January 21, 2013

Red Line FEIS - Part 2

Red Line FEIS system capacity and impact: More utter failure


The previous article discussed how the MTA Final Environmental Impact Statement future population projections and a proposed bus and rail system network have been formulated only to bolster Red Line ridership beyond any foundation of logic.

This article demonstrates how the proposed Red Line has been designed as a kind of "streetcar on steroids", to outwardly resemble a real high density urban rail transit line while actually being as cheap and puny as possible - the worst of both worlds. The proposed Red Line combines the high cost of a heavy rail line - $2.574 billion is the most recent estimate - with diminutive low capacity vehicles that are actually narrower than many or most buses.

Defining dimensions - width

Vehicle length and width define its capacity. The determining factor for the width is the need to squeeze the Red Line onto the highest density segment of Edmondson Avenue, where rowhouses come right up to a street which carries 39,000 vehicles per day. As the only true radial arterial street in all of West Baltimore, it is one of the highest volume streets in the entire city.

As a result, the Red Line would narrow already-congested Edmondson Avenue from three to two lanes in each direction, pushing the lanes as close as necessary to the adjacent sidewalks and closely flanked rowhouses, eliminate left turn lanes and median openings where necessary and eliminate 214 out of 330 on-street parking spaces.
There's no room to widen Edmondson Avenue at this point, so they would eliminate the right
 peak traffic/off-peak parking lane and squeeze the remaining two lanes of traffic up against the narrow sidewalk to make room for a Red Line that's actually skinnier than a bus.

All of this is proposed to arrive at the key dimension: A 8.7 foot (104 inch) width for the Red Line vehicle clearance between the power poles, station platforms, and traffic lanes. But the vehicles themselves would have to be narrower than that to account for motion and sway along the tracks. You can't ram the vehicles onto the tracks like driving nails into wood. It is more likely that the vehicles would have to on the order of about 8 feet wide (96 inches) to account for the "dynamic envelope" of vehicle motion.

Compare this 104 inch clearance to that of a standard 11 foot traffic lane (132 inches) and standard 8.5 foot buses (102 inches) which often encroach on the adjacent lane. A definitive vehicle width for the Red Line is not specified in the FEIS but it would almost certainly be narrower than many buses, perhaps only about 8 feet wide, nullifying a spacious interior as a key advantage perceived for regional rail.

Lower density cities which have most recently started building low cost all-surface light rail lines, such as Norfolk, Charlotte and Minneapolis, have adopted 104 inches as their standard vehicle width, but this should not be confused with Baltimore where the Red Line would be a high cost system with extensive tunneling and where the 104 inch dimension would apply only to the lateral clearance. 

Defining dimensions - length

The defining factor the length of Red Line trains is the high cost of the underground stations. Here to save money, it was decided that Red Line trains should be limited to two cars. The cars would be about the same length as the existing central light rail line (96 feet) and thus the platform lengths would be twice that (192 feet). 

But in contrast, both the existing central light rail line and the existing Metro heavy rail line can carry far more passengers than the proposed Red Line, due to far longer and wider trains and platforms. The existing light rail line is built for three car trains with total platform lengths of about 290 feet. The heavy rail Metro is built for six car trains of 75 feet length, for total platform lengths of 450 feet. Thus Red Line platforms would be well under half as long.

Lack of people capacity

Urban rail systems are generally designed to carry very heavy peak passenger loads with a high proportion of standees, relative to all-day ridership. But the skinny Red Line trains would combine allegedly high ridership with low capacity and greatly limited standing space in the aisles. Just like buses, it would be an ordeal every time someone wanted to move past someone standing in the aisle to get to an empty spot or to the door.

The FEIS gives the highest future peak hour/peak direction rider volume as 1807 passengers, out of a total daily ridership of 54,520. This is an irrationally flat rider distribution, assuming that only 3.3 percent of all daily riders would travel past the peak point in the peak hour. It would requires the overwhelming majority of Red Line riders to travel off-peak or on very short trips which avoid the peak point.

But even so, this would result in crush loads. To attempt to accommodate it, there would be an assumed train every 7 minutes in 2035 even though they are not planning to purchase enough vehicles or build a sufficiently large rail yard to allow it.

Previous to that In the year 2030, ridership is expected to be only about 5 percent less (50,000 per day). But the opening year fleet size and train headway frequency would remain and result in 30 percent fewer trains (10 minutes between trains instead of 7 minutes).

Here's the crush math scenario: If the vehicles are 7 inches narrower than the 104 inch clearance provided (3.5 inches on each side), with the specified two seats on each side of the aisle, they would have a crush capacity of about 66 seats and 100 standees, or 166 riders per vehicle or 332 per two car train.

The projected 1807 riders in the peak hour out of 54,520 per day in 2035 translates to just over 1700 peak hour riders (5 percent less) in 2030. All six trains of those rush hour trains would carry an average of 283 riders per train, out of a crush capacity of 332 riders (sardines?) with very little margin for error or variation.

And all that ignores the space which would be required for bicycles. Bikes are ignored throughout the entire FEIS, although they've no doubt assigned their riders to the ridership totals one way or another.

So if there was more than even a slight variation in the total demand from one train to the next, the extra jostling would slow down the trains and thus result in chain reaction delays from one train to the next. Jammed trains would pass riders by, thus jamming up the platforms and the entire system. With ten minutes scheduled between trains, there would be virtually no capability for recovery.

The potential for disaster would be further heightened by the lack of any crossover tracks within the downtown tunnel, another dubious cost saving measure. If any train would become disabled in this 3.5 mile section, trains in both directions would have to run in "emergency mode" on a single track and the Red Line would descend into chaos.

Comparison with the existing heavy rail Metro

Even though they're shorter than light rail vehicles, the high flat floors and wide aisles on Baltimore's Metro cars have 76 seats and room for 166 standees, for a total capacity of 242 riders per car or 1452 riders per six car train. That's over quadruple the capacity in a Metro train as a Red Line train. The current service frequency is about the same as the Red Line expects in 2035, and unlike the Red Line, it can be easily increased further from vehicles that are already available in the yard. The service frequency is also augmented by speed, so that each faster Metro train can serve more trips. Whereas each Red Line trip would take 45 minutes end-to-end, a full Metro trip takes only 29 minutes for a 1.5 mile longer line.

Time is money for a transit operator, as is capacity. Four times the capacity and over 50% again the service turn-around means that the existing Metro is on the order of six times more cost-efficient as the proposed Red Line. The MTA system's overall operating cost impact is ignored in the FEIS.

And that is what make the MTA's feeder bus plan to prop-up Red Line ridership even more pathetic. Feeder buses are devised to take longer and more convoluted routes to serve Red Line stations when more efficient and direct routes to the existing Metro are already easily possible.

For example, the #15 bus line begins at Security and proceeds up to Forest Park, within several blocks of Liberty Heights Avenue. From that point, it would be a simple matter to direct its buses along Liberty Heights into the Mondawmin Metro transit hub, which would give it easy transfers to both the Metro and many other bus lines. On the east side, the #15 could easily provide a strong transfer at the Hopkins Hospital Metro Station. A huge amount of painfully slow redundant bus service through downtown could be avoided.

This opportunity has been available since the Metro opened to Hopkins Hospital back in the '90s, and the MTA has never done it. This has contributed greatly to the Metro's stagnant ridership, still hovering under 50,000 per day as it has for decades. That's actually less than the MTA somehow projects the Red Line would carry.
The spacious efficient high capacity bus transfer hub at the Mondawmin Metro Station, in contrast to the proposed cramped weak inefficient Red Line stations

The #5 bus line illustrates the travel time savings that the MTA systematically squanders by not tailoring its service to feed the Metro. The #5 bus line takes a scheduled 50 minutes from the Mondawmin Metro station to Madison / Patterson Park Avenue. The Metro takes only 13 minutes to get to the nearby Hopkins Hospital Station, a breathtaking 37 minute savings. If the MTA is not willing to take maximum advantage of this, why are they trying to exploit such dubious and illusory advantages for the Red Line?

In contrast, the MTA proposes to direct the #44 to take an even longer, more convoluted and redundant trip along the Red Line corridor from Forest Park to Rosemont, then run a portion of the trips all the way downtown and onward to Belair Road. This makes no sense whatsoever on a system basis. It's only possible purpose is to prop up the Red Line numbers.

Creating a true transit system structure 

The most important function of urban rail transit is to create a "system backbone", whose economies of scale and consolidated connections give the overall system efficiency and integrity. The existing Metro built in the '80s and '90s provided an excellent start, with a very high capacity and effective transit transfer hubs, most notably at Mondawmin.

With the proposed Red Line plan, the MTA has totally abandoned that concept. What the Red Line promises is a slow, low capacity "money pit" of a rail transit line where inefficient rail and inefficient bus lines can jostle and compete with each other for captive riders. Of course, the Red Line also gives developers of the city's narrow waterfront veneer something to point to when they give lip-service to transit, ignoring the system as a whole.

The MTA likes to point out that they examined the idea of building the Red Line as heavy rail instead of light rail and found it too expensive. Their contention is totally beside the point, which is the need for system integrity, not the merits of one mode versus another in serving predetermined locations. The Red Line as planned by the MTA would make the system even worse than building nothing at all.

The Red Line's overall weakness would be seriously exacerbated if in the future, the MTA ever actually attempted to build a true hub and spoke rail transit system, based on enabling riders to transfer seamlessly at a downtown transfer station. While in the short run, the Red Line's two block long underground pedestrian Metro connection renders any comparison moot to the Washington Metro or any other modern hub and spoke rail system, the Red Line's puny two-car platforms are even more damning in the long run. With the Red Line, the objectives of the original integrated 2002 regional rail system plan can now be confirmed as being a total failure.

The only positive aspect is that the Red Line's ridership projections are so wildly over-optimistic, and the proposed feeder system they've concocted is so rife for rider rebellion, that the lack of capacity will never actually be a problem. Instead, the Red Line will be just another underused transit money pit.

And the even sadder aspect is that this is so consistent with the MTA's long-term public image of incompetence. The most famous example of this is their original single-tracking of the existing light rail line to save money after revelations of cost overruns, and then closing down the entire system for a year to rebuild it. Most recently, the MTA cavalierly proposed single-tracking the Cooks Lane Red Line tunnel. They still have not retracted their original claims that single tracking would not affect speed, safety, capacity or ridership. Thus in effect, the MTA has never actually provided justification for not single tracking it.

Rather than attempting to build the Red Line, the MTA would be far better off simply converting the existing Metro into a true "system backbone" with additional comprehensive bus transfer hubs at more stations, including Hopkins Hospital and Lexington Market. Then the MTA could restructure the remaining bus lines into a rational hierarchical system of short distance "Circulators", long distance "Quick Buses" and perhaps signature streetcar lines.

This is also far more in line with the MTA's 1999 plan to double transit ridership over the next 20 years by emphasizing better use of the existing system. The 1999 plan was almost immediately cast aside in the zeal to create the 2002 regional rail system plan.

The MTA could move toward this by planning for modest incremental affordable extensions of the Metro to strengthen the system backbone. The first project could be a very short and relatively inexpensive extension from Hopkins Hospital to a comprehensive Metro-MARC-Bus hub at the huge Edison/Monument site, which would enable a dramatic improvement and clarification of the overall system structure.

All in all, this account of the Red Line's various problems barely scratches the surface. Suffice to say that the MTA's planning process has been far more about a long series of dubious assumptions to make the case to get it built, than in figuring out how to build it right. Now it's time to get serious about creating a real transit system instead of a Red Line "streetcar on steroids."

Continue to Part Three of this analysis.

Thanks to Edward Cohen for important contributions to this analysis.


  1. What do you think of using the MARC as an alternate East/West transit option? A few locomotives could be used to shuttle back and forth between West Baltimore, Penn Station, and a new station on the East side (Edison or Bayview), instead of everything going all the way down the DC and back. It is only 3 stops, but seems like a quick way to get across town. I wonder if that would fill a need.

  2. Jpasqualem, you're talking about the Purple line! The 2002 rail plan called it a "Phase 1 Priority Project" right along with the Red Line and the subway extension from Hopkins Hospital to Morgan State. But the MTA quietly killed it and gave no reason. They also killed the Morgan subway extension and gave no reason. They've kept them on their map though, because they look pretty. I'd guess the main reason for killing the Purple Line is that the constrained Northeast Corridor track capacity needs to be prioritized for Amtrak and MARC thru service, in that order.