On the most recent streets.mn podcast, I interviewed fellow streets.mn writer David Levinson about transit and transportation while we rode the Green Line westward from end to end. Of course we had a fascination discussion all about the LRT and its costs, its foibles, and ways to improve it.
(It’s also worth mentioning that the conversation lasted exactly 63 minutes.)
A funny thing happened on the way to the Interchange. The man sitting in front of us, a clean cut white man in his 60s, turned and looked at us a few times. Eventually, during a break in the dialogue, he interjected, “You two are really complaining a lot. Don’t you like the train?” He then explained how much he enjoyed taking quality transit, and how he’d ridden the Red, Blue, and Green lines from end to end that day all the way from Apple Valley. Then he asked us, “I was just in San Francisco. Have either of you two ever been to a city with a good transit system?”
Well, of course we have! But in the spirit of pissing that guy off, I want to keep complaining. I like the Green Line as much as the next guy, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a whole bunch of things I’d fix. And as streets.mn is not a civic booster site full of teddy bear stories about how great we all are, we might as well keep on piling on.
Platform Message Signs
This is nothing new. People have been complaining about the station platform message signs on the Blue Line for ten years. Having to read “please check schedules” for ten years is like being stabbed in the ear with a spork.
A few years back, I was chatting with someone from Metro Transit and brought up this issue. They knew about the signs, but argued that because the trains come every 10 minutes, it wasn’t very important to spend time or money on having exact times listed.
I want to disagree, for two reasons. First, the train is often delayed. For example, here’s a recent Facebook status update from a Saint Paul City Councilmember.
The good news is about 60 people waiting to get on the Green Line at 12:45 Thursday afternoon at Central Station in downtown St. Paul. The bad news is some of them were waiting 20 minutes.
Precise “next train” arrival signs would help passengers, particularly in cases where platforms are crowded or trains are delayed. If you know the train is 15 minutes away, you can run to a store to buy a bottle of pop or a tube of toothpaste. At the downtown Minneapolis stations, you’ll know if the next train is a Green or Blue line, and plan ahead about which one to board.
Exact arrival time provides a sense of certainty and control over a system that is often perceived to be frustratingly unpredictable. And that’s really important! In fact, a sense of predictability and security often given as one of the main reasons for the “rail bias” in the first place. (The “rail bias” refers to people’s preference for rail transit over buses.)
Second, having exact next train arrival times seems to be something simple, and would provide a useful display of bureaucratic competence. Transit apps like OMGTransit and a few others do a good job of providing real time transit data with a staff far smaller than Metro Transit. The data is out there, why not make it available to everyone (not just tech nerds with smart phones)? Each day the expensive signs continue to blink “please check schedules” is a fresh condemnation of our public institutions.
Middle vs. Side Platforms
There are many ways to design a light rail station platform, and the Green Line seems to include all of them. You can put the stations in the middle of the two train lines, or put it on the sides. You can break the station up into two separate east- and west-bound platforms, or keep them together. You can put the platforms on the far side or near side of the of the intersection. Which of these things you choose to do depends on how much space you have, both length and width, and details of traffic patterns and rail system linkages.
Someone pointed this out on Twitter a while back (forgive me, but I forget who). One of the dumbest design decisions was having pair of side platforms at the Union Depot station. I have no idea how this happened.
Here’s how it works. The Union Depot station is the end of the line. If you want to take the Green Line westward, you walk up to the station. At this point, you have to choose one of the two platforms. Which one do you choose? The train will only arrive at one of them. They both go the same direction.
Basically, the way the platform is designed, every time the Green Line arrives and departs, some of the people will be standing on the wrong platform and have to walk all the way around again to the other side to get on. It’s dumb, because if you had a center platform here (like in most main New York City stations), people would all stand in one place and get on whichever train was next to depart.
Far-side Platforms and Near-side Stopping
The final gripe is also a familiar refrain. Everyone who rides the Green Line complains about how it stops twice at nearly every intersection, first at the red light, and second at the “far-side” platform across the street.
Near-side vs. far-side stops are a design decision that depends on buses and trains being able to take advantage of green lights to pull through intersections and stop on the other side. This is useful for a few reasons. First, people getting off the bus or train will probably cross behind (instead of in front of) the vehicle. Second, the bus or train can then depart immediately from the stop, instead of having to wait for the intersection signal to turn green again. In theory far stops are safer and faster.
But every time I’ve ridden the Green Line down University Avenue, I’ve only once seen the train successfully make it through an intersection without stopping first at the near-side. (The exception that proves the rule was Westgate station, on an eastbound run, in early rush hour.)
What’s the point of having far-side platforms if the train is never going to be able to use its signal priority and get through the intersection without stopping?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m still a fan of the Green Line. I’m going to take it again this afternoon. But there certainly seem to have been a few mistakes along the way. Maybe they’ll fix them. Hopefully, it’ll happen soon.
100% on the arrival times. I rode a lot of subways in the past two weeks and even if they are super consistent, there is something reassuring about seeing a “2 minutes” sign.
For what it’s worth, yesterday at the East Bank station the automated voice did actually announce when the trains were 2 minutes away. But the overhead display still said “please check schedules. “
“Paging Mr Kafka, would Mr Kafka please report to Metro Transit headquarters.”
Yesterday, I saw they started giving 2-minute warnings on the LED signs and through speakers on the platform, though I’m not sure how valuable that is.
I’ve seen/heard messages on both the Blue and Green lines about train delays over the years, which can be just as confusing. What does it really mean to say that trains are delayed 10 or 15 minutes? If they’re out-of-cycle by 10 minutes, then trains appear to be arriving on time. If they’re delayed 15 minutes, then they seem to be delayed by 5. It’s more useful to say whether trip durations are longer than expected or not. Maybe they know that and are combining platform delay with trip delay. I’m not sure.
From what I’ve observed, I think one problem with signals is that cars are getting a pretty good “green wave” down University Avenue that propagates at upwards of 30 mph. However, with the stops they make, trains are supposed to be averaging somewhere around 20 mph along University — trains have speed limits of 35 to 50 mph there, so even with somewhat worse acceleration/deceleration than cars, they can match or exceed the speed of cars from station to station. However, each station stop eats up 40 to 45 seconds to travel time from slowing to stop, boarding, and starting up again, and that gets the train out-of-sequence with the green wave for cars.
The green wave needs to be slowed or paused somehow when the train is nearby. For instance, the next light down the street could be set to turn red as a train pulls into the station before it, allow conflicting traffic to go through, and then turn green as the train approaches.
It might also work to just generally get the green wave slowed down to 20 or 25 mph, which should help calm the street a bit.
This issue can crop up regardless of whether there are near-side or far-side stations — we have both types along the Green Line, and it happens at both.
YES to all of this, especially updating the overhead signs.
One more gripe: the butt rests, which I refuse to call benches because of their angle. They are too tall for me to do anything other than grind into the small of my back and would be pretty useless in terms of helping anyone weary on their feet, pregnant, with small children, or wanting to put down a heavy load somewhere other than on the ground (in winter, when it’s all wet, etc). What’s the point of even having them?
The stop at Downtown East should really have been a middle platform rather than 2 separated ones. Having to get off one platform onto the other one to transfer from westbound green line to southbound blue line kind of feels akin to not being able to get directly onto 35W north from 94 west.
That one too, for sure. Sam pointed this out too on his recent excellent Green Line grip post.
To be fair, Downtown East station was planned long before they knew exactly what the green line alignment would be. I completely agree on Union Depot station though…
Haha! I laughed at this and felt warm and fuzzy inside;
“streets.mn is not a civic booster site full of teddy bear stories about how great we all are, we might as well keep on piling on.”
Is it too much to ask for bureaucratic competence? How about taking a few pages from the Germans on how to actually make a transit system that works?
I die a little bit inside every dam time Metro Transit posts delays or cancellations of the Northstar ‘service’.
Well, which bureaucracy do you want? I haven’t yet gotten confirmation on who controls each part of the Green Line, particularly signals — Part of it is in Minneapolis, in Hennepin County, and the rest is in Saint Paul, in Ramsey County. It crosses at least three state highways, so MnDOT is probably involved too. When it comes to Northstar, that’s operated for Metro Transit by BNSF Railway on BNSF’s tracks.
Ya, I know it’s a mess but isn’t the whole grand idea of the Met Council to have some continuity and maybe cross-jurisdictional control? So, at least the Green Line should theoretically be managed well. Also, each of those bureaucracies should realize that as ‘stake holders’ the most efficient system which will benefit all parties needs to be run by one organization (i.e. Metro Transit)….
Maybe it’s more realistic for me just to move to Germany if I want to ride rail transit. :-/
Though two counties and MnDOT are involved, the ultimate signal responsibility lies with the two cities. This is the result of a special arrangement between MnDOT and the cities. Ever notice how the signals along Hiawatha, Central, Olson Hwy, etc etc all look like “Minneapolis signals” instead of “MnDOT signals”?
MnDOT actually delegates the control and maintenance of signals on State Highways within Minneapolis and St. Paul to the two cities. I suspect Ramsey and Hennepin do the same, at least on some routes. I do know that the traffic signal timing plan for the light rail was entered into St. Paul’s system “backwards,” and was like this for the first several days after opening. It has since been corrected, and that is one reason why transit time has improved along University since it first opened, and it seems to stop a lot less at the less busy intersections. I still see lots of room for improvement, however.
I am just upset that the counties, state and federal government invest $1B in public dollars in the project, and St. Paul retains the authority to dictate the traffic signal programming, and essentially the travel time and reliability of the service.
If the next train signs were working then you would know which side to go for the union.
Our trains come at 15 minutes. They have these next train things.
A robot lady will tell you, also just in case your blind.
Do they have a schedule?
I wonder how comparable it is to the schedule vs actual.
The complaint about the Union Depot platforms was quite shocking when I first read it. Perhaps in the distant (or not so?) future there will be an east-bound Green Line extension out of lowertown that will make this irrelevant. Gateway? Rush Line? Impossible?
yeah that’s the one reason why it’s OK. (but still dumb)
OTOH, that’s 25+ yrs in the future.
I think the platform message situation hasn’t gotten worked out because Sue Haigh has been too busy trying to find a firstborn child she can sacrifice to the gods in order to make Southwest LRT happen. Or at least a goat. Something to tip the cosmic balance.
How about the downtown east station? Making that the first shared station between the lines should’ve come with a center platform renovation. During rush hours the trains wait as a steady stream of riders file out of one train, across the tracks and onto the other train.
I really find it hard to believe transit planners couldn’t have at least had the slightest inkling that Downtown East could one day be a transfer point between two lines – University Avenue has been considered for rail service of some kind since the 60s, right? Like I said, make the NFL or Vikings pay for it.
Five things here. 1) regarding station platform message signs, I believe they should read “TRAINS RUN EVERY 10 MINUTES” or when they are rarely delayed, “TRAINS DELAYED.” I have been riding the Green Line M-F since it opened and have only encountered one delay. If someone wants to run off for a bottle of pop or tube of toothpaste, they will still be in almost all cases within ten minutes of catching the next train. 2) I have rail bias because unlike the bus, I know in advance I will be able to stow my bicycle. Even when the four bike racks per train car are full, the passengers are pretty cool about letting you stand in the aisle with your bike. 3) Have not been to the Union Station but what a bizarre platform set up. Would love to hear the back story behind this. 4) I had initially wanted the Met Council to at least experiment with traffic signal override but there appears to be a green wave of trains. When I exit the eastbound train at Dale and look west down University, I often see the headlight of the next train on the horizon. 5) Good point Anne about the butt rests which are clearly designed for males or tall people. Maybe the Met Council should put signs over the benches with chair backs that these seats are reserved for women and children.