Trax Bursting At The Seams
From the Western Rail Passenger Review issue 03-08, October, 2003
Commentary by John Dornoff, InterRail Director.
Salt Lake City's TRAX light rail system has become a victim of its success. Before it opened in 1999, there was the usually comments that no one would ride it, and that it was a waste of money. Today few of the original TRAX detractors say a word, and TRAX is bursting at the seams. During weekdays every car in the UTA TRAX fleet is being used, and the trains are running full even during off peak times. To show how popular TRAX has become, even on Saturdays UTA is forced to assign some 3-car trains to the Sandy line. On Saturday, August 13th, with a street fair and other special events being held in the downtown area, TRAX trains were running full even with some 3-car train sets and with no games being held either at the Delta Center or the University of Utah. Another example is during the week, even during the slower mid day periods, trains are often full from downtown to at least 3900 south.
TRAX's fleet is being pushed to the breaking point. Up to August when a Sandy train arrived at the south end of the line, the previous southbound train would head north about five minutes later. Today, a train arrives, immediately turns around, and heads back to downtown. There is no room for error, and if a train gets to be more than a couple of minutes late, it causes a ripple effect that causes a cascade of problems. In addition, with all 33 cars being used during the week, there is less time to maintain the cars, and there is no time to repair cosmetic wreck damage. A perfect example is the car that was involved in a collision during testing on the Medical Center extension of the University line. A week later the car was still in service with damage along the side where the car smashed into it.
TRAX's current situation came boiling over on Thursday August 11. Because of scheduling conflicts with ESPN, the University of Utah football game started at 5:45PM instead of the more normal 8:00PM, which meant that fans were heading for the game at the same time as rush hour was hitting. With every car being used, there was no extra equipment, so UTA had to call buses up quickly and use them as shuttles from downtown Salt Lake City over to Rice-Eccles stadium where the game was being played.
The good news is that relief is on the way. UTA is leasing 29 of the UTDC cars that are no longer going to be used in San Jose (with Sacramento getting the other 21), plus 7 new Siemens Duwag cars should also arrive in the next couple of months. The new problem is that UTA does not have enough room on the current storage facility lot to store all the cars, so is looking to purchase additional property. This is a complicated transaction that requires the county to condemn the property so that the landowner can get tax breaks, but the county commission is balking, which in turn is causing the owner to have second thoughts. Another bit of relief is the elimination of one very short segment of single-track operation. On Monday, September 8th, a new bridge across Interstate 215 opened for use which eliminated a bad single-track segment that included the spur over to the maintenance facility. The only other single-track section left is over State Street just south of the Midvale Central station. This section of single track should be eliminated in the next couple of years, as the state wants to widen State Street under the bridge, thus helping pay for this bottleneck to be eliminated
Once the property issue is resolved and the new and "old-new" cars arrive, UTA can start working on extensions and working on boosting ridership. While ridership is good, there is still need for improvements especially when it comes to getting reverse commuters on the trains. UTA needs to extensively rework the bus system to provide more feeders from the trains. Currently such major employers as E-Bay and 1-800-Contacts have little or no bus service to their buildings.
UTA has created a successful light rail system and is a shining example for the rest of the country. The problems that UTA is facing are a perfect example that transit systems need to be designed with the future in mind. Too many times politics get in the way of good planning.