Caen: Guided BRT out, real LRT tramway in by 2019

Rendition of Caen's proposed LRT tramway that will replace problematic guided-BRT system. Graphic: Caen municipality.

Rendition of Caen’s proposed LRT tramway that will replace problematic guided-BRT system. Graphic: Caen municipality.

When the “tram on tyres” or “rubber-tired tramway” technology first emerged in the early 2000s, it was positioned as part of the new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) concept attracting interest at the time. The argument went that “BRT” was “just like light rail, but cheaper”, and the “rubber-tired tramway” was intended to demonstrate that a “tram” constructed with automotive/bus technology could be “guided” just as a light rail transit (LRT) tramway was guided by its track rails, and able to operate extra-long, multi-articulated buses smoothly and reliably just like the tramcars on LRT railways.

A number of cities have experimented with or adopted the technology, particularly in France, where cities like Nancy, Clermont-Ferrand, and Caen made the “tram on tyres” the centerpiece of their transit systems. Now, plagued by reliability and performance problems, Caen is clearly fed up with it, and has launched a project to convert to a standard LRT tramway — running on bona fide tracks — by 2019.

In France, the designation TVR, Transport sur Voie Réservée, roughly translated as “transport on reserved way”, is used to refer to these rubber-tired guided-bus systems. In English, they’re often referred to as GLT, for Guided Light Transport. As explained in a Wikipedia article, “GLT vehicles bear a strong resemblance to trams, but are actually buses capable of following a single guidance rail or even operating without any surface guidance system.”

Opened in 2002, Caen’s guided-bus system eventually stretched to 15.7 km (9.8 miles), using longer-than-usual articulated buses guided by a flanged wheel running on a center guiderail in the middle of the paveway. While the buses have diesel motors (and steering wheels, so they can be driven to their garage at night), their ordinary propulsion is electric power, via an overhead contact system (OCS) and LRT-like pantographs, with the guiderail also serving as the electrical return circuit. (The dual rails of standard LRT serve this same purpose.)

Caen guided BRT ("rubber-tired tramway") system, now scheduled for replacement by LRT. Photo: TendanceOuestRouen.com.

Caen guided BRT (“rubber-tired tramway”) system, now scheduled for replacement by LRT. Photo: TendanceOuestRouen.com.

However, reliability problems with the technology (especially derailments of the guidewheels) reportedly have persuaded Caen’s political leadership and transit management to ditch the guided-bus system. In the new LRT tramway plan (see graphic simulation at top of post), 16.8 km (10.4 miles) of LRT routes will replace (and slightly extend) the guided-bus routes, and tracks will replace the paveways (or be embedded in some sections of pavement). A fleet of 23 trams is projected to replace the BRT buses, with a total project cost estimated at €247 million (currently about $269 million, or about $26 million per mile). Project completion is aimed for 2019.

From its early years, the usefulness of the system, as a substitute for standard LRT, baffled transit advocates and professionals. As John Carlson, one advocate posting to the Eurotrams list in 2004, commented

I found the system at Caen and also the one at Nancy to be a solution in search of [a] problem. While there must be some economies from installing just a guide rail instead of double-railed load bearing track looking at the system in [situ] I would have to ask if the guide rail is needed at all.

The vehicles are long and do turn some sharp corners but I’m still not sure if they would be beyond a competent driver and a well-constructed articulated bus operating without a guide rail.

As time went on, other problems, such as pavement wear, began to emerge. Graeme Bennett, a transit advocate in Melbourne, posted observations about the Caen system in the summer of 2005:

A friend and I recently visited Caen and were shocked, stunned, and amazed as we watched and rode these weird vehicles.

We found they were speedy, but fairly noisy, and seemed to do the job well, although they rode more like a trolleybus rather that a tram, in particular with a lot of vertical perambulations and rear end whip as they rounded corners at speed!!

One point that was obvious is the fact that because the vehicles follow exactly the same part of the road without any deviation for cut in or out, … the road surface in some areas is becoming badly damaged particularly at some of the stops where it was noted repairs have had to be made.

Even the smallest pothole will deteriorate rapidly and every tyre on every bus will hit that spot in exactly at the same place every ten minutes or so.

Bennett also observed what seemed to be an emerging problem in keeping the guidewheels in contact with the center guiderail, reporting that “We noted several “Rerailers” around the system to direct the guides onto the track.”

By 2009, serious problems with derailments were being experienced. At the end of May that year UK transit advocate Simon P. Smiler reported that, days earlier, “there was another derailment in Caen, and now it seems that their TVR rubber tyred ‘trams’ are only providing a part time service.”

Smiler wondered “Will this result in the ultimate death of the TVR as a mode of transport? Caen was looking to getting more TVR’s to expand its system — so what will it do now?”

Caen’s experience re-opens anew some of the considerations we originally raised 15 years ago in our LightRailNow.org article prompted by the very similar new guided-bus system in Nancy (also plagued with guidance reliability problems): «“Misguided Bus”? Nancy’s BRT Debacle Exposes Pitfalls of “Half-Price Tramway”». Asking “Does the ‘guided bus’ really have a purpose in life?” our article pointed out that

They basically will have a system of elongated trolleybuses camouflaged as “trams”, with lots of gadgetry to keep the buses on course. They will have a central slot to deal with in the middle of the paveway (tending to collect rain, mud, etc.). And they will be persistently trying to solve lots of operational challenges over the next months and years to prove the whole thing works. Thus one can safely predict that Nancy will be expending a lot of its planning and administrative energy trying to solve the challenges of making a trolleybus system mimic the performance of an LRT system.

There’s a recurring question: Why bother at all with the guide rail in the slot? it is dubious whether such an arrangement will permit higher vehicle speeds, although Nancy designers seem to think their bus will run a bit faster in a narrow right-of-way if it’s guided in this fashion. One is tempted to suspect that the extra-long, multi-articulated bus benefits from having its axles guided by such a mechanism, possibly minimizing any misalignment of the rear section while in the guideway (which might explain why the vehicle tends to “fishtail” when free-running).

And beyond the question of whether it’s worthwhile trying to imbue a bus with LRT characteristics, there’s another issue as well. Once a transit agency or government entity buys into an entire, specific “guided-bus” technology, its planners and decisionmakers commit to a specialized guideway and technical infrastructure using one form or another of specially designed curbs, below-pavement conduits, special travel lane markings, etc. That might happen after the initial order of vehicles, where competition is alive and well, and the initial bidding environment may be fairly competitive among a number of vendors.

However, the agency then has a stock of specialized buses with a 12 or 15-year life expectancy and capital costs sunk into building a specialized guideway which may work properly with only one manufacturer’s product. When the agency proceeds to expand the fleet or must find replacement buses, it may well find itself “trapped” with only one manufacturer/bidder. Is any vendor going to assure transit planners that its proprietary technology will become an industry standard in the next dozen years?

In contrast, imagine instead that the transit agency set down a few miles of steel rails with 1435 mm (standard) track gauge with readily available, dependable track switches, and mature signalling technology. The agency buys a couple of dozen light rail vehicles which have a lifespan of 30 to 50 years with trainlined controls so that one operator can control two to four cars. When it’s necessary to expand that system or replace the vehicles, the agency will find at least half a dozen suppliers lined up who can make cars which will work fine with the previous generation. Productivity is better, competition is alive and well, and the technology is mature.

Certainly, in view of recent experience, those comments seem as relevant today as they were a decade and a half ago. ■

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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. ■

TRB/APTA study: Developing Infrastructure-Relevant Guidelines for Preliminary Conceptual Planning of a New Light Rail Transit System

Typical LRT station platform profile dimensions, as discussed in TRB/APTA presentation on LRT design guidelines. Graphic: L. Henry.

Typical LRT station platform profile dimensions, as discussed in TRB/APTA presentation on LRT design guidelines. Graphic: L. Henry.

From the standpoint of public transport and light rail transit (LRT) advocacy, there’s long been a need for planners, political and civic leaders, decisionmakers, and community stakeholders to have a guidelines manual as well as a general understanding of the details of LRT design and technical issues.

LRN technical consultant and Railway Age online writer Lyndon Henry has taken a major step toward the development of such guidelines in a report prepared for the 13th National Light Rail & Streetcar Conference co-sponsored by Transportation Research Board and American Public Transportation Association, to be held next week in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Titled Developing Infrastructure-Relevant Guidelines for Preliminary Conceptual Planning of a New Light Rail Transit System, the proposal will be presented in the conference’s Infrastructure Developments session on Tuesday, Nov. 17th. Here’s an abstract of the report:

Increasingly, local planners, transit agency personnel, other professionals, and civic and community leaders have need of comprehensive, readily accessible guidelines to provide a resource for developing conceptual design and evaluation plans, particularly involving infrastructure and fleet requirements, for new light rail transit (LRT) systems in their communities.
This paper addresses this need and seeks to initiate the development of such a resource by presenting a sampling compilation of Best Practices and design recommendations for conceptual planning of LRT alignments and associated infrastructure. This discussion lays out preliminary criteria for such a more comprehensive and inclusive guideline document, as well as providing design information based on common practice. The paper hopefully will both serve as a resource to the intended audience and stimulate further development and elaboration of a comprehensive guidelines document. It is intended to have applicability and transferability for a broad range of North American communities in the early stages of considering and evaluating new LRT systems.

Both a copy of the paper and the PPT presentation can be downloaded here (as PDFs):

Proposed Design (paper):

_LH_Developing-guidelines_draft-refs_public-doc

Proposed Design (PPT):

LH_Developing-guidelines-new-LRT_public-ppt

Austin: With flawed “urban rail” plan now on ballot, debate heats up

Project Connect's 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion urban rail (light rail transit) proposal is opposed by the staunchest and most knowledgeable rail transit proponents in Austin. Map: Project Connect.

Project Connect’s 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion urban rail (light rail transit) proposal is opposed by the staunchest and most knowledgeable rail transit proponents in Austin. Map: Project Connect.

Austin, Texas — For months, this city’s staunchest and most knowledgeable rail transit advocates, including the Light Rail Now Project team, have been leading the criticism of an “urban rail” (light rail transit) plan being proposed by Project Connect, a consortium of several public entities, including the City of Austin, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Capital Metro), and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO). A central focus of most of this criticism has been the fact that the proposed route fails to serve the city’s premier central corridor, identified as Guadalupe-Lamar because it follows two major arterial roadways by those names.

Project Connect’s route, a meandering 9.5-mile alignment now priced at roughly $1.4 billion (2020 dollars), instead seems to try to create a new corridor from a southeastern area known as the East Riverside corridor, across the Colorado River and north through the east side of the CBD, through the East Campus of the University of Texas, and through a somewhat convoluted connection to a declining shopping mall site, known as Highland Mall, now being transformed into a new Highland campus for Austin Community College (ACC). However, at a staggeringly high cost, the proposed line fails to solve critical mobility needs, misses the major local travel corridor of the central city (Guadalupe-Lamar), and misses the high-density West Campus neighborhood area.

Rail proponents also warn that, by “soaking up all the oxygen” (available financial resources), the project would seriously constrain further rail development and extensions throughout the city. Furthermore, the dubious urban rail plan (driven more by desires of real estate developers than by mobility needs) also seems linked to a plan to entrench the MetroRapid bus operation (portrayed as “bus rapid transit”) in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, where it would likely become a barrier to urban rail development there.

On June 26th, the Austin City Council designated the Project Connect plan as the city’s Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA), and on August 7th the Council authorized a ballot measure that asks voters to approve $600 million in general obligation bonds to pay for a local portion of the proposed urban rail project. The ballot language stipulates that bonds could only be issued if the City finds an additional $400 million in funding for an array of roadway projects, including roadwork on Interstate 35 running through the city.

The Austin Rail Now website (a project partly sponsored by Texas Association for Public Transportation and the Light Rail Now Project) has been a significant resource of information and analysis on Austin’s recent urban rail planning, including alternative plans as well as drawbacks of the official plan developed and recommended by Project Connect. Most of this material represents potentially useful guidance for other communities similarly involved in rail system planning. Listed below are just a few of the key major articles posted on the site that provide a better overview and insight into the forest of issues involved. ■

Project Connect planning problems

Project Connect’s “corridor” study — without corridors!

Surprise! Mayor and Project Connect select same routes they wanted in the first place

Questions for Project Connect

Memo to CCAG: “Pause” study or include “Lamar” sector

Project Connect Needs an Overhaul

What’s with Project Connect’s “2.9 million daily ridership” projection?

Will Project Connect continue to gag the public?

Science seems missing from Project Connect’s “scientific” transit planning

Project Connect’s urban rail forecasting methodology — Inflating ridership with “fudge factor”?

Reality Check: How plausible are Project Connect’s time/speed claims for Highland-Riverside urban rail plan?

Problems of Project Connect’s urban rail proposal

Dobbs: “Why are we squandering our best asset?”

Project Connect’s wasteful plan — Ultra-pricey urban rail “decoration” in the wrong route

Project Connect’s Austin urban rail would be 3rd-most-pricey LRT starter line in U.S. history

Project Connect’s urban rail plan “costs way too much to do too little”

Project Connect’s $500 million plan for bus infrastructure — The Elephant in the Road on Guadalupe-Lamar that could block urban rail

Project Connect’s urban rail plan is “worse than nothing”

Why Project Connect’s “Highland” urban rail would do nothing for I-35 congestion

Why Project Connect’s urban rail plan would remove just 1,800 cars a day — not 10,000

Project Connect’s gold-plated Austin urban rail plan shows planning process way off course

Three “incontrovertible facts” about urban rail proposals in Austin

Political issues of Project Connect plan

City Council to Central Austin: Drop Dead

City Council to Austin community: Shut Up

Baker: Connecting some dots on Austin’s urban rail planning

Official urban rail plan bulldozed to ballot — in bulging bundle

Guadalupe-Lamar alternative

An alternative Urban Rail plan

Give priority to “Missing Link”

Demographic maps show Lamar-Guadalupe trumps Mueller route for Urban Rail

Another alternative urban rail plan for Guadalupe-Lamar corridor

Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail line would serve 31% of all Austin jobs

How urban rail can be installed in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor

Why the MetroRapid bus project currently is NOT an obstacle to urban rail in Guadalupe-Lamar

Contradicting local official claims, FTA says it “would consider request” for urban rail on North Lamar

West Campus is where the students are!

Austin’s 2000 light rail plan — Key documents detail costs, ridership of Lamar-Guadalupe-SoCo route

New U.S. light rail transit starter systems — Comparative total costs per mile

LEFT: LA Blue Line train emerging from tunnel portal. (Photo: Salaam Allah.) RIGHT: Norfolk Tide LRT train on single-track railroad roght-of-way. (Photo: Flickr.)

LEFT: LA Blue Line train emerging from tunnel portal. (Photo: Salaam Allah.) RIGHT: Norfolk Tide LRT train on single-track railroad right-of-way. (Photo: Flickr.)

This article has been updated to reflect a revision of the LRN study described. The study was revised to include Salt Lake City’s TRAX light rail starter line, which was opened in late 1999.

What’s been the been cost per mile of new U.S. light rail transit (LRT) “starter systems” installed in recent years?

The Light Rail Project team was curious about this, so we’ve reviewed available data sources and compiled a tabulation comparing cost-per-mile of “heavy-duty” LRT starter systems installed in or after 1990, all adjusted to 2014 dollars for equivalency. (“Heavy-duty” distinguishes these systems from lighter-duty streetcar-type LRT projects.)

This is shown in the figure below, which presents, for each system, the year opened, the initial miles of line, the cost per mile in millions of 2014 dollars, and comments on significant construction features. (“RR ROW” refers to available railroad right-of-way; “street track” refers to track embedded in urban street pavement, almost invariably in reserved lanes or reservations.)

2_LRN_US-LRT-starter-lines-cost-per-mi_rev2

Major data sources have included TRB/APTA 8th Joint Conference on Light Rail Transit (2000), individual LRN articles, and Wikipedia.

Averaging these per-mile cost figures is not meaningful, because of the wide disparity in types of construction, ranging from installation of ballasted open track in railroad right-of-way (lowest-cost) to tunnel and subway station facilities (highest-cost). These typically respond to specific conditions or terrain characteristics of the desired alignment, and include, for example:

Seattle — While Seattle’s Link LRT is by far the priciest system in this comparison, there are explanatory factors. Extensive modification of existing Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (and several stations) previously used exclusively by buses; tunneling through a major hill, and installation of a new underground station; extensive elevated construction to negotiate hilly terrain, major highways, etc.

Dallas — This starter system’s costs were pushed up by a long tunnel beneath the North Central Expressway (installed in conjunction with an ongoing freeway upgrade), a subway station, a new viaduct over the Trinity River floodplain, and significant elevated construction.

Los Angeles — The Blue Line starter system included a downtown subway station interface with the Red Line metro and a short section of subway before reaching the surface of proceed as street trackage and then open ballasted track on a railroad right-of-way.

St. Louis — While this system’s costs were minmimized by predominant use of former railroad right-of-way, a downtown freight rail tunnel was rehabilitated to accommodate the system’s double-track LRT line, with stations; an existing bridge over the Mississippi River was adapted; and significant elevated facilities were installed for access to the metro area’s main airport.

Hopefully this cost data may be helpful to other communities, in providing both a “ballpark” idea of the unit cost of new LRT, and a reality check of any estimated investment cost already rendered of such a new system. ■

New subway (metro) systems cost nearly 9 times as much as light rail

Buffalo's LRT 6.4-mile system, with 5.2 miles (81%) in subway, has not been expanded since its opening in 1985. Photo: Buffalo Tourism.

Buffalo’s 6.4-mile LRT system, with 5.2 miles (81%) in subway, has not been expanded since its opening in 1985. The high cost of subway construction is a likely factor. Photo: Buffalo Tourism.

Before the surface electric urban railway (the technology of former streetcar and interurban systems) was reborn as light rail transit (LRT) in the mid-1970s, North American urban areas that wanted urban rail for their inner cities really didn’t think there was any choice other than a full subway-elevated system — rail rapid transit, aka a metro system.

But not only was the expense of such a system daunting, and way above the financial capability of most moderate-sized and smaller American cities, its tremendous capacity generally wasn’t needed for cities just trying to get their feet wet with better-quality public transit.

Then, LRT as an option began to emerge, unveiled with maximum force at the first National Light Rail Conference of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) in 1975, and … ka-boom! Urban rail systems in the form of lower-cost LRT began to sprout up in city after city. And they’ve been widely hailed as a great success and model for good urban public transport.

But the “why not a subway?” issue keeps rearing its head — mainly reflecting the resistance of the motor-vehicle-focused mindset to having urban space, especially street space, shared or usurped by mass transit operations. Overwhelmingly, surface LRT in one type of alignment or another (from street reservations to the re-use of abandoned railway corridors) has triumphed … although there have been cases where pressure to “build it out of sight” has forced new LRT startups underground (or even canceled planned projects altogether).

The tremendous investment cost of digging a subway and installing underground stations is obviously a huge deterrent to the development of such systems — both in the initial financing, and in sopping up available resources that could otherwise be plowed into vigorous expansion of the system. Buffalo’s 6.4-mile LRT line, for example, was constructed almost entirely (81%) in subway … and hasn’t been expanded one foot since its original opening in 1985.

One should keep in mind that the cost of more modest local projects (such as wastewater tunnels or similar smaller tunnels) can be very deceptive. Rail transit subways involve far more complex features (after all, they must provide environments to enable large numbers of human beings to survive underground safely and comfortably). There must be ventilation and lighting, of course, and often air-conditioning. More significantly from a cost standpoint, underground stations are extremely expensive, including access (elevators and escalators designed to convey large volumes of passengers rapidly up and down). Access for trains to get from the surface into the subway can also be expensive, typically involving portals spanning up to two city blocks and lengthy underground approach ramps to and from the level main subway alignment.

Nevertheless, from one city to another, subway enthusiasts (or, often, anti-rail Road Warriors seeking to tie a subway albatross around the neck of local rail planning) continue to emerge from time to time claiming that subway construction would cost only “slightly more” (or sometimes, even, “no more”) than installing a new urban rail line in public streets.

So a solid fact check is in order. After considerable investigation, the study summarized here has gathered a selected assortment of recent urban rail projects (all from the 2000s), either completed or well under construction and fully budgeted. A major and very helpful source has been Comparative Subway Construction Costs, Revised from the Pedestrian Observations blog, including data cited in comments. Additional data has come from Tramways & Urban Transit magazine (hardcopy only), September 2013 through February 2014 issues, data in Light Rail Now, Wikipedia, and the research study Comparative examination of New Start light rail transit, light railway, and bus rapid transit services opened from 2000, co-authored by Lyndon Henry and Dave Dobbs, and presented in November 2012 to the 12th National Light Rail Transit Conference in Salt Lake City, sponsored by the TRB and American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

In this cost comparison, only full subway projects (entirely or nearly totally underground) are included. These also include LRT subways (e.g., San Francisco’s Central Subway, and underground LRT projects in Seattle). LRT projects are exclusively (or nearly so) in street alignments (e.g., San Francisco’s T-Line, Salt Lake City’s University line), and involve full-capability, high-performance LRT rather than streetcar technology. In some cases (e.g., Houston, Phoenix, Minneapolis), construction may include short segments on bridges or an exclusive alignment, but most construction is in-street. (LRT development is being aggressively pursued worldwide, and there are many more LRT projects recently constructed or now under way than are included here — but keep in mind that this study focuses only on projects with exclusive or nearly exclusive in-street construction (to compare the most difficult, highest-cost type of surface construction with subway construction). For most LRT projects, in-street construction may only represent a portion of the total alignment.)

All projects include costs of vehicles and facilities, as applicable. One should also note that the unit cost of an extension project is typically less than that of a new-start project, since basic storage-maintenance facilities and a vehicle fleet are often already in place, with perhaps only incremental additions required.

Per-mile unit costs (millions of U.S. dollars per route mile) have been calculated from total project costs and project lengths, and escalated to 2014 dollars. The results are presented in the following bar charts.

U.S. projects

Basic cost-per-mile data is present in this section for U.S. projects only ($ millions per mile).

1_ARN_Subway-cost-US

2_ARN_LRT-cost-US


Projects in other world cities

The cost-per-mile data in this section is derived from various projects outside the USA around the world (U.S. $ millions per mile).

3_ARN_Subway-cost-world

4_ARN_LRT-cost-world


Conclusion — Subways cost many times more

This final graph compares median cost per mile between subway and in-street LRT projects for both the USA and for all projects (including U.S.) worldwide (U.S. $ millions per mile).

5_ARN_Median-cost-per-mile


From this data visualization, it can be seen that, for recent U.S. projects, subway construction has a median cost nearly seven times that of in-street LRT construction. Worldwide, the differential is nearly 9:1. And thats only comparing in-street LRT construction, not accounting for the possibility of, say, transitioning into an available railway alignment outside the city center, with far lower installation cost.

What this means is that, even if your community can somehow afford the initial financial commitment (even with federal assistance), expansion of your system will be severely attenuated. Basically, for a given amount of available funding, you can construct 7 to 9 times as much surface LRT as subway. Put another way: For available resources, you can have a far more comprehensive rail system with surface LRT, many times the size of a system relying on subway construction.

That doesn’t mean there’s never an appropriate role for subway alignments. Both Portland and Dallas, for example, are now evaluating subway options through their CBDs to keep pace with ridership growth and the need for fast, more frequent service going beyond in-street capacity.

But both cities relied primarily on surface construction to start and develop their initial systems (although, because of special conditions, Dallas’s initial system did include a short stretch of tunnel under the North Central Expressway). In any case, any community considering a new urban rail system should pause and take a deep breath, with an eye on the longer-term implications, before committing to a subway option. And certainly, from the data above, such a commitment should not be made on the supposition that a subway would cost “just a little bit more” than constructing LRT in the street.

Note: Since its original posting, this article has been revised to incorporate small modifications and additions to narrative, and to substitute higher-quality chart graohics.

How Portland’s light rail trains and buses share a transit mall

LRT train on Portland's 5th Ave. transit mall swings to the curbside station to pick up waiting passengers. Photo: L. Henry.

LRT train on Portland’s 5th Ave. transit mall swings to the curbside station to pick up waiting passengers. Photo: L. Henry.

How can both buses and light rail transit (LRT) trains share the same transit-priority paveway or street? There are numerous examples that answer this, but certainly one of the best is in Portland, Oregon — the 5th and 6th Avenue transit malls.
Recently, the Austin Rail Now (ARN) blog posted an article focusing on Portland’s transit malls, and because of the more general usefulness of this information for many more communities, we’re re-posting it here with the kind permission of ARN.
The opening context for the article is the urban rail planning project currently under way by the City of Austin, Capital Metro (the transit authority), and a transit planning consortium called Project Connect. Transit priority lanes are now being installed on two major downtown north-south streets, and it’s been expected that urban rail trains would share these with buses, including the MetroRapid premium-bus services now being implemented in several major city corridors. However, some transit advocates are noting that these lanes may have insufficient capacity to handle all the bus routes plus MetroRapid, much less adding LRT into the mix.
Portland’s experience thus provides an illustration of how LRT trains and buses can share a priority alignment in a way that works well.

Capital Metro and the City of Austin have a project under way to designate “Transit Priority Lanes” on Guadalupe and Lavaca Streets downtown between Cesar Chavez St. and MLK Jr. Blvd. It’s mainly to expedite operation of the planned new MetroRapid bus services (Routes 801 and 803), but virtually all bus routes running through downtown will also be shifted to these lanes, located on the far-righthand side of traffic on each street (i.e., the righthand curbside lanes).

According to a 2011 study funded by the City of Austin, the Official (City + Project Connect) Urban Rail route is also envisioned to use these lanes downtown. Alternatives to the Official plan have also assumed that these routes would be available for alternative urban rail lines serving the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

However, there are legitimate questions as to whether these two lanes could simultaneously and effectively accommodate the two MetroRapid bus routes (10-minute headways each) plus all other Capital Metro routes (various headways) as well as urban rail (10-minute headway), all running in both directions.

Experience with both light rail transit (LRT) trains and buses sharing the same running way is rare in the USA, but one of the best examples can be seen in Portland, Oregon. For years, 5th and 6th Avenues through the downtown have been used by multiple bus routes as a transit mall, with a single lane provided for general motor vehicle access. In September 2009 LRT was added with the opening of the new Green Line; see: Portland: New Green Line Light Rail Extension Opens.

The integration of LRT with bus service in the 5th and 6th Avenue transit malls has worked well. Here’s a brief photo-summary illustrating some of the configurational and operational details.

• Buses and LRT trains share transitway

This illustrates how both bus services and LRT trains share the mall. Tracks, embedded in the pavement, weave from curbside to the second lane over. A third lane is kept open for mixed motor vehicle traffic.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

• LRT routes cross

This photo shows how the Green and Yellow LRT lines on the 5th Ave. transit mall cross the Red and Blue LRT lines running on 5th St. You’re looking north on 5th Ave., and just across the tracks in the foreground, the LRT tracks on 5th Ave. weave from the middle of the street over to the curbside, where a station-stop is located. This allows LRT trains to access stations but otherwise pass buses stopped at bus stops on the same street.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

• LRT train leaving station

Here an LRT train has just left the curbside station, following the tracks into the middle lane of the street. This track configuration allows the train to pass a bus boarding passengers at a stop.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

• LRT train passing bus

Another train moves to the street center lane and passes the bus stop. Meanwhile, other buses queue up at the street behind.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

• Bus bunching

Buses are prone to “bus bunching” (queuing) in high-volume situations because of their smaller capacity, slower operation, slower passenger boarding/deboarding, difficulty adhering to schedule, etc. However, notice how they’re channeled to queue up in a lane off the LRT track.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

Can and will Austin and Project Connect planners learn anything about how to create workable Transit Priority Lanes from examples like this? Time will tell…