Rapid Failures: Why Can’t We Walk Between Cars?

September 26, 2012 at 8:43 pm

This post is part of a multi-part series about the failures of rapid transit in America with a general focus on Chicago, as it is a city I know well and recently moved to full-time.

Something that’s always struck me as bizarre on most American train networks is the inability (or illegality, more accurately) to move between train cars on a subway system. You’ll see this whether you’re in New York, San Francisco, or Chicago: You enter a car and unless you leave to walk to another car, you’re essentially locked into that car – especially if the train is packed.

Something that’s struck me about train cars in other cities around the world, such as some lines in Paris, the Berlin U-Bahn, and tramways in all of those cities is that the train cars are articulated – that is, joined together where there would normally be a space. Articulation in American transit is more common on buses – I’ve been on several articulated or “stretchy” buses, as I’ve heard them called. But never have I been on an articulated train in America.

Berlin U-Bahn

Interior of a Berlin U-Bahn train, whose length you can walk from end to end.

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for this is because in many American cities, the trains vary in length according to the level of demand. For instance, a Brown Line train running on a Saturday in Chicago may only have 4 cars while on a weekday rush period it has 8 cars (6 during midday). In most European cities, the length of the train does not change, and articulated trains are easier to work with.

But does this mean that articulated trains can’t work on a system that has 4 cars at certain times and 6 or 8 at others? Why not have articulated 4-car sets that you can chain together? I don’t think that the need of articulation is so important that it warrants all new cars, but as I wrote last week, the CTA in Chicago did spend over $1,000,000,000 on new rail cars and the only real upgrades are energy efficiency, a new seating layout, and really important phosphorescent (glow-in-the-dark) strips on the floor (it would have been difficult to just stick those on the floor!). Why not actually completely rethink the way the trains accomodate people?

One reason that articulated trains make sense  is because they can effectively de-crowd the train and spread passengers out. If you stand at the end of a train platform in relation to the direction of the train (i.e., stand at the south end of a platform when the approaching train is heading north), you will inevitably see some cars absolutely full of passengers while other trains will look empty in comparison. This most likely has something to do with station design: If most of the preceding stations had entries at the extremities of the platform, the cars at the ends of the train will probably be more full than those at the center, for example. But by connecting all of the cars of a train together, extra space between cars can be utilized. This could accomodate anywhere between 4-8 extra people standing. It also offers the opportunity for those in more crowded cars to spread out to less crowded cars.

Siemens Inspiro Interior

Interior rendering of a new Siemens Inspiro train, debuting on the Warsaw metro this year.

Articulated train sets also make passengers feel safer by eliminating the loneliness feeling found at off-peak hours on some subway systems. It is dangerous and often illegal to travel between cars on a subway, and the conductor call button in train cars doesn’t cut it for safety – Being able to walk between cars might only offer an illusion of safety, but that may be a deciding factor for some riders.

There might be a reason why we don’t find more articulated trains on American transit systems, such as the tight corners of the loop on the Chicago L, but we already have articulated buses that sometimes make very tight corners as well (I’m not an engineer; someone enlighten me). With the massive amounts of money being spent on new trains, you’d think someone we’d take a newer approach to trains with de-crowding power that isn’t just a new seat layout.