How can U.S. streetcars evolve into better light rail systems?

Prague Skoda 15T tram (streetcar) running in mixed traffic. Photo: Pinterest.

Prague Skoda 15T tram (streetcar) running in mixed traffic. Photo: Pinterest.

Last month, our article «For new urban rail — Modern streetcars now lead light rail revolution» emphasized that “For the first time since the advent of the USA’s modern light rail transit (LRT) revolution in the mid-1970s, the modern streetcar — a scaled-down version of higher-performance LRT — has emerged as the leading form of LRT development for launching urban rail in American cities.” One of the features of the new-start modern streetcar systems, the article notes, is “more reliance on sharing road space with motor vehicle traffic” (i.e., as compared with prior conventional implementations of LRT). However, it’s precisely that “reliance” on sharing streets with mixed motor vehicle traffic that has fed a debate, at least in North America, among transit advocates over the relevancy of some streetcar lines, in contrast with “full LRT” routed in dedicated lanes or reservations. (Jarrett Walker, especially in posts on his Human Transit website, is an influential critic.)

The Light Rail Now Project team realize that dedicated-lane operation is superior, but we also recognize that occasionally mixed running with general traffic may be necessary. Furthermore, we believe that most streetcar systems should be implemented with a longer-term view toward eventual upgrade to “full” LRT features, included running in dedicated or exclusive lanes, under traffic-signal prioritization, etc.

Systems elsewhere, such as those in Europe and Australia, offer excellent examples of how streetcar (tramway) systems can by installed or upgraded cost-effectively with incremental operational improvements and tweaks. Tram advocate Tony Prescott, in postings on the Eurotrams online forum, provides useful information that offers some illumination on these issues.

Regarding tramway operations, Tony writes

One message you’re obviously going to have to get across in the debate is that separation [via dedicated or reserved lanes] is not a magic pill that will necessarily solve all street-running issues. A lot is … down to smart planning and operation. Mixed running along a street is not necessarily a problem till you get to an intersection, and you will see if you study a lot of the European cab videos that the tracks are segregated as they approach an intersection, as far back as necessary to avoid the tram being caught in a traffic tailback.

There are lots of little such techniques – and most importantly skilled management – that keep those traditional European tramways moving along swiftly, indeed often more swiftly than many expensive new separated “modern light rail” projects.

Tony cites a YouTube video of one of Prague’s tramlines (Line 18, videoed from the cab of one of the city’s new Skoda 15T trams, such as the one shown at the top of this post). The video provides an excellent illustration of the techniques used in a modern European city, with heavy reliance on tramway services for its public transport, to optimize operations via a blend of mixed-traffic and dedicated-lane alignments plus deft traffic management. Even just a few minutes is worth watching (the full video is nearly an hour in length) to acquire an understanding of the sensible, often minimalist techniques deployed to expedite tram (streetcar) operations in this city.



As Tony points out:

What is interesting about this video is that it is filmed on an evening weekday peak run. … This video shows the peak-hour challenges faced on line 18 between Pankrac depot and Petriny. It goes across the city and through the centre from south-east to west.

In relation to the parallel discussion here about mixed-traffic running vs separation, it shows the varied running environments, challenges and techniques on one of the world’s busiest tram systems. You can also see the now considerable development of shared running with buses through the tram stops, to the enormous benefit of bus operations and interchange convenience for passengers. This has been made possible by the development of 100% low floor buses with multiple doors, enabling the same dwell times as trams.

Tony also notes that “In Prague, buses don’t enter the city centre for environmental reasons. They feed off the trams and metro at the edges of the city centre.” Perhaps an interesting and useful model for North American urban public transport?

Our own recommendation: These comments and videos of high-quality tramway/streetcar services like this represent lessons that planners and designers of new streetcar systems in North America would be well-advised to heed. ■

For new urban rail — Modern streetcars now lead light rail revolution

Streetcar under testing in downtown Kansas City. Streetcar systems can readily be upgraded into full-performance light rail transit. Photo: Michael Leatherman.

Streetcar under testing in downtown Kansas City. Streetcar systems can readily be upgraded into full-performance light rail transit. Photo: Michael Leatherman.

For the first time since the advent of the USA’s modern light rail transit (LRT) revolution in the mid-1970s, the modern streetcar — a scaled-down version of higher-performance LRT — has emerged as the leading form of LRT development for launching urban rail in American cities. Characterized by typically shorter stop spacing, somewhat slower speeds, more reliance on sharing road space with motor vehicle traffic, and often slightly smaller rolling stock, streetcars seem to be perceived as a more financially accessible path to initiate a new local urban rail system scaled to the needs of communities previously dependent only on buses for their public transit.

However, because its technology is nearly identical to high-performance LRT, streetcar starter lines may offer the basis of a system that can be upgraded to “full” LRT via affordable and reasonable modifications.

While several major cities with rail rapid transit and/or LRT systems (e.g., Washington DC, Atlanta, Seattle, Sacramento, St. Louis) are also adding streetcar operations with new streetcar systems, this article focuses on new modern streetcar projects that represent the first installation of any form of urban rail for their communities. Thus, projects now well under construction (with route-miles and total investment cost) include:

Cincinnati — 1.8 miles, $148 million

Kansas City — 2.2 miles, $102 million (see photo at top of post)

Detroit — 3.3 miles, $140 million

Modern streetcar projects in planning and preparatory stages of development are also under way in Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, and Ft. Lauderdale, leading the inauguration of urban rail for those communities as well.

In most cases, streetcars are being introduced initially as circulator modes, typically for the CBD or a single major corridor. Even when routed in mixed (shared) traffic, streetcars offer faster, more attractive service to comparable bus operations together with additional benefits for urban livability and economic development.

However, the possibility of upgrading this mode into a cost-effective, higher-performance form of LRT is raised by the rapid streetcar concept, originally proposed in 2004 by Lyndon Henry, a nationally known public transport planner and a technical consultant to Light Rail Now. The concept has generated interest within the rail transit planning profession; see, for example:

The Rapid Streetcar

Rapid Streetcar: Rescaling Design And Cost for More Affordable Light Rail Transit

Rapid Streetcar concept gaining ground

Henry and other public transport professionals and advocates emphasize that it’s critical to upgrade streetcar operations by converting shared-traffic street alignments into dedicated lanes free of other traffic, implementing traffic signal prioritization for streetcars, and expanding these new lines into other city sectors and suburbs.

New streetcar startups bringing rail transit to more U.S. cities

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Tucson’s new Sun Link streetcar passes sidewalk cafe during opening day festivities in July 2014. Photo: Ed Havens.

Light rail transit (LRT) continues to sprout across the USA, driven especially by the lower cost and easier implementation of streetcar-type LRT technology. Listed below are several U.S. cities where new streetcar systems either have recently opened, or projects are under way, bringing the first rail transit in the modern era to these metro areas. Links to helpful articles providing further information are provided, as available.

Tucson

This medium-sized Arizona city’s 3.9-mile streetcar line, branded Sun Link, opened this past July, at an investment cost of $198.8 million. The starter line route links up the University of Arizona campus with important activity points like Main Gate Square, the Fourth Avenue business district, and downtown Tucson, continuing westward to the Mercado area west of Interstate 10. Ridership (averaging over 4,700 on weekdays) has already surpassed projections. See: Tucson Sun Link streetcar opens, meets ridership goal.

Cincinnati

This midwestern city’s streetcar project, now in the advanced stages of construction, will install a 3.6-mile loop (1.8 miles of route from one end to the other) in the CBD. The $133 million starter line will stretch from The Banks to Findlay Market, and is projected to open for service in the fall of 2016. See: CincyStreetcar Blog.

Kansas City

This 2.2-mile starter streetcar line will operate mostly along Main Street through the CBD, connecting River Market with Union Station. Budgeted at $102 million in 2012, the project is well under way. Construction began in May 2014, and the line is expected to open for passenger service in late 2015. See: Kansas City — Another new downtown streetcar project starts to take shape.

Oklahoma City

A 4.6-mile streetcar starter line, now in advanced planning, will bring rail transit to this major city. The project, currently estimated to cost $128.8 million, will circulate through the CBD, and will feature wireless operation beneath the BNSF Railway overpass linking the city’s MidTown area with the historic and adjoining Bricktown district. Opening is projected for late 2017 or early 2018. See: Oklahoma City Rail Transit and Public Transport Developments.

Milwaukee

The City has a 2.1-mile streetcar starter line project under way with a budgeted investment cost of $64.6 million. Extending from Ogden & Prospect on the northeast of the CBD to 4th & Wisconsin, completion has been targeted for 2016. However, the City may have to find an additional $20 million to cover the cost of utilities relocation, under a recent ruling by the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. See: Milwaukee aiming to start streetcar line construction in 2014.

Detroit

In September, tracklaying finally began for this 3.3-mile, $136 million streetcar starter line, financed from both public and private sources. Designated M-1, the line will operate on busy Woodward Avenue, from Grand to Congress. See: Detroit’s M-1 modern streetcar project gets under way. Opening is projected for 2016. See: Detroit’s M-1 modern streetcar project gets under way. ■

Ed Tennyson: Streetcars use streets more efficiently

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Toronto streetcar downtown in August 2012. Photo: L. Henry

A recent Toronto poll found that opinions of metro-area respondents were almost evenly split on a plan to ban motor vehicles and allow only streetcars to operate on King Street (one of the downtown’s major thoroughfares) during morning peak hours, with 40% favoring the idea and 43% opposing it. While the plan had overwhelming support in the inner-city, the metro area’s more affluent, conservative suburbs (e.g., Scarborough) tended to oppose it. (Suburban voters have also tended to support conservative Mayor Rob Ford, who promotes policies similar to those of the USA’s Tea Party.)

The poll elicited the following observations and comments from Edson L. Tennyson, a renowned transportation engineer and consultant to the Light Rail Now Project. Ed is widely respected within the North American public transportation industry, having served as manager of several major transit agencies as well as Transportation Engineer for the City of Philadelphia and Deputy Director of Transportation for the State of Pennsylvania.

Without facts the people responding to that poll do not know what they are talking about. Since King Street is in the Old City, what business is it of Scarborough?

Let us look at the facts. A lane of autos waiting at traffic signals can move only 900 passengers per hour, not enough to keep a city busy or healthy. I do not know the streetcar headway, but with 56,700 weekday passengers, it sounds like 4,500 one-way in the peak hour, 5 times auto capacity. With 90 people per 4-axle car, that would require a 1.2-minute headway, 50 cars per hour. With articulated cars, a 1.8-minute headway could handle it.

The point is, who wants to allow 900 [Mayor Rob] Ford supporters to block the movement of 4,500 people per hour? Polls will not move anyone, but those 800 automobiles with 900 people will block 4,500. That is stupid, uneconomical, and grossly unproductive. When gridlock gets bad, transit speed falls to three (3) miles per hour. A streetcar costing $235 per hour will cost $78 per mile at three miles per hour; but at 6 miles per hour, which might be possible with no autos, the streetcar cost falls to $39 per mile, a saving of 50 percent for farepayers and taxpayers. If the media had the integrity and equity to explain it that way, I am sure the polls would change drastically in favor of streetcars.

Crooked politicians like Mayor Ford were running the U.S. Congress in 1959 when they banned streetcars from the District of Columbia [i.e., Washington, DC]. They did it to speed auto travel, but it did not work that way. It sped auto travel, all right — away from the city instead if into it.

Back then, Washington’s streetcars were almost as busy as Toronto’s streetcars. They made a profit to subsidize bus service, but they annoyed motorists. Traffic engineers wanted the streetcar lanes for auto left turns, a very low-volume use. Traffic engineers were trained at the Eno Foundation, then subsidized by General Motors. They were required to teach the need to eliminate streetcars.

The last [Washington] streetcar ran in 1962. Buying new buses escalated fares drastically and drove away
most riders. Many downtown department stores went out of business. People with good jobs moved out of the city to escape auto congestion caused by automobiles, not streetcars.

From 1948 to 1975, transit use in Washington fell by 72%. The population fell from 750,000 to 590,000. By 1990 the City had so much debt it could not function. Congress had to bail it out, castrating City Council.

By then, MetroRail [rapid transit] was growing large enough to replace the streetcars and greatly reduce bus dependence. Transit increased almost 300% from 1975 to now. The Mayor just announced a tax cut as the
city has too much money. The population is growing with higher-income people.

When MetroRail was planned they took a close look at Toronto to get it right. They did.

Alstom takes the leap into North American light rail market

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Alstom’s Citadis Spirit for Ottawa. Simulation: Alstom

Philadelphia — With an opulent reception and major flourish, on the evening of June 3rd during the annual Rail Conference of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the third of the “Big Three” global rail transit car producers announced its entry into the North American light rail transit (LRT) rolling stock market.

Unveiling its car model called the Citadis Spirit, Alstom company executives emphasized that “the Citadis Spirit builds upon the experience of more than 1,700 Citadis light rail vehicles in service worldwide…” and noted that “with over 30 cities in the U.S. and Canada planning new light rail or streetcar systems, the vehicle includes unique features to satisfy the transit needs and support the economic development goals of North American cities.”

Alstom’s move is not only a major step for Alstom, and for the North American LRT car market, but also a de facto testament to the vigorous growth — and strong potential growth — of LRT across North America. The two other “Big Three” producers — Siemens and Bombardier — have been major supplliers for the transit railcar market, [articularly in the USA and Canada, and a number of other firms, both foreign and domestic (e.g., Kinkisharyo, Breda, Kawasaki, Rotem, Skoda, Inekon, Brookville Equipment Corporation, Oregon Iron Works), have also been important players in the industry.

Alstom’s June 3rd press release touted important features and advantages of the Citadis Spirit car:

Those features include a 100% low floor design and the ability to operate at speeds of up to 65 mph. Hence, the Citadis Spirit is versatile and can provide both a streetcar service in mixed traffic as well as a commuter service on dedicated infrastructure. Its low-floor boarding and interior, which is free of steps, provides better accessibility as well as a safer and more comfortable ride to users of all walks and ages. The vehicle also is totally modular in length and can be expanded as a city’s transportation needs grow over time. Additionally, the Citadis Spirit can be paired with one of Alstom’s proven off-wire power supply systems to preserve historic cityscapes and minimize impacts on the environment.

Alstom has already secured a major contract for the Citadis Spirit. In February, the company announced its first order — from the City of Ottawa for its new LRT system — with a contract to deliver 34 cars, plus an option for an additional 21 cars, and 30 years of maintenance services. The car for Ottawa will be a high-capacity version of the Spirit with a total length of 160 feet.

As of 2015, says Alstom, the Citadis Spirit will be manufactured in North America . Its design and manufacturing process are very modular and flexible, allowing final assembly to be localized close to end-users and municipalities.

In a statement, Alstom Transportation’s President, Guillaume Mehlman, underscored that

in developing the Citadis Spirit, we recognized that every city has a unique ambition for public transportation and an expectation that our mobility solutions boost sustainable economic development. With this vehicle’s versatility and modularity, Alstom is able to respond to those expectations as they evolve over time. Our Design & Styling department can also customize the train’s interior and exterior design to embody each city’s unique character. Each new Citadis Spirit will be shaped by and a reflection of the community it serves.

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Graphic illustrates how Citadis Spirit’s capacity can be expanded by adding modeules to the basic car. Graphic: Alstom

Alstom’s brochure on the Citadis Spirit provides this technical information:

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