Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Phoenix Light Rail

Phoenix Light Rail

In January 2009 I was on one of my usual business trips to the Valley of the Sun. My hotel is 1.5 blocks away from the 44th Street station on the new Valley Metro Light Rail. I have watched the construction of the line for the past 4 years. This business trip the line was in operation, having opened on Dec. 26 2008. Here is my review of the line.

The Route
It does a great job of connecting downtown Tempe and ASU with downtown Phoenix. To the east it also provides Park-n-Ride lots at the line end in Mesa and near Loop-101 at the Tempe border. On the north/west the line runs right up Central Ave then makes a jog on Camelback to 19th Ave. ending near a major shopping center.

The line is mostly in a center reservation right-of-way of wide streets in the Phoenix region. There is private right-of-way thru Tempe along a former RR alignment thru ASU campus. There is a rather nice bridge over Tempe Town Lake (Salt River) located right next the UP railroad bridge. There appears not not be much in signal pre-emption, but with the long light cycles in Phoenix, the trains usually roll right along.

The yards are located about mid-way between 44th St and Priest stations. There is a "Y" connection right where Loop-202 crosses over Washington St. The yard lead then flies over the UP RR line then dipping down into the yards which is sandwiched between Loop-202, SR-143, The Sky-Harbor Airport Freeway and the UP Mainline.

The Cars
The cars are 70 low floor cars by Kinki-Sharyo. They are stylized derivatives of car made for Newark/HBLR. The car shells were shipped to Phoenix for final assembly at the Phoenix Metro Light Rails shops.

The interior of cars are rather noisy in the interior with huge blowers for the HVAC system. Although this maybe necessary with the Phoenix 110+ degree weather during the summer. The car provide space for 4 bikes in the center section. This makes the center section rather cramped with the bike hooks are being used. Overall the car ride very confortably.

The Stations
The stations are all of similar design. Most are center island platforms. Their length is set for 3 car trains, although currently the system is only using 2-car trains. There is art work at each station, some giving history of the neighborhood.

Trains run every 10 minutes from ~6am until 7pm weekdays, 15~20 minutes evenings and weekends. At least from what I saw all trains during weekdays were 2-car trains.

Overall the system is a nice. Trains are speedy, even if most of the line is center street reservation.

I do have some safety concerns only because of drivers in Phoenix are scary. One trip I made the operator had to put the train in emergency braking as a pick-up made a u-turn right in front of the train despite the red light the truck had. There have already been reported LRV/car accidents along the line.

Then there are pedestrians. I saw multiple times people leaving the train, cross the trackway then cross the extremely fast streets to get to the sidewalk instead of going to the intersection to cross the street. Of course it does not help the the traffic light cycles in Phoenix are extremely long, so to get the actual walk signal at the safe crossings can take a minute or two, trying people's patience.

Then there is the service. Valley metro does not publish a full schedule for the line, only the expected headways. In the few trips I made, headways were not regular. I waited 30 minutes for a train at 7pm. When I got off, there were 2 trains behind that train at 5 minute intervals. Another time I was taking photos in Tempe. Eastbound was running about every 10 minutes as advertised, but westbound, there was a gap of 20 minutes, then 3 trains in row about 5 or less minutes apart. They definitely need to tweak schedules for regular intervals. There are LED signs at each station, but they don't appear to give next arrival information, just time and safety messages.

Then the connection with the airport is currently weak, with a shuttle bus from 44th Street. But SkyHarbor is building an automated people mover system that will replace the bus sometime in the future. They did build a short segment of this future line at 44th St to prevent closure of the light rail later when the rest of construction begins.

I was impressed with the amount of ridership the line has, even in the evening. Only time will tell how well the system will do with as spread out as Phoenix is. But all the surrounding cities are already screaming for extensions.

I wish Phoenix good luck, and I do intend to ride it some more on future business trips.