Passenger Rail Symposium, Day 2: Stations and Sprinters
8:04 AM PDT on May 28, 2010
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
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.
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
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.
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