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the path to transit equity rolls both ways

By enelson
Monday, January 22nd, 2007 at 6:38 pm in Buses, rail, transit equity.


Pick your transit: Rubber or steel wheels. In the Bay Area and elsewhere, it seems necessary to declare your allegiance to either bus transit or rail transit, although train people will often pay lip service to their rubber-bound inferiors.

Now, thanks to some imaginative Japanese transit planners, we have the mode of transit to bring the warring parties together: The rail bus.

With retractable steel wheels, much like those freight railroad track inspection SUVs, this dual mode vehicle is being tested this month by transit company JR Hokkaido in the town of Fuji (near the mountain of the same name), if the web press accounts are accurate.

It was tested on a road and rail route of less than four miles, and I can’t tell from the online reports how well it went, but it sounds like a fascinating concept.

With little funnel-like ramps to guide the thing onto the rails, the little buses are, in theory, able to make that mechanical and socioeconomic transition without derailing or getting mired in civil rights lawsuits.

According to some further reckless Web research, I was able to glean that this idea, like so many in the field of mass transit, is far from new:

During the pre-World War II era, Germany, Japan and Australia attempted to develop such a system, but they couldn’t (put it into regular service). The major reasons were that they took too much time to change from one mode to another, and that it was too costly to develop the system.


Isn’t that always the rub? Rail costs too much to build, buses cost too much to operate. Here’s a mode that combines both of those features.

But seriously, one of the big drawbacks of rail is that it can’t feasibly serve our sprawling communities without some kind of feeder bus system. People would rather drive than be fed via bus, so you don’t get so many cars off the road.

With a hybrid bus/train, you can serve the subdivisions via streets and then seamlessly scoot down rail lines past the traffic that buses tend to get caught behind. Some would argue that busways and bus lanes accomplish this, too, but hey, you’re still riding a BUS, aren’t you?

This could be the way to convince suburbanites to ride a bus, of sorts. Just tell them it’s a train that takes them all the way home.

Dual mode vehicle photo from

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8 Responses to “the path to transit equity rolls both ways”

  1. Aaron Priven Says:

    Caltrain is running into regulatory issues with the Federal Railroad Administration — they want to use cars that don’t meet their standards, but which will speed up traffic considerably. Won’t this run into the same kind of problems?

    It seems to me that while there may be places this is a good idea — places where we already have a rail right of way and it’s cheaper to do this than to build a busway — nearly all the advantage of this would be had from building a busway, which can use any kind of bus and is cheaper to build and maintain.

    People get confused. Rail transit does have a somewhat smoother ride than bus transit, and where it’s needed rail has a much higher capacity per operator, but the main advantage of rail isn’t really about tracks at all, but just about the dedicated lane that rails usually have to themselves. We can build those for buses too.

  2. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    One of the options that was presented in the early stages of planning for the Berkeley/East Oakland Bus Rapid Transit was the bus-train, essentially a bus with a retractible pin that would work like a slot car if you needed a narrow right-of-way or to connect vehicles together into a train, but could operate as a bus on the streets. Such a system would be cheaper to build and maintain than a conventional rail system, and would be more flexible in its operation. Imagine how much better BART would be if it ran bus-trains, and instead of all the cars going from San Francisco to Richmond, some of them would separate in Oakland, Berkeley, Albany and El Cerrito and take you within walking distance of your home.

  3. South Bay Resident Says:


    I think that one of the biggest fundamental problems with BART is lack of capacity through the transbay tube. BART can only run 30 trains per hour per direction* through the tube, which limits the frequency of the entire system. Building hybrid road/rail buses would only make the problem worse because of long station dwell times. If you’re using lots of individual vehicles then buses do the job better because it is easier to load/unload them in parallel, which is very difficult with trains.

    My suggestion for encouraging transit use between the inner east bay and SF is to improve AC transit’s service, perhaps including better access to the HOV lanes on the Oakland side of the bay. Also adding bus ramps to the SF side of the bay bridge would be helpful. The capacity is there. The exclusive bus lane in the Lincoln tunnel (in NYC) carries as many people during the peak commute hour as BART. As for improving BART, I think that the best thing you could do there is add an extra set (or two) of doors per car, which would reduce station dwell times and make improved signaling useful.

    *actually, they don’t quite manage this capacity, but they’re close.

  4. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    As you say, BART’s capacity is about the same as that of buses on a single lane: A bus every 10 seconds is 360 buses per hour, and every 5 seconds (still less than highway engineers’ 3 second headways), is 720 buses per hour. The traditional BART station would not be the best way of treating such a system, but they could be rebuilt for the purpose. My point was so much not about increasing capacity however, but about making the system better.

    The place where this would be especially useful is reusing old railway right-of-ways, including tunnels, bridges and other constrictions, such as in Marin county. A mostly single lane could still be useful, as its capacity in the commute direction could match the return trips counter-commute capacity on ordinary roads.

  5. South Bay Resident Says:

    I think that heavy rail was the right solution in the case of the Transbay tube because there is so much demand for transit along market street that meeting it with buses would be nearly impossible, although you could get similar performance to the transbay tube by running lots of buses from a variety of east bay locations to a variety of SF locations. But that’s beside my main point.

    I don’t really see much use for vehicles such as this. It is nearly always the case that you can accomplish the same thing just as well simply using buses. In California (and pretty much everywhere else), the minimum rail ROW is 17 feet wide except on bridges and tunnels where it can be as narrow as 16 feet and at station platforms where it could be only as little as 15 feet*. 17 feet is more than wide enough to allow a bus to operate at high speed (a typical freeway lane is 12 feet wide, although many in the bay area are only 11 feet due to squeezing the freeway to allow HOV lanes. In fact, a typical rail ROW is so wide that you can provide a lane plus a shoulder. Further, since it is typically more expensive to maintain a railroad than a road and because specialized convertible equipment drives up costs, it would almost certainly be cheaper to simply pave over the ROW and operate buses on it.

    A busway would be an excellent use of the ROW in Marin, and for that matter for the Caltrain ROW. It would have been nice if as part of planning Caltrain’s ambitious upgrades (electrification, switching to EMUs) the powers that be would have considered replacing it with a busway, which might provide better capacity at a lower cost and would offer the possibility of running other kinds of service along the route, such as buses that run part of their routes on the busway and go off the busway at either end.

    * low platform stations can be very close to the rails, but are limited to 8″ high, so they don’t pose much of an obstacle.

  6. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    Rail was the only option for a system with long tunnels at the BART was buiilt. New vehicles that can run with electricity or other fuel are now possible with the development of hybrid technologies. But that is a different type of hybrid!

  7. cruiser Says:

    There are two major issues that affect all transit systems to some degree:

    1) Homeowners – fearful for their property values – have relegated noisy, smoky, high-occupancy transit to areas away from their residences. The result is that users must either drive or take other public transit to connect.

    2) Systems do not really interconnect. Stations are built too far apart for convenience and often lack interconnecting transit, ticketing is by agency rather than universal, schedules are are not well coordinated. Part of this, I’m sure, comes from politicians who do not wat “their” users to clog up “our” transit system.

    Finally, with regard to Caltrain fatalities, I produced several videos of rail systems of the Bay area and I can tell you that it is VERY difficult to hear a train approaching at 50-60 miles per hour, even if the horn is blowing. One simply may not be aware of the approaching train until it is right on top of them. And it is hard to judge the speed of a train when facing it headon.

  8. Sam Says:

    Buses are, alas, incapable of safely doing the speeds that rail can do (80+ mph transbay, with no technical reason it can’t be substantially faster than that), and buses aren’t particularly cheap to operate. A train’s equivalent in buses requires several drivers, several engines, several sets of tires, and so forth, where a train has one driver (or none) and a mechanical platform that will outlast several buses. So paving a rail ROW to run buses isn’t a win; buses are better in cases where there isn’t a ROW in place. Where you have a dedicated right of way, rail can (and should) be faster than driving. Ultimately, transit will never become the de facto way to get around until it becomes the fastest way. A good start would be to quit building slow systems!

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