The St. Louis Streetcar and MetroLink: Compatibility Issues to Address Before Expansion

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oliveStreetcars are on the minds of many in St. Louis. The Loop Trolley finally got through the University City city council and will soon begin construction. Meanwhile, the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis unveiled their own streetcar proposal. Matt Fernandez has provided a nice write-up on nextSTL. In summary, the Partnership has proposed a system composed of 2 lines spanning 7 miles: one going from the Gateway Mall at 7th St to the Central West End via Olive, Lindell, and Taylor and a second line going from Civic Center to Old North St. Louis via 14th St and North Florissant.

The proposed north-south streetcar line would duplicate portions of the Northside MetroLink line that was studied back in 2008. Given the general shorter range of streetcars, there has been some concern that the route duplication could impede the future expansion of MetroLink into north city and beyond. These concerns are not unfounded.

St Louis Streetcar map
{proposed St. Louis streetcar line in yellow}

Back in 2001, Portland opened one of the first modern streetcar lines in the US to rave reviews. However, the streetcar line Portland built is largely incompatible with its larger MAX light-rail system. From Wikipedia: While streetcars can operate on the MAX light-rail tracks, a MAX car would be too heavy to operate on the streetcar’s tracks, too wide for portions of its right-of-way, and unable to pass through the tighter curves on the Portland Streetcar system.

Before outlining the issues at hand, let me first say that references to MetroLink below will usually refer to the low-floor streetcar-like version proposed in the Northside-Southside MetroLink study. The existing MetroLink lines are not compatible with streetcars in any way, shape, or form save for a quick trip to the Ewing train yard. Below is a list of elements that could potentially differentiate streetcars from MetroLink along with how severely each issue may affect compatibility between the two systems.

Track gauge – Non-issue
With the exceptions of New Orleans, Pennsylvania, or San Francisco public transit, 1435 mm is the near universal track gauge for all freight and passenger rail.

Power – Minor issue
MetroLink currently operates under 750-volt DC power, a fairly common standard amongst rail transit systems in the US. The only likely difference between MetroLink and the proposed streetcar is the type of overhead wire: tensioned catenary for MetroLink, trolley wire for the streetcar. MetroLink should be capable of running under trolley wire as long as it doesn’t speed too fast.

Vehicle length – Minor issue
MetroLink 2-car trains are approximately 180ft long. Streetcars in the US are typically 60 to 66ft in length, though some cities in Europe have streetcars as long as 175ft. A St. Louis streetcar is unlikely to be any longer than 90ft. A MetroLink train operating on streetcar tracks would be limited to a single car length barring significant platform expansion.

Track alignment – Moderate issue
MetroLink trains are capable of turning on curvatures with radii as small as 25 meters. However, thanks to their smaller profiles, many standard streetcar designs are capable of handling curves with radii of only 18 meters which allows them to fit into tighter, more crowded environments than typically allowed by light-rail vehicles.

{existing MetroLink platform height poses a problem with compatibility}

Platform height – Moderate issue
Both MetroLink and streetcars would utilize the same 14in platform height. In the US, streetcars stations have also been built with 10in platforms. The lower platform allows buses to interface with the stations, as well, since 14in platforms are a hair too high and block the doors on buses.

Another consideration is that the higher 14-inch platform allows for fully level MetroLink-like boarding while 10-inch platforms require the use of a bridgeplate for ADA purposes. Use of a bridgeplate, naturally, slightly slows down the boarding process at each station it is used.

For obvious reasons, streetcars won’t be able to use existing MetroLink platforms and the existing MetroLink won’t be able to use streetcar platforms. Theoretically, both streetcars and MetroLink would be able to use the same tracks, although in MetroLink’s case, there would be some awkwardness in South County where high and low platforms would be required at each station to accommodate high and low floor MetroLink vehicles should both a Southside and MetroSouth expansion occur.

{disparities in vehicle width could greatly affect ability for vehicles to share right-of-way}

Vehicle width – Major issue
Streetcars in Europe generally come in 3 different widths: 2.3m, 2.4m, and 2.65m with some 2.46m systems scattered about. In the US, the general standard for light-rail vehicles such as MetroLink is 2.65m (8ft 8.5in). Thanks to Portland, the emerging US streetcar standard is 2.46m (8ft 1in) with some cities opting for the wider light-rail standard.

Vehicle width will have the effect of “locking in” platform distances from the tracks. Platforms designed for narrower streetcar vehicles will impede wider light-rail trains, platforms designed for wider light-rail trains will prevent use of narrow streetcars. Also, wider vehicles will require a wider right-of-way or lane to comfortably mix with traffic.

Trackbed strength – Major issue
Streetcars have become popular in cities for one major reason: cost. Whereas new light-rail alignments often cost $50 million per mile at a minimum, streetcars can be built for less than $40 million per mile. Aside from doing away with many of the amenities offered on light-rail systems, streetcar vehicles are smaller and significantly lighter than their light-rail cousins allowing for cheaper, shallower trackbed construction. A major side effect of this cheaper construction, however, is that the trackbed can’t support the weight of heavier light-rail vehicles such as MetroLink. Compatibility with MetroLink would require stronger, deeper trackbeds which would potentially wipe out much of the cost savings of streetcars versus light-rail.

There are many different elements that could differentiate streetcars from MetroLink and make them incompatible with each other, but that hasn’t stopped cities across the country from jumping on the streetcar bandwagon. All things considered, I support using a model similar to Portland for the reintroduction of streetcars to St. Louis.

St. Louis Streetcar Open House – March 7, 2013 by nextSTL

Northside and Southside Major Transit Improvements: East-West Gateway Council of Governments September 26, 2007

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  • dempster holland

    The real problem may be what fare-sharing and transfer arrangements are made.
    Will persons have to pay seperate fares on the Loop streetcar and on metro buses/
    metrolink? If there is only one fare paid,, does some transit sales tax go to the new
    streetcar? The answer to these questions will substantially affect the ability to
    pay the operational costs of the loop streetcar

  • Steve Kluth

    I have no objections to streetcars. I just wonder about the routes. Two questions: 1 – On the east-west route, would it be better to continue on Olive until either Spring or Boyle? I realize this slows the streetcar slightly and puts some discontinuity to the route, but it avoids the difficult-to-modify Grand/Lindell intersection. I actually think it might be better to go up Olive to Spring, then south through the SLU campus to either West Pine or Laclede, then west to Euclid – this serves both the Theater District and SLU better, and is probably cheaper than building the streetcar on Lindell (I agree Lindell would be ideal. I just think it’s also more expensive and a more difficult fit.) – but I can’t see SLU allowing that. 2 – Could the the north-south route be eventually split into two routes, both terminating Downtown? I think the route usage on the North Side and South Side might be quite different. Also, a North Side route could then be extended either down N Florissant or St Louis Avenue, while a South Side route could go south to Soulard and then west to Grand and the Hill via Sidney, Arsenal, or Cherokee/Utah/Fyler/Brannon.

  • Eric Matthew Wilkinson

    What STL fails to realize is that mass transit needs to be accessible from residential areas. With limited funds and even more limited political will in City Hall, shouldn’t a street cars’ route not duplicate an existing train route? I don’t take the train to work because I would have to drive to the train station. Pointless. If I were to take a bus then transfer to the train it would take me 45 minutes to an hour, if everything is running on time. And I work 6 miles from my house. Also pointless. While it would be less glamorous, it would be far more useful if the streetcar ran up Grand from Gravois (or even Tower Grove Park) to Page or Dr. Martin Luther King. At least then it would pass an existing train station. This project seems like the plaything of the political elite to garner more tourism rather than an initiative to increase the quality of life for residents.

    • Alex Ihnen

      MetroLink does a very poor job of serving neighborhoods. If that’s the goal, then the proposed streetcar serves two of the most dense residential neighborhoods in the metro region. Downtown and the CWE (and areas in between) also have the greatest potential for adding residential density. They’re also the most dense job centers in the region.

      • That both ends of the east-west streetcar line are both major job and activity centers is the best aspect of the route. Even better that SLU and Grand Center are additional destinations in the middle of the route. Job and activity centers are what the north-south route lack and what makes me very nervous as to its viability.

      • Eric Matthew Wilkinson

        There is nothing dense about the area between Jefferson and Grand on Olive; SLU already made sure of that. And the two neighborhoods are already served by a train. The entire south side is not. My point, again, is that this route does not make since from a service perspective given the limited ability of these projects to get funded. Some of the projects defined in the other plans Metro has are great; but they should have been done 10 or 20 years ago and I don’t hold out a lot of hope for them being completed in the foreseeable future. Now, from a “wow factor” perspective, this streetcar is great. Unfortunately, that is not what is needed for neighborhoods where population is decreasing. What is needed in those areas are projects that increase quality of life for the residents. A streetcar that I have to drive to that connects two metro stations does not help me.

        • you-topia

          As a former resident of the CWE, but one who lived about a 20 minute walk from Euclid along Lindell, I would have used this streetcar all the time. I would have taken it West to Euclid and I would have taken it East to Midtown, where there are several up-and-coming areas and great yet small, local businesses (like Cafe Ventana). One of the major benefits of a streetcar is that it connects already developed areas with less developed areas, making those more accessible and thus more attractive to developers. The in-between places suddenly become more visible. I can see Cafe Ventana and businesses in North Grand and along Locust (like the Fountain on Locust) getting a lot of new business from people living in the CWE. I thought Lindell would be excellent for a streetcar many times while living there and am a huge supporter of this idea. It would definitely have improved my quality of life while living in this area.

        • Presbyterian

          I don’t disagree with the sentiment, but I also know that we’ll get a southside line when southside institutions start asking for permission to tax themselves to pay for it. If city and state budgets were paying for this, then I’d think differently. But downtown, midtown and CWE folks are behind this initiative and appear willing to put their money where their mouth is by promoting a special taxing district.

          If this comes together, then perhaps we can hope for some similarly enlightened leadership from Nestle Purina, ABInBev and the like–though their lack of local ownership could make them less willing to invest in their city.

  • kuan

    It would be helpful in this article to have the North South Metrolink report you referred to in the beginning of the piece. It would be interesting to compare and contrast the “angles” presented in both to see how a similar route (the part that connects downtown to the Near North) has been approached in one versus another.

    Regarding the issues presented in the piece; it appears that the primary issue that one would have to deal with is the gauge used in the track. Is there any interest presented in making this track “upgradeable” in the future? My feeling is not, as it would essentially create a redundancy in service – the existing lines running parallel a flew blocks to the south as they do. Thus, greater necessity would be placed on the ever elusive North-South connector.

    If this track strength is the greatest issue of question – the $10 million dollar per mile savings that are inherent in using the street car tracks versus the regular – then I think we are, ultimately, quibbling in the details, right? The overall cost of such an investment (annually, initially, etc.) for a street car far eclipses this potential mile on mile savings. Currently, many cities are in a streetcar fever of sorts. How many of these will come to fruition? Very few, at most. There is but limited funding for such investments from the federal government and, ultimately, as light rail has come into vogue in popular culture, cities see this as a cheaper way to cash in on an investment the feds can front.

    Whether or not it is appropriate or a good investment, though, is what should be of greater concern than the potential upgradeability of a fraction of a major investment. If we are preparing a pitch for a longer but less effective service just because there are federal dollars hanging low for it – shouldn’t we instead (from a structural standpoint as to how the Federal Government places funding and from a city perspective as long term maintenance costs and the like are responsibilities any such project naturally shoulders) focus on taking that same funding and doing it “right,” even if that means no central corridor street car (running through residential neighborhoods at low speeds is not a recipe for use from either tourism or commuters).

    If the real need is that North South connector, a light rail in which a mere portion of the tail serves a neighborhood in a substandard manner is going to both, frankly, scare white suburbanites who such thematic investments are targeted at, and provide a poor transit opportunity for the disenfranchised near north neighborhoods effectively being thrown a bone.

  • Hasan

    So Herbie, which do you prefer for 14th north of Delmar, streetcar or metro link? I’ve always liked the metro link downtown loop route, but I think it’ll be expensively redundant if the street car n-s line gets built.

    • Tough question. What do you want the route to be? How far are you willing to go if your top speed is only 40mph? As studied, MetroLink took 19 minutes to get from I-70 & Goodfellow to Delmar, but it only had 10 stations in 6.7 miles. In a best case, a streetcar would take 8-10 minutes longer to cover the same distance, but it would serve more stops and be able to replace the bus route whereas buses would continue to ply Natural Bridge with MetroLink style service, but with a streetcar you would never make it to North County…

      As of right now, I prefer MetroLink over streetcar for the N-S line. I don’t like the MetroLink downtown loop. I do like a streetcar going through downtown. Someone needs to think how everything fits together as a system and not an collection of individual lines and ideas.

      • Hasan

        I like the metro link over streetcar for N-S line as well.

  • Paul Hohmann

    One issue not mentioned here is turning radius. As I recall when the Metrolink blue line was being planned, the large turning radius of Metrolink cars were going to be an issue (not impossible, but harder to plan around) when they were looking at planing the line on the streets of downtown Clayton. Streetcars obviously have a much tighter turning radius and can more easily go around the corner of small scaled intersections of Downtown St. Louis such as 6th & Olive and 7th & Locust.

    It seems though from a long range planning standpoint we should figure out where street vs Metrolink lines should go, build them with the service best fitting the route, and leave them that way.

  • Don

    Ok, I’m confused and feel like I’m missing something. Streetcars and Metro light rail will not be sharing any track or stations so why do we care about comparability?

    For financial reasons, we have built out Metrolink using as much existing rail bed as possible. The price we have paid for this is less than ideal location of metro stations making a less than ideal light rail system. Metrolink should have gone west under Olive / Lindell all the way to Washington University, but didn’t because of the extraordinary cost of building underground. The proposed streetcar solves this problem for the most desirable stretch of that route — although I’d like to see the line run down the northern edge for Forest Park all the way to Skinker.

    • The focus is on the north-south route along 14th St and N Florissant. Low-floor light rail was proposed for the corridor back in 2008. Today, we have a streetcar proposal for the same route. The question at hand is: if we build a streetcar today, can it be upgraded to light-rail tomorrow?

      • Don

        Thank you and sorry for not picking up on that.

      • David Johnson

        Many modern streetcars are essentially shorter versions of existing light rail vehicles on the market. They can also travel almost as fast as MetroLink trains once you get them into dedicated right-of-way. You are essentially building light rail in a traffic lane with stop spacing like a bus route. Once you get farther afield, give the streetcar some dedicated ROW and you won’t be able to tell the difference.