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Going for Gold in Charlotte

Passengers scramble for a seat on the first CityLYNX streetcar on 14 July. (Image: CATS)

Streetcars, light rail and Amtrak passenger rail operations combine
to make Charlotte, North Carolina, a growing rail transit city. The latest of these services, the CityLYNX Gold line streetcar service commenced operation on 14 July 2015.

The Gold line is the culmination of 13 years of planning, political squabbles and funding crises, but it is a further step in the implementation of the Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC) Corridor System Plan of 2002. This plan was reaffirmed in 2006. Charlotte’s Mayor, Daniel Clodfelter is the current Chairman of the MTC.

In the US, cities and their surrounding counties often compete for residents, businesses and financial resources; this competition can significantly slow civic development, as the two governmental subdivisions contend for population and commercial strength. Forward-thinking communities have merged into vast organised areas for governmental purposes. The largest of these is Jacksonville, Florida, at 2265km2 (874sq. mi.), while other significant merged city/counties are the City of Indianapolis–Marion County, Indiana, 953km2 (368sq. mi.) and, to a lesser extent, Charlotte-Mecklenburg County at 769km2 (297sq. mi.). Charlotte-Mecklenburg County has merged many functions, including transportation.

With one overarching government, planning becomes somewhat simpler.
There are always the agendas of individual elected officials, but consolidated planning policy is certainly improved. Charlotte has become the USA’s largest banking centre outside New York City and as bankers tend to be pragmatic people, ongoing functional mergers are taking place.

The MTC Corridor Plan calls for a variety of modes to meet the specific transportation demands of residents, in this context light rail, streetcar and motorbus. The LYNX Blue line light rail service that opened in November 2007 now caters for almost 16 000 passengers per day and has been reported on extensively in previous editions of TAUT. So the establishment of a more localised streetcar operation is designed to attract non-transit riders; passengers are able to walk to a stop, negating the need for an automobile to access rail.

Enthusiast to professional

In order to differentiate between the private non-profit Charlotte Trolley, Inc. and the city-owned Charlotte Streetcar, two names are used.

The story of the Charlotte Streetcar begins at Atherton Mill. A group of electric railway enthusiasts formed Charlotte Trolley, Inc. (CTI) to develop a museum operation. The Norfolk Southern, a mainline railroad, had a disused route near the Charlotte Trolley’s car barn, while a derelict streetcar from Charlotte (Duke Power Co.) was discovered being used for itinerant labour housing. The group undertook the rebuilding of the streetcar in 1988 after purchasing it from its owner of more than 35 years.

When researching the car’s patrimony, it was discovered that it was 85, the last streetcar to operate in Charlotte on Monday 14 March 1938 – this gave the CTI group the additional cachet of preserving local history. The streetcar was rebuilt and placed into service, limited to weekends. For electrical power, a welding generator on a small four-wheel section gang (civil works crew) flatbed car was coupled; cables connected the welding generator’s output to the streetcar’s motors. The historic Trolley was so well executed that the Norfolk Southern railroad extended the initial lease arrangement and this setup provided a major catalyst for the city’s light rail development.

The Charlotte Streetcar is designed to have a 16km (ten-mile) east-west route and will be built in three sections: a 2.3km (1.42-mile) starter line, Phase Two extensions at both ends and finally the complete project. Today’s metals are laid in Elizabeth Ave and East Trade St, with a short hook into Hawthorne Lane. There is a non-revenue connection at East Trade St and Caldwell St, on Caldwell St turning into East 5th St to the LYNX light rail private-right-of-way. These metals are in an exclusive reservation. The streetcars are maintained in the Charlotte Area Transit System’s (CATS) South Boulevard Maintenance Facility, located between Scallybank and New Bern stations.

Providing the service

Presently, the Gold line receives power at 650V dc from two substations, but when Phase Two is complete, the overhead will be energised at 750V dc from seven substations. At that time, the Gomaco streetcars currently used will be stored and a new order of modern LRVs will be placed into service. Fare-free service is offered to 15-20 minute intervals Monday-Thursday 06.00-23.00. Friday’s service is extended by one hour to midnight while on Saturdays the streetcars operate 08.00-0.00 and on Sundays 09.00-19.00.

Construction was under the supervision of Charlotte’s Engineering and Property Management Department (E&PM), and now that it is in operation, responsibility for the service is the purview of CATS (Charlotte Area Transit System), also a department of the City. Construction of Phase Two will be managed by E&PM, while operational costs of the Gold line are held within the City’s budget and not those of CATS.

Cab signal-equipped cars 91-93 were built by Gomaco in 2010, following the design of 85 and it was initially envisaged they would operate on a limited basis, interspersed with LYNX rolling stock. Experienced managers realised that the height of the floors was not the same on the LRVs and the Gomaco cars and there is a potential for overriding where the car floors do not match. There is also the weight difference and mass of the cars, which played a role in the decision of CATS to bar the heritage designs from operating with the modern LRVs, non-revenue pull-ins and outs excepted.

Car 85 is another story. It lacks cab signals as a rebuilt trolley from an original 1928 vehicle. Under contract between CTI and CATS, 85 is limited to two days’ service per year. Whilst the car numbers indicate the two differing types, their trim is an obvious visual giveaway as 85 sports a red trim around the windows and doors while the Gomaco cars have yellow or gold trim and doors. This fits well with the name of the streetcar service.

Small, but perfectly formed

The streetcar will call at the under-design Charlotte Gateway Center, a concentration of public transit that will bring together Greyhound intercity buses and Amtrak’s passenger services ‘The Palmetto’ (daily, two return journey Raleigh – Charlotte trains) and ‘The Carolinian’ (daily, New York – Raleigh – Charlotte) call here; The Piedmonts are financially supported by the State. The Gateway Center will be in the Uptown area, somewhat removed from Charlotte’s commercial centre, so the Gold line will be an important transit link in its success.

The 2006 MTC Plan called for Norfolk Southern Railroad (NSR) metals to be used in a joint goods/passenger operation, provisionally titled the LYNX Red line. Rolling stock has not been decided, but if LRV-type vehicles are used, due to Federal Railroad Administration safety requirements, goods and passenger operations must be temporally separated. This is to avoid accidents between rolling stock of different configurations, much like the restrictions on the use of class 91-93 streetcars on the Blue line. There is no such restriction if DMUs or locomotive-hauled rakes of passenger carriages are used.

The NSR has had second thoughts about CATS’ use of the 35km (22-mile) line to Mooresville, suggesting that it may wish to use the route in the future for increased freight services. Goods traffic is burgeoning in the US, leading to yard congestion and route delays – and as such the Red line plan is under review as a parallel route may increase the infrastructure cost by hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Gold line serves significant traffic generators – at the eastern end are the Novant Presbyterian Hospital and Central Piedmont Community College, while at the temporary city end of the line is the Charlotte Transportation Centre (CTC), a huge arched building, reminiscent of the great train terminals of yesteryear. Here CATS focuses all of its bus services for easy transfer and is the city centre destination. Adjacent to the CTC, the Blue line has a covered station.

When the additional metals for Phase Two are laid, Johnson & Wales University – with specialisms in catering – will receive service. Further on is the Johnson C. Smith University at French St, with its enrollment of 1400 students (today CATS faux-trolley Red line buses serve this high ridership area). With the construction of a fixed infrastructure, it is expected that passenger ridership will grow. Ultimately, the Gold line will reach the Rosa Parks Transportation Center, a focal point for west suburban area transit services. Ms. Parks will be remembered as the woman who started the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, eventually leading to the desegregation of local transit in the US.

A catalyst for growth

At the Gold line’s dedication ceremony, the featured speaker was Anthony Foxx. While his current title is US Secretary of Transportation, local residents know him better as a former Mayor of Charlotte. While he led the city, he supported and promoted the idea of the Gold line streetcar so it is appropriate that he was able to see his handiwork rolling down the street.

Transit Oriented Development (TOD) is a rallying cry for rail transit supporters in the State, and indeed the nation as a whole. Ever since the film Field of Dreams was released in 1989, factions promoting infrastructure improvements have paraphrased the most famous line from the film, “Build it, they will come.” In the case of the Gold line, the cry may well be true. At the dedication, the Federal Transit Administration’s Acting Administrator Therese McMillian predicted that in 20 years a potential revenue stream from property taxes along the expanded route could amount to USD7m annually. This is an attractive start to a financial return on an initial USD37m outlay.

The financial investment supporting construction of the Gold line was paid for by a FTA grant of USD24.99m, USD5.5m from the City and USD6.5m from a ‘pay-as-you-go’ Capital Fund. Phases One and Two are budgeted at a very respectable USD150m.

With the inauguration of the CityLYNX Gold line, life is looking up for CATS. The combination of sliding gasoline prices and a 10% base fare increase has undoubtedly impacted ridership (gasoline is around a dollar less than a year ago per gallon) and CATS is experiencing a slide of 4% in passengers. However, by contrast, in its short existence the Gold line is carrying 67% more passengers than projected. Yet again, those who believe in city rail transit have a proven case.

Grateful acknowledgement is due to Krystel Green of Charlotte Area Transit System for her assistance in the preparation of this article.

Feature originally appeared in November Tramways & Urban Transit (935).