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.

14 thoughts on “Dispatches from Utah: Brand new commuter train line opens with enviable features”

  1. Metra really needs to get low floor vehicles as they update their fleet. More than accommodating passengers with disabilities, it would have a huge reduction in dwell time at stations. It can take a long time for a Metra train to unload, largely because some people are very slow going down the stairs.

  2. Steven,
    I was in Salt Lake city over Thanksgiving. I was impressed with their Trax light rail. which we took downtown one day. New, clean, fast, bikes are allowed on board at all times, and most stations appeared to have bike lockers for rent.

    The Trax stations (which have been around for a decade or so) had indeed seen development around them, both residential and commercial.

    It looks like the commuter train has cars with two entrances on each side? That would speed up loading as well, I would think.

  3. The train cars look a lot like Toronto’s GO trains – their commuter rail system – although it looks like the SLC trains accommodate more bikes.

    I’d love to have low-floor trains on Metra with this much bike space. It would be a real game changer in Chicago transit.

  4. Metra’s gallery cars have been a proven design for the past 30 years. Although I do agree that it’s time to start thinking about new rolling stock designs, you also must remember that Metra pulled through one of the worst periods of commuter railroad times with good financial shape.

    FRA guidelines do prevent many car design changes, which is why the new MED bi-levels are built without end doors. See the Illinois Central accidental at 27th street for the reasoning.

      1. There are no end doors next to the motorman’s cab on the new CSSSB rolling stock. I’m referring to the MED-style highliners.

    1. The gallery cars have had a very good service history, but they’re also a dated design. A lot has changed since these coaches were designed almost 50 years ago. The Americans with Disabilities Act and the expectation of bike access really aren’t compatible with the entry stairs.

    1. The Union Station Intermodal Center (glorified bus stop) will be an improvement and provide an underground (under Jackson Boulevard) connection to the Great Hall, through which Metra and Amtrak passengers can pass to the actual platform area. That should begin construction this year.

      As for the rest of the stuff in the Union Station Master Plan, it just needs funding.

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