May 09, 2008
Update on the East End rail routes

Christof brings news of an update to the downtown alignment of the Harrisburg and Southeast rail lines, which have undergone some major alterations and solved a lot of previously noted problems, though in doing so made numerous compromises that will still cause concern. A couple of points:

One good thing about this alignment is that it works well for westward expansion. The tracks will join over Buffalo Bayou, at I-45 between the Hobby Center and Bayou Place. For now, this is where trains will change direction. But these tracks will point directly towards the city courts and Houston Avenue, where the future Inner Katy Line (also authorized by voters in 2003) could head towards Washington Avenue and/or the Heights on its way to the Northwest Transit Center.

That's exciting to hear. It's time to start talking about expanding the system in that direction. I've got some ideas about where I'd like to see the eventual Inner Katy line go, which I'll present in a later post. For now, I'm just glad to see that it would naturally tie into the existing east-west line in downtown, which as we can see from Christof's map would make Minute Maid, the Toyota Center, the (if it ever gets built) Dynamo Stadium, and Discovery Green all easily rail-accessible.

Another compromise: the Main Street line is relatively fast and very reliable because the trains have their own lanes and have traffic signal priority. That won't be true for this line. Like buses do now, the trains will share the curb lanes with cars, both turns and through traffic. [update, prompted by a question from Highway6 in the forums: the track will be on the south side of each street, that is, in the left lane of Capitol and the right lane of Rusk] And the signals will be operated as they are on Capitol and Rusk today: trains will find the lights are sometimes green and sometimes red, and they will stop or go accordingly. There is no doubt that this will slow trains down and throw off schedules: for example, a line of stopped cars in the left lane on one block would force the train to hold in the previous block until the cars moved. It might also be a safety issue, but that's not as clear. In theory, the trains would act like buses, obeying traffic laws and mixing with cars. That avoids accidents that occur because motorists don't expect a train that moves differently than they do, and it does not require unusual turn restrictions. But motorists not used to the area -- like suburbanites going a ballgame or festival -- could get unnerved and drive unexpectedly.

Not having dedicated right-of-way for this part of those lines is disappointing but understandable - I figure it'll be cheaper this way, if nothing else. It's a short enough stretch that the hit on schedule reliability won't be that bad - the vast majority of the time, that trip will have a duration within a reasonably tight range, making it predictable enough. Having the train share a lane with vehicular traffic isn't a big deal - Portland's light rail line does the same thing in places. It's not optimal, but for the relatively small fraction of the route that this represents, it's not a showstopper.

So what we have now may the best we can do, but it deserves scrutiny. Since this exact alignment wasn't included in the previous Draft or Final Environment Impact Statements, it will be included in an upcoming Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, with a public hearing to follow. In other words, there's still time to have a say, and you can start in our forums.

So if you don't like what Metro has done here, you can tell them so, and maybe get them to do a little further tinkering. Speak up, or lose the right to bitch about it later. A more comprehensive updated map of the entire system can be found in Christof's previous post.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 09, 2008 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles