Light Rail / Commuter Rail, Round 2

Interesting story in September’s Railway Age magazine:

DLRT seeks its niche
The “new” rail mode still may need to define itself more clearly if FRA is going to grant enough regulatory room to let it grow.
By Douglas John Bowen, Managing Editor

Less than a decade ago, North American public transit planners had two choices for relatively light-density populations: light rail, powered by overhead catenary, or bus service, fueled, with rare exceptions, by diesel.

That changed dramatically in 2001, as Ottawa, Ont., launched the first diesel-propelled light rail transit (DLRT), the O-Train, using Bombardier Talent cars. In March 2004, NJ Transit’s RiverLINE debuted as the first U.S. DLRT operation, with Bombardier cars connecting Trenton and Camden. Across the continent in California, Siemens-manufactured SPRINTER equipment began revenue operations March 9, under San Diego County’s North County Transit District. In Texas, Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (Austin) service is expected to begin operations by year-end, with Stadler Rail cars similar to NJT’s.

The common denominator for all four North American DLRT systems is their shared use of rail right-of-way with freight rail operations. Ottawa’s O-Train sees freight service at night provided by Ottawa Central Railway. Conrail Shared Assets is the freight operator traversing the RiverLINE in New Jersey. In San Diego County, BNSF operates three nights per week over the SPRINTER route. In Austin, CMTA owns the right-of-way, contracting with Trans-Global Solutions to serve freight customers and interchange with Union Pacific and BNSF at McNeil, Tex.

Dividing use of such rail routes by time of day (“temporal separation”) has enabled relatively rapid passenger rail service implementation, an attractive alternative to plotting out brand new route rights-of-way, or cobbling together portions of old and/or abandoned rail lines.

But, at least in the U.S., that advantage has been tempered—some might suggest “hampered”—by safety concerns voiced by the Federal Railroad Administration. Citing crashworthiness standards, FRA strongly believes in the need to separate “light” rail vehicles from much heavier freight rail traffic, either through physical separation or—more often for DLRT—enforcing “temporal separation,” different windows of time available for passenger and freight operation.

“People are mistakenly focused on ‘electric’ vs. ‘non-electric,’” says Al Fazio, general manager-Services, Bombardier Transportation North America, who oversees NJT’s River LINE under a DBOM (design-build-operate-maintain) contract. “But DLRT is almost a commuter railcar, an ‘almost compliant’ operation, and as such has a much greater ability to get an FRA waiver” for issues involving temporal separation with freight rail operators using the same line.

To its credit, FRA has remained open to the waiver process, says NJT General Manager-Light Rail Operations Joe North. He notes that NJT applied for its first waiver in July 2000, even before the 34-mile RiverLINE opened for business.

Strong ridership thwarts the critics
Obstacles to DLRT implementation aren’t limited to FRA oversight. The mode’s efficiency and applicability has been slighted by many advocating “true” (electric) light rail, while its cost and flexibility has been called into question by those claiming “Bus Rapid Transit” is “just like rail, but cheaper.” Others, be they self-proclaimed Not-In-My-Back-Yard protesters, environmentalists, or local chambers of commerce, have demanded evidence that the mode will draw riders.

The evidence so far shows DLRT indeed can draw customers. The RiverLINE averaged 8,950 weekday riders in the agency’s fourth fiscal quarter (April-June), up from an average of 7,577 in the comparable 2007 quarter, North says.

Younger sister SPRINTER has lived up to its name since opening March 9; its passenger count for the two-week period ending Aug. 1 averaged in “the high 7,000s for weekdays,” according to NCTD spokeswoman Sarah Benson.

Walt Stringer, NCTD’s manager of light rail operations, adds, “We expect ridership to take another jump in September as several colleges along the corridor return to fall sessions. Sprinter service recently expanded on weekends, and we have a surprisingly diverse daily ridership base.”

Such diversity is fostered by DLRT’s role as a feeder and distributor service.
SPRINTER connects with numerous transit services at several points, including BREEZE buses at all 15 rail stations. Oceanside’s Transit Center is the line’s busiest station, and riders transfer to and from Coaster, Metrolink, and Amtrak trains, Benson says.

Even the RiverLINE’s most vocal detractors acknowledged that the DLRT service would generate “commuter” ridership to Center City Philadelphia via the transfer provided in Camden, N.J., with PATCO service operated by the bi-state Delaware River Port Authority.

But officials in New Jersey’s Burlington County insisted in the planning stages that many residents were interested in rail travel north, toward Trenton, the state capital—and to points beyond, including New York City. Few believed the county (and parent NJT was officially among the skeptics), but more than 20% of the RiverLINE’s ridership transfers at NJT’s Northeast Corridor Trenton station to and from the NEC itself.

Texas tandem next in line
Before this year ends, Austin, Tex., is expected to join the DLRT party, as Capital Metro readies its 32-mile, nine-station route for debut in late December, “although we may delay the opening to accommodate the construction schedule for two stations that we decided to relocate within the last year,” says Andrea Lofye, Capital Metro’s acting executive vice president and chief operations officer. Capital Metro will put its fleet of six Stadler GTW-2 cars into service, the largest non-FRA-compliant cars in the U.S. (but which do meet European Crashworthiness standard EN 15227). Each car has a capacity of 200 riders, including 92 standees.

Like the RiverLINE and SPRINTER, Austin is anticipating a mix of riders. “Less than one third of our alightings will be downtown; the majority of our service will be station-to-station, as opposed to traditional commuter service,” Lofye says. “Our initial, conservative projection was approximately 2,000 riders a day, based on our fixed-route bus ridership in the corridor.”

Still to be resolved is Austin’s request to the FRA for a temporal separation waiver, similar to that requested by NJT (RA, July, p. 17). “We are working very hard to finalize the remaining details in our operating waiver,” Lofye says. “We share the same goal—we want MetroRail to operate safely at all times.”

But two industry sources, including one Austin-based observer, say Capital Metro initially argued that FTA, not FRA, had jurisdiction over the Austin system; right or wrong, the move irked FRA, one source says. Bombardier’s Fazio says the dispute could dampen other efforts to establish DLRT, including a second Texas line in Denton County, north of Dallas (RA, April, p. 18). The Denton County Transit Authority envisions a 21-mile DLRT route linking Denton with Carrollton, at minimum providing transfer capabilities to the Dallas-based DART light rail system, already serving Carrollton. Fazio notes Denton County is even eyeing interoperability over portions of the electrified DART system. That, more than potential freight conflicts, makes it mandatory for Denton County to contact FRA without delay. “It’s a great idea, but it could trigger issues of car compatibility with DART, or even FRA oversight of DART,” Fazio says.

Depending on such resolution, other municipalities may seek exploit DLRT’s advantages, such as relatively low startup cost and quick deployment. Or they may once more limit themselves to choosing between LRT or BRT, fearful of surmounting uncertain regulatory hurdles and leaving lower-density areas devoid of rail even as demand for rail service intensifies.

4 thoughts on “Light Rail / Commuter Rail, Round 2

  1. Leander HS

    It’s not light rail! Nor in any way related to it!

    And heck, the Red Line is nothing like most of these other DMU lines, as most of them (especially the proposed Denton line) are feeders to an existent light rail system! The Red Line WILL NOT be a feeder line!

    Even being a commuter from outside Leander, I can understand the need for an efficient light rail system around central Austin, before commuter rail exists! Why are people who already ride the 983, 986, or 987 going to switch over to the Red Line?

    I’m just hoping that you guys can eke out 2,000 riders; but why is that considered good, when light rail would’ve probably had at least 16,000+ riders?

  2. The Dude

    I think the way the fare pricing is setup, it’s going to cost the same to do the express bus as it will doing the rail. Seems like the bus takes the same amount of time though, or might be slightly quicker since you won’t have to take a shuttle once you get off downtown.

  3. Adam Shaivitz

    Our bigger challenge is likely to be finding enough space on MetroRail to accomodate everyone who wants to ride rather than finding enough people who want to ride.

  4. M1EK

    LRT was actually projected to have ridership in the mid 30s with the minimal operable segment (in 2007); and that was before some major developments have come online (like the Triangle).

    Adam, 2000 per day is pathetic. So is the RiverLine’s 9000 per day. And the RiverLine was only able to operate that ‘well’ with those DMUs because they condemned a bunch of corners in downtown Camden in order to run directly to their CBD rather than to one far edge, then relying on shuttle buses for the “last mile”.

    We don’t have the ‘luxury’ of a downtown so blighted that it’s no big deal to take corners of blocks here and there to run a porky DMU instead of a true light rail vehicle – which is why our commuter rail line is such a dead end – it can never and will never go to UT, the Capitol, and most of downtown.

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