Light Rail Alternative

Apparently, Phoenix is experimenting with a new style of bus transport that looks and operates like a train:

The Mesa Link debuted the same week as light rail. For now, Link involves a fleet of 10 buses. Each $756,000 vehicle carries a transponder to coordinate traffic lights and keep the bus on schedule for a 12-mile run in 45 minutes.

It's the start of a much more ambitious program.

Over the next few months, the Regional Public Transportation Authority, which coordinates Valley Metro bus service, will build stations and add technology to the Mesa line to give it more of the pace and feel of a train.

Basically, they are building the thing to look and operate like a light rail train, only running on tires on the existing road.    The travel time may seem slow, but it is nearly identical to the average speed of our light rail line (20 miles in a claimed 70 minutes, though a number of riders say its slower).  And the capacity is nearly identical.

So with the same speed and the same capacity and similar scheduled service with similar style stations, here is the real appeal:

In 2010, a second line will be created to run 12 miles along Arizona Avenue in Mesa and Chandler. It will feature 10 stations and cost $28 million for construction and the purchase of nine buses. Future lines are planned for Scottsdale Road, Baseline Road and Chandler Boulevard.

The 20-mile light-rail line cost $1.4 billion to build.

Holy cr*p.  $70 million a mile for light rail vs. $2.3 million a mile for this system.   That is 30x cheaper.  The only discernible difference is one runs on steel rails and the other on tires.  Oh, and the rail line, in most places it was built, completely removed up to two lanes of existing roadway capacity, while the bus-type system leaves the roadway intact and just uses a fraction of one lane's capacity.

Now, I would have to sit down and look at the numbers and the service profile to decide if this new bus system made sense financially vs. the old bus system, but why are we even considering extending light rail?  And why oh why did we build this white elephant in the first place.


  1. dearieme:

    This is what we're getting in my part of the world. Construction seems to be running a little late and there are, apparently, financial difficulties. But at least it's not light rail.

  2. Mike:

    One other advantage to this system is that if the Phoenix development patterns turn out differently than the forecasters expect, it would be relatively easy to change the bus routes.

  3. kebko:

    Even though this is better than light rail, I'm curious what net gains are achieved after you take into account the suboptimal traffic flow that will result from the stop lights being over-ridden.

  4. Bobby L:


    Probably about the same as the light rail would cause. Check out the fine rail solution that Minneapolis came up with here-

  5. John Moore:

    Muddled thinking, of course.

    Everyone else was building one.

    And it was "green".

    Ultimately, higher degrees of automation should allow municipal transport to use differently sized "busses" that can connect together, for efficiency and lesser traffic footprint, when demand justifies it.

  6. Bobby L:


    Check out the wikipedia article on the "Hiawatha Line" light rail that runs through south Minneapolis. They have a section in the article titled "Signal Problems" that sums up all the traffic flow problems caused by the light rail pretty well. Personal experience on that stretch of Hiawatha Ave is that it takes me about 20-25 minutes to go 4 miles. Yay green.

  7. DaveK:



    This is a quibble beyond all belief! When you talk about two or three orders of magnitude in cost, the possible "cost" of traffic delays caused by the bus system are, shall we say, vanishingly small.

    Many existing light rail systems interact with the local street traffic, and will override traffic lights to prevent delays. What is the difference between a rail system doing this and a bus system doing this? And is the "cost" even large enough to be worth dabate?

    Just my $.02

  8. Leigh Caldwell:

    A few years ago the Economist published a similar study; it seems that, even if you build a dedicated track (or road) for the vehicles, tyred buses are more efficient and cheaper than rail vehicles. I think the results also applied with underground transit systems.

    It seems clear that the optimal amount of public transport is greater than what we currently have, so hopefully this experiment will help make additional investments more likely.

  9. eCurmudgeon:

    @Bobby L:"Personal experience on that stretch of Hiawatha Ave is that it takes me about 20-25 minutes to go 4 miles. Yay green."

    I always thought that was a deliberate design feature. Make life as difficult for drivers so that they'll be "encouraged" to take Light Rail instead...

  10. Dr. T:

    Are they on hallucinogens? $756,000 for a bus with a transponder to change lights? Most big, new ladder firetrucks with transponders don't cost that much! I'm trying to imagine how a city bus could cost even $156,000. Most Class A (bus chassis), fully decked-out motor homes cost less than that.

    My guess: A bus company executive bribed at least one person at the transit authority or in the city council to consider buses priced at least five times list price.

  11. HTRN:

    Well, a run of the mill bus typically cost in the 250K range, and alot of those muni's upgrading to hybrid buses are paying over half a million for them.

    If this is just a bus with transponder, they are, indeed paying far too much, but if this is a articulated "road train"? that seats several hundred?

    And oh, Most of those really big class A "buses" start at well over a hundred grand - Coachmen's "Avant Garde" 322FD for instance, is 154K, and is smaller than a typical 75 passenger bus, nor is it designed for the kind of mileage the averag Muni bus winds up racking up before being retired.

  12. Mike:

    "I always thought that was a deliberate design feature. Make life as difficult for drivers so that they'll be "encouraged" to take light rail instead..."

    Actually, it was. Shortly before the line opened, the Star Tribute published a story detailing the problems with delays at signalized intersections that resulted from the use of signal pre-emption. When asked why this was not rectified before the project advanced to its construction stage, a Minnesota DOT planner was quoted as saying "Well we had to do something to give train riders an advantage."

    Schadenfreude, indeed. Apparently a negative-sum outcome was what they were going for all along. Hiawatha has become the gift that keeps on giving. I've experienced delays of 6-7 minutes at times trying to cross Hiawatha Ave. and getting stuck waiting for two trains to cross.

  13. Mike:

    That previous post should have said Star Tribune (as in the Minneapolis paper), not Star Tribute.

  14. T J Sawyer:

    "Why oh why did we build this white elephant in the first place."

    You probably built it because a coalition of contractors and labor unions wanted it! Same reason we built the Hiawatha Line in Minneapolis.

    Even Jesse Ventura, god bless his anti-government soul, couldn't resist the logic. The state put up $80 million and received $800 million in federal money that "otherwise would have been given to some other state". This was the beginning of Jesse's downfall. The cooking pork just smelled too damn good!

  15. joshv:

    There is a big difference between light rail and buses. In Chicago, gentrification was centered around the elevated lines - not bus lines (which are plentiful). People don't see a bus line as a permanent commitment to public transport. They can, and do go away. People make housing and transportation choices accordingly. Similarly in the burbs, houses near Metra stops (our suburban light rail) fetch a premium price.

    I find it hard to imagine the type of areas where this would work - as it wouldn't work anywhere in the Chicago metropolitan area. In the city a "bus train" would cause hopeless traffic snarls. In the burbs, bus trains would have to take the highways, which regularly crawl to a stop at rush hour. Even in the burbs surface roads are far too dense with traffic and signals. Even with a transponder the buses wouldn't move much faster than other traffic.

  16. Palace on Wheel Tour, Palace on wheel india, luxury train in india:


    this new bus system made but in case traffic signals it wouldn't move faster then a highway.
    signal problem will affect this light rail.

  17. Achillea:

    Oh, and the rail line, in most places it was built, completely removed up to two lanes of existing roadway capacity, while the bus-type system leaves the roadway intact and just uses a fraction of one lane’s capacity.

    A further advantage is that a bus can divert around a temporary traffic blockage. A train, not so much.

  18. Allen:

    joshv -

    What you say is true. But it doesn't include how much high end building has occurred that isn't near an el station in Chicago nor near a Metra station in the Chicago area. More so it doesn't take into account how zoning affects the location of those developments. Building rail does not create these developments nor create a demand off set by their enormous costs. The demand for them is much larger and they far more often occur in areas that are serviced by neither. Rail isn't needed for them to occur. And when they do occur while rail is part of the drive for them, it's just as a much a result of zoning. And it doesn't pay for billions required to build these lines, let alone maintain them.

  19. Uptown:

    The Minneapolis light rail line has been an unqualified success. Even those that fought it are now denying they did, and attempting to take credit for the line.
    A bus simply doesn't have the capacity of a train. Running on the same roads as traffic, as Josh pointed out, it won't be moving at all during rush hours and inclement weather. Then what happens is 'platooning,' a phenomena where several buses arrive within minutes of each other, where one catches up to a slower moving one. There's also a limit to road capacity with a bus.
    A bus of this type really can't take any detour.

    Trains are old technology, and are still around because they work very well. The DC metro, while wildly expensive to reproduce, is a simple and effective way to get around a congested metro. Europe is full of cities with multi-tiered rail lines, with trolley, light rail, underground, local trains and high speed intercity all connected. There are overhead electric and diesel buses for low capacity spurs.
    Some cities it's nearly impossible to get around in an auto, and unaffordable to park it.

    Buses simply don't work for mass transit at the capacity and punctuality of a train. There no place where it's been successful.