The ULine options: one seat to the Galleria

Throughrun Detail-1

I noted last time that a north-south line is the best way to serve the Uptown area, and that that line is in METRO’s plans for 2012. But there’s a catch. Operating the Uptown Line and the University Line as two separate lines leads to transfers — possibly a lot of transfers. Assuming all lines are operated separately, you get 2 transfers from Downtown to Uptown or TMC to Uptown, 3 from the North Side or East End to Uptown.

Throughrun Base Small-1

Passengers don’t like transfers. Every transfer is a possible missed connection, and every minute waiting for a train, sitting still, feels like several minutes on a moving train. Successful transit systems tend to minimize transfers. As I noted a year and a half ago, 2/3 of the passengers on London Underground — one of the world’s most complex rail transit systems — make their trip without a transfer.

Of course, there are bad transfers and decent transfers. A transfer between two LRT/BRT lines that run every 6 minutes is inherently better than a transfer between two local bus lines that run every 30 minutes, because the consequences of a missed connection are so much less. Schedules can be coordinated so that, for example, a northbound Uptown run leaves 1 minute after a westbound University train pulls in. And, of course, station design matters. A cross-platform transfer is good; a three-block walk is horrible.

But even a good transfer is an inconvenience for passengers, especially if multiple transfers are required.

What passengers want is through-running: having a train from one line continue on to another line. This is quite feasible: of the 17 light rail systems in the US that have more than one line, 16 have two lines sharing track. There’s no way to offer every passenger a one-seat ride. But it should be our goal to offer one-seat rides between the most important activity centers — like Uptown and Downtown.

There’s one unfortunate technical hurdle: the Uptown line is BRT. But BRT vehicles and LRT trains can share a lane and stations. METRO’s planning to put rail in the ground on BRT lines anyway, so the additional cost is simply overhead wire and more trains. We can minimize the cost by running the trains only as far as the end up of Uptown at San Felipe, instead of all the way to Northwest Mall. That’s maybe $50 million in overhead wire and additional trains — real money, but with a significant benefit to the whole system. And we can get further benefit by routing those same trains to Downtown along the Main Street Line.

Throughrun Best Small-1

Here’s how through-running would work for the passenger: there are Uptown line buses, University line trains, and Uptown/University/Main Street trains, which continue on to Downtown. All three services run every 8 minutes. Here’s what you’d see at an Uptown station:

Alabama / The Galleria

northbound

SAN FELIPE 1 min
NORTHWEST MALL 5 min
SAN FELIPE 9 min
NORTHWEST MALL 13 min

Alabama / The Galleria

northbound

SOUTH RICE 3 min
DOWNTOWN 7 min
SOUTH RICE 11 min
DOWNTOWN 15 min

If you’re traveling within Uptown, you can catch the next vehicle that pulls you — you get a 4 minute frequency from the overlap of the lines. If you’re headed outside of Uptown, you wait for the right vehicle.

In Neartown you’d see this:

Dunlavy / Menil

westbound

SAN FELIPE 2 min
HILLCROFT 6 min
SAN FELIPE 10 min
HILLCROFT 14 min

Dunlavy / Menil

eastbound

DOWNTOWN *arriving*
EASTWOOD 4 min
DOWNTOWN 8 min
EASTWOOD 12 min

The bottom line: a one-seat ride from Downtown, Midtown, Neartown, or Greenway to Uptown, and a two-seat ride from anywhere else on the system to Uptown. 0 is better than 3; 1 is better than 4.

Whithin a year, the University Line and the Uptown Line will have moved from lines on a map to construction documents. The decisions made then will shape people’s everyday trips for decades. If we build an incovenient transfer, our grandchildren will likely have to put up with it. If we ever want direct trains from Downtown to the Galleria, we need to build those track connections now.

Will METRO get this right? Maybe. They have incentives not to — an inconvenient connection may be easier and cheaper to implement. It’s our job as the public to make them do it right.

Stay in your seat and discuss in our forums.

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