Dispatches from Utah: Brand new commuter train line opens with enviable features


The inaugural train parked at the new Provo Station.

This post was going to be on a completely different topic that I started writing Thursday afternoon. I visited a local library in the evening to use the internet at which point my laptop decided to malfunction. I was able to recover the post but it’s no longer relevant and it’s very difficult for me to finish it without my personal workstation. Anyway, please enjoy this post about my vacation in Utah (which is happening as I write).

I’m visiting my family in Utah for six days. On Thursday, my birthday, I boarded the inaugural commuter train from Salt Lake City to Provo, Utah. It’s about 45 miles by train or car and they take the same amount of time (assuming light highway traffic)*. This train is most similar to Metra in its operating characteristics. It uses a single, diesel locomotive to haul a few large cars a long distance at low frequencies on tracks shared with freight. The freight-passenger rail relationship is very different here: the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) owns the right-of-way, purchased from Union Pacific, built its own tracks, and leases them to freight carriers overnight. In the end, no freight trains slow down commuter trains whereas in Chicago, Metra trains are delayed by freight trains on a daily basis.


Bike space in the train.

The train cars are of a newer and quieter design from Bombardier (manufacturer of Chicago Transit Authority’s 5000-series cars). They have low floors so it’s easier for people with bikes or using mobility devices to board. There are 9 bike spaces in a rack in one of the cars (it appears that more than 9 bicycles will fit). The windows are big and clear. The train provides work tables at some seats, power outlets at the work tables, and free wifi. The Illinois state legislature passed a bill in 2011 that required Metra to study the provision of wifi. Metra announced this year that its refurbished cars will have power outlets.


Work tables in the train.

UTA has had an open fare payment system for years. CTA and Pace will launch Ventra in 2013. Open fare means people can pay with RFID-enabled bank cards or NFC-enabled smartphones. A new company called Isis allows you to pay for transit with an app you can download. Metra is looking into a similar program, which would display a barcode on you smartphone’s screen.

There is some commercial and residential development around the train stations, but the typical land use around the stations, just feet away, is surface parking lots. This should be the most valuable land and hopefully can easily be converted to higher uses when a developer comes around.

After the train ride and ceremonies I drove around with my mother for a while, running errands and going out to eat. I noticed a lot of bike lanes and also Salt Lake City’s version of the “enhanced” marked shared lanes — in many places the city laid a wide green strip down the middle of a lane. These are accompanied by large “bikes may use full lane” signs, which were first installed in Chicago in 2012 on Wells Street on the ‘L’ structure. I prefer the green strip to the sharrows with dashed lines.


Green sharrow lane.

There are raised crosswalks in some neighborhoods. These do a good job of slowing down drivers who are used to driving 40-50 MPH on 8-lane wide “neighborhood” streets. I think the City of Chicago should be installing these around train stations is where there is a lot of pedestrian crossing activity because people cross to board buses on the opposite side of the street. Some exist: there are a couple on Lincoln Avenue in Lincoln Square just south of Lawrence Avenue. The Chicago Pedestrian Plan lists raised intersections as a tool to improve pedestrian safety.

* The I-15 highway in the Salt Lake Valley has HOT lanes that allow drivers to pay to avoid congestion. The minimum charge is 25 cents per section and increases based on traffic in the “free lanes” in 25 cents increments.

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There’s a lack of cooperation in the region’s transportation authorities


A South Shore train travels between northern Indiana and downtown Chicago. It’s not a member of the Regional Transportation Authority of Illinois. Photo by Seth Anderson. 

The Regional Transportation Authority is a financial administrator and cooperative service planner at the top of the Chicagoland transit hierarchy. Or at least it’s supposed to be. But transit in Chicagoland doesn’t act regionally, and hasn’t for a long time (if ever). Here’s the evidence:

1. Suburban county board member perpetuates the myth that Metra = suburbs and CTA = Chicago

DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin is quoted in the Daily Herald about an “impasse” in how to distribute some funds amongst the RTA’s three member agencies. The CTA normally would get 99% of this particular pot, but the RTA is proposing it only gets 95%. (Note that CTA provides 82% or rides and receives 49% of region’s funding.)

“The money is collected from all the taxpayers in the region, the majority of whom reside in the suburbs. Why should we subsidize the CTA more than we already are?” he asked. “They seem to care little for their neighbors in the suburbs.”

Each transit agency operates routes and stations in and outside the Chicago city limits. Each has connecting service within and between municipalities, Chicago and not Chicago. Thousands of Chicagoans take Metra daily for work and other purposes to other points within and without Chicago. Thousands of people who don’t live in Chicago ride the CTA. It’s likely true that a majority of Metra’s weekday passengers don’t live in Chicago, though it doesn’t matter where they come from.

Typecasting transit agencies and their respective passengers based on the attributes of where they live and not the place of where they live – the place matters in order to know where service should go – inhibits the slight progression transit has been making in the region in the past decade.

RTA Chairman John Gates’s heart is in the right place when he said, “This is a regional agency, we have to reach a regional consensus.”

Continue reading There’s a lack of cooperation in the region’s transportation authorities

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