Sunday, 28 September 2014

ST. LOUIS MetroLink

The third stop on my 2014 U.S. tour brought me to St. Louis, where I had already been on my very first U.S. trip back in 1995, but at that time I think I only took MetroLink once or twice from the Delmar area into the city and back again.
     The first thing that stroke me yesterday on my first trip from the airport towards downtown was that all stations have a vigilant, which I interpreted as a bad sign after having seen no or hardly any in Chicago or Minneapolis/St. Paul. And as I would find out later, these vigilants are primarily visible on the northern leg, although many of them are young girls who rather play with their mobile devices than actually watch the station. Anyway, not a setting too inviting to take many pictures.
     With a one and a half hour delay to arrive in St. Louis (I think it was due to major problems in the Chicago air space), I did not have much time yesterday to explore the system, so my main day was today, Saturday Sept 27, when trains only run every 20 minutes on each line, so waiting times can be rather long on outer legs. Given that they only operate 2-car sets, the headways should really be reduced especially on the Airport Line which gets pretty crowded up to North Hanley where many people transfer to buses (I resume they are going to northern suburbs like the now world-famous Ferguson).
The second important impression was that this system has a very German feel about it. If you close your eyes and hear the doors shut, with this cracking sound of their folding doors you might think that this is an old train in Frankfurt or Düsseldorf. Also these door-opening buttons were once typical for many German trams. Of course, the high-level platforms give an absolute Stadtbahn feeling, too. In fact, those cars are based on the type B Stadtbahn car developed by Duewag, which was later integrated into Siemens. At the front, next to the driver's cab, they have an additional door like that in Pittsburgh, with steps, but I think it is only used for staff stops at the depots. The cars, however, are a bit aging and don't have modern equipment like station indicators, instead the drivers make all announcements personally, in fact, they almost talk continuously giving all sorts of announcements like next stop and where this train goes, but mostly instructions about what to do and what not. As they do this continuously it gets a bit monotonous and hard to understand.
In the stations there are no properly working indicators, either, not even the automatic announcements are ideal. Even at the junction at Forest Park, the announcement would just say 'A westbound train is arriving in 30 seconds', instead of clearly indicating where this train is actually going. So passengers have to check the front of the train to know if it's theirs. Mostly the driver would then repeat the train's destination so people can jump off if they are on the wrong line. Apparently the network is not properly equipped with a system that identifies trains and thus enables proper information on platform panels. Maybe they wait until they get new trains to modernise this system.

Like on the train front, also at station accesses a huge (M) logo is visible on a pole which also displays the name of the station, so St. Louis boasts one of a few such systems in the U.S. to use a proper logo, something I always welcome
Of all American light rail systems, St. Louis' MetroLink is among the most metro-like when it comes to right-of-way. Long sections are grade-separated, and the newer Blue Line branch to Shrewsbury is almost completely a real metro line. At the existing level crossings, however, drivers are obliged to blow the horn twice, which I find really exaggerated, especially when they can clearly see that the barriers are down and there is no car or person anywhere nearby. For people living nearby any horn not blown would increase the quality of life!

The stations, especially after recently having seen those in Minneapolis/St. Paul, are rather basic, although all have some sort of shelter, but again they are similar to many Stadtbahn stations in Germany, which in most cases are not too sophisticated either. Two of them, Stadium and Forsyth, could also be in Stuttgart, where many such stops are located next to an adjoining tunnel. 

The older underground stations in the city centre are rather dark, with a slightly vaulted concrete ceiling which is illuminated indirectly. The staircases leading to the side platforms on level -1 are quite wide and offset from the platforms. 

The two newer underground stations on the Shrewsbury line are much larger, though not much brighter. What was very disappointing at the University City-Big Bend station (I did not get off at Skinker) were the access stairs and the mezzanine which feel like an unfinished concrete staircase leading down to a cheaply built underground car park, a shame really, because the station hall as such is quite impressive with its massive arches that support the vault.
Accesses seem to be a weak point in other stations, too, most notably at Brentwood where they forgot to build simple stairs in addition to long ramps, or at Forest Park, where only narrow stairs lead to the also narrow platform, although there are two lifts from platform to street level, too. At the airport, the terminus is reasonably close to the check-in area (compared to Chicago O'Hare and Midway and also Minneapolis' both terminals!), but at Terminal 2 passengers have to walk through or over a car park, although the walking distance is not too bad. St. Louis' Gateway railway station is connected to MetroLink's Civic Center station. Interestingly, surface stations in St. Louis also have heating devices – does it get that cold here?
     The Red Line now has a stately length of 61 km! But the question arises if this was really necessary. Apparently, an old railway right-of-way was available for most of its length, but the southeastern most section to College and eventually Shiloh-Scott was built through open countryside. Today was Saturday, so I probably didn't see its real ridership, but I wonder if it gets enough passengers during the week to justify a double-track line through the countryside when many other parts of the proper conurbation don't have any comparable type of service but have to cope with buses instead? Many stations, especially on this branch, are only surrounded by big car parks, whereas trains run through built-up areas without stopping. I would at least suggest an additional station at Belleville South.

A weak point of the otherwise rather fast service is that it avoids large parts of the city centre. I suppose, ideally, the line should have run further north along Washington Avenue or Olive Street to serve important parts of Midtown. Grand station covers parts of that area, but its location under an elevated freeway does certainly not make it an attractive alternative. Hopefully the future Delmar Loop Trolley may one day be extended along this corridor to provide a more local service than MetroLink.
     St. Louis' fare collection system also has a very German feel to it. No fancy smartcards exclusively (there are card readers), instead, day passes are issued as simple paper tickets you show to the bus driver or to ticket inspectors on trains, but I didn't see any. For tickets bought in advance there are German-style validating machines.

Next stop: Dallas


MetroLink at UrbanRail.Net


  1. You've had a lot of negative things to say about US rail systems. (As an American, I can tell you that you're absolutely correct in those criticisms.) Why do you think European systems do not suffer from the same kinds of problems? Are they better funded? Or it is because the people managing them actually use them, so they understand what makes a good experience for riders? Or is it something else?

    1. Eric, I don't think that European systems are per se better, most have significant flaws too, just read my European blog entries. In most European countries there is a lack of funding nowadays, and hardly any new systems are being built, neither metro nor tram or light rail. Even France is sort of saturated after even some very small cities have built trams, but in the recent municipal elections opponents of tram systems won in many cities and they cancelled planned extensions. The big adavantage in Europe is that their are many older systems, and overall there is a different attitude or opinion what a livable city should look like and, fortunately I'm observing that many U.S. cities are slowly becoming more 'European', with high density appartment blocks also being built in downtown areas like in Minneapolis or in Dallas, and that a good public transport system is an essential part in people's quality of life.

  2. I personally think that the system avoids some more walkable places in the South part of the city, where the system would probably find a lot of ridership.

    1. The system does a great job of reusing existing rail right-of-way to get to main business, employment, and leisure destinations. You are right that it does a bad job of serving walkable urban neighborhoods. There are no good rail rights-of-way to use in those neighborhoods, and when the system was built, low-floor light rail that could efficiently run on streets did not yet exist. If the system were to be expanded, I agree with you that a street-running line in the south city would probably be the highest priority. Unfortunately, some politicians are pushing for more expansion in low-density suburbs, where there will inevitably be low ridership. But for now there is no serious effort to build anything, which may be for the better, because even in the south city neighborhoods separate bus lanes should probably suffice in the near/medium term.

  3. 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

  4. Robert, heaters are everywhere: Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Detroit... I am not sure why you are so surprised to see them - it does get very cold in Midwest (- 25 C last night), it is not some kind European semi-winter.


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