Management & Operations

Where Rail Succeeds and Where It Doesn't

Posted on July 13, 2007 by Ernest H. Robl

This fall, Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) is scheduled to cut a ribbon to open LYNX Blue Line, a 15-station, 10-mile light rail service. Other rail projects, including commuter rail and additional light rail mileage, are in various stages of planning or consideration. Meanwhile, in the Raleigh-Durham area 140 miles northeast of Charlotte, the Triangle Transit Authority (TTA) finds its rail transit efforts back at square one after being turned down for matching federal funds. With both metropolitan areas starting planning for rail transit about the same time, Why did Charlotte succeed in building rail transit and the other fail? Comparing the areas
The two metropolitan areas have similarities but also substantial differences. Both areas have populations of approximately 1.4 million to 2.2 million, depending on how you define the area. Both are also major business and scientific research centers. The Charlotte metropolitan area stretches into northern South Carolina and goes by the nickname Metrolina. Business interests also often promote the region as “Charlotte, U.S.A.” — without any state identification. In fact, businesses south of the state boundary still proudly display the Charlotte, U.S.A. logo in their advertisments and on their Websites. The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, known as the Triangle, not only includes the state capital of Raleigh but also four major universities as well as facilities for many Fortune 500 companies in Research Triangle Park (RTP), a large business park between Durham and Raleigh. Transit planners in both areas planned to use existing rail corridors for their rail projects, but here the first differences become apparent. Charlotte’s LYNX project focused on a mostly idle but intact corridor. (Only the south end of the line still had freight customers and these were accessed from the south.) TTA planned to put its transit line between Raleigh and Durham in an increasingly busy freight railroad corridor, but with TTA’s own tracks. The current single-track freight line between Durham and Raleigh is part of the North Carolina Railroad (NCRR), a state-owned right-of-way that stretches from the North Carolina coast to Charlotte, under long-term lease to and operated by Norfolk Southern Corp. (NS). Although the existing rails in the NCRR corridor would have to be shifted in places, the corridor is wide enough to accommodate two additional tracks proposed by TTA, as well as an additional freight rail track. Diverging paths
A major difference in the two planned projects was the types of equipment and method of propulsion. The TTA’s proposed line was originally projected to cover up to 34 miles with as many as 18 stations; however, the project was scaled back several times. Charlotte chose off-the-shelf Siemens S70 electric light rail vehicles, drawing power from overhead wires. TTA, after a complex evaluation process, opted for diesel multiple unit (DMU) equipment. Though TTA considered non-FRA compliant equipment (not allowed to mix with and operate on lines with freight traffic), it ultimately opted for heavier, compliant equipment. TTA cited the fact that its equipment would operate close to freight traffic in the same corridor. Initially, there was no U.S. manufacturer producing equipment that would exactly meet TTA’s specifications. Colorado Railcar was developing an FRA-compliant DMU, and several manufacturers were willing to build stronger versions of DMU equipment used in Europe. TTA accepted a winning bid from a consortium of manufacturers to build its railcars, but that, like the entire system is currently on hold. Politics and geography
Ultimately, however, the differences were not so much technical as political and geographical. CATS CEO Ron Tober says he sees two main reasons for why Charlotte succeeded and TTA did not — one, Charlotte had a dedicated source of funding that had “more capacity” than the sources TTA planned to use, and two, Charlotte adopted policies and zoning packages early on that would support rail transit. Charlotte had the great advantage of having a single major political entity, the City of Charlotte and its existing CATS agency, behind its rail transit plans. Yes, other nearby towns were involved in transit planning, but clearly Charlotte was the dominant force. So, Tober said, Charlotte was able to move ahead despite several snags. Not only did prices for cement and steel rise much faster than anticipated, but at the same time Charlotte found itself in what he termed “an unprecedented period of construction.” “That tapped out the construction market,” Tober said, indicating that all builders in the area were having problems finding skilled construction workers. Tober, a 38-year transit veteran, came to Charlotte in 1999 partly because local transit supporters insisted that CATS needed a manager with rail experience. Before accepting the Charlotte post, he had worked in Seattle, Cleveland and a host of other cities. Multiple voices at TTA
On the other hand, TTA, whose role for years had been operating a regional bus, vanpool and carpooling operation, had a management board representing three major cities, a half dozen smaller cities and several counties in the area. (Charlotte and surrounding Mecklenburg County have merged many governmental functions, while Charlotte spread out as more and more of the county became urbanized.) For the TTA to take maximum advantage of the existing rail corridor, its rail line would only run between Durham and Raleigh, while going through the RTP and several smaller towns. Chapel Hill, the third major town in the Triangle, felt left out and lost interest in the immediate rail project. And, though the planned TTA line would serve major employers in RTP, the line would have bypassed Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU). The decision not to serve the airport, which would have substantially raised the cost of the line, proved to be difficult to explain to nearby communities. But, RDU expressed little interest in rail transit, as the airport gets considerable revenue from parking fees and concession fees from car rental operations. Strong business backing
For complex reasons Charlotte’s business community, including the major banks headquartered there, embraced the idea of rail transit early on. The less centralized business community of the Triangle, while recognizing its highways were gridlocked during rush hours, never quite saw that the proposed TTA rail system would help them. Rather, businesspeople worried about the costs of the system and what they would do to city and county taxes. The Charlotte community wanted rail transit, though there continue to be vocal opponents and attempts to overturn the half-cent sales tax that is helping to fund the light rail line. Meanwhile, the Triangle community at large was never really convinced, at least in part because it didn’t really understand exactly what it was that the TTA wanted to build and operate. As was the case in the Charlotte area, the TTA held numerous public outreach meetings and open houses, trying to explain its ever-changing plans for rail transit. But, one obvious sign that these explanations were not connecting was that even years after TTA had decided on FRA-compliant DMU equipment, area television stations with otherwise substantive news coverage kept referring to the planned rail system as “TTA’s planned light rail operation,” contributing to the problem, as the rail system was seen as belonging to TTA and not the communities through which it was to operate. Charlotte’s efforts to explain and sell its rail transit plans were aided by three major factors:

  • Charlotte could point to existing light rail operations elsewhere in the country and show examples of how such systems and their rolling stock worked.
  • Charlotte had a highly effective rail transit advocacy group, Citizens for Efficient Mass Transit, which put on independent presentations and published brochures in support of rail transit.
  • And, Charlotte had a popular heritage trolley operation that helped show what rail transit could do. The trolley tradition
    In particular, the role of the heritage trolley operation in helping build a base of support for modern rail transit should not be underestimated. Charlotte once had a trolley system — as did Durham and Raleigh. In each case, the operations had been long gone, with only a tiny percentage of the population in each area even aware that there had once been trolleys. In Charlotte’s case, the city’s last trolley, decommissioned in 1938, managed to survive through a series of strange circumstances. Used as a storage building and home, it was rediscovered in the 1990s by a group of railroad and transit enthusiasts that began restoring the trolley with the idea of operating it on a section of the already dormant Norfolk Southern (NS) “R” line, the same right of way on which modern light rail equipment will operate. The volunteer group convinced the city to make a $16.7 million down payment on its transit future by allocating funds for substantial improvements on the derelict line. Yes, transit advocates had a long-term view toward modern light rail, but this was far from certain at that point. Though contractors working for the city initially left the line single track with a few passing sidings, many steps were taken toward eventual doubletracking, including shifting the track within the right-of-way. The route was re-laid with heavier rail on concrete ties and wire strung overhead. The character of the city’s south side also played an important role. It was once a major industrial district of textile mills and other factories clustered along the rail line, which initially provided a connection to Columbia, S.C. (Today, NS operates between Charlotte and Columbia on a different alignment.) Many of the buildings had been abandoned. But as Charlotte grew, developers began to see the value of this south Charlotte district, only a few miles from the downtown core. Condominiums and apartment buildings sprang up. A few old industrial buildings in good shape were converted to trendy shopping malls and office space. The heritage trolley line, initially primarily a tourist attraction offering rides over a few miles to the edge of downtown, provided just the right flavor to this mix of old and modern. Once the trolley began operating on weekends, people took note of a curious fact; not only were people coming from elsewhere to ride the trolley, but residents of the newly minted high-rises along the line left their cars at home and rode the trolley downtown. The operation proved such a success that not only was the length of the run extended further into downtown, — in part as improvements on the right-of-way were completed — but the city also ordered three replica trolleys with modern propulsion and safety equipment from Gomaco. The more fragile preserved car was held in reserve for special occasions. The trolley also helped sell even more transit-oriented development along the rail corridor. And when the modern light rail trains start running, residents of south Charlotte will have an easy commute into the center of the city. The trolley operation, which was temporarily suspended during construction on the light rail line, will be back when the LYNX line starts running. Trolleys will share a portion of the LYNX route during off-peak hours. Dealing with freight
    The southernmost end of the line designated for Charlotte’s first light rail operation still had industries using rail transport. In that area, CATS shifted the alignment for its LYNX line and added an elevated section that takes the light rail over a part of the freight rail line. For TTA, the situation was much more difficult, as the NCRR/NS line between Durham and Raleigh not only had considerable through-freight traffic, but freight customers with sidings and spurs on both sides of the line. To avoid crossing most of these spurs at grade, a situation not acceptable to NS, considerable portions of the TTA rail line were to be elevated — another factor contributing to the high cost of the line. At the same time, many residents of the Triangle had difficulty understanding why TTA needed to build two tracks of its own when it was ordering equipment compatible with freight traffic. Then, because of its prolonged planning process and multiple changes to the length of the proposed line due to rising costs, TTA got caught in limbo when the FTA changed eligibility rules for federal matching funds. Ridership projections that would have met the old standards no longer met the new standards. And, of course, as planners scaled back the length of the system, that also cut into ridership projections. Two general managers left the TTA during the long planning process. The newly named general manager, David King, is a former state official who worked closely with the state Transportation Department’s very successful and nationally respected Rail Division. King says that TTA still sees a role for rail transit in the Triangle, but now all options are again on the table. Where now for the TTA?
    So, while Charlotte is already planning additional rail projects, TTA, which invested millions in planning and engineering work for a system that likely will not be built in that form, is going back to the drawing board. One proposal that appears to be gaining favor both within TTA and in communities along the line, though TTA has not yet taken an official position, would be to stick with TTA’s plans for DMU equipment, but to see how that equipment could be integrated into the existing NCRR/NS line. That way, TTA would at least be able to avoid repeating the lengthy equipment specification and bidding process. NS has long held the position that it is willing to work with passenger services as long as they do not adversely impact freight operations. When the state Rail Division, which fell under King as a deputy secretary of transportation, wanted to increase and speed up Amtrak passenger service between Raleigh and Charlotte, the state spent money to build new sidings and improve curve alignments. The state also paid most of the costs of installing centralized traffic control signals between Raleigh and Greensboro. What would be needed to run commuter DMUs between Durham and Raleigh? At the very least, the existing line would need one additional main track for the entire distance, with multiple crossovers and signal improvements. NS would have to make concessions in scheduling local freights that work industries in the area outside of rush hours. But, NS would also gain flexibility in running through trains. The state, which already supports two pairs of Amtrak trains between Raleigh and Charlotte per day and wants to add a third frequency in each direction in the near future, may be willing to support additional improvements in the Raleigh-Durham segment. Using the existing tracks would also considerably cut the cost of new stations for commuter rail, as, at least in Raleigh, Cary and Durham, commuter trains could use existing passenger stations, though all would need parking improvements. Operating on existing tracks would also leave open the possibility of having some runs go beyond the previously proposed end-points in Durham and Raleigh without requiring huge investments in new infrastructure. Looking forward in Charlotte
    Meanwhile in Charlotte, Tober points out that for the planned commuter rail operation to the north, CATS is “looking to put together funding that is not federally dependent.” Tober said CATS had already determined that the planned operation would not qualify for federal funding under current standards, but that it wanted to go ahead with the project anyway. Planning is proceeding for a multimodal downtown transportation hub that should go into operation in the 2010-2011 range. That facility would serve not only the proposed commuter operation but also Amtrak intercity trains and local transportation. The state Department of Transportation has already worked with Charlotte in acquiring most of the property needed for the multimodal center. Now, Tober said, CATS is working with the state to find a master developer for the transportation hub and other nearby structures.
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