Changing trains

A hog could travel through Chicago without changing trains, railroad executive R. R. Young complained 50 years ago, but a person couldn’t. The builders of transit were trying to satisfy passengers’ desire to stay in one seat all the way long before that, and they still are. Even when it is done efficiently, a transfer adds anxiety and makes a trip feel longer than it actually is. Transfers are a necessity in transit – we simply cannot give every passenger a one-seat ride – but they are to be avoided.

As of yet, we know very little about how METRO’s transit system would actually operate once the pre-2011 Solutions expansion is complete. But we do know that it could involve a lot of transfers. Here’s Metro’s map, with the simplest routing. Each color corresponds to a route. If two stations aren’t on line of the same color, you have to transfer; if they are, you can catch a through train/bus.

It’s not hard to see the problem with this scheme:

transfers required between major destinations

(0= one-seat ride)

  activity centers neighborhoods
         Downtown Texas Medical Center Post Oak Greenway Plaza UH North Harrisburg Southeast
Downtown 0 2 1 0 0 0 0
Texas Medical Center 2 1 1 1 1 2
Post Oak 1 1 2 3 2
Greenway Plaza 0 2 2 1
UH 1 1 0
North 1 1
Harrisburg 1

These numerous transfers come about because this scheme flies in the face of accepted transit wisdom: all lines in a system should converge on a central transfer zone, so that every trip can be done with one transfer. Furthermore, that central transfer zone should be the most important destination in the system, so that the maximum number of passengers won’t have to transfer at all. New York, for example, has 468 subway stations, of which only 12 do not offer direct service to either Midtown or Downtown Manhattan. London Underground is among the world’s most complex transit systems, with 12 lines and two dozen transfer stations in central London, yet upwards of two thirds of Tube passengers complete their journeys on one line.

What can we do to make METRORail (and METROBRT, or whatever it will be called) more like those systems? Four ideas:

(1) Combine the North and Southeast lines into one through service

(2) Add a connection track so that trains to and from the western end of the East-West line can run onto the Main Street Line towards Downtown

(3) Add a connection track so that trains to and from the eastern end of the East-West line can run onto the Main Street Line towards the Texas Medical Center

(4) Extend light rail overhead wire (the tracks, remember, will already be there) 1 1/2 mles north along the Uptown line so that light rail trains will run into Post Oak, not near it. Light rail trains can share the lane with BRT busses.

transfers required between major destinations

(0= one-seat ride)

  activity centers neighborhoods
         Downtown Texas Medical Center Post Oak Greenway Plaza UH North Harrisburg Southeast
Downtown 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Texas Medical Center 1 1 0 1 1 1
Post Oak 0 0 1 1 1
Greenway Plaza 0 1 1 1
UH 1 1 0
North 0 1
Harrisburg 1

Better, right? Item (1) is probably free to implement, (2) and (3) can be done for the cost of a few switches and a few yards of track, and (4) costs perhaps $50 million. All in all, that’s a 5% increase in the cost of the LRT/BRT plan for a huge increase in rider convenience.

Operations planning – schedules and routes – for a transit system is usually not done until the system is under construction. But track connections and station layouts are set in concrete before then, and if they are not designed to allow through trains there will never be through trains. Thus, it makes sense to build the connections even if they won’t be used right away. The most important point, though, is that METRO needs to be thinking about this now, not later.

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