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The American Rail Revolution

Posted by Marcello Perricone on Nov 11, 2019

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Revolutionizing West Coast Transit

Covering over 33,955 square miles (87,945 km²), the Greater Los Angeles metropolitan area in California is home to nearly 19 million people. A basin with mountains, deserts, sea, and a whole lot of concrete, the LA area is internationally known for its climate -- and for it's congestion.

"Our basic finding when doing our strategic planning is that we are using our streets very inefficiently," says Joshua Schank, Chief Innovation Officer at LA Metro, during the opening presentation of the SmartTransit LA 2019 conference. "If we can use it more effectively, then we can solve a lot of problems."

As the number one city in terms of congestion in the United States, Los Angeles public transport is especially crucial. Though average Angeleno drivers spend 119 hours per year stuck in traffic, burning 35 gallons of fuel with an estimated wasted cost of $2,400. the American culture forbids most people from trading in their automotive daily commute for a transit system.

los angeles traffic jam cars highway

"It’s not that we just want to provide more journeys on public transit, we want to provide better mobility. People with cars have a much shorter travel time even with congestion than people who don't, and they have access to jobs and opportunities that people without cars don't," explains Josh. "We as operators need to figure out a way to address those things to make it an interesting option moving forward."

"We set a metric to double the number of people who aren’t driving alone -- 87% of trips are people who drive alone and that is not sustainable," he continues. "The barrier isn’t always the technology; the barrier can be the willingness of people to work together and try new things."

Part of the strategy to change citizens' minds is to make public transit more than just another method of transportation, but a better alternative that improves the areas it serves. From geographic studies to high-tech improvements, LA Metro is tackling the problem from as many angles as possible.

la metro ticket barriers tap wearable

"When you walk into a Starbucks, they don't say to you 'here's your black coffee', and we're doing the same -- we are not shoving a transit option on someone, but providing options," says Robin O'Hara, Executive Officer of Customer Experience for the Regional TAP Program at LA Metro. "We're working on things like a trip planner where you can be offered several different ways to travel across different modes."

Those different modes include a data gathering effort to discount pricing for seniors, kindergarten/college students, and low income groups, as well as mobility services like Uber and Lyft ("We are of the opinion we are not going to get rid of the ride sharing apps, so we are going to work with them to provide better mobility for our passengers," Robin says). Similarly, the TAP Program aims to facilitate travel by replacing tickets with pre-paid cards, wristbands, and key fobs, allowing LA residents to easily touch in and out of the transit system in a similar way to London's long-established Oyster Cards, and removing the needs for bills and coins or tickets. The idea is to not only make public transport accessible, but also contribute to people's lives in major ways.

"We want to make sure we’re creating places that people want to live in and make sure transportation has a more positive impact on communities," explains Josh. "Location based services is a great opportunity to redesign our networks and see where our passengers are using them. As a result of our studies, we are massively accelerating our Wi-Fi program in buses so in the next two years every bus will have Wi-Fi. That not only allows us to predict the buses' arrival, but also offers users amenities and increased security."

bus pasadena los angeles la metro

Culture and technology aren't the only obstacles, however, as the City of Los Angeles also needs to be aligned with its transport system's goals like a single, giant, well-oiled machine.

"One of the biggest challenges is to change the mentality around the use of transit, and we're working with the relevant bodies to get the measures passed," says Josh. "Take buses, for example -- we often have the problem of cars going into the bus lane and slowing buses down, or buses getting stuck in several traffic lights. Because of that, we're exploring the legality of installing cameras on buses to fine cars that drive on the bus lane, and we're working with LA Traffic to time the lights so buses can travel at a certain speed and hit all the green lights."

"It is surprisingly difficult to get a large operator -- 11,000 people, in the case of LA Metro -- to get anything done, and it takes an enormous amount of time," he concludes. "The willingness to collaborate and do new things is extremely important to implement change."

N700 train Shinkansen_curveFall from TCR

Texan Bullet Trains

Nearer the Eastern Seaboard than the Western, Texas is aiming to emulate the likes of Japan and Europe with the introduction of the United States' first dedicated high-speed rail line.

"Everything being done in Texas is different to California because it is being done in the private sector," says Holly Reed, Managing Director of External Affairs at Texas Central Railway, referencing California's embattled state-funded High-Speed Rail project between San Diego and San Francisco/Sacramento. "It is the right project in the right place at the right time and in the right way."

Running from Dallas to Houston through Brazos Valley, the Texas High-Speed Train project consists of 240 miles (390 kilometers) of mostly straight rail tracks populated by the N700 Series Shinkansen -- Japan's notorious bullet train.

N700 train Mt Fuji japan N700-Fuji-from-Left from TCR

"The N700 is the world's safest train, and yes -- it’s sexy," says Holly. "There will be no middle seats, an average delay of less than a minute, and peak operations that will see two trains run per hour. It's fully designed with the rider in mind."

The company hopes those riders to come from all over the Lone Star state, with termini on both ends of the line serving the Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston metropolitan areas. A midway station located in Grimes Country is also planned to attract passengers from the nearby Texas A&M University and Bryan College, though local commissioners have unanimously voted in opposition of the development in 2016 and tried to block its construction.

According to Holly, the project can employ up to 10,000 direct workers every day at peak construction, with more than 1,500 direct jobs being created when the route is up and running. The economic and job benefits, as well as the environmental and air quality ones thanks to the overhead electric engine, are touted as a "high speed, low impact" endeavor that will benefit the station cities and surrounding areas.

N700 train manufacture DSC09162 from TCR

"Texas is expanding at an astronomical rate. And they are all moving to the urban areas of Houston and Dallas," she explains. "The populations on both ends are 7 million -- the largest metropolitan areas, the largest universities. We need a sweet spot between 'too far to drive' and 'not far enough to fly', and Houston and Dallas are that sweet spot."

"The economic impact is predicted to be around $36 billion -- that of 84 SuperBowls. We are creating a super economy that is clean, safe, and reliable."

SmartTransit Congress, Boston, 2020

To find out more about the biggest and most important transportation projects taking place in the US, join us at SmartTransit East: Boston on March 17-19th, where the world's top industry and decision makers reunite for a one-of-a-kind three day networking conference packed with presentations and workshops!

Topics: High Speed Rail, SRW Featured, LA Metro, SmartTransit

Marcello Perricone

Written by Marcello Perricone

The Editor of SmartRail World and Transport Security World.

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