January 02, 2004
Ridin' that train...

Looks like a whole lot of people wanted to kick the tires on the new light rail line. When they have to wait two hours, and in some cases get sent home emptyhanded, and yet they still sound positive, it's a very good sign for the future. And you can still ride for free between now and Sunday if you missed out yesterday.

Chron columnist Ken Hoffman took his ride and enjoyed it. He also thinks rail will work just fine here.

Several years ago, when light rail was the fierce debate in Houston, I visited six cities across America that had commuter train systems.

In Denver and Cleveland, wherever tracks were laid, stores and restaurants and loft apartments sprung up.

In Portland, 37,000 people started leaving their cars at home and riding the train to work downtown.

In San Diego, the train goes all the way to the U.S.-Mexico border, where people jump off and walk to the party zone in Tijuana.

The train is nicknamed the Tijuana Trolley, and it's so popular it turns a profit. That's almost unheard-of in public transportation. The 3 a.m. Tijuana Trolley back to San Diego is a rolling designated driver.

Imagine if we had a light rail train to Galveston. We wouldn't have to fight impossible-to-explain traffic jams on Interstate 45. We wouldn't have to worry about Dad being too tired or too drunk to drive home. It would be fast and safe and dependable. I'd pay $10 for that.

When I wrote stories about light rail in other cities, I heard the same old criticism -- that Houston's light rail line was going to be from the Medical Center to downtown. That's a dumb route. Not enough people are going to take the train. It's a waste of money.

Sure, but in each city I visited, light rail was a success. And in each city it started as a similar short route downtown. So let's give light rail a chance here.

It's very simple where light rail eventually needs to go: from where people live to where people work.

That's from Sugar Land past Greenway, through the Med Center to downtown. That's from Katy to downtown. From The Woodlands, past the airport, through downtown, all the way to Galveston.

Thursday was first things first.

"Light rail" between here and Galveston, or for that matter between downtown and Katy or Sugar Land, isn't really what Hoffman means here, since those longer distances would require a heavier track, like what freight trains run on, but never mind. I can't say that a line between here and Galveston would be profitable, though I'd surely be more tempted to go to something like Dickens on the Strand if I didn't have to worry about parking, but who knows? I do know I've been stuck in the traffic he's talking about, and it's a pretty strong disincentive to drive down there.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 02, 2004 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack

I've been on Cleveland's light rail, and it is a nice ride all the way to the airport. The only problem with light rail in general is that it can be slow during the rush hour or in downtown (Baltimore's light rail system runs in downtown directly on Howard Street and it can take 15 minutes to go a mile in that area, and another 15 to get into the suburbs).

Houston should embrace the concept and accept as a means of convenience for all invloved. It may take some time, but it will all work out.

Posted by: William Hughes on January 2, 2004 3:01 PM

The light rail in San Jose (where I lived until last April) was a tale of two different results.

South of downtown, the light rail runs along a freeway median, operating at 55-60 MPH with one stop every couple of miles. It takes no more than 20 minutes to get from the park and ride lots 10 miles south of downtown San Jose into the downtown area. It works great -- the riders can laugh at all the traffic stuck on southbound Route 87 at the I-280 merge at around 5:00 PM, zipping along at full speed.

North of downtown the rail has a stop at least once a mile, and shares the right-of-way with a surface street, and its speeds are usually 30-35 MPH *and* it frequently hjas to stop at traffic lights. As a result, it takes at least 30 minutes to travel another 8 miles -- an 8 mile stretch that's not usually all that bad in terms of traffic.

So the key, I think, to successful rail is that it must go from where the housing is to where the jobs are, and do so with enough speed and limited stops to make it competitive with getting in the car. It remains to be seen if the Houston system can be like that, but as there won't be any such rail into Katy, Sugar Land, The Woodlands or any similar destination any time soon, the system may be declared a miserable failure before the links it *needs* to have a chance to succeed are in place.

And if those last pieces aren't built, then I think every billion we spend on it before then is likely to be a billion we'll regret spending on rail.

I really want it to work. I don't think it can unless it competes directly with the Katy Corridor, with Highway 59, with I-45.

Posted by: Tim on January 2, 2004 3:55 PM