DIY planning for light rail!

LRT car clearances profile (excerpted from presentation).

LRT car clearances profile (excerpted from presentation).

Interested in designing a conceptual light rail transit (LRT) line for your own community? If you’ve been wishing you had something like a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) planning manual or set of basic guidelines for doing that, a report presented to the 13th National Light Rail & Streetcar Conference (co-sponsored by Transportation Research Board and American Public Transportation Association, and held last month in Minneapolis, Minnesota) may be just what you need.

Titled «Developing Infrastructure-Relevant Guidelines for Preliminary Conceptual Planning of a New Light Rail Transit System», the report has been prepared by Urban Rail Today principal Lyndon Henry (also a technical consultant for the Light Rail Now Project, and a Railway Age online writer). As the abstract indicates, the report represents a step toward publishing “readily accessible guidelines to provide a resource for developing conceptual design and evaluation plans, particularly involving infrastructure and fleet requirements, for new light rail transit (LRT) systems in their communities.”

Links to the original paper and PowerPoint presentation are available (both as PDFs). ■

Cincinnati hosts APTA streetcar events

John Schneider, Cincinnati's "Mr. Streetcar" and a co-principal of Urban Rail Today. (Photo: L. Henry.)

John Schneider, Cincinnati’s “Mr. Streetcar” and a co-principal of Urban Rail Today, addresses APTA Streetcar Committee meeting on Dec. 15th. Photo: L. Henry.

Cincinnati, Ohio — Roughly a hundred streetcar planning and development professionals — including Urban Rail Today co-principal Lyndon Henry — converged here in mid-December to attend a business meeting and technical tours sponsored by the Streetcar Subcommittee of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). The main meetings spanned two days (15-16 December 2014), covering topics ranging from technical issues to the nuts-and-bolts of Cincinnati’s long political saga, navigating through public referendums and electoral permutations to finally secure the streetcar project now fully under construction. A highlight of the meetings was a presentation by John Schneider, Cincinnati’s “Mr. Streetcar” (see photo at top of this post), who chronicled and explained Cincinnati’s convoluted path to a rail transit system. (John is also a co-principal of Urban Rail Today.)

But special tours were also a major highlight of the APTA event, including a Dec. 14th tour of Cincinnati’s “subway-that-never-ran”, the remnants of subway tunnels beneath the center of the CBD. Built after World War I and into the 1920s, but eventually abandoned when city leaders scuttled the project, the subway is a creepy, sad, but fascinating artifact of urban industrial archaeology, with ghostly stairways, waiting platforms, and ticket kiosks constructed for passengers that would never come, and stringers ready for tracks that were never laid and trains that never ran. (Municipal bonds were not finally paid off till the 1960s — a kind of object lesson in the drawbacks of lack of perseverance and excessive misplaced frugality.)

For more information, history, maps, and photos, see:

Cincinnati’s Abandoned Subway — history and photos

Zach Fein (Cincinnati architect and photographer) — excellent modern photos

Cincinnati’s Abandoned Subway — link to PBS documentary available on

APTA tour group walking through darkness of Cincinnati's never-finished subway on morning of Dec. 14th. (Photo: L. Henry.)

APTA tour group walking through darkness of Cincinnati’s never-finished subway on morning of Dec. 14th. Photo: L. Henry.

Most of Cincinnati’s modern streetcar starter line project is now under construction, and particular features were inspected via another APTA Streetcar Committee tour on Dec. 16th. It’s a roughly 1.8-mile route, end to end, with about 3.6 miles of track and 17 stations. As the map below illustrates, the route has a sort of elongated “Figure 8” configuration, forming a long, narrow loop with tracks for each direction on parallel streets — no double track.

Map of Cincinnati's Phase 1 streetcar project, the first phase of hopefully a much larger urban rail system for the city. Map: City of Cincinnati.

Map of Cincinnati’s Phase 1 streetcar project, the first phase of hopefully a much larger urban rail system for the city. Map: City of Cincinnati.

In the middle segment where the alignment runs east-west for a short distance, the bottom (southern) track is routed in the median of Central Parkway, and the upper (northern) track along 12th St. Central Pkwy. was constructed atop the site of an old canal, and it was this canal that got drained and converted into the ill-fated subway that never opened.

Cincinnati’s famous Over-the-Rhine (OTR) district is the area above (i.e., north of) Central Pkwy. The district once was home to a substantial population of German immigrants who dubbed the old canal the “Rhine”. The area declined over the many decades since the subway debacle and the rustbelt decline of Cincinnati, but the neighborhoods adjacent and near to the streetcar line are experiencing quite a revival.

Streetcar rolling stock is being supplied by the Spanish railcar manufacturer CAF through their U.S. subsidiary CAF USA. Five cars for the starter line will be the first 100% lowfloor streetcars deployed in America (see simulation graphic below). Each will be 23.6 meters (77.4 feet) long, with four doors per side, 32 seats, and a total capacity of 154 passengers. Up to 6 bicycles can also be accommodated in the car.

CAF Urbos 3 streetcar for Cincinnati. Top: Interior. Bottom: Exterior. Graphic: CAF.

CAF Urbos 3 streetcar for Cincinnati. Top: Interior. Bottom: Exterior. Graphic: CAF.

CAF’s Urbos 3 car is actually a fully robust light rail transit (LRT) car adapted for streetcar application. The cars are double-ended (i.e., bidirectional) with a maximum speed capability of 70 km/h (about 43 mph).

As illustrated in the photo below, the streetcar project is being constructed predominantly with curbside tracks and stations that simply protrude outward from the sidewalks.

Members of APTA Streetcar Committee inspect streetcar station-stop under construction on Walnut St. in Cincinnati CBD. Photo: L. Henry.

Members of APTA Streetcar Committee inspect streetcar station-stop under construction on Walnut St. in Cincinnati CBD. Photo: L. Henry.

The photo below shows a completed section of track next to a station in the OTR district. The track diverges slightly toward the station platform, in part to minimize clearance needed for the platform edge and to maximize clearance with respect to the parking lane.

Completed section of streetcar track veers slightly toward station platform. Photo: L. Henry.

Completed section of streetcar track veers slightly toward station platform. Photo: L. Henry.

The use of recycled cobblestones to embed some sections of the track is shown in the photo below. This kind of treatment (if other motor vehicle lanes are left smooth) may tend to dissuade motorists from excessive running in the streetcar lane, giving it a bit of the quality of a semi-dedicated lane…

Section of streetcar track embedded in cobblestone paving. Photo: L. Henry.

Section of streetcar track embedded in cobblestone paving. Photo: L. Henry.

The system’s initial carbarn (storage-maintenance-operations facility) is under construction at the north end of the current route, at Henry St. The photo below, looking south, shows the main building and part of the storage yard. While the system will start with just five cars, the facility has space for 13. The revenue track wraps around on Henry St., on the carbarn’s north side (i.e., behind the camera in the photo below) to effectively reverse direction and head southbound.

Carbarn main building and portion of streetcar storage yard under construction. Photo: L. Henry.

Carbarn main building and portion of streetcar storage yard under construction. Photo: L. Henry.

In the photo below (facing north, toward Henry St.), track workers are performing thermal welds on one of the fan tracks leading into the carbarn. The street just beyond them is Henry St., which streetcars will use to turn from northbound to southbound and thus loop around the carbarn.

Workers performing thermal weld on track leading into carbarn storage yard. Photo: L. Henry.

Workers performing thermal weld on track leading into carbarn storage yard. Photo: L. Henry.

Cincinnati’s streetcar project is clearly not only well on its way, but planners are already scoping out the next extension, reaching further north to the University of Cincinnati. Furthermore, with a system designed for and deploying fully capable LRT rolling stock, an eventual transformation of the basic streetcar system into a faster, high-capacity LRT system is a distinct possibility for the future. ■

Austin’s urban rail loss boosts push for new light rail Plan B

Proposed alternative Plan B for Austin's Guadalupe-Lamar corridor would also have branch serving re-purposed Seaholm power plant site and Amtrak station. Graphic: Project Connect.

Proposed alternative Plan B for Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor would also have branch serving re-purposed Seaholm power plant site and Amtrak station. Graphic: Project Connect.

By Lyndon Henry

Austin, Texas — Sometimes there are rail transit plans (and other urban development proposals) that are just plain misguided and potentially deleterious to a city’s best interests. That was the case with the urban rail scheme proposed for Austin, resisted by some of the city’s most dedicated and savvy rail advocates, and rejected by voters on Nov. 4th by a 14-point margin, 57% Against to 43% In Favor.

Counterintuitive though it may seem, this was not only a huge success for transit advocacy but also a major victory for rail development in Austin. The official plan, developed via a disastrously flawed study by a multi-agency consortium called Project Connect, would have committed $1.4 billion to a 9.5-mile “urban rail” line (a local proxy term for light rail transit, or LRT) in a virtually non-existent corridor, running from a northern site called Highland through the east side of the city’s core, across the Colorado River, to a southeastern terminus on East Riverside Drive. (The Nov. 4th ballot measure asked voters to approve $600 million of General Obligation bonds for the urban rail plan, with the assumption that the remainder would be covered by federal grants and other sources.)

Not only was it a seriously flawed route, but it was also seriously over-designed (I called it “gold-plated”). Encountering formidable alignment challenges (e.g., constricted rights-of-way, sharply tortuous curves, a river crossing, and an in-roadway crossing over I-35), the proposal called for a pricey “signature bridge” and a $230 million subway for which the need was in dispute. As a result, the plan would have calculated as the third most expensive LRT starter line in U.S. history. And that massively wasteful encumbering of local funding capability would have, in effect, “sucked the oxygen” from local resources and strangled further rail development and expansion.

But high cost wasn’t the worst problem with the Highland-Riverside proposal (after all, even a good, cost-effective plan could have a high pricetag). Instead, mobility needs were virtually sidelined in deference to local development objectives (and these were basically misguided). Fundamentally, the plan ignored the city’s most central heavy-traffic local corridor, defined by two major arterials named North Lamar Blvd. and Guadalupe St., which funnels major travel from the northwest, north, and northeast through several miles of activity concentrations and finally into the Core Area — the University of Texas, state Capitol Complex, and Central Business district (CBD).

Potential daily LRT ridership serving this corridor has been assessed in the range of 30,000 to 40,000 — roughly 2-3 times that of the now-defunct Highland-Riverside plan. And this relates directly to urban development: By and large, developers will invest and build where the ridership is. Mobility is the key — provide a solid mobility project, and development will follow.

In any case, urban rail must first and foremost make bona fide mobility sense as well as meet appropriate urban development needs. Urban rail shouldn’t be intended as just a pricey amenity to enhance urban development.

That’s where Project Connect’s rail plan fell way short. But, in contrast, what has all the hallmarks of a real winner of an extremely cost-effective alternative plan is emerging to take its place, this time in the crucial Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. Currently referred to as Plan B, the latest version of this alternative proposes a 6.8-mile LRT starter line running from the major North Lamar Transit Center at U.S. 183 into the Core Area. Along the way, the line would connect with Austin’s existing MetroRail regional passenger rail service and serve a spectrum of major commercial and residential developments, established neighborhoods, and activity centers — plus the West Campus, with the third-highest residential density in Texas. All of this was missed by Project Connect’s plan. See: A “Plan B” proposal for a Guadalupe-Lamar alternative urban rail starter line.

Plan B LRT line would stretch 6.8 miles from a major transit center on the north to the CBD, with a branch west to the Seaholm-Amtrak development site. Map: Austin Rail Now.

Plan B LRT line would stretch 6.8 miles from a major transit center on the north to the CBD, with a branch west to the Seaholm-Amtrak development site. Map: Austin Rail Now.

This version of Plan B LRT for Guadalupe-Lamar also includes a branch from downtown west to a major development site at the city’s former Seaholm power plan, adjacent to the Amtrak train station (a connection originally proposed by Project connect but missing in the final 9.5-mile highland-Riverside plan).

In addition to striking the right balance between meeting mobility needs cost-effectively and catalyzing desirable development, there’s an additional major lesson to be gleaned from Austin’s recent urban rail planning and voting experience: Connect with the grassroots community.

Much of the Austin community’s discontent with Project Connect’s “study” process (mainly from June through December 2013) resulted from a sense of alienation from the process and the proposed plan that emerged from it. Project Connect claimed a vigorous “public participation” program, with dozens and even hundreds of “meetings”. But, rather than true community meetings, facilitating bona fide discussion and community decisionmaking, and enabling various segments of the community to interact with one another, the official “participation” process mainly involved presentation events, with project personnel unveiling decisions reached in seclusion by the project team. Members of the community, excluded from this process, were typically given the opportunity merely to select among a handful of choices; meanwhile, the major structure and contours of the plan were determined by political officials and project team staff.

Hopefully, this will change substantially — particularly with a new, expanded City Council, elected via a new district structure. Community activists and rail transit advocates have been interacting with new political leaders in an effort to institute a more democratic process with grassroots representation and participation directly in the development of plans.

Perhaps this kind of grassroots process will materialize in a way to shape and advance the prospects of Plan B light rail for Guadalupe-Lamar.

For more analysis of Austin’s recent urban rail planning and vote, see the following articles:

Austin: Flawed urban rail plan defeated — Campaign for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail moves ahead

Lessons of the Austin rail bond defeat

Austin urban rail vote fails, alternative light rail plan proposed

Austin: After urban rail plan failure, opponents spar over a “Plan B”

Austin urban rail plan: Behind voters’ rejection

Austin: As urban rail vote fails, campaign for Plan B light rail rises

Kansas City streetcar procurement “piggybacks” on Cincinnati’s CAF order

CAF Urbos 3 streetcar for Kansas City. Graphic: CAF.

CAF Urbos 3 streetcar for Kansas City. Simulation: CAF.

Kansas City — By “piggybacking” its order for streetcar rolling stock on Cincinnati’s order, Kansas City has probably saved at least several million dollars in the cost of its streetcar project.

This past October, Kansas City took advantage of the “piggybacking” opportunity and awarded a $22 million contract to CAF USA, a subsidiary of Spain’s Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles S.A., for five streetcars to provide service over its 2.2-mile downtown streetcar starter line, now under construction. (For background, see Kansas City — Another new downtown streetcar project starts to take shape.)

The Urbos 3 streetcars, costing a relatively bargain price of roughly $4.4 million each, will be assembled at CAF’s plant in Elmira, N.Y. The order follows (and is linked to) CAF USA’s contract with Cincinnati, which also involves five streetcars. (Thanks to Railway Age for details.)

Via a Twitter message link from John Schneider, here’s a look at CAF’s Urbos 3 streetcar running in Spain:

Hopefully, within a few years we’ll see a very similar model running on the streets of Cincinnati and Kansas City.

Getting the streetcar route right in Cincinnati

Another simulation view of the CAF streetcar on order for Cincinnati. Graphic: CincyStreetcar blog.

Another simulation view of the CAF streetcar on order for Cincinnati. Graphic: CincyStreetcar blog .

by John Schneider

An early turning point — there have been many of them — in the long-running effort to build the Cincinnati Streetcar occurred in one of the meetings that evaluated five potential routes. The early consensus favored a straight route on one-way parallel streets anchored by Cincinnati’s convention center, which has been expanded twice in the past thirty years.

Then something remarkable happened. The CEO of Cincinnati’s Convention and Visitors’ Bureau stood up and said, “Look, don’t build this for tourists — they are looking for things to do and they will find the streetcar wherever it is. Let’s build this for Cincinnatians.”

So an alternative quickly rose to the top — a diagonal alignment from southeast to northwest across the basin of downtown Cincinnati that puts just about every major destination within a couple of blocks of the line.

What proved to be key is the connection between employment and housing. While Cincinnati is a small city, it is home to a surprising number of large corporations, including Procter & Gamble, Macy’s, and the Kroger Company. There are seven Fortune 500 companies within a couple blocks of the streetcar line.

Most of these companies, their law and accounting firms and other support services are clustered a few blocks north of the Ohio River. Our region’s bus system is concentrated at the center of this agglomeration, and about 20% of downtown workers commute by bus. The streetcar line would end up flowing through the middle of this too.

At the other end of the line is Over-the-Rhine, so-named by German immigrants who compared the river they knew in their homeland to an early Cincinnati canal bordering OTR. Crossing the canal and going downtown was like “going over the Rhine.” And the name stuck.

Once home to perhaps 35,000 residents, OTR’s population dropped to around 5,000 or so in the 1990’s. Mostly vacant but blessed with beautifull (and mostly intact) Italianate townhouses, the neighborhood had been experiencing a slow comeback for several decades but was losing the battle to the elements and parking lots.

It was an obvious match: downtown workers are the best prospects to repopulate a neighborhood near lots of jobs but not really close enough to be walkable by everyone in all weather and at all times of the day. The streetcar solves that problem.

So the route will traverse the one-way couplet of Main and Walnut in the CBD, cross east/west at its midpoint to travel on another couplet, Elm and Race, which bracket Findlay Market, one of the oldest continuously operating public markets in the country. And perhaps the most authentic and diverse place in all of Cincinnati.

What else is along the Cincinnati Streetcar route? Plenty.

Fountain Square is the symbolic heart of our city and a focus of major investment. When the Reds win the World Series again, thousands of Cincinnatians will gather on the Square to celebrate. No one will require an invitation. It will just happen. The streetcar travels along the edge of the Square.

Speaking of the Reds, the Great American Ball Park is located near Stop #1 for the Cincinnati Streetcar. And Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Bengals, is four blocks away. These facilities are co-located in a huge Ohio River redevelopment project now known as The Banks, a billion dollars of new housing, restaurants, hotel and office space.

For 222 years, Cincinnati didn’t have a flood-proof riverfront, the Ohio River having a nasty habit of fluctuating wildly depending on upstream rainfall. As a result, not much could ever happen there. Now it will, because the parking for the teams — eventually to become one of the largest underground parking garages in North America — provides an invisible, floodable pllatform for the development above. The center of The Banks is about four blocks from Fountain Square with an uphill walk, so the streetcar will help bridge the distance and make commercial and hotel development there more promising.

There are other important destinations along the route of the Cincinnati Streetcar:

• Two-thirds of all the major cultural attractions in the Cincinnati region.
• Two new parks, one on the riverfront, the other in Over-the-Rhine.
• Cincinnati’s main library, now the busiest library building in the United States. There is also a historic private library on the line — one of its founders, a U.S. president.
• A new $72-million-dollar K-12 School for the Creative and Performing Arts, the first of its kind in the nation, which was originally established a half-mile away.
• Several new hotels and more in planning plus three large apartment buildings.
• Many bars and restaurants all along the line and more on the way. Cincinnati is getting to be a foodie town.

While the streetcar is mostly associated with Over-the-Rhine, economists estimate that the greatest real estate gains will occur in the north frame of the CBD. Over-the-Rhine is intimate and charming, and that’s why it is cherished by Cincinnatians. But most of the large parcels of land and buildings suitable for re-use as housing are in the “Empty Quarter” of the CBD between Fountain Square and OTR. Except for the Aronoff Center for the Arts, very little happens there nights and weekends. The streetcar will give this area new life.

City officials plan to extend the streetcar up the hill to Uptown area, to the University of Cincinnati with its 42,000 students and to the several hospitals near it. Downtown Cincinnati is the largest employment center in this 2.1-million-person region. Uptown Cincinnati is second.

A long-awaited sight: streetcar construction on Cincinnati's Elm Street. Photo: Travis Estell.

A long-awaited sight: streetcar construction on Cincinnati’s Elm Street. Photo: Travis Estell.

The key takeaway from Cincinnati is diversity of uses — connecting the two largest employment centers in the region with underpopulated historic districts between them, a large and growing public market, plus parks, schools, libraries, hotels and restaurants. When you put it all together, you have the likelihood of the streetcar’s near round-the-clock use almost every day of the week.

The Over-the-Rhine loop of the Cincinnati Streetcar will open for testing in mid-2015, the CBD loop about a year later.

Great things are happening in Cincinnati. Plan to visit soon.