Charlotte China High-Speed Rail Light Rail United Kingdom

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.


Updated «Under Construction» and «Planned» Pages

It’s a slow news day here in the transportation world, but we’ve been working hard to give you more information on transit expansion that you’ll be able to find at the tip of your fingers.

We’ve updated our Under Construction and Planned pages, links to which you can obviously also find above, with the most recent information we’ve been able to find about major mass transit projects being built or being considered around the nation. We hope you’ll find the information useful and take advantage of this resource when you need some quick facts or a link or two.

We’ll also try to keep the information updated as frequently as possible.

As always, thanks for reading.

» P.S.: The future will provide additional changes to these two pages; we’ll increase information on each project as we receive it and we’ll eventually divide each page into separate, modal categories.

Finance New York Shanghai

Mass Transit in the Stimulus; Shanghai's Rail Boom

The New York Daily News and Newsday report that New York State stands to gain billions of dollars in the upcoming stimulus bill, enough to not only iron out the enormous expected budget deficit that is coming as a result of decreasing tax revenues, but also enough to provide for the improvement of transportation in the Empire State. Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Jerry Nadler had a press conference yesterday in Manhattan to announce that they were busy negotiating with the incoming administration on the specific terms of the now $675-775 billion stimulus. And they suggest that transit capital projects will receive $20 billion of the total bill, with one-fifth of that amount, as per tradition, going to New York because of its huge mass transit ridership. This is very good news for New York City, whose fiscal crisis is threatening transit especially dramatically.

Keep in mind that the point of the stimulus bill will be designed for projects that can ramp up immediately, so long-term projects that will require several years to get through the design stages, will not be funded. In other words, we’re not going to see a sudden $20 billion to complete Phases II, III, and IV of the Second Avenue Subway. But that’s not to say that New York City doesn’t need the funds!

Here are the specific projects that Mr. Schumer and Mr. Nadler mentioned might be funded:

  • 1,500 new hybrid buses for the fleet
  • More renovated LIRR and subway stations, including those in Brooklyn that were recently delayed (as Second Avenue Sagas describes)
  • An extra station at 34th Street and 10th Avenue on the extension of the 7 Line to the Far West Side, a project cancelled by the city because of funding problems
  • A cash infusion to ensure the completion of the LIRR East Side Access Project
  • A renovation of the LIRR Atlantic Line Viaduct in Brooklyn
  • Completion of the Oculus at the Fulton Street Transit Center
  • Bus Rapid Transit in all five boroughs
  • Aluminum tracks, to “save electricity” as Metro reports; we’ve never heard of this one before but we’re looking into it

We’re very excited about the potential use of this money to allow the MTA to pay for improvements in its system even as it is wracked by scary budget problems. Here’s to the stimulus bill!

From Shanghai comes news that four new subway lines will open in the next year. Obviously, this will be another year of record acheivement on the part of that city’s transit planners, who are expanding their system at a rate only matched by… Beijing. The principal purpose of this large push to expand transit in Shanghai is the opening of the World Expo there in 2010, a massive event only rivaled by… the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Shanghai’s subway network is already extensive, and it will be as large as New York’s within five years, meaning that it will be the biggest in the world, even though its first line opened in 1995! Last year, three new lines opened, and by 2014, six additional lines are on track for completion. Pretty impressive.

Light Rail Phoenix

Phoenix Light Rail Opens

This weekend, Phoenix, the fifth largest city in the United States with 1.5 million people, opened its first rail line in sixty years. This light rail line, a part of the region-wide Valley Metro system, will also serve the cities of Tempe and Mesa, with populations of 174,000 and 453,000, respectively, and the airport in the middle, called Phoenix Sky Harbor International. This passes the honor of “largest U.S. city without a rail transit system” to San Antonio, Texas, with a population of 1.3 million (#7), which, as far as we know, has no plans to build one (other than a potential commuter line to Austin).

Phoenix Light Rail MapPhoenix’s light rail opening attracted a lot of crowds this weekend. People were attracted to th $1.4 billion project, whose 20-mile line crisscrosses the region and will allow easier access to downtown Phoenix, Arizona State University, and the airport (which is currently in the process of constructing a people mover that will connect directly to the light rail station). The equivalent bus that currently serves the route took around 80 minutes to complete it; this light rail line will reduce travel time to a respectable 50 minutes.  Vehicles were constructed by a Japanese constructor named Kinkisharyo, which has also built the light rail cars for San Jose, Dallas, Northern New Jersey, and Boston, and is currently providing the vehicles for Seattle’s upcoming line.

Valley Metro predicts 25,000-30,000 trips a day, which seems like a low prediction, especially considering that the light rail system of an equivalent city – Houston – is now attracting 40,000 trips a day, even though that system is only 7.5 miles long. But, on the other hand, Phoenix’s whole system seems designed for these low-ball estimates; trains will arrive only every ten minutes between 6 am and 7 pm and every 20 minutes at other times. If this system becomes popular, these frequencies will have to be increased at rush hour, where heavily used systems provide trainsets every 2-5 minutes. Let’s hope that Valley Metro has budgeted further train purchases.

This is an exciting event for Arizona and demonstrates that even some of the most car-dependent areas of the country are beginning to recognize the value of providing serious alternatives. But at the same time, this intervention comes mind-blowingly late. We referenced the population facts about this region because we wanted to emphasize the shear size of this area – this line will serve three cities whose combined population reaches over two million. And we’re expecting 25,000 daily riders? For some perspective, consider that Portland, Oregon‘s entire metro area – which has basically the equivalent population – provides 120,000 daily trips on light rail, and the vast majority of those trips occur within the city, which has a population of 575,000.

Phoenix is planning a number of extensions to be completed by 2025, but all of them would rely on the central segment of the line that has just opened. In other words, that section will be completely overcrowded by the time the rest of these lines have begun service. By then Phoenix may well be considering a secondary downtown light rail line, as Portland is currently constructing and as Dallas is planning.

We’re not convinced that Phoenix deserves an expensive heavy rail system with a much higher capacity, but one wonders whether this line’s planners are serious about changing land use development in this massive trio of cities. A city of this size – it’s now bigger than Philadelphia – merits a large downtown where people are entirely transit-dependent, and a singular light rail line with 10-minute headways won’t provide that. For the most part, the biggest city in Arizona will remain a principally suburban city.

That said, we’re sure that Valley Metro will produce a number of transit-oriented developments, at least once the current economic crisis subsides. And the result will be a more sustainable, livable metropolis.

Image from Valley Metro.

California High-Speed Rail High-Speed Rail

HSR in CA, NV, and TX

For whatever reason, the Christmas holiday brought news about a variety of major high-speed rail projects around the country. Here’s the roundup:

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that California‘s High-Speed Rail planners are hoping to get $15 to 20 billion out of the coming economic stimulus package. This money, in addition to the $10 billion tax payers approved in November, as well as a few billion more from municipalities and private groups, would allow for the completion of the first stage of the project, from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

The potential flaw in this plan to take some of the federal stimulus money is that those funds are intended to “ready-to-build” projects, which the California High-Speed rail system certainly is not. In fact, current plans have construction on the project beginning in 2012 – and presumably (hopefully!) we’ll be out of the recession by then. One possible alternative, however, is to begin construction on grade crossings in identified segments of the corridor, individual projects that could be easily designed and built within the next year.

Nevada and California are simultaneously pushing forward the long-held idea of a maglev train between Anaheim and Las Vegas. The system, described on Wikipedia, has been appropriated small preliminary funds from the federal government, but those few millions are nothing compared to the billions a 269-mile long line would cost. They’d like to see this project, too, garner money from the economic stimulus bill.

We’ve never discussed this project on the transport politic before, but let it be clear that there are several reasons why its current form makes little sense:

  • Maglev is far more expensive to build than regular HSR, and it’s not even that much faster. So what’s the big deal about it?
  • As long as we know that California’s traditional HSR line is being built, isn’t this line to Nevada an obvious candidate for expansion? By using maglev technology, trips could only occur between the two cities at each end. If traditional HSR were used, however, direct trains could connect San Francisco and Vegas, or Vegas and San Diego, rather than just Vegas and Anaheim.
  • The route’s terminus in Anaheim is completely nonsensical. Such a huge project deserves a connection to the biggest city in the Western United States, Los Angeles, not a secondary city.

We’ll keep the tabs on this project, obviously, but let it be known (if it matters to anyone), we will oppose it vehemently in its current form.

Meanwhile, the AP brings us news that the state of Texas is looking into taking advantage of the federal high-speed rail request for proposals that Secretary Mary Peters and Representative John Mica announced just before the holidays. The state’s major project, which has been labeled the “T-bone,” would connect Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, and of course the capital Austin. This would be an ambitious project but would dramatically improve the connections between these cities, which are just the right distance apart to make HSR a valuable alternative.