Sunday, 12 August 2012

SAN DIEGO Trolley & Sprinter

While staying for a couple of days in Los Angeles, I took a day trip (8 Aug 2012) down to Oceanside to test the Sprinter and then take a few more photos of the Trolley in San Diego.
There are two options to get to Oceanside: Amtrak has several Surfliner trips a day to San Diego which also stop at Oceanside, but as this costs 27 USD I decided to get up a little earlier and take one of two Metrolink morning trains at 8 am, which costs only 15 USD and is almost as fast (just over two hours) despite the larger number of stops.

SPRINTER Oceanside - Escondido
With L.A.'s limited regional rail network nearby, it is amazing that the Sprinter between Oceanside and the inland city of Escondido operates every 30 minutes even during off-peak daytime hours. The line was basically newly-built along an existing rail corridor a couple of years ago, it is partly single-track, but most sections seem to be ready for a second track if required. In Oceanside, where mainline trains have only two tracks available (with Amtrak's through trains and Metrolink and Coaster commuter rail services terminating here!), the Sprinter has two separate stub tracks adjacent to them on the eastern side. There is also a convenient terminal building with an information office (although the Sprinter office is quite a walk from the platform), but all in all a full hub. They even proudly hand out bus maps for the San Diego North County region!

I took the train at 10.33 to Escondido and it was fairly busy, even more so on the way back, which shows that even in almost rural areas - at least not as densely populated as L.A. - people use trains when they run at acceptable frequencies and are well-linked with other transport modes (the timetable coordination at Oceanside is not perfect but this is obviously due to the limitations on the main line which has several single-track sections). The stops are all nicely designed to a uniform design and as a special feature they have platform railings with platform extensions where the train doors are located. I assume that this is to allow the passing of wider freight trains in case this is necessary, although the platform extensions seem to be added permanently and can only be removed mechanically. At one point the two tracks separate from the existing freight track to serve the California State University, for which a double-track bridge was built over Ronald Packard Parkway on the western side and a single-track viaduct on the eastern, before the line rejoins the freight track. As a consequence the Cal State station has wider platforms without these extensions, although the railings were erected also here. So like on manually-driven metros with platform screen doors, drivers need to stop very precisely to match the doors with the platform extensions. To help them, there is sign next to the track indicating the “cab spot” (like on London's Jubilee Line before it switched to ATO). The platform length is laid out for two cars (I don't know if these are used in peak hours).

Announcements on the train are made in English only, but to my ear it sounded more like British or Irish English rather than West Coast American English!
The trains used on the Sprinter are Siemens Desiro DMUs, the type we frequently find on non-electrified regional branch lines in Germany. They have low-floor access in the central section where the doors are located.
Although titled „Light Railway“, the line is operated like a heavy rail line, as far as signals and grade crossings are concerned. This is good because there is no waiting at intersections, where barriers close automatically as the train approaches. Some sections are rather slow due to steep gradients.
Single fares for the Sprinter are 2 USD for any distance travelled, and a day pass costs only 5 USD, and even better, the same Regional Day Pass is also good for the San Diego Trolley and MTS buses and other operators in the region. If one wants to take the Coaster Commuter Railway from Oceanside to San Diego, a RegionalPlus Day Pass is required (I think it was 14 USD). But as there was no Coaster for a while anyway when I wanted to continue to San Diego, I took a crowded Amtrak train (the previous one had apparently broken down...), which cost me 17 USD. Oceanside is just one hour from San Diego and the route follows one of the most scenic stretches along the West Coast.

The purpose of returning to San Diego after my 2008 visit was primarily to take more pictures of the newer rolling stock, the Siemens S70, but arriving at Santa Fe station I was a bit disappointed that all I saw was old Siemens U2 stock, many of which have been sold to Mendoza (Argentina) where they have just started their second life on the new Metrotranvía (retaining their shiny red livery). Most of the Blue Line seems to be served by the U2 still, with some second-generation Siemens trains (SD100) in service too (many with full adverts), but mostly on the Orange Line. This line, however had some power supply problems when I waited for it, but eventually all trains lined up at the Convention Center branch. An employee than confirmed, that the S70 are still only in operation on the Green Line, so I headed up to Old Town for a few shots along the western section of the Green Line. There was a poster somewhere announcing station upgrades (which I saw in two locations, where trains run through without stopping) as well as the arrival of new trains (so I got there too early, as it seems).

I hope it is also due to the lack of trains that the Green Line terminates at Old Town where most passengers need to transfer to the Blue Line. It would certainly be wise to extend the Green Line into the city centre instead of taking the Blue Line out to Old Town. Preferably all lines should circle around the downtown area (all routes somehow seem to miss the central area, with only 5th Avenue station being really close to downtown destinations).

While the Green Line through the Mission Valley was built almost grade-separated, the Blue Line also features interesting grade-separation between Washington Street and Little Italy stations, where it runs parallel to the mainline tracks which stay at grade. But to avoid an excessive closing of barriers on this section, the Trolley first rides over a viaduct and then through an underpass (southbound), so car drivers only have to wait when an Amtrak or Coaster train passes (and probably some freight trains, too).
Trolley stations in San Diego are equipped with electronic indicators, but these are not used to full potential, they are just switched on when a train enters the station, but do not show the time remaining between trains.
Qualcomm Stadium on the Green Line was renamed Hazard Center some months ago, but those special peak services terminating there still show Qualcomm Stadium on the trains' destination blinds.
After a short 4-hour visit I returned to Los Angeles on the 6.15 pm Surfliner. The L.A. - San Diego corridor is among the busiest in the U.S. (probably second busiest after the Northeast Corridor), and this also shows that people choose trains when the offer is acceptable, so no need to say that this train was quite full. The 3-hour journey cost me 36 USD.

LINKS (San Diego's transport portal)

Sprinter (Official Site) 

San Diego Trolley at UrbanRail.Net

LOS ANGELES Subway & Light Rail

My last stop on this year's U.S. tour was Los Angeles. I had already been here in 2008, and as it is actually a city I wouldn't go to twice, this visit (7-9 Aug 2012 - including a day trip to San Diego) was just to catch up with the latest developments and take the opportunity to fly directly back home on AirBerlin's recently established flight from LAX.

I arrived in L.A. on Amtrak via the Central Valley route, because back in 2008 I already took the Coast Starlight from L.A. to San Francisco, and so I chose the inland route which may not exist like that any longer if I happen to come back in the future, as it will be replaced by the new California High Speed Line between Sacramento/San Francisco and Los Angeles. The current train trip requires a bus from San Francisco's Ferry Terminal over the Bay Bridge to Emeryville, a train (the San Joaquin) from there to Bakersfield (approx. 6 hours) and finally a 2-hour journey by bus to L.A.'s Union Station.

Although L.A. has been expanding its rail system steadily since the 1990s, the current network is completely insufficient and to what I observed, rather infra-utilised. Considering that this is a mega-city, rather short trains run at rather long intervals and I saw none really crowded.


The proper metro lines are the best L.A. has to offer. They provide a considerably faster journey than buses, especially on the long run out to North Hollywood. Going through the popular Hollywood area, trains also get busy with tourists. But considering the population of the city, it is surprising that at midday a 12-minute headway on each branch with shortened 4-car trains is enough!

They introduced a separate colour for the Wilshire branch back in 2006 (?), but this colour is still absent from most signage. I already critizised this back in 2008, but nothing has changed, it seems. A passenger arriving at Union Station who has to travel to Wilshire & Western simply will not find the Purple Line as it only exists on maps, but no sign in the station points towards such a colour! I consider this a severe negligence, as in the first place there was no real need to add an extra colour. I suppose that entrance signs on street level at the two Purple Line-only stations are in red then still, I didn't check. Metro, like many agencies in the U.S., seems to implement changes only half-heartedly.

Once again I observed that the trains have unusually large, though hard seats. A slimmer design would create more space for standees and make extremely overweight people feel a bit more unconfortable. The trains are rather noisy, so announcements are often hard to understand. Selected announcements, like transfer options are made in Spanish, too. What is good is that they also annouce places which are near the respective stations, like “Civic Center – exit here for the Disney Concert Hall and L.A. Cathedral”.
At Union Station and North Hollywood, and I suppose at Wilshire/Western too, trains reverse in the station (at least during off-peak), which is feasible with these long intervals. The scissors-crossover before the station is passed at a rather low speed, though.
Next-train signage is not ideal. There are large TV screens, showing adverts etc., but the next trains are only displayed in very small font, and with the departure time instead of the minutes remaining as is more common on metro systems. At Union Station it is not easily visible whether it's a Red or Purple Line train. It is announced acoustically, though.

Otherwise stations have all complementary information, such as network maps, even bus maps, area maps, etc. And of course, L.A.'s subway stations are among the most pleasant in the U.S., each with a different themed design. They are also perfectly clean.
Fare gates are present in all stations now, but you don't have to use them, many tickets are still available as paper tickets, so you just need the fare gate for the TAP smartcard. Once again, a half-hearted implementation.


This time I mostly visited the new extensions opened in recent years, i.e. the East L.A. Gold Line extension and the Expo Line.
Compared to the original Gold Line section, which has several high-speed metro-like sections, the East L.A. extension is more of a light rail route, although there is a tunnel with even two underground stations. On the at-grade sections, however, there are many level crossings and trains have to wait for the normal street traffic lights to cross, whereas on the Pasadena branch, which follows an old rail alignment, automatic barriers close and allow trains to run fluidly. Stations on the new section have very interesting designs, mostly expressed in a different roof structure. Soto underground station has a pleasant mezzanine level dedicated to birds.

I also took another ride on the Pasadena branch to stumble across another of Metro's half-implemented changes: is it "Mission" or "South Pasadena" station? All maps and annoucements on the train call it 'Mission', but all signs on the platform call it 'South Pasadena'! So what is that?
The last three stations in the northeast are located in the median of the Foothill Freeway, a 12-lane motorway! So waiting on the platform is rather noisy and some kind of sound barrier in the form of glass walls or so would be useful.
Only one section on this branch is a bit awkward, that's just south of Highland Park station, where trains run on-street through a residential area at low speed. The right-of-way is, however, segregated from road traffic and slightly raised.
The Gold Line is now mostly served by the new Ansaldo Breda cars, which offer a pleasant ride and I couldn't see much difference to the older stock, in fact the interior is quite similar in all cars. They have bus-type seating, with seats looking away from the driver's cab. Access is pretty level so no additional ramps are needed.

The brand new Expo Line was a bit disappointing. For most of its route it is really just a light rail line, with numerous intersections, especially on the inner section. As it gets further west, it becomes more of a metro, with some elevated stations spanning across the streets and thus avoiding level crossings. There is also a short tunnel at the USC (University of Southern California).

The design of the stations is pleasant, although they lack the diversity found on the Gold Line's East L.A. branch. Instead, they have a standard design which is enhanced by individual tilework placed at platform entrances. If I hadn't been told before, I wouldn't have noticed that all metal parts are painted in the line's assigned colour which is defined as Aqua! I wouldn't match that colour with the colour used to depict the line on maps and signs, I would describe it as grey with a blue tone in it, whereas the line's colour to my eyes appears to be light blue. So they could have chosen just any colour to distinguish the line, as certainly 'Expo' is not a colour and the line name breaks with a convention introduced only a few years ago. So once again, Metro is not consequent in what they do.

Arriving at Culver City was very disappointing, too. I expected that to be a place with a certain downtown character, but instead, the station is just a road intersection with not much around. And the 733 rapid bus to Venice Beach doesn't even stop there, so you can either walk to the next stop or get the slow 33 local bus.

The Orange Line is also shown on rail maps, although it doesn't have any rail. It is a dedicated busway for most of its length, although with numerous road intersections. At some there was a longer wait, while generally I found the ride quite fluid and smooth (you notice that especially as the bus switches to a normal road after Canoga station to approach the Warner Center terminus). The buses run every four minutes during peak hours on the main stretch, but I happened to get to North Hollywood at midday and the buses ran only every 10 minutes and fairly packed! I did not try to squeeze myself into the first one and waited for the next one instead. Probably to avoid yet another road intersection, passengers have to cross a major road at the North Hollywood terminus on foot to get to and from the Metro Red Line. I would suppose that it would have been possible (at an additional cost, of course) to build an entrance to the metro station directly from the Orange Line station. The current situation is not very satisfying, more so, as the metro entrance actually points in the opposite direction towards the terminal for other city buses. Also, depending on the bus, the drop-off point may be located quite a long way back.

Also on the rail map is the Silver Line, which is slightly different from the Orange Line. It does not have its own busway, but uses the carpool (HOV) lanes on the freeways with only a few stops on the way (the stops are like islands between motorway lanes, but fully built stations). Through downtown these buses use normal road lanes. As the service is apparently very fast, Metro charges a separate fares for these routes.

Transfers are quite convenient at 7th/MetroCenter where the Red/Purple Lines are directly beneath the Blue/Expo Lines. At Union Station, however, the Gold Line uses tracks 1+2 of the mainline station above ground, and exits from the Red Line are either on the north or the south side of the station complex, so transferring passengers need to walk a longer distance and get mixed with other rail passengers in the tunnel below the tracks. Hopefully the Downtown Connector will finally be built to link the Gold Line directly to the Blue/Expo Line and create two long cross-city lines and thus eliminate many transfers required nowadays.

All in all, I think it will take a few more years if not decades, before the L.A. rail system makes proper sense, as now it is of very limited use and hardly able to get car drivers to use it if they have to take a bus to continue their journey. Bus rides can be very tiring especially due to overcrowding and long distances.

Metrolink operates several lines radiating from Union Station, which is a terminal station. None of these lines operates all day and all have very irregular timetables, although all carry many passengers during peak hours in the typical long double-deck push-pull diesel trains. Single tickets are rather expensive for short journey (6 USD to Burbank), whereas they are quite cheap for longer trips (15 USD to Oceanside for a 2-hour journey as opposed to 27 USD on Amtrak!).

I cannot understand why a city or region like Los Angeles doesn't have a proper regional rail system with trains operating at regular intervals throughout the day. I know of the issue of freight trains and Amtrak sharing the same tracks, but often rail corridors are wide enough to add another pair of dedicated passenger tracks and I guess people would then use it much more, not just commuters. Many buses terminate at rail stations, but as there are hardly any trains, this potential is not well-used. Melbourne, which is also an extremely sprawling city, could be a good example.

L.A. Fare System
For Metro, a day pass is available for only 5 USD, but this is ONLY valid for Metro's bus and rail lines. However, there are numerous municipal companies serving the same area, often sharing stops, but these require a different fare. I assume that eventually the TAP smartcard will be usable on all modes. Single fares are valid just for one line, no transfers, so day passes are even more the better option. Add-on fares are however, available to transfer to municipal lines.
Unfortunately, all route info is available for each individual operator only, I have not seen a comprehensive map illustrating Metro's bus routes and those of other operaters, like LADOT's DASH lines in downtown L.A.
All in all, a not really satisfying situation. For passengers it shouldn't matter who operates a bus or a train, for them it should be a single system. On the other hand, one could argue that the parallel operation of buses of different operators actually allows passengers to choose which company to travel with, the often demanded real competition, but who needs that really. What is needed is an efficient, passenger-friendly system composed of different modes which complement each other, and not competition.


L.A. Subway & Light Rail at UrbanRail.Net

Tuesday, 7 August 2012


After an 18-hour train ride on the Coast Starlight from Portland, OR, I arrived in Richmond, CA with only a 30 minutes delay. Richmond station is conveniently located to transfer directly to BART into San Francisco, but not too many people seem to do this, at least not when I did it. The platforms lie side by side, but of course, you need to buy a ticket for BART (4.30 USD), whereas I think the Amtrak ticket to Richmond is about the same price as one to Emeryville, from where Amtrak provides buses across the Bay Bridge to several downtown destinations. But I wanted to get on an urban rail system as quick as possible and mix with the late morning commuter crowd...

San Francisco and the Bay Area is, of course, a rail enthusiast's paradise with so many different types of trains serving the region. I only stayed for four days (2-5 Aug 2012), however, as unlike the other places visited on this trip so far, I already came to S.F. on my 2008 tour. So, as nothing much has changed since then, this visit was more of a leisure stopover with less extensive train riding than elsewhere. I did, however, take another close look at BART and the Muni Metro, but my comments will be more a list of impressions of various types:


- although showing some signs of age, it is still one of the most efficient rail systems in the U.S., especially when it comes to capacity and travel speed.

- it has sufficient printed materials available at all stations: maps, schedules, how-to-ride guides, bus connections with good maps, so in this respect it is probably the best U.S. system.
- the visual displays in stations could be modernised, now there are only led-indicators showing all sorts of messages, next minutes to different trains (including number of cars, useful to encourage people to use the entire platform or move to the centre in time) and finally the next train approaching. Parallel to this, the minutes left for the next trains are almost continuously announced acoustically, which I find sometimes a bit annoying, but it is helpful.
- information onboard the trains, however, is not so good: there are no visual next-station indicators, and the stations are announced 'live' by the driver, resulting in often difficult to understand messages (again, this sort of message is not required for the regular commuter, but for the occasional rider, so it should be clearer and thus preferably pre-recorded).
- chances are high, however, that pre-recorded messages will not be understood either, because some of the trains are really loud, they seem to be badly insulated and you can hear clearly as the wheels negotiate their way across the switches. Hopefully the new trains on order from Bombardier will show some significant improvements in this respect.
- for me personally, as a tall person with back problems, the seats on BART trains are simply horrible. They are much too low and too soft (or sat through after many years of carrying overweight passengers...). I spotted a view cars showing a “new seats inside” batch on the outside and was hoping that this would be good news for me, but the new seats only have plastic instead of the former textile upholstering to allow easier cleaning, but they didn't do anything about the soft cushion. So again, let's hope the new trains will have better seating (I know, what is good for some is not so comfortable for others).

- a good thing to point out is that trains are scheduled to provide cross-platform interchange at MacArthur (southbound) and 19th Street/Oakland (northbound) and that this is indicated as such on system maps! This is especially useful at times when there are no direct trains from Richmond to San Francisco.
- The alignment of BART routes is generally very good, allowing high speeds. There is, however, one location where you think that this is the NYC Subway, that's the triangular junction in Oakland, and although different directions are on different levels (southbound on the lower), trains crawl over many switches in these extremely tight curves, with the accompanying noise described above. Apparently some property owner did not want to give up his site when BART was built, so millions of passengers have to suffer for 200 years because of one stubborn neighbour!
- as many sections are above ground, the train windows are darkened to keep out the sun, but as a result of this, the underground stations appear very dark from the train, and signs such as station names are hard to distinguish. At Powell station, they have already installed new signage, with illuminated signs, so at least the station name is easily readable through the train window.

- The four busy stations in downtown San Francisco, which are located below the respective Muni Metro stations, have a rather low ceiling and rather inconspicuous designs. I therefore prefer the underground stations in Oakland and Berkeley, or the vaulted mezzanines at 16th/Mission and 24th/Mission. To change from BART to Muni Metro, there are no direct escalators or stairs between the two levels, instead you need to get up to the mezzanine, get out of the zone-based BART fare system and then pass through the “Metro” fare gates to descend one level to Muni Metro's trains. On some escalators from the BART level to the mezzanine you can enjoy a view of the Muni platform.
- I don't like the operation of the southern section towards SFO Airport and Millbrae. It is rather confusing and a very bad service for Caltrain passengers. If you live along the southern part of the Peninsula along the busy Caltrain route, and you want to get to the Airport, you can change from Caltrain to BART at Millbrae, but on weekdays, you have to go to San Bruno and then take a train in the opposite direction to reach the airport. If you fly on weekends or weekday evenings, you're lucky and have a direct train from Millbrae.
- even 40 years later it is still difficult to understand why the Caltrain route wasn't converted and fully integrated into BART anyway. But with the new high-speed route sharing an upgraded Caltrain route, this will never happen.


Of all light rail systems I have seen, Muni Metro features the starkest contrasts:
- if it wasn't for the short trains (one or two cars only), Muni Metro looks like a metro in the subway portions, and even the stations appear to be proper metro stations, with platforms some 100 m long (where the short trains appear a bit lost like on some German Stadtbahn or underground tram systems!). Unlike Boston's Green Line, trains operate swiftly through the subway, although only one train is permitted inside a station at one time, I think.

- except for the relatively new Third Street line to Sunnydale, which has high-floor platforms throughout and a reserved right-of-way, the surface sections are of the most pathetic streetcar alignments one can imagine. The locations where people get off and on do not even deserve to be called 'stops', as only exceptionally one would easily identify them as such. Many are simply signed by an area of yellow paint on a lamppost or traffic light pole on the side of the street, probably with the words “car stop” and the line letter on it. You can find them at almost all road intersections. There may also be a stop ID, so you can call and ask for departure times or use your modern phone app. A few stops have some sort of platform, and a few have a short high-level boarding platforms for wheelchair users. Unlike in other cities I have been to, I didn't see these platforms being used, probably because many areas served by Muni Metro are too hilly for wheelchair users anyway. In some places, these mini-high platforms are located somewhere between stops. On the western surface branches, there are only two proper light rail stops/stations, Stonestown and SF State University, with a full-length roofed high platform and with a segregated route between them, too. 

Otherwise, most sections are on street, which wouldn't be that bad, if it wasn't for the countless STOP signs which force trains to come to a complete halt even without a boarding stop. I think that if you want to provide serious public transport, you need to give these roads priority over crossing streets! I suppose they place all these “STOP All Ways” signs to avoid that cars speed through residential areas, but at the same time they slow down trains. STOP signs also contribute a lot to emissions as cars and buses continuously brake and start accelerating again, and that's when they throw out most exhaust fumes! And for train passengers, this stop-and-go ride is simply unpleasant, I guess for the driver, too.
- also for the safety of passengers, an upgrade of the surface routes is urgently needed. Street-boarding should be forbidden worldwide by international laws! Several stops can probably be eliminated.

- unlike many other transit agencies, Muni doesn't seem to hand out schedules for individual lines, nor trains nor buses, at least I didn't see any. I guess there is a timetable, but trains appear rather at random, typically none for a long time and then several in a row. Interestingly, in the underground stations, there are real-time displays where you can see where the next trains with their line letter are currently located. As on BART, the next trains are also announced acoustically in the subway, but along the surface sections, you just hope that a train will be coming, only a few stops are equipped with next-train indicators. I could not see a criterion for the choice of stops, theoretically the busiest stops, but Balboa Park with three lines starting there did not have one, at least not in the area I hardly identified as the boarding spot!

- while BART makes all sorts of printed info available, Muni has non at all. This may be a result of changing competences or simply negligence. In the downtown area, there a many maps on street level and even new fancy bus stops with maps and next-bus indicators, but those maps seem to be produced by the Metropolitan Transit Commission, the, and includes all transport modes, which is very good. Even the “temporary” Transbay Terminal is equipped with all sorts of displays and maps, much nicer than most bus stations in Europe. But once you get beyond the downtown area to areas less frequented by tourists, information levels decrease to zero. But even in the city centre, things sometimes get rather pathetic. Yesterday I wanted to get off the bus (the stops are even announced both visually and acoustically!), I pressed the button as soon as I heard the name, but the driver didn't stop. I walked to the front and he let me off at the next corner. I walked back to check where the stop actually was, but was pretty surprised that the only sign of a bus stop was a yellow bar painted on the road surface and the curbside and the numbers of the stopping bus lines painted on the sidewalk! No further comment, just embarrassing and pathetic! How much does it cost to erect a stop pole with basic information? I start wondering whether I am too demanding?
Muni doesn't distribute a bus map, instead they refer you to the Tourist Office, which has a free and good map including transportation!


The only properly signed Muni line is the Market Street – Embarcadero heritage streetcar line F. It has proper platforms at all stops, even with elevated sections (I never saw anybody use them). But also with the F-Line you need to be patient. I'm not sure it does have a schedule, in any case, trams come rather irregularly and the crowds of tourists don't help to make it faster. On some sections, trolleybuses share the lane used by the streetcars, but they are often held while streetcar passengers are boarding. 

By the way, Muni has just introduced boarding through all doors on buses and streetcars to speed up the procedure, but many people still pay cash and have to get in through the front door. I didn't see any ticket inspections, which would be the result of this open system. Underground stations, however, are equipped with fare gates, but with passes (like the Muni Passport for tourists) one has to walk through an automatically opening door (I guess there must be a bit of abuse with this!).

And the bus fleet is rather old, both diesel and electric trolleybuses. I did not see any low-floor buses (and this is 2012!), while AC-Transit, which serves the East Bay cities like Berkeley and Oakland boasts an almost completely renewed bus fleet.


Although some people use the cable cars to climb up the hills to their homes, I wouldn't include them in a public transport review, I consider them rather a tourist attraction. It's fun to ride them, but I always feel pity for the regular passengers who hardly get on board amongst all these tourists.


The different modes in the SF area are not integrated when it comes to fares. BART operates a distance-based fare system, ranging from 1.75 to 11.05 dollars for a trip from Pittsburgh to SFO Airport. Ticket machines are not too intuitive. Basically you need to introduce as much money as you want and the fare is then deducted at the end of your trip. Later you can add more money to the same ticket, but it kept mine when it went down to zero. If you just want to ride the train and not get out of the stations, you can do that for a 1.75 fare, and BART even offers such excursion ticket for 5 USD when you get out at the same station.
On Muni a single ride costs 2.00. For tourists, a special Muni Passport is available at the Tourist Office at Powell station. It costs 14 USD for one day, but only 21 for three days, and just 27 for 7 days! This pass is also good for the cable cars which otherwise cost 6 USD for one ride (if you manage to get on during this busy tourist season!).
If you stay longer and want to ride anything around the Bay Area, get the new Clipper smartcard, which is increasingly being implemented on all modes, including ferries, and just deducts the required fare from the value you added. But as of now, it was not available from (old) ticket machines, so you need to find a location where it is sold. It doesn't save you money, but at least you don't have to worry about different fares and exact change etc.


San Francisco rail transit at UrbanRail.Net


Friday, 3 August 2012

PORTLAND MAX & Streetcar

On a relatively short (I'm writing this on my 18-hour trip to San Francisco), only 4 hour long train journey from Seattle I got to Portland last Friday, where I have spent the last 5 days (27-31 July 2012). Portland has always been quoted as a pioneer city in public transport issues, so I'm going to have a critical look here, too, of course.

Before getting started with some detailed analysis, Portland is indeed several years ahead of other US cities, it introduced low-floor cars in 1997 when these were even rare in Western Europe (Germany's first low-floor trams ran in Bremen in 1993), and it boasts some innovative elements in public announcements systems, like full video screens along the Transit Mall showing departure times of the next trains and buses. Portland was also the first US city to add a streetcar system to its light rail network, but is rather undeveloped when it comes to commuter or suburban rail.

Portland is served by two long-distance Amtrak trains, the Coast Starlight, that links the entire West Coast from Seattle to L.A., and the Empire Builder to Chicago. The North West, however, is served by a couple of Cascades trains, which run between Portland and Seattle, with a few being extended north to Vancouver, BC, and a few south to Eugene, OR.

Tri-Met operates all rail and bus services in Greater Portland. They have a proper customer information office located within the Tourist Office at Pioneer Courthouse Square, the actual heart of the city. And, they do distribute a full bus map, which is handy in size, but rather simplified, but it helps a lot to identify which bus to take. The downside is, that this map is nowhere posted at bus stops, not even in the central areas, where stops have shelters (and thus available walls to post them), timetables, next-bus indicators and even a diagram map for each line stopping there. Like at the light rail stops, there are downtown maps showing the stops for each bus line.

MAX (Light Rail)

The MAX system has four lines, all radiating from the city centre, with four legs on the eastern side and only one on the western. A southern leg is currently under construction. All trains run, or better crawl through the downtown area, and here is actually the strongest criticism I have to give, that within the central area it is one of the slowest systems I have been on. The Blue and Red Lines, which serve the original downtown route along Yamhill and Morrison Streets give you the feeling of being on a tram-train, i.e. they are very slow in the centre, and once they get out of it, they switch to a contrasting rapid transit alignment to catch up the time lost in the centre, with long station distances for the first sections, parallel to a freeway out to the Gateway junction, and in tunnel towards the western suburbs.

The original Blue Line section east towards Gresham is a typical European-style light rail once it gets beyond Gateway and onto the middle strip of E Burnside St, with a separate right-of-way (an indirect leftover of a long-gone interurban railway) and railway-type Vignol rails, but with intersections; stations are evenly spaced, not too far from each other, so many people can walk up to the stations. The Cleveland terminus has some sidings beyond the station, but trains terminate in the station, at least during off-peak hours. Like on other routes, some intersections are protected by automatic barriers, while others are not.

The Westside extension first travels through the long Robertson Tunnel under Washington Park, with a tube-type station of that name far below the surface, but elevators take only some 40 seconds to take you down. This is the only underground station in Portland, and with the neighbouring Sunset station the only metro-style station. It has a pretty plain design, but with interesting engravings on the walls referring to the nearby zoo. After leaving the tunnel, trains continue on a fast route to Sunset, paralleling a major freeway. The alignment gets a bit awkward as trains leave Sunset, as they have to take a U-turn inside a tunnel to get to the other side of that freeway and then turn south to get aligned parallel to another freeway before turning west towards Beaverton – one of the compromises you make when choosing a freeway corridor.

Beaverton is the most important hub west of Portland, with lots of buses and the WES commuter railway running south to Wilsonville during peak hours. It's a three-track station, with the Red Line using the centre track to reverse, and with lots of people crossing the tracks!
The section beyond Beaverton all the way to Hillsboro was built along a former railway route, but unlike in other US cities, the stations are generally surrounded by residential areas, many of which had obviously been built after the light rail had arrived; there are, however, still a few undeveloped green areas the trains travel through. The average distance between stations is maybe approx. 1 km, so the line is easily accessible on foot for many people. Once in Hillsboro, MAX runs on-street, though on a slightly raised right-of-way covered with red bricks and thus separated from road traffic, but emergency vehicles could go on the MAX reservation. The Hillsboro 2-track terminus at Hatfield Government Center does not have reversing sidings.

The next leg to be added was the Red Line branch to the Airport. This diverges from the original route at Gateway in another awkward U-turn, but in this way, three lines serve the Gateway Transit Center and allow people from the Clackamas and Gresham areas to transfer conveniently to get to the Airport. The turnout is single-track for about 2 km and gets aligned on the eastern side of the airport freeway. Already on the double-track section it enters a short tunnel to get into the median of that freeway (I-205) for a while, with Parkrose/Sumner TC station, before leaving it again on a flyover to serve two stations in a retail estate, Cascades and Mt Hood. The final approach to the Airport is again single-track, but two tracks (no sidings) are available at the terminus.

A couple of years later, the Yellow Line opened along North Interstate Avenue, branching off the Blue & Red Lines just after crossing the Willamette River on the old Steel Bridge. Most of the route is again on a European-style light rail alignment in the median of the road with intersections. To avoid unnecessary delays at traffic lights, several stations have staggered platforms, located each after the road intersection. After the Kenton/N Denver station, trains climb a viaduct across some railway tracks and a creek, but reach ground level as they approach Delta Park/Vanport station. From the terminus Expo Center (rather a large P+R station, with no sidings beyond the station) an extension is planned across the Columbia River to Vancouver in Washington State, so after St Louis, this could become the second bi-state light rail system. The project is, however, linked to a proposed new I-5 freeway bridge.
The newest section was added in 2009, introducing the Green Line, which runs primarily along freeway I-205 from Gateway to Clackamas Town Center, first on the eastern side and the switching to the western side in a tunnel south of Main Street station. Although stations have crossings for passengers to reach the island or opposite platform, there is only one road intersection (which leads to a car park squeezed in between the freeway and the light rail line at Main Street) on this branch. There is a single siding beyond the terminus, but trains seem to use the scissors-crossover north of the station at least during off-peak hours.


Together with the Clackamas branch, a second downtown route was opened along 5th and 6th Avenues, along the existing Bus Transit Mall, although these roads still have one lane for car users, too. Bus stops are located between MAX stops, so trains run on the right lane to stop, but switch to the central lane between stops, thus allowing buses to pick up passengers at the curbside. This might seem to be annoying, but the change of lanes is done in a very smooth and elegant way you hardly notice it. What is noticeable, however, is the useless detour at Union Station, where the stops are quite a long way from the railway station anyway, so a more direct route along Glisan Street which would allow faster speeds would have been a better option (the new streetcar routes actually runs above the mainline platforms and doesn't have a stop anywhere near). The MAX stops are in fact located on either side of the Greyhound bus station, an area that attracts many homeless people, and you don't want to hang around there too much in the evening. So if you arrive by train at night, take a taxi from the Amtrak station directly, as unless you know the area, it will even be difficult to find your stop in the dark!
Initially terminating in the loop at 11th Avenue between Morrison and Yamhill Streets, the Yellow Line was then also diverted onto the new Transit Mall route to terminate at PSU (Portland State University), so both downtown routes are now served by two lines, theoretically resulting in a train every 7.5 minutes, with a basic 15-minute headway on each line. In reality, trains come rather at random, it feels. The Red and Blue Lines share large parts of their routes, but are not combined to provide a regular headway, as the eastern section is also shared by the Green Line.
Since its opening in 2009, the last Transit Mall passengers have to get off the trains at 5th Avenue/SW Mill Street, although a further stop just before the loop was planned from the beginning. From what I could observe, this and the respective boarding platform on 6th Avenue is now almost complete after a students' residence had been built between them, so they may be put into service shortly. At this point the Milwaukie extension will continue (though sometimes referred to as the Orange Line, it should become an extension of the Yellow Line). Work on this extension seems to have started on all sections, most notably the viaduct across Harbor Drive and the new transit-only bridge across the Willamette River which is to be eventually shared by streetcars and MAX.

So, except for the detour at Union Station and the two U-turns described above, the alignment looks pretty good. The slowness in the city centre is partly due to an excess of stops, sometimes only two blocks from each other (and 1 block is just long enough for a 2-car train!), partly due to slow alighting and boarding and doors reopening too often (which is nice when you are the person that's happy to still hop on...) as well as long traffic-light cycles or no devices to keep the lights on green for the trains. So, in this field, some improvements could be made. On outer sections, traffic lights seem to be well coordinated with the trains as no annoying delays of that kind can be observed. On some of the faster sections, trains seem to speed up to 100 km/h and run very smoothly.

MAX Stations
Just like in all other cities I have visited on this trip, all the stations are in very good condition and looked after. They mostly have one of a few standard designs, with partial roofs. Passenger information is generally on a good level, with timetables and maps, etc., even an area map showing connecting buses. What I found useful is a large-print, simplified display of basic headways during different times of service. Digital next-train indicators, however, are not available everywhere. Some stations have LED indicators, others have the new video screens, which are not ideally located. Ideally these indicators should be placed at the point where you access a station, however, they are often under the roof and you have to look for them. Mostly there is more than one ticket-vending machine, although shame on Tri-Met, many display a map without the Green Line and Transit Mall in service since 2009! I suppose this will be replaced soon anyway with the new fare system being implemented in September 2012. In the downtown area, the platforms are actually the slightly raised sidewalks. Stations are identified primarily by a square information post at the front end of the stop. Several stations are enhanced with artwork, on the Green Line to Clackamas and on some Yellow Line stations the pillars that support the roof are clad with a varying glass tile pattern.  

MAX trains
Tri-Met operates three (actually four) different types of trains, generally as 2-car formations. They are named accordingly as type 1, etc. The first type, built by Bombardier, has high platforms, and therefore always runs with a second car of type 2 or 3. Due to the short block lengths in the downtown area, 3-car trains cannot be used. Also the underground station Washington Park or the open-trench station Sunset TC are only laid out for two cars. So capacity can only be increased by adding more trains (the current timetable shows “15 minutes or better” ...). Many type 1 and 2 trains now run in the new livery, which does not distinguish between high-floor and low-floor cars, so you need to look out for the wheel-chair sign on the front if you can't distinguish the Bombardier stock from the Siemens stock.
Type 2 was built by Siemens and was the first low-floor (70%) vehicle in the U.S. when put into service in 1997. Apparently, they asked them to create a front similar to that of the Bombardier stock, although the latter have a slightly more narrow front. Like type 1, they came in a white livery, but with the red stripes on the sides showing their low-floor entrances (the end sections without doors are high-floor). Two of the four doors on each side have retractable ramps to bridge the gap, but access is almost level even without them. Type 3 is basically identical to type 2, although delivered in a new livery.
The 20 cars of type 3, however, have a complete different look with a rounded front, although otherwise they have a similar layout. They can only operate in pairs of their own type, as each car is only equipped with one driver's cab. The question arises, why they didn't order long single walk-through trains instead? Maybe restrictions in the workshops? I assume they have an auxiliary driving console at the parlour end of the car. While the older trains have purple seats, type 3 was delivered with more timeless blue seats. Although the seats are of the bus-type arrangement in the raised section next to the driver's cab on all types, you cannot enjoy the view out the front window, as the window to the driver's cab is covered with what seems to be a film allowing only the driver to look into the passenger compartment. All trains have video surveillance and air-conditioning. They also feature racks to hang up your bicycle.
All in all, they are very spacious but I find them all to big for street operation. The older tyes 1-3 have a very intimidating open lower part where the coupler is located, which in the case of type 4 is closed at the driver's cab end. But compared to basically the same S70 model used in Salt Lake City, for example, they also look too big, a slimmer design would have been preferable. All types provide a very smooth ride on sections with Vignol rails, which is on most routes, and even at high speeds, but they get very loud as they enter downtown grooved rails filled with a lot of pebbles and other debris. Also for pedestrians, passing trains are rather noisy. The slowest section is actually that across the old Steel Bridge, a section shared by all lines, but a least the noise produced there doesn't disturb any neighbours. Trains don't blow their horns at intersections, just a short bell to warn passengers who are about to cross the tracks in front of the train.
Trains have both visual and acoustic station announcements and all sorts of other announcements, too, and mostly in two languages, English and Spanish. I'm not sure whether it is necessary to add a Spanish version, it is a nice gesture towards a certain community, but I think serving them too much in their own language doesn't really help them in the long run, as they won't be able to avoid using English fully if they want to get a proper job. The other question is, of course, why only Spanish? Vancouver, for example, would have endless announcements in all different languages. Interestingly, the important message “The doors are closing” is in English only! But at least now I know what it will be like to travel on light rail in Mexico.
The train destination is displayed on the car front, but especially on the type 1-3 trains this is hard to distinguish as trains mostly also have a strong centre top headlight switched on.


A third route through the downtown area is used by the streetcar system. Like MAX, trams travel along different streets in each direction. The streetcar serves the popular Nob Hill and Pearl District areas at the northern end, and PSU and the emerging South Waterfront area at the southern end. Although stops are shown with different names, transfer between MAX and Streetcar is usually easy and just around the corner. There is a track connection between both systems at 10th & Morrison, and on a short section at PSU, both urban rail systems actually operate side by side, but they never share tracks so far, but will in the future on the new bridge across the Willamette River.

The streetcars are basically the same as those in Seattle and Tacoma, rather small, and actually too infrequent, now running about every 12 minutes, which is a long wait considering you could walk to most places easily. Hopefully with the new Eastside line opening shortly, the headways on the central stretch will be shortened (but I still haven't found out yet, how this new extension will actually be operated before it may become a full circular route one day). As the streetcar is designed primarily to hop on for short trips, it should be more frequent. But apparently there are not sufficient trams to reduce intervals, and the opening of the new route has been postponed due to delayed delivery of the new vehicles from United Streetcar in Portland. It is announced for 22 Sept 2012. The Streetcar stops are equipped with small next-train indicators, maps and schedules, as well as a bus stop-like shelter. Interestingly, many of the otherwise simple stops are sponsored by some nearby company, which is announced together with the stop name. Aboard the streetcar, maps can be picked up. Unlike MAX, announcements are made in English only.

WES Commuter Rail

The “Westside Express Service” (WES > I think WEX would sound better and match MAX) is a rather unique service for US standards as it uses DMUs, diesel railcars, either running as single cars like a railbus, or in pairs. These were newly built by Colorado Railcars for this service, but there are also some second-hand ex Alaska railcars to help when the new trains are out of order. There are generally three trains in operation to serve the 5-station line south from Beaverton to Wilsonville. The stations have high platforms and thus allow level boarding into the high-floor vehicles. A sort of “Mind the gap” message is announced, although the gap is actually neglectable. As there are also lots of companies in Wilsonville and along the line, trains are busy in both directions, operating only in the morning and afternoon rush hours, every 30 minutes on easily memorisable times (a slightly longer, but irregular headway could be operated with just two trains). WES mostly runs on a single-track freight line, with a newly-built track in the median of an urban road to allow trains to approach the Beaverton interchange.


As of now, Portland is among the cheapest and most easily understandable transit systems. There is a 3-zone fare system displayed clearly on maps. Most of the downtown area and reaching four stations on the Eastside too, is fare-free on trains, but not on buses, so right the opposite to Seattle. Curiously, the free rail zone extends far into the Eastside (I suppose it is sponsored by the Lloyd Center, a major shopping mall), but in the west it ends just one stop after Pioneer Square. On match day, strict ticket checks are made at JELD-WEN Field, to make sure noone takes a free ride for one stop!
This should, however, change shortly and the free rail zone will be abolished altogether, so you'll require a ticket for everything. A day pass is sold at 5 USD valid for all zones, and I guess you can't get it cheaper anywhere. It also includes the WES commuter trains. My proposal is to introduce a 1-dollar short-trip or downtown ticket instead, this would help to avoid overcrowding and thus speed up boarding in the central area, while at the same time allowing cheap short trips, too.


Portland MAX & Streetcar at UrbanRail.Net