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Transit Travels Infrastructure

Middle America’s transit oddities

Pittsburgh Regional Transit Red Line train in the Brookline neighbourhood

In 2022, with travel restrictions eased, I had the opportunity to take several road trips throughout the Northeast and Midwestern states, from New York and Maryland to Kentucky and Michigan. Previously on this site, I wrote about my visit to Philadelphia’s Rail Park, a lesser-known, yet ambitious project to repurpose former Reading Railroad corridors in the city’s north end. I also wrote about Dayton’s trolley bus network, which, if operated to its full potential, could be a model for electrifying transit across North America.

In this post, I write about some of the other interesting transit services in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia that I visited on my travels late last year, including a personal rapid transit prototype, the remnants of a huge legacy streetcar system transformed into a modern light rail line, bus rapid transit lines, and a new streetcar service I last visited while under construction in 2015. I even got to ride TANK.

Cleveland

Cleveland Red Line train on one of the many bridges spanning the Cuyahoga River and the Flats. The arched double-decked bridge beyond the Rapid train once carried a streetcar subway into Downtown Cleveland from the west.

I visited Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Dayton in September 2022.

Cleveland, like most American cities, once had an expansive streetcar and interurban tram network. The city streetcars lasted until the early 1950s (its PCCs were acquired by the TTC), though the separate Shaker Heights Rapid Transit, which also used PCCs, continued in service.

The Cleveland system, made up of the heavy-rail Red Line, and the light-rail Blue and Green Lines (the former Shaker Heights services), run almost entirely on the surface, largely adjacent to railway rights-of-way. The Red Line, built between the 1930s and 1960s, was North America’s first airport rail link when that extension opened in 1968. Unfortunately, the service suffers from low ridership, so it operates in two-car trains, every 15 minutes during daytime hours.

A Greater Cleveland RTA light rail vehicle heads eastbound from Downtown Cleveland, headed towards Shaker Heights. Terminal Tower in the centre background.

The Red Line follows an old passenger railway alignment into Terminal Tower, the massive transportation hub, office tower, and commercial development on Public Square. The complex included a hotel, Higbee’s Department Store (made famous by its appearance in A Christmas Story) and local and intercity train platforms. With the decline of passenger rail, the trains moved to a much smaller station on the waterfront, and the Higbee’s store later became a casino.

Both the Red Line and the former Shaker Heights light rail lines share the same tracks east of Downtown Cleveland, and both services run on overhead catenary.

As the Red Line doesn’t follow city streets, Cleveland built a bus rapid transit line, branded “The HealthLine” on Euclid Avenue between Public Square and East Cleveland. The HealthLine is sponsored by the University Hospital and Cleveland Clinic health care corporations which it serves along with Case Western University and the art and cultural institutions clustered east of Downtown.

HealthLine bus with left-side doors

Though the HealthLine operates with special articulated buses with doors on both sides (to serve dedicated median stations, like that shown below), dedicated bus lanes are limited, and buses do not enjoy signal priority. However, the route is frequent and reliable, which is better than most urban bus services in the United States.

HealthLine bus on Euclid Avenue in Downtown Cleveland

Cincinnati

Cincinnati Connector

Like Cleveland, Cincinnati once had a large streetcar network, with trams also feeding into the city from communities in Northern Kentucky. Cincinnati abandoned its streetcars in the early 1950s, with the TTC acquiring its old PCC fleet.

The last time I visited Cincinnati, in January 2015, work had started on a new urban streetcar line that would connect its waterfront, the sports stadiums, the central downtown core, and the Over-the-Rhine area, a gentrifying neighbourhood north of the city core.

Like the modern urban streetcars in Atlanta, Detroit, Kansas City, and Portland, Cincinnati’s Connector serves a small area on a route practically geared to young urban residents and visitors. Though I came away with positive impressions of Kansas City’s streetcar (which is undergoing a lengthy extension), I felt that Cincinnati’s streetcar — like Atlanta’s and Detroit’s — was too slow, too infrequent, and too short to be of great use. At least the service was free to use.

Junction to yet-to-be-built extension to University of Cincinnati

One thing I did note is that, unlike Toronto’s busy — and useful — legacy streetcar network, the small Cincinnati Connector loop was built with modern tram standards. The few switches (like the one shown above) are double-point switches, with dedicated signals. This allows streetcars to pass intersections at normal speed, unlike the TTC’s insistence on stopping and then proceeding at a dead slow pace over its manual, single-point track switches.

Switches were even installed to the proposed, but postponed, extension to University of Cincinnati (a cutback due to Republican opposition to transit projects at the State Capitol), shown in the photo above.

As a Torontonian, where streetcars form the backbone of transit in the dense, urban downtown area, it’s frustrating to see a small, novelty streetcar line build proper track infrastructure, while our crowded trams are forced to crawl at every intersection because of indifference at the TTC and at City Hall.

A Cincinnati Bell Connector Streetcar, followed by a SORTA bus

One of the amusing oddities of transit in the Cincinnati area are the acronyms used by the two local agencies. Cincinnati and the surrounding Ohio municipalities are served by the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, or SORTA. The agency wisely uses “Metro” as its public brand. Covington and other Kentucky communities are served by the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky, or TANK. To their credit, the two agencies cooperate on fares, a $5 day pass purchased on one bus is good for all regular services on both agencies. Many TANK routes enter Downtown Cincinnati as well.

Pittsburgh

In late October, my spouse and I visited Pittsburgh to attend a conference. Pittsburgh has one of North America’s most fascinating cityscapes, with the downtown core situated where the Allegheny and Monongahela join to form the Ohio River, with steep hills immediately to the north and south. The steep topography is the main reason why Pittsburgh maintained two historic incline railways, where many other cities (including Hamilton) abandoned theirs.

The Duquesne Incline, on a very bright autumn afternoon

Pittsburgh was also a leading operator of PCC streetcars until the late 1960s, with a fleet of 666 PCCs — North America’s third-largest — at its peak. Because of Pittsburgh’s many hills, often requiring private rights-of-way or tunnels for streetcars to serve outlying areas, Pittsburgh was late to abandoning its street railway, but with highway projects in the 1950s, a public takeover in the 1960s, declining ridership, and a desire to modernize, most of the lines were abandoned and replaced by buses by 1971. Only a few South Hills lines, which used a lengthy tunnel to access Downtown Pittsburgh, remained.

Red Line train in Beechview

The two core southern lines were gradually upgraded to light rail standards, with a downtown tunnel replacing the on-street trackage there. Only a short section of Red Line in Beechview still operates on-street, betraying the service’s streetcar legacy. In 2012, the downtown subway was extended north under the Allegheny River to serve the North Shore, particularly the baseball and football stadiums.

Steel Plaza Station, part of the Downtown Subway

In the 1980s, the Port Authority of Allegheny County, the public agency tasked with operating the city’s transit system, designed and built several busways radiating out of the city centre. Like Ottawa’s Transitway before construction of the Confederation Line LRT, the Pittsburgh busways follow former or current railway rights-of-way, with grade-separated road crossings, and with on-street operation in the downtown core. The busways offer rapid transit service, though stations are quite simple, with at-grade pedestrian crossings at most locations and basic shelters.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (East) Busway, Swissvale

Pittsburgh’s problem though is that the busways and LRT managed to avoid the main university campuses and many of the city’s most vibrant neighbourhoods. Oakwood, the home of University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, many of the city’s arts and cultural institutions and some of its densest neighbourhoods, has only local bus service. Not coincidentally, Oakwood was one of the last parts of Pittsburgh to lose its streetcars in 1967.

South of Pittsburgh, streetcars operate on an abandoned interurban line near Washington, Pennsylvania. Unlike the Halton County Radial Railway, the Washington interurban line’s tracks were not yet removed when the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum was formed. The museum, which operates several streetcars and hosts a large collection of static displays, is well worth the visit.

Former Pittsburgh Railway Company trolley #4398 carries autumn crowds at the museum in Washington, PA. Behind is a former Philadelphia Suburban Lines (Red Arrow) trolley.

Morgantown, West Virginia

Only a 90-minute drive south of Pittsburgh is the city of Morgantown, West Virginia, home of the sprawling West Virginia University. What makes the public university especially unique is the automated transit system that serves the university and connects it to Downtown Morgantown.

The one-of-a-kind Morgantown PRT, opened in 1975, has five stations between Downtown Morgantown and the main campus to the north. What makes the line a “personal” rapid transit system is passengers, upon paying the fare or swiping their university ID card, select their destination station, and wait for a car that will take them to their desired point, skipping any stations in between. Though the technology can be described as a “gadgetbahn” it fills a unique niche, and still runs with the original rolling stock and guideways, though software and motor upgrades were required. Because of the limited road space between Morgantown and the university facilities to the north and the mountainous topology of West Virginia, traditional bus service gets caught in traffic, especially on game days.

Walnut Street Station in Downtown Morgantown

Each car has eight seats and allows for twelve standees, so despite the name, the service isn’t precisely “personal.” As it is operated by the university mostly for staff and students, it does not run on Sundays, holidays, or when classes are not in session. During off-peak periods, the PRT usually runs in an all-stops configuration.

The video below shows how the PRT operates, including the bypass of Towers Station.

Part of the nine-minute ride on the Morgantown PRT at the University of West Virginia

I will follow up with posts covering my return to Toronto, Ohio (which is just an hour’s drive west of Pittsburgh), and some thoughts after visiting a local history museum.

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