My Ride on the Tide - Light Rail comes to Norfolk, VA

Monday afternoon, my wife and I took our first ride on Norfolk's new light rail system, The Tide. I won't go into all of the details of the massive cost overruns and the fact that the train's maiden voyage was close to two years behind schedule. That is past.

The Tide actually began official passenger service at 6AM on Friday August 19, 2011. Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) had originally announced that they would allow passengers to ride for free that weekend, from Friday to Sunday. Wisely, they extended the free trips through next weekend.

Before I describe my experience, let me first preface my comments by letting you know that I am a huge rail fan. I have always enjoyed riding the rails. My father was an Norfolk and Western RR (now Norfolk Southern) employee and each summer as a child, I would get an employee's pass, board the Pocahontas or the Powhatan Arrow and ride it to Narrows, VA where my grandmother would meet me for a week at her home in West Virginia. Even then (mid-1960's) it was obvious that passenger traffic was unimportant for the nation's railroads, as the passenger train would pull onto sidings waiting to be passed by faster freight trains. Stops in Crewe, Petersburg and Roanoke were interminably lengthy and the stations were old and tired (they had not yet reached the stage of nostalgic quaintness.)

I was even on that fateful Employee Appreciation railfan trip with the Norfolk & Western 611 steam locomotive when it derailed on the N&W main line while running though the Great Dismal Swamp on May 18, 1986.

Whenever I would visit cities I would ride their rail-based mass transit (I have never been a fan of buses and I find their schedules a bit unwieldy.) Some places I have ridden include Washington DC, New York City, Boston, Tampa, San Francisco, Chicago, Las Vegas, London, Paris, Zurich, Prague, Tokyo, Oslo, Brussels, Vienna and this doesn't consider funiculars or cities I have misplaced in the corners of my mind.

So, I think it is obvious that I like trains.

We boarded at the Newtown Road Station, the eastern terminus of the line which is conveniently located within a mile of our home. The parking lot was half full and we just missed boarding a train that was just leaving. We stood on the platform for about 15 minutes awaiting the next train. When it arrived, a few passengers disembarked, but for the most part the train stayed quite full. A good number of us boarded and it was standing room only.

(We had originally intended to ride the train to Harbor Park for a baseball game on its inauguration day, but the line for the train wrapped part of the way around the Newtown parking lot and was reported to have taken over an hour to get on board, so we waited a few days.)

As we boarded on Monday, we saw a significant number of small children taking up seats. Yes, I know children are people, too, but when you are joy-riding for free, the parents could have put the kids on their laps to give the other non-paying passengers a place to sit.

Each stop added more people to the cars as we made our way into Downtown Norfolk. The din got louder, too, when we picked up pax at the Ballentine Station which is near Norfolk State University. Most kids (even the older ones) have forgotten where their vocal volume control is.

We got off the train at the MacArthur Square Station just because we wanted to get away from the crowd. The platform at most of the stops is a bit confusing. The driver announces the station and tells you to "Exit to the right" or to the left, but no one really listens. Because the platform walkway is so narrow, people tend to bump into each other like ants on a picnic table as some scramble to get on board and other head off of the platform.

I fully realize that this has been an opportunity for lots of people, some whom have never ridden on a train, to ride the train for free and to check it out, so our inbound experience should not be indicative of the situation when the fares go into effect.

We took a leisurely stroll down Granby Street and eventually chose a restaurant. After our meal we left the restaurant and made our way to the Monticello Station just one block from the NorVa. Waiting on the platform, a westbound train approached, so we decided to board it and ride it past the York/Freemason Station to the terminus at EVMC/Fort Norfolk. Just before the train left the station several boys came on board. Loud and jumping around, these kids couldn't have been much more than 10 years old. Because the time was around 9 P.M., I remember wondering where their parents were, but that is not the subject of this piece.

It was about a five minute ride to the end of the line. When we arrived, the driver exited the control cab just in front of where we were sitting (and where the boys were hopping around) and walked the length of the double-car to an identical control cab at the opposite end. We were ready to go.

Between the two stops, the driver made an announcement that the last stop for this train would be the NSU Station. Just beyond the elevated NSU Station platform is the train's maintenance garage, so I assumed that they were putting this train car to bed for the night. He also stated that another train would be following this one by about 5 minutes.

We waited and waited for that train that was 5 minutes behind. We noted that we had not seen another westbound train which would have had to have passed us in order to make the return trip. Almost 20 minutes later we heard an approaching westbound train. We opted to not get on, but several people on the platform did.

Like the watched pot that never boils, the only thing boiling was my wife's ire at this situation. "OK. This is the last trip we make", she said. "We could have driven down here, parked at the MacArthur Mall garage for $2, gone to dinner, walked back to the car and we would have been home in 10-12 minutes. If we were paying for the train, it would have cost us $6 and we would have added an hour to our evening in transit." I couldn't really argue against her logic.

The eastbound train finally arrived with many of the people still on board that had hopped onto the westbound train. Making our way east, we picked up a good number of passengers until we got to the NSU Station platform. There were probably 40 or more people waiting for the train. It was almost 10 P.M. I recognized several of the people as having been on the same train that we were on before we bailed out at Monticello, so it was obvious that there was no "5 minutes later" train.

What was most frustrating was that until 10 P.M., the Tide is supposed to be on an "every 15 minutes" schedule. This was clearly before 10 P.M. and we waited over 30 minutes for the next train. Is this typical? Was there something wrong with that vehicle that made them take it out of service? We don't know and were not told. Having trains make express runs, or having certain trains end early is not unheard of but the situation is usually made clear before the doors close and it pulls from the station.

Giving HRT the benefit of the doubt, there may have been issues with the train. The driver should have been more accurate (but we would have done the same thing had he been more informative.)

We are taught to learn from our mistakes, so here is what I would like HRT to learn and to do to make us want to come back and Ride the Tide: Post the times the trains are scheduled to pull into the station. Post these times clearly on the inside walls of the platform shelter with arrows indicating direction. Simple. Also post a feeder bus map and schedule adjacent to the train schedule.

If I am going to go downtown for dinner or a show, I am NOT going to want to show up at the station for the ride home at :14 when the train was scheduled to arrive/depart at :13. Waiting 15 or 30 minutes for the next train would be especially annoying in the winter or if it was raining.

We have all become creatures of comfort. Riding light rail is an option for almost all of us. It can be fun and convenient as well as rewarding in the respect that we are not clogging the highways or using more gasoline, but it is not a necessity like public transit is in cities such as New York. We need to be able to depend on the train coming to the station at its appointed (and known) time. It would be really cool to have a mobile smart phone app that would show you exactly where the train is and which way it is headed to help you time your arrival at the platform.

There have been overwhelming numbers of passengers this week and I applaud HRT for allowing a large number of people to get their feet wet a couple of times for free before introducing fares. I have held the opinion for a number of years that public transit should be free or close to free. This week's experiment with free underscores the fact that if you give something away for free, people will line up to get it even if they don't need it. I still think it needs to be cheap (maybe $1), but not free.

The comment I have heard the most from people I have spoken to this week is "... it really needs to go to the Oceanfront, ODU and the Naval Station."

I am proud of my city, Norfolk, VA, for having the guts to go ahead and build this train in spite of Virginia Beach's years-long wavering, and then their bailing out altogether on a commitment to extend the line. I think the Beach now realizes that it made a mistake, but they will never admit it.

My hope is that the train is a success in spite of its limited coverage. I know that a Virginia Beach extension could not get completed for at least 15 years. Norfok could take it to the Naval Station in 5-7 years if they could find the funding. Both of these time frames are too long to be able to leverage the good will and reward the patience of riders who wish to be able to commute between ODU and all points east.

There are a few things that need to be tweaked about the service and the schedule, but I think it is fundamentally a good rail line. I invite you to give it a run, come downtown for dinner or shopping, and I may just see you on the train heading home after a show at the NorVa.


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