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April 13, 2001: The streetcars of san francisco vs montpellier's train
Like san francisco, montpellier had streetcar routes through the city until world war II, when nearly every city on earth decided to yank out their tracks and replace the trains with wider roads for car and bus traffic.

Now, cities throught the world are stumbling over themselves to construct new rail projects because the presence of rail solves traffic problems and sustains dense urban areas in ways that freeways and busses don't.

San francisco's existing trains were saved by the city's hills: the n-judah route to ocean beach via the northern sunset district was spared because its narrow sunset tunnel (built under the haight) would be of limited use to buses or cars. The k-ingleside and m-oceanview routes to the city's south central neighborhoods and the l-taraval route to the zoo via the southern sunset district were all similarly spared because the long twin peaks tunnel from castro to west portal was too long and not vented for gas-burning vehicles. And the j-church was spared because the private trackway built along church street in dolores park (between 18th and 23rd) was too useful to throw away.

Every other line in san francisco was torn up: the a and b geary routes, in order to widen geary into an expressway and wipe out the fillmore district; the original c d e f g h and i all existed once too, but were replaced with diesel or electric trolley coaches. In some cases, their tunnels were taken by cars, such as the stockton tunnel between chinatown and union square.

Montpellier, like many other cities, has decided the city's diesel buses could benefit from private rights-of-way and lower operating costs, and that building a lightrail network would be the best way to do this. So they've started building a network, and recently finished the first line. It runs past the regional train station, through comedy place and out into the suburbs.

Along the way, the modern low floor cars silently cruise by every five minutes to pick up passengers at ground level. There are no steps and no platforms, so construction is cheaper and boarding is easier.

Out in suburbia, the trains breeze along in a grassy median, stopping frequently at stops, but rarely pausing for traffic signals. In short, the trains are trains, not busses. San francisco seems to not differentiate between trains and busses, signaling intersections so that its trains wait behind cars and frequently stop even at stop signs.

Even san francisco's brand new mmx extension along the embarcadero to the new ballpark has trains stop and wait for red lights and left turn signals of cars, which is a ridiculous way to run trains. Trains should have signal priority, as every train is delivering the equivalent of a large fleet of cars, but burning none of the gasoline.

Okay, so that's my train rant. Earlier, I put together a plan for building a modern lightrail network for san francisco that would link together the regional bart and caltrain (and caltrain's promised baby bullet trains to san jose) with the east and west areas of the south of market district, civic center, van ness, geary and the northwest richmond district, downtown, chinatown and north beach, and the soon to be developed mission bay, central waterfront and bayshore neighborhoods.

It would all cost about the same as digging a four station trench up third street for the dead end central subway, muni's current plan for the future: phase two of the third street project. However, a surface network would certainly do a lot more good than four new subway stations, would cost less to maintain and operate, and take a fraction of the years to build.

San francisco hasn't been too progressive with regard to providing fast, reliable transportation, although recent projects like the tourist f-line to fishermens wharf are a good example of the success that new light rail system can have. It's as packed with middle americans as the cable cars.

The f-line's biggest problem is a lack of old streetcars to use. The tracks that link the embarcadero f-line and the ballpark were supposed to be in service as a new e-line, but having no historic cars has kept the service from materializing.

By building modern lightrail throughout the city's main corridors that demand them, san francisco could mix modern and historic cars on all of the new routes, keeping historic cars in service and keeping transportation a serious city benefit, not a tourist diversion that runs only when enough old cars are available.

Montpellier's train seemed to do a good job of providing fast, constant service, and demonstrates a balance between cars and transit, even if the blue cars, plastered with (not by) white birds, seemed a bit odd.

More information about old trains, today's trains and the french:

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Derailed
All aboard
Twilight of the great trains
In the south of france
Rick steves' france
Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste
The french way: aspects of behavior, attitudes and customs
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