Green Line Getting Up to Speed in Fits and Starts

Heading east from Minneapolis, the Westgate Station is the first Green Line port of call in Saint Paul. Trains stop in the shadow of the KSTP radio mast, out front of an apartment building with a ground floor Dunn Brothers Coffee, Metro PCS, and Snap Fitness.

Sometimes they also stop a little bit before they’re intended to.

Like many other stations on the Green Line, Westgate’s platforms are offset. This requires Green Line trains to pass through a cross-street immediately before pulling up at the platform to pick up passengers. Occasionally, the stoplight at the intersection is red for University Avenue traffic—and for the trains.

It can be a frustrating experience for riders. One of the great advantages of public transit is predictability. Another is avoiding the stopping and starting that urban drivers are all too familiar with. When the train is made to brake every couple blocks to wait at a red light, these benefits are erased. It’s equally frustrating to stand waiting on a platform for a stopped train that you can see and nearly touch but cannot board.

The road that splits the Westgate Station is called Berry Street, and it is an exceptionally egregious example of the problems that have plagued the Green Line this summer. Berry Street does not fully cross University—it is a three way intersection. It is one block long. Traffic is so low that the city has not bothered to do an actual count. KSTP employees and residents of an apartment complex are the only regular users of the street. In other words, barring an emergency, there is no reason a Green Line train should ever stop at Berry Street.

Yet, every day, many do.

BerryStreet

How many? Over the course of several days, this writer (who lives nearby) observed 100 trains pass through the Berry Street intersection, exactly 50 each way. All told, 32 trains were forced to come to a complete stop and an additional three slowed almost to the point of stopping. The length of the wait varied considerably. The average delay was about 17.5 seconds, but the longest delay ran nearly 50 seconds.

Per the Star Tribune, there are nineteen similar intersections along the Green Line. Back of the envelope estimate: if we extrapolate from Berry, trains are stopped at a third of all low traffic intersections for an average of 17.5 seconds. That adds nearly two minutes to all trips from the “low hanging fruit” intersections alone. That’s not including the effect of busier cross streets like Snelling, where riders can wait a minute or more, nor the time wasted simply by trains slowing down. Multiply by the average weekday ridership of the Green Line (again, back of the envelope) and that comes out to over 1,100 hours lost, per day. In less abstract terms, Green Line delays inevitably result in missed connections and a lot of waiting on platforms (which will sap energy and patience in the winter).

Ever since the June 14th opening, it has been clear that red lights are one of the most pressing issues facing the Green Line. These intersections should be low hanging fruit for the city to fix. It’s surprising that these delays existed at launch at all.

Changes are coming, although not as quickly as one would hope for.

“Predictive priority has been implemented at several low-volume intersections along University Avenue,” wrote Drew Kerr, Public Relations Specialist with Metro Transit, in an email conversation. “We expect predictive priority to be implemented at [the rest of the low traffic intersections] over the next several weeks.”

Predictive priority is the name of the system that identifies approaching trains and attempts to time the traffic light to let the train pass without stopping. It is not the full preëmption that Aaron Isaacs argued for in his earlier post on this blog, but it appears to be working well. This writer observed several hours of train crossings at Pascal St., which was one of the initial group of intersections that tested the priority system. Only one in every six trains noticeably slowed their speed, and none were made to come to a complete stop.

As of this writing, predictive priority has been implemented at ten intersections in Saint Paul: Park, Western, Mackubin, Grotto, Victoria, Chatsworth, Griggs, Pascal, Aldine and Fry. In addition, Marion St. has also been given an advanced detection system. The fixes are moving westward in Saint Paul, presumably with Berry Street the last to be addressed.

“With successful implementation of predictive priority (note: so far) end-to-end Green Line trips are now averaging approximately 52 minutes westbound and 50 minutes eastbound,” said Kerr. “Trip times have also become more consistent.”

Metro Transit is also looking at implementing the same system for busier, medium-traffic intersections. However, giving the Green Line a measure of priority over the most highly trafficked intersections is not currently in the plan. Instead, Metro Transit hopes that in fixing the majority of intersections the waits at the remainder will straighten themselves out. Every intersection where the train may or may not stop is a variable that makes predicting where the train will be at any given time more difficult. By eliminating as many variables as possible, it will be easier to predict the train’s arrival at several key intersections.

While the work on streamlining the Green Line’s route is not yet done, it’s clear we are near something like a finished product. The train may soon complete its trips in the 48 minutes that was originally promised. “Metro Transit is pleased with the progress that has been made since predictive priority was introduced,” said Kerr. “[We] look forward to continued success as the technology is implemented.”

Better late than never.

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17 Responses to Green Line Getting Up to Speed in Fits and Starts

  1. sam October 17, 2014 at 7:45 am #

    I thought the light at Berry was part of a deal with the developers of the building where the Dunn bros and snap fitness are. Is there any truth to that?

  2. Aaron Isaacs
    Aaron Isaacs October 17, 2014 at 8:31 am #

    Good post. It’s encouraging to see progress. There are more time savings to be had in both downtowns, which is where this discussion should move to next.

  3. paddy October 17, 2014 at 11:01 am #

    Given the fabtacular ridership numbers, existing trip time doesn’t actually seem to bother the people who actually ride the train.

    So trip times are currently 2 and 4 minutes off the promised end to end times. Never mind that most people don’t ride end to end but whatever. So it basically is what it is.

    People are riding the train(lots of them!). Its (almost) going as fast as they said it would. What’s the problem? Can we continue to expect these red light articles ad nauseum?

    Might be time to declare victory and move on.

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini October 17, 2014 at 11:25 am #

      Well… the promised travel time went up a good amount from the projected times that came out of engineering/design. Originally, they said 39 minutes from SPUD to target Field: http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/2014/05/green-line-schedule-lowering-travel-time/

      So they added on 9 minutes, and they STILL are 2-4 minutes behind. Considering the cost of shaving 19% off travel times is basically getting the timing/priority right, extremely low cost, we shouldn’t just give up. If people making a 10 minute journey today ont he line could see that reduced to 8 minutes, isn’t that worthwhile? From a philosphical standpoint, should we just accept the delay of hundreds of people in a space/environmentally efficient vehicle to allow a few folks in SOVs to cross University Ave? How many more people would find the Green Line attractive if projected trip times were accurate?

      • paddy October 17, 2014 at 12:01 pm #

        I love your contempt for the people who live in st paul and you know do stuff.

        It’s okay to delay thousands of people everyday trying to cross University because they aren’t environmentally efficient. That’s an interesting POV. What if they are driving electric vehicles or biking or walking? Can we find a way to not punish them?

        At a certain point this argument simply becomes about moral superiority. And honestly good luck with that

        • Matt Steele
          Matt Steele October 17, 2014 at 12:57 pm #

          A vehicle carrying potentially hundreds of people should get reasonable priority over a vehicle carrying one or two. End of story. It’s obvious. You have contempt for your neighbors who are using a new billion dollar investment in your neighborhood?

        • Adam Miller
          Adam Miller October 17, 2014 at 1:39 pm #

          There are thousands of people every day on the train.

          There are not thousands of people per day crossing University at Berry Street.

        • Alex Cecchini
          Alex Cecchini October 17, 2014 at 1:39 pm #

          A train takes 5-10 seconds to pass through an intersection, carrying hundreds of people, and only comes by once every 5 minutes (on average). There is simply no justification for not giving priority to this vehicle by extending green lights a bit longer or cutting short crossing green lights as possible. There may be some intersections where train crossings come at an odd timing such that ADA requirements minimum time for crossing University may not be met. I’m fine with addressing these and making things work. But holding up a train for what amounts to 8-10 minutes over planned trip times because we can’t give space efficient vehicles priority is ludicrous.

      • Joe October 17, 2014 at 12:52 pm #

        The 39 minutes has been seen as all over the place, with SPUD to Target Field… From Central to Nicollet Mall… The only printed copy I’ve seen of a scheduled table and predicted times had 41 minutes from Target to SPUD, but the date of that was before TF was built, and it seemed to be listed as 2 minutes when it was really 3… so now we’re up to 42 minutes to 50… not as bad.

        • Alex Cecchini
          Alex Cecchini October 17, 2014 at 1:55 pm #

          Fair enough. The FEIS said “40 minutes end to end” and that was before the infill stations were added. I’ll assume 3 minutes for each. So yes, we’re looking at predicted times of 43 minutes, they changed the schedule to 48, and are running 50-52. Plus any addition due to the change in TF Station.

          I think you may be right that the 39 numer was at one point probably truly “end to end” and when the stations were added they kept with the number but changed it to Nicollet to Central.

          However, we’re still talking ~5-7 minutes above the engineered predictions, and still 2-4 above the actual schedule.

          • Joe October 17, 2014 at 2:35 pm #

            Really, right now schedule reliability is much more important. Increasing speeds to the speed limit over the Washington Avenue Bridge (trains are given 50 mph, but go about 30), and giving further priority to trains at minor intersections like this will be great for getting rid of those few minutes of delay. (especially seeing as the windows we’re trying to hit can be opened or closed for just a few seconds).

            • Aaron Isaacs
              Aaron Isaacs October 17, 2014 at 9:35 pm #

              It’s important for 4 reasons:
              1. When the Green Line is off schedule, it knocks the Blue Line off schedule too.
              2. When the Green Line is extended to the southwest suburbs, unreliable service will discourage ridership.
              3. When the Green Line is off schedule, timed bus transfer connections get missed.
              4. The extra running time requires extra trains at a cost of millions of dollars, and that money prevents transit service improvements elsewhere.

    • Nathanael October 20, 2014 at 1:37 am #

      Every minute it runs faster, and every day that the schedule gets more *reliable*, will goose the ridership even more. You have no idea how popular this line could be… unless you’ve ridden the Green Line in Boston!

    • JJ October 20, 2014 at 6:57 pm #

      Just because someone rides the line, and so many do as you note, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t annoy them. As someone who has rode it numerous times, it frustrates me to get stuck at the lights. Many people stand and push on the door button confused that the station announcement was for the stop after the traffic light.

  4. Minneapolisite October 18, 2014 at 1:26 pm #

    The picture used is a bit out of date: The U of M stops now have a color-coded solid bar (you can guess the colors) for West Bank, East Bank, and Stadium Village stations. St Paul just needs to allow the train to have priority at all non-major intersections while Minneapolis could tweak downtown stations: I swear every now and then it seems like the Downtown East Station takes forever to reach and forever to leave and I don’t see a ton of cars passing by when this happens either.

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