May 26, 2008

Red Line Portal

If the Maryland Transit Administration would listen to just one of my recommendations for the Red Line, let it be this one: Put the tunnel portal in the proper place, just south of the Charles Center Metro Station.

Here is what a proper Red Line portal location could accomplish:
  • A huge cost savings from the avoidance of tunneling south and east of Charles Center and through Fells Point.

  • Full integration between the Red Line and the existing subway at the Charles Center Metro Station.

  • The ability to branch the Red Line into as many as four directions south of Charles Center - toward Harbor East and Fells Point to the east, toward Federal Hill to the south, toward Mount Clare to the west and connecting into the existing light rail line at Camden Yards to the southwest.

  • Full integration with the proposed Charles Street streetcar line to the north toward Penn Station and Charles Village, by way of an additional portal at Preston Gardens (St. Paul Street near Saratoga).

  • Connections at the Charles Center Metro Station to ALL rail transit lines, even the existing light rail line from Downtown to BWI-M Airport, although not light rail to the north toward Hunt Valley.

  • Red Line service directly to the Inner Harbor along Pratt Street.

  • The flexibility to design and operate the Red Line as a single vehicle streetcar line in mixed traffic where streetcars are appropriate, and as multi-car light rail trains where light rail is deemed appropriate, as dictated by specific local street and neighborhood conditions.
The MTA Red Line alternatives provide none of these things. The MTA Red Line alternatives avoid the Charles Center Metro Station completely, with a potential connection at the end of a cave-like pedestrian passageway of a block or two in length.

In effect, putting the Red Line portal in the proper place would allow the MTA to create a full eight or nine legged rail transit system with a centrally integrated hub for about the same price as that strange disconnected concoction that they're currently contemplating.
A great portal location would be as shown in the above photo, along Light Street near Redwood Street, one block south of the Charles Center Metro Station under Baltimore Street. A portal here would then allow the Red Line to be fully integrated into the Metro Station, then come out of the ground immediately south of it, so that the rest of the line to the east can be fully integrated into the city itself. There should not be any more expensive, disruptive, wasteful, remote and anti-urban tunneling than absolutely necessary.
None of the MTA Red Line alternatives has the eastern portal located anywhere near downtown. This means a lot of very expensive additional tunneling in the area in and east of downtown. What's worse is that it means that the Red Line will be isolated from all the other transit lines on and under the downtown streets, including the existing Metro subway and light rail, as well as the proposed Charles Street trolley line.
The most commonly cited problem with the existing MTA rail transit system is that the lines don't connect to each other - and the MTA is ready to make exactly the same mistake again with the Red Line. The only other alternative the MTA has left is to run the Red Line entirely on surface streets through downtown, with no portal at all. This would repeat the second most commonly cited problem with the existing light rail line on Howard Street - that it gets bogged down in traffic and is too slow.

The MTA has been planning the Red Line with the kind of schizophrenia that comes from desperation. They want to build a great regionally-oriented transit line that goes from one end of the city to the other. They want it to embrace new urbanism in Fells Point and Canton, encourage workforce housing (which is the code name for affordable) in West Baltimore, and serve suburbia in the Woodlawn/Security area. They realize that they have to somehow squeeze it into a lot of tight spaces and give it some advantages over clogged congested cars. They are somehow trying to give the Red Line the speed and widespread geographic coverage of a heavy rail system, the design flexibility of a light rail system, and the charm of a streetcar system.

The MTA has even discovered a suitable vehicle to try to achieve all that: The Skoda from the Czech Republic, which is about 30 feet shorter than the current light rail vehicles, but can be formed into trains that are as long as the hopefully strong ridership requires. If you buy the stripped down standard equipment motor, the Skoda is woefully underpowered to achieve the MTA's objectives, but they should be able to spring for some kind of extra-cost optional supercharged performance package. Unfortunately, speed is precisely what urbanites don't like along their local streets. The Skoda is also as cute as a streetcar, although again, if you hook three of them together they will create an excessively imposing 200 foot long train which will totally overwhelm any finely-grained urban streetscape.

So the result is an almost impossible balancing act between charm without harm and the need for speed.
All of that makes the location of subway-to-surface portal east of downtown extremely crucial.
What is needed is a Red Line that creates the kind of comprehensive center city transit hub which is the hallmark of any modern decent rail transit system, while also providing a strong surface presence that intimately enhances the most important, vital and livable urban streets.

The key to curing Red Line schizophrenia is to keep the multiple personalities as distinct as possible, which means putting the portal in the proper place.

The mezzanine level of the existing Charles Center Metro Station has a huge amount of wasted space which could be well used by the Red Line - and by transfers between all the heavy rail, light rail and streetcar lines.

The Red Line needs to be underground from the east end of the fast Franklin-Mulberry corridor to the Charles Center Metro Station. By doing this, Charles Center Metro station will finally become the kind of comprehensive rail transit hub that was originally envisioned when it was designed in the early 1970s. It would also assure that the western leg of the Red Line out to Franklin-Mulberry, the West MARC Station and beyond will be the kind of fast efficient regionally-oriented transit line that the MTA wants it to be.
Then the Red Line needs to be on the surface of Pratt Street through the Inner Harbor, centerpiece of the iconic modern Baltimore. Mayor Dixon's original transition team tried to get the MTA to locate the Red Line on Pratt Street through the Inner Harbor for this reason, which the MTA rejected.

Until now, however, just east of downtown toward Fells Point has been the place where Red Line schizophrenia has most reared its ugly head. The line either had to be an expensive, disruptive tunnel or a slow out-of-place surface alignment gobbling up precious parking spaces and even more precious urban charm. Or the worst of all worlds: A Red Line that attempts to be fast but fails, and is just a beached whale.
So as much as possible of the Red Line should be above ground - to be built at reasonable cost, to avoid Boston big-dig style disruptions, disasters and surprises, and to be weaved into the urban fabric with a presence that becomes an integral part of the urban lifestyle.

The perfect portal place is anywhere just south of the Charles Center Metro Station, so the Red Line can be integrated there. Everything northwest of that point will be fast, regional and underground - almost like heavy rail- and everything south and east of that point will be local and intimate - like a streetcar.

This operating diagram shows the Charles Center Metro Station as the transfer point between the Green and Red Lines, and for all the lines in the entire system, except half the light rail. On this plan, the line to Harbor East and Fells Point is called the Purple Line because it is streetcars, while the Red Line connects to the light rail line to BWI-M Airport. But they would share the same tracks and use the same Skoda vehicles and are thus interchangeable.
This will also make it easy to create branches to the Red Line in any direction - east through the Inner Harbor, Harbor east and Fells Point, south through Federal Hill and west and southwest too.

This is important not only because it maximizes connectivity, which is something in extremely short supply in the MTA plans. But to reinforce this, it also creates maximum operating flexibility. The Skoda vehicles can be operated as single streetcars and as light rail trains in whatever proportion, to whatever destinations on whatever routes are appropriate.

The "Down Under" alignment concept (discussed in a previous blog article) fully supports this, but there should be other alternative portal locations that work as well.

The MTA should get their engineers to be creative and identify alternative portal locations that will accomplish this.

One location that should work would be right in the middle of Light Street in the vicinity of Redwood and Lombard Street, one block south of the Charles Center Metro Station. This will work with the topography of the area. The Metro Station is under a ridge that has its high point just north of Baltimore Street. The portal would be downhill from this point, so that it could be built into the hill.

This hill on St. Paul at Saratoga Street in Preston Gardens which is now used as a traffic slalom could be another portal between the Charles Center Metro Station and the Charles Street Trolley (Yellow Line)

This plan would also be fully compatible with a Charles Street Trolley (Yellow Line) on St. Paul Street going into a Preston Gardens portal. The amount of additional tunneling would be minimal.

In sum, the MTA could put the Red Line on whatever streets they want to the east and west of this point. To the west of the Charles Center Terminal, it would be a fast regional line. To the south and east, it could start with the Red Line and then fan out into an entire network of routes.

The Red Line would no longer exude schizophrenia. Its multiple personalities would no longer conflict, but would instead be a single complex personality that adapts to each area it serves, the way a true transit network should perform.


  1. I have ridden the Skoda streetcars in Portland, and consider them too small for the Red Line. A better candidate would be the Siemens S70 vehicle used in San Diego and other cities. In size it falls between the diminuative Skoda and our current light rail line's white elephants. They offer considerably more capacity than the Skodas, but operated individually as streetcars, do not overwhelm the urban fabric. They are, of course, low-floor to allow ADA access without ramps or lifts.

    Greg Hinchliffe

  2. Thank you, Greg. I'm afraid you're probably right. The important thing here is that the MTA should chose a vehicle that can work well as either individual streetcars or in multi-car trains for light rail. The Skoda vehicles are 66 feet long. Would it be cost-effective to design the light rail portion of the Red Line (west of downtown) for five car Skoda trains (66 x 5 = 330 feet) to achieve approximately the same capacity as the MTA's current wider three car light rail trains (95 x 3 = 285 feet)? Probably not, which means you are correct: fewer but somewhat larger vehicles would be better.

    It may be that the MTA is choosing Skoda in an attempt to sell Fell Point and Canton residents on the "diminutive" vehicles, but when the Skodas are operated as muti-car trains, they will still occupy as much street lane space, displace as much parking and overwhelm the streetscape as much as trains with fewer but larger vehicles.

  3. A nice picture of the Siemens S70 (marketed as the "Avanto" outside the US) can be seen on the homepage of Rail Transit Online, It is even painted red to help envision it on the Red Line.

    Greg Hinchliffe

  4. I think the MTA Maryland is getting a little to carry away with rail line projects through Baltimore. With a future Red Line Yellow Line Light Rail seperating towards inner Towson, Subway expansion Northeast and now Charles St. Streetcar! How is Baltimore going to sustain this. The streets are too narrow for trains to travel. Most cheapest and simple way is either enhance buses or make BRT lines for Green Line expansion, Red Line and propose Yellow Line corridor.

  5. The redline above all would be a light rail, but having the Yellow line travel up Charles Street in mixed traffic is very different. I think if the Yellow line starts to break away from its current trail, it should start at Penn Station then have travel along Calvert St., then along a tunnel to Northern Pkwy. to connect travel along York Road with stations connecting to North Avenue,JHU/33rd St.,Northern Parkway, and finally at Towson Circle/Town Center and the Green line become a Bus Rapid Transit from Johns Hopkins to Morgan State as corridor for the Subway.

  6. The red line should be plan by a station at CMS full time to travel along each side of Security Blvd.,then merged to the median past SSA. On Cooks Lane mixed with vehicular traffic. Edmondson Ave; in the median. On route 40 on its own private way,then into a tunnel on MLK Blvd; using a multi-station with the subway to street-level at Pier 6 then along mixed traffic on Eastern Ave; then private way along the EB side of Boston St; to travel along the CSX tracks in Canton to John Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

  7. The Red Line in consideration should most possibly choose a BRT mode. And why, is the funding for the 14-mile line as a BRT mode would cost $700 million compare to an LRT mode,"hear me,$2.7 billion" in cost for the tracks,wiring and set up to traffic patterns. In this mix the central light rail expansion,the (Yellow line) should travel along Calvert St. because of least use of traffic dwntwn with connections to JHU to Towson Town Center terminus. A new (Slver Line) LRT transit as a sub for Penn-Camden shuttle and expand to propose Columbia Mall terminus. Green Line expansion from Johns Hopkins Hospital to MSU,continue representing as subway service.