Categories
Commuter Rail Intercity Rail Leipzig Philadelphia

For rail services, downtown sometimes isn’t the right place for a terminus

leipzig-markt

» For commuter rail, through-running is becoming increasingly popular in city after city looking to take advantage of faster travel times, direct suburb-to-suburb services, and more downtown stops. Leipzig, Germany, whose City Tunnel opened in 2013, is a case in point.

There’s a romantic notion of the downtown rail terminal in the American popular culture, often expressed in movies and books. It’s a scene that is easy to conjure up in one’s mind: The steaming locomotive comes slowly to a halt at the end of a track, passengers stream out into a giant waiting room, and from there they exit into the bustling metropolis. The railroad terminal is the physical manifestation of the end of a journey and the exciting moment of arrival.

For railroad companies and government agencies, the need to create this welcoming travel environment has inspired multi-billion-dollar station redevelopment schemes. The argument made has been that in order to achieve the appropriate travel experience, people should arrive for train travel—whether intercity or commuter—in one, massive facility where trains begin and end their trips.

But what if this orientation towards rail terminals is actually reducing the effectiveness of our rail system? What if we eliminated terminals downtown altogether and just replaced them with regular old stops on the line, leaving terminals for outer suburban places?

European cities from Basel to Brussels have done just that, replacing commuter rail services ending at central depots with through-running operations where trains stop at several places in the city rather than one thanks to new rail tunnels. They’re expensive investments, but they may make commuting a faster and more enjoyable experience.

The Leipzig experience

Until 2013, commuter rail service in Leipzig, a half-million-person city in eastern Germany, departed from two major train stations—the Hauptbahnhof just north of the center and the Bayerishcher Bahnhof south of it. This produced a peculiar situation in which people traveling from one suburb to another had no easy connection between trains and also required travelers to make a transfer to a local bus or tram—or take a walk—to get to the center of the city.

As early as 1915, city planners plotted a connection between the stations (and some preliminary work was actually completed), but not until the 1990s was a plan finalized, and construction on the City Tunnel didn’t get underway until 2003. The roughly one-mile subway link added two intermediary stations right in the center of downtown (including one at Markt, pictured above). Though the project was years late and its budget exploded to €960 million—of which the Saxony region covered about half the costs—the project was completed.

The following map illustrates the connection the tunnel has provided: A direct link through the center of the city offering a route for six S-Bahn (regional rail) services.

Leipzig S-Bahn

The tunnel saved people using the system lots of time—and now about 55,000 riders are using the link on a typical weekday. It’s well used.

During my time in Leipzig in May as part of the International Transport Forum’s Media Travel Programme, I spoke with Mayor Burkhard Jung about the value this project brought to his city.

Jung, who was a primary advocate for the project, emphasized that the new stations in the center of the city dramatically improved the local economic environment. “Everything changed,” he told me; “it helped the whole business district” by bringing many more visitors. Suburbanites, who once would have avoided the center, or at least only been to the areas directly near the stations, suddenly had very frequent rail access to subway stations directly in the downtown.

Jung also pointed out that the project was contributing to the overall goal of getting more people on transit. “We can’t solve the emissions, noise problems if we don’t solve the mode split problem,” he said. According to him, the city is already heading in the right direction, with a clear shift away from private passenger cars over the last five years.

That’s no surprise when you think about it. Passengers heading in to Leipzig on the S-Bahn who used to have just one available destination downtown—the train line’s terminus—now have four to choose from. That opens up four times as many possibilities in terms of places to go for a night out or a weekend shopping trip.

Meanwhile, the train itself has become more useful, now that instead of just ending downtown, it heads off to another suburban location. And instead of passengers having to run to another potentially far-away platform at the main station to switch to a destination not on one’s train line, they can just get off at any of the City Tunnel’s stations and wait for the next train, since they all operate on the same tracks.

The construction of the City Tunnel did not mean the end of terminus-based rail services entirely in Leipzig. The Hauptbahnhof—which happens to be the largest railway station in the world and also a major shopping center—is still being used, though its focus has shifted to intercity trains. Some intercity trains, however, will be shifted to the City Tunnel in the coming year, though there are capacity limitations.

Many other cities have invested similarly

Leipzig’s investment in its new urban rail tunnel has brought new vitality to its center city but it is in some ways late to the game. In fact, many of its European peers have built similar center-city rail lines over the past few decades in order to provide through-running rail service stopping at many downtown destinations.

Berlin opened its Stadtbahn in the 1880s, providing intercity and commuter service on an elevated line running east-west through the center of the city. Even today, long-distance German high-speed trains hail at several of its stops as they travel from or through Berlin. In the 1930s, Berlin complemented this service with an S-Bahn subway running north-south through the center.

Other cities followed this trend of providing tunneled service for commuter and intercity rail through their centers. Brussels connected its north and south stations in 1952; in 1967, Madrid linked its major stations with the “Tunnel of Laughter;” in 1969, Paris inaugurated its RER regional rail network with a tunnel straight through the center of the city; Munich provided an S-Bahn connection in 1972; Zurich linked up its S-Bahn trains in 1990; Basel built its network in 1997; Bilbao followed in 1999; and Milan began providing inter-suburban train service through downtown in 2004.

That’s hardly an exhaustive list, and many other cities are planning even more: Brussels is building another tunnel to create its own RER network by 2025; Berlin, Geneva, Munich, Stuttgart, and Zurich are all planning or building additional cross-city regional rail links; and London has a new regional rail line under construction and another planned.

Even South American cities are getting into the mix. In Buenos Aires, the new RER network, which includes a cross-city tunneled link (shown in the following video, in Spanish, but worth the watch even if you don’t understand the language) is expected to double suburban rail ridership.

Each of these cities has identified the benefits of combining frequent and fast regional rail networks with through-running train services under their centers. The benefits are clear: More destinations for riders; more accessibility to locations downtown; and the ability to get from one side of a region to another without transferring between trains. They’ve also saved their rail operators considerable expense by allowing them to turn their trains around somewhere other than downtown, which is the most difficult place to do so.

This is a particular benefit because peak times, which require many services heading in or out of downtown, require train operators to stack trains at the terminus, which takes up lots of storage space (in expensive areas of the city) and necessitates many platforms at the terminus, since there aren’t any other downtown station stops. A through-running service allows trains to be stored elsewhere and passengers to be distributed among several stops.

For example, Paris’ RER line A, a through-running regional rail service, carries about as many people daily (more than one million riders) on just two tracks as all services operated by commuter rail services in New York City, including Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North, and New Jersey Transit, which require dozens of platforms at the two Manhattan terminals, Grand Central and Penn Station, and which require acres of train storage areas near downtown, either under Grand Central or at the huge yards on Manhattan’s West Side or Sunnyside. In Paris, trains stop at six central-city subway stops, distributing ridership, and train storage is on the suburban fringe.

Cities with through-running regional rail services have moved away from the terminus-as-destination model of providing suburban and intercity rail service. That’s a transition that benefits riders and the cities they live in.

What potential do we have for through-running in the U.S.?

In the 1980s, Philadelphia opened its Center City Commuter Connection, a new subway for regional rail trains running directly through downtown, with three stops along the way. The project did, in fact, provide riders using that city’s commuter system significantly more alternatives for destinations downtown. Ridership has increased by more than 50 percent over the past 15 years, increasing from 80,000 typical daily trips in 1996 to 135,000 last year.

But because of limited funding, a circuitous regional network (many trains heading east through the tunnel actually end up heading west, and vice-verse), and a lack of commitment to maintaining high train service frequencies or through-running services in general, Philadelphia’s system has not reached its potential. Nonetheless, the infrastructure is there.

New York also has the infrastructure for through-running between Connecticut, Long Island, and New Jersey thanks to tunnels under Penn Station, but trains are segregated between three operators, each of which only has one terminal station in the Manhattan core. Through-running would require cooperation between these operators and, to optimize ridership distribution (to prevent long station stops for boarding and unloading), additional new subway stations in the core, which may be technically difficult and would certainly be pricey.

Other American cities, including Baltimore, Boston, and Chicago, have commuter rail termini located relatively close to one another but which would require new, expensive downtown tunnels to connect them. Are these top infrastructure priorities for cities that have many transportation needs? That’s an open question. But what is undoubtedly true is that if we want more effective commuter rail services that serve more people, we should at least be considering them—a step few U.S. cities have taken thus far.

Image at top: Leipzig City Tunnel Markt station, photograph by Yonah Freemark. Map from City Tunnel Leipzig.

Categories
Amsterdam Dresden Freight Light Rail Paris Zurich

Opportunities Abound for Transporting Goods by Tram — If Properly Coordinated

» Though a proposal in Amsterdam has been abandoned and freight transport in Zurich and Dresden is limited, Paris considers options for using its new tramways to move goods to stores.

There was a lot of excitement in the transportation press in mid-2007 when Amsterdam signed a deal to allow the transport of local goods by tramway beginning in 2008. In theory, fifty light rail trains operated by a company called CityCargo would move freight from warehouses to local stores without interruption along the city’s existing and extensive passenger tracks, reducing the need for trucks in the city center by half while cutting down on pollution significantly. A network of 600 electric trucks would move the freight minimal distances from the trains to the stores.

Unfortunately, the company fell short of its goal to raise the €150 million necessary to commence operations and the city refused to subsidize the project, so the project died even before the project could come into being.

Needless to say, the concept still has currency in European cities that are looking to reduce traffic and clean the air and which have tramway tracks running through some of their most congested areas. In 2001, VW implemented the CarGo tram between a logistics site and an automobile factory in the center of Dresden, creating a carbon-free mechanism to transport parts along 3 km of passenger lines. Zurich uses CargoTrams — old tramway vehicles, such as those pictured above — to move recycling. Vienna attempted a similar experiment a few years’ back, but never implemented it despite successful results. These projects are of limited scale, so their effects have been similarly small.

A new experiment called TramFret in Paris, however, could transform the way cities think about moving goods from place to place by establishing a regionwide system by which freight like groceries can be moved between distribution facilities and stores by electric tram. Experimentation will begin next month, with full implementation possible by 2014; positive results could show that rail can play an important role in moving freight not just at the intercity scale but also within regions, a market now completely dominated by trucks. But the success of the project will require significant coordination between competing stores and it will need to be carefully planned to as to avoid conflicts with passenger transit routes.

Under Mayor Bertrand Delanöe, the French capital has been a pioneer in all things transport, introducing huge bike-share and car-share networks, building dozens of miles of reserved bus and tram lanes, reducing speed limits to 30 km/h in many neighborhoods, and allowing reverse-direction bike riding on most small streets. But these projects have largely avoided the issue of cargo transport so far, despite the fact that one million daily deliveries are made each day in the Paris region, 90% by road; those trips produce 25% of the region’s carbon dioxide emissions and 50% of particulate releases — as well as consuming 20% of all road space. A successful TramFret could thus improve quality of life significantly.

The Atelier Parisien d’Urbanisme (APUR), the Paris city planning study office, has conducted a study on the project and has led thinking about its implementation, which is increasingly relevant considering recent public policy choices. The Paris region, called Île-de-France, has begun a significant investment in new tramway lines (much like American light rail) and by 2016 expects to have 105 km (65 miles) of them in operation, carrying about 800,000 people a day (there are currently 26 miles of trams in operation, carrying about 350,000 people a day). Unlike metros or commuter rail, which Paris has much more of, the street rights-of-way offered by tram could allow much almost direct small-scale delivery to stores. With so many tram routes, many stores could be linked up for reduced truck deliveries. In addition, the French government plans a pollution tax on tractor trailers beginning in 2012 that should encourage the movement of goods off the road.

APUR suggests beginning with the existing T3 and T2 lines, which roughly run around the southern and western sections of the city. A new distribution facility would be created at the future terminus of the T2 line at Pont de Bezons, to which grocery stores would bring their goods from other facilities throughout the region. The APUR study suggests that within 500 meters of the two tram lines are 128 grocery stores representing the four largest chains in Paris (Casino, Carrefour, Monoprix, and Franprix, along with their subsidiaries). Trains would each carry the equivalent of three to four truckloads of goods, which means there would likely have to be dozens of trains each day to handle the needs of all these stores.

In order for implementation to occur, the tracks of the two lines would have to be connected at Porte de Versailles, but that will require just a few hundred feet of new track. But new sidings for freight trains to stop would have to be built*, not necessarily an easy proposition considering that the tram lines have been built in dense urban areas. In addition, stores would have to acquire small electric trucks to move goods the final few blocks from the trains to stores. [Note: the study suggests that short rail extensions directly to stores be built so this final step is avoided, but it is my (perhaps unfair) presumption that it would be more simple to implement trucking from distribution points along the line than it would be to go through the regulatory process required to build these line extensions.] All this would necessitate a huge degree of logistical coordination to work efficiently, but better web-based mobile tracking of goods could make it possible.

There is some precedent in Paris for using rail lines for intra-regional goods transport. The Monoprix brand uses the RER D passenger rail line to move goods from a suburban distribution location to a facility in Paris, from which trucks move goods to their final destinations during night trips. Over a year’s period, this eliminates 10,000 trips by trucks and reduces the emissions of carbon and NOx by about 50% over previous conditions. These are hardly negligible results.

Experimentation will begin this fall on the T3 line. Empty trams will be placed with normal headways between passenger trains to see how much capacity is available on the route for more trains (it already carries 112,000 daily riders with high frequencies). APUR will follow up with economic studies beginning next year.

There a number of questions to consider: Will there be enough reduction in pollution and congestion within the center city to justify what is likely to be a more complicated distribution procedure? After all, what right now is a relatively simple truck-from-warehouse-to-store process would be replaced with a journey for goods that requires a truck or train from the warehouse to a logistics facility, to a tram, to a local electric truck making the final trip to the store. Even if trams are cheaper than trucks to operate (because they use electricity and can transport more goods per driver), it’s hard to imagine that these tram-freight trips would be cheaper overall, especially since these trains would have to operate around the passenger train system and in coordination with competing stores.

If tram freight is more expensive than truck freight, does it deserve to be subsidized? Under a typical economic model, the answer is up to the externalities freight rail eliminates. If moving goods by tram reduces congestion or pollution by an amount that is larger than the price difference with the trucking status quo, the public has a societal interest in encouraging its use — unless congestion and pollution of those trucks are appropriately taxed, which they are not. But a source of funds would have to be identified to make such subsidies.

There’s the final question of whether improving freight access by rail into the city is more important than encouraging transit-oriented development. A new distribution facility for the rail line will have to be near the rail line. Would it be more environmentally friendly in the long-term to build high-density housing where that facility would be, even if it required goods to be trucked to it?

* Having them stop at passenger stations at night is possible, but doesn’t seem ideal.

Image above: Zurich’s CargoTram, from Flickr user Sven Dowideit (cc)

Categories
Berlin Metro Rail

Berlin Finally Opens New Subway Line — All 1.1 Miles of It

Berlin U55 U-Bahn MapU55, connecting central station and Brandenburg Gate, took 14 years to plan and construct.

This weekend, Berliners got their first taste of a new U-Bahn line. The mile-long U55 subway links the Hauptbahnhof central station and the Brandenburg Gate at Pariser Platz, with a station in the middle underneath the German national government complex. The project’s opening is unlikely to change the commuting habits for many in the German capital, but in the long term a future connection with the U5 line and a new series of stations underneath the core of the city will make the U55 a valuable addition to the transit offerings in Berlin.

The original plan for the U55, conceived in the euphoria following reunification of Germany and the decision to build the new capital in Berlin, was to extend the current terminus of the U5 line at Alexanderplatz west to a new central station and then to a connection with the U9. This extended corridor is especially important because it follows the Unter den Linden, the city’s most prestigious street. Stations would be located on the Museum Island and on the prominent Fredrichstrasse.

Hoping to improve Berlin, the national government sponsored a part the project’s finances, prioritizing it over other municipal investments. The direct link between the parliament and the station is no accident. The city’s administration, however, was not always completely in favor of the project, and the mayor fought its construction.

To make matters worse, Berlin’s finances weren’t stable enough to ensure the construction of the whole line, and the project’s first phase was shortened to a shuttle between the Hauptbahnhof and Bradenburg Gate, making it effectively cut off from the U-Bahn network. Its two termini do, however, allow connections between the east-west and north-south S-Bahn regional rail lines (which also intersect at Friedrichstrasse).

To save costs, the line will operate on a single track with no signals and only one train, which will simply turn around every 10 minutes. The project cost €320 million and took thirteen years to finish. Most of the construction work was completed in tandem with the construction of the (quite impressive) new government center along the Spree River.

Expansion to double-track operation and the addition of signals will come as early as 2010.

The first phase of the project will be helpful for just a few people; the local transit authority only expects about 6,500 riders a day. This isn’t so much because a very short line necessarily will attract few passengers; anyone who’s ever ridden the 42nd Street Shuttle in New York City (0.8 miles long) can attest that there’s no correlation between length of line and ridership. Rather, S-Bahn commuters will find it easier to transfer at Friedrichstrasse and U-Bahn commuters won’t be able to get directly to the disconnected U-55. It will be a nice ride for a few tourists wanting to get from their intercity trains to the Bradenburg Gate and politicians hopping between the Bundestag and the train terminal.

Nevertheless, when Berlin burrows the U55 two miles further east to Alexanderplatz, the line will become an extension of the popular U5, which continues on to Lichtenberg and Hönow. This €433 million project will automatically expand ridership exponentially; indeed, the transit agency expects the entire segment to attract almost 200,000 rides per workday, no small feat. Many of these customers will save a significant amount of time as they currently must switch to S-Bahn lines to get to the city’s monumental core. A new subway under Unter den Linden — planned for 2017 — will be highly advantageous to both commuters and tourists.

The U55 is not going to do much as a one-track, one-mile route. The story changes once it’s eventually connected to the whole U-Bahn network.

Image above: U55 Map, from BVG