Monday, April 12, 2010

Express light rail coming soon?

This Thursday, the VTA's Transit Planning & Operations Committee will consider approving the final light rail COA. Last year, VTA staff began studying various options to speed up light rail service and attract ridership. Unlike the prior effort to redesign the bus system in 2007, the light rail system is full of constraints and improvements to the tracks carry a high price tag.

The light rail COA is recommending:
1. Trains on the Santa Teresa - Alum Rock line would run non-stop between Ohlone/Chynoweth and Convention Center. Trains on the Almaden line would continue north to Mountain View and serve all stops. Trains from Winchester would turn back in Downtown San Jose. This operating plan is feasible with the current infrastructure.

VTA wants trains from Winchester to end in Downtown San Jose because the Vasona line has two single track segments and most stations there have two-car platforms. It costs $135 million to double track the entire line and lengthen the platforms, which could be avoided if VTA were to route trains from Almaden to Mountain View instead.

2. If BART is built to Berryessa, trains would run from Alum Rock to Mountain View during peak hours, with express service between Old Ironsides and Mountain View (a stop at Lockheed Martin). During off-peak hours, trains would run between Old Ironsides and Alum Rock. This operating plan requires adding another track in Mountain View.

What got dropped?
1. Double tracking on 1st Street in Downtown San Jose to speed up service - This idea is opposed by downtown businesses.

2. 4th Street station at SJSU - VTA considered an idea to have trains from Winchester to end at a new station on San Carlos and 4th Street, rather than having the trains run on 1st and 2nd streets. The cost for a new station is $20.6 million and would have 1400 extra riders, which is lower than having those trains run on 1st and 2nd streets.

What's still left?
VTA has drafted a list of "independent" improvements, which can be funded and constructed individually under any operating scenario. Those improvements include grade separation at 1st and Montague, fencing along 1st Street, a new station at Great America ACE (to replace Lick Mill and Great America stations), etc.

What is surprising is that VTA is anticipating 81,900 weekday riders on light rail in 2018 without adding additional service. VTA assumes land use changes and downtown growth would contribute most of the increase.

When it comes to projecting future ridership, it appears that the light rail planning staff have smoked the same joint as the BART-to-flea market staff. Today, light rail averages 34,305 weekday riders, which means light rail ridership is to be grown by 138% in 8 years!

In reality, between 2000 and 2008, light rail ridership has increased by about 32%, which included additional riders from system extensions. The light rail system has added 45% in route miles within that 8 years. It is ironic that on one hand, the planning staff are using phony projections for ridership, and on the other hand, budget staff are using more realistic projections for finances.

The most important question is how much the new service would cost. VTA is estimating that the express service would add $2.5 million to $3.5 million per year (about 5-6% of the current light rail operating budget). The BART-related service would add $7.3 million per year (about 13% of the current budget).

This COA is a planning document and no immediate service change is expected when VTA board approves this report. What this COA will do is to provide directions to staff for pursuing outside funding and for future service planning.


arcady said...

I think it does make sense to separate the Winchester and Mountain View lines, precisely because of the single track sections on both, which makes scheduling that much harder. I also think that the Winchester branch could use better service on weekends, with 15 minute headways instead of 30, and likewise, there's definitely plenty of demand for a direct Alum Rock-Old Ironsides train, and much less demand past Old Ironsides on weekends. The new Great America station would be a definite improvement for some riders and might allow light rail to replace some of the ACE shuttle, and would be helpful once the Capitol Corridor increases service levels south of Oakland. The double-tracking through downtown would probably help things too, and that would be the most logical time to add a station at San Carlos/4th (it could be useful as a temporary terminal during construction). The Montague grade separation seems to be of somewhat dubious utility, more for the benefit of Montague than for light rail, but maybe I'm wrong there.

But really, I'd love to see them do some simple, small improvements to their signal system to gain a couple minutes here and there with fairly minimal effort. LA managed to speed up the Gold Line by 5 minutes by making a few modifications to the signal system. In the case of the VTA, they need to get rid of the delayed-activation feature on the grade crossings at Whisman, Middlefield, NASA/Bayshore, and Moffett Park, which would save at least two minutes when trains bypass all those stations, as they often do on evenings and weekends. They can also add signals between the Virginia station and the end of the freeway section, which is currently unsignalled and thus limited to 35 mph. And they need to re-work the evening and weekend schedules for better connections across the light rail system and with Caltrain.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that they didn't bring up (to me) what would be the biggest savings for express routes: skipping many of the stations between Tasman and Mountain View. Seriously, Evelyn? Whisman? There's nothing at the former and I assume the people who live next to Whisman are affluent enough to own cars and drive the short distance to downtown Mt. View to work or catch Caltrain.


arcady said...

They can't skip many of those stations without modifying the signal system, because the train can't proceed while the signal is red, and the signal stays red for 20 seconds after the train arrives, so as to provide adequate time for the grade crossing warning devices, because those aren't activated until the train actually arrives. Fixing that would take two minutes off the running time. Also worth considering is having a signal light, such that you have to push a button on the platform to inform the train driver that you wish to board, rather than having them look for people standing on the platform. That way they can go through stations where they wouldn't stop without even having to slow down.

Anonymous said...

I'm supposed that the definition of "express train service" for VTA is only "skipping stations", not necessary the speed of the light rail???

I'm also assume that there is no way to speed the light rail with the current infrastructure.



amandainsjc said...

I think skipping lesser used stations would in and of itself greatly increase the efficiency of the system.

arcady said...

Skipping stations saves something like 45 seconds per stop. That decreases the end to end travel time, thus increasing the trip speed for those making the trips that work with the express service. They're also considering increasing the top speed to 65 mph, which would require installing some sort of automatic train stop system.

Peter said...

@ anon 1:15

They are looking at both increasing the speed to 65 mph and installing the automatic train stop system. Maybe they could come up with a cheap fix like the Berlin S-Bahn uses (used?) with a mechanical arm that triggers a valve on the train, throwing on the brakes, if the train passes a stop signal.

Paul M said...

I agree that the ridership numbers for 2018 are a bit optimistic given the realities of the real estate market today. There would have to be a massive amount of development in order to more than double ridership. I wouldn't be surprised if it takes 10 years or more for real estate development to start moving forward again. Even reaching 100,000 by 2035 would reguire a robust BART ridership and a lot more density.

It's important to keep in perspective that the ridership numbers are developed to compare the various alternatives to see which ones would generate more ridership, not the absolute number.

Fredrick Schermer said...

As a transportation planner, I take offense to the 'smoking something' comment. I have reviewed transit in various places around the world, and I can tell that transit planners here tend to not see the writing on the wall when it comes to the impacts of successful transit planning. Point in case is Muni's light rail expansion with the tunnel under Market Street. The set up was such that within a very short time period the light rail creation was so successful, the service became crummy again because they couldn't accommodate the success. And I see it happening in California where unexpected success reaches the limits of the envisioned set up, bumping people off the light rail trains. Build it and they will come, but build it for a ridership that is below actual outcome, and transit stays crummy. Planners (and people critiquing them) may now be looking at individual lines, but it is exactly at the point when a rail network matures as a system, that is what you want to build for. If one does not, sooner or far later, very expensive investments must be made to fix what is relatively cheaper to put in place now.

Anonymous said...

Why do you need to run dual tracks for express service? Can't you have a train pass another stationary one by switching to the opposite track? Sure, the signaling needs to make sure there's no train on the opposite side, but seems quite possible, doesn't it?