Since the ‘Light Rail’ topic in the Pub is for open-ended discussion about future transit ideas, I’d like to see a thread that’s more grounded for discussing the nuts and bolts of the commuter rail proposal from East Garner to West Durham.
Planned to start operations in 2027, what has been discussed so far is a commuter rail system with a bidirectional 8-2-8-2 schedule, meaning:
- 8 trains in each direction during the morning peak
- 2 trains in each direction during the midday period
- 8 trains in each direction during the afternoon peak
- 2 trains in each direction during the evening period
Stations have been suggested at the following locations:
- Greenfield Parkway, Garner
- Downtown Garner
- Rush Street
- Union Station
- West Raleigh (near I-40)
- Downtown Cary
- McCrimmon Parkway
- Triangle Metro Center
- North RTP
- (possibly) Alston Avenue
- Downtown Durham
- West Durham
The plans so far have been to use conventional locomotives and bilevel commuter cars, similar to what SunRail is using down in Orlando.
I have no idea how set in stone all of this is. I do believe that this service plan, these stops, and this type of rolling stock, is baked into the financial models that have been used to plan allocation of money from the transit sales tax. Given that, inertia alone may make it difficult to change anything.
That said, I believe the plan as proposed comes up short in a few ways.
I think the 8 peak period trains represents a decent starting point as far as frequency is concerned. This would probably represent a train departing the endpoints every 30 minutes from 5:30am until 9:00am. Likewise, the afternoon schedule is a decent starting point, meaning a train every 30 minutes from 3:00 to 6:30.
However, the off-peak frequency is inadequate. With only two trains between 9:00 and 3:00 that would mean two-hour service gaps, with a train at 11:00 and 1:00. Likewise, two evening trains would put one at 8:30 and 10:30 (with the same two-hour gaps) or maybe 8:00 and 9:30 (with 1.5-hour gaps.) The reasons that this is how things are proposed is likely twofold: one, to save money on operations by matching the schedule to peak demand; two, to allow more space in the schedule for freight trains to operate. However, I think that off peak service should be at least hourly. If this means that we need an extra passing siding or even a segment of third track somewhere in the middle of the region through RTP to allow freight service to continue unperturbed, then so be it, and we should plan for this.
The stopping pattern above was designed for the slow accelleration of a freight-derived diesel locomotive hauling heavy, unpowered passenger coaches built according to outdated US regulations. Regulations have changed since the studies from 2012. Now it is possible to use modern, mostly off-the-shelf, European-style trains. Using Diesel Multiple Units would allow us to add perhaps two to three stops without a net increase in running time. The next step of electrification, Denver-style, could allow even more stops while still maintaining reasonable travel times.
As I alluded to above, I have the strong impression that the planned stopping pattern is inadequate. I recall some discussion, perhaps seven years ago, that the commuter rail was specifically laid out focusing on suburban interests, serving people in outlying areas with park-and-ride stations, and giving them the fastest possible ride to major employment destinations, with no consideration for using it as a tool to enable TOD. This, I feel, is the wrong approach. There are too few stops in the denser parts of the area, and too few opportunities for TOD. This is leaving too much on the table in terms of what can be accomplished in terms of refocusing development.
Even if the plan for trains can’t be changed, I would advocate adding one or more stations along the line. They are, in order of descending priority:
- Fairgrounds (vicinity of Blue Ridge Road) - to me this is pretty much a must-have no matter what.
- Park West Village (vicinity of Weston/Morrisville/Cary Parkway)
- Cargill (vicinity of Hoke Street)
- Durham East End (vicinity of Pleasant Drive)
- Meredith College (vicinity of Royal/Gorman Street)
- Plaza West (vicinity of Jones Franklin Road)
- Chatham Square (vicinity of NE Maynard Road)
I would be pretty sorely disappointed to see the plan exactly as proposed in 2012 going through unchanged. Not that it’s a completely unworkable plan; it’s just not as good as it can be. I’ll seriously start to question what is even the purpose of public engagement if DMUs instead of locomotives, and a station at the Fairgrounds, don’t at least get a fair shake in the process.