Pittsburgh’s light rail may look like a classic 80’s system from afar, especially with its core subway and extensive utilization of railroad right of way, but it is in fact a transformed first gen system, and contains a rich and varied history. With lots of bridges and tunnels, light rail vehicles faithfully serve the hilly city of Pittsburgh.
This system of 42.2 kilometers,1 operated by the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAAC), is located in the city of Pittsburgh in the northeastern US state of Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh is a hilly city of 300,000 in the southwest of the state, at the origin of the Ohio River. The system itself serves a slice of the northside of the city, the downtown, and the center-south. Also served are the southern suburban boroughs of Castle Shannon, Dormont, Bethel Park, and the townships of Mt. Lebanon and South Park, with the latter being essentially exurban, on the very edge of the metropolitan area. Pittsburgh is a hilly city so the system navigates it through many tunnels, bridges, and embankments.
The system runs three services, all of which run north-south from Allegheny Station to either South Hills Village or Library stations, with a nice sprinkling of some abandoned and unused track.
In terms of standardization, this system is all but standard. First, there’s a mix of high and low level platforms, meaning it’s not even standard with itself! From what I understand the split is half and half, so progress towards a unified platform height is unlikely, hindering accessibility. Next on the list of unstandard things is of course the gauge, which is Pennsylvania Trolley gauge (1588mm,2 famously used here, in Philadelphia,3 and in New Orleans.) The last thing is the voltage, which, according to Wikipedia, is 650V DC, which is unusual, but really it doesn’t matter as DC is compatible within a range.
The rolling stock on the line is not standard either. First is the gauge, then the platform heights, but fortunately Siemens was able to tune a standard model to this, supplying 55 SD-400‘s in 1985-1987. The SD-400 is also used in St. Louis and Valencia, Venezuela, though the trains supplied to Pittsburgh are the only ones with low floor capabilities.
Speaking of which, the door arrangement is rather unusual with a low level door at the front, two high level doors on the right, and one on the left, reversed for the second part of the two section LRV. I am not a big fan of this door arrangement, as it results in low throughput at low level platforms, and a door imbalance at high level ones.
The units were refurbished by CAF around 2005, though I’m not sure what the rebuild included, probably interior refurbishment or something…
The other type of rolling stock to operate on the Pittsburgh system today is a custom made LRV by CAF. There are 28 of them and they were built from 2003-2004. They mostly look similarly blocky, but have a different headlight arrangement. The closest relatives to the CAF LRVs are a series of vehicles made for Sacramento a few years earlier.
Believe it or not, the SD-400s did replace PCC streetcars! What a surprise! I don’t know much about said PCCs, but I know there were 666 of them at peak (don’t ask), and there were a few rebuild attempts. the PCCs are probably worth their own section, or even post… We’ll see…
Fares & Schedules
Boring schedule table:
|Service:||Red Line||Blue Line||Silver Line|
|Morning:||15 minutes||30 minutes||30 minutes|
|Rush Hour:||10 minutes||20 minutes||20 minutes|
|Midday:||15 minutes||30 minutes||30 minutes|
|Evening:||30 minutes||30 minutes||30 minutes|
|Weekend:||15-20 minutes||30 minutes||30 minutes|
|Trip Time:||~45 minutes||~40 minutes||~50 minutes|
Frankly, these frequencies are very good for an American light rail system, especially considering the Blue line is in essence the dense part of the Silver Line, resulting in a 10 minute rush hour trunk on both lines. The Red line is the most frequent, as it is not interlined and serves dense neighborhoods with short station spacing. The lines being interlined in downtown actually makes for a convenient cross-downtown service with a 10 minute frequency late nights. The shared section between Overbrook Junction and Washington Junction also gets downtown-like frequency; however here it looks like a heaven for cascading delays, considering it’s merely double tracked and neither of the lines terminate there with at grade junctions on both ends. In summary, the frequency is good, but there might be some bottlenecks if it is to be increased further.
The fare system is, once again, not entirely disappointing, however it does have its quirks. The fare is $2.75 with cash, and $2.50 with a fare card or a paper ticket.4 Transfers are $1 and seem to be unlimited for the fare card and limited to 1 for the paper ticket. As usual there are no transfers if you pay with cash. A sidenote is a $7 daily pass, which pays off if you make more than two trips. Overall, I’d say this system reminds me of the MBTA one,5 with cash, paper, and card options. I also like the round fare of $2.50, and fares being even across modes, though the $1 transfer does bring it down.
Oh, sidenote, there’s also a Free Fare Zone in downtown from the northern end to First Avenue.
Ultra-detailed Route Description
Last thing before the interesting part, the boring route description! Aren’t we all so excited!
The northern end of this light rail system is a viaduct stub in the northern side of town, near the Ohio River, halfway between a casino and an American Football stadium. There’s also a science museum and masses of parking lots nearby.6 The terminal itself, Allegheny station, is double track with an island platform. From there the line heads east. It dives under the parking lots to North Side station, which is conveniently built into a parking garage, and is also surrounded by parking. There is a baseball stadium and a few blocks of relatively recent development nearby.7
The line then crosses under the Allegheny river, entering downtown Pittsburgh. It runs under Stanwix Street, stopping at Gateway station and making a 90 degree curve onto Liberty Avenue, where the North Shore Connector extension ends. The tracks continue under Liberty, and then Sixth, passing through Wood Street station, and later turning onto a diagonal. After the turn the tracks enter Steel Plaza station, which is interesting in that it has three platforms. One of the platforms serves a disused single track branch to Penn Station, which used to see service in the 90’s, but offers limited value in terms of connectivity today.8 After Steel Plaza the tracks make a slight turn to the southwest and rise above ground, later climbing a viaduct, and pass through First Avenue station. They then immediately go over I-376 and exit downtown Pittsburgh.
Then the trunk crosses over the
Munon, uhm, Mongolia, no… Monongahela river, passing over a parking lot as part of a 90 degree curve and entering Station Square. There’s also a curve the other way, more on that later. Near Station Square there is the Monongahela Incline, one of Pittsburgh’s two famous inclines. After the station the rails make a 100 degree turn back south and enter the Mount Washington Tunnel, which is shared with the South Busway.
There are no stations in the tunnel, it’s literally under a mountain so there really shouldn’t be any.
After the tunnel the “suburban section” begins. At South Hills Junction, a branch line joins the trunk from the tunnel, and then splits in two: the Red Line via the Beechview line, and the Blue and Silver via the Overbrook Line.
The branch that left before Station Square and joined back at South Hills is the Brown Line, also known as route 52. It used to run along Arlington and Warrington Avenues, bypassing the tunnel using steep grades and street running. The line was formed from a combination of other routes, and experienced slowly decreasing frequencies, getting down to ~7 trips per direction per day, until being cut in 2011. The track, however, is kept operational as a bypass of the tunnel and is used when the tunnel is closed for maintenance. The PAAC has hinted at returning service to this and the Penn spur as part of its NEXTransit plan recently, though few specifics are known.9
Anyway, back to South Hills Junction. From South Hills Junction,10 the Beechview Line (Red Line) heads slightly to the east, passing over a highway,11 in a short section shared with the South Busway. The busway branches off and the line heads on a private right of way up the hill to the neighborhood of Beechview. Then there’s a short side-of-the-road running section along “Suburban Avenue”, followed by a bridge. After that, there is right angle turn south, and a relatively long street running section along the brick paved and later not-so-brick-paved Broadway Avenue, turning into median-running near the end. Past that, the line heads on a private non-separated right of way cutting diagonally across the streets of Dormont. After Dormont Junction, the line heads into a relatively long tunnel under the Mt. Lebanon Cemetery. From there it’s private right of way in a southeasterly direction until meeting up with the Overbrook Line at Overbrook Junction.
Overall it’s a mix of Light Rail12 and Streetcar characteristics. I counted 21 grade crossings on this section.
Back to South Hills Junction again! But now it’s the Overbrook (Blue and Silver) Line. This pair heads out of South Hills Junction to the southeast, then south… The line seems to be mostly grade separated, running through the valley of Saw Mill Run and the parallel Boulevard. After turning away from the Boulevard the line heads southwest, where the grade separation ends. From there it’s a short distance to Willow (which is right next to Overbrook Junction), where the line meets up with the Beechview Line.
Overall this can be considered the “express” line, with no street running, and far fewer stations relative to the Beechview Line. There are 5 grade crossings on this line, all on the southern end.
After the merge, this “southern core section” has downtown-like frequencies, but the quality is not the same. It is a non-separated right of way parallel to Library Road. Then there’s another split! This time the Blue and Red lines head west, and the Silver line east.
The Red and Blue go on a non-separated line to the west, ending after a few stations at the suburban commercial center of South Hills Village, 13 where the line ends with a large yard. An interesting sidenote is that after Dorchester station, the second to last one, a disused single track branch heads south, though disappears into suburbia pretty quickly. This is a remnant of a former interurban to Washington. The northern end until the county line used to see service until 1999 as the 47D, but due to the density of the area chances are service will never return.
The Silver Line heads on a mostly at grade route directly south. Most of the route is either in the median of Brightwood Road or parallel to Library Road. The line ends at the edge of the metropolitan area (and the county line) at Library, 17 kilometers as the crow flies from Steel Plaza. The scenery here is almost rural, and there’s a farm field nearby, earning the Silver Line the title “it literally goes to farm fields” which not many systems do or should.
Uhm, you want more of this? Check out Miles’ first person review!14
Ok… Let’s go! I don’t even know where to start with this.
You know what, just take the system as granted, it always existed and will always exist.
Anyway, I think I’ll do this by the origin of RoW15 in chronological order, Mattapan style.
So, the earliest thing that the Pittsburgh Light Rail system traces itself to is the Pittsburgh & Steubenville Extension Railroad Tunnel, which opened in 1865 and connected Penn Station with south of the river, crossing over it using a few bridges, the notable of which is the Panhandle Bridge constructed in 1903. The line was part of the Pennsylvania Railroad in later years.
A second predecessor to the light rail is the Coal Hill Coal Railroad.16 This was a 1016mm17 railroad which was built and owned by a mining company, and originally served only its own coal trains. The line went through a shallow mine tunnel under Mount Washington, through an inclined railroad, and then a short distance down the hill to a coal mine.
The railroad was purchased by an investor group in 1871 and renamed the Pittsburgh and Castle Shannon Railroad. Now it was a common carrier, meaning it could carry passengers, with a charter for a line as far south as Finleyville.18 Because of the possibilities, the line was extended to Castle Shannon along Saw Mill Run, and passenger services began (through the shallow tunnel…). Apparently the tunnel was judged unsafe and more inclines were constructed in 1891.
Streetcars themselves in Pittsburgh date back to 1859, when a horsecar line was constructed to the northeast of downtown. Cable cars were tried in the 1880s, but the system was electrified in the 1890s. Pittsburgh Railways was formed in 1902 as a consolidation of multiple streetcar companies.
The Mount Washington Tunnel opened in 1904 and enabled streetcars to access points to the south of… well… the mountain. The tunnel was streetcar exclusive.
Also in 1904 the Beechview Line was constructed. It was a regular streetcar route, though it included sections with private RoW in order to cover the height difference between the tunnel entrance, Beechview, and Dormont. Most service ended at the Clearview Loop in Dormont.
The construction of an interurban line from Charleroi19 was finished earlier in 1903. The line ran south from Castle Shannon to Riverview, where it connected to a previously acquired amalgamation of street railways. A journey from Pittsburgh to Charleroi required multiple transfers. Operation of these lines was taken over by Pittsburgh Railways in 1905.
An interurban from Washington via Canonsburg seems to have been constructed in a similar manner to the Charleroi one in 1909.20 These interurbans originally used a section of single track and the Beechview Line in order to reach downtown.
Also in 1905, Pittsburgh Railways bought the P&CS, acquiring a mostly freight operation with some passenger services, and oh, a few inclines. The relevant part for Pittsburgh Railways was the right of way, as it allowed them to run the interurbans to Washington and Charleroi quicker and more reliably.21 Broad gauge tram track was installed on the line in 1909, and the narrow gauge operation was gone by 1912. So was one of the inclines, made redundant by the Mt. Washington tunnel, while the other continued until 1964. The line saw multiple improvements throughout its lifetime, however the single track was never fully eradicated.
Rolling Stock notes: In 1915 Pittsburgh Railways decided on a standard car design and ordered one thousand of them. Also around this time experiments were going on with giant double decker cars.
Yeah nothing much happened…
Rolling Stock notes: On the 26th of July 1936 PCC car #10022 became the first PCC revenue trip ever. (It wasn’t on the relevant lines of the system, but it’s an important milestone, as the PCC forever changed streetcar design.)
In 1953 the interurban lines were cut23 to the county line (Washington at Drake, and Charleroi at Library). This signaled the beginning of the end for the rest of the system. Routes were bustituted24 throughout the late 50’s and early 60’s, often due to bridge replacements.
By 1964, many routes were already converted to bus, though many remained. In that year, the privately owned Pittsburgh Railways sold the streetcar system to the public Port Authority of Allegheny County. 25
The Port Authority continued streetcar conversion to bus, and by 1970, only a cluster of routes heading out of the Mount Washington Tunnel plus the former interurban lines remained.
By the late 60s it was obvious that transit in Pittsburgh needed a change. With plans for brand new, futuristic, suburban minded rapid transit systems were being drawn up in San Francisco (BART),26 and Washington (WMATA Metro), Pittsburgh decided to “get on the train”. The locally based Westinghouse (one of them, there were dozens of related Westinghouses over time) designed the Skybus concept. It consisted of automated rubber tyred cars on an elevated guideway, being an early example of a people mover. A demonstrator was built in the southern suburbs; however the idea died due to lack of interest and political opposition.
The Mt. Washington Tunnel was paved for buses in 1973.
After the final death of the Skybus in 1975, an independent engineering firm was hired. Their report suggested a light rail and busway system. This, in addition to resulting in the light rail system, would also eventually result in the construction of Pittsburgh’s busways (East, West, and South).
By that time the streetcar network consisted of surface loop tracks through downtown, the tunnel, a merger of earlier routes to bypass the tunnel, the Beechview and Overbrook Lines, and the cut-back interurban lines. Rolling stock was exclusively PCCs.
Rolling Stock notes: In 1976 and 1977 a pair of PCCs were rebuilt with an unusual buslike “LRV” front. This happened due to a lack of spare parts, but is interesting nonetheless. Unfortunately both vehicles have since been scrapped.
The Port Authority got to work.
A federal grant for the construction of a subway was awarded in 1979.
Rolling Stock notes: In 1980 and 1981 about a dozen PCCs were rebuilt and renumbered to the 4000 series. They included significant amounts of new components, and allowed the PAAC to somewhat lengthen the lifespan of their PCCs. Pittsburgh certainly had a higher number of PCC rebuilds than any other North American city.
Renovation of the lines started in late 1980, and in 1984 the first “light rail” section opened. It was a lowly shuttle from Castle Shannon along the northern section of the Washington line. After Dorchester it diverted from the line to the west to serve the South Hills shopping complex with one station, and a yard. The line was served by new articulated SD-400s.
Rolling Stock notes: Many PCCs were fitted with pantographs around this time. Pittsburgh and Newark were the only two North American cities to commit such crimes.
In 1985 Pittsburgh’s downtown subway opened. It used the Pittsburgh & Steubenville Extension Railroad Tunnel (remember it?) and extended it by two stations (Wood St. and Gateway) into the core on one end, and connected it to Station Square and the Mt. Washington Tunnel on the other. This allowed for the removal of surface tracks in downtown. Because arranging the operation of the SD-400s in the tunnel was logistically difficult, the subway was originally served by PCCs only, and the stations were fitted with low level platforms. An LRV shuttle started running to Station Square later that year.
The renovated Beechview Line “opened” in 1987. The renovation included constructing a tunnel to bypass street running in Dormont, and double tracking the connection to Castle Shannon and making it a part of regular service.
In 1989 LRVs started using the line to Library, and in 1993 the tunnel bypass (Allentown/Brown) line.
The Overbrook Line, at the time partially single track, with deteriorating bridges, was closed in 1993. A portion of it was shared with the South Busway, which continued service. The Overbrook Line reopened with LRVs in 2004, on a new alignment slightly to the east. The South Busway continues to use the old alignment.
The branch to Drake, which was never renovated, was shut down in 2000 due to a budget cut, and with that the PCCs were retired.
In 2010 the lines gained their current names, with the Silver Line considered part of the Blue Line at the time.
2011 saw the Brown Line being cut, as you know.
The North Shore connector opened in 2012 following the closure of Gateway station for relocation in 2008. The extension included a new Gateway station, the crossing of the Allegheny, and two new stations serving some stadiums.
After this no significant changes were made, except for some service changes and the branding of the Library Branch as the Silver Line.
If you want more nuanced service changes, check out this animated history by Vanishing Underground:
While it does skip over the streetcars, it also includes the busways and commuter rail.
Heading into the future, Pittsburgh’s quirky system seems to be doing well. Currently there are no extensions in serious planning, though PAAC hinted at the return of Penn Station and Allentown service. There have been calls to extend the trunk a bit north to Manchester, or bend it to the airport, but nothing has advanced yet. In the near future the SD-400’s will need replacement in some form. I can see S200s coming to replace them, but nothing has been done about this yet.
The mix of high and low level platforms has been described as “cost efficient yet effective”, however I think it causes more trouble than benefit at times, posing accessibility and rolling stock acquisition barriers.
How does this winding, and strikingly unstandard system compare to other systems?
Frequency: By American standards, this frequency is delightful. 5 minute core rush (and 10 minutes off peak) provides Pittsburgh the rapid transit service it always wanted. There really isn’t much to say other than that “I finally found a competent agency for once!”, especially after Cleveland.
Fares: First of all, Pittsburgh doesn’t seem to use faregates, giving said subway a much more continental vibe. However the payment is asymmetrical, as you pay when entering going north and the other way going south.27 This is confusing and counterproductive. The fare of $2.50 is nice and round, and the fare system being permissive of transfers is nice.
Character: Excluding (excusing) the street running sections, the RoW of the system combined with overall mixed grade separation makes it really similar to typical 80s systems, as such it’s no wonder it uses stock similar to that of Sacramento, St. Louis, or Denver. The mix of platform levels does make it confusing, because it’s like Pittsburgh can’t decide whether it prefers the HFLR or 80s LR club, but both are good choices though.
Stations can vary from full on subway to a concrete patch with a bench, reflective of the large variations in density throughout.
With its exclusive interurban-heritage RoW, separated or not, subway sections, and some street running Pittsburgh certainly makes it hard to decide. However I think Pittsburgh deserves the category of HFLR, standing for High Floor Light Rail, which is for cities that invested in well, high floor light rail, a metrolike system but with the right corners cut.28 This of course ignores the low level platforms, though considering that this is a first gen system, and platform height conversion being hard, I’ll give it a pass.
The images have been credited to their respective owners in the caption of each image
Due to the unprofessional nature of this blog, sources will be cited in a simple manner, with no formats yet. Sources used are:
- Google Maps
- Port Authority of Allegheny County website:
- Father Pitt: The Pittsburgh LRV
- CAF’s website: Pittsburgh LRVs page
- WESA: How Pittsburgh Transit Evolved From Horse-Drawn Streetcars To The Modern T
- Pittsburgh Post Gazette archives: Pittsburgh’s trolley history
- Joseph Brennan at Columbia University:
- Pittsburgh Southern (all pages)
- Public Source: Mapping Pittsburgh-area transit
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