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Archive for the 'Technology' Category

What it’s like to ride a DMU

Westside Express Service, Portland, OR. Flickr image by DarkStarPDX.

One of the details in Mike Sanders' rapid_rail_presentation is the proposal to use diesel multiple units (DMUs) — a passenger rail vehicle propelled by an onboard diesel engine. This is unique because most commuter rail operators run conventional locomotives pulling (or pushing) conventional passenger rail coaches. Regional examples of conventional commuter rail are Chicago's Metra, Dallas' TRE, Minneapolis' Northstar, and Nashville's Music City Star).

DMUs are easily confused with electrically-powered light rail vehicles and modern streetcars, and the difference is slight: other than the powertrain and the lack of overhead wires, DMUs that run on freight rail tracks must conform to strict crash regulations. This, unfortunately, makes them heavy. At the same time a DMU can be (arguably) cheaper to operate on routes with light demand.

To make matters even more confusing, one of the few places in America where DMUs operate — New Jersey Transit's River Line — is actually called a light rail line. We can't even tell you that the terms "commuter rail" and "light rail" are even 100% distinct, since systems bearing either label can perform similar goals — transporting commuters to and from the urban core — over similar distances. A good rule of thumb, however, is that light rail better serves urban environments with closer stops; commuter rail better serves suburbs with stops spaced further apart… regardless of the vehicle type or fuel source.

We had a chance to ride a DMU transit route on a recent trip to Portland. The TriMet's Westside Express Service has been in operation since 2009 and serves four suburbs. We'd like to be the one to tell you that this route was trouble-free to construct and operate, but that would be a lie.

Regardless, the day we rode WES it was glitch-free, on-time, full of passengers, and included in our $4.75 all-day transit pass (unusual for US commuter rail). The sensation was a mash-up of riding any other train with the subtle reminder that a large diesel engine was underfoot (and releasing particulate pollution, although not nearly as much as if all riders had chosen to drive congested I-5 instead). Bikes were onboard — you can't really avoid them in Portland, even if you tried — and the easy transfer from light rail, plush seats, and a friendly conductor made our brief trip a pleasant experience.

As for the Sanders proposal, the reliance on DMUs for all-day service on multiple lines would indeed make it unique in all of North America, perhaps the world. The company that built the WES vehicles has reincorporated in Ohio — with a Missouri-based partner, no less — and plans to resume production soon. Hopefully they will engineer improvements that make the vehicles more reliable for daily service.

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KCATA’s stimulus streetcar proposal

KCATA presented a modern streetcar proposal at yesterday's Transportation and Infrastructure committee meeting. T&I is reviewing applications for $1.5 billion in competitive TIGER grants that are part of the federal stimulus package (yes, that's $1.5 billion for the entire US). It's conceivable that the entire capital cost could be covered by TIGER funds. The criteria for requests are fuzzy, and there is no formula distribution as with other transportation dollars.

What's a modern streetcar? Think modern light rail vehicle running in mixed traffic. Why is it better than the MAX? Take a walk along the MAX corridor and see how it's improved since 2005. Rail lines spur economic development, period.

See the Star's coverage here and the PowerPoint presentation here.


On a side note: Seattle's first light rail line opens this weekend. Track progress at Seattle Transit Blog.

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Round-up: Buy American edition

To celebrate our country's birth, we present a handful of patriotic transit developments:

  • First US-made streetcar goes into service (Infrastructurist)
  • New buyer revives domestic DMU railcar manufacturer (Trains for America)
  • Hydrogen fuel-cell locomotive unveiled in Topeka (Topeka Capital-Journal)

Enjoy the holiday and stay safe!

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New Portland MAX station features green design

A new station that's part of a Portland MAX light rail extension will feature wind turbines, solar panels, salvaged materials, and bio-filtration of storm water run-off.

The wind turbines — designed and manufactured in Oregon and perched atop the catenary poles near the station — will generate 275 watts. The solar array will generate 50 kilowatts, enough to run all lighting on site. The bio-filtration allows the station to be untethered from the city's storm water system.

The new station is part of the publicly-funded MAX light rail system, not the public-private Portland Streetcar system — an urban circulator — that serves the central city.

A common complaint about light rail is that the construction impact trumps any reduction in pollution or congestion realized by increased transit ridership. Projects like this address that complaint. However, opponents who trumpet the construction impact of light rail rarely include the manufacture of cars or the production and supply chain impacts of oil and gasoline in their estimates.

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Google Maps adds transit to Windows Mobile

If you're unfortunate enough to use Windows Mobile (snap!), yet wise enough to use public transit (double-snap!), today is your lucky day: Google Maps has added public transit directions to an updated WinMo client (as well as support for the Eurocentric S60). Just don't try to ask it how to cross the river on a Sunday. Can support for cheapo Java devices be far behind?

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Why waste money on fancy buses?

Just make the existing buses easier to use! Chicago has implemented a bus tracker that does for many bus routes what a BRT upgrade does for just one. The biggest complaint about bus service is timeliness, and this system addresses at least part of that problem by providing a real-time status.

Too expensive for our regional plan? How about SMS updates when a bus will arrive (text stop and route number to a short code and receive an automated response) or an IVR that provides the scheduled bus arrivals for each stop. Portland uses the latter approach by assigning a short code on each stop; dial one central number, enter the code, and the system tells you the next arrival time.

You don't have to buy new buses or expensive LED displays to provide what centralized technologies can do for a much lower cost.

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