Sunday, December 08, 2013

Previewing the new METRO North line

Friday morning METRO gave the media a preview of the new North line set to open December 21st.  First some pics, then thoughts...   (click on any picture to see the full size version)

New maps are on the trains.  The left side red section is opening this month.
The Burnett St. Station and Transit Center has an impressive elevated platform view of downtown.  The bus transit center is under construction.
The Burnett Station just north of downtown has 3 tracks, enabling trains north and south of it to run at different frequencies (more frequent/faster headways to the south)
More of the skyline view from the Burnett platform
Skyline view pulling into Burnett station.
The Christmas Train!
The Christmas train announces the opening date.  Get it? It's a Christmas gift from METRO to the city.
Riding up front!
The strangeness of houses directly in front of the station.  And they have to listen to those repetitive station announcements all day long...

 Some observations/thoughts:
  • You will now be able to reach a Wal-Mart Supercenter by rail, which includes groceries.  Actually, Northline Commons has a lot of retail, and an HCC campus.  And Midtown has the Randall's grocery store just a couple blocks off the line.  It now actually might be possible to manage most everyday shopping trips off of the rail line if one were so inclined.
  • The stations are very well done with nice artwork.
  • Signs of new development are thin: I counted one new townhome development, another small apartment complex, and a nice strip center or two.  The train buzzed with speculation of how fast any new investment and redevelopment would occur.  It's a big open question at this point.  My guess is very slowly, especially looking at the rail-served parts of Midtown 10 years after the line opened.  Sure, there are signs of good stuff happening (like MidMain), but they've been very slow to develop.  And, frankly, the north side doesn't have the same location advantages as Midtown.
  • The current estimate is that the train will take about 20 mins from UHD to the Northline end covering 5.3 miles.  Add that to the current Main St. line, and you have ~50 mins end-to-end for about 12 miles.  That's about 14mph net speed - not exactly flying.  Somebody living up there could easily be looking at a 30-40 min commute to the medical center - surprisingly long given the short distance.  To put that in context, in non-rush-hour traffic it takes me about 45 mins to get from Midtown to Tomball!  But it honestly might be somewhat competitive with driving at rush hour, especially when you consider the cost and hassle of med center traffic and parking.
That last point reinforces something I've been saying for a while: people may still face some daunting travel times to their final destination even after they've been connected into the rail network. I occasionally hear people sort of hand wave that once somebody has transferred to the rails they're magically at their destination, whether that's downtown, TMC, UH, or, one day, Greenway or Uptown.  That is far from the case.  I think once you add up the travel times, very few people will want to take an HOV bus downtown and then transfer to UH, TMC, or elsewhere.  METRO still needs to work on more direct express lane service to alternate job centers like TMC and Uptown.  Rail network connections are not a magic silver bullet for that.

Overall, METRO seems to have done a solid job on the new line.  Only time will tell what ridership develops and how the neighborhood transforms.

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15 Comments:

At 10:01 PM, December 08, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's why you have Park&Ride service to DT, Uptown, Greenway Plaza, and TMC with rail being able to cover that "last mile".

A good park&ride system can funnel commuters into our denser and largest employment centers with light rail serving a secondary purpose for commuters.

 
At 7:22 AM, December 09, 2013, Anonymous Don Hooper said...

Hmmm, wouldn't have been smarter to build commuter rail to the transit centers and bus people to DT, Greenway, TMC, Galleria, UH, St. Thomas, HCC the list goes on and on.

You could have actually removed cars from the road.

 
At 7:48 AM, December 09, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Every HOV express bus is removing about 50 cars from the road. Commuter rail is pretty much a nonstarter in Houston. Less than 7% of jobs are downtown, and the freight trains keep the corridors very full as they are - there's just not the space or capacity.

 
At 9:15 AM, December 09, 2013, Anonymous Neal Meyer said...

Tory, I made a lengthy reply to the public comment on the federally mandated environmental impact statement (EIS) to the North Corridor rail line. As with everything else, you can't get a dime out of the all powerful federal government without having to comply with truckloads of rules (think Obamacare), and transit agencies that are desperate to get the rest of the country to pay for some local light rail line are no exception.

One of the primary considerations that the U.S. FTA is supposed to consider when a local agency demands that they give them a big fat grant to build a light rail line is whether building this rail line will result is what is called "travel time savings." What this means is that if the government builds this rail line, will a prospective transit rider actually save any time taking a train, verses using the existing bus service?

Now then, Metro stated that the train would have eight train stations, and would take 19 minutes to travel from Northline Mall to the UH downtown, as you make clear in your post. What I did was take the #15 Fulton bus route up and down for three days, to see how long it would take me to travel a similar distance. I chose the #15 Fulton bus route because it most closely mimicked the route of the rail line. What I found was that it took me an average of 23-24 minutes to travel the 5.3 miles by a bus if I took the bus route.

So, what does that mean? In theory, Metro could say to the feds, "Look! We need this grant because it will save transit riders time!" In fact, Metro claimed in the EIS that if the rail line wasn't built, that traffic congestion in the corridor would increase so badly that it would take a bus 40 minutes to travel from Northline Mall to downtown by the year 2030! That claim would have meant that traffic congestion would have to increase by such a huge amount that it would slow travel by a whopping 67 percent in a matter of only 15-20 years, a ludicrous claim, considering that I researched on H-GAC's website what the traffic counts in the area were for the previous ten years, and found that they had hardly changed at all. Nor is there very much densification occurring in the area, and even if there was, there hardly is enough to cause traffic congestion to choke up to the levels Metro claimed would occur.

Furthermore, in terms of travel time savings, I pointed out in my EIS reply that the #15 Fulton bus route stopped an average of 22 times during its 5.3 mile trip, verses the new rail line having only 8 stops. Why is that important? Because what I found is that during that 23-24 minute bus trip, those 22 or so stops (about once every 1/4th mile) took up about 7-8 minutes of the overall bus trip. If you were to compare apples to apples, and reduce the number of stops on the bus route to 8 stops like you have on the rail line, the average travel time on the bus route would be - drum roll please - about 19-20 minutes. Hence, if you make an apples to apples comparison of traveling via train verses a bus, then there was no travel time savings. The bottom line was that at least from a travel time savings perspective, there was no reason for the federal grant to have been given to Metro.

I could go on about this, but to say the least, I'm more than a little jaded when it comes to the EIS process. As far as I am concerned, the EIS process is nothing more than another mandated federal make work program, where the only game is just to check off a few things and grab the money because the money has been plundered from the people, and it's sitting there waiting to be captured.

 
At 12:54 PM, December 09, 2013, Anonymous Northsider said...

Another comment about the environmental impact statement: I live within ear shot around the corner of the very station you have a picture from, Moody Park, amazing how loud the voice recording and bang of the train's digital bell is, the volume could certainly be turned down if they are found to be exceeding the acceptable decibel level (which is what exactly?).

The biggest noise problem I am experiencing is the screech of the train when it comes to a curve, even a slight curve causes an incredibly high pitched noise that I would assume would exceed any allowable decibel level they said the train would produce. I guess my question would be, how can a nearly $billion system with brand new equipment and supposedly modern engineering screech like this already and what could they possibly do about it? I'm half tempted to go out and oil the track for them.

 
At 1:40 PM, December 09, 2013, Anonymous awp said...

Do you have to transfer from the North line to the Red line?

 
At 2:45 PM, December 09, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Technically, the North line is the Red line, so generally speaking, no. But when they run the trains south of Burnett more frequently, there will be trains that will turn around at the Burnett station and head back south, so in that case, yes, you'd need to transfer to keep going north. I think all of the southbound trains will go all of the way to Reliant, but I'm not completely sure.

 
At 3:07 PM, December 09, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Northsider: you are right that it is quite loud (and quite slow) in the curves. I'm guessing that's just steel wheels against a curved track - not sure if there's much that can be done. Freight trains do the same thing. They may have minimum mandated sound levels at the stations too for safety reasons. Yous should certainly file a complaint and see what they can do, but I suspect the answer will be very little.

 
At 3:09 PM, December 09, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Neal: I am not at all surprised. Somebody over-exaggerated on an application for federal money? First time ever, I'm sure %-) I think you pretty much have to be the Galleria or TMC to get as much congestion as their prediction.

 
At 7:36 PM, December 09, 2013, Anonymous Dom said...

Don,

Not quite there yet with commuter rail, except in corridors that we are going to rebuild (290) or relatively inexpensive (Galveston to downtown). Need to focus on more P&R service into the core.

 
At 7:45 PM, December 09, 2013, Anonymous Dom said...

Tory,

I see you quote the 7% of jobs in downtown a lot but that contradicts your "walled garden" concept you've posted before. What is the total amount of jobs/students when you add Downtown, Uptown, Greenway Plaza, TMC, Museum District, Rice, St Thomas University, University of Houston, HCC main campus, and UHD?

 
At 7:55 PM, December 09, 2013, Anonymous Dom said...

Tory,

Forget to ask the follow up question about the jobs/students. So do you think it jumps from 7% to 20%, 25%, 30%?

 
At 8:38 PM, December 09, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Oh, if you consider that whole zone it probably jumps to the 20-25% range, but you can't serve that whole zone with a commuter rail network focused on downtown. You need and HOV network of express buses serving each job center directly.

 
At 2:16 AM, December 10, 2013, Anonymous Dom said...

Ding Ding ding. We would have P&R into DT, Uptown, TMC, and Greenway along with the transit centers at the end of the SE line for UH and TSU that would connect into light rail. I believe it is called a transit SYSTEM.... Hard concept to grasp in these neck of the woods.

It would be great to thrown in commuter rail from Galveston to.... TAMU... AKA your "Brain Train" idea from a few years back which would funnel into light rail to connect with our core and consequently our universities.

Obviously the second paragraph is wishful thinking.

 
At 8:49 PM, December 17, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love the idea of light rail but its still only geared to people that don't have cars. Speeds are too low and only seem to be slightly faster if the driver would be in the very worst traffic. And if the two are equal time, most people would opt for the car as that provides more freedom.

I don't live too far from the Northline transit center but it would seem extremely unlikely that I would ever take it to downtown, med center or Reliant.

 

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