Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Above-Grade Choice Gets Stronger with Time

The City Council selected grade-separated transit nearly three years ago, and nothing that’s emerged in commentaries, letters to the editor and paid advertising has challenged the soundness of these reasons:

Reason #1: Cross traffic. Trains running at ground level would be slow trains – stopping at intersections, slowing for cross traffic, fitting in with the very congestion an overhead line would avoid.

Reason #2: Safety. Accidents happen everywhere at-grade is built, and those accidents stop the trains. That’s something we can’t tolerate in traffic-choked Honolulu. Elevated rail will avoid accidents.

Reason #3: Impact on neighborhoods. What must you do if you run two rail tracks right down the middle of a street AND keep the same number of lanes for vehicles? It’s obvious; you must widen the street. That means carving up neighborhoods, taking hundreds of properties, damaging small businesses, etc., nearly all of which is avoided by going overhead.

Reason #4: Insufficient carrying capacity. At-grade trains have to fit within the shortest city block on the route. That’s about 170 feet in Honolulu, so our trains would have only two cars if the system were at grade. Honolulu’s planned above-grade trains will be twice as long and carry twice as many passengers. That translates to being more successful in attracting riders.

Reason #5: Operating costs. An at-grade system would cost at least a third more to operate than an elevated configuration, according to the City’s analysis. That’s because each train would require a driver, unlike the fully automated elevated system.

Reason #6: Did we mention safety? This is a major consideration and deserves special consideration when the at-grade issue is broached. Transit systems that operate at ground level must contend with cars, trucks, buses and pedestrians, and accidents are almost inevitable. We will avoid needless injuries and worse by building Honolulu’s rail project above surface congestion.

If you have a question or comment about these issues, post a Comment below, and we’ll see if we can provide an answer.


Hannah Miyamoto said...

As you know, I strongly support rail transit, and my last letter to the editor, for an elevated system, was printed in the Advertiser on 9/16. However, you should avoid making claims about operating costs because riders tend to dislike riding an operator-less vehicle. For example, on Vancouver Skytrain, the operator roves through the trains monitoring passengers, answering questions, etc. This is actually much safer for riders than making the operator operate the train manually. This, at least, was the situation in 1986 when I toured the system (it was brand new). It may have changed since.

Also, rail operators avoid the word "accident" because when trains strike people or autos, the "collision" is nearly always the fault of the pedestrian or driver. "Accidents" are unavoidable, but these "collisions" are nearly always avoidable. Note, btw, the statistics in my letter about collisions on the LA Blue Line: 101 grade-crossings; 87 deaths and 795 collisions in 17 years. That is the result of running 55 mph trains on an at-grade, mostly off-street, railroad right-of-way (the ex-Pacific Electric Long Beach line)

Doug Carlson said...

Thanks for your comments, Hannah. Re automatic trains, the experience around the world is that riders become used to having no one "driving" the train, just as decades ago they accepted operator-less elevators. You're right that automatic operation is much safer than when humans are at the controls.

And I agree that "accident" isn't the right word. I'll switch to "collision" if I can remember to do so.

SCHILTEC said...

The lessons of the Las Vegas monorail, which opened in 2004, are worth heeding. It was claimed the antitode to the notorious traffic jams of the city’s main thoroughfare. The trains, though, often run empty.

One reason for this could be the pricey $5 charge for tickets. But the underlying problem is the simple fact that the company miscalculated people psychology: it turned out people would rather walk down the Strip than go up and down elevators.
There is no escape: Access rights to traffic surface is fundamental to any meaningful discussion of urban transport. Dynamic Capacity Light Rail (Waverail) has eleven times the capacity of a single lane of motor traffic (7,800 passengers per hour as against 700). The boarding/alighting is where people want to be and there are many of them.

SCHILTEC said...

It is tempting to be swayed by the #6 Reasons but – if they were relevant – how come elevated systems have made limited inroads?

You always find points that make one system look better than another. But workable solutions come from dealing with issues, positive and negative; in other words building on the strengths of one system while accepting and mitigating its weaknesses; making compromises; see how it has been dealt with in the past, and so on.

Here are just a few ideas in opposition to this #6 reasons perspective:

#1 Cross traffic
Modern Light rail must not stop at intersections. Thus right of way is an issue to be considered. Access right to traffic surface is fundamental to urban transport solutions. Modern light rail has eleven times the capacity of one lane of motor traffic (7,800 passengers per hour against 700 per hour). And cross traffic at traffic lights is stopped anyhow every now and then.

#2 Safety
Prima facia the surface is the safest place on earth. We have long learned to live with the safety aspects of road traffic. Modern Light Rail is no different. It operates at 39km/h and safety is manageable.

#3 Neighborhoods
Ramming black and white style ‘inevitable road widening’ views down throats is not helpful. Widening is only an option and often not even that. After all converting a 3/3 lane main road into a 2/2 lame + Light Rail road increases road capacity from 700+700+700= 2,100 persons per hour to 700+700+7,800 = 9,200 persons in one direction; more than four times the original capacity. You may almost say we can now make the road narrower!

#4 Capacity
Road based Light Rail, if anything, has ample capacity. The Light Rail consist length is not constrained by the invention of a ‘shortest city block’. Traditionally it has been limited by station sizes but with dynamic capacity Light Rail this is no more the case. Even 60m long consists clear an intersection within less than 9 seconds. Access capacity to and from stations also has to be considered.

#5 Operating costs
Prima facia 'at grade' is the cheapest. Careful, case based consideration is required before providing ‘conclusions’. High personnel costs may be money well spent if it conserves the rolling stock assets in lieu of leaving it to vandals.

Doug Carlson said...

I appreciate the passion with which you defend at-grade transit, Schiltec, but I'd remind you that Honolulu is unlike most mainland cities. If you're not familiar with our layout, it's long and narrow between the mountains and the sea. It's crowded, especially in the downtown area, and running it at-grade would require the trains to be short so as to not extend beyond the short city blocks in Chinatown.

Re operating costs, human drivers would dramatically increase operating costs -- and the cost of impacting properties along Honolulu's route would be staggering.

We continue to advocate an elevated system, and the studies done support this solution.