Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Too Full

The Hiawatha Line is chock full of riders. So much so that upgrades to the stations are underway to make them accessible to three car trains. The FTA models predicted that ridership on the line by 2020 would be 24,000. But now we're seeing that its 37,000 on some days. With more three car trains, I wonder if there will be an even greater ridership bump with more room on the trains. Back during the fight for LRT in Minneapolis, people were saying that this was the train to nowhere. Though it must be taking all those people somewhere!

14 comments:

Bob Davis said...

Where have we heard this story before? Right here in Southern California, where I live. Back in 1990, what was then SCRTD opened the Blue Line between downtown LA and Long Beach, mostly following the Pacific Electric route that had been abandoned in 1961. The platforms were built for two-car trains; etstimates of ridership indicated that this would be sufficient. Within ten years, Metro was spending millions to lengthen platforms; today, even at off-peak times, when PE would have run a single "Blimp", three car trains are standard, and they are often full. It doesn't always work this way; the VTA light rail in San Jose finds two-car trains are plenty, and they often run single cars. San Diego often runs three car trains, but they have low-platform loading, which makes station construction simpler. Probably the longest trains regularly seen in light-rail operation are the four-car rush hour consists in Sacramento. Their RT Metro still has some single track sections, and 15-minute headways are about as close as they can run.

Matthew said...

Wish Austin could possibly be facing that problem with MetroRail, it'd be a better one to face than empty trains.

But back on message, doesn't this reveal some sort of fatal flaw in the FTA estimates?

Steve said...

Is it possible to get one's hands on the FTA model? I'd like to know what variables they use to estimate the ridership (and more importantly, what they don't use).

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

I'm not sure you can Steve. I'll ask around and see...

Mad Park said...

We see only two car trains here in Seattle on our brand new system, but all stations are built for 4 car trains, and when the University Link opens mid-next-decade, we'll see 4 car trains for sure.

Matt Fisher said...

I just wonder: Will the future three car rule apply to the Central Corridor LRT? It's partly expected to share track, so I thought I'd wonder about it. And I guess it can't be left out. :)

It figures that the Hiawatha Line appears to be taking people somewhere indeed.

John said...

I'm not sure how anyone could have claimed a line connecting downtown to the airport to the largest mall in the country is a "line to nowhere."

ChiefJoJo said...

The FTA does not generate the models. New Starts applicants develop their own models, usually through the MPO. The FTA just specifies what assumptions are deemed acceptable and what are not.

Two things are clear about New Starts.

1. Congress has decided that New Starts should be a discretionary program, and does not come close to adequately funding it (~$1.5B/yr), so there is tremendous competition for scarce dollars. I would argue this massive underinvestment forces the FTA to substantially raise the bar on cost effectiveness to weed out all but the best projects. (All the while, highway get formula funds guaranteed, so they away with comparatively little meaningful evaluation)

2. FTA does not seem to believe in a rail bias; that is, that people (& especially Americans) prefer rail over buses. So, if you don't believe rail induces urban development (assuming reasonably good land use planning), then it stands to reason they will force the models to pretend this behavioral reaction doesn't exist, when we know it does. As a result, you get models that predict the Hiawatha line is just like a fast articulated bus. I don't know whether they actually believe that a bias doesn't exist in reality or whether the funding situation drives their process.

The way around this is to get Congress to substantially increase New Starts funding from it's paltry $1.5B figure, streamline the process (less time/reviews), and force FTA to focus on projects that are aligned with smart long term strategic policies (economic development, energy conservation, GHG reduction, etc) that will energize our cities & regions.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

John I agree. But generally the problem is that a line to nowhere means a line that doesn't go where I want to go. This usually happens during the debate over the first line. It won't change regional ridership blah blah blah. Ultimately of course it won't because its one line out of a future system, but their whole point is to kill it outright.

Chief you're right to a certain extent. The FTA does approve some of the inputs and has been known to rip inputs out of the models they don't like. I've heard that this happened in Raleigh and Norfolk. Norfolk survived, Raleigh didn't. I've also talked to people in Minneapolis who say that special event ridership isn't taken seriously by the FTA when it should be a major input. If that's true or not I'm not sure. But I would venture to say that Charlotte's line is benefiting from Bobcat and Panthers games that might not have been modeled because they aren't a regular type of trip. Models ultimately suck. They were all designed for cars anyways and to rely on them completely for what gets funded is folly.

Adirondacker12800 said...

Too full happens. The River Line in New Jersey was NOT funded by the Federal government because they were projecting something like 3000 riders a day while NJ Transit was prediciting 4500. Expecting ridership to slowly creep up to 9000 over the decades. They were regularly carrying 5000 on an average day within months and are at capacity - 9000 on an average day in five years.

There were many people who thought MidTown Direct service - New York City's western suburbs in New Jersey to Pennsylvania station - would never be particularly populare. They exceeded ten year estimates for ridership within months.

Ridership projections can be wildly off. Can't think of any that were overly optimistic off the top of my head but they happen. Then there's things like the Hiawatha line...

neroden@gmail said...

Now, they just have to build the Central Corridor despite the NIMBYs.

The Hiawatha Line connects a really busy and dense collection of places, and will only get busier when Northstar comes in. But connecting to St. Paul (and via the University of Minnesota) will add a lot more dense places and pick up even more traffic.

Last I heard Central Corridor was planned for 3-car trains. Don't know what they'll do if 3-car isn't enough after the linkup....

Anonymous said...

Re: Adirondacker12800's optimistic projections
One example that's almost notorious is the predicted ridership for the SFO/Millbrae extension of the San Francisco Bay area's BART system. The actual numbers have always been way under the estimates though things may get better over time due to the present split-tail routing (one line to SFO and one to Millbrae). The previous routings - split-tail + link (SFO - Millbrae short-haul) and zig-zag (peninsula to SFO and on to Millbrae) - were expensive and inefficient.

I'm one of those who would like to see CalTrain (commuter line from San Jose to San Francisco) electrified. It would also be interesting to see if a case could be made for a second bay crossing from San Mateo to Hayward. Such a crossing seems more useful to me than trying to run BART down the peninsula from Millbrae to San Jose.

Christopher said...

Frankly I'm really glad Link in Seattle is being built as a "gold plated" system. Though the decision to double track the entire line and build 4 car platforms really was a no-brainer. The existing Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (built for buses 20 years ago) has platforms long enough for 4 car trains and the ridership projections for U-Link and North Link (both fully funded and under construction) will require 4 car trains and short headways.

Link is largely being built to light metro standards rather than what is typical for light rail in North America. This is why Central Link is one of the most expensive per-mile light rail systems in the country. Due to being almost entirely in tunnels U-Link and North Link are going to be even more expensive. Still there is enough ridership on all of the lines to get very good cost effectiveness numbers in the FTA scoring. Even so we may find we still didn't overbuild it enough once U-Link and North Link open. Those segments likely have enough ridership to justify a full metro system.

Still there are all of the usual complaints about rail costing too much, not going anywhere, empty trains, etc. Though as far as I know Sound Transit is easily hitting it's internal targets for ridership.

Sadly once the airport station opens in December it is going to be a long 6 years before any further extensions of the system open. Then between we'll have a major flurry of openings to Northgate and Bellevue in 2020, Overlake/Microsoft in 2021, and Lynnwood and Federal Way in 2023.

The expectation is once the currently funded lines are fully built out Seattle will have one of the highest ridership light-rail systems in the country.

Peter said...

I took a class on transit here at the University of Minnesota, taught by one of the planners of the Hiawatha line.

The reason rail bias can't be taken into account in ridership estimates for the first rail line is that the rail bias in an area us unknown. He worked on a study after the line opened that studied the rail bias, and the results of that study will be used to make a more accurate estimate for the Central Corridor, so we won't see such dramatic success on that line.

Second, about three car trains here in the Twin Cities, we get three car platforms because three cars is the length of a city block in the downtowns. Longer than a city block and surface stations become impossible. The Hiawatha line is designed for 3 car trains at 5 minute headways. When you take into account that the Central Corridor will use the same downtown Minneapolis stations as the Hiawatha line, when the CC runs at 5 minute headways, that creates 2.5 minute headways in the downtowns. Any shorter than that on surface streets and the trains won't make it through the traffic light signals.

So basically, when 3 car trains aren't enough, we're out of options without building multiple parralel lines or going underground.