Today in Sacramento will be the last of SACOG’s Unmet Transit Needs meetings. It will start at 9:30AM in the SACOG board room at 1415 L St, Ste 300, in downtown Sacramento, near the northeast corner of Capitol Park. In preparation for that meeting, I’m thinking about the things I’d like to talk about, particularly issues that I’m not sure that others will bring up. Those two are bicycles on light rail, and level boarding for light rail. I’ve said a bit about level boarding in my Portland post, but there is plenty more to say.
The SacRT light rail system has high floor cars. Both the older 100 series cars by Siemens Transportation Systems and the newer 200 series cars by Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles (CAF) have high floors. People must navigate steep stairs from the ground to the car. Disabled people are accommodated by a high boarding platform, but with only one platform at each station (and none for southbound blue line at 12th & I station), those needing level boarding are restricted to one end of the lead car, and all other doors and cars exclude them. Many people who use the train don’t consider themselves disabled enough to use the high boarding platforms, yet struggle with getting up and down the steps. Many bicyclists also struggle with these steps. The handrails which are provided in the middle of the stairs to assist people with the steep steps are themselves part of the problem, as they block people who are carrying items such as strollers, groceries, luggage and bicycles.
All modern light rail systems are constructed with level boarding to low floor cars. Portland, for example, built its system this way to begin with. Other systems have replaced their trains and platforms to modernize for level boarding. And a few systems like SacRT still have high floor cars.
In searching for information on level boarding, I ran across the DART (Dallas) system, which has been retrofitted for level boarding with “super light rail vehicle” (SLRV) cars. Old platforms were modified by adding a hump area which brings that part of the platform from 8 inches above to 16 inches above the rails, and all of their new platforms are designed for level boarding. DART added a car insert to their trainsets which has a low floor. These inserts were designed and manufactured by Kinkisharyo of Osaka, Japan. A page and video on the DART website provides more information (and the photo at right). This was a fascinating read for me, but the simple explanation is that the existing cars were taken apart at the articulation, the low floor insert was added, and the cars put back together. SacRT cars have these articulation points at which DART added the inserts. I don’t know if this, or a similar design, would be possible for SacRT. There would also be questions about trainset length, as the current four-car trainsets exactly fit within the street block length on many of the downtown and midtown stations. I strongly urge SacRT to investigate and report back on this option.
SacRT will eventually have to replace their entire train fleet. The oldest cars are from 1987, 25 years old, and the newest from 2007. When they do so, they must replace with level boarding low floor cars. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that all new rail vehicles and platforms provide level boarding. But with limited budgets (and no tax base), and a yard full of old VTA cars of a similar but incompatible design, it will likely be a long while before this happens. In the meanwhile, something must be done to provide high quality light rail service to ALL users, regardless of ability.
Note: Passenger rail level boarding is a separate issue since most passenger rail tracks are shared with freight trains, however, even here, level boarding is being phased in with most highly used stations already having partial level boarding platforms. There are unresolved questions about how California High Speed Rail (probably high floor) and Caltrain (probably low floor) will share tracks on the peninsula. The SacRT light rail system does not share any of its tracks with freight or other trains, so this is not an issue. I wonder how the proposed Riverfront Streetcar, which as a new system will be required to have modern low floor cars, and which will share some of the SacRT light rail tracks, will be integrated.