If there’s one thing we learned from our wacky weather week, it’s that no mode of transportation, steel, asphalt, or concrete, is immune to cold harsh weather. During the ice storm, there wasn’t a soul in the region that didn’t find trouble getting around. This included rail users, of course, when both Central Link and Tacoma Link’s catenary lines iced over and rail switches along the BNSF mainline froze. Buses, however, were hit much harder– jackknifed and stranded, many were left out on streets and highways near and far while those that did keep running were slow and unreliable.
During last year’s Thanksgiving storm, Link was lauded for its smooth performance as trains whizzed by parking lot traffic on I-5 and a record number of passengers boarded. The Seattle Times took the opportunity to pit it against Thursday’s ice storm woes, with a seeming interest in demonstrating light rail’s shortfalls. Too often, though, stuff like this turns into fodder for transit opponents, who’ll use it as a case example against building rail, even when the framing is simply saying that ice is more menacing than snow (which it is).
With Link this time around, the woes were attributable to a disadvantage in the electrification technology– the overhead catenary lines froze over, something that wouldn’t have happened with a third rail system or if, say, the line were entirely subway. But you can take just about any form of transportation and improve it in some way shape or form. Just like how switch heaters and third rail help trains fend away ice, studded tires and chains help cars and buses navigate the snow.
Things like this muck up discussions and debates over mode technology, especially when people make an emotional argument against a mode because of one experience they had aboard that mode. If last November was any indication, rail does hold a commanding advantage over road-based modes in inclement weather, not because of any technological ice/snow-proof advancements but because of the physical design of the rail trackway itself.
Whether it’s the track design or higher passenger capacity offered by rail, or the greater coverage flexibility from buses, the inherent qualities of any modal technology should be the real cornerstone of the debate.
*Disclaimer: The author is currently employed by Sound Transit. However, all opinions expressed in this article are completely his own and may not reflect the views of anyone else.