Saturday, 27 September 2014

MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL Light Rail




The Twin Cities were the second stop after Chicago on this year's U.S. tour, and although I didn't precisely like the two cities as such, their light rail system is certainly among the best in the country, especially for its frequency.
The colour-coded lines were built with a 10-year break between them and they are therefore rather different from each other, but they have in common that they link important centres rather than radiating from one city centre and ending in some low-density neighbourhood. The older Blue Line (initially the Hiawatha Line) connects downtown Minneapolis to the airport and the Mall of America, said to be the largest shopping mall in the USA (not sure about that, but with a huge amusement park in the middle it is certainly special). So there is always a certain level of demand for this line which therefore operates every ten minutes throughout the day. The newer Green Line has a similar even ridership, linking downtown Minneapolis to downtown Saint Paul and serving the busy University of Minnesota campus in between. The Green Line therefore also provides a 10-minute headway throughout the day, but additionally it actually runs 24 hours a day, approx. hourly during nighttime hours!


     The two lines, however, have a rather different type of alignment. The Blue Line runs partly segregated with fewer stations, so overall its faster, whereas the Green Line appears to be a typical European-style modern tramway, i.e. it runs on a reservation in the middle of an urban road for most of its length. Its overall speed is slower, but in the end, I guess, it would be my preferred option if I lived along the line, because it is better integrated into the urban structure and stations are placed at major intersections. The trains on this line do have to stop at several road intersections, but all in all, I think they travel at quite a high speed between stations, maybe a surveillance system should be implemented which adapts the speed to the traffic light cycle, and, of course, the tram should at least be able to keep a traffic light on green when it approaches a junction. All in all, the line is well built, the new Siemens trains run smoothly and even the downtown section in St. Paul is run through at a reasonable speed (well, it is not really a busy city centre, most vehicles on the streets are city buses!). 


What does get on my nerves, though, is the continuous bell ringing (also because I could hear it constantly from my hotel room all through the night. Apart from the bell, you can also hear a full horn blow as a special warning, the same sound Amtrak or freight trains all over America produce all the time. How have we Europeans survived without all these warning sounds?



     The major crawling section of the system is in downtown Minneapolis, where also some scissors crossovers look pathetic and feel horrible as the trams rattle over them, notably north of Downtown East (the Metrodome annex has been dropped as this venue is currently being newly built), and between Nicollet Mall and the original terminus at Warehouse District. At Target Field, they have recently opened a new station, and I had been wondering what happened to the old one – well, the trains stop twice, basically the old one is mostly used as it is closer to the Northstar commuter rail entrance and also for exiting the station. So it is not quite obvious why they built the new one with its nice white roof. To skip the old one in case of another tram coming right behind? It's a nice photo motif anyway! The slowest section is actually between Target Field and Warehouse District because of badly coordinated traffic lights. At Nicollet Mall, the proper city centre stop, an additional eastern side platform seems to be under construction. This station has a massive centre structure that carries the roof, but also obstructs the platform enormously. This station may even become busier when the planned streetcar line along Nicollet Mall is implemented.
The junction where the Green Line splits from the Blue Line south of Downtown East isn't too convincing. There are three tracks, and outbound Green Line trains actually have to wind their way through the junction via two adjoining crossovers, so they could theoretically remain on the centre track, which is the inbound Blue Line track, but this way they have to go rather slow and it is not pleasant for passengers who are shaken. In fact, twice the train was stopped at that location, and a prerecorded announcement said, there is a delay to evenly space trains. So were we too fast? Anyway, the train proceeded almost immediately. I would have preferred a proper trailing junction where the outbound Green Line track simply cuts across the inbound Blue Line track.
Both on the Blue and Green Line, all stations are quite substantial structures with some sections covered and with wind shelters – and what I hadn't seen elsewhere, with heaters mounted to the roof which passengers can put on when they freeze. With 27! degrees yesterday on a late September day, I did, of course, not get a chance to test this system, although the first thing that comes to my mind is how much energy does that waste? Can anybody give us their winter experience in Minneapolis/St. Paul?


     Apart from the only elevated station on the Blue Line, at Lake/Midtown, the single most important structure is the underground station at the Airport Terminal 1 – Lindbergh, which boasts a rather pleasant design, not like a tiny underground tram stop, but rather a full metro station. It is however, quite a long way from the actual terminal, so people have to take a short underground people mover, which like in those Las Vegas hotels is referred to as 'tram'. The trains speed up quite impressingly as they go through the tunnel.
     The Blue Line's terminus at Mall of America, however, is really ugly, lying in the middle of a bus loop located on the lower deck of a parking garage. If this is where it ends now, I don't really understand why they made it take a long detour from 28th Avenue, instead of taking it directly into this basement place from the eastern side?


     The spacing of stations wasn't always convincing. In the university area, I would prefer two stops on the East Bank, the first about two blocks further west, and another one, possibly instead of Stadium Village towards the eastern end of Washington Avenue, as the current Stadium Village stop needs time-consuming crossing of roads to get there. In fact, I don't understand why the Green Line needs to take this detour via Stadium Village and an existing transitway to Prospect Park. Why doesn't it stay on a straight alignment from Washington Avenue directly to University Avenue, would save some 2-3 minutes. There was no visible reason for me why trains need to run this detour. In downtown St. Paul, I would have place the 10th Street stop on Cedar Street further down, maybe on 8th, the gap between 'Central' and 10th Street seems to long for a city centre, but again, it is not a very busy city centre anyway.
On both lines, all stations have some sort of artwork, though this is more or less visible at first sight. On the Blue Line, also the roof structure is varying from station to station. There are next-train indicators, but they did not work, they don't even show the destination, just the time and some message. The next train is announced acoustically as for example „The next northbound train to downtown Minneapolis is due in two minutes“. Unfortunately the stations don't display a full system map, which would be good for bus connections, but there is a neighbourhood map also showing bus lines.



     What also gets on my nerves after a while is the endless invitation to report any suspicious activity! What sort of activities do they expect to be reported?
     The original Metro fleet was delivered by Bombardier (they are based on Cologne's low-floor stock) and they are still quite nice, now most also in new livery with a yellow front, although the middle bogie seems to rattle more that on the new Siemens trains, but also these have non-motorised centre bogies which tend to rattle a bit on faster sections. I find both with their livery rather photogenic, and with their colourful front, photos under a cloudy sky even look acceptable. Several units carry full adverts, something I generally don't like much, especially if the advert also inhibits a proper view outside. 


Inside, the trains feature bike racks, which are actually used a lot. But they don't have luggage racks, although the Blue Line goes to a busy airport, there is enough multi-use space, though (so Edinburgh's decision makers should have come here before ordering their trams). During my two days in the area, I only saw 3-car trains on both lines, which combined with the 10-minute headway mentioned above provides a good quality of service. And the trains were reasonably full at all times (I don't know about late night). They have quite a strong air-conditioning unit, certainly good on hot days, and I guess it also operates as heating during freezing winter days. In this context, it is strange that all doors open at all times although there are individual door opening buttons and also sort of detectors like on Bochum's Stadtbahn trains. Yesterday late afternoon, as I was going back to St. Paul, there was some accident and I had to change to bus line 16 instead, and saw once again how much more pleasant it is to ride a train than a bus! By the way, on the trains, corresponding bus routes are announced with their numbers.
     Unlike Chicago's CTA, Metro Transit does have several proper information centres, the one in Minneapolis is located centrally on Marquette Avenue with an old bus front as its shop window. The one in St. Paul, however, is hidden in one of those Skyways that link all the buildings and add to the rather deserted streets.
     Fortunately, Metro Transit has a flat fare system (except Northstar), although with single fares being higher during peak times, but then valid for all sorts of transfers within a 2.5 hour period. Express buses require a higher fare. A 24-hour pass is available at $6.00. They also have a contactless smartcard system called Go-To, but single and day tickets are also sold as paper tickets with a magnetic strip used to check the tickets on buses. The expiry time is printed clearly visible on the ticket.
    What I like about Metro Transit is their overall use of a nice red (T) logo, also used at bus stops (although bus stops could have some more easily visible line information next to the logo post, not just inside the shelters!) The (T) logo is, however, not well established outside the system, for example at the airports the signs just say 'Light Rail Transit'.
     I did not ride Northstar, the commuter rail line, as it is indeed a mere commuter rail system, with some five or six trains in the main commuting direction and only one in the opposite, so to check it out there would only be a single combination possible in the afternoon to return to Minneapolis, which I didn't bother to find out soon enough.

Next Stop: St. Louis

LINKS



Minneapolis/St. Paul at UrbanRail.Net

8 comments:

  1. Minnesota gets *very* cold in the winter -- a friend of mine used to live there an experienced -40 temps several times. I'm sure the heaters are very much appreciated at the outdoor stations!

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  2. The importuning to report suspicious activity is very common in the US; we see (and hear) it all over the NY metro area. The Federal and state governments have convinced the metro systems that they are under constant threat of massive terrorist attack, so they all act very nervous.

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  3. The bulky "art column's" in the picture give creepy feeling (especially at night), all kind of things or tugs can be hided/ hiding in a corner next to them. This will add to an uneasy feeling all kinds of "suspicious activity"can be hided next to them out of sight. In Europe they try to prevent this kind of hiding places. keep things open and visible is the motto.

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  4. Re: Campus stations: The final location of the East Bank station puts it adjacent to the hospital complex, since it was assumed that college students are usually more able to walk an extra block or two than patients. As for Stadium Village station, the street between it and the stadium is closed during events, which allows fans to move between the station and the stadium freely, rather than crossing one of the busiest streets in the city. I'm not saying the locations are perfect, but there are reasons for the placement.

    As stated above, MSP gets extremely cold in January/February. This last winter, there were weeks where the temp dropped to ~-25 every single night. The heaters aren't super efficient, but they're necessary.

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  5. At the airport you merely have to go up, up, up the escalator from the metro station to access a security checkpoint to get into the airport terminal. You really only need to take the people mover into the main ticket counter if you're checking luggage.

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  6. Resulting from this U.S. trip, I have now published the third book in my U.S. series, namely "Subways & Light Rail in the U.S.A. - Vol. 3: Midwest & South", for more info see
    http://www.robert-schwandl.de/usa/midwest-south/

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  7. These days transportation is the one of the major part for the countries for the development.Many people are using different modes of transportation.Especially railway transport is the major one for the passengers to travel within time & not effecting any traffic.Found some of the world's top busiest metro systems in the world.

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  8. Robert, there are also heaters at all 'L' stations in Chicago. I am amazed you have not noticed them (as well as notes that heat is available from November to March or something alone those lines). I should have shown to you, but I also thought you would pay attention :-)

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