Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Kansas City: Potential

So for various reasons -- some of which are probably related to hormones and such -- my thoughts have taken a recent Midwestern turn. In particular, I find myself interested in the two largest cities in Missouri, a state that is essentially two Pittsburghs with a whole lot of Lancaster County in between. Being interested in commuter networks, I immediately set about applying my tried-and-true coastal methodology to these cities to see what would pop out.

Since I was there recently, my first target is Kansas City.

I found myself surprised that there was a more substantive rail network there than I'd expected; indeed, when I did some research into it I discovered that the city used to be the Midwest's second-largest rail hub (a role I had assumed fell to Omaha, the Union Pacific's historic railhead and the reason why there were once easily half a dozen mainlines traversing Iowa). Considering it, however, reveals that it makes sense: all of the four major Eastern through routes -- Pennsylvania, New York Central, Baltimore & Ohio, and Alphabet route (via the Nickel Plate) had termini in Chicago and St. Louis; while the latter's role is customarily understated, it quickly becomes evident that there were few direct linkages between it and Omaha, and four between it and Kansas City (i.e. the Burlington, Rock Island, Missouri Pacific, and Katy). Kansas City thus served as a transshipment point for freight following the transcontinental alphabet route that began with the Western Pacific and followed the Rio Grande mainline across the Rockies, spreading into a raft of competing lines from Denver east. This trade route is followed by the modern I-70 corridor. It was also a principal interchange point of the Santa Fe and a handoff point where the mainlines of the major Texas-Midwest railroads (Katy, Missouri Pacific, Frisco, and Kansas City Southern) met those of the lines following the Missouri (or heading into Iowa) heading further north, towards Omaha and Minnesota. (This trade route is followed by the I-35 corridor.) All of this made for a list of about half a dozen major railroads heading into Kansas City: the Santa Fe, Burlington Route, Rock Island, Katy, Mo-Pac, Frisco, and Kansas City Southern. Nearly all of these had lines in from multiple compass directions.
Fig 1. Major alignments into Kansas City
We can see  this in Fig. 1, which shows the identifiable freight corridors into the city. Count 'em up -- there are sixteen of them! And that doesn't count lines that were almost certainly abandoned between then and now; it is easy to forget that railroads built the Midwest, and the largest cities were -- and still are -- rail hubs.

From these we winnow out several routes. Some pass through populated areas but are too circuitous; others run out through largely rural regions. We seek out a string of populous towns en route -- town center stations generally help revitalize these places while also providing a built-in ridership base. Kansas City's metro region is relatively small -- most lines are about 30 - 40 miles long. It is also one that does not have any significant all-day congestion (indeed, it clearly has auto capacity overbuild: you're lucky to get the 8:00 AM stop-and-go on US 71 at noon out on the Schuylkill heading towards King of Prussia, and many surface streets -- especially the most heavily-engineered ones -- have desertion issues, a clear sign of excessive capacity relative to demand); we thus need seek the most direct routes to Union Station, the city's lone major rail hub. A system such as we would demand in Chicago and the large coastal cities -- frequent all-day service -- is probably beyond any reasonable resource allocation; instead, we'll have to settle for high-frequency rush-and-periphery* service on the weekdays, medium-high frequency all-day service Saturdays**, and medium-low all-day service on Sundays. Union Station is a through-station so we'll be able to immediately run regional service; this requires line balance. Finally, the station approaches -- especially immediately west -- present extremely high-grade grade-separated passenger rail alignments; we seek to make use of these.
Fig 2. Key Corridors
From this we define the eight route (plus one branch) system shown in blue on Fig. 2.
  1. Beginning along the Missouri northwest of town and moving counterclockwise, we have the Leavenworth Line, which links Kansas City, MO, with Kansas City, KS, and with Leavenworth, KS, with its prison and fort.
  2. Next we have the Lawrence Line, which runs along the Kansas River west to Lawrence, tapping KU.
  3. Down in the southwest, we have the Turkey Creek Line, which runs along the Turkey Creek corridor through the richest part of the region towards Olathe and Spring Hill. If at all possible, we would like to add a branch to Gardner to this route (however, it does not appear this is possible).
  4. Directly south of the city is the Peculiar Line, which runs along the Blue River into the city and connects with Grandview and namesake Peculiar.
  5. Southeast of that, we have the Independent Line, which connects with Independence and Lee's Summit. This route should be the most heavily-trafficked on the east side.
  6. To its northeast is the Eastside Line, which runs out to Blue Springs.
  7. Jumping across the Missouri, we have the Excelsior Line, named after its Excelsior Springs terminus. It also sports a branch north to Kearney.
  8. Finally, we have the Missouri Bluffs Line, serving an area along the Bluffs.
Projected line pairings are as follows:
  • the Turkey Springs Line is paired with the Independent Line;
  • the Leavenworth Line is paired with the Peculiar Line;
  • the Lawrence Line is paired with the Eastside Line; and
  • the Missouri Bluffs Line is paired with the Excelsior Line.
These pairings strive to match considerations of demographics and length -- that is, we're seeking a Lagrangian balance of ridership and runtime. We're also attempting to have similar runtime throughout the system -- we want no run to take more than 60 minutes. Kansas City is small enough that none should.

Next we'll talk about Kansas City's major challenges.

* I.e. around "the periphery of" rush hour. We'll also need late-night service more than noontime.**
** This is because we'll be seeking to tap two markets: first, conventional commuters (particularly to Crown Center, and secondarily towards downtown via the streetcar), and second, the out-on-the-town crowd that would prefer leaving their cars at home. There's also a student market, as most of the lines have at least a midsize school along them, and the terminus of the Lawrence line is KU. Finally, in one case, there's a major prison -- Leavenworth -- and its concomitant visitors' market.


  1. "I find myself interested in the two largest cities in Missouri, a state that is essentially two Pittsburghs..."

    I decline to speak for St. Louis, however regards Kansas City I would note the following:

    1. Our hilly streets do not require Sherpa assistance;
    2. Our sports teams have ALWAYS required Sherpa assistance;
    3. Kansas City does not do hockey;
    4. Pittsburgh does not do barbecue;
    5. The Royals are clinging to a tenuous playoff thread;
    6. The Pirates are all locked up (Good luck to you);
    5. Pittsburgh does light rail;
    6. Never in a million years will Kansas City do light rail.

    As you are aware the current Mayoral administration is pushing ahead with a new, 1-mile streetcar 'starter' line (downtown to Crown Center), full of irrational exuberance the citizenry will buy off on expanding the 'technology' to the metro's outlying boundaries. This despite being wholly rebuffed at the polls by the exact areas of town his plans intended to service; the smart money is on the Mayor being 'done in one' and the project losing impetus shortly thereafter.

    However, at the (Jackson) county level, Mike Sanders seems bent on reviving existing rail infrastructure for mass transit, which seems to feed into your ideas: .

    Conversely, Sanders intends to also make use of the old Katy line...but for biking/walking: .

    Be interested to see where you go from here.

  2. *chuckles* Kansas City hills are nothing like Pittsburgh hills. My main readership resides in Philly and so I grabbed a useful local analogy -- the Philly metro is 3x Kansas City's; yours is much closer to Pittsburgh's in size.

    As to the light rail, I disagree. I am aware of the streetcar and the engineering is determined to make it as much a clusterfuck as possible. By far the greatest infrastructural challenge your city faces is reclaiming street space from cars, and (as my friend Chuck Marohn discovered) that won't happen until youse guys understand the difference between East Coast congestion and Midwest congestion, and how, to somebody from the East Coast, the idea that Kansas City's local streets, especially, are ever congested is a joke.

    I work regularly trying to carve out room for uses on streets that generally don't have it. My message to Kansas City is: You have room. (Incidentally, I can show you just how much room you have for a mutually beneficial arrangement.)