Port Authority “T” Light Rail

Pittsburgh Light Rail

The “T” Light Rail in Pittsburgh. (c) 2006 C. Walton

Pittsburgh, the Steel City, bound by the Three Rivers…see if you can name and spell them all… what, the Allegheny, Ohio, and Monogahela?  Oh, and they have a light rail…called the “T” system.  Two lines, the Blue and Red, take Allegheny County riders from South Hills, Washington, Overbrook, and Library to downtown Pittsburgh.  The Red Line runs from Downtown Pittsburgh to Overbrook Junction, with weekend and some weekday service to South Hills Village; the Blue Line runs frown Downtown Pittsburgh to Library and to South Hills Village.

But it wasn’t always like that.  There was a third line, the Brown Line, that ran from Downtown Pittsburgh to South Hills Junction via Allentown, which was eliminated after the major restructuring of the Port Authority transit system.  It included the renaming of the light rail lines to colors instead of route numbers, which match the bus system.  Actually, the numbering of the buses and trolleys, much like Philadelphia, go back to the days when streetcars were the main form of rapid transit in the major metropolitan areas in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  This Pittsburgh route numbering system basically started from the north side and increased as you went counterclockwise around the city.  The remaining streetcar lines, turned into light rail lines, are in the southern part of the city, so their numbers were in the 40s and 50s.  The full Red Line, the weekend variant, was the 42S via Beechview; the Blue Line Library branch was the 47L via Overbrook.  The former Brown Line was the 52 Allentown via Arlington Heights.  There was another route that didn’t make the restructuring, the 44M which went from Mount Lebanon to Washington Junction or Library, which was a shuttle of some sort.

Also, the Overbrook Line wasn’t always used until about 8 years ago, when the line underwent an extensive rebuild after having been dormant for two decades prior.  When the Overbrook Line was out of service, all service was along the Beechview Line.  Pain in the behind riding the Beechview Line as the top half of the line is street-running and the bottom half, though right-of-way, isn’t the fastest.  The Overbrook Line, however, is a faster line, with longer stop spacing and relatively high speeds, although it is less populated around it.

The 52 Allentown Line was a hidden gem of sorts as the line goes up a long and winding hill all the way up to the top of Mount Washington and through Arlington Heights before it snakes down to South Hills Junction, where it met back up with the Beechview and Overbrook Lines and terminated.  Some of the best views of the city via transit.  From atop Mount Washington, the highest point in Pittsburgh.

Penn Station was a former part-time terminal for light rail trains from Library but was closed due to light use.  There is still access via the MLK Jr. East Busway for passengers who need Amtrak service, the few trains a day that still serve the station.

The “T” system operates with a pay-as-you-enter system inbound (towards Pittsburgh) and a pay-as-you-exit system outbound (away from Pittsburgh).  The cars used, the 4200-series Siemens SD400s (actually, these are really 4100-series SD400s rebuilt by Spain’s CAF and renumbered into the 4200-series) and the 4300-series CAF-built LRVs, are custom-built, custom-designed for Pittsburgh’s system.  They have a low-entry right-side door for access from street-level platforms (primarily on the Beechview Line) and three sets of high-entry doors for access to high-level platforms in Downtown Pittsburgh and in many places on the Beechview Line and the entire Overbrook Line.  At low-level stations, boarding is similar to a bus, since there is only one door of entry.  At high-level platforms outside of Downtown, riders file into the first set of high-entry doors.  Within the Downtown free-fare zone, all doors open for faster discharge of passengers.  Gateway was the former terminal of the line, with a loop to turn trains around, but was rebuilt during an extension to the North Side, where the PNC Park and many local academic and cultural institutions are located.  Even though it is not downtown per se, the fare is free.  This was done for two reasons: 1) encouraging ridership from downtown to the North Side, and 2) as a free shuttle for commuters to the Allegheny Station park-and-ride.

Let’s talk about likes and dislikes.

The main thing about the “T” system that I like is the right-of-way from Downtown to South Hills Junction.  Note that my two visits to Pittsburgh were in 2006 and 2007 and the extension to the North Side was completed just a few years ago.  My favorite station is its most used downtown station, Steel Plaza, a three-track, two-platform station with high ceilings and a design similar to any BART station or even 21st-Queensbridge on the (F) line.  Upon exiting the downtown area, the system crosses the Panhandle Bridge and makes a bee-line for Station Square, a riverfront entertainment spot.  Next to the Panhandle Bridge is a freight-only bridge for Norfolk Southern railway, and once the trains swoops down into Station Square, there is CSX freight track along the river and Norfolk Southern in the hills above the station.  Once the train leaves Station Square, the train makes a sharp left turn and heads up the Mount Washington Tunnel, very unique as it allows for Port Authority buses and “T” light rail trains to travel all the way up to South Hills Junction and spread out from there.  Once transit vehicles exit the tunnel, the light rail trains have their platforms, the buses can either exit to the street or access the South Busway, which for about a mile holds the Red Line until it passes over Route 51.  The views from the light rail/busway are phenomenal.  The Overbrook Line is a fast line with some turns and dips and station spacing to take advantage of higher speeds, making for a faster commute from Library and South Hills.  I really like the interiors of the CAF cars and rebuilds, gives color to the otherwise drab grey scheme on the outside.

As far as dislikes goes, my main dislikes range from the speeds along most of the system to the lack of proof-of-payment (POP) which seems to be a Pennsylvania thing since SEPTA doesn’t employ POP either.  The Overbrook Line has many opportunities to reach high speeds but doesn’t seem to be as fast of a line as I anticipated.  It feels as if the train is only going 35-40MPH, only slightly faster than the speed limit on most roads out there.  What slows down the system even further is the fact that you have so many street crossings that cannot be crossed at high speeds, adding to the slow boarding process inbound, which makes trains crawl to the city.  Outbound is a bit faster since everyone has boarded through all doors at downtown stations, but you still have to wait until everyone has paid the fare exiting the train for the train to proceed down the line.  If that was the case, maybe the “T” should have been a bus system, much like the busways.  What that also means is that the cars have to be custom-designed, the Siemens SD400 being cosmetically different than one of its standard products, the Siemens SD100 and SD160.  This is not to say that I am no fan of custom cars as these look sharp, but the Pittsburgh system makes custom cars a hassle, since very few manufacturers are willing to fully customize a car for the operator’s needs.  Fortunately for the Port Authority, CAF of Spain was up to the task.  Still, what will happen when it comes time 20 years from now to replace the cars?  CAF will hopefully still be around to take on the contract, or another builder would have to bear the burden of a custom car.

Aside from the fact that the “T” light rail isn’t what it used to be as far as service goes, it is still a system worth riding…just pack a lunch and some patience especially if you are traveling all the way out to South Hills Village, with a fairly nice shopping mall and a huge parking lot for thousands of commuters who wish not to try and park at other locations with inadequate space to accommodate that many cars.  Just remember, you cannot eat or drink on Port Authority vehicles.  While you’re at it, you might also grab a camera and take some pictures when you  get past Station Square.

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