Monday, 16 July 2012

SALT LAKE CITY Trax

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 routes
Like 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 stations
Like 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 stock
UTA 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 Rail
For 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 System
UTA, 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.



3 comments:

  1. Yes, “TRAX” is used as shorthand for the light rail system, similar to how “BART” is used in the Bay Area: as in, “I’m taking TRAX.” This branding is smart, as it gives transit greater familiarity and identity. In Denver, one can only say “I’m taking light rail” - at this point, no single line there has enough notoriety such that one can say “I’m taking the ‘H Line’” and everyone would know what one is talking about.

    The newest routes to Daybreak and West Valley City are interesting for a number of reasons. The embankment supporting the trackbed between the Jordan River and mainline railway track bridges was basically built out of styrofoam - rather than using traditional compacted earth, which would have taken longer to settle, an artificial foundation layer was used to speed construction.

    It certainly is true that the new lines run through undeveloped areas. Along the Green Line, horse properties are adjacent to the tracks, and along the Red Line, antelope can be spotted from the train! However, this will not always be the case - Daybreak is designed as a large-scale, greenfield transit-oriented development and the extension was only built there because the municipality - the City of South Jordan - worked with developers to plan (relatively) dense development around the new stations.

    Yes, suburban America is in a constant identity crisis - outlying municipalities strive to assert themselves as legitimate cities, and one of the primary means of doing so is through names. So the station next to the municipal offices of the City of West Jordan is given the name “West Jordan City Center” - perhaps a lofty title, but if this city has a “center”, it’s right where the station is. Less logical, of course, is Central Pointe Station. It is located at the boundary between Salt Lake City and its immediate southern neighbor - the City of South Salt Lake - and thus its location isn’t central to either. It took its name from the adjacent development property - basically a big box store and a fast food restaurant - which has actually since changed its name to “Inter Pointe”! The generic “Central Pointe” is still preferable to “2100 South” - the name it would otherwise have, and it will assume a very “central” position in the transit network when the Sugar House Streetcar connects there in a few years (http://www.rideuta.com/mc/?page=Projects-SugarHouseStreetCar).

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  2. The recorded announcements have a kind of homespun quality (the voice is a drawly female monotone and doesn’t sound much like a professional voice actress), and the “end of the line, as far as we go!” bit is especially cheesy. Utahns are obsessed with their street numbering system, as is evident with the practice of putting the exact street address as prominently as the station name on the signage, as well as on the maps (why? is anyone sending mail to the station? why don’t we put the ZIP code, too?) In fact, three of the stations (all on the new Red Line extension) must be the only urban rail stations anywhere that are named as addresses: “2700 W. Sugar Factory Rd.”, “4773 W. Old Bingham Hwy.”, and “5651 W. Old Bingham Hwy.” I don’t understand why simpler names consistent with the rest of the system weren’t chosen, even simply “4800 West” and “5600 West” (the cross streets) would have been better than an exact address. In any case, one hopes that once the area around 5651 W. Old Bingham Hwy. Station is developed (the site is currently surrounded by open fields), the name might be changed to reflect that of the new neighborhood or one of its streets.

    Visitors with a sharp eye might notice that the TRAX stations bear a striking resemblance to the ones along the original Portland MAX line. When TRAX was first being planned, the City of Sandy was very much opposed and even threatened to block construction of the southern end of the (now) Blue Line, which may very well have terminated in neighboring Midvale instead. So, in an effort to show them that light rail wasn’t the evil they imagined, UTA sponsored a trip for Sandy officials to Portland, and they agreed to permit construction if the stations looked like Portland’s. UTA got the plans and copied the design (which was by that time fifteen years old), and rather than spend money on different station designs, Sandy’s preference was then implemented along the entire line, and now throughout the system.

    The design isn’t awful, but it has a generic neo-historicist look that is uninspiring, but fits into the suburban landscape I suppose. I don’t know why Americans always have to think “choo-choo train” and come up with cutesy station designs that try to look as if they are old steam train depots. Why not something contemporary, like the trains themselves? The two new Daybreak stations at the end of the Red Line are a breath of fresh air - they are the only side-platform stations, and since the copycat Portland canopy wouldn’t work in a narrower footprint, a striking new design was commissioned that wouldn’t look out of place in, say, Hannover - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Red_line_Trax_at_Daybreak_Parkway_and_platforms.jpg

    UTA does print a system map - http://www.rideuta.com/uploads/SaltLakeSystemMap_April2012.pdf - which would have been available at the staffed office that was closed to make way for the new City Creek development downtown (last year at this time it was open and had schedules for every bus route). The new station at the airport will be an extension of one of the terminal buildings and have an indoor area with a UTA “Welcome Center” (http://www.letsrideuta.com/2010/11/04/see-future-airport-trax-stations-today/), where one expects all printed information materials will be available.

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  3. "I don’t know why Americans always have to think “choo-choo train” and come up with cutesy station designs that try to look as if they are old steam train depots."

    Perhaps because choo-choo trains were historically taken by the middle and upper classes, while urban transit in the US mainly serves the lower class?

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