Single-track Minds

Our View: With Competition For Transit Dollars Heating Up, The Mta Faces A Potential Compromise To Baltimore's Planned Red Line Light Rail Expansion

July 21, 2009

If there is a phrase that strikes fear into the hearts of Maryland light rail commuters, it's "single track." Baltimore's Central Light Rail Line was originally built with so many single track sections that once a train started running late, the rest of the system was doomed to follow.

Blame the intricate and often maddening choreography of stops and starts when trains running in opposite directions are forced to share one track at multiple locations. The system's shortcoming was eventually fixed - at a cost of more than $150 million - but only after many years of commuter suffering.

So why would the Maryland Transit Administration seriously entertain the idea of returning to the bad old days of single-tracking with the proposed 14-mile, east-west Red Line from Woodlawn to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center? Recently, agency officials revealed they are looking into the potential cost-saving move at the planned tunnel under Cooks Lane in West Baltimore.

The MTA has about 70 million reasons - one for every dollar that revision would shave off the price. If the agency moves forward with its preferred alignment, known as Alternative 4C, that savings could be critically important. Right now, the project's cost is well above the threshold to qualify for federal aid.

Yet, it would come as no surprise if Red Lines critics were to seize upon this possibility as a sign that the proposal is unworkable. A recent string of transit accidents across the country, including the collision of two light rail trains in San Francisco on Saturday, won't help matters either.

Would single-tracking make the system less safe? Rail systems have relied on various forms of track-sharing for as long as there have been trains. It's not unlike a road having a one-lane bridge with a traffic signal. It's not inherently dangerous as long as reasonable care is taken.

Certainly, single-tracking never caused accidents on light rail in Baltimore, only slowdowns. And keep in mind that even with the recent spate of crashes, transit systems of all types are far safer than driving on roads and highways. Statistics show the comparison is not even close.

The prospect of single-tracking even one short section of the Red Line is not something to be taken lightly, however, even if it means merely adding a few minutes of travel time. Safety cannot be compromised, but performance shouldn't be either - at least not if the MTA wants satisfied customers.

Still, Baltimoreans must recognize that the Red Line won't be built without help from Washington, and the competition for transit aid is only going to get more intense. Just as a Red Line that runs entirely underground isn't feasible, it may turn out that creating double tracks along its entire length isn't either - at least not immediately.

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