The Benefits of Light Rail

The Millennials favorite city, Portland, is showing just how well light rail works in reducing congestion. Which is to say, it’s not working at all.

According to a new report from the Oregon Department of Transportation, between 2013 and 2015 the population of the Portland area grew by 3.0 percent, but the daily miles of driving grew by 5.5 percent. Since the number of freeway lane miles grew by only 1.0 percent, the number of hours roads are congested grew by 13.6 percent and the number of hours people are stuck in traffic grew by 22.6 percent. Many roads are now congested for six hours a day.

I’m not sure where those new freeway lane miles are supposed to be unless they resulted from expanding the region’s urban-growth boundary. Except for reconstruction of part of state highway 217–which wasn’t counted in the above numbers–there hasn’t been any new freeway additions in Portland since the 1970s. Instead, the region has been putting all of its spare dollars into light rail and streetcars.

Congestion is a pain, but Portland’s MAX light rail isn’t working much better. “A persistent network issue shut down the MAX system Tuesday morning,” reports the Oregonian. That was caused by a failing communications system, but the trains are suffering from more problems than that.

Light rail was supposed to be “all-weather transportation,” which turns out to be true so long as “all weather” means “all temperatures between 32 and 90 degrees.” When temperatures fall below 32, the overhead wires ice up and trains lose power. When they rise above 90, as they are now, the overhead wires sag, and trains have to slow to no more than 40 mph to prevent the wires from breaking. At 100 degrees (which it was yesterday), they have to slow to no more than 35 mph.

TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, offered free rides on the light rail on Wednesday and Thursday. However, this was less as an apology to the riders for slow trains than it was because the system’s ticket machines also stopped working in the heat.

It’s too bad there is no technology capable of moving large numbers of people in hot weather without worrying about overhead wires, and without worrying about one stopped vehicle blocking every other vehicle in the system. Oh wait, there is: it’s called buses. While they don’t relieve congestion any better than light rail, they cost a lot less. If Portland had relied on buses rather than rail, it would have had about $5 billion it could have spent on improving the region’s roadway system to relieve congestion for buses, cars, and trucks alike.

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32 thoughts on “The Benefits of Light Rail

  1. the highwayman

    I’m flattered that you are so obsessed with me Frank.

    Just so you know the Metro in Montreal has tires, so that some one can sell tires. :$

  2. metrosucks

    Andrew also sounds like he’s breathing pretty hard in his video. Either he’s extraordinarily out of shape or he’s got a hand down his pants. Completely understandable to get turned on by the Steel Bridge, Andrew. It’s the proud linchpin of Portland’s toy train system, despite also being one of its greatest weaknesses. If you think your lungs & testicles can take it, you should also check out the Tilkum Crossing.

  3. Dave Brough

    @Antiplanner: “It’s too bad there is no technology capable of moving large numbers of people in hot weather without worrying about overhead wires, and without worrying about one stopped vehicle blocking every other vehicle in the system. Oh wait, there is: it’s called buses.”
    Wrong: It’s called “DualMode” — and not only does it not get in the way, it’s door-to-door and can pay its own way. Top that, Big Box.
    https://faculty.washington.edu/jbs/itrans/davidheiser-book-as-of-1-5-11.pdf

  4. metrosucks

    Trainophile:

    Someone that is sexually attracted to trains or can’t stop talking about trains
    Usually a troll.

    They left out the part about how 100k miles of tracks were vanished by GM.

  5. CapitalistRoader

    Dave Brough, thank you for that link. From Chapter 6:

    When we shift the paradigm from a human-operated vehicle to
    a computer-controlled vehicle, we shift the paradigm value
    for a safe trailing distance, and hence the vehicular capac-
    ity of a Rail line. We shift the margins needed for merging two vehicles
    and hence interchange capacity. We shift the expectation for the value
    of a safe speed. We shift the expectation for safety. Earlier we learned
    that the Rail’s control over a Car’s path, the Rail’s path, and the right
    architecture for interchanges will achieve spatially compact, efficient
    and continuous traffic flow. The Rail Car’s electric motor, brakes, light
    weight, and excellent traction to the Rail will assure responsiveness to
    control. The “computer” must do the rest. It is a cliché, but true to say,
    this short chapter will give new meaning to the term “traffic control.”

    The same advantages apply to AVs plying surface streets except for traction to the rail and weight. And if AVs reduce accidents by a significant amount, I can see impact standards dropping with a corresponding drop in vehicle weight.

  6. the highwayman

    metrosucks; They left out the part about how 100k miles of tracks were vanished by GM.

    THWM; Not GM per se. Just that government policy is hostile to rail in general.

    Mr.O’Toole even admitted to the problem when he said that “highways are there regardless of economic conditions”.

    So why aren’t railways there regardless of economic conditions too? :$

  7. Frank

    Dave Brough: “This site used to have spirited debate and class.”

    Haha. When was that? The highwayman (failed urban planner Andrew Dawson) has been trolling here since 2008 reappearing the same spam and calling people, including calling The Antiplanner, sociopaths.

    Here’s a lovely gem from 2011 to refresh your selective memory:
    https://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=5832

  8. the highwayman

    Dave Brough; This site used to have spirited debate and class. Who let the dogs in?

    THWM; That was never so, it has always been about Mr.O’Toole starting with straw man arguments. Then spoiled brats whining about nothing. :$

  9. prk166


    . Except for reconstruction of part of state highway 217–which wasn’t counted in the above numbers–there hasn’t been any new freeway additions in Portland since the 1970s. In
    ” ~ The anti-planner

    Didn’t they go ahead with that big widening project for I-5 right in Portland over into Vancouver, Washington?

    I-205 is a child of the mid 1970s.

  10. metrosucks

    No, that one was cancelled because Oregon was like “no light rail, no bridge”, and WA state said “ok, no problem”.

    The only significant widening done anywhere in the Portland area is on 26 between 185th and the junction with 217.

  11. prk166

    DualMode is an interesting idea. The core reason it hasn’t been embraced is it’s an age old example of jack of all trades. It has the costs of rail without the advantages. And it has some of the advantages of a bus but is saddled with the costs of rail.

  12. the highwayman

    LazyReader; Buses that look like trains, all the nostalgia of riding a choo choo with none of the hundreds of millions in construction dollars.

    THWM; Exactly, unlike railroads. Roads come about as manna from heaven, not costing tax payers a single cent. Where unicorns frolic, while pulling golden chariots, under eternal rainbows! :$

  13. Dave Brough

    @prk166 “DualMode hasn’t been embraced (because) it has the costs of rail without the advantages. And it has some of the advantages of a bus but is saddled with the costs of rail.”
    Nice try. If you’d read the assignment you’d have learned that dual mode is the best of all worlds: high-speed, door-to-door, high-capacity, user-pay, and no ride sharing with the likes of the Highwayman or Frank.

  14. prk166

    Oh yes, sorry, it’s obviously a far superior technology. Dual mode is used everywhere in the world. New York City’s transit agency has dropped their plans to extend their new subway line in favor of dual mode. The same with their proposed Brooklyn streetcar. Rahm Emmanual has stood on top of the Sears Tower to exlaim how assume duol mode is with every great Chicago transit agency having dropped their heavy rail, bus and other forms in favor it it.

    Beijing, Hong Kong, Sao Paulo, Paris, Milan, Manus, Minneapolis, Vancouver, Jeddah, Istanbul, Santiago, Lagos, Bangkok, Rangoon and Moscow have all built new dual mode lines this decade.

    Get the point? It’s a __concept__ that exists nearly 100% on paper. To date there’s little to differentiate it from the hyperloop, flying cars, SSTs ( aka Concorde ), et al. There’s no concrete reason to believe it will be any more of “success” than WebTV, Vonage, or Segway. Heck, it hasn’t even accomplished what Blackberry, Zune, Palm and other things have, at least sell enough and be adopted enough to be a thing, even if it’s just a flash in the pan.

    Maybe things will change but every cities actions out there to date demonstrate that it has all the added costs of both technologies without giving benefits to offset or justify the benefits. But that’s a HUGE maybe. History is full of technology that a vocal few vociferously insisted were better than sliced bread and puppy dogs but never caught on because, well, they weren’t any better than what was already being used.

  15. prk166

    So the reason no one has put the rail / tire dual mode to use on scale is because they haven’t read the book? Is that what you’re claiming?

    Do you realize that your link was to a paper, not a book? Do you realize the paper focused – somewould say obsessed – without any proof on the idea that somehow have tiny cars that could hop onto rails ( that is a —>PRT<— system ), rails that would cost billions to build would be able to handle meaningful volumes at the high rates of speed? Do you realize your beloved paper ( a paper isn't a book ) offers no proof to back it's claims?

    Do you mean to say that I should read it? Or do you mean to say that I'm raising valid questions over some of the gaping holes in that fantastical unicorn land of a scheme?

  16. prk166

    I’ve read that paper and others. At the end of the day proponents of dual mode fail to demonstrate how their highly complex system will cost less and be far more effecient. The PRT / alas cars have the costs of rail without the advantages. And it has some of the advantages of a bus but is saddled with the costs of rail.

    The need to have a vehicle transition between the 2 system creates exponentially more complexity in the system. All of the technologies required to make such a system work would make autonomous vehicles function just the same. After all, dual mode , according to the paper you linked to, is nothing more than a tiny autonomous car with a bunch of extra equipment ( and weight, etc ) that, if everything work just right, can move along speeds on a mono/dual rail up in the air at speeds that autonomous vehicles can flow at on regular streets.

    What am I missing? Is there a data set of this dual mode running on a regular basis even in a controlled environment? Until there is, it’s a possibility that exists on paper with some rather fantastical claims that make flying cars by 2026 seem reasonable in comparison.

  17. the highwayman

    How many places have gone bankrupt from sidewalks?

    Rail doesn’t have excessive costs, the problem is crooked contractors.

    Also consider that the USA has had 100,000+ miles of rail line stolen since WWI. :$

  18. CapitalistRoader

    Highwayman, check out this paper’s conclusion:

    “The very low rolling resistance of a steel wheel on a rail is partially canceled out by the high weight of passenger trains. The higher weight also means more energy used for accelerating and climbing grades although some of this could be recovered by coasting and regenerative braking. Aerodynamic drag is low for a train at moderate speed but increases rapidly (with the square of the speed). Thus one may say that passenger trains are potentially energy efficient, but in actual practice such trains turn out to be little more energy-efficient than the automobile. What institution changes are needed to realize the potential of rail’s inherent energy-efficiency are not clear. Neither private ownership nor government monopoly has been very efficient in providing passenger service.”

    Keep in mind that the paper is pretty old–2001–and since then hybrid automobiles have become ubiquitous, just as trains have been hybrids for decades, so if anything cars are probably on equal footing with trains when it comes to energy efficiency.

    But fixed costs are much lower for cars because in most cases the roads are sunk costs. New rail and associated infrastructure is expensive.

  19. Dave Brough

    @PRK: So the reason no one has put the rail / tire dual mode to use on scale is because they haven’t read the book? Is that what you’re claiming?

    Yes. Okay, no. Reading the book is a starting point. The fact is, dual-mode was put to the test. You can read about it here:https://books.google.com/books?id=1SoDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA208&lpg=PA208&dq=the+amazing+urbmobile+popular+science&source=bl&ots=pBvVgJG0W5&sig=MRrqn3UGJp87-P8oYAIqGm343zo&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiYspmx7c3VAhVmrFQKHWX6DckQ6AEINDAC#v=onepage&q=the%20amazing%20urbmobile%20popular%20science&f=false
    And here’s one of many patents: https://www.google.com/patents/US3434432

    @PRK: Do you realize that your link was to a paper, not a book?
    No. The fact is, it IS a ‘book’, as mentioned several times… in the book. I gave you the free, on-line version, but if you want to purchase it, here’s the link: https://www.windcanyonbooks.com/product_info.php?products_id=1622

    @Do you realize the paper focussed on the idea that tiny cars could hop onto rails that would cost billions to build would be able to handle meaningful volumes at the high rates of speed?

    Yes, I realize that the BOOK focused on the idea that meaningful volumes of cars could ‘hop’ onto rails. That’s the whole thing of it. As for costing billions to build, sure: what mega project doesn’t? The difference is that by keeping vehicles lightweight, DM costs a fraction of any alternative.

    @Do you realize your beloved paper ( a paper isn’t a book ) offers no proof to back it’s claims?
    It is a BOOK written on paper. I gave you the free version, but you can also purchase it at https://www.windcanyonbooks.com/product_info.php?products_id=1622

    @Do you mean to say that I should read it? Or do you mean to say that I’m raising valid questions over some of the gaping holes in that fantastical unicorn land of a scheme?

    I’d like to see some of those “valid questions”. Please.

    @I’ve read that paper and others.

    Got any links? Especially with anything that uses facts and sound reasoning to prove that it doesn’t/won’t work.

    @At the end of the day proponents of dual mode fail to demonstrate how their highly complex system will cost less and be far more effecient.

    @The PRT / alas cars have the costs of rail without the advantages.

    Rail is typically $50M/mile. DM is in the low millions.
    What advantages does rail have?

    @…it has some of the advantages of a bus but is saddled with the costs of rail.

    Like what and how? To me, it’s as far away from a bus as it is possible to get: Examples, cheap, door-to-door, safe, no ride sharing, and so on.

    @The need to have a vehicle transition between the 2 system creates exponentially more complexity in the system.

    More expensive, sure. But hardly exponentially.

    @All of the technologies required to make such a system work would make autonomous vehicles function just the same.

    In fact, it is autonomous. The difference is that by using a dedicated guideway – like, say Vancouver’s elevated Sky Train and Las Vegas’ Monorail – the cost to implement is exponentially less.

    @After all, dual mode , according to the paper you linked to, is nothing more than a tiny autonomous car with a bunch of extra equipment ( and weight, etc ) that, if everything work just right, can move along speeds on a mono/dual rail up in the air at speeds that autonomous vehicles can flow at on regular streets.

    If only. Yes, extra equipment, but because it is a selected vehilce on a selected guideway, it can travel much faster, much smoother, and much safer.

    @What am I missing?

    Nearly everything.

    @Is there a data set of this dual mode running on a regular basis even in a controlled environment?

    Not yet.

    @Until there is, it’s a possibility that exists on paper with some rather fantastical claims that make flying cars by 2026 seem reasonable in comparison.

    Don’t look, but you recently flew, chances are that the airplane design existed, not on paper, but on a computer well before it ever flew.
    Still, it woud be nice to have a prototype, as you say, “running on a regular basis”. Comming soon, I hope.

  20. Dave Brough

    PRK: Sorry, didn’t answer @At the end of the day proponents of dual mode fail to demonstrate how their highly complex system will cost less and be far more efficient.

    In fact, it was not only demonstrated but vetted by the USDOT. Check this 1967 Popular Science cover story, page 75: https://books.google.com/books?id=1SoDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA208&lpg=PA208&dq=the+amazing+urbmobile+popular+science&source=bl&ots=pBvVgJG0W5&sig=MRrqn3UGJp87-P8oYAIqGm343zo&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiYspmx7c3VAhVmrFQKHWX6DckQ6AEINDAC#v=onepage&q=the%20amazing%20urbmobile%20popular%20science&f=false

  21. CapitalistRoader

    Dave Brough, the money for the massive infrastructure required for dual mode isn’t there and will never be. AVs give 75% of the benefits with probably 5% of the cost.

    Besides, in 20 years, it may be that people-carrying flying drones will become the dominant mode of commuting transportation.

    Again, with very little extra infrastructure required.

  22. Dave Brough

    @CapitalistRoader: “…the money for the massive infrastructure required for dual mode isn’t there and will never be. AVs give 75% of the benefits with probably 5% of the cost.”

    “Massive infrastructure”, hardly. Private money can and is building toll roads. At a measly few million per mile, this toll road will cost a fraction of any toll road. The best part is that the vehicles that use them, like toll roads, will be privately owned. The problem with AVs is first, time (to adopt); and second, until they get humans off the roads, they will get trapped in the same gridlock as everyone and everything else. Except DM.

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