What’s Needed for Great Rail Passenger Service

By Noel T. Braymer

When  rail service is good, people will take the train in droves. When there is great rail service, many traffic congestion problems can be solved or reduced. The problems today with depending on cars for transportation are: they take up lots of space, we can’t build enough roads or parking lots in urban areas for more cars, cars waste a great deal of energy while creating pollution and they are becoming increasingly more expensive to own and operate. Plus there are many people who can’t or shouldn’t drive. As America’s population ages the number of people who can’t drive will increase.

So what’s needed for not just good, but great rail passenger service? There are the obvious: convenience, fast running times, safety,comfort and economy. But the three most important factors of successful rail passenger service are location, location and location of the stations. Station location is central to great rail passenger service.

Rail stations need to be close and easy to get to from where people live to where they are going. Since at least the 1960’s rail service has depended on large parking lots for ridership in suburban areas. Whether anyone will take the train someplace depends on how close their final destination is to the train station where they going to or how good the connections are to get there. The problem with this is there is a finite number of parking lots or parking structures we can build at trains stations.

No one wants traffic congestion in their neighborhood. In recent years many towns have passed “slow growth” ordinances to try to stop growing traffic congestion. Slow growth limited the size of developments, particularly construction of high density housing to prevent too many people from living and driving in their towns. However “slow growth” only made congestion worse. Slow growth makes people even more dependent on their cars. It also pushed out housing, jobs and shopping further out from where people lived. This led to people driving even more, creating more congestion in or through the towns with “slow growth”.

If we look at older parts of a town developed before the 1950’s there’s less traffic. The worst traffic is in new communities build around freeways. In the past in older cities housing, jobs and services where built near to each other, often walking distances. We need more housing that is near, that is walking or bike riding distance to trains stations. We don’t need dense housing everywhere, but we need it near trains stations. Also near stations we need services such as stores, clinics, car repair, day care and so on. Instead of driving all over the county, people would be able to do errands on their way to work or without a lot of driving. This would also reduce the need for “mom cabs” since children would be able to get around without needing a ride everywhere.

More development is  also needed  at major downtown train stations. Major stations should be destinations. In many places around the world train stations are also major shopping malls. Revenues from the stores are used to support the cost of operating the station and stores brings in more passengers. Major office buildings should be located near train stations in order to handle large number of commuter who work in those offices.

The beauty of rail passenger service is since it can carry many more people than cars in a small area quickly; it reduces traffic congestion. If you are a fan of open undeveloped space and easy travel then you want areas near rail service with fairly dense development. This is why “slow growth” and low density development doesn’t work and creates traffic congestion.

Developers are discovering that rail service brings in more people which means more money from their projects while reducing the costs needed for parking. A good example of this is around new sports arenas and stadiums which have more to do with property development than sports. More and more good rail service is central to these projects. A good example of this is the new 49er’s football stadium being built now in Santa Clara. It is next to the theme park Great America and both are next too major freeways and will also share the train station. The “Great America” station has Capitol Corridor and ACE service as well as light rail service from VTA. Most likely there will also be shuttle bus connections to the nearest Caltrain Station as well.

There are already several professional sports teams with rail connections in California. The Angeles Baseball team have with their stadium in Anaheim rail service with both Metrolink and Amtrak. The San Francico Giants have both Muni Light Rail and Caltrain service. The San Diego Padres stadium has Light Rail service with connections to Coaster Commuter rail service. Both the Oakland A’s and Raiders have BART service and Capitol Corridor service. The Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers and Kings all have light rail service in downtown LA. Sacramento is proposing a new basketball arena with light rail connections central to their plans.

Airports which have major congestion problems are also interested in more rail service. A major roadblock to growth at airports is local traffic congestion. Airports can carry more passenger using larger planes for the same number of landing slots. But they can’t expand their roads to handle more passengers. In Los Angeles residents and politicians  are demanding light rail service to LAX. Bob Hope Airport in Burbank has long term plans to become a major transportation center, not just an airport. They are seeking to greatly expand Metrolink/Amtrak rail service at their airport including a high speed rail station.

San Diego has given up hope of building a new airport. They are planning to get as much as they can out of their existing airport. Part of this plan is to have passengers in the future park and enter the airport at the east end nearer the freeway and railroad tracks and take a people mover to the terminals. This eastern location will also have a joint light rail, passenger train station and future high speed rail station. San Francisco will also have a high speed rail station next to the BART airport connection at Milbrae with Caltrain. Both Palmdale and Ontario want high speed rail stations to develop and bring more passengers to their airport.

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