Fort Lauderdale France Light Rail Metz Streetcar

Commitment to Tramways Makes France a World Model for New Urban Rail

» Over the past twelve years, the total route mileage of tramways systems in France has multiplied by five — at a cost reasonable even for small cities.

Last weekend, the city of Brest, on the far western coast of France, opened its new tramway, a 14.3-km (8.9-mile) line that connects the center city to the west and northeast. 50,000 daily riders are expected in a city of about 140,000 inhabitants. This Friday, Orléans, an even smaller city in central France, will open its second, 11.3-km tramway line. The first already attracts about 40,000 daily users.

These two cities are far from alone in France. Across the country, cities large and small have adopted the construction of modern tramways* to bring their citizens a modern form of public transportation that has led to improved circulation, more convenient networks, and renovated downtowns. Like American streetcars, these tramways operate at the ground level, usually without grade separation from automobile traffic, making them relatively cheap to build; on the other hand, like American light rail, tramways operate within their own rights-of-way and they feature long trainsets that can carry the equivalent of four busloads or more — in other words, they actually improve transit capacity and performance.

The appeal of tramways is easy to understand. The electric vehicles are silent, modern-looking, and entirely flat-floor. Their tracks can be nestled in a lawn, creating a grass median through which trains run; if done right, they can be used as a tool to restore the beauty of an urban boulevard, rather than deface it, as do some light rail lines traveling on grade-separated track. In some cities, like Nice, Bordeaux, and Orléans, vehicles have been designed with batteries that allow them to travel some distance (such as across a historic square) without the need for overhead catenary wire. In virtually every case, tramways in France have been specifically located on major bus corridors, in order to replace overcrowded routes with higher capacity services.

France is not alone in using trams, of course; Germany, notably, has dozens of such systems across the country, as do Switzerland, the Netherlands, and others. But as of late, France’s cities have made an unparalleled investment in the mode. While France had virtually no historic tramways left by the 1980s outside of short routes in Marseille, Lille, and St. Etienne, by the end of this year, 25 cities will have such networks and 29 will by 2016, as the map above shows. And most of this construction has occurred since 2000, with an increase from 124.7 km nationwide to 624.1 km (388 miles) by the end of this year, a 400% increase. In 2010, 2011, and 2012 alone, 160.2 km will have been built.

As shown in the chart below, seven cities account for about half of all tramway route kilometers in the country. Lyon and Montpellier have expanded most quickly, each adding more than 56 km since 2000, with Bordeaux and the Paris region adding 40 km each in the same period. Paris and its suburbs will add another 54.3 km to the network by 2014.

In France as a whole, these tramways currently carry about 2.8 million riders a day, compared to about 1.6 million daily riders on all U.S. light rail and streetcar systems. These riders appear to be attracted to trams above and beyond what had previously been offered through bus service. In Lyon, four tram lines opened since 2000 have brought in a considerable numbers of users; the rail system attracted 58 million riders in 2010. But the city’s transit network as a whole grew by 86 million riders between 2000 and 2010 (an increase of 30%), meaning that the new trams were not simply moving people from buses into trains. In other words, the investment in rail appears to be paying off in terms of moving people into public transportation who used to be using some other mode of travel. That, again, is not a surprise: It is not only enjoyable to travel by tramway, but such service is also usually faster and more comfortable than equivalent bus service.

The focus in France has been on urban tramway networks, especially compared to the previously fashionable automated metro networks. Though those systems — built using VAL technology in Toulouse, Lille, and Rennes — were seen as the future of French rail systems in the 1980s, their high construction costs caused by the complete grade separations they require makes them less them adaptable to the needs of less populous urban areas that may be able to instead afford a tramway line. Indeed, this is the point: Through the widespread use of tramways, France is providing new urban rail systems to dozens of cities that in another context would not be able to afford the costs of trains. In the process, cities across the country are experiencing significantly improved transit that is attracting more and more riders.

Trams are not always cheap; the Brest line, for instance, cost about €40 million per mile to build, or $50 million per mile. Some cities, like Besançon in eastern France, have been able to limit costs to about $35 million per mile. Even that may be more than one might hope for steel implanted in concrete.

But in the American context, those costs come across as reasonable. The U.S. Department of Transportation revealed its latest TIGER discretionary grants last week. The one streetcar project that got the nod was the Wave in Fort Lauderdale, which will cost $83.2 million (of which the federal government will pay $18 million) for 1.4 miles of track — that’s $59 million per mile. In exchange, the Florida city will get a rail line that attracts an estimated 2,800 riders a day thanks mostly to the short, tourist-oriented route where virtually no bus ridership currently exists. The streetcar will have to share its right-of-way with cars and the vehicles themselves will be around 66 feet long, just a bit longer than an articulated bus. Stations are likely to be slightly improved bus shelters.

The other streetcar systems currently being built in the U.S. have all the same limitations — and many of them are very expensive, too: Cincinnati’s line will cost $50 million per mile to build, Seattle’s $53 million per mile, and Atlanta’s $72 million per mile. At these costs, American cities should be pushing for their streetcars to work a bit more like French tramways.

… Or even French buses. In Metz, in eastern France, the city is investing in a very innovative bus system called Mettis that is currently under construction and expected to open in September next year at a cost of €170 million for 17.8 kilometers of service — or about $19 million per mile. That would be expensive for a bus line if the system was bus rapid transit in the non-rapid form BRT too often takes. But Mettis will be a new breed, so much like a tramway that it will be hard to differentiate its vehicles and alignment from that of a rail service.

Metz Mettis Busway Rendering

Bus or tramway?

Mettis’ two lines will use 79-foot hybrid buses (that, I remind you, is quite a bit longer than an American streetcar) specially constructed by Van Hool. They will feature four large doors and provide complete low-floor service to the platforms being planned for the large stations, as rendered above. The system is being built to accomodate future electrification through energy transfer at stops, though that technology is not yet fully developed.

86% of the Mettis corridor will operate within its own right-of-way and vehicles will get transit signal priority. Certain journeys are expected to see reduced travel times of about 40%. No wonder 36,000 riders are eventually expected to use the service daily.

We could take these examples of successful French investments in modern transit systems to lament the high costs and limited utility of too many American rail and even BRT projects (if we need another reminder, Maryland has been discussing spending upwards of $60 million a mile on a BRT line). But there are more positive lessons to learn. If we are planning to spend tens of millions of dollars on a new rail line, is it too much to ask that it be placed in its own right-of-way and be given high quality amenities? Is it reasonable to suggest that an investment in a 1.5-mile line is simply not long enough in itself to actually attract a significant number of commuters? Are there ways to make bus services as appealing as rail lines, at a lower price?

* Note that in this post, I have defined trams on tire as tramways. (These are located in Caen, Clermont, Nancy, and, by the end of this year, outside of Paris). This does not include significantly improved bus systems, such as Metz’s, but does include systems with electric catenary and a fixed guideway.

Intercity Rail Norfolk Richmond

A Bipartisan Push for Rail in Virginia Produces Ridership Successes

» An expanding rail network in Virginia serves more customers and demonstrates that the public will come when new and better train service is offered.

Despite the significant opposition to investment in intercity rail from Republican governors in states from Ohio to Florida, Virginia’s GOP leadership has taken a considerably different course. In office since January 2010, Bob McDonnell has presided over a significant expansion in Amtrak routes — and more is expected by the end of this year. In the meantime, the state’s population has gobbled up the service offered, seeing very significant increases in ridership, offering considerable evidence that Americans are perfectly willing to take the train — if the right routes are provided.

Amtrak service to the state capital at Richmond and points further south via services such as the Carolinian, Palmetto, and Silver Meteor/Silver Star has been offered for decades, as has a line to Newport News, which serves as an extension of the Northeast Regional route that serves cities as far north as Boston.

But in 2009, thanks to an agreement between Amtrak and the State of Virginia (under former Democratic governor Tim Kaine), new service was opened between Washington and Lynchburg, via Culpepper and Charlottesville, offering rail to the western sections of the state. Later this year, another route will be opened, adding Amtrak services to Norfolk as part of the Virginia intercity rail mix. Though the project, which cost $115 million in line upgrades, will provide only one daily round trip to Washington (in four and a half hours), two more are planned if the state can secure an additional $75 million for the purpose. Federal rail grants, which are now impossible to get because of a deadlock on transportation funding in Washington, would be very helpful.

As seen in the chart below, Amtrak ridership has increased steadily over the past three years on many major state-supported Amtrak routes. The Keystone Corridor, a route between Philadelphia and Harrisburg that I profiled in 2009, has continued to see major gains in ridership, increasing its monthly ridership in May from about 100,000 to more than 120,000. Much of that improvement is likely due to increased service frequencies and faster trains introduced as part of a capital investment partnership between the State of Pennsylvania and Amtrak.

In terms of percentage change in ridership, however, routes like the Keystone are expanding ridership only about as quickly as the system as a whole, or about 20% since 2009. As shown in the chart below, other routes have seen far higher increases in ridership, notably in Virginia and North Carolina. Since 2009, trains to Newport News have increased their passenger counts by more than 60% and those running to and through North Carolina (the Carolinian and Piedmont) by almost 80%. Since 2010, the first year for which data is available, Amtrak trains to Lynchburg have increased their ridership by more than 60% as well. Investments in improved Amtrak services appear to be producing beneficial results.

Though the Amtrak trains to Norfolk will start off with very limited service, the service seems likely to be popular in a state with such a record of late. Norfolk’s new light rail line — the Tide — stops at the future rail station, and it has seen higher ridership than estimated. Its 4,800 daily users far exceed initial predictions of 2,900 a day. With a lengthening of that route into Virginia Beach now being considered, access to Amtrak service will be even more convenient to thousands more.

In addition to the planned increase in service frequency, Virginia hopes to invest further in its intercity rail portfolio. It has already spent $370 million on the upgrade of the line between Richmond and Washington, and it hopes to extend the spur to Newport News further south to serve that city’s downtown. But the biggest proposal on the books is a significant improvement in service further south, into North Carolina, as part of the Southeast High-Speed Rail Project. Tolls on I-95 have been mentioned to help pay for that project (though they have seen significant opposition from some), and indeed some source of funding is necessary if the project is to be under construction within a year, as is technically possible.

But without additional federal funding, the likelihood of real rail improvement projects actually being implemented is limited at best.

Image at top: Map of planned Norfolk-Richmond rail services, from Virginia DRPT

Congress Finance

In Which the Rhetoric of Fiscal Conservatism Ceases to Convince

» Left with a chance to set in stone the rule that transportation funding should remain based on user fees alone, the House punts.

On Friday, members of the U.S. House took one of the most significant votes on transportation in years. A non-binding motion brought forward by Representative Paul Broun (R-GA) to limit federal transportation expenditures to receipts from the fuel tax assembled in the Highway Trust Fund was defeated, massively defeated, by a 82 to 323 vote. Translation: A large majority of the lower chamber endorsed the idea that the government should be using funds sourced outside of user fees — generally that means deficit-increasing debt — to pay for transportation investments.

Listening to the rhetoric of many political leaders in Washington, the outcome may come as a surprise. After all, isn’t this supposed to be a new age of fiscal discipline? Doesn’t everyone care about keeping expenditures in line with revenues to limit the deficit?

Apparently not when it comes to transportation. If last week’s vote proves anything, it is that support for the idea that spending on transportation should be limited to user revenues is confined to a right-wing minority so far on the sidelines that it does not even account for half of House Republicans. Faced with the choice between drastically reduced spending on infrastructure — a reduction of 30% or more if spending on transportation were to match revenues, according to some estimates (because of the fall-off in collections from the federal fuel taxes, which have historically paid for national spending on roads and transit) — or keep spending in line with demand, rather than the money available, the majority of elected officials across the political spectrum continue to select the latter.

The House’s vote comes almost 1,000 days since the transportation authorization legislation officially expired and it indicates that members of the Democratic and Republican Parties may not be as far apart in ideological terms as we might have thought. While the House GOP’s legislation announced earlier this year — H.R. 7, which would have significantly damaged transit funding — was certainly far from bipartisan, its Senate counterpart MAP-21 has just the right elements of moderation that can please politicians on both sides of the aisle, and indeed it made it through that chamber with a large majority of votes.

For a month now, House and Senate leaders have been working on a compromise between hard-core right-wing views about spending on transportation and the Senate’s moderation, and little has come of the negotiations. In fact, last week House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) suggested that transportation spending be extended another six months, until the end of December, to avoid making any sort of hard decisions now about a long-term piece of legislation. (The current extension, which basically keeps federal spending at 2009 levels, will expire at the end of this month.) But now that it is obvious that members of both political parties really do want to keep spending going on infrastructure, perhaps compromise is in the offing.

Of course, in today’s Washington, in the middle of election season, you can’t count on anything of the sort.

Nonetheless, what choice do leaders on either side of the aisle have other than to compromise? Without a new law, spending on transportation won’t go up or down, but it will certainly remain above the levels provided for by the Highway Trust Fund. If that’s the case, why not at least make provisions for reforms of the transportation grant system, which everyone claims is too complicated already? That’s pretty much what MAP-21 does.

Republicans have demonstrated that they are unwilling to make the cuts to the federal budget for transportation that would be necessary if they wanted to honor their pledge to reduce the budget deficit; the vote last week proved that they care more about ensuring adequate investment in infrastructure (as they should!) than they do about taking out more federal debt in a period of record-low interest rates. Democrats in Washington, meanwhile, have shown no real interest in actually fighting for revenue increases through an increase in the fuel tax, major installation of tolling facilities, or the creation of a vehicle-miles traveled fee, all of which could restore the fiscal health of the Highway Trust Fund but which are considered too politically explosive to fight.

Thus here we are. Members of Congress seem to agree: The politically obvious choice is maintaining transportation spending and in the process doing nothing to increase taxes to pay for the program. Is that a big problem? Not really. But it certainly won’t do anything to reduce the deficit.

What does this suggest about the future of federal transportation spending? What seems clear is that it would be delusional to think that there will be any sort of quick return to a system in which expenditures are defined based on revenues. The grave for the user fee based model for transportation funding has just been dug a bit deeper.

Chicago Infrastructure Metro Rail

Chicago Plans to Shut Red Line South to Perform Quick Rehab

» The change in service will cut off service to stations south of Roosevelt for five months. The move will be controversial and inconvenience many, but it will solve problems that would otherwise take years to fix — at a lower cost.

In less than a year’s time, the Chicago Transit Authority will eliminate service on the portions of the Red Line that run through the city’s south side, affecting roughly 80,000 daily journeys for a period of five months. The effort is designed to allow for the quick renovation of this rapid transit segment, replacing about 10 miles of degraded track with desperately needed new infrastructure. It’s a risky move, likely to enflame tensions in an area of the city that has suffered decades of economic difficulties. But if the CTA pulls the project off successfully, Chicago may be setting a precedent for other cities to follow.

The southern portion of the Red Line is is poor condition, no question about it. Built in 1969, the route — known as the Dan Ryan Branch as it runs in the median of the Dan Ryan Expressway (I-90 and I-94) — is aging rapidly. At the moment, service is incredibly sluggish because the CTA has mandated “slow zones” that restrict trains to speeds far below their capacity, to ensure safety; on the southbound service from Roosevelt to 95th Street, for example, 2.6 miles of service is limited to just 15 mph. As a result, people are literally wasting their lives on their journeys home from work.

The CTA could reconstruct the line, replacing ties, tracks, third rail, ballast, and drainage systems, by shutting it down on weekends. But that would take four years.

Instead, the agency has determined that a five-month shutdown, costing about $425 million and funded by the city’s infrastructure initiative, will not only save about $75 million in project costs (thanks to efficiencies in project delivery), but it will also provide much better service to daily commuters far more quickly. Journey times from 95th Street to Roosevelt Road are expected to be a full 10 minutes more rapid by the time work finishes. That makes sense: Reconstructing a major piece of infrastructure is simply easier when there aren’t vehicles running through it, interrupting work. And customers will surely appreciate the much better transit they experience, even with a few months of annoyance, rather than many more years of bad service.

The last time the CTA attempted a similar move was in the mid-1990s, when it closed the Green Line for two years to reconstruct it completely. While that renovation produced the desired results in terms of infrastructure improvements, ridership on the line had trouble recovering. The simple fact was that the shutdown made transit inconvenient for people who had been used to riding the line. Only through a concerted effort to retain ridership through good service provision even in the absence of the Red Line can such problems be avoided.

The CTA has developed a management plan designed to reroute passengers who currently use the Red Line onto other services in the South Side, as shown on the map posted at the end of this article. This will be made easier by the fact that the Green Line is just a few blocks east of the Red Line between Roosevelt and 63rd Street, so most customers will likely just switch to that other service, which is linked to all the same crosstown bus routes as the Red Line. This will be made especially easy because Green Line trains using the Ashland branch of the service will be directed into the Red Line tunnel and north to Howard as “Red Line” trains, rather than around the Loop, as are all Green Line trains currently. This will provide direct service to the city’s North Side for people on the Green Line, which will surely be appreciated by many customers who now must transfer to get to that part of the city.

In addition, the CTA will operate free reduced-priced express shuttles to and from closed Red Line stops from 63rd to 95th Streets to the Garfield station on the Green Line, and reduced-price services on many South Side routes. Many may actually see faster service than they experience on slow trains today even though they will have to transfer.

One possibility that has not been announced by CTA officials is encouraging current Red Line riders to use the Metra commuter rail trains on the Rock Island and Electric district lines, which also run parallel to the Red Line. If the CTA worked with Metra to institute common fare policies, reduced-cost transfers, and more frequent trains during the disrupted period, a large number of commuters who currently live near Metra stops but do not currently take advantage of the system because of its high prices and low frequencies could be better served. The lack of connection between the CTA and Metra systems is one of the Chicago region’s biggest transportation limitations; experimenting with their integration during the Red Line shutdown could be particularly fruitful.

All of this raises questions about the future of transit reconstruction projects, both in Chicago and nationwide. There is plenty of need for transportation infrastructure renovations, but those must be performed on facilities that are in daily use by people who need to be able to get to and from work. Indeed, Chicago’s next big project will be the renovation of the north section of the Red Line, which is much older than this southern section and carries almost two times as many people daily, but which does not have the advantage of another parallel rapid transit line just a few blocks away. Will that branch also need to be closed? The city’s success in rerouting travelers onto other services with the fewest amount of difficulties could test how much the people of Chicago are willing to take when it comes to the temporary closure of their means of transportation.

Click on the map above to expand.

Images above: Top: Chicago’s 63rd Street Station on the Red Line, one of several to be shut down next year, from Flickr user Zol87 (cc); Below: Service changes planned during reconstruction, from CTA