Towards a Connecticut S-Bahn: the Waterbury Line

I’ve been neglecting blogging recently because I’ve been hugely focused on my ongoing senior paper writing process, which is a lot of fun and very rewarding but also very time-consuming. One of the joys of that process, though, is that it occasionally prompts thoughts about other planning issues on which my research touches. Such was the case with the news that Connecticut has managed to find some funds to invest in its ugly-stepchild Waterbury Branch, and that Metro-North is re-opening the temporary Devon Transfer station to allow track work on the main New Haven Line.

Some of my senior paper work focuses on the S-Bahn paradigm of regional rail services common in the German-speaking world and beyond. Like other systems that rely on mainline rail, S-Bahns in major urban areas combine lines on major trunk lines in urban cores to provide rapid-transit-like levels of frequency. One of the distinguishing marks of the S-Bahn paradigm, however, is its emphasis on precisely timed transfers at outlying stops across a wide region–up to and including a whole country–an approach known as the Integraler Takftfahrplan, or, roughly, “Integrated Pulse Schedule.” Scheduled thus, transit services can avoid running at expensive overwhelming frequency, and rely on precisely timed transfers to maximize rider utility.

ITF schedule maps

Takt scheduling diagrams, from Maxwell 1999

One of the advantages of takt scheduling is that it can bring relatively frequent, useful transit to regions without a massive or dense population base. Indeed, some agencies have found the S-Bahn/takt system useful for serving polycentric, dispersed regions without one massive urban center. That got me thinking: where in the US, outside of core major urban areas, might such an approach be useful?

So, why not Connecticut? Connecticut has no dominant city; Stamford, Bridgeport, New Haven, and Hartford are all roughly in the same size class, and there’s a coherent second tier of smaller cities such as Danbury, Waterbury, New Britain, Norwich, and New London.

new haven line getting back on track

Urbanized areas on the New Haven Line, from RPA’s Getting Back on Track report.

The New Haven Line–arguably the country’s best commuter rail line, and one that I have argued before should be turned into a rapid transit line–ties together three of those top-tier cities, with a new service to Hartford starting in 2018 and connections to several of the second-tier cities. And yet, the state’s rail service is still predominantly conceptualized as “commuter” rail intended to shuttle passengers to office jobs in Fairfield County and New York City. Rather than providing everywhere-to-everywhere connections, the system all feeds toward the state’s southwestern extremity.

Such is the case with the Waterbury Line. Currently, the branch operates only a skeleton schedule; completely unsignalized and nearly devoid of passing sidings, it can manage only one train every two hours in each direction. The diesel-powered trains offer transfers to other New Haven Line trains at Bridgeport, which eats up mainline capacity both because the short, slow Waterbury trains take up slots and because Bridgeport’s narrow, constrained station is a terrible place to turn trains. The new investment over the next few years will signalize the line and add a few sidings, bringing capacity to two trains per hour in each direction at peak.  That’s obviously a start, but what if we can make it better?

First, let’s think about where Waterbury Line passengers might actually be traveling. Here’s a look at the top 25 places where workers in the Naugatuck Valley are employed, courtesy of Census LEHD (the full spreadsheet is here for your perusal):

Place Count Share
Waterbury city, CT 17,215 12.7%
Milford city (balance), CT 9,421 7.0%
Shelton city, CT 7,752 5.7%
New Haven city, CT 7,093 5.2%
Stratford CDP, CT 6,497 4.8%
Bridgeport city, CT 6,343 4.7%
Naugatuck borough, CT 3,849 2.8%
New York city, NY 3,562 2.6%
Hartford city, CT 2,871 2.1%
Trumbull CDP, CT 2,569 1.9%
Stamford city, CT 2,494 1.8%
Derby city, CT 2,425 1.8%
Danbury city, CT 2,311 1.7%
Norwalk city, CT 2,226 1.6%
Orange CDP, CT 2,043 1.5%
West Haven city, CT 1,883 1.4%
North Haven CDP, CT 1,556 1.2%
Meriden city, CT 1,547 1.1%
Ansonia city, CT 1,369 1.0%
Bristol city, CT 1,140 0.8%
Torrington city, CT 1,094 0.8%
Westport CDP, CT 877 0.6%
New Britain city, CT 834 0.6%
Middletown city, CT 789 0.6%
Oakville CDP, CT 748 0.6%

Around 39,000, or 28.9% of the total, commute to Fairfield County, as the Waterbury Line is set up to serve. Another 2,500, or 1.8%, commute into Manhattan, and 700, or 0.5%, commute to Westchester. That’s a total of about 31.2%, as opposed to 65,255, or 48.3%, who stay within New Haven County–in the Valley itself, in the Shoreline towns, or in New Haven proper–and a further 1,600 who commute to Middlesex County and 1,163 New London County, further to the east. Which is to say: the Waterbury’s line’s emphasis on direct service to the southeast isn’t useless, but it’s not serving a majority of work-based trips particularly well. Can the area’s rail infrastructure help with that?

Perhaps the place to start is an emphasis on the power of connections. Offering a connection to mainline trains at Devon, rather than wasting crew and equipment time and mainline slots with a trip to Bridgeport, could free up the Waterbury Line to function more freely. Instead of rebuilding platforms all along the branch to fit level boarding for mainline rolling stock, the branch could use a dedicated fleet of European-style low-floor DMUs, making platform rebuilding much cheaper. (there is very little freight on the line, and a past study has found that electrification would only shave one minute off schedules because of the line’s extreme curviness) With trip times from Waterbury to Devon well under an hour, the line could run a train every half hour in each direction with four vehicles, plus one in reserve.

This is not, of course, a new idea. “Fixing” the branch by severing it at Devon is a common topic of discussion among railfans. A past study envisioned a reconfigured station at Devon looking something like this:

devon alt 1 better

Alternatively, the “new” Devon could be moved a little east, and lose the “T” structure:

devon 2.jpg

Of these two alternatives, I prefer the first–a two-track terminal offers more flexibility for frequent service, and the T-shaped platforms allow branch trains to operate different equipment than mainline trains. It wouldn’t be cheap–a substation located in the middle of the diamond would have to be relocated–but it also wouldn’t be as expensive as the study’s estimated $134 million price tag (the second alternative is projected at $73 million), mainly because there is absolutely no reason to build a parking garage under I-95. Instead of building a new pedestrian passage under or over the tracks, a future Devon station could retain the T format but rebuild the narrow Naugatuck Avenue bridge for use as an overpass.

With mainline trains now running every half-hour-albeit on a weird schedule with one 20-minute and one 40-minute gap–at off-peak times, the timing works out perfectly for branch trains to meet a mainline train at Devon every half hour throughout the day. The branch trains would, as in a takt system, be scheduled around their meeting time with a mainline train. With enough scheduling work, and as mainline frequencies increase as promised, the connection could become a three-way meet, with branch trains offering connections to mainline trains in both directions, thus increasing rider utility again.

One of the beauties of takt scheduling is that it can also offer connections to local transit. In this case, the trains meeting at Devon could also be met by a local bus feeding riders to the station from high-density  (by local standards) apartment developments near Walnut Beach in one direction, and from parts of Milford in the other:

circulator bus

Thus, a person arriving at Devon Station at the half-hourly takt mark would be able to choose to travel on transit in any one of four different directions aside from the one they came from.  Such a system requires hard scheduling work and good reliability of transit–but it is doable.

Turning the Waterbury Line entirely into a timed-transfer branch at Devon may or may not be the right concept. On the positive side, it would:

  • increase branch and mainline reliability by ending mixing of branch and mainline trains
  • allow timed transfers towards New Haven, where a not-inconsiderable number of Naugatuck Valley passengers are bound, without the extra travel to and from Bridgeport, as well as toward New York,
  • allow operation of low-floor DMUs on the branch
  • provide a rationale for a new connecting bus route

On the possible negative side, it would:

  • eliminate one-seat rides for branch passengers to Bridgeport
  • means that getting to an NYC-bound express train, which would stop at Bridgeport but presumably not at Devon, would require a second transfer
  • struggle to attract walk-up traffic, since the station itself is isolated, bordered by the Housatonic river on one side and I-95 on the other

So there’s a need for further study, hopefully with more realistic cost estimates than including a massive, stupid garage when there’s a nice commuter lot available to build on at Stratford less than two miles away. But as a thought experiment, and a way to illustrate the feasibility and desirability of takt scheduling and the S-Bahn rail concept, I think it works nicely. Just don’t build the damn garage.

Advertisements

Productivity and Route Structure in a Chicago Neighborhood

WBEZ’s terrific Curious City series is out with a piece  and accompanying visualization about cost recovery  on the CTA bus system. CTA’s buses are a hot topic (so to speak) in the transit/urbanist online community; Daniel Hertz has covered the system’s woes extensively, and Yonah Freemark lent his voice to the Curious City piece. Though perhaps less than sexy, the question of how to build a better bus system for Chicago is an important one. Despite ridership declines and a trend of convergence, CTA buses still carry an overall majority of CTA ridership, and they provide crucial transit coverage to huge swaths of the city that lack rapid transit service.

For the graphic accompanying the story, Curious City pulled out CTA’s five “most productive” and five “least productive” (by average number of riders on an individual bus in an hour, with the ideal ranging from 35 to 55 riders) routes and mapped them. Much to my surprise (really), two of the top five most productive routes are the lines I consider my “home routes” in Chicago, the 155 Devon and the 49B North Western.

devon and western

Devon and Western–epicenter of bus productivity in Chicago?

I spent my high school years living two blocks (well, three, but one of them is really short) from the corner of Devon and Western, where the 49B and 155 meet. West Rogers Park (alternatively, West Ridge) is one of Chicago’s well-kept secrets, a wonderfully diverse (economically and ethnically), reasonably walkable and dense, green, and mostly quiet neighborhood. Though the density and vibrancy of the South Asian community along Devon fades into pretty boring single-family blocks the further north and west one progresses, Devon itself, especially the section between Western and California, is a riot of color, smell, and taste the likes of which almost sound cliched. (I’m going to stop before I get more homesick, I promise) All that being said, one of the reasons the area isn’t better known is what it lacks–namely, direct access to a rapid transit line.

Thus, while the neighborhood itself is moderately transit-supportive (much more so along Devon than along Western, which here as in most of its 24-mile existence is a wide asphalt auto sewer with terrible land use), the 49B and 155 play a role that wouldn’t seem to lend itself exceptionally well to high productivity, collecting riders and shuttling them to the L. The 155 drops riders off at Loyola and Morse on the Red Line, and the 49B connects to the Brown Line at its Western stop. Both loop on the opposite end on the very edge of the city, the 155 at Devon and Kedzie–it’s actually a very short route, geographically–and the 49B at Western and Birchwood (half a block short of an easy transfer to several lines running on Howard…but more on that later). Lacking significant anchors on the outer end, both lines are relatively sparsely used for the first section of their route–seemingly not a recipe for “productive” status.

That being said, I can attest from personal experience that both lines do get very crowded at times. The 155 in particular can be a very uncomfortable experience, to the point where I regularly receive texts from my father complaining about it when he winds up on the Red Line rather than the Brown Line on his way home. Neither runs especially frequently by major city standards, with both running usually around every 8-12 minutes during the day and 15-20 minutes at night. Ridership is moderate by Chicago standards, with the 49B fluctuating between 5,000 and 6,000 daily riders since 2001 (as far back as CTA data goes), and the 155 more consistently around 7,000. Still, that’s enough ridership to consistently fill–or overfill–the buses on at least the half of the routes closer to their L transfers. And while I joked about it in the caption above, the corner of Devon and Western is the key point for ridership demand on both routes.

49b southbound boardings

Southbound boardings on the 49B by stop, October 2012 (from CTA open data)

The 49B, in particular, experiences a huge ridership spike at Devon; the stop pulls in three times as many riders as the second most popular stop, the Birchwood terminus. Ridership on the 155 is more spread out, though reliable data isn’t available–Devon was under construction and closed to buses between Western and Ridge when the 2012 CTA counts happened, as a result of which a huge chunk of the route is missing–so I won’t present a chart here. Still, Devon/Western is a key stop; in my experience it’s typically the single largest on/off point, and on rush hour eastbound trips the buses typically run standing room only from Devon or a couple of stops east of there.

So: despite the unbalanced route structure, we have a pair of routes running through a somewhat transit-deprived neighborhood that pair moderately high demand with relatively limited frequency. Additionally, both routes use standard 40-foot buses almost exclusively, although the 155 would clearly benefit from having articulateds on rush-hour runs. That combination leads to extremely high productivity results–an indication of the imperfection of the metric, since a simple increase in frequency would presumably result in a sharp decrease in “productivity.” Productivity, remember, is to some extent just a nicer word for “crowding.”

But let’s look beyond a simple increase in frequency–clearly, there is significant demand for transit in the West Rogers Park area, both expressed and latent. How can CTA build on the perhaps unlikely success of these routes and strengthen West Rogers Park’s connection to the transit system while maintaining a highly productive route structure?

The CTA system in the greater West Rogers Park area

The CTA system in the greater West Rogers Park area

It’s worth noting that the gap in ridership between the two routes, which is generally in the vicinity of 1,000-2,000 riders per day, is almost certainly attributable to the differences in land use along their respective arterials. Compare Devon, here looking west at Rockwell:

to Western, here looking south midblock between Rosemont and Granville, just a block and a half south of Devon:

Encouraging dense, transit-oriented development along the Western car sewer is a no-brainer, particularly north of Peterson, where both sides of the street are lined with dead and dying (literally) car-related businesses–dealerships, body shops, etc. Unfortunately, what new development has occurred has often been very much suburban-style:

In the shorter term, though, there are ways to make the existing bus network function better. The returning X49 Western Express (well, for peak hours) should be extended at least to Devon, if not all the way to Howard; its current terminal at Western and Berwyn is nowhere of significance, and an extension would turn numerous trips that are currently three-seat rides into much more tolerable two-seat rides. Even just at peak, an X49 stop at Devon would take significant pressure off the crowded 49B.

The 49B itself would benefit from a stronger anchor on the northern end. And there are useful things to do with it! Currently trips from Western to downtown Evanston, a significant employment and cultural draw, are three-seaters, requiring a transfer to an east-west bus on Howard, then to the Purple Line or an Evanston bus at Howard terminal. Turning the 49b right on Howard and running to Howard Terminal might provide unnecessary extra capacity on that particular stretch of Howard, but would provide a one-transfer ride to Evanston. Alternatively, continuing the route north to downtown Evanston–the route taken by its much less frequent (doesn’t run on Sundays!) counterpart on California, the 93, would make that a one-seat ride and provide regular service to a relatively dense part of southern Evanston that currently has only infrequent “circulator” service. I suspect that whatever losses in efficiency were to happen because of these extensions would be easily made up or even exceeded by increased, better balanced ridership.

Taking advantage of the demand for transit on Devon and taking pressure off the 155 is, if anything, even easier. There are two long North Side local routes, the 36 Broadway and 151 Sheridan, that use Devon for part of the 155 route, between Sheridan and Clark. Both, however, loop at Clark and Devon for reasons that, as best I can tell, are simply historical; that loop was long ago the location of the Chicago Surface Lines’ enormous Devon Carbarn, and it made sense to loop the routes outside where the equipment was maintained. The carbarn, however, has been gone since 1957, and the area west of it has become much denser as South Asian immigrants moved in. Neither route is especially frequent, but if looped at Kedzie–just two miles west–instead of Clark, their combined 6 or 7 extra trips per hour could significantly reduce crowding on the 155 and strengthen Devon’s character as a transit-oriented arterial. Both the 151 and 36 are long, slow routes–both run to the Loop, though not every 151 makes the whole trip–so while Devon can be painfully congested, neither should feel the pain too much. Neither offers as direct a transfer to the Red Line as does the 155, but both encounter it multiple times along their routes, and the 36 runs just a block away from the L from Devon to Wilson, offering numerous opportunities for a relatively east transfer.

In some ways, West Rogers Park is an ordinary Chicago neighborhood. What has become clear in this analysis, however, is that it–like so many Chicago neighborhoods–has excellent fundamentals for transit, and a very strong basis to build on. When thinking about transit in Chicago, the public eye focuses largely on the L, but this is an excellent example of a bus-reliant transit-oriented area. Unfortunately, it seems that some of the public mentality of L prioritization has taken hold in the CTA planning process as well, with the area’s routes largely reduced to glorified–but productive!–shuttles to the nearest L stops.  But here’s the thing: taking the area’s transit from “OK” to “excellent” may not need the kind of glorious capital investment an L or rapid transit extension at all (though, assuming some TOD, BRT on Western would be great). Re-thinking the local buses within a framework of making them useful as more than shuttles, a few strategic extensions and route modifications, and incremental improvements that prioritize buses within the traffic flow could provide high impact for little investment. It’s clear that the fundamentals are there. Let’s build.

 

Note 1: Notice haven’t talked about Metra at all here. Metra’s UP-North line runs on the Rogers Park-West Rogers Park boundary, with a “Rogers Park” station at Lunt; there used to be a stop at Kenmore, just south of Devon. The line really should be turned into a rapid transit operation, and should that happen, a stop at Devon is essential.

Note 2: One of the other top 5 most productive routes is the 54 Cicero, which gives me some hope that the proposed Lime Line could be successful.