Fast and Reliable Light Rail in the Netherlands: How they do it, and lessons for Portland

Zef Wagner is currently in the Netherlands taking a class on sustainable transportation. He will be posting periodically about the Dutch transit system and what lessons we could apply in Portland and elsewhere in the US.

One of the first things I noticed about transit after arriving in the Netherlands was how incredibly fast the trams are here compared to their counterparts in Portland. (Reminder: a tram is sort of halfway between MAX and Streetcar in terms of size and capacity, but they are all technically forms of light rail). Anyone who has spent much time riding transit in Portland usually comes to despise how slow our vaunted MAX system moves through the Downtown and Lloyd Center areas. The Portland Streetcar is even worse, moving barely faster than walking speed. It is naturally tempting to blame this slowness on the fact that we use surface-running rail rather than underground or elevated, but the Netherlands manages to have a massive amount of fast-moving surface-running rail in its major cities. So how do they manage this?

A typical tram–bigger than a streetcar, smaller than light rail

One reason for faster transit has to do with the nature of Dutch cities themselves and their hierarchical approach to traffic engineering. Most major roads in the Netherlands have widely spaced major intersections, so a tram can routinely travel for a half-mile or more without encountering any signals or much cross traffic. Most blocks, if you can call them that in cities with no grid system, are very long and are often permeable to pedestrians and cyclists but not to cars. The major roads that trams generally use are also very wide, although the right-of-way is divided between pedestrians, bikes, cars, and transit in such a way that it doesn’t seem very wide from the ground. Compare all these factors to downtown Portland, which has very short blocks, narrow streets, a grid system with lots of signalized intersections, and a lot more pedestrian crossings, and you can see that moving light rail in Portland is inherently more difficult.

The Netherlands also employs a lot of transit priority treatments that speed up the trams as they travel through the cities. The major one that jumps out immediately is that trams virtually always have dedicated right-of-way either in the center of the road or along one side. A typical cross-section for a major road in Amsterdam or The Hague or Rotterdam would be sidewalk, one-way cycletrack, 1 or 2 lanes for cars in one direction, tram tracks in both directions in the middle, car lanes in the other direction, one-way cycletrack, sidewalk. Occasionally a road is divided so the trams are on one side and all car traffic is on the other side. Less common treatments I have seen include running trams on either side of a canal, running trams through pedestrian/bike-only areas, and even running them through buildings.

Trams and cars each get one exclusive lane in each direction

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Several tram lines in the Hague run through this building

Sometimes trams run through pedestrian zones, but they still go fast

In any case, the pervasive use of exclusive lanes and right-of-way removes the danger of congestion-related delay, at least in the spaces between intersections. Another benefit is that the tracks can be covered by grass if they are tram-only, adding green space to the roadway. It is also notable that I have never really seen trams running on the outside lanes, which is common practice for streetcars in the US. By using center lanes and platforms, pedestrian access is slightly worse but in exchange the trams are out of the way of right-turning traffic and connections between overlapping tram lines are much easier.

Many tram tracks are surrounded by grass instead of concrete

In Portland the use of exclusive right-of-way is much more limited. The Yellow Line on Interstate is the most similar to what I have seen in the Netherlands, using the center alignment to good effect, but once MAX hits Downtown it becomes more problematic. The exclusive right-of-way in Downtown Portland is only marked by paint, for one thing, which results in cars illegally using the lane and makes it easier for cars to stop in the middle of an intersection blocking the tracks. The lane is also shared with buses on the Transit Mall, forcing MAX to go much slower than it could in an unimpeded lane. Some tramways in the Netherlands can also be used by buses, but the schedules are coordinated so there are no conflicts. Major busways where several lines come together do not appear to ever share space with tram lines.

Portland Streetcar, of course, has almost no exclusive right-of-way and uses a couplet design with vehicles in the right-hand lane of each one-way street. This design would never be used in the Netherlands. The Streetcar gets stuck in traffic constantly and is sometimes blocked by parked cars, and the couplet design results in a smaller walkshed (remember, people need access to both directions). This design is even worse for the new Eastside Streetcar line in Portland. In that case, the two directions of streetcar will be divided by 4 lanes of fast-moving traffic in each direction and one city block. This could have been avoided by running the streetcar two-way on Grand (decoupling Grand and MLK for all traffic in the process), or by running it on the left side of both streets. In either case, it should have also been given exclusive lanes, especially since Grand and MLK have so much right-of-way to spare.

So now that trams in the Netherlands have priority between intersections, how do they get through intersections without delay? The answer is true signal priority at almost all intersections. I have seen countless instances of this: a tram is approaching an intersection at full speed, special “tram” lights start flashing and bells start ringing to warn people, all the lights turn red, and the tram barrels through without slowing down. After it gets through, the normal signal phasing starts again. Sometimes another tram arrives immediately after the last one, and amazingly the lights all turn red again to let it through. The basic message here is that traffic engineers in the Netherlands are willing to deal with the possibility of a few extra seconds of delay for cars so that a tram full of people can pass through without stopping.

This tram is able to move through the intersection without slowing down

The general practice in Portland is to try our best to time the signals downtown so that buses and light rail and streetcar can move through the lights without stopping, but this barely ever works in practice due to the inconsistencies of loading times at stops. The closest thing we have to signal priority in the Portland and the US in general is the ability of transit vehicles to keep certain lights green for a little longer than normal in order to get through an intersection. This only helps in certain situations, and is no help at all when the light is already red or when a vehicle has to make a stop right before the intersection. It is common for a MAX train to stop and open the doors for loading during a green light ahead, which then turns to red right when the doors close. Then the train has to sit there for a full signal, resulting in delay for potentially a couple hundred people while a much smaller number of people in cars are able to cross the intersection. Again, Portland Streetcar is even worse since it also has to stop at lots of stop signs in addition to signals. Even buses, supposedly inferior to streetcars, almost never have stop signs to deal with on their routes.

The only place in the Netherlands where I have seen a tram slowed down or delayed was in Rotterdam, which generally had much worse car traffic than anywhere else I have visited. In that case, the trams were given full signal priority but traffic was so bad that cars had queued up into the intersection, blocking the tracks. This can happen anywhere, of course, but I suspect this problem may be worse in the Netherlands because they use near-side traffic signals. The lack of signals on the far side of intersection means that drivers close the intersection may not be able to see that they have a red light and are more likely to end up stuck on the tracks.

Portland’s built form and street network, with its small blocks and one-way couplets, creates many challenges to running efficient surface-running light-rail that are not as much of an issue in the Netherlands. However, it is clear that Portland could do a great deal to improve its surface rail system by employing the other techniques used here. Exclusive lanes, ideally two-way in a center-road configuration, along with much more advanced signal priority systems, could do wonders for the Portland system and lead to increases in ridership as speed and reliability improves. All it takes is a recognition on the part of our political leaders and traffic engineers that transit (along with bikes and pedestrians) should be given clear priority over automobiles as we move people through the city.

Zef Wagner is an analyst at Fregonese Associates and is pursuing a Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree at Portland State University, specializing in transportation planning. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fregonese or PSU.

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23 responses to “Fast and Reliable Light Rail in the Netherlands: How they do it, and lessons for Portland”

  1. I noticed this on a recent trip to Europe. Budapest’s trams were probably the most impressive. They are very long, and run very quickly. It was as fast as taking a subway.

    If you want to see an example if this style of tram operation, just look at the east side MAX line along Burnside. It runs quickly and has complete signal priority. My only pet peeve is that it seems to slow down too much at intersections (entering and leaving stations), and does not use grass on the tracks as you point out. This might be an issue with wood railroad ties, as it may lead to increased rot?

    Your points on operations downtown are spot on. We really need to remove stops and increase the speed; adding complete signal priority. Capacity will still be limited by the Steel Bridge, but at least trains will get through more quickly overall.

  2. great article, gotta get the cars/pedestrians off the streetcar/max tracks in downtown and give the trains total right of way, have the signals adjust for trains instead of vice versa.

    we need to do like they do in japan, if a person steps in front of a train and gets hit (or commits suicide), japan railways sues the family for damages caused to all riders that were late/inconvenienced as a result of the carelessness/suicide and distributes it to the riders.

  3. Again, it amounts to willingness to prioritize trams over cars. *Shrug*. It’s a question of political will.

  4. I disagree that the Blue Line on Burnside even remotely resembles these European tram lines. The stops are far too close together (this also applies to the Yellow Line), it does not appear to have true signal priority, and as you note, the acceleration and deceleration are pretty lame. That actually is a problem for the whole system, and I should have mentioned it in the article. I’m not sure if it is an issue with the rolling stock, or an issue with safety regulations, but MAX speeds up and slows down very slowly and generally does not go fast enough on the street-running segments. Really the only fast portion of MAX on the entire Eastside is the portion from Lloyd Center to Gateway along the Banfield. Even the Green Line along 205 is plagued by too many stops. I looked it up and the travel time from downtown Gresham to downtown Portland on MAX is 55 minutes. Driving is about half of that. This is ridiculous considering the cost of building the system. We will never have truly successful transit in Portland until we prioritize transit and make it fast and convenient. Countries like the Netherlands can show us some great methods for how to do that.

  5. It’s good to see that Amsterdam has updated its rolling stock. Last time I was there (’97), they were still using these uncomfortable rust-buckets that had literally no suspension whatsoever. :)

    TriMet operational practice limits MAX trains to 35MPH (55kph) in what is known as “pre-empt” territory–essentially anywhere the trains are not controlled by automated block signalling, which is pretty much anywhere they run in a street or street median. Whether this is a constraint imposed by law, TriMet’s own engineering staff, I do not know.

  6. My understanding: TriMet is not entirely the master of its own destiny as far as operating speeds. On/around the street grid, speeds, signal pre-emption, etc, are negotiated with the “road authority” (ie owner of the street). It’s probably fair to say that local traffic engineers (Beaverton, Portland, Gresham, etc.) have the majority say here.

    Away from the street grid, operations (mainly road crossings) are regulated by ODOT.

    With regard to speeds in & out of stations, those are driven by concern for customer comfort and safety. Considering the regularity of accidents around ped & auto crossings (primarily caused by inattention, it seems to me) its unlikely that we’ll see faster speeds any time soon.

  7. It depends on the train operator. Last night coming to home to Jeld-Wen from Beaverton TC, the train seemed to go ‘fast.’

    A friend of mine who commutes from Parkrose TC to Lloyd Center said the same thing – it depends on the operator.

  8. I admit it was now 30 years ago I was in Amsterdam riding the tram from Central Station. Fast they were not, but then they did not have far to go…a very compact city. People walked, biked and drove willy-nilly in front of the tram as we went along; I found myself gasping at all the near misses; nobody else noticed.
    Stations on Interstate Avenue, E. Burnside and I-205 are roughly 1/2 mile apart to insure access to local residents. Speeds are governed by the roadway speed limits…35mph; trains do have signal pre-emption. Between Lloyd Station and Goose Hollow where MAX is slowest, it is governed by the 12 mph speed limit imposed by the City, but it often seems that dwell time in stations is subject by regular signal timing. But I am sure that TriMet would rather be slow and safe than faster and sorry.
    Comparing Portland to European cities, I prefer to look at German cities. Take a side trip to Frankfurt. MAX is like an U-Bahn, except it does not go into a tunnel in the central city; same equipment, same vehicles but in longer trains. Strassenbahns are like our Streetcar, operating in mixed traffic for the most part; Frankfurters love them and fought to keep them. Then there are the S-Bahns…or commuter rail; Frankfurt has a dozen lines in a tunnel under the central city.
    We have a long way to go! But first, check out the density there; five, if not 10 times greater than here.

  9. It would be useful to know how rebuilding cities in NL after the war was conditioned by issues of transportation.

    In some ways we have an older urban environment than they do, and therefore more constraints on public transit.

  10. I spent several months in Amsterdam several years ago.

    In Europe transit is a priority, in America its not.

    The two cultures are diametrically opposed.

    Trimet attempted to emulate European cites, which of course is absurd since Portland is unlike any city in Europe I’ve ever visited. Portland is distinctly American and marches to the same tunes that most cities march too.

    Europeans accept transit like Americans accept cars, just a normal part of life. None of that “transit is for those people” or “choice rider” nonsense.

    And in Amsterdam I saw more bicycles in a day than I see in a month around here.

    And not one of them is wearing fancy bicycles outfits or riding fancy bikes.

    Its all about the culture, and the Dutch are a much more advanced society.

  11. “We have a long way to go! But first, check out the density there; five, if not 10 times greater than here.”

    >>>> Yeah Lenny, which is exactly why rail was never suitable for Portland.

  12. Why not run transit from a business standpoint, rather than as part of a social or political philosophy? If people can’t get the bus or train at the time they want, heck, they’ve always got their smartphone with them, so what’s the diff? And if scheduling and routes were done from a profit perspective, it would become more efficient and lower cost in the long run.
    I was proud to live in the David Douglas district when I was a kid. Now I don’t go there for ay rational purpose (oops…. I went to Bob’s Fords trying to sell my old ford).

  13. Nice article Zef. I look forward to more.

    Another nice product of this “tram running in central reservation” is that EMS vehicles [and taxis] in the NL have access to it. Low having benefits often over in transit planning and street design in the US.

  14. The Netherlands ranks 161st in population growth rate. This would never fly, then, with Portland planners.

  15. I don’t think the ‘profit motive’ has any place in transit delivery. Heck when they pave over a road there is no profit in it (except for the construction company)
    I do agree that it is a basic service that should be provided by the government.
    The problem is that the structure that has developed in this country around transit is not conducive for the public.

    The transit systems function for the benefit of the people that are employed in them starting with the outrageous salaries and huge pensions handed out to the executives (Fred Hansen’s monthly pension is $15,700/mo and while he was working here he amassed a 2+ million dollar fortune). Then there are the union workers that profits mightily out of transit. How can anybody justify a $100k+ salary for a bus driver, over time or not.

    The structure of the whole transit game in the USA is defective and will lead to the death of mass transit in America.

  16. I’m a little disappointed at the blanket acceptance that 12mph in downtown and 35mph when running on streets elsewhere is at all acceptable, or necessary for safety. First of all, at those speeds how can transit ever compete with driving? Even if you aren’t interested in competing with driving for choice riders, we are dooming the transit-dependent or transit-choosing population to very long travel times. Trams are able to go faster than that here in the Netherlands and elsewhere and I have never heard of any epidemic of accidents here. What they do is have big flashing and dinging “tram” signs any time there is a crossing. People here have learned to obey them and be careful, and there is no reason that couldn’t happen in the US, except we are afraid to try anything substantial. We are just full of excuses, aren’t we?

  17. Scotty, the trams in Amsterdam are beautiful shiny new vehicles now, and like I said, they move very quickly even through crowded streets. Same goes for the ones in Rotterdam. Most trams in the Hague region are pretty old (mid-80’s to 90’s), but the transit agency (HTM) is about to buy hundreds of new trams over the next couple years. HTM also has a couple new light-rail lines that are completely grade-separated, and those vehicles are really nice too. Just to put things in perspective, they are planning to spend over a billion euros in the next 5 years just on new rolling stock, track improvements, and other network improvements. They spend a lot on new lines, sure, but they have us beat on general maintenance and investing in high frequencies.

  18. I think one of the big issues here in how we view transportation systems between the U.S. and much of Europe, is that we here in the U.S. view transportation systems in terms of how many *cars* we can move through and accommodate in our cities. In the Netherlands, and other places in Europe, they focus on how many *people* they can move through and accommodate in their cities.

    That’s a *vast* difference in mindset, and it’s why a vehicle carrying 100 people automatically gets priority over a dozen vehicles carrying one person each. It’s also why people riding bicycles get automatic priority over people driving cars – because you can move *way* more people through an area on bicycles than you can in cars. It’s simple practicality, without all the sort of moral judgements we tend to throw around here between people who choose to move around in different ways.

    The simple fact is, more people can be accommodated in and moved through a city if they don’t use personal cars, so people driving are given less priority in order to encourage people not to use them if they don’t need to, and really *good* alternatives are given.

    Here, we seem to think that if a person doesn’t go somewhere in a car, they’re simply not going to go there (thus removal of, for instance, on-street car parking is equivalent to removal of customers – which of course is nonsense).

  19. I think the problem comes in, in Portland and in other US cities, when planners and politicians learn of European style on-street rail. They then think that a streetcar in American city is going to be like these Amsterdam trams, which of course it won’t be. American streetcar lines are thus planned with totally unrealistic ideas of what they can really do.

  20. Wanderer, my whole point is that there is no reason American streetcars or light rail can’t be like the trams in Europe. It just takes good technology and political will!

  21. I’m looking forward to the coming economic rebound in Europe and East Asia. That’s because when it happens — especially in East Asia where first-time car ownership is exploding — gasoline prices will hit first $5 then $6 then occasionally $7 per gallon.

    The newish American cities in the Sunbelt with complete dependence on personal transportation will strangle. There will be a huge political outcry and President OvenMitt will of course compound the problem by bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran.

    The undying great thing about democracy is that the people get exactly the government they deserve. Because they chose it.

    You can’t fix stupid.

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