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Streetcars 'Growing Up' Through Technology and Research

“Streetcars in the U.S. are growing up,” David Vozzolo, vice president and streetcar program director, HDR, said in his report on “lessons learned from streetcar evolution” at a June 11 session during the APTA Rail Conference.

Eric Sitiko, operations manager, Tucson Sun Link Streetcar, RATP Dev, moderated the “Streetcars and Light Rail: Boosting Performance and Smart Expansions” session. Other panelists were Colin Foley, senior research associate, GOAL Project manager, Railway and Transport Strategy Centre, Imperial College London; Christopher Kinzel, traffic and planning section manager, HDR; and John Swanson, principal consultant, SNC-Lavalin Rail & Transit Inc.

“The modern streetcar can yield investments in mobility, not just in land use,” Vozzolo said. “It’s about economic development but also urban mobility.”

He described how public transit agencies may begin streetcar operation with a short starter line, often funded in the past by federal TIGER grants (now BUILD grants), then extend the line to provide service to more areas and become more like light rail.

Streetcars often are designed to meet specific needs, he said, such as certain neighborhoods or downtown areas, but “every project has its own story.” He cited the city of Seattle’s two independent streetcar lines, which don’t connect to each other, and the two streetcar services in Dallas: one operated by Dallas Area Rapid Transit to provide commuter service to the city’s Union Station, and the privately operated McKinney Avenue Trolley, which runs vintage streetcars and allows for connection to DART light rail.
Panelists, from left: Colin Foley at podium, Eric Sitiko, Christopher Kinzel, David Vozzolo and John Swanson.
Foley spoke about his organization’s use of benchmarking—measuring an agency’s performance and comparing it to its peers—as part of the process of improving service and building best practices. The 11 participating agencies are known as the Benchmarking Group of North American Light Rail Systems or GOAL.

The challenge, according to Foley, is bringing together systems with different capacities for number of riders, miles and hours of operation, trip lengths and other variables. The process includes plotting the interaction between numbers of boardings and length of the ride (say, longer rides in the evening after rush hour).

He noted that the process identified several positive outcomes including adjusting supervision levels for light rail operators and increasing maintenance funding and staffing.

Kinzel called on public transit agencies to include the public in streetcar and light rail planning decisions—but noted that opinions can change as circumstances do. For example, he said, “People were skeptical of the Kansas City (MO) Streetcar until it opened; then they became boosters.” The starter line, with 16 stops on less than 2.1 route miles, provided fewer than one million daily rides when it opened in 2016 and now provides more than four million; plans are underway to extend the line three and a half miles.

He said communication with residents along a proposed line is important in determining station placement. While several criteria should be included, such as integration with bus service, passenger demand, economic development potential and the outlook for future ridership, planners need to hear what the residents think is important.

“We make highly technical decisions,” Kinzel said, “but we need to present them to the public in terms they can understand.”

Swanson focused on the growth in off-wire streetcar technologies, specifically ground-level power systems, onboard energy storage and onboard power generation. Benefits of eliminating the catenary wire, he said, include improved aesthetics, ease of use by others on the route and simplification of the infrastructure; on the other hand, these changes may take up space in the vehicles, leaving less space for passengers, and could add to vehicle weight.

As recently as 2005, he said, only one off-wire streetcar, in Bordeaux, France, was in operation; today, 10 systems are in operation with two more under construction. Most of these have onboard power storage, while a few are powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Swanson noted that one problem with ground-level power systems is that they are often proprietary, complicating future upgrades.

Transit Systems Engineering sponsored the session.
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