Why doesn’t anyone, anywhere in the US run express light rail?
There’s nothing inherent about US LRT technology which says every train has to run the same boring route all the time. Sidings and pullouts and overtake points are entirely possible. Actually, US LRT has about the same approximate loading gauge as the Japanese 1067mm network. And those guys are the masters of this shizzle. Check it:
That’s a Keihan 7000-series overtaking what looks like a refurb 2400 series on the far side of the platform. Local shows up, express shows up a minute later, express takes off, local follows. I’ve actually seen a video of a four-train meet at this stop – NB and SB locals arrive within 30 seconds of each other, NB and SB expresses show up simultaneously, expresses depart, locals follow.
I don’t expect North American operators to have the ability to run the tight, exact headways of a suburban Japanese railway, but the basic principle is quite possible. The local just has to chill for maybe 5 minutes instead of 2.
Where would this work? Well, lots of places, but for a system that particularly cries out for express LRT, look no further than this proposal for Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill. Yonah has a very nice diagrammatic map up detailing their proposed LRT and commuter rail lines.
The thing has MASSIVE REDUNDANCY.
The Raleigh-Cary side is 18 miles, and a full 10 miles of those directly parallel the commuter rail, from West Morgan to Cary Parkway. Likewise, the Durham-Chapel Hill side is 17 miles, and 4 of those are parallel to the commuter rail. The distance between endpoints for the LRT is 15 miles.
So: 14 miles of redundant commuter rail to connect to a 15-mile “core” section.
But why not just build a single-track LRT track in between cities? Run LRVs on commuter rail frequencies in between the cities, run them on typical LRT frequencies within. Same service plan, but a single technology. They could save themselves from building a bunch of redundant systems. Not only that, but most transit agencies own their own LRT, fee simple, where the freight railroads keep the tracks. Transit agencies paying to improve freight railroads for commuter trains essentially amounts to giving some dude money to buy himself a house, in exchange for him agreeing to let you sleep there.
Suppose Raleigh and Durham were connected by continuous LRT. There might be a case for the Greenfield-Parkway-to-Downtown-Raleigh segment as a standalone DMU line. You know, grab some RDC’s from somewhere, or something. But there’s no way the single station in “West Durham” would justify its own commuter rail spur if LRT was continuous. There is, then, eight miles of proposed commuter rail on the Durham side which is duplicative, which brings us to 18 miles of redundant commuter rail to bridge a 14-mile gap.
So what should this thing look like instead?
The stupid, idiotic, dumb move would be to say, “well let’s just build one rail system, durrr,” construct LRT between the cities using the same doubletrack cross section as within them, and add in a bunch of extra stations in the RTP area because hey, that powerpoint handout you got says that “light rail” stops every 1/2 mile to a mile, as opposed to “commuter rail” which stops every 3-5 miles. Congratulations, you have now created a slow loris rail that takes two hours to go from end to end.
No, the planners have got it figured right that the demand within Durham and Raleigh is different than the demand between the cities, it’s got different req’d peak frequencies, different baseline service levels. But there’s no reason not to operate it over a single track network using a single contiguous technology. Like this:
Midday operations might work like so. Trains originate at Northeast Center every 15 minutes. Every other train becomes an express from Downtown Raleigh to Cary Parkway, stopping only at NCSU and Downtown Cary. Meanwhile a “shorty” local train originates in Raleigh one minute after the express leaves and runs the rest of the way to Downtown Cary. This keeps 15-minute service at all local stops while allowing a single-seat ride from Raleigh and points Northeast to Durham-Chapel Hill.
All the locals turn back at Cary Parkway, but the expresses continue on, through RTP, all the way to Durham/Alston where they revert to locals and run to UNC. Locals originate at Alston on a staggered 30-minute frequency so that there’s 15-minute coverage over the Durham-Chapel Hill line.
This gives you 15-minute service over the LRT segments and 30-minute service over the “commuter rail” segments, but Northeast Center to UNC is now a single-seat ride of about 75-80 minutes in length. Not at all bad, for a trip that’s 35 miles even via the most direct auto route.
Once you define UNC-Durham-Raleigh as a single continuous line, you realize that it’s crazy indirect for endpoint to endpoint trips – most notably the large swing to the north from Chapel Hill to Durham and back. For a starter line, that’s great… but with a single-technology system, you can add shortcuts and expansions later.
Yep, that’s bee-line UNC-NCSU service plus a direct airport connection. It’s really not any different than a big train set. Buy the basic kit with oval of track and sleek locomotive! Then add variations for an even more fun setup!
But you can’t do this if you’re starting out with some balkanized, Philadelphia-type system where everything is a different and incompatible mode. Nope. You need Express Light Rail. But… no one’s done it. Anywhere, in the entire US – at least in modern times.