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The Hempstead line

Here’s another story about progress on a proposed commuter rail line, this one out US 290. A study to determine ridership on the line, which would go as far west as Hempstead, will be done.

The Houston-based engineering firm Klotz Associates will do the $715,000 study. The Gulf Coast Rail District got the money from federal stimulus funds.

The line as presently envisioned would start somewhere near the junction of U.S. 290 and Loop 610 and head north along an existing freight rail line.

In other words, the eastern end of this line would be proximate to the northern end of the Uptown line. Hold that thought for a minute.

The launch of the study is a milestone, said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who is not a formal participant in the planning but has promoted it the commuter line as vital to the region.

“It’s a real step as opposed to people just talking about it, and real money is being spent to get this process moving,” Emmett said.

Part of the Klotz work is to determine whether what is known as the Eureka corridor line is a viable option. [Gulf Coast Rail District Board Chair Mark] Ellis believes it will be.

[…]

The Gulf Coast Rail District would also need to strike a deal with the Metropolitan Transit Authority because the commuter rail line alone will not complete most commutes.

Passengers delivered to the Northwest Transit Center near U.S. 290 and Loop 610 will need quick passage to downtown and other employment hubs.

I trust we can all agree that the value of this Hempstead line declines considerably if there is no Uptown line for it to connect to, and no University line for the Uptown line to connect to. Same for the ridership projections. I hope that Klotz presents different scenarios in its report, one with a fully functional rail system, and one without. I for one would not be surprised if the line isn’t feasible without this connection.

(Another scenario to consider is that someday Metro may finally get around to building the Inner Katy light rail line that was also approved in the 2003 referendum but not made part of the initial expansion plans. That, or at least one variation of it, would be the logical extension of the Hempstead line into downtown. Again, you have to figure that would have a positive effect on ridership numbers, which in turn makes the whole endeavor that much more worthwhile.)

But of course what we’re talking about now is whether, not when, the two U lines will be built because maybe Metro doesn’t have the money for them. I think by now you know where I stand on this. I’m bringing it up again as another reminder that the value in having a built-out rail system is bigger than just the light rail part of it. I have observed that commuter rail has a lot of support from people who aren’t fans of light rail. Some people argued before the Main Street line was built that we should have built commuter rail first. I have always felt that unless there’s something for those commuter rail lines to connect to, they’re not doing much more than what the existing buses from the suburbs provide. Each part has value, but sum of the parts, which maybe someday will include high speed passenger rail as well, is greater than the parts themselves. A letter to the editor that I missed in Saturday’s edition from Metro executive vice president John Sedlak about its bus service is beneath the fold. David Crossley and Andrew Burleson have more on related topics.

Rick Casey’s Friday column (“Metro can’t let rail jeopardize its buses,” Page B1) should have included more evidence on precisely how Metro is putting bus service first.

For the previous five fiscal years, Metro has spent $34 million improving the existing rail line on Main Street. During that same period, $518 million was spent improving bus service — a 15 times greater investment in bus service than rail service.

Improvements to bus service included: 365 new buses, part of a plan to purchase 100 new hybrid buses per year; four new Park and Ride lots and 3,150 new parking spaces; five new local routes; two new Signature bus routes; 200-plus new passenger shelters/stations; and adjusting running time to improve reliability on 50-plus routes.

Unlike the example of Los Angeles cited by Casey, no court needed to force Houston Metro to make these investments. Our bus fleet has been, and will continue to be, the backbone of Houston’s transit system.

John Sedlak, executive vice president, Metro

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8 Comments

  1. Peter Wang says:

    If Uptown line doesn’t get built, 290 Commuter Rail is fighting big headwinds. It is anyway, if it doesn’t go directly Downtown. I can see, though, if there was a fleet of empty buses waiting upon the arrival of each train to take people Downtown, or to Galleria, or Medical Center, it could work. I’m not really very hopeful. The window to do this closed a few decades ago. We’re many days late and many dollars short.

  2. Joe White says:

    This seems silly if it doesn’t come all the way into the city center.

    Some people argued before the Main Street line was built that we should have built commuter rail first. I have always felt that unless there’s something for those commuter rail lines to connect to, they’re not doing much more than what the existing buses from the suburbs provide.

    What are the light rail lines doing/wlll do that existing buses in the city are not doing?

  3. Joe,

    Getting that line into the city center is tricky, because the freight tracks inside 610 are busier and run through established neighborhoods. It can be done, and there are various alternatives under consideration, but it’s not a slam dunk.

    As to your other point:

    1. They’re faster and run on a much more predictable schedule, thanks to having their own right of way.

    2. They run more frequently.

    3. They offer a smoother and more comfortable ride. I tend to get motion sickness, and cannot read on a bus because of its jerky motion. Reading on a train, however, is no problem for me.

    4. It’s easier to tell where you’re going on a train if you’re unfamiliar with it. Just count the stops. With buses, you have to watch to see what street you’re on and what intersection you’re approaching.

    There’s more, including all kinds of stuff about how trains and train stations encourage development in ways that bus stops don’t. But I think this is a good start.

  4. Appetitus Rationi Pareat says:

    Buses run on surface streets without their own right-of-way. They add to traffic, pollution and frankly, do not increase ease of travel in urban areas. Light rail, although not perfect, at least has its own right of way (through most of the system at least).

    I personally would have rather have seen a subway system in certain areas (downtown, medical center, uptown). Once the light rail exited those areas, the trains could return to the surface again. The Green Line in Boston does this very thing. The current system was a compromise though for cost reasons. Considering the city and the state don’t see fit to invest in such infrastructure, I guess that we what we have to live with.

    But, I’m increasingly thinking that this whole thing may eventually just collapse. If you don’t invest in a decent infrastructure, you quickly get a third-world infrastructure.

  5. jon boyd says:

    We need to ensure that all commuter options are on the table. I’m afraid there may be a big push for FRA-compliant technology running on existing freight tracks. Certainly they should be studying FRA-compliant locomotive, DMU, and EMU, but they should also be looking at optimized light rail and FRA-non-compliant technologies at the same level of detail as the others. Let’s not forget about examining different alignments.

    Whichever alternative they choose, it must create a significant upgrade to existing service. In other studies, we have already seen pushes for alternatives in which existing service in half of the corridor is better than any of the build alternatives.

  6. jon boyd says:

    “What are the light rail lines doing/wlll do that existing buses in the city are not doing?”

    In 2008, the Main Street line counted 11.8 million boards compared to about 84 million boardings for all buses. The two car light rail can carry about 4-5 times as many passengers as a bus. The light rail runs at 6 minute headways.

    We can spend money to run buses more frequently, and this would make a lot of sense along many corridors, but buses also have limitations.

  7. Temple Houston says:

    I’d like to point out that a large segment of the population would ride light rail, but would rather die than ride a bus. Buses bunch up, don’t always stop at bus stops, and the waiting time is unpredictable and frequently way too long. Light rail trains are maintained at proper intervals, always stop at a station, have pretty reliable waiting times and provide much better service. Buses and trains both may save you from having to locate parking when going Downtown or to the Medical Center, but buses will never be able to persuade people to use them instead of their cars. Finally, comuter rail that only takes you Downtown without a light rail network means you are trapped there until the evening return schedule kicks in. And please, I do hope the Galveston line is conceived as both a comuter line AND an excursion line that runs frequently all day every day.

  8. Robert Kane says:

    http://www.tubularrail.com/

    It’s worth a look… I spoke to the guy that holds this patent…he’s even from Houston, what else do we need, lol

    But serious, I think this guy is really, really on to something that we should be looking into.

    I grew up in Boston riding the “T” since I was 3….lived in Orlando, this is like a combo of a great public transportation system with the vision of Disney imagineers!

    this cost about 25 million per mile vs 120million a mile for light rail. No plans for a sw corridor commuter rail …railroad won’t share the busy track like they will going up 290 but WILL give air rights, this tubular rail is grade separated (elevated)

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