Why Are Train Museums Not Transit-Oriented?

By popular demand…

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Here is Sandy’s look at how a genre of institution one would expect to be transit-oriented–train museums–in fact often fails that test. This piece is in part inspired by Cap’n Transit’s look at how many American rail factories are located in sprawly areas, in part by Trains Magazine writer Malcolm Kenton’s attempt to get to a rural museum without a car, and in part by my own musings and travels.

For the most part, the difficulty of reaching railroad museums by transit is reasonably understandable. Most American museums date to the postwar period, when a) railfanning became a serious hobby b) people had extra time on their hands and c) the rapid transition from steam to diesel locomotion and from dominance of rail travel to autocentrism set off alarms about the need for historical preservation. Often, museums–established in a mad scramble to preserve right-of-way and rolling stock, happened wherever they could. As a result, many are very rural. There are some, though, that are located in or on the fringe of major urban areas, and these could generally be trying harder to be transit-accessible. And there are others that could offer a basic connection to intercity or commuter trains, but haven’t even tried that.

The truth is, though, that if you read railfan boards (as I admittedly do sometimes), there’s also a serious suburban bias that goes with the generational territory of the folks who established these museums. Most of the founders became accustomed to transit and trains as a hobby or a profession, not an ethical or planning calling. For the most part, they think of accessibility in terms of cars. And surely NIMBYism and Euclidean zoning–as my friend and planner colleague Matt says, trains are “pretty much the definition of a nuisance”–have played their role. But enough speculation, let’s look at some museums! I’ve divided some thoughts I have into a few somewhat arbitrary categories.

Museums of My Childhood

Say what you will about Connecticut, it’s actually fairly rich in train museums!

  • Despite living across town in Westville, I virtually grew up at the Shore Line Trolley Museum in East Haven (one of the nation’s earliest and most influential museums), including having a birthday party there. Located along a short stretch of preserved interurban right-of-way, the museum is a few blocks from (very limited) bus service at the East Haven Green. It’s a doable trip if you’re willing to be patient with CTTransit’s extraordinarily crappy service.
  • The Naugatuck Railroad/Railroad Museum of New England operates out of Thomaston, 10 miles north of the end of a Metro-North branch in Waterbury. The bus that would cover the gap runs an extremely limited schedule and not at all on weekends, when museums do most of their business. There are some ownership and liability issues with making a connection, and service on the Waterbury branch is hit-or-miss, but the intervening line is operable and I’m frankly surprised no one has put forth the effort to make it work. It seems like a natural use of state economic development dollars in a downtrodden post-industrial area; it’s not too hard to imagine New Yorkers schlepping up to Waterbury to ride vintage trains.
  • The Danbury Railway Museum is located in the historic Danbury station, around the corner from the end of another Metro-North branch, and right next to downtown Danbury. Bravo!
  • The Essex Steam Train is the really infuriating one. Well-run as a partnership between a Friends group and a for-profit entity, it’s a high-profile regional tourist attraction with pretty deep pockets by train museum standards. And yet! The trains run from a station five miles north of the modern Old Saybrook station, served by Shore Line East and the occasional Amtrak train. Transit connections between them consist of “nope.” But there is still track connecting the stations–and it’s leased by the museum! Though not used in revenue service, it’s used for storing trains and moving occasional new acquisitions. There’s plenty of room around the wye at Old Saybrook for the museum to build a rudimentary station. Instead, the volunteer crews have been clearing brush to extend the museum’s operating segment north toward Middletown–a valiant effort, but perhaps making the museum transit-accessible would be a better one? How cool (and potentially lucrative) would the ability to market a cross-platform connection from a modern train to one hauled by (a Chinese-built imitation masquerading as) the last remaining New Haven Railroad steam locomotive?Old Saybrook (1)
  • I’ve never been to the Connecticut Trolley Museum at Warehouse Point, but they do have a bus collection, so here’s to hoping that when the planned Hartford Line station at Thompsonville in Enfield, a short drive away, opens, the museum will offer a shuttle service.  
  • I’ve only been to the Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum in Willimantic once. Points for being near downtown and next to the Air Line trail I guess?

Now for some others…Many of these I’ve been to, some I haven’t, and I won’t claim it’s a representative selection. But this is my blog, so my selection and division of it can be arbitrary.

The Bad

  • The Illinois Railway Museum might be the best railroad museum in the country. Too bad it’s 90 minutes outside of Chicago with zero transit access.
  • National Capital Trolley Museum: more like National Spend All Your Capital to Get Here Trolley Museum.
  • The Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. & Museum is an interesting, and potentially illustrative case. Currently located right on the waterfront in a touristy part of Portland, it’s in the process of moving almost 20 miles north to exurban Gray, where they’ll be able to expand operations–but at the expense of having to put the question “Will I be able to take the train all the way from Gray to Portland? No.” on their website.

Has Potential

  • Of personal interest, since my grandmother lives not far away, the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris is currently essentially inaccessible by transit, but they’re in the middle of construction on the kind of cross-platform transfer to real transit that I’d love to see more of, with Metrolink’s Perris Valley Line in downtown Perris. They can’t do much about the terrible schedule, but hey, this is what I think more museums should be doing!

    Paul_at_the_track_pocket_sm

    The pocket track for OERM operations at Metrolink’s Perris station. Source: http://www.oerm.org/capital-campaigns/

  • The Niles Canyon Railway has some tenuous bus connections to BART’s Union City station, but a 2.5 mile extension along existing ROW would make a walking connection possible. Should ACE ever deign to run weekend service, there’s also the possibility of a connection at the other end of the line in Sunol.
  • The Trolley Museum of NY in Kingston gets points for being right next to the touristy Rondout area, but it would be helpful for transit-based tourists if they ran a shuttle over to the Amtrak station at Rhinecliff! Indeed, that trip is pretty roundabout by car, so perhaps the museum could strike a deal with one of the ferry companies that runs tourist trips out of the Rondout to make ferry runs.
  • The West Chester Railroad occupies the outer leg of what was once a commuter line whose inner sectors are still served by SEPTA. As I understand it, the entire line is still intact, although not necessarily authorized for passenger use. With SEPTA re-extending the Media/Elwyn line to Wawa (sidebar–are there any other train stations named after convenience stores?) perhaps the time is ripe to extend the museum trips and make the connection. SEPTA’s 104 bus–a former trolley line that, should the agency choose to use it, could still have a dedicated reservation in the middle of the West Chester Pike–runs to the end of the line in West Chester from 69th Street Terminal hourly on Sundays, which is not too terrible, but not great.

Pretty to Very Good

  • The Baltimore Streetcar Museum offers decent bus and LRT connections and is walkable from Penn Station.The walking path from the LRT connection could benefit from attention. Perhaps on weekends the dinky little LRT shuttle that serves the 1-stop Penn Station branch could turn around and run to North Ave. (which has a third track!) for a connection to the museum.
  • The California State Railroad Museum has to be one of the best, if not the best, train museums in the country for actual transit connections. Very close to the Sacramento LRT, buses, and even the Amtrak station.
  • The New York Transit Museum. Ok, too easy.

Connections to Intercity Rail

There are some museum operations–and in this case, I’m talking about more or less exclusively operating railroads–that have the potential to make connections not to urban transit but to intercity rail, but still don’t. You’d have to be making a special trip to make it out there, but at least it would be possible.

So what are the good examples?

Generally speaking, it seems like train museums–or “heritage railways,” as they’re often known–in other countries do a better job connecting to actual transit than in this country. Some examples:

And a few suggestions from the peanut gallery:

Oh, and there’s one more example to think about:

The Mattapan Line

Ashmont_Mattapan_streetcar_in_woods

By Derek Yu – DJY_2075, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25519303

Just kidding.

Conclusions

Most railroad museums operate on a pretty shoestring budget, and I’ve suggested a few capital investments that are most likely out of the range of realistic budgets. Is it the role of government to help out here? Maybe. There are certainly worse ways to spend economic development dollars. Train museums can play an important role in transit education, and making them transit-accessible is an important part of their future (there’s a crying need to bring in new, diverse blood while the postwar generation ages out), while keeping them inaccessible via transit sends the message that the history and technology featured there is just that, history, and nothing more. For transit agencies, working with museums could be both a way to connect to heritage and potentially a way to grow ridership on weekends. Is there a future here? It’s hard to tell, but many of the disconnects I’ve identified in my illustrative examples here are low-hanging fruit. Let’s think about how to pluck them.

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Coordinating Passenger Rail in Northwest Indiana

Northwest Indiana famously hosts one of the most complex rail networks on the planet. As a book I once read (I can’t remember which) argued, the “logical” place for Chicago to have been from a railroad perspective would have been about 30 miles east of its current location, perhaps near Whiting, IN. Instead, with the nation’s rail network divided at the location of an ancient portage, the “Eastern” railroads had to converge in the extreme northwesterly corner of Indiana and make a near-90-degree turn to run into Chicago. The result was a tangled mess of conflicting rights-of-way, industrial tracks, and infrastructure that has only been somewhat simplified by the mergers and consolidations of recent decades.

Two passenger railroads try to pick their way through this mess, with varying degrees of success over the years since the destruction of American passenger service in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The Chicago, South Shore, and South Bend, “America’s last interurban,” now under public ownership as the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICTD) operates a relatively conventional commuter service into Chicago, blended with an intercity operation reaching South Bend. Amtrak operates two long-distance trains along Norfolk Southern’s ex-New York Central Chicago line between the East Coast and Chicago, the Lake Shore Limited to New York City and the Capitol Limited to Washington, D.C.; a number of daily roundtrips to points in Michigan that leave the Chicago Line at Porter, IN; and the Hoosier State/Cardinal to Indianapolis (and beyond, three days per week).

schematic 1

Northwest Indiana rail network. Legend applies to all maps in this post.  Apologies for any sloppiness–I’m still learning QGIS–and for the general crappy resolution of the maps (I can’t get WordPress to upload them at anything near full resolution). 

The Northwest Indiana rail network remains seriously congested (as does the entire extended Chicago area), but both the South Shore and Amtrak have begun infrastructure plans that would allow their operations through the area to become speedier and (especially) more reliable. Unfortunately, in typical American railroading fashion, these projects are being planned and executed in a terribly siloed and completely uncoordinated fashion, whereas a degree of sharing infrastructure and cooperative thinking could go a long ways toward speeding trips and cutting down on unnecessary spending. Since Ted asked me why they don’t work together (and I’d actually been thinking about it for a while), here’s my attempt at analysis.

Though it’s more or less been in stasis for 60 years, the South Shore is pursuing an ambitious slate of improvements. The West Lake Corridor would use an abandoned right-of-way to create a branch from Hammond to Dyer; the latter town is currently not directly served by passenger rail. Closing the gaps in double track between Gary and the South Shore’s hub in Michigan City would increase capacity and move the railroad further from its interurban roots. The Michigan City realignment project would move the tracks through that city out of the middle of 10th and 11th Streets–the last place in the country where full-size electric passenger railcars run in mixed traffic, true interurban style, with cars on a city street–and create a dedicated rail right-of-way. Shortening the currently convoluted route to the terminal at the South Bend airport might need some use of eminent domain but could shorten trips by up to 10 minutes. While local and state commitments have generally been forthcoming, federal funding for these projects remains somewhat uncertain.

Meanwhile, Amtrak’s Michigan Line–which is owned by the national carrier from Porter to Kalamazoo, and Michigan DOT from Kalamazoo to Dearborn–has been the target of a gradual improvement process, with running speeds now up to 110 mph along much of its length. Amtrak has also partnered with Indiana and Norfolk Southern on the Indiana Gateway project, a $71 million first crack at decongesting the Chicago Line to benefit both corridor and long-distance trains. All of these improvements exist in some relation to the long-standing multi-partner attempts to “fix” the Chicago rail network, most notably CREATE; Amtrak has contributed a report from its own blue ribbon panel on the Chicago gateway…which concluded that the Indiana Gateway project  “will not increase speeds, or provide capacity for planned additional passenger trains” (p. 20), although it will increase reliability.

Notably, the South Shore and Amtrak efforts, while each ambitious in their own right, have seemingly proceeded completely independently, without any effort to coordinate service or investment. This is perhaps most remarkable given that Amtrak’s Northwest Indiana efforts mainly center around mitigating the impact of–or avoiding entirely–the congested NS mainline and especially the infamous Porter Junction, where the Michigan Line branches off. South Shore’s right of way, meanwhile, intersects with Amtrak routes at several points and avoids Porter entirely. While the South Shore’s capacity is currently constrained by single track, it is actively seeking to undo that constraint, yet lacks money; Amtrak often manages to pull in multi-state political support for a decent amount of funding, but none of the alternatives studied in the South-of-the-Lake Route Analysis involve bringing that funding potential to bear to consolidate trains from both railroads on a double-track South Shore. Indeed, depending on where the connections are made, a joint Amtrak-South Shore route from Michigan City into Chicago could be shorter than the route that trains from Michigan currently take. To the maps!

Assumptions I make in this analysis are as follows:

  1. Both railroads are interested in avoiding as much freight congestion as possible.
  2. The most nefarious and hard to avoid congestion is in Indiana, roughly from Hammond to east of Porter; from the Illinois line to Chicago Union Station, extra room exists on the NS ROW for dedicated passenger tracks, waiting only for funding. (indeed, Amtrak’s Chicago Gateway report says NS has promised access to a dedicated ROW–at cost, of course–from CUS to Buffington Harbor, contingent on Amtrak coming up with the money)
  3. Amtrak values improvements to reliability as well as overall speed.

Long-Distance Trains

Let’s work our way from east to west, or from the perspective of a westbound train. Perhaps the most ambitious way for Amtrak and the South Shore to coordinate would be for the East Coast long-distance trains to transition from the Chicago Line to the South Shore in South Bend, avoiding almost all of the congestion on the Chicago Line. The transition could happen either in South Bend proper (perhaps in conjunction with bringing South Shore service to South Bend Union Station rather than its current terminus at the airport)

sb1

Or perhaps better near the hamlet of Hudson Lake, a few miles west; the lines are completely parallel between South Bend and Hudson Lake, but diverge after that.

hudson lake 1

Now, maybe the single track eastern end of the South Shore can handle two more round trips per day–and trips with less-than-reliable timekeeping, at that–or maybe it would need some capacity enhancements. There might be some clearance issues; while the Lake Shore Limited uses single-level equipment that can operate under catenary, the Capitol Limited runs with Superliners that might be too close to the wires for comfort–and can’t use the high platforms that the South Shore has at many stations. But the point is that in a potential scenario of maximum cooperation, the two LD trains could be diverted to a dedicated passenger track many miles from Chicago; whether the work necessary to make this possible is desirable is not really the focus of this post.

Fixing Michigan City

Let’s face it: there’s very little more fun for railfans or transit geeks than standing on the sidewalk of a small Midwestern city and watching trains rumble down the middle of a residential street (been there, done that; I’m pretty sure even my non-railfan parents enjoyed).

But it’s also antiquated, a massive constraint on capacity, and downright dangerous, which is why the South Shore and the city are in the process of relocating the tracks to a dedicated reservation. That being said, while it’s something of a judgment call, I’m less than fond of the alternative that was ultimately decided upon in Michigan City; I’d rather have seen something like Options 4, 5 or 6 as presented in the Alternatives study, moving the tracks off city streets entirely and onto an abandoned right-of-way that’s currently a trail, with a new central station near Michigan City’s Amtrak station, closer to the lake (it’s not really clear how the study team reached its conclusion, given that their evaluation matrix really shows Option 4 should have been chosen–it costs the same, has greater TOD potential, and eliminates more grade crossings than the chosen Option 1–but I digress). Notably, none of even these alternatives–which all proposed building a station adjacent to the Amtrak one–even considered running South Shore trains on the Amtrak tracks through Michigan City, even though not doing so required more property takings. Sigh.

Anyhow, perhaps the most important link in creating a joint South Shore-Amtrak line is the connection that’s possible just west of Amtrak’s current Michigan City station.

mcity 4

Whether or not the long-distance trains are re-routed onto the South Shore, the Michigan corridor trains can use an upgraded connection through the grounds of the NIPSCO power plant (the tracks are owned by the South Shore) to access the theoretically double-tracked South Shore main toward Gary and Chicago. This is one of the straightest, fastest sections of the South Shore; running largely through a state park, the intermediate stations see little traffic. Where the Michigan trains might switch to the NS alignment is covered below; but sharing the South Shore segment for the 10-15 miles west of Michigan City would eliminate the jog south and then north again that they currently make, as well as avoiding Porter Junction entirely, which is probably worth tens of millions in and of itself.

Western Connections

There are three possible locations for a western connection between the NS/Amtrak alignment and the South Shore main. The easternmost is where the two lines crisscross at Burns Harbor; a connecting track already exists and could be upgraded.

burns harbor 3

The middle is just east of Miller station on the South Shore, marking the point where the Chicago Line and South Shore diverge somewhat geographically. The two lines are parallel and right next to each other and a connecting track would be easy to install, though not already extant.

miller1

The South Shore alignment through Gary is interurban-y; while grade-separated, it’s somewhat twisty and slow, so transitioning back to the Chicago Line at Miller saves time and distance. But as I understand it NS has not guaranteed there’s ROW to be purchased for dedicated passenger tracks this far east; while I’m sure an alignment could be found, given the absolutely massive amount of legacy rail infrastructure in the industrial wastelands between Miller and Buffington Harbor, it might be easier in the short term to keep Michigan trains on the South Shore further west (which would also allow a stop at Gary Metro Center).

The westernmost potential connection point also involves the most infrastructure. The South-of-the-Lake analysis envisions an exclusive Amtrak line branching off the Chicago Line at Buffington Harbor, running south and east along abandoned and underutilized ROW to loop around Gary to its south. Such a loop would pass under the South Shore near Gary-Chicago “International” Airport; connecting there, rather than looping further south (what a truly silly idea the loop is) would be relatively trivial, although there is an elevation difference to be dealt with.

buff1

The Buffington Harbor-Gary Airport connector would subject Amtrak trains to a relatively slow slog through Gary on South Shore trackage, as well as somewhat congesting the busiest part of the South Shore system, and it would require the most new infrastructure (several miles of track). But there is definitely room for dedicated passenger tracks west of Buffington Harbor, meaning that placing the connector here would for sure allow reliable all-passenger running from CUS through to Michigan City and beyond (once funding is found, of course).

Recommended Course of Action

With separate planning, funding, and construction processes proceeding apace, it may be hard to really coordinate Amtrak and South Shore infrastructure improvements to the extent I’m recommending here. And of course I haven’t answered the question of why the two agencies haven’t tried working together; I rather suspect NICTD guards its infrastructure and capacity jealously and doesn’t want to give Amtrak (which wants to ramp up Michigan service to ten round trips per day) a toehold on their main line. But I’m not familiar enough with the local politics to know, exactly.

That being said, the South Shore double-track project is not particularly expensive, will give a solid ROI, and seemingly has a strong local funding commitment. Adding in a connection to the Michigan Line through the NIPSCO plant in Michigan City and a link to the NS Chicago Line at Miller would allow Amtrak corridor trains to bypass Porter and many miles of the congested Chicago Line (although an overlay of Amtrak’s ITCS PTC system might add some costs). Hell, NS might even pay for some of the costs, just to get the Amtrak trains out of its hair. Amtrak should angle to join the double-tracking project; help pay for it; and consider its options for the western end. Probably, Miller makes the most sense for the western connection; but if the various parties can’t find room for passenger tracks between Buffington Harbor and Miller, the westernmost connection option might be more reasonable.

With the core piece in place and protocols for cooperation in place, Amtrak and NICTD can consider whether diverting the LD trains to the South Shore makes sense. The variables are probably too numerous to prognosticate here: whether Superliners can be squeezed under catenary; whether the single-track eastern end of the South Shore has room for more trains without more double track; platform heights and clearance; whether the new Michigan City alignment can accommodate Amtrak trains; and the like.  But it’s at least worth thinking about; while both LD trains are highly unreliable and encounter delays along the entire route, the section between South Bend and Chicago tends to be especially bad.

Addenda

A few further notes:

  1. I’ve treated the Amtrak Michigan trains here as if they all use the Michigan Line, but there’s one that doesn’t: the Chicago-Grand Rapids Pere Marquette, which runs once per day in each direction, diverging from the Chicago Line onto CSX rather than Amtrak’s own trackage at Porter. The Pere Marquette route actually crosses the South Shore just east of the latter’s Carroll Street yard and headquarters in Michigan City, and an interchange track exists for freight. It then crosses the Michigan Line just north of New Buffalo, MI, and should money become available a connection should really be built there, in which case the Pere Marquette would become just another corridor train for the purposes of this analysis (other than the fact that it often runs with Superliners, which would mean platform issues at some South Shore stations…).
  2. Austin brought up the idea of using the planned NICTD Dyer branch to divert Amtrak’s Hoosier State/Cardinal to the South Shore from Dyer into Chicago. These two trains currently encounter a significant amount of their massive delay problems west of Dyer as they traverse dense, congested rail infrastructure like Dolton interlocking. It’s not a bad idea; while somewhat roundabout, running the Indianapolis trains north along the Dyer branch and then along the South Shore/Metra Electric mainline to Grand Crossing would improve reliability considerably, though it would require completion of the CREATE Grand Crossing connection first. Perhaps Austin or I will explore this more in the future.
  3. Running Amtrak’s Michigan trains along the South Shore west of Michigan City would make the Amtrak-owned tracks between Porter and Michigan City redundant; perhaps they’d be retained for emergency diversions, or perhaps the South Shore freight operator could find a use for the line.

 

The Model Bus Cities Program

 

Last week the Federal Transit Administration announced a new funding opportunity, $226.5 million in competitive grant funding to “to improve the condition of bus infrastructure nationwide by funding the replacement and rehabilitation of buses and related facilities.” This is essentially a capital grant program: “Eligible projects include those that replace, rehabilitate, lease and purchase buses and related equipment as well as projects to purchase, rehabilitate, construct or lease bus-related facilities, such as buildings for bus storage and maintenance.”

The press release got me thinking. Granted (pun intended), $226.5 million is nothing to sneeze at in the context of bus funding; but it’s also kinda nothing in the context of the country’s transit needs. Indeed, the press release itself helpfully notes that “According to U.S. DOT’s latest Conditions & Performance Report, transit providers nationwide face a maintenance backlog of nearly $90 billion, including 10,000 buses estimated to be in poor or marginal condition.” It’s at least good to see some self-awareness from a release touting funding amounting to one quarter of one percent of the nation’s estimated transit maintenance backlog.

While the grant money from this opportunity will likely be spread around the country–10% is set aside for rural services–the news left me wondering whether such money would be better spend demonstrating the potential of bus service in a more concentrated way. The total amount of funding on offer here is a drop in the bucket nationally. But it could make a distinct difference if spent in a concentrated way in one area.

Recently, a number of American cities–notable examples include Houston, Columbus, and Indianapolis–have launched complete redesigns of their bus systems around the principles of frequency, 7-day-a-week schedules, and gridded service patterns. Generally speaking, these redesigns redistribute service from wandering routes designed to cover a maximum geographic area to relatively linear routes intended to maximize ridership (these ideas, obviously, owe a lot to Jarrett Walker, who has been involved in many of the redesigns).

houston bus redesign

The Houston bus network redesign. Source: http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2015/02/23/houston-metro-redesign

What’s most interesting about the redesign process, though, is not the particulars so much as that it represents a willingness for oft-hidebound American transit agencies to think freshly and creatively and to re-orient their mission from delivering what some may paternalistically label “welfare” service to providing the broadest possible benefit to the entire public. It is, in short, a grand experiment in how transit should work.

So I wonder–instead of patching over holes all over the country, why should FTA not try for a grand experiment of its own? What would applying $226.5 million in funding to one city look like? It could certainly create some nice exclusive bus lanes, a lovely bus hub, and the like. But as Jake Anbinder wrote a couple of years ago, the federal emphasis on capital subsidy over operational subsidy–based on a Reagan-era belief that local systems were ripping off the feds and substituting federal money for adequate local funding–certainly appears misguided in terms of growing ridership decisively. Certainly, there’s a need; but there’s also a need to make buses run more frequently, which is after all what most benefits passengers.

These broad rethinkings of transit service have generally been concentrated in big, not-so-dense Midwestern, Sunbelt, or Western cities, the type that have been dominated by car for a long time. But there are other opportunities to grow transit ridership. I’ve long been a believer that small-to-midsize cities in the Northeast–the kind of places that grew up around transit and still have the density necessary to sustain it–are likely candidates for better service, and indeed, many have seen ridership grow in recent years. But many lack the technical knowhow, resources, or political capital to innovate. New Haven–where I’ve advocated for a comprehensive re-thinking of the unmentionably overcomplicated bus system along Houston lines–is forced to beg the ever-broke state of Connecticut for improvements, resulting in a system that satisfies few needs and is incredibly slow to deliver even on basic promises like GPS tracking for buses. At times it seems as if few local notables believe in the potential of transit in such cities.

And that’s where there’s an opportunity for a grand experiment along the lines of a comprehensive system redesign. The magic of those redesigns has been that they are essentially budget-neutral; imagine what the availability of significant funding could do to revitalize a system suffering from long decades of disinvestment and disinterest. The amount of money programmed in this new competitive grant program large in the context of the operating budgets of midsize agencies:  5.5 times that of New Haven’s bus system, twice that of RIPTA (which serves all of Rhode Island), and 3.2 times that of CDTA.

new haven dysfunction

A snapshot of the New Haven bus network map gives some indication of how overly complex and spread-out the system has gotten.

So that’s Sandy’s idea for a grand transit funding experiment. Concentrate the funding, don’t spread it around. Focus on midsize cities where transit has significant potential, but local disinterest has held down service levels and innovation (and where revenue may otherwise be less easily gained than in big cities). Pick one or two per year and meet their wildest (reasonable) operational dreams, with a commitment for funding for say 5 years to follow. Build on the appetite for comprehensive thinking and bold planning currently percolating in the American transit world. I would suggest calling it the Model Bus Cities program–an apology of sorts, inadequate reparations if you will, for the Model Cities Program and federally funded urban renewal that so damaged many of these same cities decades ago.

What would such a program look like? I imagine each city and the FTA would have their own ideas about it, but here are some of mine:

    • Comprehensive planning. Re-think the current network, which is often the result of decades of accretion without much overall planning; set frequency at levels demanded by density and travel patterns, not just what the operator can afford; generally experiment to see how many passengers an agency can draw in through good service.
    • Technological upgrade. Modernize the bus fleet; work with municipalities to install TSP along key corridors. Modernize fare collection systems and speed buses through installing capacity for Proof-of-Payment fare collection.
    • Build political bandwidth for things like dedicated bus lanes, queue jumps, and Complete Streets upgrades. After all, we know people hate turning down free federal money. Building local political capacity with federal funding can bring lasting benefit even if the immediately higher funding levels eventually depart.
    • TOD. High-frequency bus service demands high-density development. Several cities have recently taken to reducing or eliminating parking requirements near high-frequency transit of any sort; this is a good start. A five-year funding term under this program should provide enough lead time to get some TOD developments built.

What won’t you find here? Major capital investments like streetcars, light rail, or BRT. Those can be major improvements (well, maybe not streetcars) in their own right, but I’d like to see American transit policy re-orient around the humble frequent bus. It’s certainly where the biggest bang for the buck is, at least in small and midsize cities.

Do I expect any of this to happen? Not really, especially in the current political environment. But it strikes me that it would at the very least be an interesting experiment, and quite likely a resounding success. Maybe someday the federal government will be bold enough to give it a go.

 

Ironies of Highest and Best Use

I went to the Roslindale Square/Village RMV to convert my NY license to a MA one yesterday. While I successfully converted the license, the trip was a pain because a) I was available to do it because I was home sick from work and b) the RMV has clearly not learned the lesson I keep tweeting at transit agencies, that inaccurate real-time estimates are worse than none at all (I was given an estimate of zero wait and ended up being there for 45 minutes, standing the whole time in a room that was incredibly hot and smelled strongly of pot and people). It did, however, give me a chance to check out the area some, and in particular (the exterior of) a building I had wanted to see, the former Boston Elevated Railway Company substation at the corner of Washington Street and Cummins Highway.

A substation, you might think, would be a boring and utilitarian building. Not so! Remnants of traction systems past–and there are many, since the power systems (as opposed to the tracks) tended to be heavily built–were in fact often elaborate in design and construction.

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The Roslindale Substation, from Adams Park across the street.

The Roslindale substation features beautiful brick construction and high, arching windows; while it’s clearly a building with an industrial history, it’s the furthest thing from today’s functional but ugly boxes. Most interestingly, perhaps, the substation occupies a place of honor and importance in Roslindale, at the intersection of two busy streets (and transit corridors) and in the absolute center of the neighborhood.

rozzie

On the one hand, this makes sense, since several trolley routes historically converged at this corner, as seen in a 1936 map:

ros square substation 36

On the other hand, it seems like placing a substation–as opposed to, say, storefronts–on such an important corner would have been a terrible violation of the zoning/real estate principle of highest and best use, although it should be said that the substation was built in 1911, before zoning swept America. To a certain extent, surely, the substation’s location was the product of a disconnect between transportation and land use; from their own perspective, it made perfect sense for BERy to place it there in 1911. And for much of the building’s history, demand for land in Roslindale Square was relatively low; it was, after all, vacant for 45 years, until just this year. But–and here’s the irony the title of this piece refers to–the area is now somewhat up-and-coming, and the substation is now in the process of being converted to commercial use (an already-open craft beer store and a restaurant to be called the Third Rail), with the remainder of the lot taken up by new apartments. As the planner’s proverb that I just made up goes, every lot finds its highest and best use, sometimes it just takes 106 years.

Interestingly, much the same story unfolds just a few miles down Washington Street toward downtown Boston, with BERy’s former Egleston Square substation.

Egleston substation walgreens

Like Roslindale Square, Egleston Square historically represented the convergence of several transit lines, and was thus a logical place to put a substation. Unlike the Roslindale substation, this one served both streetcars and the Elevated, and thus remained in service until the closure of the latter in 1987. Like its more southerly counterpart, though, it fell into abandonment and ruin thereafter, until being resuscitated in 2008 to serve as the studios of Boston Neighborhood Network Television. As you can see from the Streetview capture above, the building is a remarkable contrast to the low-slung, suburban-style Walgreens next door–the high-quality architecture of a century ago continuing to pay dividends. While Egleston Square as a whole is not the world’s most urban-feeling built environment, the substation should–after nearly a century of life as an industrial building–be able to help anchor its rebirth in its new role.

If there’s a point to this post, other than that people do interesting things with old trolley substations, it’s that good architecture endures and tends to lend itself to a positive use in the long run. Like life, land-use dynamics are unpredictable and changeable, which is (part of) why locking uses and styles forever, as American zoning slanted toward single-family uses typically does, is a bad idea. Did the architects who designed the Egleston and Roslindale substations in 1909 and 1911 ever imagine the buildings being adaptively reused for another purposes? Unlikely, although they were clearly built to last. This is not to say that every abandoned building can or should be reused, but it’s a useful reminder of the way demand for land can change over the course of a century. And who knows? The Go Boston 2030 transportation plan, released just today, calls for rapid bus lines to pass both substations. Though they’ll most likely never power trolleys again, both substations could again serve an important transit-oriented use (as they do relative to local bus service today), as attractions drawing people to their neighborhoods along the transit corridors of the 21st century.

 

Trolleys and Rail in the Capital District: Interview with Capital Green Scene on WVCR, 7/2/2016

At the beginning of July I was invited to do my first radio spot, appearing on the local radio show Capital Green Scene (WVCR 88.3 FM, Siena College’s station) to talk about transit and transportation in the Capital Region. We recorded the show on July 1st and it aired July 2nd, but I’ve only just now gotten the audio files, so here they are. The interview is in two segments, embedded here separately. I had a blast doing this; hosts Bill Helmer and Brian Nearing, who found me after a few of my articles on All Over Albany intrigued them,  are great guys who ask really interesting questions.

Watch for a new segment with me on Capital Green Scene appearing on Labor Day Weekend as well…

Part 1

 

Part 2

The Sixth Borough Subway

When I was in college I used to walk over to Riverside Park, or down to the built-but-as-far-as-I-know-never-used ferry docks at 125th Street and enjoy the view across the Hudson River to New Jersey.  Until the new store on 72nd Street opened, Google Maps would taunt me by telling me about how the Trader Joe’s (yeah, yeah) in Edgewater was the closest geographically to my dorm on 120th between Amsterdam and Morningside Drive. And yet, I didn’t make it over there a single time during college. Why? Because the Hudson River is a pretty damn formidable barrier to decent transit that could integrate northern New Jersey more fully into New York City.

And that’s a shame, because northern New Jersey, and especially Hudson and Bergen counties, is getting increasing attention as one of NYC’s numerous proposed Sixth Boroughs. There’s a reason for that; it’s close (at least as the crow flies), more affordable than most of the city (with certain exceptions), and, like NYC, an extreme outlier from the national norm in terms of density. According to Wikipedia, Hudson County’s overall population density (including uninhabited areas) checks in at 13,495/sq mile, and Union City and tiny little Guttenberg have claims to be among the densest places in the entire country.

wikipedia hudson county table

Wikipedia’s table of densities in individual Hudson County municipalities. 

Bergen County is considerably less dense, but still has significant high-rise development, and other high-density built environments, clustered along the river.

Existing transportation options into New York City are limited. Southern Hudson County has decent access to PATH trains, and buses run into the Port Authority Bus Terminal and the George Washington Bridge bus terminal. PABT-bound buses enjoy use of the Exclusive Bus Lane in the morning but not for the return, a rather intolerable situation. Within New Jersey, the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail provides north-south travel, but its routing is kind of loopy. More north-south riders use the very frequent combination of jitneys and NJT buses along Bergenline Avenue. As such, Alon Levy has proposed that Bergenline should eventually get a subway, perhaps in combination with a new regional rail station on the Gateway project or the existing Hudson tunnels.

All that is well and good. But–and to be clear, this is purely me indulging my crayonista side on a lazy Sunday–if New Jersey is going to be the 6th Borough, it needs a subway system, right? After all, even Staten Island–less dense than Hudson County–has a semi-subway (well, it runs subway cars). That ties in with a question that Tod Newcombe asked in Governing magazine just about exactly three years ago, and that Daniel Hertz tweeted out semi-recently: when will the US build its next subway? The article is a little out of date–construction on Los Angeles’ Subway to the Sea, probably the single strongest subway project remaining in the entire country, is now underway–but it’s still an interesting and provocative question. So my answer is: why not the “Sixth Borough”?

So here’s my suggestion.

sixth borough subways_final draft

I also recommend looking at the PDF version: sixth borough subways final .

I drew the new lines in Google My Maps before importing them to GIS, and you can view them here:

The system is built around the Bergenline Subway, which connects along its length with several extensions of the existing NYC subway system, as well as HBLR and PATH. We’ll run through each line in some kind of order.

Bergenline Subway

I’ve broken the full-length Bergenline subway into three sections.

bergenline subway

Phase I is from Journal Square in Jersey City–a key transfer to PATH–north to Fairview, where the line would connect with an extension of the city system coming across from 125th Street. I’ve placed the line under JFK Boulevard and Summit Avenue south of the Union City transfer to the Midtown line, but it could just as easily be under Bergenline proper (for part of the distance at least) or Central Avenue.

Phase 2 is from Fairview north to Fort Lee at the foot of the George Washington Bridge, and a connection with the decades-overdue (due to no one really caring) extension of the C train across the bridge.

Phase 3 extends the line south from Journal Square through some dense areas of Jersey City to a transfer with the HBLR near Liberty State Park (once upon a time, a railroad terminal). Phase 3 could take a slightly different routing; there seems to be one available just to the east along railroad ROW that would presumably be much cheaper, but isn’t as close to some residential neighborhoods.

C to Fort Lee

It’s semi-common knowledge in railfan and transit circles that the George Washington Bridge was originally supposed to carry trains on the lower deck, and that provision exists within the subway system for the C train to be extended across it.

168th-174th

From nycsubway.org’s track maps. The C currently terminates at 168th St. and turns in 174th St. Yard; as is clear from the map, the two easternmost yard tracks have potential to turn into through tracks onto the GWB.

Given that two subway tracks can carry far more volume than two road lanes, it’s well past time to retrofit the bridge, but there are no plans on the horizon (God Forbid planning focus on moving people rather than cars!). My plan assumes that the line will be a short stub terminating in Fort Lee, where it would meet the northern end of the Bergenline line:

C to Fort Lee.JPG

It could, however, (and eventually should) go further west, as Alon points out.

The obvious target for a rapid transit extension from Fort Lee would be Paterson, which can be reached via I-80 and is dense and poor.

125th to Edgewater

This is the one that would have been useful to college-student Sandy. Yonah Freemark and others have made the case that when (if?) Phase II of the Second Avenue Subway is completed to 125th Street, the logical next step is to turn it west along 125th rather than continuing north to the Bronx, since funding for the huge network originally intended to sprout from the new trunk is unlikely to be forthcoming. As such, I’ve colored this line teal to correspond to future SAS services. But why stop there? 125th Street lines up relatively nicely with the abandoned NYS&W tunnel under the Palisades to Edgewater. The tunnel would need to be fundamentally rebuilt for subway service (it doesn’t seem large enough for double track, for example) but it’s better than having no starting point at all. In my scenario, there would be the further incentive of a north-south Bergenline subway to interchange with. And once you’re under the Palisades, it would be easy to extend to a massive Park’n’Ride (yes, I’m for them under some circumstances) at the Vince Lombardi rest stop.

125th to vince lombardi

Theoretically, the line could also be extended east across the Hell Gate to LaGuardia.

59th Street-Weehawken Line

The BMT line under 59th Street in Manhattan lines up almost perfectly with the Weehawken Tunnel, a former steam railroad facility now used by HBLR. In this vision, the tunnel would be converted to subway use, with HBLR ending at a transfer point at Port Imperial. A branch off of the BMT could make a quick stop at a new lowest level of Columbus Circle before heading under the Hudson to an interchange with the Bergenline line and then a terminus at Tonnelle Avenue. Really, this branch could come off of any of the numerous subway lines in the area just south of Central Park, but the  59th Street line should have extra capacity with the Q shifting over to SAS in a few years.

59th street weehawken.JPG

7 to Hoboken

Sending the 7 train to Secaucus to meet commuter rail passengers has been a hot topic of discussion for a few years. It’s not really that great an idea, but here’s a different (which, full disclosure, I’m not sure is any better): send the 7 down to Hoboken. The tail tracks already extend to 26th Street, so there’s a little less tunneling to do. The new branch could make a stop or two in the lower part of Hoboken before terminating at Hoboken Terminal, or–since the IRT and PATH loading gauges are thisclose–someone could figure out a way to continue service onto existing PATH tracks and create a Flushing-Newark service. (I’d pay money to read a profile of someone who would ride that whole line)

7 to Hoboken

A 7 extension would be somewhat redundant with PATH’s existing 33rd Street branch, but they do serve different areas of Midtown, and the 7 is probably better for most people, since it would open up part of the East Side.

L to Secaucus

Alon offered a tepid evaluation of this route in his post on the 7, but, while low-priority (like, honestly, most of what’s proposed here), it seems to make more sense than the 7. I also think the presence of a Bergenline subway makes either extension more attractive in this scenario. The extension would traverse some fairly dense areas of Hoboken and offer a transfer to the Bergenline subway (and possibly also to the 7 near the campus of Stevens Institute of Technology) before ending at Secaucus Transfer; it could, theoretically, be extended across the Meadowlands on an existing ROW through Kearny into northern Newark. Alon suggested on Twitter combining the 7 and L alignments through Hoboken. That’s potentially doable but would require either four tracks or some fancy work with platform edges, since the loading gauges don’t match.

L to secaucus.JPG

Conclusion

This is all, of course, extremely speculative, and while obviously I’d love to see it happen in a fantasy world–and I think it would be excellent for both New York and New Jersey to have the Palisades towns better incorporated into NYC’s transit sphere–I don’t expect much if any of this to come about. The Bergenline subway from Journal Square to Fort Lee, and the C extension across the GWB, is almost certainly the strongest part of this vision. The areas along the Palisades are already dense enough to support high-order, expensive transit, and the C extension would offer a capacity upgrade over the existing all-road format on the GWB.

The other trans-Hudson crossings would likely be beneficial, but the need for them could be ameliorated somewhat by better incorporation of PATH into the NYC network. I’m particularly fond of the 59th Street and 125th Street plans and more lukewarm on the 7 and L personally, but hey, this is about vision and dreaming. And that’s something that I think many of us feel is sorely lacking in the NYC-area planning world at this moment.