Rethinking Richmond Rail, Pt. I

In Whither the Limiteds, I analyzed a few bus routes which will see substantial travel time increases under METRO’s reimagined network plan, and suggested that where surface light rail pulls buses off of an existing freeway HOV facility, rail may actually increase commute times.

METRO’s University Line, or what is popularly referred to as Rail on Richmond, seems poised to do exactly that. Here, for example, is a portion of the c. 2002 bus map, before any rail lines had opened.

Richmond, c. 2002

Here’s the same corridor, as it appears on the current map.

Richmond, c. 2014-15

And here’s the reimagined network. Note that the park and ride routes aren’t shown, but they’re still there – most are on 59, with one originating at West Bellfort and accessing Greenway Plaza via the Edloe off-ramp.

Richmond, c. 2016

Richmond Rail is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Riders in federal transpo bills prevent funds from being allocated to it, and even if that were changed METRO currently lacks the cashflow necessary to issue more debt. But the line remains on a map, and Houston history suggests lines on maps tend to eventually get built.

Who is impacted by Richmond Rail?

Analyzing the impact of Richmond Rail on the existing ridership base is tricky; one must predict the ridership distribution on the reimagined network, then look at how that will itself be altered by the rail. We can’t be exact, but we can make an attempt.

Many buses won’t be impacted by the University Line. Routes that cross it, like the 27-Shepherd, will stay the same. The park and ride routes will likely stick around, as they have in the IH-45/North Line corridor.

Current routes likely to be impacted are as follows:

9 – 1400 riders
25 – 6000 riders
53 – 3900 riders
132 – 2300 riders
163 – 9600 riders
274 – 450 riders

Of these routes, #9, #132, #163, and #274 are principally commuter routes, while #25 and #53 are long local routes which eventually make it to Wheeler Station and Downtown, respectively. The reimagined network makes the following alterations:

9 – Stays largely the same, but loses one-way running in the Gulfton area and picks up a bit of route among the thicket of inexpensive apartment complexes behind the Sharpstown Mall / PlazAmericas.
25 – Stays largely the same. Is through-routed across Midtown to Blodgett Street, providing one-seat rides to TSU and UH.
53 – Deleted. The Briar Forest/Westside segment is rerouted via Harwin and the 59 HOV Lane to become the 152.
132 – Replaced by the 151, 152, and 153.
163 – Becomes a crosstown route. The fastest route to downtown involves a transfer to the 152/153 at Fondren/Westpark. The 151, 152, and 153 combined take over the Hillcroft-Downtown commuter run.
274 – Replaced by the 151.

If Rail comes to Richmond, the following route changes are likely:

9 – Is shortlined at Bellaire Transit Center. All downtown-bound riders transfer to Richmond Rail. Peak-hour, peak-direction riders may opt to transfer to a park and ride route, in exchange for an extra fare.
25 – Is shortlined at Greenway Plaza. Alternately, is sent south along Buffalo Speedway and then through Rice Village, providing a frequent route to that area.
151/152/153 – Shortlined at Hillcroft Transit Center, providing most of the operational cost savings after LRT opens.

Travel Times

A detailed travel time analysis of the University Line would take into account curvature, acceleration profile, and driver decision-making to create a likely time-space profile. Absent this effort, a reasonable approximation can be made by seperating the line into two segments.

East of Weslayan, the line looks like every other Houston light rail line. Street running without gates is limited to 35mph by AASHTO, and attempts to minimize right-of-way acquisition will likely lead to 20mph station approach and departure zones, as found on the East, Southeast, and North lines. Likewise, 90-degree curves in Greenway Plaza and Midtown will likely be flagged at 10 or 15mph. Average speed in this segment will likely be 14-15mph, in line with other Houston LRT lines.

West of Weslayan, the U-Line operates in an exclusive right-of-way inherited from the Southern Pacific railroad. With four-quadrant gates, speed limits can be set at 55 or even 65mph, and absent gross civil engineering incompetence there should be no reason for station approaches slower than 35mph or so. Average speed in this segment will likely be 23-25mph, in line with Dallas’s DART.

Using this back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests the following travel times; changing trains @ Wheeler is assumed to incur a 3-minute transfer penalty:

Possible travel times – University Line / Richmond Rail

Certainly, there are some improvements. Hillcroft to Greenway, at 10 minutes, is substantially faster than the current #25 bus, which takes 17-18 minutes to traverse the same distance.

Other trips are a wash. The run from Timmons to Wheeler is a bit faster than the current 16-minute bus trip, but riders changing from the 25 will see that improvement eaten up by the transfer penalty. 9-Gulfton travel times increase by 5-8 minutes, but this is balanced out by increased reliability; the 9 routinely gets stuck in 59 traffic, since it enters too late to use the HOV lane.

It’s on the expresses from Hillcroft to Wheeler & Downtown where the pain will be felt. Current scheduled Wheeler-Hillcroft times on the 132 are 15 minutes in the peak, 13 minutes in the off-peak. Downtown-Hillcroft times on the 163 are 17 minutes peak, 15 minutes off-peak.

For the TMC crowd, Richmond Rail will add 8-10 minutes to the Hillcroft-Wheeler Station leg. For Downtown commuters, Richmond Rail will add 14-16 minutes in each direction. The present #163 is Metro’s highest performing route*. When the existing 53, 132, 163 and 274 are consolidated into the 151/152/153 series, it is likely that total ridership will be in the range of 12,000-16,000 daily boardings. Increased travel times due to rail thus represent a loss of three to four thousand person-hours each day.

Other Alternatives

METRO previously considered a strict Westpark alignment, which was supported by the same suburban politicians who have blocked federal funding for Richmond Rail. This option was rejected because it would miss Greenway Plaza; the stop would be on the wrong side of the freeway.

A monorail was proposed in the late 80’s, under the Whitmire administration. Opposition from residents of Afton Oaks was a major factor in the proposal’s defeat, which is why the current Richmond Rail proposal jogs south on Timmons.

Reconstructing the US 59 HOV lane as a bi-directional facility and adopting a truly dynamic pricing based on a 45mph average speed could provide rail-like travel times and reliability to the proposed 151/152/153 routes. Service to Greenway Plaza could be provided with a median express bus stop, or what Seattle brands as a Freeway Station.

The no-build alternative, mandatory in any environmental study, would ensure no one sees increased travel times… and no one sees improvements, either.

In Summary

Richmond Rail’s substantial travel time increase between Hillcroft and Downtown derives from two factors. First, the Richmond Rail alignment is notably slower than the existing HOV lane; this adds about ten minutes. Second, forcing riders to transfer at Wheeler is slower than operating direct to Downtown via Smith/Louisiana Streets; this adds about six minutes.

It is unlikely that any service which requires a transfer at Wheeler can match the current #163. However, opening a second LRT line parallel to Main Street would be wasteful, and would be a mistake given commute patterns in a multi-polar city like Houston. That, then, leaves three options:

(i) Build Richmond Rail as currently envisioned, with 15-minute commute time increases for residents of Sharpstown, Chinatown, and Fondren Southwest.

(ii) Abandon the idea of rail, and operate multiple concurrent bus services with some going direct to Downtown. Focus on improving the HOV system.

(iii) Attempt to design a Hillcroft-Wheeler rail alignment which is sufficiently rapid to get total travel times (including transfers) within about 3 minutes of the current schedule.



*If the 81 Westheimer-Sharpstown and 82 Westheimer-West Oaks are counted as a single route, the 163-Fondren falls to second place. On Saturdays, ridership on the 2-Bellaire exceeds the 163-Fondren.

2 thoughts on “Rethinking Richmond Rail, Pt. I”

  1. I work in the Med Center, near the zoo. I live near Greenway Plaza. My morning commute by car is 8 or 9 minutes at 6:30 in the morning. Unless I get held up by the light rail, which can add 5 minutes if a northbound train on Main followed by a southbound train make me miss a couple of lights at Cambridge.

    I’ve tried public transit to work. It turns a 9-minute trip into at least 45 minutes.

    Wake up, hope there aren’t torrential rains, walk to the bus stop. 5 minutes.

    Show up early, because if the bus comes ahead of schedule, there won’t be another one for 20 minutes. 5 more minutes.

    Ride the bus to the Wheeler station – 18 minutes. Transfer to the station, wait for the southbound train, get off at Cambridge – 12 minutes. Walk to my building – 5 minutes.

    Return trip, same thing, except it’s 100 degrees outside and muggy!

    Bottom line, a 30-minute round trip by car now takes 90 minutes. I’ve tried it. And I live a couple of blocks from Richmond!

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