Tuesday, December 1, 2009

IDEA: Low Cost Rail in Portland

I got around to thinking today of a possible idea to develop "low cost rail"
within our region, as a way to improve transit, build rail where rail already
exists, AND do so at a minimal cost (compared to light rail, streetcar and the
joke called WES).

There are several corridors I can name that are in the 5-8 mile range:

1. Forest Grove-Hillsboro (Hatfield Government Center)
2. Sherwood-Tualatin
3. Tigard-Lake Oswego
4. Portland-Milwaukie (yes, I know this is planned as a MAX line, but keep
5. South Waterfront-Lake Oswego (yes, I know this is planned as a Streetcar
6. Hillsboro-Beaverton (via the P&W line along TV Highway)

(NOTE: #2, #3, #4 and #5 could be considered one larger system, and #1 and #6
could be another system.)

All of these routes are existing freight railroads except for #5. All of them
have little freight traffic (except #4, and to a much lesser extent #6) with as
much as just one train a day. All of them are very short corridors where there
is little need for more than one train; or at most two trains operating at a
time per segment.

What I propose is a low cost rail system that costs $25M per route (or less) to
build, employing very basic construction, minimal improvements, and
off-the-shelf European rolling stock such as the Siemens Desiro (used by NCTD
Sprinter) or Bombardier Talent (used by OC Transpo) with a low floor of less
than 24" in height. (In comparison, WES has a floor height of about 51", or
close to four-and-a-half feet, requiring massive platforms.)

Each segment would involve construction of five stations. Each station would be
very basic - a concrete slab, a simple shelter (bus stop style), one or two
basic benches, and maybe a single area light. No platform TVMs (it would be
on-board). An emergency intercom system similar to what CalTrans uses along
highways for roadside assistance (solar power, cellular service) would exist in
lieu of the pay phones TriMet uses at other locations. No area improvements
would be built; except minimal sidewalk connections. No park-and-ride lots, or
even kiss-and-ride areas. No art. Minimal signs (no fancy signs like what
TriMet likes to install).

Each route would be given one car to run; and one or two system-wide spares
would be purchased. They would be maintained in a central location (somewhere
in the Tigard area) but a small parking area would be built for each route - a
basic building where small running repairs could be done.

As ridership increases, the system would be built to accommodate expansion -
second track, sidings, larger/longer platforms, or even electrification. (Both
of the vehicles can be purchased in diesel or electric models.)

With regards to two of the routes:

Portland-Milwaukie. I think this would be an ideal location to build such a
route. Using a second (or third) track parallel to the UP mainline, the
northern terminus would be at the Morrison Bridge, with a stop at the Hawthorne
Bridge. It would continue down to 17th Avenue - where it would run along the
western edge of the Union Pacific Brooklyn Yards. The line would have to dip
under Holgate Boulevard (or, Holgate could be rebuilt as a tunnel under Brooklyn
Yard in the long run) and then run alongside the UP mainline to Willsburg -
where it would then run on the existing P&W Tillamook Branch to Milwaukie.
Later it could continue on the P&W route to Lake Oswego, Cook, Tualatin, and
Sherwood - or from Cook, head north towards Tigard. Doing so would eliminate
the need for the expensive and totally unnecessary Willamette River Bridge;
provide a less expensive alternative to a fully double-tracked, electrified
light rail line; while preserving the option to expand later. As a six mile
route, two cars could still provide 15-20 minute service with only a single
passing siding in the middle.

South Waterfront-Lake Oswego. A streetcar line would require massive
construction of this route which passes through very sensitive neighborhoods;
the construction of catenary is sure to offend many of the very well-off
neighbors. Using a smaller DMU vehicle (and for this route I'd recommend the DB
double-decker vehicle; albeit one that is much more mechanically reliable!)
would be no different than the trolleys that use the route today; require much
less construction impact; and provide a service similar to the 35 bus that runs
up and down Macadam. It would, however, require a transfer to the Streetcar at
the north end - however it preserves the ability to upgrade in the future.
(Another option would be to extend the Streetcar down to Taylors Ferry; and
continuing the DMU option south to Lake Oswego to provide a low-cost rail option
using the existing right-of-way; while taking advantage of the favorable
neighborhood and development for streetcar ridership north of Taylors Ferry, in
the Johns Landing area.)

At only $25M a pop, we could have built this entire system for the cost we spent
on the 14.7 mile WES line (at only $166M). It provides a complete system that
provides connections to other TriMet modes and other segments at multiple
locations (Hillsboro, Beaverton, Tigard, Tualatin, Lake Oswego, Milwaukie) and
provides two links to downtown Portland. It introduces rail service at a very
low cost initially, and preserves the option to upgrade to streetcar/light rail
in the future. And last - it is done cost effectively, with little "frills" and
focuses on serving station area ridership; as opposed to developing large "free"
parking lots to entice ridership. Most of the stations area in areas that
already have significant ridership possibilities (both residential and
commercial), including Pacific University in Forest Grove; downtown Sherwood,
downtown Lake Oswego and downtown Milwaukie. And unlike WES, it uses low-floor
vehicles similar to MAX, and uses reliable, proven vehicles that don't cost $15
million a piece and are supported by companies which are in existance today (and
have served TriMet well with MAX).

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