Saturday, September 15, 2007

Streetcars, Light Rail, and Sensible Engineering: Making a Left Turn at Albuquerque

It is becoming more and more apparent that much of what is constructed as "light rail" is, in fact, just very over-engineered streetcar lines--or conversely, that "modern streetcars" are light rail built sensibly.

Take a look, for example, at the complex overhead on a piece of the VTA's Tasman West line:

You would think this was built for bullet trains, but I doubt the VTA's trains ever run much more than 40 MPH here.

This sort of construction may be merited in other, faster parts of the VTA system, particularly the southern stretches, where faster speeds are possible. Speed may justify fancy overhead, heavier cars (for safety) and the consequently heavier and more expensive track construction these cars need (even in the parts of the system where they putter or crawl along). Certainly, there are light rail systems in other regions, such as San Diego's and the LA Blue Line, which really haul ass and clearly needed to be built like real railroads.

VTA trains are positively zippy compared to the Muni's, which outside of the subway operate in classic trolley car fashion, with all its charms (you guys know I'm a foamer, right? Read my other blog!) and failings--including the new T line, which even when it's bugs are eventually (someday?) worked out, will still just basically be a streetcar line (with the advantage of running a reserved median), built for $100 million per mile, but not hitting speeds much faster than "modern streetcar" lines that other cities, like Portland, have built for a quarter of that cost.

But we're the wonderful Bay Area, right? And entitled to world-class transit, whatever it costs? AARRGH!!!

Meanwhile, other cities, less convinced of their own entitlement to fabulousness, or perhaps where local politics requires a clearer ROI on transit investment (i.e., underpeforming boondoggles will get you voted out of office), have figured out how to get things built much cheaper than we do, and this is starting to make streetcar/light-rail systems practical for much smaller cities. One is Albuquerque, which is designing a streetcar system to be built with funds left over from other projects (!).

I am optimistic this project will reach fruition, given New Mexico's track record getting their Rail Runner Commuter Train up and running in a mere three years from proposal to first run, which must be some kind of a record.

There are plenty of smaller cities in California that might do well to look at streetcars. Santa Cruz has studied transit uses for an existing railway right of way, but has balked at the price for light rail, estimated at something in the $300 millions as of the the early '90s--admittedly an awful lot of money for a metro region with less than 100,000 people. But perhaps this project, out of reach at "light rail" prices, might be feasable if recast as a "streetcar".

I wrote about some of these issues in this earlier post. Here is a recent (and good) post on the subject (with lots of links) in The Overhead Wire, and here's a very thorough article in LightRailNow. If Bay Area transit were only run by the online transit blogosphere, how much better our lives would be!

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