Monday, 20 October 2014

SAN JUAN Tren Urbano

Coming from Miami, Puerto Rico was my last stop on this 1-month tour through the U.S., in preparpation for my forthcoming book 'Subways & Light Rail in the U.S.A. - Vol 3:Midwest & South', due to be released in December 2014. Hot Puerto Rico was, of course, also a nice final stopover before going back to autumn temperatures in Berlin.

San Juan has a single urban rail line, referred to as 'Tren Urbano' rather than the more universal 'Metro', although it is actually a real metro. Let's start with its two major flaws – too long headways between trains and what is without doubt its most significant problem, it ends short of the city centre and therefore operates far below its potential. Otherwise my impression was quite positive.

The current line runs from Sagrado Corazón to Bayamón, but Sagrado Corazón is by no means a natural end of a metro line at all. The initial project included two underground stations further northwest, which are urgently needed to give the entire line a real reason to be. A further extension towards Old San Juan is, of course, very recommended too. Sagrado Corazón lies in a badly developed area, probably not a very nice place to wait for a bus at nighttime, especially as the bus system is the worst I have ever seen in any developed country (after all, this is part of the U.S. and people insist that the U.S. is a developed country....). Unless you already know which bus goes where, there is no real way to find out. Bus stops have a bus stop sign, but that's it, no line numbers, no timetables, no maps, so you completely rely on locals' information, and like my hotel receptionist, some of them have no idea either. Most buses are, however, new and air-conditioned, and riding them is cheap. They are operated by the British company First, and their mother company should be ashamed of the service provided over here. But it is probably not their fault, but a problem of who is actually responsible for proper passenger information? ATI (the government transit department nicely standing for 'Alternativa de Transporte Integrado' – but alternativa of what??), or is it AMA, the bus company, or First, the contracted operator? Anyway, you cannot buy day passes on buses, just at metro stations, so once you find out which bus may take you to the metro, you have to pay 75 cents for the bus, at the metro station you get a day pass for $5.00 which is also valid on buses... But watch out, the day pass doesn't let you get back into a station for a period of approx. 20 minutes, so popping out to take a picture and getting back in again to jump on the next train is impossible, so this can be very time-consuming. Although even with normal strip cards, you sometimes have to try twice as the machine doesn't read them correctly. Ticket vending machines are quite easy to handle, you can buy single fares for $1.50 or put any value on the card and the fare will be deducted on entry. Tickets also have to be swiped when leaving the station. So, all in all, the integrated fare system has only been implemented half-heartedly. I find it extremely bad that not even the big bus station in the Old Town has ticket machines or ticket windows. That there are no maps available, is no surprise. Inside the trains there are some system maps, but they are so small, it is impossible to read them. While other pathetic bus systems in the U.S. have at least some online services, AMA has no information at all, not even a classic list of bus routes, and no trip planner, of course. So this is certainly not first-world standard.

Let's get back to the Tren Urbano – except for the bad headways (a train every 15 minutes) and the city-side end in the middle of nowhere, it is actually quite good. The stations are all big structures, most of them elevated, two underground and some at grade, all very spacious and equipped with all sorts of lifts, escalators and stairs. Most stations are completely covered, in some part of the platform is uncovered, which is not so much a problem now as only 4- instead of 6-car trains are in service and they normally stop at the covered section. Unfortunately all stations appear rather grey, not even the purple line colour adds a little touch as it is too dark. At most stations, there is some work of art somewhere, but at platform level this is only well-visible at Jardines. Some have sculptures outside the station, or murals a decorated ceilings in the entrance areas:

Generally, all stations have pleasant entrances, mostly below the viaduct, and for the stations in a cutting like Martínez Nadal, Centro Médico or Jardines, with a free-standing surface building. 

In the case of Río Piedras, the two entrances are integrated into buildings which apparently replaced buildings previously demolished to allow for the construction of the access shafts to the system's only station built by mining techniques:

The other underground station, at Universidad, however, was built by cut-and-cover, it features one 'headhouse' and one simple entrance. Only a few stations, like Martínez Nadal or Bayamón, have shops like Subway, whereas most shop facilities for example at Sagrado Corazón remain empty and unused (adding to the deserted atmosphere at the terminus). What is missing in most stations are a larger number of benches, and as many young people take the metro, you see lots of people sitting on the floor. I guess with a 15-minute headway more benches should be provided. All stations are staffed with a security person sitting next to the entrance at most times. Only busier stations have two exits, but an emergency exit which looks almost like a full-size exit is visible in some. At Jardines, a proper eastern exit is planned, but has not been finished as the development on that side of the line has not progressed as planned. Unlike most American rapid rail stations, those of the Tren Urbano are quite well integrated into their respective neighbourhoods, and distances between them are more European-style than American, with less than 1 km between them in most cases.

Again, the issue of the next-train indicators is badly solved. At one or two locations in the middle of the platform there is a running indicator saying 'The next train to Bayamón arrives in 4 minute(s)' 'El próximo tren hacia Bayamón llegará en 4 minuto(s)', which means you don't get the information when you look at the indicator, but only when the indicator happens to display it. This is one of the few announcements made in English, too. Accoustic announcements on the train are made in Spanish only. Written info is certainly given in both languages.

San Juan's metro uses a proper logo, visible on trains and also on a pole outside the stations. It is made of various colours and suggests that the 'TU' also stands for the possessive pronoun in Spanish, meaning 'your'. And what is always very welcome, the logo with an arrow is also located at many road intersections or freeway exits, so finding a station is not so difficult. So why can't the people who designed this be recruited to develop a good bus information system too?

The trains are in good condition after 10 years of service, maintenance seems to be adequate, the wheels run smoothly and the track is also properly maintained. The trains don't run too fast, though, and get a bit louder in curves, but nothing too bad. Normally 4-car trains are in service during the week, although platforms are laid out for 6 cars, and on weekends, only 2-car trains are used. The cars are wide enough and feel spacious, the seats are o.k. You can choose between forward, backward or longitudinal seating, so all options are available. I don't know about peak hours, but off-peak there is always a seat left, although the system is quite well patronised for what it is. Although most trains show a TU logo, the original colour stripes on the sides have disappeared and the trains appear an plain stainless steel, emphasizing the overall colourless appearance of the system.

So the overall impression is good, but with a sense of pity that it has not been properly finished and extended to make it a really successful story, but the foundations are laid. Let's hope for the sake of San Juan's people that they will soon get some competent politicians who are strong enough to bring a good project to a good end. As said before, the Santurce two-station extension to Minillas is a must, then the previously suggested leg to the airport and the branch to Carolina, for which tunnel stubs were built just south of Río Piedras station, should follow as well. And another 2 stations towards Old San Juan, the historic city centre, should be added, too. Unfortunately I did not get a chance to ride the AcuaExpress, a ferry service between Hato Rey metro station and Old San Juan, because it was out of service after some accident at the Hato Rey pier.

But the whole system can only be successful if finally someone organises a good complementary bus system too, many stations were laid out for this. But if commuters cannot be sure that a bus will be there at a fixed time to take them to their work or back home, they will not really be willing to switch from their beloved cars to public transport, i.e. there won't be an 'Alternativa de Transporte Integrado'.

Last stop on this tour! Return to first stop: Chicago


Tren Urbano (Official Website)

Tren Urbano at UrbanRail.Net

Thursday, 16 October 2014

MIAMI Metrorail/Metromover

Sitting at Miami Airport waiting for my flight to San Juan in Puerto Rico, I'm looking back on my 1-day exploration of the Miami urban rail system, which consists of the Metromover and Metrorail, the latter with just one line basically, so it is easy to do in just one day.

Officially, since the Airport branch opened, there are two colour-coded Metrorail lines, and that's also implemented, there is a colour board in the front window, which also says 'Orange Line' or 'Green Line' in letters for those who cannot clearly distinguish colours. It is also announced by the drivers continuously so you can always be sure you're on the right train. On the platforms, however, an automatic voice only says 'a northbound train is approaching', so it seems this system has not been upgraded since the branch was added. There are next-train indicators, like TV screens, again not too well placed, but with a split screen left for southbound and right for northbound, and trains have a colour dot next to them. And this is the first system in the U.S. that I remember has waiting times with seconds, not just minutes. They display the next trains almost steadily, although short messages are mixed in, too, but for adverts, etc, a separate parallel screen is in charge. All in all, the service is o.k., trains run every 5 minutes on the shared section, except during midday off-peak, they run only every 7.5 minutes, which means every 15 minutes on the northern branches. During off-peak, the system is not really busy, you can always get a seat if you wish. I did, although I didn't like those soft worn-out plastic seats. What's nice, you can sit at the very front of the train and have a great look outside the front window to watch the route. And you can observe the driver, to see whether the train is operated manually or in ATO mode. While the latter is well-tuned and runs quite smoothly, the manual operation I observed on some rides was a bit unpleasant as it seems the driver cannot adjust the speed gradually, but has to select set speed steps, so he continously has to change 'gear' (I just detect myself referring to the driver as 'he', but in Miami I indeed just saw male drivers!). The worst part of the Metrorail system is that it is dated and needs some overhaul. The track is a bit worn-out, but especially the train wheels are below acceptable. I guess that they stopped maintaining them when they ordered new cars in 2012. But having ordered them from Ansaldobreda (who knows why?) the old trains may remain in service much longer than expected... (sorry, but Ansaldobreda's record is fairly bad, except for the automatic metro system they designed for Copenhagen, Milan M5 and Brescia). On the train fronts I missed the original 'M' logo they used to have, now it's just black, but the logo made them distinctive Miami (the same trains are also in operation in Baltimore).

The Metrorail stations are o.k., no exciting architecture or artwork and rather uniform, but generally in a good shape. Like in Atlanta, you need your ticket to get out of the system despite the flat fare system. The only one I remember with a bit of arty decoration is Palmetto, the only station on the first extension of the system:

 The Airport station is quite impressive with its huge vault, the Tri-Rail/Amtrak station next to it still hasn't opened. The weak point here is that everybody has to transfer to the people mover to actually get to the airport. While this is often a good solution when the people mover delivers passengers to different terminals, in Miami the MIA Mover drops everybody at a single station at the airport, and from there you still have to walk a while to get to your terminal. And while at the rail station, exiting and boarding people mover passengers were wisely separated, at the terminal station hords of waiting passengers with luggage obstruct the path for those getting of the train. So, wouldn't it have been wiser to extend Metrorail directly into the airport. Sure, the people mover also serves as a link between the terminal and the rental car station, which is in fact a really huge vestibule, much larger than most train or metro stations in the U.S., and that says a lot about the Americans' travel preferences! So, although the journey from downtown to the Airport is just 15 minutes and thus even shorter than in Atlanta, you need to add at least 10 minutes to walk to and ride the people mover and then walk to the terminal, whereas in Atlanta the rail station is next to the main terminal.

The only major interchange station, that at Government Center where the Metromover runs two levels below Metrorail, is not ideally laid out. There are some escalators missing so they switch the direction according to the main flux of passengers. While this is a logical thing to do, the alternative route is via a hidden lift or rather steep stairs. This interchange was laid out for a second Metrorail line that would cross on the intermediate level. At least part of its platforms plus concrete sleepers are visible on that level, rather ugly and useless anyway, so why don't they use that space for something else? There is no talk about using it for a transit line in the foreseeable future. It really lies there like a ghost station.

I bought a one-day pass for $5.65, but actually paid $7.65 because I purchased an EASY smartcard. Later I found out that like for single tickets you can also get a 1-day pass on a single-use paper smartcard! Anyway, I have started collecting these smartcards now. Otherwise the ticket vending machines were easy to handle and there were plenty of them available. On buses you can still pay cash also.

The downtown Metromover was actually a positive experience, especially after the ridiculous system in Jacksonville. The trains run pretty frequently and are heavily used. Certainly the fact that riding them is free helps to increase ridership. While the Inner Loop line always ran with two cars, the branches vary. I think the southern Brickell loop always had a single car, whereas the northern Omni Loop had one or two cars, without any obvious logic behind that. I think this branch should always have two cars as it does get very busy with people changing to and from buses at the Adrienne Arsht Center stop. But even the southern leg to the Financial Center was well used during late morning hours when you would expect all these office workers to be in their towers. The ride between the junction down that leg is pretty spectacular as the trains climb up steeply to Fifth Street station which lies high above the canal, feels like being on the 6th or 8th floor of a building, and then steep down again. The trains move swiftly, but station dwelling is sometimes a bit too long. It was surprising to see that the new trains have only two seats per car, which says a lot about its popularity, although I think they should add a few more and run double sets instead.

The Metromover stations are proper stations, some high above street level, and unfortunately often only with one escalator, so if this doesn't run in the direction you want, you may have to climb rather steep steps up or down. All stations are equipped with lifts, though. I liked the vaulted roof in some, whose structure reminded me of the Washington DC Metro, though in short, of course.

This morning, however, the Metromover let me down when I wanted to take it to travel towards the airport, as the entire system was closed down, no idea why. So I had to walk across downtown to take Metrorail at Government Center.

In Miami, I was successful in getting a full system map, a Metromover leaflet and a Metrorail timetable! At the Airport they have a staffed office, as well as at Government Center, which is very positive, because this is where one would look for it first. At other stations, there are bus timetables at the entrance, and often with a security guard sitting there, one of them also handed out a full system map they have in cupboards. On the platforms, full system maps and a downtown extract is also displayed, but I didn't see any neighbourhood maps.

Miami-Dade Transit's online trip planner is complete crap. For once, I wanted to prepare a trip properly, knowing that at the busstop it might be difficult to find out where which bus goes, so I did it before on my netbook. I entered two clearly defined addresses to get an answer that no connections were available! Then I clicked on the busstop icon in Google Maps and found out that bus 119 runs frequently from North Beach (where I had to drop my car) to downtown Miami. The Tranist website even showed me a timetable for this line. But when I was out there, the busstops didn't show a bus 119. Instead there was line S going downtown, they must have changed that recently. Anyway, this bus actually runs past my hotel! So why was the system not able to calculate a 1-seat ride? Absolutely useless! Even if it required 3 transfers, the system should be able to provide that information. Unfortunately many transit agencies use only Google Transit, which is a nice service, but too many errors, and if you tell them, they can't change it, because apparently on the transit agencies can make changes. And transit agencies employ lots of incompetent people, unfortunately...

Next stop: San Juan


Miami at UrbanRail.Net

Wednesday, 15 October 2014


JACKSONVILLE Skyway (People Mover)

From Atlanta I flew to Jacksonville on 10 Oct 2014, where I picked up a car to drive through Florida. I really only wanted to stay in Jacksonville for the shortest possible time to see its people mover referred to as 'Skyway'. Luckily, I had planned this stopover for a Friday, so I was actually able to ride it (as I get older I tend to mix up days and although I knew it doesn't operate on weekends, I was happy I made the correct plans...). Anyway, you don't need much time to explore it, trains run frequently every 6-7 minutes, so even a few station stops are possible to take a few photos without spending too much time. The weather was nice and extremely hot, and I got the shots I wanted. And I even didn't have to spend a penny in that city as parking at Convention Center (though not really clear as far as signs go!) and riding the Skyway is free!

Although not shown like this on the maps, the system is operated with a main line, from Rosa Parks Transit Center to Kings Avenue on the south bank, while the spur to the Convention Center was shuttling back and forth from Central during my visit. It seemed that this was normal. The overall impression was that the Skyway is fun but also a bit ridiculous. A 'train' is made of two tiny half-cars, which are not even interconnected, and if it wasn't for the video surveillance system, I would get a bit claustrophobic in them. The trains were fairly busy on a Friday early afternoon, especially between Rosa Parks and Central, people do use it for short hops, but the southbank side was rather quiet, though nicer to take pictures. But I wonder why they gave up the original VAL trains (some of them now run at Chicago O'Hare Airport), which are comparatively well-sized, and replaced them with these ridiculous monorails. Sorry, Bombardier, but not your best delivery! Yet another monorail I consider crap, after that in Las Vegas, Moscow.... The trains are pretty fast, and what I'm often missing on metro systems, the beam has some superelevation in curves, so you can clearly see and feel the train tilt, but in terms of capacity, I would say that a single car of the type running on Miami's Metromover (but with some seats, please) should be the minimum to feel comfortable in them. While the trains on the main line were in their real livery, the shuttle train on the spur was covered with an advert:

The stations are laid out for a least the double length of these trains, and they function without any platform screen doors, although only the section where the doors of the trains are located are open, the rest is protected by a balcony-style railing. Despite being ticketless, there are turnstiles to get in and out, no idea why, maybe to count passengers. I think most stations had escalators and lifts, too.

TAMPA Streetcar (Teco Line Streetcar)

I usually don't care much for heritage streetcars that only run at certain times for the delightment of tourists, but I was positively surprised by the single line in Tampa, Florida. I got there on a Saturday around noon (11 Oct 2014) and was astonished that the terminus in the downtown area had all sorts of information I so often miss with streetcars. There was a map and a full timetable, clearly legible, and a tram every 20 minutes on Saturdays, too. The stations, not just simple stops, are even equipped with ramps for wheelchair access and with a short roof, plus ticket vending machines! Despite being more of a tourist attraction, the TECO Line Streetcar is fully integrated into the city's transport system, so I got a day pass for $5.00 in the form of a magnetic stripcard to hop on and off a few times.

I was also surprised how busy the line got, not so much on the downtown end, but between the Aquarium (Tampa Tribune stop) and the outer end of the line, because that's where all visitors go. There was a market near the terminus, and the stop before that serves a busy leisure area on 7th Street with shops, bars and restaurants. So, I guess there is some traffic even in the evening. And later I found out that all stops have proper timetable information! So many American streetcar operators should come and visit Tampa to see how things should be done. The track and vehicles were in good condition. There is one interesting point where the streetcars have to cross a railway track (also used by Amtrak) perpendicularly at grade. The streetcars first have to make a brake-check stop and then another stop to check signals before actually crossing! Otherwise the single track has several passing loops, so in case of delays, the car in the opposite direction can proceed to the next loop. Unfortunately, all three cars in service that day were covered with adverts on the sides. 

What I was missing, though, was a stop directly in front of the Aquarium, instead you have to get off a few hundred metres before at Tampa Tribune (I assume this is to make people walk along a development called Channelside, or a few hundred metres afterwards, where there is also a car park.

Next stop: Miami


Skyway (JTA)

Jacksonville at UrbanRail.Net

Saturday, 11 October 2014


After riding only light rail systems and streetcars in the last two weeks, it was nice to finally travel on a real metro once again, after all, my real passion. I arrived on the plane from New Orleans on Oct 7th, so right from the airport to my hotel in downtown I had the chance to use MARTA. In fact, before you actually get to the MARTA station, in most cases you will first enjoy a ride on the underground Plane Train that connects all terminals of this huge airport, somehow in a more logical way than in Dallas-Fort Worth. From the domestic baggage claim it is only a short walk to the MARTA station, and the ticket vending machines seemed easy to handle although they wouldn't take foreign credit cards, i.e. they don't accept foreign ZIP codes, but luckily, there is also at least one staffed ticket counter with a friendly lady helping quickly, so that was a huge plus compared to Chicago O'Hare. I bought a 4-day Breeze card for $20.00, i.e. $19.00 for the 4 days plus $1.00 for the smartcard. The choice of different tickets is also a real plus for MARTA, as you can choose between 1, 2, 3, 4 or 7 days. A single trip would cost $2.50. So, as far as airport connections go, Atlanta can be counted among the best in the U.S., it's a short 20-minute ride to all downtown destinations, and the same train continues further north and also serves Midtown and the Buckhead/Lenox business area, and all for $2.50 or less, and every 5-6 minutes! The Breeze card is needed to get into the station and also to get out, I guess just as a door opener, because with a flat fare system it wouldn't make sense. All gates are for in and out, so be careful before tapping in and make sure noone is coming out the same gate at the same time, as your Breeze pass may then be blocked for a few minutes, if you don't get in immediately where you tapped in. Happened to me once when crowds were coming off a train at North Springs, but describing my problem to an employee, she opened the gate for me. Rail timetables are available at most stations, they include a black-and-white map, no colour maps are available, though, neither full system maps, seem to be out of print, I can only assume that they are waiting for the Streetcar to open before publishing a new edition, otherwise it would be a shame. This brings us directly to MARTA's very bad side, namely bus information. I hardly saw any bus maps posted, and at busstops, except near Five Points or other major interchanges, there is no information at all which bus stops there, where it could take you and when it would happen to pass. So that is a clear fail for MARTA, actually beyond embarrassing! At major rail/bus interchanges there are shelves with plenty of timetables for the lines that depart from there, but honestly, I find these timetables always a bit difficult to read as in the end all you can see for a normal daytime hour is 'buses every 20 minutes' or so. Why is it not possible in so many U.S. cities just to go to a bus stop and see if there is a bus coming and where it is going? Am I really so old-fashioned that I don't want to use a smartphone all the time for these things?

When I left the MARTA system for the first time at Peachtree Center, my first impression of Atlanta was that it is a rather hilly city. Well, Peachtree Center station actually lies deep below the highest point of downtown, so you take very long (and slow as in Western Europe) escalators to reach the surface, but from there you actually walk down in all directions. The second impression was, the street layout is a bit confusing as Atlanta doesn't have a simple and often boring grid system like most U.S. cities. And the third impression was that most streets in Atlanta are called Peachtree, adding to my confusion...

Let's come back to the rail service. The network is pretty simple with basically two routes. Although they introduced line colours in 2009, the signage is still in the original style, with orange for the north-south line and blue for the east-west. I think I even heard a driver once saying 'this is where the West Line ends'. The Gold Line is actually shown in yellow, and if I recall correctly, it was supposed to be called the Yellow Line but apparently the large Chinese community on the northwestern leg objected to this, so they renamed it Gold Line instead.

While the East-West Line seems more like a mere link between downtown (with only two downtown stations, Five Points and Georgia State) and the suburbs, the North-South Line connects many important parts of the city, the airport, the downtown business center, Midtown, which also has lots of offices, the Art Center area, and further north also the Buckhead/Lenox business and shopping area, so it has more of a metro feel to it, although the long station distances in suburban areas also make it an RER/S-Bahn-like rail line, quite like BART.

MARTA uses a logo pole outside stations, with its rainbow colours and the station's name, but on the station building, if there is one, it only says 'marta'. I wonder how locals refer to the rail system? Would they say 'I will take MARTA to the airport' and mean the rail system, as MARTA also operates buses. Or would they just say 'I'll take the train' as there is hardly any other train anyway? Apparently it's not called 'Metro'. But I guess they wouldn't use the line colour either. Inside the stations, there are next-train indicators which usually just say 'Red – North Springs 2 min', depending on the type of screen, this is displayed in the corresponding colour. Generally, these next-train indicators are badly placed. With 183 m long platforms there should be at least three such monitors mounted perpendicularly above the corresponding platfrom edge to be viewed from any point when waiting on the platform, instead they are often placed somewhere in the middle and you actually have to look for them. And again, they often display other things between train announcements, I think this should be strictly separated, you can have all sorts of screens to broadcast adverts or whatever announcements, but the next train should be displayed at all times. Otherwise, directions are given as 'Northbound' etc. When the next train enters the station, you won't miss it, because it blows a full horn twice as it enters the station. Otherwise the trains run rather quietly. Inside the trains, the destination is either announced by a recorded voice or by the driver. On some trains I observed that the 'The next stop is …' message displayed on a rolling indicator remained on even past that station, which can be quite confusing if you don't look up all the time. The train control system should be able to switch to the next station announcement immediately after leaving a station, even though accoustically the announcement may come a few minutes later, given the long distances between some stations. I wonder whether it is really necessary to make announcements like 'Próxima estación' in Spanish, after all, immigrants are still supposed to learn English, I assume, and translating these primitive announcements is a bit like saying, you're too stupid to understand 'the next station is'. Also, I have seen larger hispanic groups in most other U.S. cities. Additional information like 'for elevators get off on the right side' might be more useful to be translated. This information is given at Five Points, where both levels of this immense interchange station have what in Europe used to be referred to as 'Spanish solution' as it had been used in Madrid and Barcelona, i.e. there is an island platform plus two side platforms and train doors open on both sides. Most metro cities would envy Atlanta for this generous interchange station, it actually looks oversized given the number of passengers. I wonder if it ever gets really crowded. 

I also felt a bit lonely at Peachtree Center station, where you would expect a real flux of passengers diving into the station or emerging from it at least at peak hours, instead it may occur that you are the only person on the long escalators, and noone is travelling in the opposite direction either. I was actually surprised this morning just after eight, that two of the three escalators went down, I would have expected to have two upwards to carry large crowds up from the train to their offices...

The trains move quite fast or at least at an acceptable speed between stations. The track, however, seems to be damaged on some sections, so the trains start to jump to an extent that it can become uncomfortable for the passengers, especially between Arts Center and the northern junction. This should be fixed immediately before a derailment occurs, or the ATO system has to be reprogrammed to slow the train down a bit on these sections.

Inside, the trains are very spacious, and despite the hard plastic seats, they were quite comfortable for me. I don't know about real peak hours, but during most of the day, they have almost too much spare capacity, so they could actually shorten the trains to 4 cars instead of 6 (the Green Line runs with only two cars), but probably the splitting process is not worthwhile. Now refurbished, the older trains, which originally had these thick colour bars at the front, now look pretty much like the newer Ansaldo cars, with a black front and just a thin band with the MARTA colours. Some of the married pairs are covered with adverts:

All in all, the system is laid out for much larger crowds, they could operate 8-car trains, and certainly at much shorter intervals. Right now, the headways are not bad, but, of course, on outer sections waiting times between trains can be 12 minutes. All in all, MARTA's rail system reminded me a lot of BART in San Francisco. The trains feel light and swift as they roll over a mix of viaducts, cuttings, freeway medians and tunnels.

The stations along both routes have a similar style, most with rather substantial structures mostly made of concrete, either bare and untreated or with some surface finishing, and given the length of the platforms, the stations really appear big. Most surface stations have uncovered end sections, which is nice when taking a photograph. There are plenty of escalators and also lifts. The floor height of the train exactly matches the platform height, so boarding is easy and fast and station dwelling time is rather short, providing an overall good impression of a swift ride.

The underground stations are not bad, but except for Peachtree Center with its bare rock visible on both side walls, they are not too exciting either, they actually appear a bit dated, and although built in the 1970s, they rather look 1960s, with white tiles in some. Fortunately, like the surface stations, all have some sort of artwork or artistic enhancement to make them a bit more exciting:

They are all pretty spacious, though, but certainly lack the grandeur of Washington DC's Metro. Civic Center has a unique layout being placed on the lower level of a road bridge that spans an urban freeway, with windows on either side. Ashby is noteworthy for having each platform on a different level to allow for the grade-separated junction at its western side. Some stations could be better signposted on street level. At North Avenue, for example, the northern access is hidden inside a building, and there is no real hint to that on the street. I walked past that entrance until I found the southern access which has a street level wegde-shaped entrance building. Even at Peachtree Center, the northern accesses are not too clearly identifiable.

The underground stations can get pretty hot, though, as there is no proper ventilation, instead they have placed huge ventilators on the platforms to alleviate the suffering passengers. This platform temperature is certainly also a result of the hot air disposed by the air-conditioned trains. Stations with side platforms have a feature which is basically good, although not so welcomed by train spotters because it obstructs the view of the train on the opposite track: a band with the station name continuously repeated at the height of the window, so passengers inside the train can easily read where they are. The station information panels have rail system maps, a downtown extract, but unfortunately no neighbourhood map, something nowadays really the standard on state-of-the-art metro systems. So, MARTA, catch up!

I was a bit too early to see the Atlanta Streetcar working. Their website even announced test runs for yesterday, but in the end I didn't see any trams moving when I walked past the depot heading towards the Martin Luther King Jr Historic Site. I'm sure, the tram will help a lot to redevelop this east end area, now a bit run down, but already showing signs of recovery with new construction. The streetcar line seemed pretty finished, all the stops were in place with signs, no electronic displays, though, but high enough platforms to allow level access into the four Siemens S70 cars which have been delivered. But before the line actually starts working, I dare criticise two things which I predict will become an issue soon. The first is not so bad, but I think a central stop should have been placed eastbound before the line crosses Peachtree Street, or just opposite the westbound stop called Woodruff Place. The closest stop to what I would consider the most central point is either further west at Luckie/Cone (the signs actually read 'Luckie at Cone') or further east at Park Place, both out of sight from that intersection, especially the latter one, as it is around the corner. The second issue seems more severe, a programmed delay between the last two stops going west, between Carnegie and Centennial Olympic Park, where on two consecutive days I have observed a severe traffic jam on the lane the streetcar is supposed to share. So, I wonder how they will solve this problem. Otherwise, the streets the tram will roll on, didn't seem too busy, but this will be its vulnerable point. Will they dare to divert traffic to other roads? Let's hope that the initial line is a success and that the streetcar system is extended to other parts of the city, too.



Tuesday, 7 October 2014

NEW ORLEANS Streetcars

After the last cities I had visited in the U.S., St. Louis, Dallas and Houston, coming to New Orleans was certainly exciting, finally a city with a really lively downtown area (Bourbon Street maybe too lively...), and together with perfect weather, it has been fun to explore the city and its streetcar system.
Without doubt, the streetcars belong to New Orleans like the cable cars belong to San Francisco, but they are not just another tourist attraction but an integral part of the city's transport system, and as such I will treat them in this analysis.
We'll have to distinguish between the St. Charles Streetcar, the one with the green cars and the only one that is authentic, and the other lines, those with the red cars, which pretend to be old, but aren't.

The St. Charles Streetcar is a listed monument and as such was chosen to be preserved the way it is. That's also the reason it is not fully accessible, so if you can't climb in, you can't ride it. So far so good! The first thing I never understand with these old streetcar lines, why do they have to be operated like a streetcar 130 years ago? Why can't they at least raise the platforms to something like 15-20 cm so that the first step up into the vehicle is easier? It wouldn't change the 'design' of the stops. Why can't they put at least some sort of information at stops? The only thing you find is a 'Car stop' sign, which is already a lot compared to the surface sections of Muni Metro! But would a small table with basic information like route number, destination and at least headways be too much to ask for? As with the new lines, trains are extremely irregular at times with more passengers like this past weekend because the boarding is absolutely inefficient, so a tram may take 15 minutes or more just to leave Canal Street and turn around into St. Charles Avenue. At least on the green vehicles, the fare box is located in a more logical place (easier to place as all stops have boarding from the right side), but too many people pay cash and so they have to funnel their knitted dollar notes into the slot, plus a quarter for a single ride, or they buy a day pass for three dollars, funnelling three banknotes into the slot, plus those who do not know what they want, so boarding takes ages. And as a result, the headways can't be kept, i.e. you can be sure that if no tram arrives for a long time, two or three less crowded ones will follow soon after. But drivers were not really too energetic about asking people to wait for the next vehicle. Luckily there are quite a few crossovers along the line, so cars can turn back at several points, I observed that at Broadway just after Audubon Park as not so many people go to the end of the line. Amazing though, that this line runs all night! Theoretically every 30 minutes, but it is nowhere written when that is. I would think that if headways are longer than 15 minutes, the proper times must be posted at all stops. In all cars there are signs that exit is through the rear doors, but noone cares, and on the St. Charles Streetcar I wouldn't care either because to get out the rear door you have to push the door open, and honestly, I did it once, but hardly managed being a 185 cm tall man! And if you have a bag or two with you, it would be impossible! Another problem along this line is the excessive number of stops, namely 54 on a 10.6 km line, no wonder it takes at least 45 minutes to ride the entire line. Wouldn't it help everybody if some were simply cancelled? I'm sure the heritage office would not object to improvements in all these fields. They didn't object the modern fare boxes either and demand a conductor selling tickets as would have been the case a 100 years ago, I assume.
All the other lines were actually newly built in the last 30 years. But they are operated like a streetcar in the 1890s, it is really a pity because there must be a better way to combine a classical look of a streetcar with a modern operation. 

The oldest of the new lines is the Riverfront line, which is actually the fastest line but operated far below its potential simply because you never know when it comes along and because headways are far too long. It runs close to the popular areas in the French Quarter and the French Market, but it is hidden behind a (what I learned today) now unused floodwall, so unlike Canal Street where you can see from a distance if a tram is approaching, on the Riverfront you have to actually go to the stop, but there is no clear information, although there are screens but hardly legible, they even show the position of the trams. I have actually read that this line has 7 vehicles, but why are they not running, or at least 6? I think I only saw 2 or 3 at one time. To be really attractive there should be a tram at least every 10 minutes! Six cars would be an acceptable service on this short line. Absurdly, at the terminus French Quarter, the screen says, 'car #20xx is approaching' when it is actually in the station, and who cares when it is approaching when all that matters is when it is departing, an information strictly omitted. I wonder who these incomptent people are who design such an (dis)information system? And there should be more trams going from French Market directly to Canal Street, like on weekends, but far more frequently! Now many passengers have to change at Canal Street, cross several streets and then at the end of the Canal Street lines it is completely unclear where they have to board the next tram! When I went down the southern leg of the Riverfront line, drivers made everybody alight at Julia Street, although they went further down to reverse, but I guess the last stop is only served when the Convention Center is open.

The Canal Street line has a perfect tramway alignment in the median of the wide road, so it is even more a pity it is operated like an old-fashioned streetcar instead of a modern tramway. This line is heavily used by locals who would actually deserve something better. Even good-old Blackpool realised that proper vehicles are needed to provide a proper service, and the red replica cars are certainly no state-of-the-art vehicles. 

To be ADA-compliant, they have two wheelchair lifts! I only saw them in service once. But everybody else has to climb the steep steps just like on the old original green cars. Again, I observed mothers with their kids on their arms and with bags and trolleys heaving themselves up into the car, digging out their wallet to pay the fare. And paying the fare on the red vehicles is even weirder, as the farebox is placed in the middle and turned around. The drivers always turn round, and noone understands how to put the money in, so they have to do it for them, so with lots of tourists boarding at the lower end of the line, a trip from Harrah's to Rampart may easily take 15 minutes for not even 1 km! Once the trams get passed the junction where the Loyola Streetcar turns off, the ride gets a bit speedier because not so many people get on. The last stop on this line is Cemeteries, but when you leave the single-stub terminus there is no legal way to cross the busy street to reach the main cemetery. Whereas the main line to the Cemeteries is frequently served (officially every 16 minutes), the branch to City Park only has a tram every 30 minutes, although it is a very popular destination on weekends, and also a very nice park! So my proposal would be to order proper modern tram vehicles for this line, with much higher capacity and, above all, better accessibility to speed up boarding, install more ticket vending machines (I think I only saw one somewhere downtown). Like on the Pöstlingbergbahn in Linz, Austria, where similar heritage issues had to be solved, these modern cars can have a retro look, and they could be mixed with the existing replica cars that could continue to serve the City Park branch. Of course, also on Canal Street, at least 10 stops should be eliminated. The remaining stops should at least have low platforms, instead of complete street-level boarding. At least, the stops are easier to spot, as they have shelters and a busstop-like sign with the route number and route name and colour. Some shelters had maps posted, but also here the standard of the information provided could be improved with basic timetable information and fares, etc. Streetcar leaflets were available in some vehicles. On the red cars, doors at the rear open automatically, so getting off is a bit easier than on the green cars. They also feature air-conditioning.

The newest addition to the streetcar system was the Loyola Streetcar, a short branch to the Amtrak and Greyhound station. Although it was not built on a reserved lane, it is quite fluid on Loyola Avenue, less so on Canal Street. But again, its 20-minute headway is too long, considering that you can get to most destinations it serves within 20 minutes walking, especially as again there are no timetables posted, so you never know how long you would have to wait or whether it would be better to walk straight away. There is no reason at all, why this line has to be operated with old replica cars, because ideally it would be used by passengers arriving with luggage on trains or buses, and to lift those into these cars may be a major challenge, too.
It is completely incomprehensible to me that some transit operators still don't understand that good headways and complete information about them are basic to attract riders and provide a good service. And I do not accept fancy websites or mobile trip planners, but I want in situ information, properly posted and electronic for real-time updates.
I have not seen much work yet on the future North Rampart route, but hopefully it is coming soon, plus the link along Esplanade to link up with the Riverfront line. A circle line around the French Quarter operated with vintage vehicles, plus the old St. Charles Streetcar should actually be enough to keep tourists happy, so the rest of lines could instead become modern streetcar lines. But by modern, I do not mean the sort of tiny streetcars operated in Portland or Seattle, but at least some kind of articulated tram like that starting soon in Atlanta or Cincinnati.

Fares in New Orleans are at the cheap end, with $1.25 for a single ride (+ $0.50 for a transfer), and a day pass for the entire RTA system is just $3.00! I bought a 3-day pass at Walgreens for $9.00, so it actually doesn't give a discount, and in the end I didn't fully use it on the last two days, but never mind. I think the farebox was prepared with smartcard readers, but I didn't see anyone pay with one.

Next stop: ATLANTA


RTA (New Orleans Regional Transit Authority)

New Orleans at UrbanRail.Net

Saturday, 4 October 2014


Although it is quite a short distance from Dallas to Houston, I took a plane to be able to ride the Skylink peoplemover at DFW Airport before departing as this is only possible once you're inside the security area. It was a swift round trip, the trains only operated in the anticlockwise direction, there was some work going on on the other track, thus taking pictures of a train moving in the opposite direction was impossible (there was one parked along the track, though). Anyway, there are no trains from Dallas to Houston, so as I really don't fancy taking any Greyhound buses anymore after some disgusting experience in the past, the only alternative would have been to hire a car, in the end it would not take longer to drive than to take a plane.
     Well, arriving at George Bush's Airport in Houston is not very convenient as Houston is now one of a few major U.S. cities left without any rail transport to its airports. So I had to take a shared van shuttle to my hotel, which compared to DART in Dallas costs exactly 10 times as much.
     The purpose of my visit (1-3 Oct 2014) was, of course, to check out Houston's only light rail line, and to start off, we have to re-classify it as 'tramway', nothing negative as such, just to keep things clear. It uses the same Siemens S70 rolling stock as seen on many proper light rail systems in the U.S., but 'light rail' would imply at least some sort of rapid transit-style alignment on outer sections, whereas Houston's METRORail is very much like any modern European tramway, like those you would find in all French or Spanish cities, running on urban roads, though largely on a reserved lane. This is generally marked off from car lanes by little stumps, so emergency vehicles could easily use the tram lane, although on some sections it is also fenced off to prevent people from crossing the tracks.

     So, now that we have classified it as 'tramway', it is quite a good service comparable to what you would find in France. On the southern, original section, trams run every 6 minutes which is good for an ambitious photographer, whereas on the northern, new extension, they only run every 12 minutes, and often only with single cars, whereas the southern part, starting from the 3-track Burnett Transit Center station (the only elevated station on the system), they always run in 2-car sets. The southern part serves the downtown area as well as the huge Texas Medical Center area further south. It was interesting to observe that the cars are actually busier on outer sections than in the centre, especially late afternoon, when hundreds of hospital workers take the tram for a few stops south to get to their cars. The northern part, however, runs through low-income neighbourhoods, as it appears, and most people on my tram went to the northern end to change for a bus there.
     The ride is reasonably smooth and fast, just the only tight curves between Quitman/Near Northside and Fulton/North Central are run through at rather low speed. Lying on urban roads throughout, all track is grooved rail, which is always a bit noiser than proper vignol rails on segregated routes.

     The stations all have a pleasant, though not exciting design, could be anywhere in the world. There are mostly two ticket vending machines and even an area map. What is missing, however, is an overall system map, especially now as no printed version was available either, I guess because they are waiting for the new lines to open soon, which will certainly imply some route changes for buses. There are electronic indicators, but they don't show the minutes for the next train to arrive, instead an accoustic announcement is heard one minute prior to arrival, when also the indicators start showing the next train. All accoustic announcements are made in English and Spanish.

     Something particular to Houston are the offset platforms in the downtown and hospital areas, where the road width didn't allow a wide island platform. So wisely, to avoid overcrowding, they placed the north and southbound platforms in a staggered arrangement, at the central stop called Main Street Square, there is actually one block between them (and this section of the road is designed as a sort of fountain where the trams run through, because otherwise there is not much of a square there, except for many people hanging around that area, but that doesn't make it a square...). In view of the opening of the Green and Purple Lines, a transfer station was added between Main Street Square and Preston, called Central Station Main, but this one has an island platform. So while this new station, located between the two intersecting tracks (which run through parallel streets), will help to transfer to the new lines, I was really shocked to find out that the new lines will actually stop one block further east! Whose idea was that? Why can't they just stop around the corner? Instead there should be an additional downtown stop halfway to the next stops to the east. Also on the western side of the new lines, I don't understand why there is no 'final' stop where the trams have to reverse under the freeway bridge? It would certainly serve some people (even the hardcore rail fans to walk to the Amtrak station!) and would not imply any extra time as trams have to go there anyway to reverse. Otherwise they could actually just have built a loop to get from Capitol Street (westbound) to Rusk Street (eastbound), as for the moment there is no plan to extend these lines further west (although there should be!).

     The trains are all of the same type, although of two different generations. While the 200-series is basically the standard S70, just with the couplers hidden due to this urban alignment, the older 100-series has square headlights and a more rounded front, but more important to the passengers, the seats are arranged differently, notably the section next to the driver's cab faces forward, so you might get a view out the front window, whereas on the newer ones you'd be travelling backwards. And the seats in the older ones are far less comfortable than in the newer ones, at least for me. Unfortunately I didn't see any of the new CAF vehicles which must be on delivery now for the forthcoming opening of the Green and Purple Lines. In the city centre, everything seemed in place for these lines, but still kind of fenced off as a worksite, so I guess testing has not really started yet. So it might be the end of the year until these lines open, although all Red Line maps already announce their arrival.

     All in all, Houston's tramway is quite nice and useful, but considering the size of the city and its 4 million inhabitants in Greater Houston, the size of the network is ridiculous, especially when compared to its northern rival Dallas. The planned University Line will certainly be a needed addition, although I wonder whether it shouldn't run along Westheimer Road instead, i.e. several streets further north, or better, get both routes built. Yesterday I travelled on the 81 bus from downtown to the Galleria area, Houston's sort of City West, the posher part of the city with lots of shopping areas (whereas in downtown there are virtually no shops, just office towers!), and it took me around 45 minutes on a very bad road, so a proper rail link between Downtown and what's referred to as Uptown should be a priority. It felt like going on the bus to Santa Monica in Los Angeles, a never-ending trip!
     Houston's METRO is probably among the cheapest to ride in the country, with a single ride just $1.25, but I also have to say, it has been the most confusing fare system I have seen, and even on the third day, it is not really clear to me. On the first day, when I wanted to take the first train at Smith Lands station in the south, I was quite upset that a day pass was not available from the machine, which only issues single-ride tickets on paper. Certainly, I had read about their Q-Card system, but didn't have it in mind. So to start with I bought a paper ticket hoping to find out later where I could get a Q-Card. Well, you can get it in typical grocery stores and at the METRO store next to Downtown Transit Center, but as I was passing on the tram, I didn't see it. So I got my Q-Card in the shop inside the university at UH-Downtown, but none of the four employees knew how you could use it as a day pass. So I added $5.00 in value to it, hoping that it would automatically function as a day pass, at least the next day. The basic idea is not bad, you tap it three times and becomes a day pass, i.e. it is capped at $3.00, a very good deal indeed, but only if you use it with a Q-Card Day Pass smartcard, which on the other hand can also be used as a normal pay-per-ride smartcard. So, to start with, why are there two different cards, why doesn't the capping work automatically for everybody, like for example in Dubai? A normal $1.25 paid with Q-Card gives free transfers within 3 hours! Officially travelling in one direction, but certainly the system cannot detect your direction, so it is a 3-hour pass. So while my Q-Card worked fine most of the day yesterday, I'm not sure about my last trip as it gave a strange message, so I don't even know whether I was travelling 3+3 hours or so, or what. I had a ticket inspection in the morning, and all was fine. Today, on my third day, I actually chose 'Day Pass' at the machine, but as the minimum you can add is $5.00, I added $5.00. The card readers later told me a balance of $-0.50, weird, as I would expect my balance to be at least $0.50 plus $2.00 not spent on this day pass, but even when I put it into the loading machine, it only says, Day Pass contracted and balance $-0.50. So where has my money gone? What is now actually on my card? So, I have to say, this smartcard system is not acceptable. Especially as it is too complicated to obtain and then to use, considering that day passes are a popular choice for visitors not familiar with the system and confronted with it in areas they may park their cars and where there are no grocery stores. The machines, like Ventra's in Chicago, should be able to issue new smartcards, or as is often the case in other cities, issue disposable one-use cards with a chip inside. Or what does it take to issue a simple paper day pass, may it be for the price of $4.00 instead, still a good deal – the important thing for the occasional rider is that it is simple and clear – which in the case of Houston it is not. So if you don't want to get into trouble, just get a single fare paper ticket, cheap enough, until they get this sorted out properly.

Despite the huge urban area (even Houston city as a municipality is the size of Greater London, i.e. twice the size of Berlin), there is no commuter rail service, and I'm not aware that there are intentions to implement one. So Houston, despite its efforts to build a few more line, will remain a car-dominated city for a while still.

Next stop: New Orleans


METRORail at UrbanRail.Net