Thursday, October 1, 2009

Theory vs. Experience at Heart of Rail Debate

Today’s Honolulu Star-Bulletin carries two columns about whether Honolulu’s rail system should be built at ground level or elevated, which is the current plan.

The columns are of approximately the same length. The difference? One is written by an architect who whose main argument favoring at-grade rail is its alleged “flexibility.” The other column favoring an all-elevated system is by the man who runs Phoenix’s at-grade rail.

Read both, and as you do, consider which person has the qualifications and experience to know which version of rail will be most beneficial for Honolulu. To us, there’s no contest.

Richard Simonetta is the chief executive officer of Metro Rail, which began operating its 20-mile at-grade system in December. Here are the key statements in his commentary in support of elevated rail for Honolulu:

Surface rail works quite well in the Valley of the Sun because we have relative low density and wide arterial streets with ample room for the trains and cars to share the right-of-way.
From my observations, the same conditions do not apply in Honolulu. Widening streets to incorporate a rail system would seriously disrupt communities and be enormously expensive. With the density of development that already exists along your route, hundreds of businesses and residences would be dislocated for right of way. Surface rail would most likely result in the removal of traffic lanes, which would inevitably increase congestion where the desire is to reduce congestion.
The elevated system Honolulu has planned avoids this. With support columns placed in the roadway median, it won't consume through traffic lanes. And while it will require some right-of-way acquisitions, they will be far fewer than a surface route would require.
Honolulu's elevated rail system operating on an exclusive trackway will have other benefits. It will be much faster than surface rail because the elevated trains won't have to compete with other traffic at intersections.
The Phoenix light rail system crosses 149 signalized intersections and takes 65 minutes to travel 20 miles. Increased speed also means more frequent service and more ridership. Honolulu's elevated rail is projected to carry 100,000 riders a day when fully operational. Our system carries about one-third of that.
Finally, an elevated rail line will also be safer for rail passengers, motorists and pedestrians. The Phoenix surface rail line has averaged five collisions per month since opening last December, resulting in personal injuries, costly damage to trains and vehicles, and service delays to passengers. (An earlier post here has graphic examples of these collisions.)
In contrast, the elevated, automated SkyTrain system in Vancouver, British Columbia, has operated for 23 years without a single accident.
I urge Honolulu to keep moving forward with your elevated rail system. You only have one opportunity to get it right.
In my opinion, you are making the right choice and your community will reap rewards for years to come.


PRT Strategies said...

There's a BETTER solution at

Doug Carlson said...

PRT Strategies -- With respect, your Personal Rapid Transit concept isn't a "better" solution; it's one approach to move people around town. If you can create a niche market with the concept, more power to you. But by definition, it's not a mass transit application, which is what Honolulu requires. Thanks for the link.