Transit notes from elsewhere #1: system degradation and improvement
System rebuilding. At the streetcar launch in DC a few weeks back, I was talking to a former DC transportation official now working for the federal government, and he commented that it seems like every 30 years or so, rail transit systems need to be reconstructed, and he wondered if that were factored into the cost of transit, whether or not it would be worth it.
Without redundancy, lines have to be closed in their entirety, so that they can be rebuilt, taking transit lines out of service for months or years. Alternatively, the system can be closed in fits and starts, wrecking service for years and pushing customers away.
I think that this reality ought to reshape--although it's too late--how we think about building transit systems in terms of station density, the number of tracks, the number of lines, and redundancy.
This part of the commuter railroad is owned by the State of Connecticut but contracted out to New York State's MTA as the operator. Things were so bad people had been calling for a different operator ("DOT: Kicking Out Metro-North Isn't Practical," Hartford Courant). From the article:
Despite continuing frustration by some commuters and many Fairfield County lawmakers, the state can't simply replace Metro-North as its commuter train operator, state Transportation Commissioner James Redeker said Wednesday.
"The New Haven Line is the busiest rail line in the country," Redeker told the General Assembly's transportation committee. "It's probably the most complex [commuter rail] service in the whole country. We have to be very cautious and careful."
Numerous legislators from southwestern Connecticut communities say their constituents are unhappy with slow, unreliable service from Metro-North, and are eager to see the state look for a different contractor to run the New Haven Line and its three branches.
The renewed success--about 180,000 people ride the New Haven Line daily and the lines set a record last year of more than 40 million passengers transportated--is attributed to the railroad's new president, Joseph Giulietti, and his success at refocusing the organization ("Connecticut lawmakers applaud Metro-North turnaround," "Metro-North Climbing Back Uphill Under Joseph Giulietti," and "Metro-North's 40.3 Million Ridership Sets New Record," Courant). From the last article:
Still, the railroad suffered by far its worst years in 2012 and 2013 when it was dogged by a seemingly endless run of embarrassing errors and operational blunders that shut down service, in one case for days. Near-crashes became more common and devastating wrecks in Bridgeport and the Bronx further tarnished the railroad's previously excellent reputation.The system is now focused on reliability and safety over speed ("Metro-North President: Expect Trains To Be More Reliable, Not Faster," Courant).
That ridership rose so soon after all of that is impressive, commuter advocates say. It comes at a time when fuel prices have plummeted, which usually works against mass transit since driving becomes cheaper, noted Jim Cameron, who was a longtime leader of a Metro-North commuter watchdog organization. ...
"The so-called 'inner portion' of the New Haven Line — between Stamford and Grand Central Terminal — had ridership growth of 3.6 percent," Malloy's administration reported. "Commuter trips were up 3.2 percent and discretionary travel was up 4.3 percent."
2. Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART)/SF Bay--Usage increases and the system is degrading. BART is the first of the new generation of subway systems built in the US starting in the 1960s, along with the Metrorail system in DC, MARTA in Atlanta, and Metrorail in Miami.
Like the WMATA system, it charges fares based on distance and it functions more like a commuter railroad than an intra-city subway system, although San Francisco has 8 stations and Oakland 4--3 in its core. Unlike WMATA, BART charges a surcharge for travel to and from the San Francisco Airport. The system is also being extended south to San Jose, both from the west and east sides of the Bay.
San Francisco's intra-city transit system, MUNI, offers an interesting contrast to BART in that it provides a tight set of city-focused services comprised of light rail, streetcars, and buses, while BART serves the long distance inter-city trips. Belmont in Cities in Full contrasts the systems as polycentric (BART) and monocentric (SF).
Ridership nearing capacity. The BART system is experiencing ridership increases, now around 430,000 riders/day. They experienced some of their highest ridership days during the Super Bowl in February ("BART set ridership record in February amid Super Bowl," San Francisco Chronicle) . BART has 669 railcars, while the DC system has more than 1,100.
BART offers ‘perks’ in bid to spread out jammed commute crowds"), although it's basic economics-- the quickest way to reshape this would be to put in peak fare pricing. From the article:
As BART trains and station platforms keep getting more and more crowded, the transit system is going to try to use fun and games — and money — to persuade some riders to take trains that are a little less packed.While the DC system has many more riders, more than 700,000/day, at least two BART stations have significantly more daily users than the highest used Metrorail stations ("These are the most - and least - crowded BART stops," Chronicle). While Union Station in DC has about 30,000 riders using the station daily, the Montgomery Street and Embarcadero stations in SF have more than 40,000 daily riders--that on a system with about 60% of the ridership of the Metrorail system.
Beginning this spring, commuters will be encouraged to enlist in BART Perks, a program that rewards passengers who agree to shift their trips from the busiest time of day with points.
Those points, which can also be earned by referring friends, may be redeemed for small cash rewards — or allow participants to play games like spin-the-wheel or Snakes and Ladders for a chance at cash prizes of up to $100.
Electrical problems put trains, stations out of service. In the past few days an electrical problem put trains out of service and service to some stations was suspended ("Down at least 50 cars, BART chaos expected to spill into Friday," SF Chronicle). The problems are expected to last for months ("BART chaos expected to go on indefinitely") and are the same problem that put cars out of service last month in a different section of the system. From the article:
BART mechanics said Thursday that they were closer to pinning down the problem. They said 50 train cars that failed Wednesday were hit with a power spike as they moved through a track crossover north of the North Concord station. On that stretch of track the power is reaching up to 2,000 volts — twice what BART expects for normal operations.PR Directness by BART atypical for a transit agency. Interestingly, in response to negative tweets about the problem, BART tweeted back that the system is in decline. Later tweets discussed plans to purchase 500 more cars and other system improvements ("BART admits much of system is at 'end of its useful life' in shockingly honest Tweet," Chronicle).
On each of the broken-down cars, the surge caused a semiconductor device called a thyristor to fail. BART said the parts — which are critical to each car’s propulsion system — cost $1,000 to replace and must be specially manufactured. That will take months, and riders should expect delays and shorter, more crowded trains in the meantime. BART has 669 total train cars and is supposed to be running 570 at any given time. But it is now down 58 cars.
Various publications have picked up on the story including Wired ("BART’s Righteous Tweetstorm Reminds Us Its Problems Are Our Fault"), commenting on the directness of the thread, which is atypical of government and transit agency communications more generally. The kinds of issues they have with BART--capacity, system design, redundancy--are similar to those marking WMATA. From the article:@shakatron BART was built to transport far fewer people, and much of our system has reached the end of its useful life. This is our reality.— SFBART (@SFBART) March 17, 2016
BART’s change in attitude wasn’t based on a policy change, or the recommendation of a public relations consultant. It was the work of 27-year-old Taylor Huckaby, one of the agency’s communications officers, who was helming the agency’s Twitter account on Wednesday night. Huckaby has experience in crisis communications. He was a public affairs liaison for the British consulate in Los Angeles, and the new media director for Bobby Jindal’s gubernatorial re-election campaign in Louisiana (before switching political parties, he notes).Sounds familiar. Note that many of the comments on the Washington Post editorial, "It’s official: Metro is a national embarrassment," are equally informative and direct, albeit not offered by people affiliated with WMATA, making the kinds of points I make about system design, redundancy, etc.
In the year he’s worked for BART, Huckaby has sat in countless meetings discussing criticisms leveled at the system for its inefficiencies. “We would go, ‘Oh my God, look at all these people that are saying XYZ, these horrible things about BART. If only they knew, if only they knew,'” he says. “My attitude every time I came to work here was, ‘Why shouldn’t they know? Why don’t we tell them?'”
Today's Chronicle has another story about BART's structural problems, "BART Shutdown Underscores Aging System's Overwhelming Problems":
But the core of the system, the part that's been operating since 1972 or 1973, is well into middle age and in need of major repairs or replacement. BART officials are planning to place on the November ballot a $3.5 billion bond measure to pay for fixing tracks, power systems, stations and other structures and mechanical systems.3. New York City subways reaching maximum capacity. Obviously, the NYC Subway system is old, with portions dating to 1904. Because the system is so vast, the cost for rebuilding portions that need to be upgraded is so vast that it is almost impossible to do so.
BART's 10-year capital improvement program, which covers maintenance and construction, identifies $9.6 billion in needs but only $4.8 billion in anticipated revenues. In the budget year that starts July 1, BART is tentatively expected to spend $120 million from its $1 billion operating budget on capital projects.
"It's clear that for BART, as a system, many elements have reached the end of their useful life or way beyond and it's become a patchwork approach just to keep it running," said Jim Wunderman, head of the Bay Area Council, a business-oriented group. "This underscores the absolute need for a bond measure this November to bring the system back into a state of good repair so BART, the lifeblood of the region's mobility, can become reliable again."
But as the system ages and ridership increases, the ability to keep the system running is becoming inceasingly diminished. There is a great article in New York Magazine, "One Day, 625 Delays," about the operational challenges faced by the system and its riders each day.
The system has reached the point where its capacity enabled by redundancy is outspanned by the age of the system and the increased ridership demands made on it.
Since then there have been many reports, studies, and new administrative relationships created, although not much in the way of new monies seems to be part of the new agenda. In response to financial needs, the MBTA Board decided not to continue a special late night subway service program, saying that financial needs elsewhere are more important ("Late-night MBTA service looks like a goner," "MBTA to end late-night service by mid-March," and "Late-night MBTA service ends on Friday," Boston Globe).