Charlotte Ridership; HSR in the UK and China

Charlotte‘s year old light rail system, according to the Observer, experienced a slight drop in ridership in November, from 16,470 average weekday trips in October to 15,551. There are several reasonable explanations for this drop – colder whether, a broken economy (including the collapse of the city’s largest employer, Wachovia), and the Thanksgiving vacation. But even the new ridership numbers are far higher than those originally predicted for first year ridership – 9,100 a day.

The south’s second city, then, remains an example for how new LRT projects can be implemented successfully. Charlotte’s focused land use program, which encouraged dense development around the LRT station sites starting ten years before the project’s completion date, ensured a steady ridership. Meanwhile, the city’s 1/2-cent sales tax, whcih was reaffirmed by voters by a huge margin in November 2007, provides a degree of financial security that any city with a strong transit system necessitates. And the city’s efforts to expand the system, which will include an expansion of the existing line to the city’s northeast quadrant, a new commuter line to the north, and a downtown streetcar network, will only reinforce the growth of the system.

But Charlotte also provides a good example for the troubles facing transit systems in today’s economy. Falling tax revenues are making it difficult to continue subsidizing the system, and LRT service may be cut to six trains per peak hour, as compared to eight today. In addition, trains would run at 20-minute intervals on Sunday, compared to 10-minute intervals today. It would be a mistake to implement such service reductions: every cut is a disincentive to use transit. Charlotte’s funding problems, however, underscore the importance of finding more funding for our nation’s transportation networks.

The United Kingdom is looking closer than ever to getting a full-scale north-south high-speed rail network. We reported back in November that Labour, currently in power, had been hesitating to invest in HSR, acting instead in favor of a third runway at Heathrow. But pressure from conservative leaders, especially “shadow” transport minister Theresa Villiers, is taking its tool – in a positive way.

The Economist reports that the engineering firm Arup completed a basic study at the beginning of this year presenting a $6.6-billion new HSR line from London’s St. Pancras (where Eurostar trains from Paris and Brussels currently terminate) to Heathrow Airport. But engineering work on a replacement for the recently renewed West Side Main Line, serving Manchester and Birmingham, has yet to commence.

Yet in January’s issue of Prospect, Andrew Adonis, current transport minister, comes out wholeheartedly in favor of HSR in his country, citing the passage of California’s recent $10-billion bond measure as evidence that Britain must push forward with a system of its own in order to compete.

We’re a little skeptical of his extremely optimistic vision of the U.S.’ progress on this matter (!), but we’re excited to see both sides of the political equation getting together to address this issue.

The U.K.’s slow climb towards HSR is especially interesting in light of today’s confirmation by China‘s Xinhua news agency that the nation will spend $88 billion this year alone on rail investments. This compares to about $50 billion invested last year, certainly not an insignificant sum in itself!

This money will allow for the opening of five new HSR lines next year:

  • Wuhan – Guangzhou
  • Zhengzhou – Xi’an
  • Ningbo – Wenzhou
  • Wenzhou – Fuzhou
  • Fuzhou – Xiamen

The transport ministry will also begin construction on 70 new projects in the country as a whole, leading to a network of 13,000 kilometers of HSR lines (between 200 and 350 kph). The total route mileage of all rail lines in China will increase from around 78,000 km in 2007 to 110,000 km in 2012 and 120,000 km by 2020. This is what we like to call a stimulus.

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