Improving American Rail, pt. 6: Building out better regional rail

High-speed rail (HSR) is glitzy and glamorous. There is no question that it has captured the public’s imagination to an extent. It is a commendable accomplishment to see such a serious discussion revolving around the development of modern and competitive rail infrastructure. However, if the final goal are trains akin to those famous ones in France, Japan, and now China then the first infrastructure developments have to be, out of necessity for the survival of the whole system, significantly more functional and less glamorous: it’ll have to be regional rail.  Stations are important, organizational structure is important, but a functional regional rail system is the glue keeping the whole thing together.

Like I have mentioned in a pervious article, the whole process begins by breaking up Amtrak and keeping only limited oversight, funding, and coordinating powers in a national body out of Washington, D.C. (or another city). The major powers to operate and maintain the system would be handed over to regional systems: New England and the Mid-Atlantic (i.e. the Northeast Corridor), the Midwest, the South, Texas and Southern Plains, the Great Plains, the Mountain States, California and the Southwest, and the Pacific Northwest. Such a system would look much more like Europe, where national rail operators run autonomous systems with high levels of coordination and partnership through the EU and other trans-European entities helping to coordinate trans-national projects and services. This would be where DC still plays a role.

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This is the map I featured in the original post. Regions are outlines in black, high-speed rail routes (150-200 plus mph) are in red, major intercity routes are in orange, and trans-national routes are in blue. Canadian high-speed routes are in pink.

At a more localized level, each of these regional rail services could be further partitioned into operating districts organized around either a major urban center or cluster of smaller cities. Each of these could in fact be further subdivided into smaller districts that are even more localized, or used to coordinate how regional and intercity services work in relation to urban rail and transportation services. From a superficial perspective it does appear like a number of unnecessary layers and operating organizations, but the whole purpose of layered operations is to ensure a level of coordination wherein transfers between modes is actually convenient.

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The green circle shows everything within 200 miles of Chicago (approx. 3 hour drive). Image from dupageblog.com.

Take a region like the Northeast Illinois and Southeast Wisconsin. At no point are any of the three major cities more than about 2 hours from each other by car. Travel between Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago is frequent and done for a variety of reasons and considering their close proximity if the infrastructure was available could be done without ever having to step in a car. But it isn’t there.

Issues have arisen in developing better connections including funding, planning, political bottlenecks and so on. One of the benefits of having a larger entity coordinating funding and services above the local level, but outside of the direct control of states and their own political turmoil, is the potential to orchestrate the development of service types with broad mutually beneficial outcomes. While commuter rail does a good job of shuttling people between the suburbs of a city into the urban core and intercity rail or high-speed rail adequately moves people from city center to city center, there is nothing in between. That in between stage though is necessary for the success of other modes of transportation and making sure people can live car-free to a greater extent.

Regional Rail from Chicago

What would regional rail out of Chicago look like? Multiple lines could theoretically radiate from the Chicago connecting numerous cities and towns within 150-175 miles of Chicago. At major cities like Milwaukee or Madison passengers from smaller cities can use the regional system to connect with HSR lines and long-distant intercity lines. Regional Rail is shown in RED, long-distance intercity rail is in GREEN, high-speed rail is in BLUE.

This type of system is necessary to support other options: transit use begets more transit use. While subways and LTR are great in cities and HSR remains an ideal option for connecting the centers of major cities regional rail systems necessarily weave these all together. While HSR passengers might use urban rail upon arrival, not all travelers are going point-to-point just between major city centers. This middle ground rail option is what connects smaller points in between to the larger nodes where transfers between multiple options are possible. Such systems have the potential to be huge boons to maintain economies and bringing new investment to areas struggling like Michigan while also supporting newly prosperous areas like the string of cities in the central part of North Carolina.

North Carolina Regional Rail

This image shows the three major metropolitan regions in North Carolina and one in Virginia, all of which would benefit from the connectivity that results form a strong regional rail system.

By no means should regional rail options be viewed as a half-assed approach to high-speed rail nor a competitor for dollars. Although I don’t believe many people view it that way, I do think people misconstrue the role and purpose of different kinds of rail operations. There an honest recognition of the role of different service types needs to be maintained. The concept of regional rail is to connect people within already interconnected regions and act as a middle ground between local and urban transportation options and long-distance/intercity options. This is why I’ve only provided examples of regions where end-to-end trips could reasonably be made in less than 2-2.5 hours at speeds somewhere between 80-100 mph. The distance between endpoints is thus limited to about 175 miles, which is fine. Anything longer might run the risk of becoming an inconvenient hybrid of regional and intercity rail (more on intercity rail later).

Putting a renewed focus on regional rail systems–the “in between system”–is the best next step in advancing the passenger rail in the United States. Regional rail is the keystone of a strong multi-modal and equitable intercity transit system, because a regional rail system achieves many things the other modes don’t: it services smaller communities and even cities that would otherwise be passed with HSR or even a traditional long-distance intercity train, they can travel at speeds competitive with cars (80-100 mph), while not requiring the same costly infrastructure investment as HSR, and regional rail can double as commuter rail for communities outside the normal reach of commuter rail or where none exists or could be supported in isolation. But, it stills serves more than the express purpose of getting commuters in and out of a city center.

The best tool to connect cities, people, and transportation options in a more complete web regionalized rail systems that bring equitable transit further from city centers and complements urban rail options and long-distance trains, whether conventional intercity trains or HSR. Without a strong regional rail system other transportation options fail by virtue of existing in a vacuum disassociated with each other.

 

Improving American Rail, part 5: reclaiming our train stations

If you are standing in downtown South Bend, IN, located about a mile and a half from the campus of the University of Notre Dame, and you look south over the city you can see in the near distance a curved roof adjacent to a rail embankment. The structure is the city’s old Union Station. Now defunct it is repurposed to house data centers. If you take the train to South Bend however, you will disembark at one of two stations–the South Bend Airport station or the Amtrak station–both are located in two different parts of town west of the city center; both are a number of miles from important landmarks. No passenger trains stop at the old centrally located Union Station.

In so many cases, this is the reality of train stations in cities all across the country. Old stations, often built-in a palatial styles or at the height of the Art Deco period, stand empty or defunct only to have trains stop at places far outside of town along desolate and meek platforms. In so many cities, contemporary stations have nothing more than the most basic amenities and few could be called centers of civic life or economy. There are grand plans for the reinvigoration of passenger rail in the United States. California is pushing ahead with plans for a high-speed rail line connecting north and south as are Florida and Texas. At a smaller scale Michigan and Illinois are doing the same thing in the Midwest. But the larger conversations seem to stop where the trains do: the stations. A world-class rail system is the product of good service, comfortable and convenient rides, but also great stations. But as far as I can tell, only a handful of stations are getting the attention they deserve.

I spent a good chuck of time writing about the significance of revising Union Station in Chicago, which is disproportionately important because of its location at the center of both the national and Midwest rail systems. The attention Union Station needs is well deserved, but we don’t want a rail system that is like a crown with one real jewel in it and a bunch of faux plastic diamonds surrounding it. Train stations are one of the places where passengers most intimately interact with a rail system. Stations are where the city greets these intercity systems. They also provide malleable ways to begin taking on the massive project of rebuilding a transit system that was lost long ago. They offer more than one use in one place, and that is an immediately tapable characteristic, one which may more easily garner private and public funds.

Unfortunately, we are no longer a home of universally good or great train stations. In so many cities, even where the old head houses still stand, contemporary train stations have transformed into shells of their former selves. Take St. Louis for example. The current intercity train station and transit hub is the Gateway Multimodal Transportation Center. The stop is nothing more than a pedestrian bridge and a few platforms squished between a double-decker highway and rail yard. Interestingly though the old Union Station (an historic landmark) is right around the corner. Although it has been converted into a multi-use complex, it has the capacity to be reinvented as a rail station, one along a potentially bustling passenger rail corridor. It is certainly a more visible structure and location and incredibly more aesthetically pleasing experience.

This map shows what passenger rail connections currently look like in South Bend, IN. The current services (South Shore Line and Amtrak) stop at different stations 1.5 or miles (as the crow flies) outside the city center. These distances are longer when actually routes into town are considered. If the services were re-consolidated at the city's former Union Station, passengers would disembark a 10 minute walk from Downtown.

This map shows what passenger rail connections currently look like in South Bend, IN. The current services (South Shore Line and Amtrak) stop at different stations 1.5 or miles (as the crow flies) outside the city center. These distances are longer when actually routes into town are considered. If the services were re-consolidated at the city’s former Union Station, passengers would disembark a 10 minute walk from Downtown.

There are examples of major improvements though: in Denver and Minneapolis/St. Paul, major overhauls and minor changes to transit organization within the cities were implemented to turn heritage train stations into multi-modal transit and civic centers serving Amtrak, local rail mass transit systems, local buses, and intercity buses. This included modernized facilities and better connected services in a more centrally located station. In the case of Denver’s Union Station the project included and award-winning new train shed. I’ve talked about this before in the context of how important it is to have both a functional and aesthetically pleasing environment.

These are wonderful examples of how cities have taken it upon themselves to reinvent and reclaim their passenger rail stations. At a national level though, a system of best practices, recommendations, and financial incentives to reclaiming old stations can be utilized to push forward a significant part of the national invigoration of passenger rail that from my perspective is being overlooked, but has the potentially to be one of the easier and more manageable aspects of this.

The goals should be to 1) get control of these properties or in cases when heritage stations don’t exist anymore, get control of prime properties for a new train station. This leads in to a series of related goals. The stations or sites should 2) be turned into mixed private-public places with the aim of being civic centers with opportunities to connect to travel options, but also shop, or lease office space. Many European train stations retain the feel of a classic train station while also employing these other elements. Plans can be implemented even to develop the commercial spaces first before the trains arrive to create some use and simply wait to build out platforms. These sites could even become centers for farmer’s markets and art fairs or dance parties and pop-up night clubs. The most important goal is 3) to consolidate services at one station to create easy intermodal connections and bring in a high number of passengers. This isn’t always going to be possible (like in Chicago or New York), but in even in places like tiny South Bend this could make a difference. In this example, consolidation would connect South Shore Lines to Amtrak and provide easier more centralized access to South Bend and 12 plus trains in and out of South Bend in each direction daily. Consolidation alone would make a huge improvement especially if combined with other intermodal connections.

Saint Paul's Union Depot was reclaimed as a multi-modal transportation center with bus, train, and LTR services and was designed with expansion in mind. This includes new local and commuter transit routes, and intercity high-speed rail routes.

Saint Paul’s Union Depot was reclaimed as a multi-modal transportation center with bus, train, and LTR services and was designed with expansion in mind. This includes new local and commuter transit routes, and intercity high-speed rail routes.

Incentives should be made to reinvest in old stations. This could be federal or state grants covering the costs of renovations, priority advertising services for private businesses that donate money to the project, financial aid in the construction of new transit systems that connect to the stations, and increased financial aid to services that voluntarily consolidate services in one station. Speciality grants or long-term aid could be given to taking back old stations previously repurposed for non-transportation uses, like the St. Louis Union Station. Over time, the funds raised from taxes produced in stations and fees on businesses and services using them would hopefully help fund further additions, expansions, and/or renovations.

There are so many ways we can be reimagine, reclaimed and reuse our old train stations and build new ones. New train sets, reconstructed tracks, and better governance is important to improving rail in the United States, but the train stations are really important too and in some ways the most important element of this process. They are the faces of the rail systems and really the infrastructure most people will actually experience on a daily basis, even those not using the system. They also have the ability to function as new community and economic centers in struggling downtowns and city centers. We can’t expect rail to become a viable option and fuel economic change and become competitive transit modes in cities if the stations we have are retained in their sub par form. Too often they’re small, unattractive, and too far from the city centers to be accessible or have a meaningful impact on communities.

A new plan for stations needs to take social, economic, and logistical concerns into account. A plan that defines best practices should be adopted. Incentives to implement it should be identified. Our train stations should be a collection of gems woven into a larger infrastructure system. Some station designs have popped up in localized master plans and the new Denver Union Station is a great example of the possibilities the future holds for American passenger stations. And considering the attention that project got, I think it is safe to say stations are important and should get attention now rather than later.

Improving American rail: Chicago’s Union Station, part 3 (delayed posting) – Intermodal connections are essential keys to success

Getting to Union Station by any means other than car or taxi, especially for people unfamiliar with the layout of Downtown Chicago, is by no means easy. Although there are numerous bus routes that terminate at Union Station and the area is certainly within walking distance of the Loop and things like Divvy bike share have made it easier to get around town by bike, unlike in most major Western cities, none of Chicago’s train stations (not one!) have direct access to the city’s subway/metro system—the ‘L’.* An effort to improve Union Station necessitates taking on such a groundbreaking infrastructure project like a subway along Canal Street that would include the addition of ‘L’ stops at Union Station and Ogilvie Transportation Center as well as improvements to surrounding bus stops and terminals. Intermodal connectivity is a cornerstone of good transportation networks and one which Chicago sorely lacks at Union Station (and by extension all its major stations).

Union Station has been conceptually conceived as having the potential to act like a third airport right in the center of Chicago. However, it will not compete with these airports if it doesn’t get up to speed with the intermodal connections offered there. Both are connected directly to the ‘L’ at the very least and both offer some form of dedicated bus facilities. An overall renewal of intermodal connections at Union Station should focus on two major projects: the Clinton Street Subway and a new bus terminal with facilities for both local buses, BRT, coach buses.  These have the potential to hugely and positively impact the efficiency of transportation connections at Union Station, although one would be significantly cheaper than the other, the costs of both are certainly worth the long-term benefits.

In the case of a new ‘L’ route, the shortness of the route would both help to reign in the costs of the project and the overall impact of construction. Although it’s in a densely built up area, the impacts would be significantly outweighed by the potential benefits: direct ‘L’ access to O’Hare from the West Loop, more ‘L’ access for West Loop residents and workers, direct access by train between two major Chicago train stations with the potential to direct access to a third station** and all along less than a 1 mile stretch.

The new segment of subway would also be more than just direct access to Union Station, but the final segment in a secondary Loop that would be formed by the two branches of the Blue Line. This Loop would also be a station Loop facilitating direct connections between LaSalle Street Station, Union Station and Ogilvie Transportation Center with indirect connections to Millennium Station and potentially Van Buren Street Station along the Metra Electric via underground ped-ways. Improvements to service along the Blue Line branches would also be possible, by splitting the line into two new lines, one along each branch. The Forest Park branch has significantly lower use compared to the O’Hare branch and splitting them into two new lines, means the CTA could better customize service on each branch accordingly.

According to Google Maps, the route from the Clinton stop on the CTA Blue Line's Forest Park Branch is a 5 minute walk starting under and highway and going past mostly nondescript or empty buildings.

According to Google Maps, the route from the Clinton stop on the CTA Blue Line’s Forest Park Branch is a 5 minute walk starting under and highway and going past mostly nondescript or empty buildings.

Uninterrupted access from a subway station to the interior of Union Station could be  a way to increase the use of the Great Hall as well. A mezzanine level built below Canal Street could facilitate the construction of street portals along Canal between Van Buren and Adams as well as access portals to a bus terminal and the Great Hall in Union Station. The availability of space inside the west end of the station’s Great Hall means there is ample room for elevators, escalators and stairs to the mezzanine level. This infrastructure need not be in the Great Hall itself either, but rather adjacent to it. A mezzanine level to an underground ‘L’ station also doubles as a covered and heated passageway to the bus terminal, which in Chicago is a huge plus considering how extreme summer and winter weather can get.

The Clinton stop on the Blue Line is far from appealing, even for Chicagoans let alone visitors and is often an impediment to those looking to getting to Union Station late at night.

The Clinton stop on the Blue Line is far from appealing, even for Chicagoans let alone visitors and is often an impediment to those looking to getting to Union Station late at night.

The bus terminal would also facilitate better intermodal and inter-bus transfers. First, it gives passengers transferring from train to bus or arriving at Union Station just for the bus an identifiable landmark towards which they can go knowing they’ll find their buses. As it is now, the curbside bus stops are difficult to find if you don’t know where to look. The different bus companies terminating at Union Station use different blocks of Canal Street too, which leads to confusion as to which block to wait at for a bus. Secondly, the curbside bus terminals don’t facilitate easy transfers between busses and cause overcrowding of the sidewalks. They are uncomfortable places to wait for a bus too and don’t include shelters, awnings or benches for passengers. Additionally, the curbside stops mean coach buses must contend with other traffic to get a spot to load and unload and crowds the streets. They not only get blocked, but they block traffic. Altogether this system is creating a traffic nightmare.

A bus terminal would include that and much more. An indoor waiting room provides an additional level of comfort for waiting customers and also doubles as a space for bathrooms, rental lockers, cafés and food stands as well as ticketing and information kiosks or offices. A staff lounge would also be available for the staff of bus companies. A terminal could also host a small staff to beginning taking tickets or act as baggage handlers to speed up turnover and departure times. Bus operators could also use the more comfortable space to improve transfers between routes. A shuttle bus could ferry passengers to the Greyhound terminal south of Union Station beyond walking distance.

A 0.7 mile stretch of subway connecting the O'Hare Branch and the Forest Park Branch of the CTA Blue Line would effectively connect all but one major Chicago train station (LaSalle, Union, Olgilvie). It would also create a second 'loop' allowing for O'Hare and Forest Park bound trains to be turned into two new routes with more effective schedules. It would also be the first time Union Station had direct access to the CTA 'L' in decades, bringing it up to par with European and other American counterparts.

A 0.7 mile stretch of subway connecting the O’Hare Branch and the Forest Park Branch of the CTA Blue Line would effectively connect all but one major Chicago train station (LaSalle, Union, Olgilvie). It would also create a second ‘loop’ allowing for O’Hare and Forest Park bound trains to be turned into two new routes with more effective schedules. It would also be the first time Union Station had direct access to the CTA ‘L’ in decades, bringing it up to par with European and other American counterparts.

Creating strong, efficient, and user-friendly intermodal connections at Union Station will require a mix of simple and extreme solutions. However, no great train station, especially those in large cities, exists within a transportation vacuum. And considering the proximity to other stations downtown a well-connected Union Station could effectively create a Downtown ‘super station’ split between Union Station, LaSalle Street Station and Ogilvie. Such connections would also facilitate the movement of people to, within and out of Downtown Chicago.

The importance of such connections does not go unnoticed in other cities either and should be a lesson for Chicago to emulate. Although plans exist for improvements to Canal Street and Union Station, a more impressive master plan should consider some helpful projects in other cities. In Berlin for example, the first part of a major extension of the U-5 subway was to first and foremost build a connection to the new Berliner Hauptbahnhof. The U-55 is a mere 0.9 miles long with three stops, but effectively connects the otherwise unconnected subway system to the main train station. The London Underground offers a more dramatic example with the Circle Line, which connects 5 major intercity stations with the larger Tube network. The importance of access to bus terminals doesn’t go unnoticed either. Denver is the best new example of bus and rail intermodal connections being brought together. Even little Kalamazoo offers convenient bus-train connections at its main Amtrak station.

A key, if not one of the most important keys to Union Station’s success is dramatically and wildly improving intermodal connections. This won’t just bring it to the same level as stations around the world, but truly help it become the center of rail in Chicago and the Midwest as well as the Downtown ‘airport’ Chicago is dreaming of.

*To get to Millennium Station from the ‘L’ one has to get off at either the Lake Red Line, Washington Blue Line, or Loop Randolph stops then walk 2-3 blocks further east or through the complex pedestrian passage ways underground. To get to LaSalle Street Station from the LaSalle Blue Line stop one has to walk a block south and find the hidden entrance to the platforms and Olgilvie Transportation Center requires a two block walk from the Clinton Green-Pink Line stop. 

**Olgilvie and Union stations are both along Canal Street, for direct access between the CTA Blue Lines LaSalle stop and LaSalle Street Station reconfiguration of the former would be necessary.