Friday, October 30, 2009

Photo Friday: Fire in the Sky

Photo Friday is a new series showcasing a photo of mine each week. Enjoy!

Fire in the Sky

A Washington Sunset from Ninth and F

Walking back to the Metro one evening, I crossed F Street and was blown away by the color of the sky. Standing in front of the National Portrait Gallery, I captured these fabulous hues set off by the lights of the street.

My photostream

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A plethora of stops

Crossposted at Greater Greater Washington

Taking the bus in Washington often requires quite a lot of patience. With stops one some segments at every corner, buses seem to take an eternity to go only a few blocks. Removing some stops could improve travel times without negatively impacting ridership.

Closely spaced stops reduce the efficency of bus lines. If the number of riders stayed the same, a bus line with fewer stops would have similar boarding/alighting times, but would save time in accellerating, decellerating, and entering or leaving traffic. Less time would be spent at traffic signals when the bus missed the green in order to pick up passengers. Savings would also be realized in the time for the bus to accommodate the elderly or infirm using the kneeling feature or the wheelchair ramp.

Of course, on the other hand, reducing the number of stops would increase the distance that some riders have to walk to get to the stop. Would a few hundered feet worth of difference deter bus riders? Perhaps, but it would be less likley to do so if there was a net gain in time savings.

And time saved is money saved. Reducing the run time of buses means that the transit agency does not need to run as many buses to maintain the same headway. Alternatively, the same number of buses could run at a higher frequency for the same cost. There are major benefits to improving bus performance, including providing a relief valve for Metrorail.

As a former daily rider of the 50s Line along 14th Street in Northwest and Southwest DC, I am intimately familiar with the stop frequency for buses. In fact, from my stop at 14th and Shepherd, the next bus stop to the south was only about 375 feet away at Randolph Street.

In fact, for the segment of the 50s Line between the downtown split of the 52 and 54 to the Colorado Avenue Terminal, where most buses turn back, the average distance between stops is 623 feet. For reference, the length of a Metro platform is 600 feet. A railcar is 75 feet long. That means that on average, between stops, the 14th Street bus line travels, on average, barely more than the length of an 8-car train. Passengers at Gallery Place walking from the Green/Yellow level to the 9th & G Entrance walk further than that within the station.

Breaking down the 52, 53, and 54, by segment, we can note the following average distance between stops:
  • Downtown Segment, 52 Southbound: 837 feet.
  • Downtown Segment, 52 Northbound: 855 feet
  • Downtown Segment, 54 Northbound: 784 feet
  • Combined 52, 54, New York Ave to Colorado Ave Northbound: 633 feet
  • Combined 52, 54, Colorado Ave to New York Ave Southbound: 611 feet
  • Combined 52, 54, Colorado Ave to Takoma Station Northbound: 648 feet
  • Combined 52, 54, Takoma Station to Colorado Ave Southbound: 735 feet
Interestingly enough, this shows us that the segments with the longest distances between stops are located downtown. This is where Metrorail has the shortest distance between stops. In the residential segments north of the city, bus stops are very frequent.

Of course, it is vital that bus stops be accessible to the most people, but one wonders where to draw the line. After all, people often walk some quite a good distance to get to quality transit. If buses got people to work or to the store more quickly, they would probably be willing to walk further.

A policy of increasing the distance between stops to at least two or three blocks apart would be a good place to start. Especially in walkable neighborhoods. With stops 3 blocks apart, once you reached the street on which the bus ran, you'd never be more than one block from a stop.

So far, Metro's solution to this has been to implement limited stop services like the S9 on Sixteenth Street and the 79 on Georgia Avenue. In the case of 16th Street, the S9 makes only 14 stops between Silver Spring and McPherson Square, with an average distance between stops of 2,678 feet. With fewer stops, the 16th Street Express is competitive with the rail system. According to Metro's trip planner, a trip from Silver Spring to McPherson Square takes about 27 minutes by rail and about 36 minutes with the S9.

But why should riders have to wait for a new service before trip times improve? Why not reduce the number of stops overall? Perhaps the "local" stop buses needn't have 2,600 feet between stops, but 1,000 certainly sounds like a better number.

The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices suggests that the average person walks 4 feet per second. Other studies show that the elderly make around 3 feet each second when on foot. Increasing the average stop spacing on the 50s line from 623 feet to 1000 feet would increase the average distance between stops by 377 feet, which could be covered by someone walking at 3 feet per second in a little over two minutes.

Limited stop buses are certainly a positve aspect to our transit system. And I hope that WMATA is able to implement more of them. However, reducing travel times on all routes should be a priority.

In fact, WMATA is currently working on a set of bus stop optimization criteria. One of the factors is bus stop spacing. According to a report given to the Riders Advisory Council earlier this month, Metro reports that other transit systems, like Seattle's King County Metro, have found a good balance between access and efficiency at 4-5 stops per mile, which is a little over 1000 feet apart. Right now, WMATA has 63 bus routes with stop spacing exceeding 5 stops per mile.

WMATA's proposed bus stop standards would help create uniformity and ensure safe, accessible stop design across the region. It would serve as a guide for jurisdictions in the region when considering bus stops.

Commenting on this post has been disabled. Please continue the discussion on this same post at Greater Greater Washington.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

In the News: 10/27

Stories in the news of late:
  • It's a small world after all: Researchers working for the European Commission's Joint Research Centre and the World Bank show that few places are more than 48 hours from a city with population greater than 50,000. They created several fabulous maps showing our transport networks. Story: NewScientist.
  • CTA looks at having an iStop: Badly in need of money, the Chicago Transit Authority is the latest of several agencies looking to cash in on naming rights. Will North/Clybourn station be renamed after Apple? That's not clear yet, but CTA is in talks with technology giant Apple about the possibility. Story: Chicago Tribune.
  • New looks for GoogleMaps: Google recently made some major changes to the way symbols are shown on their online mapping projects. Lines definitely look crisper. Story: Google LatLong.
  • Maryland transit authority to randomly check passengers: Maryland's MTA, operator of the Washington-Baltimore commuter rail system and local transit in Baltimore is starting a program of random passenger checks. They advise that passengers should get to commuter platforms early, just in case. A similar proposal in Washington last year raised the ire of riders and has yet to be implemented. Story: Baltimore Sun.
  • Strike threatens Philadelphia transit, World Series: Transit workers in the city of brotherly love are fed up with negotiations which have gone on for 10 months. Their contract expired in March. Story: AP.
  • Jackets reach #11, lead ACC: Sorry, can't help but put this one in. My Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets have reached 11th place in the BCS. Story: ESPN. Can we make it to the title game? Perhaps unlikely, but possible, according to the AJC.

Railvolution '10

Fall is in the air, and that means...Railvolution time is here!

I'll be attending my third consecutive Railvolution conference, this time in Boston. If you'll be there, I hope to see you at some point. If you're not lucky enough to attend, I'll try and give some kind of report in a week or so.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Photo Friday: Nightscape

Photo Friday is a new series showcasing a photo of mine each week. Enjoy!


Lower Midtown Atlanta on a misty night

I love the way the light plays across the clouds in this shot. I took the photo from the top-floor deck of the Post Biltmore Apartments on Sixth Street. Bank of America Plaza, tallest building in the Southeast, is shrouded by clouds, while the neighboring BellSouth Center reflects light from the city to shine like a beacon.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

WMATA and the NTSB

Crossposted at Greater Greater Washington

WMATA has had a few rough months with worker deaths and bus-pedestrian collisions, and with the June 22 Metro accident still fresh in our minds, the agency has come under fire for its safety record. Greater Greater Washington's Dave Stroup recently wrote the second installment in his "Price of Safety" series looking at WMATA's safety culture. Some of the comments there wondered about WMATA's track record in terms of NTSB recomendations.

The goal of the National Transportation Safety Board is to improve safety in our transportation system. Sometimes issues stretch beyond the agency where an accident occured. When this happens, they often issue recomendations to all the applicable agencies. A crash in Chicago in January 1976, over two months before Metro opened, resulted in a set of recomendations to WMATA (issued in August 1976, after the system had opened). WMATA and other agencies were responsible for responding to NTSB by either complying or giving reasons why they would not do so.

Since 1970, the NTSB has issued 81 recommendations to WMATA. The vast majority of the closed recommendations are considered to be acceptable responses by NTSB. The 81 recommendations are associated with 11 events, but only 7 events took place on WMATA's rail system.

Of the 81 recommendations:

  • 55 (68%) are "Closed-Acceptable Action"

  • 4 (5%) more are "Closed-Acceptable Alternative Action"

  • 6 (7%) are "Closed-Unacceptable Action"

  • 1 was superseded by a different recommendation.

  • 15 (19%) are currently open
Let's take a look at the 7 events which happened on the WMATA system, totaling 73 recommendations.

Smithsonian Derailment, 1/13/1982
This accident claimed 3 lives and destroyed one railcar at the interlocking (crossover) between Smithsonian and Federal Triangle. To date, this accident resulted in the most NTSB recommendations to WMATA - 34. Of those recommendations, 30 are considered acceptably closed by the NTSB. The four that were closed unacceptably by WMATA are:

  • R-82-058: Modify the overspeed control on the Metrorail cars to enforce speed commands of the Automatic Train Protection subsystem to and including zero miles per hour. author's note:WMATA's correspondence with NTSB indicates that this modification was rejected because it would make 'rescue' trains and yard moves more difficult.

  • R-82-059: Change the identification numbers of interlockings and interlocking signals to eliminate possible misunderstandings which could result in a train improperly passing a restricting signal. author's note: WMATA informed NTSB that it regarded re-identifing all of the interlockings and signals in the system was infeasible. However, they did switch to using the NATO phonetic alphabet for letters.

  • R-82-071: Equip each Metrorail car with an adequate number of self-contained, battery-powered emergency lights which will automatically illuminate the car interior in the event the car's auxillary and emergency power is lost. author's note: The agency chose not to implement this recommendation because it regarded the auxillary and emergency power systems in each railcar in combination with subway tunnel lighting as sufficient.

  • R-82-073: Retrofit existing Metrorail cars with derailment detector devices which will apply the brakes in emergency when a car wheel leaves the rail. Require that all new cars be so equipped. author's note: According to the correspondence on record, WMATA looked at other transit systems in the United States. At that time, only BART used such technology and reported significant maintenance problems and passenger delays due to a breakdown of the derailment detectors. WMATA chose not to implement the technology.
CSX Derailments in Takoma Park and Silver Spring, 6/19/1987, 9/5/1987, 9/17/1987
A series of right-of-way incursions due to freight railcar derailments in 1987 resulted in 3 recommendations by the NTSB. In two of the cases, freight trains derailed into the WMATA right-of-way. The third case was caused when vandals parked a backhoe on the CSX tracks. When struck, the backhoe violated WMATA's right-of-way, causing damage to a parked Metro train. Systems designed to stop trains functioned properly, but WMATA sought additional safety systems. Of the three recommendations to both CSX and WMATA, 2 were closed acceptably. A third was close with an unacceptable action by WMATA and CSX.

  • R-88-015: Until permanent solutions to joint corridor occupancy are implemented and their safety effectiveness is assessed, develop and implement a plan to control the access of WMATA transit trains and CSX freight trains into the common transportation corridor where WMATA trackage lies between the two tracks of CSXT so that CSXT freight trains and WMATA transit trains do not simultaneously occupy this corridor. author's note: In this case, NTSB wanted it to be impossibe for a Metro train to be on either track between Rhode Island Avenue and Silver Spring if a CSX train was in the same stretch on either of its tracks. CSX found the proposal untenable. Therefore, the NTSB found the actions unacceptable.
Shady Grove Collision, 1/6/1996
On a snowy night in January, a Red Line train overshot the platform at Shady Grove and crashed into a parked train north of the station, killing the operator of the striking train. After the collision, the NTSB sent WMATA 20 recommendations. All but one of these recommendations are classified as "Closed-Acceptable Action." The other was superseded by a later recommendation.

Woodley Park Collision, 11/3/2004
This collision occurred when an out-of-service train rolled backwards into Woodley Park from the direction of Cleveland Park, crashing into a Red Line train servicing the platform. Luckily there were no deaths. The NTSB issued three recommendations, one of which is currently open. Another is closed with "Acceptable Action." WMATA failed to satisfy NTSB recommendations on the final recommendation.

  • R-06-002: Either accelerate retirement of Rohr-built railcars, or if those railcars are not retired but instead rehabilitated, then the Rohr-built passenger railcars should incorporate a retrofit of crashworthiness collision protection that is comparable to the 6000-series railcars. author's note: As has been pointed out in the aftermath of June's crash, WMATA did not follow through on this recommendation due to lack of funding. At the time the NTSB issued its recommendation, the 1000 series (Rohr-built) cars made up almost one-third of the fleet. With no money to replace them, rail service would be forced to take major cuts.
Mount Vernon Square Derailment, 1/7/2007
In this derailment, a Green Line train derailed on the crossover immediately south of Mount Vernon Square during single-tracking. Currently, the six NTSB recommendations issued in the wake of this derailment are all still open. Two are considered to be open with "Unacceptable Action." Recommendation R-07-027 was for better lubrication practices, especially during single-tracking operations. WMATA's response to NTSB was not considered to be a strong enough action. The other recommendation which NTSB is not satisfied is being accomplished properly is their admonishment to add guard rails at all interlockings with a certain sharp-radius turn. NTSB feels that WMATA's efforts are not moving quickly enough.

Striking of wayside workers at Dupont Circle and Eisenhower Avenue
The four recommendations from these incidents are currently all regarded as "Open-Acceptable Action."

Fort Totten Collision, 6/22/2009
So far, NTSB has issued three urgent recommendations to WMATA. All are "Open-Await Response." NTSB's report on the incident will likely not be complete before summer 2010. It is very likely that more recommendations will be issued at that time.

A full list of WMATA's NTSB recommendations can be found by searching for "Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority" in the "Addressee" field at NTSB's Safety Recommendation Query page.

While these nunbers indicate that WMATA is very good at responding to NTSB criticisms, that does not necessarily indicate the presence of a "safety culture." In fact, in some cases, the sheer volume of recommendations could indicate that the agency had left quite a bit to be desired in terms of fixes. In the cases where NTSB considers WMATA's actions to be insufficient, some problem resolutions that are expensive or complex, but still important seem to have fallen by the wayside.

Of course, WMATA can only do so much with limited resources. NTSB is not responsible for locating funding for necessary fixes, and their recommendations often place a large burden on the agency. One of the unfulfilled recommendations issued by NTSB called for the retirement of the 1000-series railcars as soon as possible. But pulling almost one-third of the fleet is not something any transit agency can do without major repercussions to service and reliability. As I pointed out shortly after the June 2009 crash, the recommendations from NTSB to retire the 1000 series came in March 2006. Even if Metro had ordered railcars on the day of the recommendation, they would still be being produced. In fact, it is likely that even if cars had been ordered on the day of the Woodley Park crash in 2004, they'd still be in production.

It is clear that WMATA still needs to work on safety. And it is very likely that the accidents that have happened over the past several months will spur some improvement. Metro's record shows a good history of responding favorably to NTSB. But for a true safety culture to develop, WMATA needs to be able to anticipate potential problems and address them before accidents occur.

Note: posting has been disabled. Please make comments on this same post at Greater Greater Washington.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Rail Transit Continuum

Crossposted at Greater Greater Washington

Last week in my counterpoint post on the Silver Line and the viability of a Dulles Express Line using the Washington and Old Dominion Trail, I touched briefly upon the differences between American and European transit concepts. Because we don't have many words to describe a variety of systems, it can be difficult to compare and constrast different types of transit, especially those in other countries. With so few words, things get lost in translation.

As far as the Federal Transit Administration is concerned we have only a few words to describe our modes. There are certainly more variations on modes than those found in the National Transit Database's glossary. In that regard, I've tweaked the nomenclature to apply to the continuum of rail transit modes in an effort to clarify differences and group systems based on similarities.

As I pointed out in my post on the Silver Line's virtues, Spencer is correct when he calls Metro a hybrid between subways and commuter rail. Since it is a hybrid, it can't be considered purely a subway or a commuter rail system. It is indeed something in between. But the FTA doesn't consider the Washington Metro any different (as a mode) from the Boston T or the New York City Subway.

Despite the differences between pre-auto age heavy rail systems and the modern heavy rail systems, which I talked about last week, both types are considered the same mode. This is probably fine from a funding perspective, but it leaves a little to be desired when thinking about transit from a comparative perspecive. Chicago's Green Line is quite different from Washington's Green Line. The root of these differences comes from the market for which each was built. Chicago's Green Line was built mainly with walk-to-transit riders in mind, while Washington sought to cater to drivers bound for the central business district from the suburbs.



In the comment threads which have sprouted from the various Silver Line posts from last week and this week, many comparisons have been drawn to European systems and systems in other American cities. These other systems are good places to look, because we can gain insight from the variation between modes. Europe is a particularly good place to look to add a little perspective.

Stadtbahn Stuttgart

Baltimore Light Rail

The below graphic shows the rail transit continuum. Modes are shown with increasing "regionality" as one reads down the graph. Transit serving shorter trips (like guideways and streetcars) are on top with modes used for longer trips are on the bottom.

The Rail Transit Continnum

The graphic is not meant to be exhaustive, just to act as a frame of reference. For instance BART, while still heavy rail, is closer to a regional rail system than is Washington's Metro. And Los Angeles' Red and Purple Lines with far less suburban-serving segments are closer to the subways of the pre-auto era.

Because the distinctions are important, let's look a little more deeply at nomenclature.

  • Streetcars: Streetcars often operate as single units in traffic with curb-side stops. Sometimes they have a semi-exclusive right-of-way, like a median or private ROW. They act as feeders to the regional system and mainly serve closer in nieghborhoods. Streetcars are sometimes older systems dating back many years (as with New Orleans), while modern streetcars are quite in vogue today (as in Portland and Seattle). Other cities have (re)created vintage (San Francisco) or faux-vintage (Charlotte) streetcar lines.

  • Light Rail: This mode began appearing in North America in the late 1970s. Light rail offered a cheaper method to create a regional system and have become popular as substitutes to heavy rail. They serve corridors where heavy rail investment is not practical. In some cities, light rail systems take on many of the attributes of heavy rail, including downtown subways (San Francisco, Seattle) and level boarding (Charlotte).

  • Subways: Systems like the New York Subway and the Chicago L are a type of heavy rail. While these types of service are certainly regional in nature, they often serve only the central municipality and not surrounding jurisdictions. Stop spacing is fairly close and speeds are slower than more regional-type services. The defining characteristic of this subset of heavy rail is that ridership is based on walk-to riders rather than drive-to riders.

  • Rapid Rail: The modern heavy rail systems constructed in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s were often known as Rapid Rail. In fact, the Rs in BART and MARTA both stand for 'Rapid'. However the distinction gets a little blurry here. Rapid Rail systems typically serve the metropolitan area as a whole. Like the Washington Metro, surrounding jurisdictions have high levels of service as well. Speeds are faster than on subways and the distance between stops is higher.

  • Regional Rail: Regional rail is a subset of FTA's commuter rail mode. I think of regional rail as different from commuter rail mainly based on service patterns. Regional rail trains, as their name suggests, serve whole regions. They also offer bi-directional and off-peak service in the region. One of the best examples of regional rail is the SEPTA Regional Rail network in Philadelphia. With a center city tunnel based on the S-bahn tunnels in several German cities, the network serves the central city and the suburbs with quick trips. Service headways are lower than one would find on Rapid Rail.

  • Commuter Rail: Commuter rail, as I pointed out above, typically only offers peak-period, peak-direction service. In the Washington region, VRE and MARC's Brunswick Line offer good examples. MARC's Penn Line, on the other hand, acts more like regional rail.

  • Other Modes: The FTA also considers Cable Cars, Inclines, Monorails, and Automated Guideways as rail modes. These tend to serve specialized and smaller markets.

    • Cable Cars, for instance, can easily be grouped with streetcars, as they serve similar markets and have similar attributes.

    • Inclines have very limited use, but often serve as vital links within transit systems.

    • Monorails and Automated Guideway systems also tend to serve very localized markets or act as distribution systems. It is possible to build entire systems with these technologies, as is the case with Vancouver's SkyTrain, but in the United States, they tend to be limited to moving people around central business districts, as is the case in Miami and Detroit.
When comparing American transit modes to those found in Europe, things don't always translate directly. For instance, while systems like Washington's Metro or San Francisco's BART might be thought of as German U-bahns because of their heavy rail designation, they're actually closer to the S-bahn systems in Berlin and Hamburg and Paris' RER. Of course, the S-bahn systems in smaller German cities, like Stuttgart and Munich, resemble regional rail.

Looking across the pond can create confusion as well. In London, for instance, the Docklands Light Railway has dramatically improved service to East London. But the system is not light rail in the sense that most American's think of it. It would be more accurately be described as Automated Guideway Transit, which is a separate mode according to the FTA. The Docklands system, unlike most American light rail systems, is entirely grade separated.

And contributing to the idea that America and Britian are two countries separated by a common language, heavy rail in Britian denotes regional and inter-city trains - not urban subway and rapid rail systems, which is what it means in the United States. Even Dr. Gridlock managed to get that one confused, telling a reader that MARC and VRE are heavy rail. In fact, according to FTA, MARC and VRE are both commuter rail.

MARC train at Greenbelt

Heavy Rail in Philadelphia

But looking across the globe for good examples of transit generally yields greater understanding of the continuum, even if it makes it harder to quantify. Karlsruhe in Germany has a unique system known as the Stadtbahn. The Stadtbahn name in Germany usually denotes light rail-type trains, but in Karlsruhe the transit system is a unique hybrid of light rail and regional rail. In the city center, trains run in street. However, some services merge onto the conventional rail network for direct, rapid services to suburban destinations.

Munich and Stuttgart both have large regional rail (S-bahn) networks which feed into a central tunnel in the urban core. These tunnels have high platforms and essentially act as a central subway bolstered by the high frequencies resulting from the combined lines.

S-bahn Munich

Expanding on this continuum concept, I added short-haul inter-city services, although perhaps a better name for the concept is needed. Amtrak services like the Capitol Corridor in California or Keystone Services in the Mid-Atlantic cater to longer-distance commuters as well as inter-city and inter-region travelers. Additionally, even high-speed services like the Acela offer a quick trip from far-flung suburbs. Joe Biden, for instance, commuted from the Washington suburb of Wilmington, Delaware daily on the Acela as a Senator.

Based on my experience (I've ridden every example listed in the graphic with the exception of New Orleans' streetcars and the Seattle Center Monorail), I think we need a less rigid structure for naming rail modes. This continuum is one attempt at breaking the mold and identifying individual systems based on attributes other than their FTA mode. Thinking of transit systems as lying somewhere on a continuum may help us find better ways of comparing systems across regions and nations.

Commenting on this post has been disabled. Please continue the discussion at this same post on Greater Greater Washington.

Station Names

Across the pond, the Telegraph is reporting on a Twitter 'craze': finding people named after tube stations. Apparently the craze started on a London Underground blog, and spread from there.

And while, personally, I'm glad my parents didn't name me somthing like, "Inman Park/Reynoldstown Johnson", I wonder if we might find some other station names out there.

A brief search of Facebook reveals a few Metro-themed names:
  • Glen Monte
  • Brooke Land
  • Cleveland Park
  • Beth Esda
  • Claren Don (Perhaps a few Clare Dons have middle initials 'N')
  • Ross Lynn
  • Dean Wood (2 live in the DC area)
  • Anna Costia (1 in the DC area)
  • Shaw Hu

One wonders if there are other transit-themed names floating around out there. Perhaps a Forrest Glenn or a Hunter Ington take the train to work every day.

Looking back at my Atlanta roots, I noted that Facebook also reveals a Leonard Ox (goes by Lenn, perhaps?) and a few Brooke Havens. I'm sure there are some Ed G. Woods and Candler P. Arks out there. Wes T. Ende and Wes T. Lake seem like plausable names, quite appropriate for a system named 'MARTA'.

Do you know of anyone with a transit name?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Photo Friday: The Fountain

Photo Friday is a new series showcasing a photo of mine each week. Enjoy!

Dupont Circle Fountain at Night
The Dupont Circle fountain at night

Express Tracks, the Historical Perspective

A while back, I wrote a post here on T29 postulating that Metro's decision to not build express trackage into the system was one of practicality not a lack of foresight and that the decision led to a realization of the vision.

Today, I've reworked that post and restarted the discussion at Greater Greater Washington. Make sure to check it out.

Note: Commenting has been disabled. Please comment at Greater Greater Washington.

Careful, LaHood is Watching

Last month, Ray LaHood, America's new, popular Secretary of Transportation spoke in Atlanta. When asked if high-speed rail would be coming to the Big Peach, he responded:

It’ll come to Atlanta if Georgia gets its act together.

Wow. Tough words. In my native Georgia, we'd call them 'fightin' words.' When I heard Mr. LaHood had been so direct, I was happy. Finally someone was telling Georgia what they needed to have heard decades ago.

But his words didn't sink in.

Yesterday, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation released a memo about the department's pending reorganization. And the Intermodal Division is getting a demotion.

The federal government gave Georgia $87 Million toward a starter line for an Atlanta commuter rail system. But the state has continued to hold off on setting aside the small requisite match. Now the federal government is starting to think about getting its money back.

With Charlotte's new Lynx light rail and Nashville's first commuter rail line, Atlanta's place at the front of the pack is no longer assured. Other southern cities are starting to get behind transit. Atlanta is just getting stuck in traffic.

Despite ambitious plans in the 1960s and 1970s, the MARTA heavy rail system was never finished. It was also never made regional. The suburbs still haven't voted to let trains run. The last new rail stations to open in the Atlanta area were Sandy Springs and North Springs, in December 2000, almost a decade ago.

Neighboring North Carolina subsidises Amtrak service, and gets extra trains because of it. To the south, Florida seems intent on reactivating old lines and working toward a high-speed rail network.

But Georgia, the center of the (slightly) more progressive New South, is falling behind the times. It has long seemed that GDOT felt insecure in its newer role managing transportation. After all, the Department of Highways by any other name still stinks to high heaven.

While the rest of America is getting on board with plans to build transit and high-speed rail, to reinvest in our urban areas, to grow smarter, Georgia seems content to be left at the station.

It seems that if Georgia has anything to say about it, and southern extension of the Northeast Corridor can stop at Charlotte. And the Secretary of Transportation is watching.

Georgia just keeps doing things that remind me why I left. But I still hope Georgia succeeds.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Clayton losing buses

Clayton County, Georgia, located just south of Atlanta, appears to be about to lose transit service. The main economic engine of the county is Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Over the last eight years, the county has funded a local bus system known as C-Tran. Lately, C-Tran has been operated under contract to MARTA. But the county is out of money. And March 31, buses are expected to stop rolling. For county workers at the Airport, suddenly they'll have no connection to their jobs. Students at Clayton State University will lose their transit connection. Even the Georgia State Archives, located in Clayton County, will be cut off from Georgia's transit-dependent population.

It's a shame that Clayton views transit as a program they can cut. Under Georgia law, the county is not required to provide transit service, and in their current budget situation, something has to give. But in a rapidly urbanizing county like Clayton, transit should not be sacrificed.

Of course, in many states local governments might look to the state for help, but those pleas will fall on deaf ears in Georgia's legislature. The region knows it needs more transit, but has always faced difficulty in agreeing on how to fund transit and which projects to fund. And Metro Atlanta has long been plagued not only by a lack of state support, but by general animosity from the state toward alternative transportation.

Clayton's history with the modern era of transit goes back to 1965. That year, voters in Clayton, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett counties approved the MARTA Act. Only Cobb County refused to let MARTA plan a transit system. The legislation creating MARTA limited the agency's jurisdiction to those five counties.

In 1968 a rail and bus system plan failed in Fulton and DeKalb counties. Three years later, in 1971, MARTA went back to the voters. This time, they proposed a larger, more regional system, and asked Clayton and Gwinnett voters for approval as well. But Claytonites and Gwinnettians turned MARTA down. In 1972, Clayton did so again.

Finally in 2001, buses came again to Clayton. Local service was provided on a few routes, with a connection to the MARTA rail system at the Airport station. Later, GRTA Xpress buses began to serve the county. Those peak-direction commuter buses will continue to operate.

But the bus era seems to be coming to a close in Clayton County. Unless a new funding source can be found by March of next year, transit riders in Clayton will be left waiting at the bus stop.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Linkfest: 10/13

Transit in the news, of late:

  • Vancouver to get streetcars
    Brussels has donated two trams to the city of Vancouver to use during the Olympics. The trams will run on a demonstration line along False Creek. Vancouver eventually hopes to extend the "Olympic Line" up Main Street to downtown. Full story: The Vancouver Sun.
  • Preserving the Thomas Viaduct
    Baltimore-area preservationists are calling for a visitor park at the Thomas Viaduct. The 174-year old span crosses the Patapsco River just south of Baltimore and is the oldest operational mainline railroad bridge in the United States. CSX is worried about trespassers. Full story: The Baltimore Sun.
  • Amtrak sees second-highest ridership year
    Amtrak saw a 5% reduction in passengers from last year, but still had its second-highest ridership year ever during the 12-month period ending Sept. 30. Trains carried 27.2 million passengers this fiscal year. While ridership is down overall, several trains saw increases, including: (Full story: Amtrak)
  • Amtrak releases Pioneer feasibility report
    Amtrak released a preliminary feasibility study on restoration of the Pioneer. Idaho Senator Crapo has published the report on his website. It appears that the service would cost around $30-40 million annually, with fares covering about one-third of the cost. Initial capital costs are around $400 million.
  • Chicago looks at raising fares
    Chicago is facing a major budget crunch. CTA released a proposal on Monday to raise fares 33% to $3.00 while reducing rail and bus service. This fare would make Chicago among the most expensive transit systems in the country. However, other cities have been raising fares as well. Full story: AP.
  • Commuter rail for Kansas City?
    Kansas City, well known for shooting down light rail plans, is now looking at a commuter rail system. The Jackson County Executive recently released a plan for a 144 mile rail system centered on KC Union Station. The proposal calls for seven radial corridors, including one serving the Airport. Full story: Kansas City Star. The plan (PDF).
  • Hawaii LRT moves into PE
    Honolulu's light rail system got the green light from FTA to move into preliminary engineering. It's a good sign that the project will likely receive the final go ahead in a few months. Full story: KGMB.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Pic of the Day: 10/12

Sailboat on the Bodensee, near Konstanz

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Lost Station

I have a confession. I'm a Dan-Brown-o-holic. Sophomore year, my roommate having just finished "Angels and Demons," would not stop talking to me about it until I read the book. And I enjoyed it. So I read "The DiVinci Code" too.

And when I heard that his newest Robert Langdon adventure was to take place right here in Washington, I was especially excited. But I was determined to wait until the book came out in paperback.

And then Atlanta got socked by the worst storms in recent memory. And my flight out of DCA was delayed, and the Borders in the airport had them on sale, and I splurged. Long story short, I enjoyed the book. Don't worry, I won't spoil the end for you. But I do have to take issue with Chapter 78.

In Chapter 76, after gallivanting across Washington by car, Langdon and his beautiful sidekick find themselves in Freedom Plaza, near the White House. Needing to get to Alexandria, they abandon their taxi and smartly dash into the Metro Center subway station. The CIA, which is trying to head them off, decides to set up an ambush for them at King Street.

While I'd been to a few of the landmarks mentioned in "The Lost Symbol", none is more familiar than Metro. So I was excited that it had made it into the text. But by the end of Chapter 78, I was disappointed in Mr. Brown's lack of effort.

It is clear that he has seen a map of the Metro. But it is also clear that he's never been on it.

Arriving at the foot of the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, the CIA team runs "down into King Street Station." Unfortunately, while the Metro has quite a few underground stations, King Street is not one of them. In fact, it offers wonderful views of the Masonic memorial from it's elevated platform. A google image search for "King Street Station Alexandria" reveals this property of the station. So would a glance at aerial imagery available on google maps or oblique aerials from's maps.

The view from King Street's platforms is not obscured by being underground

Brown's CIA team continues into the station, discovering that it "was larger than Simkins had anticipated, apparently serving several different lines - Blue, Yellow, and Amtrak." Brown is part right, mostly wrong. The station complex does serve Blue, Yellow, and Amtrak trains. It also serves VRE trains. But the Amtrak and commuter rail services happen in the adjacent Alexandria Union Station. It's not even connected to the Metro station. Transferring passengers have to exit the Metro and use the sidewalk along King Street's underpass of the Metro and railroad tracks to get to the Amtrak stop. In fact, King Street is precisely the same size as just about all of the Metro stops. It has a spartan mezzanine below the two tracks with a single island platform.

Asking the station manager when the next Blue Line train from Metro Center is due, the frightened WMATA employee tells the CIA leader from her "ticket booth" that "there's no set schedule." In fact, WMATA trains operate on a schedule available on their website. In fairness to Mr. Brown, they do hide it under the menu "Rail > Schedules", but a little digging would have revealed the Blue Line's arrival times in all their white-and-green PDF glory. And station agents don't sell tickets from their booths - or anywhere else for that matter.

Shifting back to Langon and accomplice, Brown describes their railcar as having "hard plastic seats". Fortunately for Metro's almost 800,000 daily riders, WMATA provides nice cushioned seats. Not that they don't start to get uncomfortable on the ride out to Shady Grove, but they're definitely on the soft side of "hard."

The narrative returns to King Street, where the CIA agents were "taking up positions behind the support pillars that ran the length of the platform." One of the things that Washington's subway stations are famous for is having few support pillars. Their airy vaults were meant to be exactly the opposite of the claustrophobic boxes seen everywhere else. There are columns used for air circulation and lighting, but they aren't support pillars. Brown's characterization of them as such is meant to give readers a very different image than they would experience - if King Street was underground.

The vault soars over trains at Stadium-Armory

As the train enters the station, the CIA leader shouts out "these trains are automated, but they all have a conductor who opens the doors. Find him!" ... "In the third car, Simkins finally saw the startled face of the conductor..." Metro's trains are computer controlled, to some degree. But they are not automated. Door functions and announcements are made by an operator, who also can drive the train, but the train can't move without the operator being in the cab. In fact, since the June 22 accident, all trains are driven in manual control. For obvious reasons, the operator sits in the front of the train. What I believe has happened here is that Brown has in fact ridden a subway system like New York's. In that case, most trains actually operate with a motorman, who drives the train, and a conductor, who opens and closes doors and makes announcements. When Brown discovered that WMATA's trains were computer controlled but still had an attendant, he assumed that only the conductor was aboard, and that he or she rode somewhere in the middle of the consist, as is the case in NYC.

I've talked before about movies getting their facts wrong, and how it irks me. Especially when the gaffe has nothing to do with the plot. With a book, there are fewer constraints. Movie makers can't always film what they want or where they want in regards to transit. In the recent Pelham remake, the motorman's console is depicted on the left side of the cab. This allows the actual motorman to drive the train from the real console on the right. So while not as preferable, the reason makes it acceptable to me.

But in a book, Brown has pages and pages. He doesn't have to cut scenes for time or budget. His descriptions are how he allows readers into his fantasy world. He owes it to us to be as accurate as possible, especially since his books often rely on real-world locations. A trip to DC wouldn't have cost him all that much. He's sold millions of books and lives in New England, the airfare wouldn't bankrupt him. In fact, he probably did visit DC for some of the scouting for his book.

But he didn't bother to ride the subway. And he didn't bother to google it either. And I think that's what irks me the most. He didn't even try.

It's still an exciting read though.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Ten-Ten Oh-Nine

It's been one month since my last post. Sorry for the lengthy delay. I've been swamped with work, out of town, and most recently, home sick. Anyway, I hope to be able to post more frequently here.

Don't forget to stay tuned to my posts at Greater Greater Washington.

I've got a few posts in the works, but for now I'm starting a new feature, "Picture of the Day". Now that I've got a Flickr account, I'm slowly uploading my pictures of transit, urbanity, and more. I hope you enjoy this feature. Thanks for reading!

Tram #15 in Stuttgart, Germany. Fernsehturm in background