Passenger Rail Symposium, Day 2: Stations and Sprinters

5_28_10_drew_1.jpgAerial view of San Francisco showing route to new Transbay Terminal. Image coutesy TJPA

On Monday, the Passenger Rail Symposium kicked off with an impressive display of train technology, most of it being used in Europe. But the problem of how to effectively implement train stations, European or otherwise, remains. Fortunately, Tuesday's speakers had plenty to say on the matter, both describing successful stations elsewhere or the prospects for better ones here.

Session 3: Rail’s Role in Connecting and Building Communities

5_28_10_drew_2.jpgBrent Riddle
The session began with Brent Riddle of German Marshall Fund, an organization devoted to finding how European policy approaches can be implemented in the United States, and (in a few cases) vice versa. He began by conceding that "Europe has problems too," pointing to the 2005 Paris Suburb Riots. Apparently, citizens in Le Blanc Mesnil rioted because trains on the town's RER line only came every 15 minutes, making it difficult for them to get to jobs in the Paris center. But Riddle had a positive example from Europe as well: the Stuttgart 21 project in southern Germany, which he praised as offering shorter travel times as well as being environmentally friendly. But the best part is the improvement in how the station will connect to the city; it will create new park space, connect more effectively to the city's transit, and improve the livability of the area around the station.

Not to be outdone, the Transbay Joint Powers Authority's Maria Ayerdi-Kaplan revealed that San Francisco was breaking ground on an equally awesome train station as well. Her job appears to have been difficult up to this point, evidenced by the fact that this terminal has been proposed since 1968. But today her job was easy, all she had to do was play her eye-popping computer animated informational video (narrated by Peter Coyote!) and take questions at the end. The project replaces the current Transbay Bus Terminal at 1st and Mission in Downtown San Francisco with a combination train station/bus terminal/shopping center with a park on top. The station would also connect to the BART via an underground people-mover, and would include several parks and high-rise buildings in the surrounding area.

5_28_10_drew_3.jpgMaria Ayerdi-Kaplan and Alex Kalamaros

After that, Metro's Alex Kalamaros led off his presentaion with a not-entirely-convincing plea that "We're doing interesting stuff in LA too". And while metro doesn't currently have any train station development programs on the level of SF or Stuttgart, there is something to be said for the work they've done in Transit Oriented Development. The presentation basically went through each of Metro's TOD projects one by one, with little new information other than how difficult it was for him to deal with Studio City NIMBYs. He reluctantly admitted that he wasn't entirely pleased with the way Metro handles parking in TODs, something Streetsblog has been critical of in the past, but he seemed to think there was little that could be done in the near future to change that. When asked whether Metro's development department had anything in store for the arrival of high speed rail, he expressed hope that a project similar in scale to the SF terminal could be built, but said that it would all depend on the route chosen for the HSR line south of union station. But he felt that most development would probably take place east of the station, which would be beneficial as it would potentially obscure the view of Metro's aesthetically challenged "Taj Mahal" building. He also made reference to the Park 101 project, as well as the LA River redevelopment project - is there a chance that all of this could be built as part of one massive TOD?

Session 4: Regionalism, Passenger Rail’s Emerging Role

5_28_10_drew_4.jpgWalt Stringer and the Sprinter Route

Last up for the conference was a session on regional rail, more specifically Sprinter-style commuter/light rail which uses self-propelled passenger cars. And who better to begin this session than someone from Sprinter? Walt Stringer, the Light Rail Manager from San Diego's North County Transit District came to talk a bit about how the Sprinter came to be. He covered many of the details about station construction, signaling, and the construction of the line's rail cars. Perhaps the most interesting detail was how popular the route had become with students at CSU San Marcos. And in general, the example of a train line which operates on freight lines with a service level closer to light rail, especially so close to home.

Next came a presentation from a new NorCal rail line which is something of a "Sprinter North": the Sonoma-Marin Area Transit District, with the very highbrow acronym SMART. Lillian Hames, SMART's general manager, layed out the details of the upcoming project. It begins at Larkspur, a ferry terminal ten miles north of San Francisco, and continues seventy miles north to Cloverdale at the northern edge of Sonoma County. Self propelled passenger cars, similar to the Sprinter, will run every 30 minutes on weekdays, and the project also includes construction of a parallel bike path for most of the line. It will be interesting to see how this line works out; Metro is currently planning a commuter rail line to Cerritos and Orange County which may use Sprinter-style cars instead of locomotives, and a Sprinter approach may be the best way to bring a light rail level of service to other routes in Orange County. If the SMART line succeeds, we'll have another good reason to pursue that approach here.


Finally, Ross Milloy of the Lone Star Rail District between Austin and San Antonio came to give a talk about his project. Milloy began by lamenting that "the last generation built all kinds of [mostly car related] infrastructure, and this generation doesn't even want to pay for the infrastructure we have." New train projects are a tough sell in the Lone Star State, but Milloy has shrewdly built support for his new rail line by appealing to the one thing Texans love most: Texas. He outlined the need for congestion relief in Austin and San Antonio, which is made more acute by rapidly increasing freight truck and rail traffic from Mexico to the East Coast. Thus, the project includes relief for both commuters and freight rail; it would convert a freight rail line to exclusively commuter rail, and build an entirely new freight route to the east. Talks with the freight rail companies have proven difficult; Milloy's account was that "they made the Mideast negotiations look like a tupperware party." But progress is nevertheless being made, Lone Star Rail has managed to leverage some $500 million at this point, which when spent toward dedicated infrastructure tends to make rail companies more cooperative. Ultimately, Lone Star Rail appears to be leaning toward Metrolink-style locomotive powered trains instead of Sprinters. But the fact that Texas is moving toward a more robust train system is encouraging news; it has been one of the last major car-dependent states to change course.

At the end of the conference, the conclusions were somewhat mixed. Each presenter made reference to the difficulty in bringing rail projects into existence, many referenced the difficulty they themselves had in the past, or called for strong national leadership to get projects done. Also, most presenters demonstrated an implicit understanding that the nature of rail travel requires train development to include not just train lines themselves but a nearby environment which complements the train, whether it be TOD, rooftop parks, or more effective connections to other transportation. But there was an unmistakable optimism, perhaps a feeling that decades of hard work in formerly train-hostile areas like California and Texas is finally beginning to pay off. Between progress in HSR, gradual improvements in transit, and a few standout examples like the terminal in San Francisco, the Passenger Rail Symposium concluded with the unmistakable feeling of optimism, that the light at the end of the tunnel is not an oncoming train but actual progress.