Monday, July 2, 2007

The Rapid Streetcar

In light of recent high costs related to light rail and advancements in construction, a new option for building rapid transit networks are available for cities worried about costs. The Rapid Streetcar concept is gaining popularity and cities around the country are looking into ways to build starter light rail lines. But what is the rapid streetcar?

Streetcars are cheaper because of their lower infrastructure requirements. Often there is no need to relocat utilities, right of way does not need to be purchased and the stops are smaller and the vehicles more pedestrian oriented. Streetcar stops are also closely spaced if the goal is to be a circulator or short line transport mode. However if a longer distance transit mode that mimics light rail is what you're looking for, but your city is on a budget, the rapid streetcar might be your choice.

Many cities have taken up the mantle of the rapid bus to be their cost effective alternative to light rail, but only do this based on cost, not because its what the citizenry wants. Recent Rapid Bus movements in Oakland, San Francisco, and Charlotte have shown that people really want light rail on a budget but haven't been able to engineer their systems to reduce costs and are therefore left with an inferior transit mode for their stated goals.

But by using streetcars in center lanes with single tracking and passing sidings at stations you can get the same performance as light rail on 10 minute headways. Streetcars aren't single vehicles either. Skoda streetcars have couplers on them as well that would make them multiple car consists. The lighter vehicles are about 66 feet long as opposed to 90 foot LRVs yet you can still get increased passenger capacity and lower infrastructure needs. You can see in the picture below from Skoda.

This fascinating development in value engineering is nothing new and has been rarely used in the United States if at all. A recent extension of the Portland Streetcar to Lake Oswego might be its first test. Literature on the subject has been presented at TRB by Lyndon Henry and has been extensively covered by Light Rail Now! Recent publications including Raise the Hammer in Canada as well as the folks in Kansas City have been looking to this option. This technology and engineering arrangement is a smart way for cities to get rapid transit and build the system they want and can afford, not the system they settle for.


M1EK said...

1. Take everything Lyndon says with a grain of salt at this point. Note that his last update about Austin calls our commuter line a "light regional railway". He's also never been honest about the lack of ability of those vehicles to actually navigate city streets without condemning chunks of corners as in New Jersey.

2. "Rapid Streetcar" is a joke just like "Rapid Bus". If the political will didn't exist to get reserved guideway for LRT, it wouldn't exist to set it aside for a lower-capacity mode of travel; and without reserved-guideway, it's absolutely 100% useless.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Portland is doing it with a single track reserved rapid streetcar line to Lake Oswego. Do they not have the political will? Have you looked at costs lately? Do you know why the country is starting to look at Rapid Bus? As long as the FTA is doing their cost effectiveness awfulness, smaller cities aren't going to be able to get money for light rail. So its not a case of political will such as the case of Charlotte where they delayed a decision for light rail because they couldn't get it to cost out but its what they wanted in the southeast corridor. I've collected about 15 articles from different cities citing that dang cost effectiveness measure as a hang up with a move towards rapid bus even when political will was very strong. As for Lyndon, I think this is a case of semantics between the two of you. Just because you all don't agree on a few things doesn't mean everything he says is bunk.

M1EK said...

It's not semantics; he's purposefully choosing a term which he knows is misleading because it makes the service sound better than it really is. It's exactly the same thing (although in the opposite direction) as Skaggsians calling light rail 19th century choo-choos and the like.

As for Portland's Oswego streetcar - that's an existing rail right-of-way. Nobody's being asked to give up their car lane - hence, the political will required is far far less.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

I don't think the idea i had would take up a car lane in most places. There are medians and turning lanes that can be converted. I think we are agreeing but not understanding each other. When thinking about a place where there isn't a median that is all car all the time, yes I believe just building light rail is the best option because you're right, no one is going to give up a lane. But a lot of streets in a lot of cities have this middle ground that is just a divider and goes unused. That is where you can set up a single track Rapid Streetcar or even double track. For example, if you look at this picture of Westheimer... The center lane is worthless most of the time except for some turns. You could probably even make it so that you single track at first but have it a bit off center so if double tracking is warranted you can do it later. I know its hard to read my mind, are we kind of on the same page now?

M1EK said...

Yes, but I question how much difference it makes - the Austin line would have largely just taken up the center lane as well (at least on Lamar; on the narrow section of Guadalupe it would have been a bit more tricky). Giving up all turns is going to sound to motorists like effectively giving up a lane.

Brandon in California said...

Transit agencies should stay away from single tracking. It's bad. It may reduce the capital cost and provide a near-term solution; however, it reduces the flexibility of the line for different frequencies in the future. Depending on the severity of the situation, single tracking can be the number one constraint for an entire system in adjusting its schedules because of the ballet that trains need to do on a single track line.

Of course, this assumes the trains operated on the single track line also run along other tracks shared by other lines.

nawdry said...


Why Rapid Streetcar Makes Sense ... and More Info on Single-Tracking

Rapid Streetcar adequately captures the deployment of streetcars/trams in applications more advanced than mere mixed-traffic street running - for example, a combination of mixed-traffic street running together with operation in reserved lanes, median reservations, exclusive alignments (such as rail rights-of-way), etc.

Since I originated the concept in about 2001, Rapid Streetcar has gained increasingly widespread acceptance, and is, in effect, being implemented in both Portland and Tacoma, at least in segments of their operations. Of course, it is already widely deployed in Europe, Australia, and elsewhere - I just applied the term Rapid Streetcar to this mode of streetcar operation.

Reconnecting America's new book, 'Street Smart' - the first comprehensive guidebook for streetcar development in recent times - devotes a whole section to "The Rapid Streetcar - A Hybrid Option" (p. 72).

In addition to Kansas City, Rapid Streetcar is being considered for places like Fresno, Little Rock, and Atlanta. Those are only the proposals I've heard about - I suspect more are in the mill. In many places, such as Spokane, Birmingham, Toledo, Richmond, Omaha, Milwaukee, etc. - Rapid Streetcar may be the most feasible path to an initial LRT system.

Re: single-track operation, let's keep in mind that this is usually an initial expedient to get a system up and running. Both the original San Diego and Sacramento interurban light rail operations had extensive sections of single track (about 60% in the case of Sacramento, if I recall properly). In the historic surface electric railway era, single-tracking with passing sidings was commonplace, and functioned adequately even on some major city lines.

Let's also note that the Portland Streetcar has from its inception had a short section of single track through the PSU campus, and sections of the new South Waterfront extension, in the exclusive ROW, are single-tracked. This does not appear to impede operations - but I'm sure the line will eventually be double-tracked as traffic and frequency increase.

That's the whole point - you can get a Rapid Streetcar up and running affordably with cost-cutting techniques such as single-tracking, then upgrade as demand increases and budgets permit. Ultimately, you can upgrade all the way to a more heavy-duty, interurban or semi-metro-style LRT, as in Houston, Dallas, Sacramento, Denver, etc. But Rapid Streetcar offers another option for "priming the pump" with a rail alternative somewhat more competitive with "BRT" and more initially affordable than the bigger, heavier LRT versions.