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August 20, 2007 2:57 AM   Subscribe

Why can't we use rail lines for local mass transit?

This post got me wondering: has anybody tried using already-existing rail lines to run a local streetcar or commuter train system? What would be the drawbacks? The costs?
posted by atchafalaya to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Um, my train line carries mixed traffic. Half hourly or more often commuter trains and lots of freight.
What do you mean?
If you mean, why not use these rails more, I think it is because the trucking lobby wants to use trucks, and ordinary people want to drive their own cars.
If oil gets dearer, rail use looks better economically.
posted by bystander at 3:39 AM on August 20, 2007

Are you talking about abandoned rail lines? Or rail lines currently dedicated to freight?
posted by Jimbob at 3:53 AM on August 20, 2007

In Brisbane, Australia, the same lines carry local (commuter), intercity and freight trains.
posted by jacalata at 4:06 AM on August 20, 2007

The New Jersey Transit River LINE used to be freight-only. Now it's light rail (on 15-minute headways, since most of it is single-track) during the day, and freight trains at night. I wish I could say I've ridden it, but it goes from Trenton to Camden. It may make it cheaper to go to Atlantic City, though.
posted by oaf at 4:16 AM on August 20, 2007

In Brisbane, Australia, the same lines carry local (commuter), intercity and freight trains.
posted by jacalata

That's more or less the same story in Sydney.
posted by cholly at 4:23 AM on August 20, 2007

Mixed traffic speeds and stopping frequencies are harder to schedule. It's hard to run a supposedly high-speed intercity train at 150 mph when there's a commuter train ahead stopping at every station, or a tram on the line stopping every every couple of blocks to let bursts of old ladies and staggering drunks out, or an endless coal train crawling from the boonies to the power plant at 20 mph.

In our city, the long-distance trains, commuter trains, and local trams all stick to their own tracks.

I would like to see tram tracks made to also take buses (mixed asphalt and rail). Buses and trams have similar use patterns, so they wouldn't interfere with each other, and any given 50 meters of tram line looks to be empty something like 99+ percent of the time, so there is plenty of unused capacity. If buses could hop on and off those tram lines, they would be able to make quick dashes across town rather than wait in all the car-caused traffic jams. Such quick dashes from local neighborhood to business district could make all the difference in getting some people out of their traffic-jammed cars.
posted by pracowity at 4:25 AM on August 20, 2007

My uninformed opinion:

Freight rail is not necessarily laid out the same way or in the same neighborhoods that you would light passenger rail. You need a certain size and coverage of for rail to be convenient for more than a niche part of your commuter population or geographical features that bottleneck traffic like the San Francisco Bay. The very population pressures that make rail attractive however, also make buying the land to put the rail on prohibitively expensive.
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:27 AM on August 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

It depends on who "we" is. In the Toronto and Montreal areas commuter trains run on existing rail lines.
posted by loiseau at 5:18 AM on August 20, 2007

That's more or less the story in Los Angeles. Same lines carry freight and MetroRail.

BrotherCaine has the scoop. Urban rail lines need to feed a central area where the majority of people travelling from A to B work. In cities like Los Angeles, this isn't possible... in cities like Washington, DC, this is not only possible, but works very well. Rail lines depend greatly on location of customers and their destinations, geography, the ability of the community at both ends of the rail line to be walkable or "Park and Ride"-able, and the need -- people will want to have their cars with them at work if they can (hard to run to the post office, dry cleaners, and grocery store on your lunch break otherwise), but it makes more sense for them not to in cities like DC and New York with horrible traffic and high parking prices.

Cities need to be designed around rail, not the other way around. Few cities in the US are.
posted by SpecialK at 5:31 AM on August 20, 2007

NJ Transit to the east and MetroNorth to the west of NYC both share tracks (and even stations) with Amtrack's northeast corridor trains, including the high speed Acela.
posted by sd at 5:57 AM on August 20, 2007

BrotherCaine makes a good point but the biggest points are that passenger rail facilities must meet certain safety criteria as mandated by the federal government (Here in the USA). I believe new passenger rail facilities must not have any at-grade crossings or if they do, they must meet modern safety standards. Existing freight tracks do not necessarily have to upgrade to meet these standards.

Freight rails also do not have to be as comfortable a ride as passenger. The way I see some freight trains bounce and sway on tracks makes me wonder how safe those rails are.

The biggest factor though is that rail networks are owned by various companies. Most of these companies only deal with freight traffic, they do not own passenger trains. They don't want to spend the money on upgrading their lines to lease them to passenger services because it is expensive and it will cause them to change the way they do things. There really is no incentive for them to offer passenger facilities.

If railway facilities were like highways and owned by the federal and state governments it would be a better situation in this regard. I think that would be ideal because tax money could be used to keep the facilities in working condition. Obviously this will never come to pass.
posted by JJ86 at 6:17 AM on August 20, 2007

Chicago metra riders are let to know that they are waiting for the &^%$ freight traffic about every 15 minutes. (I keed; it's pretty good)
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:20 AM on August 20, 2007

The MARC, which feeds Maryland commuters into D.C. uses a rail line that also carries freight. It works very well, but since they lease the track from CSX there are times when freight traffic takes precedence over the commuter schedule. For instance, if there is a derailment or power outage anywhere in the New York-DC corridor, the freight trains that got stuck often get going first and delay the commuters.

You also don't want to be standing too close to the track when the garbage cars from D.C. head out of town in the early morning hours.
posted by saffry at 6:35 AM on August 20, 2007

The PATrain used to run in Pittsburgh on existing CSX rail lines. It ceased in 1989 mainly because the places it went were declining mill communities who did not commute to Downtown. The rail lines were built to move coal and steel from mills, and those towns have less and less people. More. The price eventually was too much (subsidy of $6.83 a passenger!), and service was replaced by BRT.
posted by ALongDecember at 7:15 AM on August 20, 2007

The reason you don't see subway-style cars running on most current rail lines is that they're not compliant with the safety (crashworthiness) standards to be running on the same tracks as "big" trains. Federal rules require that train cars/locomotives either meet the standards, or run separately from the other trains. The aforementioned River LINE, for example, is time-separated; light rail trains and freight trains never run at the same times. NJ Transit's Hudson-Bergen Light Rail is in some places on its own tracks next to freight tracks, but they aren't connected, so that they don't need to meet the stricter requirements.

As for running commuter trains on freight/other lines, this is what happens in some places. As others have mentioned, though, when you want to start a passenger operation on a freight line you need to secure the cooperation of the freight railroads, which isn't always easy to get, since the freight railroads can make more money keeping their trains running than they can by holding their trains for passenger trains. This is the reason for most of the long delays Amtrak experiences on some of its routes, because it actually owns very few tracks (mostly the Boston-NY-Washington line) and just runs on freight tracks the rest of the way. If the freight railroads have trouble keeping two Amtrak trains a day on schedule, they're not likely to do any better with a dozen or more commuter trains.

There are a lot of expenses to starting a new operation on an abandoned or disused line. Bring the track (back) up to a reasonable condition and maintaining them that way can be expensive, as can the building of stations, parking facilities, etc. The lines also need to get people from where they are to where they're going; part of why the railroads lost a lot of money on passenger service in the mid-20th century was that they were stuck running trains that no one used. There are also a lot of NIMBYs who own property along old railroad tracks and don't want any (or more) trains running near their property. If these people are politically connected and/or vocal, they can often single-handedly put a stop to starting/expanding rail service.
posted by Godbert at 7:19 AM on August 20, 2007

A lot of freight rail space isn't twinned, either. They run trains in both directions on the same track, stopping one or the other at a few twinned places to allow the trains to pass each other. That's okay when you've got trains going long distances relatively slowly, but when you need trains going in both directions very quickly (one to get the people into the city, one to get the train back out to the end of the line to bring more people into the city and vice versa at night) that becomes a much bigger problem.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:54 AM on August 20, 2007

Response by poster: I should have been more specific. I live near a railroad track Amtrak uses, and it runs between two pretty convenient sections of Lafayette and New Iberia. There's a lot of commuter traffic that runs parallel to the train line daily. It made me wonder why there wasn't just a twice-daily train, or even a weekend train for all the people who'd like to go downtown to party without driving.
posted by atchafalaya at 8:01 AM on August 20, 2007

Sound Transit runs commuter lines into Seattle on existing freight lines (BNSF). Freight still gets priority, and occasionally the commuter train will have to stop to let other trains pass/switch rails.

They run special trains outside of commuter hours during holiday shopping and certain sporting events - the stadium is practically next to the train station.
posted by O9scar at 9:25 AM on August 20, 2007

I'd guess that commuter trains require more flexible schedules than that to be successful. If there's only one train home at night, and you miss it because you have to work late, and your car is still in the suburb you live in, how do you get home? People make extraordinary efforts to be on time when they're travelling outside of their routine (a la Amtrak or air travel), but if it's something they have to do every day, there has to be allowances for people who come late, miss trips, etc, and running just one or two trips in the morning and at night doesn't work with that.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:30 AM on August 20, 2007

They've been testing a pilot project in Ottawa (O-Train) which uses pre-existing rail tracks. Originally it was to extend down to the largest booming suburb (Barrhaven), but that plan was cancelled the second the new Mayor came in. Ironically enough a very similar plan has been proposed and may be adopted.
Needless to say, it's a really good idea, but for whatever reason no one can agree on a plan and it's going nowhere. You may want to look into what's been done or what the contention points are regarding Ottawa's plans to find out a bit more on the entire rail concept.
posted by Meagan at 11:14 AM on August 20, 2007

When I studied in Germany I lived only several hundred meters away from a major north/south rail line (Munich-Nurmeberg-Berlin). On that line every class of regular stopping train ran: high speed ICE, inter-regional, regional and local service, as well as high-speed freight. Granted, as jacquilynne pointed out, these lines were twinned, (dedicated rails north and southbound rails) and all owned by Deutsche Bahn. So it is certianly possible, with the proper planning, routing, scheduling, and infrastructure. That said, Germany and Europe in general are more rail-centric than the vast majority of North America. To effectively implement the kind of service would involve almost totally rethinking North America's rail network, something I would be highly supportive of, by the way.
posted by fantastic at 11:55 AM on August 20, 2007

To expand on Meagan's comment about Ottawa: The current O-Train lines are dedicated to the O-Train during its running hours. At night the platform edges are tipped up and the tracks are dedicated to (local rail line) freight until the O-Train starts up again the next morning.
posted by mendel at 4:05 PM on August 20, 2007

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