefully assessed the advantages of the plan this way: cheaper fares mean a saving, for the individual commuter, of 90 cents a day over automobile operation (including parking fees, insurance and fuel costs), or a total of $100 in the six months of the test period. This saving to the individual driver is projected into a much greater saving to the city. It means, Philadelphia estimates, that about $81 million annually can be saved on the cost of maintaining existing roads and providing police protection. And this is apart from the merry-go-round cost of building ever more and wider highways.

This was a truly different world for transit. SEPTA wouldn’t be formed until 1963, and it wouldn’t take over any responsibility for the commuter lines until 1966, or direct operation of them until 1983. And yet, the truth that frequency translates to ridership is apparent in this report. Indeed, the actions taken on the Pennsylvania’s Chestnut Hill West Line (the two Chestnut Hill lines run very close and parallel to each other, entirely within the boundaries of the city of Philadelphia), mirror closely the idealized set of recommendations that Jarrett Walker or any frequency-minded planner would make: clockface schedules, decent off-hours service, reduced fares, and schedule and fare coordination with buses.  There are, quite frankly, any number of transit agencies that can’t get their act together to make these things work in 2014. Perhaps we don’t give the people running our public transit systems during their decline phase in the 1950s enough credit?

Note: The numbers reported work out to a daily 1958 ridership of a little under 4,000 on Chestnut Hill West and about 4,400 on Chestnut Hill East before the experiment. Today, both lines carry about 5,500 riders daily, despite service that maxes out at half-hourly at peak and hourly off.

Envisioning an Ambitious Future Metra

Chicago’s antiquated commuter rail system has been in the news a lot lately, from its long-running patronage scandal that included the suicide (by one of his own trains) of one CEO and the resignation of another under political pressure to a rough performance during one of the worst winters in memory. Now, though, Metra is attempting to turn a corner, with a process underway for creating the agency’s first strategic plan, and long-overdue fare hikes planned to pay for a new capital plan.

Metra is certainly attempting to shore up its public image. But the strategic planning process that is underway is sadly lacking in ambition and vision. As Daniel Kay Hertz writes in NextCity,

Service innovations like increased frequency don’t yet appear anywhere in the strategic plan, and a Metra spokesperson confirmed that the agency has no plans to move in that direction. In August, Streetsblog Chicago reported that one board member flatly rejected that kind of service expansion, claiming that running a single extra train during rush hour would cost over $30 million. (Aikins, however, reports that GO Transit spent just $7.7 annually to adopt half-hourly frequencies on its two biggest lines.)

And Metra is, famously, paralyzed in its ability to act on any ambitious projects because of a governance structure that incentivizes suburb-on-city warfare:

There are also structural barriers: Metra doesn’t own all of its tracks, and some carry freight trains that would interfere with frequent service. But even on the lines it does own — including South Chicago — Metra’s governance structure makes regional, big-picture planning difficult. Unlike GO Transit, which is run by the province of Ontario, a controlling share of Metra’s board is appointed by suburban officials, who have historically shown more interest in competing with the city for dollars than collaborating on a regional transit strategy.

Paralyzed Metra may be. But it’s all the more sad, because the Chicago area actually has a rich set of assets that could make setting up the nation’s premier regional rail system a relative snap, certainly easier in degree of engineering difficulty than equivalent situations in Boston or New York.

In short, advocates of turning “commuter” rail systems into “regional” rail argue for turning infrastructure currently used mainly for peak-hour commuting into rapid transit, with more-frequent service across a greater span of time. Imagine trains coming on your local Metra line every 10-15 minutes throughout the day. Chicago has long been recognized as having unequalled assets for such an approach; although many of Metra’s lines do, as Daniel pointed out, share tracks with long, slow freight trains, there are several that do not; the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s map of freight trains per day in the city area is a very useful asset for envisioning this.

The line currently known as the Metra Electric District has attracted the most attention in terms of rapid transitization, and for good reason. The passenger tracks are fully separate from freight tracks; there are at least four tracks for passenger trains all the way out to 111th Street; the line is already fully equipped with high-level platforms, a necessity for getting people on and off the train quickly; and within the city of Chicago MED runs through poor, mainly African-American neighborhoods with poor transit access.

Seriously, you're running THIS as commuter rail? Image via Steve Vance and Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Metra_Electric_District#mediaviewer/File:Metra_Electric_(15449778660).jpg

Seriously, you’re running THIS as commuter rail? Image via Steve Vance and Wikimedia Commons

Plans for turning the MED (usually the mainline as far as 67th and then the South Chicago branch) into a rapid-transit operation have come from various sources, including the amateur, the governmental, the academic, and the advocacy world. Most recently, a rapid-transitized MED has been incorporated into Transit Future and into the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s plan for a CrossRail Chicago. The latter plan brings in the element of using the St. Charles Air Line and a new bridge to connect the MED to Chicago Union Station. From there, trains would use renovated platforms on CUS’ two run-through tracks and proceed over newly-electrified tracks currently serving Milwaukee District-West and North Central Service trains to a connection with the O’Hare Airport People Mover.

Image via The Transport Politic

Image via The Transport Politic

These proposals are a useful starting point for envisioning the future of Metra, the last one in particular. Though excessively focused on the needs of white-collar Chicago (promotional literature touts it linking “O’Hare to the Loop, McCormick Place and the University of Chicago”), the CrossRail Chicago proposal shows a kind of vision—moving large numbers of people across a very large city, rather than forcing them to transfer or otherwise navigate the congestion of the Loop—that a full-scale Regional Rail system would need. Though the benefits of through-running trains through downtown Chicago itself may not be great, it is operationally easier than using the numerous dead-end terminals that currently plague Chicago, and does open many potential crosstown commutes.  And though I’d rather see a tunnel under the Loop to connect MED to the rest of the system in the long run, using the SCAL and CUS run-through tracks is significantly more realistic in the short term.

That being said, I’m not convinced that the CrossRail proposal is the best place to start. It would involve electrifying some tracks that are shared with freight trains; the MD-W right-of-way varies between 3 and 4 tracks wide, and reconstructing the line for electrification, fully separating freight and passenger traffic, and installing high-level platforms, while doable, would be fairly expensive. There are two other North Side Metra lines that are entirely or nearly entirely freight-free, UP-N and UP-NW; why not start with them?

CMAP Freights Per Day Map

CMAP Freights Per Day Map–North Side

The UP-N line carries zero freights per day south of Lake Bluff and runs through dense North Side neighborhoods desperate for more transit service, making it initially an attractive candidate for the first wave of rapid transitization. There are however, a few challenges. While the UP-N ROW has room for three tracks as far as Evanston, one of the three trackways is currently unused and built over by stations in several locations (including the brand-new Ravenswood station), making restoration of the third track somewhat challenging and pricy. Adding in rapid-transit locals with frequent stops would tax the capacity of the existing two tracks at rush hour. In addition, there is currently no direct track connection between the CUS run-through tracks and the UP lines, which terminate at the ex-Chicago & Northwestern Ogilvie Transportation Center. This isn’t as big a challenge as might be imagined, as there’s really only one building standing in the

Sorry, Cassidy Tire.

Sorry, Cassidy Tire.

way of linking the CUS approach to the tracks that once led to the C&NW Navy Pier Branch, which could be (with some work) re-purposed to carry trains up to the UP lines. Altogether, there are enough challenges with the UP-N line that it’s not the lowest-hanging fruit for North Side regional rail.

That title, in my opinion, falls to its sister operation, the UP-NW line. It checks off all the boxes. Zero freight traffic? Check. More than two tracks? There are three or more, meaning one could be reserved for peak-hour diesel expresses. Currently runs through an area in need of rapid transit? Once it leaves the path of the Blue Line at Jefferson Park, certainly. Transit-supportive land use? The neighborhoods and towns along UP-NW aren’t as dense as most of the North Side closer to the lake, but they were originally railroad suburbs, and retain a decent degree of walkability. There’s even an opportunity for supporting local bus service, with Northwest Highway running parallel to the tracks. I would argue that UP-NW is the natural Phase 1 North Side partner for a regional rail system incorporating MED and CUS run-through tracks.

There are, in fact, two options for connecting CUS to UP-NW; one is a direct connection via the aforementioned demolition of the Cassidy Tire building; the other involves sending trains first west and then north on tracks used by Milwaukee District-North trains to Mayfair (adjacent to Montrose Blue Line station) where they’re rejoin the UP tracks. I favor the second approach for two reasons: 1) with the provision of several infill stations, it holds the promise of bringing rapid transit service to an area of the city currently without it, whereas UP-NW runs mostly parallel to the Blue Line and 2) it would begin the infrastructure work for a Phase 2 buildout of the O’Hare branch. There are challenges; the line is only double-tracked in parts, and it does host occasional freight, so clearances for infill stations might be an issue. But I think these are much more manageable than the challenges on other lines.

Time for some maps? I think so. Here’s my proposal in Google Maps.  Toggle through the three layers (button at upper left) to see what I’m proposing for phases 1 and 2; I’ve also included an expanded version of the Mid-City Transitway concept, a more elaborate project that I think would be crucial to any future re-orientation of the Chicago transit system away from its Loop-Centrism, but which I’m not discussing here.

In summary:

Phase 1

  • Institution of rapid-transit style service on Metra Electric at least as far as 111th Street.
  • Blue Island and South Chicago branches to be run as shuttles, with South Chicago probably having direct service to Randolph Street at peak hours.
  • MED-CUS connection via St. Charles Air Line and a new bridge over the Chicago River, including a new infill station in the South Loop, possibly with L connections (this is the most expensive part of the whole project).
  • New Northwest Rapid Transit Line, including electrification and high-level platforms via MD-N tracks to Mayfair and UP-NW to Des Plaines or beyond (Arlington Heights is a possible terminus).
  • Service pattern would be through trains from Des Plaines to 111th Street. Expresses from suburbs would continue to downtown stub-end terminals.

Here’s what Chicago’s rapid-transit system could look like after Phase 1 (I’m bringing back the old Chicago tradition of west-facing transit maps!). Click on this and the following images to embiggen:

Phase 1_Final

Phase 2

  • Reconstruction of UP-N with three tracks and high-level platforms as far as Evanston; demolition of Cassidy Tire building to provide direct access to CUS.
  • Reconstruction of MD-W  and NCS tracks, including isolation of passenger service from freight as far as Franklin Park, electrification, and high-level platforms.
  • Service patterns could take any number of forms, with three northern and three southern termini.

Here’s what the system could look like after Phase 2:

Phase 2_Final

And with the Mid-City Transitway (which, if it is ever built, will probably be an L line) providing a belt line:

With mid-city

At this point, with three lines feeding in from the north, and a large amount of traffic from the south, the poor two run-through tracks at CUS would probably be verging on a capacity breakdown, so this seems like a logical place to stop. How much would this plan transform Chicago? Well, it could provide easier commutes for thousands on North Siders to the South Loop, Hyde Park, and the like; and it would likely make service jobs on the North Side more accessible to disadvantaged South Side communities. It would also mean expensive L expansions like the Red Line extension to Roseland aren’t necessary; indeed, I think it’s likely that both initial phases could be completed within the anticipated budget of the Red Line extension. That being said, dollar-for-dollar Chicago’s best transit investments probably lie in improving bus service, whether that’s re-prioritizing local buses or a transformative bus rapid transit system.

A rapid-transit conversion of these lines, though, is low-hanging fruit; it’s cheap, easy, and could be very quick. The essential problems, as always, are political. Metra’s skewed, paralyzed governance structure would need to be convinced to go along with a project that primarily benefits city-based riders. Transit unions would need to accept one-person operation of trains on the new service for it to be affordable–a common practice in Europe, but one an insurmountable barrier in the US thus far. In many ways, though, I think that building political momentum for this kind of a system could be easier than improving Chicago’s buses; it’s a cost-effective fix that doesn’t involve taking road space away from drivers or investing in (much) fancy, expensive new infrastructure. Let’s get Metra moving.

A Few Notes

  1. Other than the SCAL-CUS connection, the most expensive part of this plan would likely be buying rolling stock. Metra’s new MED gallery cars, identical in most respects to the ones in operation on the diesel lines, have only one set of central doors–not ideal for rapid-transit operations.
  2. The “other” low-hanging fruit on the Metra system for rapid-transitization is the Rock Island district; I think it’s a lower priority because it runs parallel to the Red and Green Lines for much of its length. It’s possible future target for this kind of conversion, though.

SEPTA Diesel Service, Commuter Rail and Sprawl

There’s a long-running dispute in the transit and planning world about the relationship of commuter rail to land use. Does commuter rail to suburban and exurban areas damage the environment by enabling sprawl, or help preserve it by taking long car trips off the road?

It can be hard to tease out correlation from causation in these circumstances. Over the last several decades, commuter rail systems in the nation’s major metropolitan areas have spread ever-deeper into the suburbs and exurbs, propelled by powerful suburban politicians who crave the glory of being seen as “relieving congestion” (one thing that almost anyone can agree American-style commuter rail can’t do). But does commuter rail being built to a sprawly area (like, say, Elburn, ILmake that area’s growth possible, or would the growth occur anyhow, with the potential rail riders simply driving to work?

The western terminus of Metra's UP-W line.

Commuter rail to sprawlsville: the western terminus of Metra’s UP-W line.

Commuter rail has, for better or for worse, been an increasingly popular mode over the last several decades, so figuring out which way the dependency goes has been hard; there are plenty of areas that are sprawly without the benefit of commuter rail, but few that have actually lost service since the modern era of commuter rail (defined roughly as the takeover of bankrupt private services by government corporations in the ’70s and ’80s) began. Identifying such an area would allow us to determine whether the loss of service arrested growth, forcing it into a more compact area, or whether growth continued unabated, with commuters switching to cars.

There is one rather infamous example of such a loss of service–SEPTA’s former diesel operations. When SEPTA took over responsibility for the Philadelphia-area regional rail system (first through subsidies paid to the operating freight railroads, then directly) it inherited not only the core electrified services of the former Pennsylvania and Reading networks but several diesel-operated semi-intercity services, extending to Newark, NJ, Bethlehem and Allentown, and Pottsville/Reading. The two all-Pennsylvania branches, in particular, essentially served as extended commuter services for riders to downtown Philadelphia. By 1981, amidst a funding crisis and apparent apathy from SEPTA, service had ended on all three extended routes (diesel service remained for two more years on the shorter Newtown-Fox Chase branch).

And while (among other things) the end of diesel service caused SEPTA Regional Rail ridership to crater (it had been around 118,000 in 1975 and fell to around 85,000 in the mid-’80s after the opening of the Center City Commuter Connection), it also gives us an opportunity to examine suburban growth in the sudden absence of commuter rail. In the interests of seeing what happened, I examined population growth data from each of the towns along the Bethlehem/Allentown line and graphed them against growth trends in Montgomery and Bucks Counties and the Philadelphia MSA as a whole. I included data from towns along the line in those two counties, but not from Centre Valley or Hellertown, the two Lehigh County towns on the line aside from Bethlehem and Allentown, on the logic that those towns were much more tied to the economies of the Lehigh Valley than that of Philadelphia. Town- and county- level population data is from Wikipedia (because why dig into census sheets when someone else already did it?); MSA data from here. You can access the full sheet here: (Allentown Branch), but this is what’s important:

allentown branch graph

If the elimination of SEPTA’s diesel service had impacted suburban growth along the line, we would expect growth in those towns to fall during the ’80s. Instead, the towns as a total grew by 14%–11% more than the Philadelphia MSA as a whole, and 5% more than their containing counties. Growth fell a little below regional trends in the ’90s, but almost indistinguishably. Over the 60 years I examined, growth in the station towns either matched regional trends or was actually slower. It’s hard to argue from this data that there’s any correlation between the presence/absence of commuter rail service in a particular town and its growth.

There is both good and bad news for transit advocates in this (admittedly unsurprising) conclusion. On the one hand, that suburban sprawl can continue without transit means that advocates and agencies should feel free to resist the loud calls for expensive (in terms of both capital and operations) outward extensions from exurban politicians and commuters. On the other, growth will probably continue regardless of transit, so why not try to get people out of their cars? I haven’t seen extensive data from SEPTA’s Regional Rail operations in the wake of the diesel service eliminations, but the overall fall in ridership suggests that commuters from the areas that lost service chose not to drive to closer-in termini, but to drive all the way to Center City.

Should we build commuter rail to sprawl? On the whole, I think there are (as always) much higher priorities for transportation funding (and government funds in general). Commuter rail as currently conceived in the US is really expensive to operate, and sending it out to the far reaches of a metropolitan area is essentially a favor to exurban commuters and a subsidy for bad regional planning. But if the funds are available (and can’t be spent on anything better) and if suburban towns are willing to shape their land-use decisions (at least in the immediate station area) around transit, I suppose some service is better than none. Either way, if the Allentown Branch case is even remotely representative, it’s pretty clear that while commuter rail might be a subsidy for sprawlers, it isn’t actually a cause of new sprawl.

An Ambitious Plan for Regional Rail in Downtown Chicago

So I was going to save this post for later as part of a series on Chicago transit (good stuff coming!), but I set off an enthusiastic discussion on Twitter this afternoon about the concept of using a little tunneling to through-route regional rail and high-speed trains through downtown Chicago:

Click on the tweet or my feed to read the whole discussion. Since this seems to be what we Jews call in Aramaic inyana d’yoma, the matter of the day, I figured I’d do a brief bit now; maybe I’ll come back to it in more depth later.

Several urbanist/transit writers, most prominently Stephen J. Smith (now at NextCity) and Alon Levy, have been beating the drum about the massive potential of using what are currently regarded as “commuter” rail lines through city centers, effectively turning them into all-day-usable, frequent “regional rail” systems. Most of these analyses that I’ve seen have focused on East Coast cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. The concept, though, has also taken root in Chicago; the Gold Line proposal has long made a compelling case for rapid-transitizing the Metra Electric District (no seriously, this is a no-brainer), and the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s ambitious CrossRail Chicago plan combines infrastructure preparations for true HSR with through-routing of commuter trains.

CrossRail Chicago is, to me, the single most ambitious and potentially transformative transit project Chicago has seen in a long time (short of the full Transit Future slate being built, of course). But why, I ask, stop there? The CrossRail plan still relies on renovating a couple of relatively low-capacity, vulnerable pieces of infrastructure: the two-track, sharply-curved, St. Charles Air Line, and the currently mostly-unused run-through tracks at Chicago Union Station. Trains would have to make several sharp turns to transition between legacy rights-of-way that weren’t intended to work together, meaning that they’d have to travel through downtown pretty slowly–something that might impact HSR trains severely (Today, Amtrak trains coming into CUS from the Air Line back into the station–I once sat on the connection on a late-running City of New Orleans for a full hour while the Metra rush-hour trains made their exit. To be fair, that connection would be upgraded under the CrossRail plan). But the CrossRail plan would only transform two of Metra’s numerous commuter rail lines into regional rail-type operations, and there’s only so much that can be done when through-running relies on two low-speed run-through tracks. Can we aim for something more ambitious?

The stereotype of Chicago’s commuter rail system is that it predominantly shares its tracks with heavy freight traffic. That’s certainly true of a couple of the busiest lines–UP-W and BNSF–but several Metra lines actually see little or no freight traffic. (For those not familiar with the Chicago rail network, CMAP’s map of freight trains per day on various lines is an invaluable resource.) Metra Electric trains share a ROW but not tracks with freights; meanwhile, freight is for all intents and purposes nonexistent on the UP-N and UP-NW corridors, nearly so on the Rock Island District, and at manageable levels on the Milwaukee District lines and the SouthWest Service corridor. That’s a lot of potential for rapid-transitization, probably more than the CrossRail proposal can handle. So how might we handle a full rapid transitization of the Chicago commuter rail network?

Here’s one idea:

What you’re looking at is a system of tunnels connecting the Metra Electric District, Rock Island District, and all of the North Side lines (UP-W, NW, and N, MD-W and N, NCS), with the focal point being an underground superstation under the CTA hub along Lake Street between Clark and Wells. Tunnels would curve north and west from the existing Millennium Station to run under Lake Street, passing under the existing CTA subways to a deep-level station, and reconnecting to the rail system west of the Chicago River. Meanwhile, a second set of tunnels would bypass LaSalle Street Station (or stop at new underground platforms underneath it), and run under LaSalle Street until joining the east-west tunnel under Lake.

Aside from enabling high-speed through-running through the Loop, this system would mollify what has always been one of the biggest complaints about Chicago’s commuter and intercity rail stations: that they don’t connect well with the city’s transit system. A superstation running several blocks under Lake Street could connect regional and intercity trains alike, including HSR, with ALL of the L lines that run through the Loop (I couldn’t get the transit layer to display in the new Google Maps editor, but they’re all right there). And it would bring commuters into the heart of downtown, closer to the densifying (and already very dense) River North area.

Such a project would, of course, be massively expensive (not my area of expertise–Alon, if you’re reading this, want to leave some estimates in the comments?), but I’d argue it’s a much better solution for future true HSR than using the geometrically-restricted and somewhat remote Union Station. Bringing through-routed riders into Clark and Lake is also far preferable to dumping them at Union Station. It’s probably in the realm of fantasy. But sometimes it’s fun to dream.

Notes

  • The connection between the LaSalle tunnel and the Lake tunnel is awkward, and I’m not sure where the LaSalle platforms would go. But that’s probably deal-withable.
  • I’ve tried to note what I think would be realistic portal areas for these tunnels. Arguably, you could get some of them closer and save some money by taking a few buildings, but the further the portals are from the deep-level station, the less steep the grades down will be, which helps speed.
  • Dennis Griffith suggested re-using one of Chicago’s under-appreciated lower level streets to bring trains to River North. That’s an intriguing idea, but I’m not sure how feasible it is (trains would have to cross other lower-level streets at grade, for one thing), and I’m not sure where trains would go on the other end.

Pioneer Valley Should Consider its Rail Options Carefully

Frequent passenger service is coming back to the  Pioneer Valley. Amtrak, and its contractors MBTA (which, though the Pioneer Valley is outside of its service area, provided engineering services) and Pan Am Southern (the freight railroad from which the Commonwealth has bought the tracks) are wrapping up work on the Knowledge Corridor project, renovating the decrepit rails along the Connecticut River in order to shift Amtrak’s Vermonter back to the line through Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield from its 20-year diversion to the tracks through Amherst. With the end of that long slog in sight–Amtrak service is supposed to return in early 2015–Valley political leaders have begun calling for commuter trains on the line to complement the restoration of the once-daily long-distance Vermonter. These trains would run several times daily between the cities of the Valley and Springfield, connecting to commuter trains to Hartford and New Haven (a project scheduled to open in 2016), and hopefully eventually MBTA service east to Worcester and Boston.  Sounds great, right? Let’s take a closer look.

The Knowledge Corridor project represents a huge opportunity for the area–the Valley is essentially being gifted a high-quality, 79-mph railroad at no local cost (other than the local share of the state dollars that went into the renovation, of course).  Using that high-quality railroad for more than the one train a day in each direction represented by the Vermonter (plus a couple of freight trains a day) seems like a no-brainer, but in order to maximize the usefulness of this resource, Valley leaders should think carefully about what kind of local rail service they want to introduce. The current plan (explained in the MassLive article linked above) seems to be to purchase old, excess commuter-rail equipment from the MBTA and run a few trains in each direction every day, primarily serving 9-t0-5 commuters.  This is certainly a start–and preferable to not using the Connecticut River Line’s new capacity at all–but for me it hardly seems to represent an ideal use of the resource.

For one thing, commuter rail is very expensive.  American commuter trains–built to withstand collisions with the heavier freight trains with which they often share tracks–guzzle fuel at very high rates.  Commuter trains are required to have two or more (usually more) crewmembers on board at any time, regardless of the number of riders. With labor expenses making up the vast majority of public transit operating costs–a fact little appreciated by the public–running a commuter train with multiple employees is vastly more expensive than running a bus with only one driver. Meanwhile, commuter trains tend to attract riders only during the peak commute hours since they run very infrequently or not at all in between, eschewing a broader vision of what public transit can be and do for a community. Five or six trains a day between Springfield and Greenfield is a start, but the ridership that could be attracted will likely not move the needle much in terms of the landscape of transportation in the Valley.

Meanwhile, alternatives that would make better use of the Valley’s new transportation resource do exist. Most current public transit service in the Valley seems to wander through rural or sparsely populated areas, focusing on bringing people from the country and suburban areas into the nearest town. Frequent rail service along the Connecticut River line, though,  has the potential to directly connect most of the Valley’s densest core cities–the areas most likely to generate serious ridership. The only major population center whose core the line does not serve directly is Amherst (which, indeed, will lose trains service entirely once the Vermonter is re-routed), but that area would be directly linked to downtown Northampton and the new train service by the a planned “Bus Rapid Transit” route. Currently, and rather astonishingly, no direct service of any kind ties together the downtowns of Greenfield, Northampton, Holyoke, and Springfield.  The Connecticut River Line rebuild offers the opportunity to do exactly that.

Given the gift of an upgraded rail service, and the lack of current options to connect its densest cores, the Valley should consider an enhanced rail service that will function more like an express bus service between the downtowns of the Valley’s several leading cities. Rather than a commuter rail mentality, which stresses attracting 9-to-5 workers and only operates a few times a day, the line should be used as if it were a regular PVTA bus route–indeed, it could probably be treated as that agency’s most important route, the spine that ties together each city’s local buses. Instead of concentrating service in rush hours, such an operation would run frequently–every 20 minutes or half an hour–throughout the day, making it easy to get from one city to another. A model for such a service can be seen in the Google Map embedded below (zoom in for more detail):

 

Running such frequent service would be best done with different equipment than the commuter rail currently under consideration as well. In Europe, many rural rail services use railcars called Diesel Multiple Units, or DMUs, that are, at their simplest, essentially buses on rails. DMUs accelerate and brake faster than the secondhand commuter rail equipment Valley leaders are currently considering, and because they are lighter they use considerably less fuel. The trade-off is less capacity on each train, and often a lower top speed, but when trains come more frequently and spend less time accelerating and braking with frequent stops, those become less important concerns.

There remain several constrains on the ability to implement DMU service in the Valley, or anywhere else in the US for that matter. First, and most importantly, Federal Railway Administration regulations currently prohibit lightweight, European-style DMUs from sharing tracks with freight trains. This is actually not as insurmountable a barrier as it might seem, however; many indications are that the FRA is likely to revise their regulations to allow such operations within the next couple of years, and several operations have already been given a waiver to operate lightweight DMU service on tracks shared with freights, so long as a temporal separation is maintained between passenger and freight service (generally, passenger runs during the day, and freight at night). Such operations include MetroRail in Austin, TX; the A-Train in Denton County, also in Texas; the River Line between Camden and Trenton, NJ; and the Sprinter between Escondido and Oceanside, California.Maintaining a temporal separation between freight and passenger traffic, should the proposed FRA reforms not occur, should not be too much of a challenge on the Connecticut River line, where freight traffic is sparse, consisting of at most two trains a day, and can definitely be run at night (in addition to which, one of the major on-line freight customers, the Mt. Tom coal-fired power plant, is closing this year). Another crucial aspect of FRA reform (or a waiver in its place) is the prospect of reduced labor costs relative to commuter train service. While many of the DMU services mentioned above do run with an engineer and conductor on each train, it appears that the FRA waivers allow for them to operate with only one crewmember, with ticket checking being conducted by roving inspectors, an approach known as proof-of-payment. Perhaps most relevant to the Valley, though, are the MBTA’s ambitious plans to convert the inner segments of many of their Boston-area commuter rail lines to frequent DMU operation. A potential Valley DMU operation could piggyback on the MBTA’s DMU order, reducing initial costs for buying new equipment.

The kind of semi-rural DMU service I am proposing here is unprecedented in the US, but it is commonplace in Europe, and has become a crucial part of the British approach to rural rail service, which stresses local partnerships and community ownership of operations. Running frequent DMU service as the trunk line of public transit in the Pioneer Valley would be a unique concept in the US, but what does the Valley stand for if not progressive ideas and publicly-minded innovation?

(Updated 6/2/14 with typo corrections and a new link to story about the Mt. Tom power plant closing)