Transit Thursday: My First Light Rail Experience

Greetings from the Land of 10,000 lakes! Yes, that’s right – I’m blogging to you all the way from Minneapolis, Minnesota. I’ll be giving more details as to why on the blogsphere this Monday, but being here has actually given me some insight into the work Triangle Transit and Our Transit Future are doing back in the RDU. How? Just a few days ago, I took a ride on the light rail for the first time.

Since I started working at Triangle Transit, I’ve learned more about the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project, yet I’ve never seen light rail in action. Like many of you, I wondered what it sounded like, what it looked like, and how it would interact with the streets in our area. I read the information on the Our Transit Future website and watched the flyover video, but still, it was difficult to envision this new transit mode. Luckily, Minneapolis installed their latest light rail line, the Green Line, a few weeks before I arrived. So just a two days ago, I walked down the street and hopped on an outgoing train to the Mall of America. Here’s how my trip went:

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When I arrived at the light rail station, my first stop was the ticket booth. The ticket booth was entirely automated and accepted debit and credit cards as well as cash for fares. I simply inserted my card, clicked the standard fare, and retrieved my ticket from the bottom of the machine. You could also use your GoTo Pass to pay for your fare (Minneapolis’ all-purpose transit fare card) or purchase or refill your GoTo pass at the ticket booth.

Since Minneapolis’ light rail line operates at high frequency during peak hours, I only waited for my train for about five minutes. It was incredible to sit back and not worry about when the train was going to arrive because the train was essentially always on its way. Miss the 10:42 train? That’s okay, there’s another one at 10:50. Pretty dang sweet.

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While I waited for my train, I checked out the other train getting ready to leave the station. That’s when I realized something I never had about light rail cars: you can wrap them just like buses. During my ride, I saw several cars like the one below wrapped in advertising featuring local universities (how would that Carolina blue look like along an entire light rail train, hmm?) and local businesses.

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Sure enough, my train arrived a few minutes later. When the light rail pulled into the station, bells sounded and lights flashed, just as they would at a normal train crossing.

However, unlike a normal train crossing, the light rail line used the street just like cars. The “rails” were laid into the concrete, and cars could drive on them when the train wasn’t using them. The light rail didn’t take up any extra space; it moved in sync with ongoing traffic.

Check out the video below of a light rail train leaving the station:

 

Once I boarded the light rail car, I settled into the comfy seats for my 30 minute trip to the Mall of America. Like on the bus, a row of seats near the door folded down to accommodate the elderly or disabled. The doors opened and closed at every station, but the length they were opened varied. At bigger stations, i.e., the airport and the mall, the doors remained open for several minutes so people had plenty of enough time to get on and off. At smaller stops, the doors opened and closed briefly.

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As the light rail stopped at said stations, it was interesting to see how each station represented the area it was in. Some stations featured cool light displays, while others featured murals and unique metalwork. At this point, I started imagining what light rail stations in the Triangle could look like and got a little homesick. Here are a few of my favorites:

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After about ten stops, the light rail arrived at the Mall of America. For the first time in my life, I walked into a mall without already feeling stressed. Instead of spending precious time hunting for a parking spot, I strolled into the food court just as the Nestle chocolate booth started handing out free samples. Needless to say, I’ll be hanging up my car keys and purchasing my GoTo pass tomorrow.

Overall, my biggest takeaway from my first light rail ride was how simple it was. Buying my fare was straight-forward, the high frequency schedule was stress-free, and the route map was easy to follow. Although Triangle Transit buses participate in the Bus On Shoulder System to avoid traffic, the light rail hardly ever interacted with traffic. Instead, the light rail train and the cars alternated who could use the street. When the light rail wasn’t coming, the cars drove along the road. When the light rail was coming, the cars stopped and waited like at a railroad crossing before resuming.

The light rail also seemed to encourage growth: at almost every light rail station, new apartment buildings were being built near the tracks. Neighborhoods were springing up around the light rail line everywhere I looked, allowing Minneapolis residents to simultaneously live further out of the city and have shorter commutes. In areas like the Triangle, this scenario could allow commuters to have more flexibility in where they want to live while not sacrificing more time to their commute. Triangle commuters, I can hardly wait for light rail to come to you in the RDU.

So, do you have any questions about the light rail here in Minneapolis? Think of any awesome design ideas for a light rail station in Chapel Hill or Durham? How do you feel about light rail coming to the Triangle? Just tweet @GoTriangle or leave a comment on our Facebook page.

Have a great Thursday,

Grace

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