Light Rail: What works for Raleigh


My question is when has a light rail project failed? What defines failure? Show me a city that started a rail transit system that is worse off because of it.

Rail’s success is never short term. It will always have short term costs and only long term benefits, when the system becomes comprehensive enough to have network benefits. Rail relies on public funding and it can only succeed with the same level of investment as new highway projects… which it will take much longer to receive.

There’s a certain group of people that hate rail and any attempt at creating comprehensive public transit. You’ll see them propose projects like PRT, BRT, the Hyperloop, etc… and all of these projects do two things:

1 - emphasize as much as possible how they are not rail
2 - use the fact that they’re a novel system to propose impossible, magical cost numbers, and ridership numbers, where proposed rail projects have to use (always much less optimistic) real numbers from previous projects.


I think this video has a good overview of light rail and the potential pitfalls. It can certainly do a lot of good. But, it has an interesting place between Heavy Rail and bus’s which doesn’t make it perfect for everything.

You are 100% correct on the fact that we don’t give rail or other public transit anywhere near the investment of roads, and I get frustrated that no one questions if that road investment was worth it. My personal take is that things like the Hyperloop are big distraction. But, I like the idea of doing a BRT corridor where you increase density, then when ridership gets really high replace that with Light Rail. For big population centers like Raleigh to Durham heavy rail is a really good idea and in the works but not moving quickly.

I used to take Caltrain from Burlingame to San Jose CA which was a 33 mile trip with walking on both ends. Here is a video of that
It will be great to have something like that Heavy Rail here.


You are probably correct. Better question would have been what feedback have you heard so far and are people adopting it.


I think that it is a success, a very good one, I have rode on the Lynx blue line and I was able to get around better than I would here in Raleigh, just being Honest, not trying to trash Raleigh. from what i gather from folks living in Charlotte, some say that they loved it and others say that it needs some improvements, I didnt ask what kind of improvements. was visiting a friend that used to live in Raleigh said that raleigh is still in the stone ages when it comes to mass transit.:horse_racing:


I would say it is successful because of the ridership and the recent expansion. Look at it from the opposite perspective, if ridership were below a certain threshold, they would not have expanded it so quickly.


I know that this is a Raleigh topic, but I think that raleigh should see what Charlotte has done and try something close to it…at least TRY… I for one would love to see at least one rail line from DTR with stops to RDU or even further to DTD


Great videos, thank you for sharing! :blush:
I noticed that you speed up your video while walking to the station and then to your office building. How long does it actually take for these walks? The both appear to be good amount of time?


I kind of remember editing the video, and the train ride may have been so long that you think the walk was slow ha!

I just google mapped the walk and it was 12 min for the first part FROM: 524 El Camino Real Burlingame, CA TO: Burlingame Station Burlingame, CA 94010
Then I got off the train at San Jose Diridon Station, San Jose, CA 95110 and walked 17 minutes to 121 S Market St San Jose, CA 95113

People have to make all kinds of housing choices in the Bay Area, and I lived in Burlingame because I was doing consulting and flying to clients most weeks, and it was close to the airport and the City (SF). but, our offices were in San Jose. So, I would use Caltrain to go to the office when I was in town. A big reason that video is so long is that I Burlingame was one of the local stops. The express trains were much faster because they did not have to stop everywhere.

One of my favorite memories from living out there was leaving work in San Jose with coworkers, buying a 12 pack, then taking Caltrain north to San Fransico to watch a Giants game. You can actually drink on the train heading north on game days before 10 am. So we would start making friends and enjoying a beer or two on the way up! The express train took like 45 minutes and driving in rush hour took an hour 15. Good times!


I spend a good bit of time in Charlotte (I’m here now, as a matter of fact), and while I haven’t ridden the Extension yet (or the original line in nearly a decade), I can confirm that it has spurred tremendous amounts of development along the line. South End exploded with growth at the opening of the first line in 2007 and 12 years later there are still dozens of projects planned or under construction in the area. NoDa on the north side is also experiencing a lot of growth around the line, but on a smaller scale. There are many scattered projects up and down the line that would have never happened without the introduction of light rail. From a land use perspective, it’s absolutely a success.

Ridership is currently a bit of an issue, as it’s only about 2/3 of what was projected. But the economy is still strong, gas prices are low, and ride-hailing services are taking a toll on transit nationwide. The Extension has only been open about 10 months, and I think people are still getting used to it. Some of the users are students at UNCC, so ridership will probably vary a bit depending upon if school is in session. I don’t have extensive data or experience with the numbers, but people certainly are using the train, just perhaps not as much as predicted.

Most people in Charlotte that I’ve interacted with seem to like the train, though that doesn’t mean much. Regardless, City leadership evidently thinks the light rail is a success, because they’re currently extending the Gold Line streetcar and planning for future transit expansions (just in the past day or so CATS recommended alignments for the Silver Line, from Matthews through Uptown, past the Airport to Belmont, and eventually to Gastonia). Keep in mind that the original Blue Line, from 485 to Uptown, was a project supported by then-mayor Pat McCrory (you may recognize the name).

All in all, I think it’s a great thing for the City of Charlotte and really hope to see further transit investment across the state.


If you want light rail to happen in Raleigh then you better hope that the project in Durham / Chapel Hill is completed in a timely manner and over time is deemed a successful endeavor. I doubt that any Raleigh light rail will be seriously entertained until a few years after the opening of this light rail project. Besides I believe federal funding (a necessity) will be in doubt as long as the transportation studies shows that a continuously connected rail line to RDU and RTP would not be warranted or cost effective based on estimated demand. Raleigh / Wake County has a long uphill battle for their light rail plan. I would be surprised if anything gets built within the next decade…


Wake County, as it stands right now, cannot support a light rail system. It’s jobs are too decentralized, there are not enough high density residential areas, and the commuting patterns between the job centers are all over the place. However, if the City and County commits to a land use plan that necessitates high-density development around stations, it can work. I have yet to see any proof that the City of Raleigh and Wake County is ready to make that commitment.


If we were to have a line to FV from DT Raleigh, I think it should be heavy rail, not light rail. IMO, that’s just too far of a distance for light rail to traverse in a time efficient manner.


Agreed. Any commuter rail system within the county must include a complete land use plan at each stop to require a high density, walkable community surrounding it. I know that it won’t work if we just put stops in a sea of single family homes and strip malls. In other words, if you have to get in a car to get to the rail stop, then it’s not going to work.
In other countries, transit is put in first, before development happens. The transit stop raises the adjacent land values, and the parcels are developed accordingly with as many things walkable to the stop as possible. I think that we are fools if we believe that rail alone will solve our sprawl issues.
In Wake County, the only places that I can even imagine being supportive of rail stops are DT Raleigh, the Airport, and possibly North Hills & RTP (if it had some sort of people mover, or its own light system operating among the Park companies). Just having a cute DT in one of Raleigh’s suburbs isn’t going to cut it. There just isn’t enough density. I think that the term is called “walkshed” where a significant density is required within a 1/2 mile of the stop.


The Durham/Orange light rail project is about to price itself out of existence.


Yes. The last I heard it was 3.3 billion dollars. I also read that Charlotte wants to extend its system and could cost between 5 and 7 billion dollars. This stuff is not cheap.


The 540 Extension is going to cost $2.2 billion (probably more) and no one bats an eye at that.


A lot of someone’s batted an eye at the cost of 540 which was why it was not scheduled to be built for many many years in the future. Which is why of course that it became a toll road and is being built and managed without tax payer money.


I thought a lot of the delay with the 540 extension was/is opposition to the route. It’s not too often that you hear people question the need for new roads/or expansion of existing roads and if you do it’s usually just people directly impacted by the route. The vast majority of people seem to just accept that we need more/bigger/wider roads and not if we should continue to sink money in to highways opposed to investing in other forms of travel.

Tangentially, I wonder what the revenue re-capture is between toll roads vs light rail/commuter rail. I’m sure there are studies out there although it’s probably like comparing apples and umbrellas.


Well originally the next part of 540 that will be built was completely dropped off the 25 year plan (if my memory serves me correctly). So it was not going to be built at all really unless it was a toll road. Some of the recent delay for the Toll 540 was more just routine delay based on requirements to study multiple routes and getting it approved by the various regulatory agencies.


I’m a little concerned about this report. If i’m reading it correctly the minimum frequency even at peak is 1 train per hour. In my opinion, a rail line cannot start with low frequency and gauge demand - demand is actually created by frequency. If I know a train comes every 10 minutes, I can go about my day without worrying about when the next train comes. If it only comes every hour (or less in off-peak) then I have to plan around the train schedule and make my car look an awful lot more appealing.

If the infrastructure is in place to run 1 train per hour, the incremental cost to running 4 tph all day is not that great. I think we have to insist on more frequent trains all day.