Airport Metro Rail Miami Washington DC

Does an Airport Line Have to Reach the Airport?

» For Washington Dulles Airport, raising the unthinkable on a new rail link.

Yesterday, Robert Brown, a member of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), suggested rethinking his agency’s planned Metro rail extension out to Dulles Airport, the Washington region’s prime international gateway. Instead of the bringing this $2.8 billion rail link — frequently referred to as the Silver Line — directly to the airport, Brown noted that replacing the final 1.5-mile connection with a people mover would save $70 million thanks to a more limited right-of-way and the construction of one less Metro station.

The Silver Line is an extension of the Washington Metro’s Orange Line and will eventually reach Loudoun County. The first segment of the project, to Tyson’s Corner and Wiehle  Avenue, is planned to open for service next year.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the idea was perceived as heresy, both by local commenters and board members. Mame Reiley, one board member, saidI just don’t think that’s what we labored for… it is not rail to Dulles.” Concerns were raised that the federal government might delay the program because the board was “starting over.” And indeed the proposal appears to have been dismissed by the authority board as unacceptable.

Counter-intuitively, however, such a change in alignment could be a reasonable money-saver and may actually improve transit service for both commuters and air travelers. And though the question is immediately relevant to the Dulles Rail extension, it is equally valid to many cities, as the issue of extending rail networks out towards airports is frequently of concern for transportation planners in major metropolitan areas.

The question of how to reach Dulles by rail has been fraught with controversy since project development began. Originally, the concept was to connect the Metro line to an underground station about 550 feet from the main terminal, but after the project’s price tag had exploded past $3 billion, an effort at cost-savings was in order. The MWAA, which runs Dulles Airport in addition to the Metro extension, eventually agreed in July April 2011 to move the stop about 600 feet further away — and to elevate it above the ground. Riders wanting to get off at Dulles will have to make the more than thousand-foot walk from the station to check-in.

Mr. Brown’s likely stillborn proposal to replace the direct rail link with a people mover reflects the fact that riders are likely to see this connection as inconvenient, especially compared to that at Reagan National Airport, where customers only have to walk about 150 feet between Metro platform and the terminal entrance.

Mr. Brown would reroute the Metro line away from the airport (the existing plan is shown in orange below and would be about 4 miles from Route 28 to Route 606), so that it runs directly along the Dulles Greenway (in blue, about 2.5 miles from Route 28 to Route 606). A people mover (also in blue, about 1.5 miles) would connect the Route 28 station to the front of the terminal. Though customers would have to transfer, they would now get a more direct journey, since it would be far easier to fit in front of the terminal the tracks and station for the people mover than it would have been for the Metro line (and in fact this explains why that latter possibility was never brought up).

This would save a total of $70 million, according to planner estimates, because it would replace about 1.5 miles of very expensive Metro infrastructure (readied for eight-car trains) with much lighter automatic people mover infrastructure, designed for one- or two-car trains.

We know this would save some money. How would this change affect customers?

Riders commuting in to Tyson’s Corner, Arlington, or Washington from outer suburban destinations on the end of the rail line west of Dulles would save time: At the 35 mph average speed expected for Silver Line trains,* it will take about 6.9 minutes to get from Route 28 to Route 606 using the current plan. The more direct route proposed by Mr. Brown would reduce that journey to 4.3 minutes. That’s almost half an hour in saved travel time per week per commuter.

Even better, those using the Silver Line to get to and from the airport might actually save time travelling too!** Though these customers would have to transfer between Dulles Metro and the people mover, if that connection were timed and across the platform (as is quite possible when two automated systems are linked and built at the same time), the time lost would be only two or three minutes. Meanwhile, once they actually get off at the terminal, the experience of riders taking the people mover would be much superior: Rather than walking 1,150 feet to the terminal — which would take them about 4.8 minutes on average — they would walk something more like 150 feet, which would take them only 0.6 minutes.*** See this back of the envelope comparison:

 Arrive at Rt 28 StationTimed Transfer to People MoverTime to Dulles Airport StationWalk to TerminalTotal Travel Time
Existing Proposal0 Min--2.5 Min4.8 Min (or about 3 Min by moving walkway)5.5-7.3 Min
People Mover Proposal0 Min3 Min2.5 Min0.6 Min6.1 Min

Though the use of the people mover raises questions about operating another rail system, it could be maintained with similar vehicles as those already servicing Dulles on the Aerotrain, which connects checked-in passengers to the terminals.

If these benefits are not convincing enough in themselves, it should be noted that the Washington region would not be alone if it chose to make its airport rail link stop somewhat short of the terminal itself. In Phoenix, the new light rail system was built in coordination with airport officials, who are currently constructing an automated train between the rail station and the terminals. The San Francisco Bay Area is building an airport connector to the Oakland Airport that will link a BART station some miles away to the terminals. And Miami’s new AirportLink Metro Rail project will not actually stop at the airport, but instead at a new central station (pictured at the top of this article), where transfers to a people mover will be offered.

Riders in these regions will not suffer; they may lose a few minutes transferring between trains, but if the connection is short and timed, that pain can be minimized. Avoiding the airport, paradoxically enough, could both save money and improve the situation for riders.

Update: I should say that the underground passage way from the elevated station as currently planned will include moving walkways (it already exists), so the time difference between getting from the elevated station to the terminals and getting from the people mover station to the terminals will not be as large as I suggested above. The time difference still should be in the range of two to three minutes longer, however, making the travel time about equal overall.

* 35 mph: PlanItMetro projects it will take about 22 minutes to travel the 12.8 miles between Dulles Airport and Tysons 7 Station.

** The only customers would would lose out with this change would be those traveling to and from Dulles from outer-suburban locations.

*** Assuming that people with bags travel at about 4 feet/second, a bit slower than the average walking speed of an elderly person.

Image above: Miami Central Station rendering, from Miami Intermodal Center

Airport High-Speed Rail United Kingdom

Reconsidering the Airport Connection: As a Through Station on a Bypass Line

» A station at Heathrow looks more promising when envisioned as a connection between the United Kingdom’s northern and southern rail networks.

In my Friday article on the brewing controversy over whether to link Heathrow Airport to the United Kingdom’s proposed HS2 high-speed rail network, I dismissed the idea rather quickly, arguing that the airport station proposed by the Conservative Party would multiply construction costs and increase travel times. Because Heathrow is not directly on the way between London and Birmingham, including a station at the airport on the first segment of the HS2 route would be a wasteful choice. The Labour Party’s inclination to have airport users transfer to another line to get to terminals is probably the right approach.

Yet, after reading a report on the Heathrow connection by high-speed rail advocacy group Greengauge 21 (thanks to commenter John W), I’d like to modify my position on the issue.

By integrating Heathrow Airport into a bypass route around London, it would become an essential element of the nation’s high-speed network by allowing commuters to make cross-country connections without entering the capital. This link could provide fast train access to much of southwestern England and southern Wales, two regions which thus far have been excluded from consideration for new service.

The Greengauge 21 project promotes its concept in opposition to the three primary options that have typically been proposed for a Heathrow connection: a spur line terminating at the airport, which would suffer from low frequencies (as suggested in Greengauge 21’s first plan in 2007); a required transfer from a station elsewhere that would reduce rail use at the airport significantly (as suggested by Labour); and a remote hub along the London-Birmingham route that would extend journey times and costs (as suggested by the Conservatives).

Greengauge 21 argues that there is no reason to reroute the London-Birmingham route, since that would limit the ridership to be gained from the fastest-possible journeys between London and the north. But by constructing that first stage of the HS2 route with plans for turnouts towards the airport from the beginning, the U.K. could be setting the stage for direct airport access and future fast train service along the South Western Main Line and the Great Western Main Line. The former corridor could handle high-speed trains today, while the latter is planned for electrification over the next decade.

This proposal would create a £3.2 billion London bypass modeled on France’s LGV Interconnexion Est, which runs to the east of Paris, serving Charles de Gaulle Airport on the way. Interestingly, SNCF, the French rail company, proposed a similar line around Chicago via O’Hare Airport in its proposal for a Midwest high-speed rail system several months back.

The French model is worthy of serious consideration as the British implement their own rail improvements. Until the Interconnexion was completed in 1994, customers hoping to take high-speed trains between regional cities were required to transfer in Paris, often even having to get between stations on opposite sides of the city. This lowered ridership significantly, as the time advantage of high-speed trains are lost when major transfers are necessary. But the Interconnexion allowed trains to travel directly from the southeast and southwest to the east and north, allowing people in Lille, for instance, to get to Lyon without changing trains: there are now ten direct trains between those cities everyday.

The fact that the Interconnexion includes a station at Charles de Gaulle Airport (and Disneyland Paris, for that matter) is secondary to the line’s role as a connection between regions. The fact that the airport station is able to attract 3.4 million TGV users a year, no small number (it would be Amtrak’s fourth most-used station), is an added advantage. Virtually none of those riders are coming from the Paris region.

Heathrow could play a similar essential connecting role between the HS2 corridor and the southwestern sections of the United Kingdom, allowing people in cities along the high-speed line like Birmingham and Manchester direct service to Cardiff, Bristol, and Portsmouth, which may not get a new dedicated high-speed line but could at least see high-speed trains. The airport becomes a through-station, with most trains passing through in the middle of a longer cross-country trip. Greengauge 21 argues that this strategy could attract 15 million passengers a year to Heathrow’s high-speed station by 2055.

The primary goal of the HS2 project should be first to connect London to Glasgow and Edinborough city centers in about two hours. This project would provoke a major mode shift towards rail across the country. The construction of a link to Heathrow wouldn’t reduce the airport’s congestion much since only about 10% of passenger movements at Heathrow could be realistically moved to rail and only six British cities currently have directly flights to the airport anyway.

Yet taking advantage of the airport to build a new bypass around London would play a more important role in reducing road travel on routes not involving London, with a movement away from flying as only a secondary, complementary effect. If constructing that bypass becomes a priority in the future, routing it through the airport could be the right approach — and British rail planners should be designing HS2 now to be ready for it.

Image above: Greengauge 21’s Heathrow Opportunity Plan, from Greengauge 21

Airport Bay Area DOT

FTA Kills Plan to Use Stimulus Funds for Oakland Airport Connector

» $70 million will be redistributed for operating funds at cash-strapped local agencies; fate of $422 million more also committed to the project is unclear.

One clear outcome of the distribution of stimulus funds to transit agencies across the country was a marked preference for using the money to increase capital spending, rather than a ramp up of operations. Even as cities from New York to Denver have invested hundreds of millions of federal dollars in renovations and new line construction, they have cut spending on existing services. This has led to a peculiar situation in which transit agencies seem to be willing to trade bus drivers for construction workers.

Whether this process has resulted in a net increase in jobs is questionable. It certainly has produced a reduction in transit service quality, at least in the short term.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the availability of stimulus funds allowed the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to allocate $70 million of Washington’s dollars to the Oakland Airport Connector, even as it was cutting equivalent amounts from the operating budgets of the region’s transit agencies, including BART, Muni, and AC Transit. The end product: fewer people working in operations, more in construction.

Now, after an inquiry into the civil rights violations of the Airport Connector, the Federal Transit Administration has ruled that stimulus funds cannot be used for the project and that the money will have to be diverted elsewhere by March, or the Bay Area will lose out on the special federal financing altogether. Thankfully, the cash could be vital in shoring up the operating budgets of the area’s bus and rail agencies, and it could prevent the firing of hundreds or even thousands of operators.

The fate of the 3.2-mile, $492 million Airport Connector is now up in the air.

The FTA’s decision-making in regards to this project was not based on a concern for better transit provision — local decisions about allocations are supposed to be made by local officials — but rather as a result of a sort of technicality: because the region hasn’t studied and ensured adequate legally mandated civil rights compliance for the project now, it won’t be able to begin construction before September, which is when stimulus-funded projects are required to get off the ground.

But the elimination of these dollars for the Airport Connector is a good move for the region’s population, despite the corresponding loss of construction jobs. Not only is the rail line over-designed and too expensive considering the moderate number of riders expected to use it, but there are other, cheaper alternatives that would be just as effective. The extra funds not being used for the line can now be distributed for services to San Francisco’s Municipal Railway on the order of $17.5 million, Oakland’s AC Transit $6.8 million, and BART $17 million, though that latter agency’s direct connection to the Airport Connector project may put its own operations funds in danger as well.

This infusion of money won’t be enough to avoid all service cuts at local agencies — Muni is cutting a total of $28.5 million from its budget this year alone — but it will at least relieve some transit users. It certainly does not appear to be enough to rescue the proposed East Bay BRT line.

That is, unless the other $422 million that remains committed to the Airport Connector — including $89.1 million in Alamada County traffic congestion funds and $146 million Bay Bridge congestion funds — is abandoned in favor of other projects, a route that is being suggested by proponents of expanded transit operations in the Bay Area.

Yet the Metropolitan Transportation Commissioned seems convinced of the importance of the Airport Connector project, and even in response to the FTA’s negative judgment on funding the line, BART claimed that the project “does what stimulus funds are designed for,” that is, create jobs. But it’s hard to take that logic seriously when the transit agency is simultaneously finding ways to fire its existing employees.

Since when are the jobs of construction workers more valuable than those of bus and train drivers? How is it appropriate, in a time of limited funding, to prioritize a project that will give transit access to airport users alone when the hundreds of thousands of people using the normal system every day are seeing their trip times lengthened and their fares increased?

Choosing not to fund the Airport Connector with federal stimulus money, then, is a good decision on the part of the FTA. We’ll be waiting to see if those running the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission will come to the same conclusions and cancel the project entirely.

Airport Washington DC

Dulles Airport Replaces Distinctive Mobile Lounge System with AeroTrain

» System marks airport’s advance into the 21st century, but the terminals aren’t necessarily ready.

When it opened in the early 1960s, Washington Dulles Airport was ahead of its time. Its soaring suspended concrete ceiling designed by Eero Saarinen marked a distinctive entry point for visitors arriving to the nation’s capital. Everything about the airport was constructed with the most modern ideas about air travel, including in terms of transportation to and from airplanes. Instead of having travelers descend steps from airplane doors and then walk into the building, the airport’s “mobile lounges” — buses designed to “mate” with airplanes — transported people directly from a dock on the side of the primary terminal to the airplane’s front stoop, where one could simply stroll into a jet.

Over time, the concept grew outmoded. As security measures increased and the number of commuters expanded, waiting around in the main terminal for the appropriate mobile lounge no longer worked as well, as crowding ensued. Eventually, there were too many jets, and Dulles built midfield concourses designed to handle dozens of jets at a time and allow direct walking transfers between flights. They also included jet bridges, whose direct connection to the terminal offered easier access and operations. The direct convenience initially offered by the lounges became a handicap as congestion on the tarmac between the shuttles and aircraft.

The response of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which runs the facility as well as Reagan National Airport, was to build an airport people mover. It opens for service today after seven years of construction. The 3.8-mile AeroTrain cost $1.5 billion and has four underground stations. Many of the airport’s users can now expect faster commutes between check-in desks and planes.

Dulles’ project has become the standard practice for large airports around the world. In opening its people mover along with a new terminal complex in 1971, Tampa became the first city to pioneer the approach. In recent years, cities as diverse as Dallas, New York, San Francisco, and Minneapolis have opened similar mini-trains, which take advantage of the captive audience at airports to move people about efficiently. They have significantly relieved congestion caused by shuttles between terminals at the airports where they’ve been implemented.

Yet Dulles’ method will leave many of the airport’s users in a state of utter disorientation — and do little to reduce travel times for whole segments of the terminals. The fact that the AeroTrain was clearly designed for a more flight-obsessed era doesn’t help matters much, either, since its provisions for future stations will delay current passengers. It demonstrates some of the limits of an expensive fixed-guideway system even in a controlled airport environment.

Part of Dulles’ problem cannot be solved easily with any transit system. With two midfield concourses, both around 4,000 feet long end-to-end, the airport has a difficult arrangement. By comparison, the midfield concourse of Terminal 1 at Chicago’s O’Hare International is only 1,600 feet long. Dulles could have outfitted itself with people movers running the length of its terminal, something that has been implemented in Detroit, but that would be difficult to accomplish with antiquated terminal buildings. As a result, the AeroTrain simply travels between set points, one on each end of the the first concourse (A and B gates) and one on one end of the second concourse (C gates). Because of limitations in available funds, there will be no AeroTrain access to the other end of the second concourse (D gates), which will continue to welcome mobile lounges, as will international arrivals.

As a result, the AeroTrain, which will offer 29 Mitsubishi Crystal Mover rubber-tired vehicles running every two minutes at peak times, won’t help customers attempting to get from one end of a terminal to another. A huge percentage of customers will continue to have long walks to their gates; the linear nature of an airport terminal contrasts severely with the point-centric orientation of a transit system such as AeroTrain. Other airports hoping to implement similar should aim to limit the length of terminals — an airport station can only be convenient for people who feel comfortable walking to gates with heavy bags.

Even more difficult is the fact that the station designed for C gates is located five hundred feet away from the building itself, accessible only via an underground moving walkway. That’s because AeroTrain was built with Dulles’ future expansion in mind, which would theoretically involve the tearing down of C and D gates (which were supposed to be temporary when first built) and the construction of three new midfield concourses and a new south terminal. If that complex were ever built, it the AeroTrain would be expanded into a 10-mile loop with 10 stations.

The problem for Dulles’ planners is that there is no money for those new facilities, and growth in air traffic has slowed tremendously since the project was first conceived. If high-speed rail proponents get their way, it will slow even more — a trend that should force the airport authority to reevaluate whether it needs to plan for any expansion at all. In that case, the station for the C Gates probably should have been built directly adjacent, rather than several hundred feet away. In this case, there is clearly a downside to thinking too far ahead.

Nonetheless, in some ways Dulles will become a better airport as a result of this large investment. The main terminal AeroTrain station has four underground levels (pictured above) and is as long as the whole building. It is built in a way that prevents conflict between arriving and departing passengers by having them exit vehicles on opposite sides. Meanwhile, security facilities, which have cluttered the historic Saarinen structure, will be moved into newly expanded space underground, not only improving passenger experience, but facilitating movement to the transit system and eventually to gates.

The opening of the AeroTrain coincides with the construction of the Dulles Metro project, which will extend Metrorail service from East Falls Church to the airport and then Loudoun County by 2016. MWAA is also in charge of that program, and it has probably learned some valuable experience about building a major transit system from the construction of AeroTrain.

Image above: Dulles Airport AeroTrain Station, from Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority

Airport London Personal Rapid Transit United Kingdom

Are London Heathrow’s ULTra Pods the Future of Transit?

» Successful implementation at huge U.K. airport could mean more interest in PRT elsewhere.

Proponents of personal rapid transit systems have frequently promoted themselves as opponents of traditional public transportation. Unlike expensive metro or light rail systems, they claimed, their PRT lines would be cheaper to construct, more convenient for passengers, and more attractive for users. Now that a new line is readying for opening in the United Kingdom, the technology may attain new prominence.

Over the years, most attempts at implementing PRT have failed due to a lack of interest from investors — and as a result of deceptive, dishonest campaigns by “pod people” who simply promise too much.

Even with the rebirth of modern rail systems over the past few decades in the United States, PRT continues to be brought up as an environmentally friendly solution for urban transport, allowing passengers virtually instant access to vehicles, stop-free commutes, and direct access to many destinations. In other words, it theoretically can solve many of the deficiencies of regular transit, which requires waiting for trains or buses to arrive, multiple stops along a route, and a walk or drive to and from stations. Yet only in 1975, at the University of West Virginia in Morgantown, has a system that allows such on-demand travel by automated train been constructed.

Next spring, London’s Heathrow Airport will take a step forward to advance the PRT concept with the implementation of a new network connecting its Terminal 5 and associated parking areas. The ULTra (Urban Light Transit) system is being developed by Bristol, England Wales-based Advanced Transport Systems and will initially travel between three stations along a three-mile track using 21 four-passenger vehicles. The mini-cars, which travel at speeds of up to 25 mph and which use lasers for guidance along the 7 foot-wide pavement, have tires and are autonomous, meaning they more closely replicate the experience of automobiles than trains. They’re battery driven and use energy at the equivalent of 200 mpg.

Vehicles are designed to bypass stations, allowing non-stop travel. Customers will pick their destination by pressing a button on a touch screen before departing. Empty vehicles will be available at all times at stops for passengers needing to get between the car parks and the airport terminals, or vice-verse.

The system didn’t come cheaply — at $41 million, the private airport owner that paid for the line and some of the technology’s development is making a big bet that it hopes to eventually expand throughout the airport and into the surrounding areas with 400 pods at a cost of $330 million. That is, if this first test goes well.

If the claimed $7-15 million costs per mile (without rights-of-way) are to be believed, this PRT is cheaper than normal transit, but not much. Per passenger, its costs may actually be higher, since it is only expected to handle about 500,000 annual passengers, an average of less than 2,000 a day.

Nevertheless, the system holds promise: its use of batteries installed in each vehicle rather than an electrified third rail or catenary makes the corridor easier to maintain and cheaper to build — an advantage that will soon be replicated in the implementation of similar technology on tramways. The use of electricity rather than diesel motors (as in the existing buses used by passengers) will eliminate local-source pollutants and decrease noise levels. The elimination of human drivers will improve travel times by 60% and reduce operating costs by 40% — if initial estimates prove accurate. Passengers will get direct and instant access between parking lots and the terminal; plus, they’ll eventually be offered similar service to surrounding office buildings and hotels.

Unlike the cities in which PRT lines are usually proposed, this airport environment provides a sealed-off, protected setting in which to experiment with this model for a new form of transportation. The ULTra project seems highly likely to operate problem-free here, but what is the appeal elsewhere?

Abu Dhabi is planning a new city called Masdar that will not allow cars and instead rely on PRT lines to connect people from one place to another; San Jose is planning a people mover between its airport and surrounding transit stations and neighborhoods; other American cities like Mountain View and Ithaca are “studying” the idea, though there are no definite plans there. Companies such as SkyCab and Vectus are planning their own rival PRT technologies to spread around the world, and unlike some previous PRT pushers, they seem truthful in what they expect to provide (in other words, they don’t claim that initial capital costs will be paid back with fare revenue).

For airports and new cities, PRT could supplement other mass transit systems rather effectively and encourage people to live car-free lifestyles by providing them destination-to-destination service with minimal walking to and from stations. In newly built environments, PRT could be constructed cheaply and it could be installed in such a way that does not disrupt its surroundings. Proponents use this fact as evidence for the universal applicability of PRT, claiming that it should replace transit systems since it would allow for the phase out of cars, but their arguments are weakened by the realities of the way cities work.

PRT cannot replace light and metro rail systems, as its capacity is far lower. Along major routes at peak periods, systems that are capable of carrying hundreds of people per train every two minutes are necessary, and PRT will never allow that kind of operation.

Similarly, if a PRT vehicle sounds awfully like an automated car, the analogy isn’t far off: indeed, the idea that people would be able to travel by themselves from one place to another is simply an advanced version of the car sharing systems now being implemented in places like Paris. Most major cities have serious transportation needs along heavily traveled lines, and PRT will not be able to do much there, since the lines would be completely overloaded and therefore unusable if implemented in very dense cities like New York or San Francisco.

In addition, PRT’s proponents ignore the fact that their calls for dense networks of lines and stations would duplicate the already existing road system and degrade the urban landscape with elevated structures. This is no effective already to urban sprawl, since direct access to PRT stations every few blocks would undoubtedly encourage the sort of spread-out environments that have blighted American cities for decades. For those that don’t care about that problem, a cheaper alternative might be to wait a decade or so for more advanced automobiles that can negotiate existing streets without drivers. Stations wouldn’t be needed for such a system — people could simply call an automated service, and a robotized car would arrive in front of the house. This is no less a fantasy than the installation of hundreds of miles of PRT tracks above city streets.

This experiment at Heathrow Airport, then, will test some of the basic arguments of PRT advocates and probably verify many of their claims about the system’s effectiveness, but it won’t provide a solution to the deeper problems with the idea.

Note to readers: Discussions of PRT frequently produce angry debate. There’s nothing wrong with spirited interchange, but let’s try to restrain ourselves from personal insults. They are not acceptable here and will be deleted. Image above: ULTra in action at Heathrow, from Advanced Transport Systems Ltd