The second stop on my US tour this year was Salt Lake City, which I reached just before midnight after a more than 15-hour train ride on the California Zephyr from Denver (great scenery, low speed...). I had the next two days (13-14 July 2012) to explore the city and its light rail and commuter rail system.
In many aspects, the light rail system is similar to that in Denver, and having come from there, it seems quite natural to make a few comparisons. The system is called TRAX, a name which seems to be used also in everyday speech.
Light Rail routesLike in Denver, the downtown sections of the system are on reserved lanes (protected by curbs) along urban streets, notable Main Street, the city's main artery, and South Temple, the major east-west route. The intersection of both next to the Mormon Temple marks the point where streets are devided into North, East, South and West.
The original route ran from what is now Arena station (initially Delta Center) to Sandy in the south. There is a short on-street sections, though with low car traffic, between 900 South and Ballpark stations, south of that there is a railway-type right-of-way along an old railway route. On this section, trains speed up considerably, probably the fastest light rail ride I have seen, and unlike Denver, automatically closing barriers seem to be enough as there is no horn blowing or bells. Trains even enter stations quite fast without any warning sound. On these sections, there are several level crossings, but trains cause barriers to close automatically and so there are no delays.
The downtown route was later extended to Salt Lake Central, a transportation hub with a bus terminal and the Frontrunner commuter rail.
In time for the 2002 Winter Olympics, the eastern branch to the Stadium and later to the University was completed. This route is somehow different and appears to be more of a modern tram line: the tracks do not run straight along the median of the road like on the other downtown sections, instead they continuously adjust to the number of required road lanes, and at several of the numerous intersections, the LRT has to share the lane with left-turning traffic, resulting in a severe reduction of travel speed as the trains cannot keep up with the parallel road traffic, instead they are often held too long at those intersections.
The two newest routes, to the Jordan Valley and West Valley partly follow old railway routes, and are generally built on generous alignments with wide curves. There are three major bridge structures on the Green Line to West Valley, over the mainline railway tracks, the Jordan River and over the I-215 motorway. There is a lot of development along this route, but the Red Line to Daybreak runs, and will run for many years still, through completely undeveloped areas, especially the two stops before the terminus are in the middle of nowhere, with just small car parks next to them. Even a station named West Jordan City Center is quite misleading: although there are a few new administrative buildings nearby, it does not appear to be anything one might associate with a city center. Another misleading name is the junction called Central Pointe! Nothing much but some industrial yards there! So these two extensions were built futureproof and it will be seen whether development along the lines becomes a reality soon. But I wonder if they were really the highest priority or simply easy to implement.
The airport branch is almost complete, with overhead wires in place on the stretches I saw. This will open in 2013 and provide a good connection to all downtown hotels. They are also building a direct interchange for the Green Line and the FrontRunner at North Temple, where the old road bridge was replaced by a new structure. So the Green Line will then no longer go to Salt Lake Central, but to the Airport.
Like in Denver, it is interesting that all lines share the same route on a section south of the city centre, on a stretch where you would not really need multiple lines. Unfortunately, the Red Line does not actually enter the downtown area proper, instead its closest downtown stop is Courthouse, at the southern edge of the downtown area. So many people change there to get to City Center station, which in fact deserves that name. The new City Creek shopping mall opened there recently, and all the tourist sites around Temple Square are accessible from there.
At the termini, there is an announcement saying “This is the end of the line, as far as we go!”, and (I don't know if this is common across the USA) they pronounce a station name written as “900 South” as “9th South” (and the station sign actually says 860 South 200 West!). By the way, a SLC speciality is that (approximate) street numbers are added to the station names, especially on the original line to Sandy. These are also announced, for example, on the Green Line to West Valley, although they are not shown on maps. For people who have the numbering system of the city streets present in their minds, this will certainly be helpful, while I personally get confused by these numbers.
Light Rail stationsLike in Denver, all stations are in a very good shape, although built to a rather standard design (on the southern branches, the stations roofs take the colour of the line serving the respective branch!). All stations have shelters, mostly one at either end of the platform as trains always stop at the front end of each side. On the Blue Line as well as on the University branch of the Red Line, stations have short elevated platforms like in Denver to allow level boarding on older trains; the new branches, however, have no such platforms and can therefore only be served by the newer S70 cars (see below). Most stations are enhanced with public art, generally located in the middle of the platform, and with window paintings or illustrations at the covered wind/rain shelters. Generally, stations have island platforms accessible at-grade from adjacent streets. At the few stations with side platforms, the exiting side is announced on the train. There are no metro-style stations, where passengers wouldn't have to cross the tracks. The platforms are some 20 cm high, so a low step remains to enter low-floor trains too, which have an automatically extracting ramp for wheelchair users. All stations have ticket vending machines and modern next-train indicators showing the minutes remaining for the next three trains, normally.
Especially on the Blue Line to Sandy, but also the two new southern branches, the immediate areas around the stations look little attractive and do not invite to get off the train to explore further (which doesn't mean that there isn't anything to explore). Many stations provide bus connections and several have car parks but never as big as in other cities.
Compared to Denver there is slightly more transit police visible, but mostly at busier stations like Courthouse to supervise the sometimes crowded platform.
Light Rail rolling stockUTA has three different types of trains, but only two seem to be in regular service now. I saw several of the ex San Jose Bombardier built trains in the depot, but not in service on any line, maybe they are kept in reserve. The older type in service, and now only on the Blue Line due to the required mini-high platforms for level access, are the Siemens SD 160 basically identical to those in Denver and other American cities. They featured bus-like seating, i.e. in each section of an articulated unit, all seats look towards the driver's cabin, no face-to-face seating! Unlike Denver, however, SLC switches to Siemens' S70 model, also in use in San Diego, for the expansion of the fleet. These are 70% low-floor, with all four doors on each side allowing level access for everyone. One door on each side has a special wheelchair button which activates a ramp to bridge the small gap and difference in height. This works relatively fast compared to the manual procedure on the older trains. The end sections of these trains are raised, with seats above the proper bogies. If you sit on the right side, you can look out the front window through the driver's cabin to watch the route. The short middle section rests on a set of wheels, which unfortunately makes a lot of noise, even on good new track. So although the low-level technology is, of course, the better option, the overall ride is better and smoother on the older trains (but this is something true for almost any low-floor vehicle).
Independent of the type of car used, they usually work in 2-car formations, which are extended to 3 cars during peak hours. They are all equipped with visual and acoustic station and destination announcements. Trains have air-conditioning, and unlike in Denver, passengers open doors individually.
FrontRunner Commuter RailFor several years now, SLC has probably operated the most frequent commuter rail service west of Chicago. The FrontRunner, which so far runs only north from SLC to Ogden, has a train every 30 minutes throughout the day, so I would rather call it Suburban Rail or Regional Rail. On Saturdays, trains run hourly, but there are no trains on Sundays. FrontRunner has its own tracks, partly single-track with passing loops (most stations have two tracks, too), so they do not share tracks with freight traffic. The stations are similar to light rail stations, but maybe with a more individual design. With low platforms, there is level entry onto the lower level of these trains.
The trains in service are Bombardier double-deck carriages with a very European interior, and after a few years in service they still look quite good. The ride is very smooth and fast. They are pulled or pushed by diesel locomotives. The north-south line is now being extended all the way south to Provo. I don't know if UTA purchased more of the same trains for this extension or whether they will use the rather old carriages bought from New Jersey Transit, which they refurbished a bit. Some of these were stored wrapped in plastic along the northern line. Transfer to the light rail at Salt Lake Central is made easy with a short walk across the pedestrianised square.
Fare SystemUTA, Salt Lake City's transit agency, offers a quite simple fare structure. Any station on the light rail system can be reached with a standard fare of 2.35 USD, and a day pass for light rail and buses is available for just 5.75 USD. Unlike in Denver, these day passes can be bought from ticket vending machines, too, which are easy and simple to handle. The downtown area is basically a free-fare zone, so you can hop on and off the train without requiring a ticket.
Special though very low fares are required for the FrontRunner, and if you have a day pass, this reduces the add-on fare even more.
I didn't get a chance to look at the bus system properly. Bus stops seems to have some basic information like which line passes and where it goes but no timetable. I don't know if bus maps are available as I didn't find an information office. The one I had the address of, around the corner from City Center station, had a sign 'UTA has moved' without saying where to.