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

1 comment:

  1. 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


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