North Shore Connector: Not the express line
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If riders on the Port Authority's new North Shore Connector were expecting bullet-train speeds under the Allegheny River, they've been disappointed. Since its opening in March, light-rail vehicles have operated at the same meandering pace as elsewhere in the system.
Cars going from Wood Street to the new Allegheny Station on the North Side generally are making the trips quicker than the nine minutes that is allotted on printed schedules. But they go no faster than about 25 mph and slow to a near-stop or full stop at several signals.
It's not a huge time-waster, but annoying to riders like Dan Zunko, who expected brisker service along the 1.2-mile extension that cost $523.4 million.
"The North Shore Connector is over 6 months old, and the pace is still comparable to a great eagle -- sans wings," he said in an email. "My daily commute from the North Side Station to Steel Plaza still involves at least three and sometimes as many [as] five extra stops at signals. The return trip is even worse, stopping three times between Wood Street and Gateway, and two or three more times between Gateway and North Side."
Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said the agency is reviewing the entire Light Rail Transit system to identify ways to improve speed and safety, a process he said will take several months.
"Obviously, we'll look for opportunities to improve trip times but will weigh any possible change against safety and cost," he said.
Trips from the North Shore to Downtown "aren't exceptionally long," he noted, but that section is under review as well.
"A 4-minute trip between Gateway and North Side, or 7-minute trip between Gateway and Allegheny, has obviously attracted riders. Our rail ridership is up significantly over a year ago, so people are responding to the convenience," Mr. Ritchie said.
Operators on the new segment must obey 20 separate signals going from Wood to Allegheny and 23 on the return trip. The signals often stay red until the vehicle is very close, causing the operators to slow down and sometimes stop. If they pass a red signal, the system automatically shuts the vehicle down.
The signal system is different from that in older sections but "common nationally for light rail projects," Mr. Ritchie said. "These offer a greater level of safety built-in to the system and the national trend is to incorporate this in new projects.
"Still, it is possible to make changes and we'll likely end up tweaking things here and there -- even on the North Shore section. We're currently looking at a couple of locations now where we might ultimately make slight adjustments. If we do, any single change likely would only amount to a 1-2 mph adjustment at a particular spot, which would shave seconds off of a trip between Downtown and Allegheny Station.
"Still, any improvements in trip speeds add up over the course of a day, and later, could offer opportunities to increase service," he said.
"However, we don't feel it's worth compromising safety to get people from Downtown to the North Shore in 61/2 minutes rather than 7 minutes, for example. So, we'll only make improvements where the change does not soften the safety of the system."
Complaints about the pace of light-rail service go back to the system's debut in the 1980s. Vehicles move slowly through grade crossings, wait at traffic signals and stop between stations for no apparent reason. A ride on the Blue Line from South Hills Village to Downtown often takes 40 minutes or longer.
In June, under pressure from Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, the authority eliminated 11 little-used light-rail stops. It also said it would study a conversion to a sort of honor system, called "proof of payment," that is used on several rail systems elsewhere in the U.S.
Under such a system, no fares are collected on vehicles. Riders are required to pay in advance and carry proof of payment when they ride. Police or other agency personnel conduct random checks at various times, and riders who don't have proof of payment face hefty fines.
That would ease or eliminate long "dwell" times at stations that occur while patrons queue up at the farebox before exiting.
First Published October 23, 2012 12:00 am