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Salt Lake City: US's newest light rail line

As J.W. Vigrass explains, electric traction has returned to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake after an absence of 47 years.

Part 1: The Background.

America gained another rail line on 4th December, when Utah Transit Authority's TRAX - TRAnsit EXpress began operating between central Salt Lake City, Utah and suburban Sandy, Utah, 23.5 km to the south. The Bamberger Railroad had ceased electric interurban passenger operation between Salt Lake City and Ogden (about 58 km) in September 1952.

Neat signage is a feature of the system. J. W Vigrass

A two-car train on Main Street's retail core, passing the ZCMI Center mall on street track. J W Vigrass

The creation and birth of TRAX was at times contentious and there were some local residents who vocally opposed it and were certain that no one would ride it. Response by the local population was instantaneous and enthusiastic. The 23-car fleet of Siemens SD100 type LRVs was based on a forecast of 14 000 rides per average weekday and would have been carried by eight two-car trains on a ten-minute headway during weekday peaks. This would have left a comfortable margin of spare cars. Almost immediately 18 000 to 20 000 rides per day were carried. This required seven three-car trains for a total of 21 cars of a fleet of 23 on the road during 9 each peak period. Standees were commonplace. Parking spaces were filled early in the day. TRAX had become the mode of choice for many persons who had reason to travel to and from central Salt Lake City.

TRAX attracted people who had not previously used transit. About 45% of TRAX riders were new to UTA. Traditional transit riders were also seen in large numbers, many transferring from a reconfigured bus system feeding TRAX. Careful planning went into the bus system.

The city centre terminus at Delta Center (a sports and entertainment centre) is opposite the former Union Pacific Railroad station, now used for other purposes. A small Amtrak station lies 1.5-km to the west. J W Vigrass

Start-up planning was for trains to operate every ten minutes during the peak and every 15 minutes between peaks. During the evening, a 30-minute headway was planned. This was good in comparison to UTA bus service which is sparse after 19.00. Saturday has a 15-minute headway all day, with 30 minutes in the evening. No Sunday service was planned, a policy decision in keeping with the bus system. UTA's budget does not include Sunday service (with a few exceptions).

It was not surprising evening ridership was good over Christmas, but many people were surprised when substantial evening patronage continued into the New Year. It was evident that TRAX was the mode of choice for many people who desired to go downtown during the evening. In April 2000 the timetable was changed to a two car train every 20 minutes until 22.00 (then 30 minutes to midnight) six evenings a week. While Salt Lake City is a metropolitan area of large geographic size, its population is moderate at about 1.5 million, and its central area rather compact, described as six square blocks. It is nonetheless a very active place. Salt Lake County, the immediate area, has a population of about 900 000. The Delta Center, home of the Utah Jazz professional basketball team and popular concerts and other entertainment, is an important regional venue. About 15% of attendees now use TRAX.

Paved track on 200 West and 700 South has low-profile catenary, supported by tubular poles. While not as ornate as Main St, the result is neat. Grass separates tracks on 200 West. J W Vigrass

Most importantly, Temple Square with its historic and modern buildings is the home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, known as Mormons. It is a significant tourist destination. Guided tours are offered more or less continually (it should be noted that only confirmed members of the LDS Church are permitted inside the Temple). The tallest building in Salt Lake City is the modem LDS Office Building which houses several thousand employees of the Church. Another office building houses LDS genealogical files said to be the most comprehensive of any on earth. People from across the world come to research their ancestry.

Click on image for larger view

There are two city centre malls and numerous retail establishments. The major department store, ZCMI - Zion's Co-operative Mercantile Institution - is the oldest department store in the US, dating from 1868 when Salt Lake City was not only the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco, but was the only significant city.

Salt Lake City is a 'City' not only by its incorporated American political status, but it would also be a 'City' by British tradition of having a cathedral. The Mormon Temple would be a cathedral by any measure. There are also Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox cathedrals.

Salt Lake City is the capital of the State of Utah. The domed Capitol is just three blocks north of Temple Square, on a commanding hill overlooking the city. State office buildings are nearby, housing thousands of civil servants. While central Salt Lake City is not large, it is a busy place.

A brief history

The history of Utah and Salt Lake City is unique and deserves some attention. It all began about 1830 in a forest in upstate New York when Joseph Smith was led to some golden plates by an angel, Mahonri. The angel translated an ancient language on the plates and Smith wrote out the Book of Mormon. The plates were seen by several others, then disappeared forever, but the Book of Mormon became the foundation of a new religion founded by Smith. The Book of Mormon describes events in North America after the time of the New Testament. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints includes the Old and New Testaments and Book of Mormon as scriptures.

The new church quickly attracted converts. It also attracted opposition and persecution because of its unconventional beliefs and practice of polygamy. Smith then took his flock west to Ohio, Missouri and to Illinois, founding a new town, Nauvoo. Their beliefs and practices again drew persecution, culminating in the arrest and lynching of Smith and his brother Hyrum. Leadership of the Church fell upon Brigham Young who resolved to move to a place where they could live and worship as they pleased.

They got as far as the Missouri River in the middle of 1846 at what is now Council Bluffs, Iowa, and crossed to the west-bank at what is now Omaha, Nebraska. There they built a tent city called Winter Quarters near present day Florence, Nebraska. As soon as weather cleared in the spring of 1847, an advance party of 148 crossed the Great Plains, and the Rocky Mountains, and on 24 July 1847, came to a mountain pass at what was later known as Emigration Canyon. The party could see that the valley contained not only the Great Salt Lake, but also a large fresh water lake to the south, soon named Utah Lake, connected to the Great Salt Lake by what was named the River Jordan. The 'This is the place' monument at the site commemorates that event. The advance party descended the canyon and proceeded to where Salt Lake City now stands. A Territorial government was established in 1850 with Brigham Young appointed first governor of Utah.

The Mormons believe in sobriety, a work ethic, education and strong family values. Immigrants continued to arrive, and the city grew. One category of immigrants was 'the handcart people' who were too poor to afford wagons. Many were converts from Great Britain. They built wooden handcarts at what was then the railhead, and walked 1350 miles to Salt Lake City. A monument in Temple Square commemorates their trek. At the present time about 70% of Utah residents are Mormon.

In 1869 the Union Pacific Railroad reached Ogden, and continued straight west, avoiding Salt Lake City. Connection was made 10 May 1869, with the Central Pacific at Promontory, Utah to complete the Pacific Railroad. Brigham Young and his people quickly organised a short line to build the 56-km connection. The UP soon bought the branch, and it later became part of their Los Angeles & Salt Lake main line. Salt Lake City was connected to the rest of what became known as the general railroad system of the US. It made immigration easier, and a flood of new arrivals populated the western states during the latter half of the 19th century. Salt Lake City became the thriving business center for the intermountain region between Denver and San Francisco.

Utah entered the Union 4 January 1896, the 45th state, after a long period of controversy about the Mormon practice of polygamy, which was officially given up in 1890. The US Congress had demanded that the Utah constitution specifically prohibit polygamy, and it was not until that was done that Utah was admitted. Utah is a large state of 82,973 square miles. The Valley of the Great Salt Lake is some 1550 m above sea level and is bounded on the east by the Wasatch Front Range of the Rocky Mountains and to the west by the Great Salt Lake, the Bonneville Salt Flats and the Oquirrh Mountains. The Valley is the natural north-south path, and has been used from time immemorial by the local inhabitants, the Utes, by later railroads and roads, and in the present day by Interstate 15, the principal north-south highway. Branch line railroads were built in Utah, primarily to serve mines. Iron, copper, non-ferrous and precious metals were all found in the area. Agriculture provided a stable life for many.

In the latter 19th century, horse/mule car lines were built in Salt Lake City. Around the turn of the 20th century, they were electrified and after some mergers, grew into the Utah Light & Traction Company (UL&T). Its street railway tracks covered the urban area like a checkerboard by the 1920s. The State Street line was extended to Murray, Midvale and Sandy to become an interurban line serving the same communities now served by TRAX. The line was abandoned in 1927, replaced by buses. In 1928 UL&T became a pioneer trolleybus operator and by 1941 had converted most of the system to trolleybus or motorbus. The US Office of Defense Transportation ordered UL&T to restore tram service on a few lines that were still intact until the end of WWII. In 1944, the power company sold out to National City Lines, which favoured motor buses. The few remaining tramways were quickly converted to motorbus, and trolleybus lines followed. Salt Lake City was an all-bus metropolitan area until 1999 when TRAX began operation.

A locally promoted railroad, the Salt Lake & Ogden, was built during 1892-1908 to provide local service between its named termini, because the UPRR was not much interested in short-haul low-revenue traffic, whether freight or passenger. It was electrified by 1910 and renamed the Bamberger Electric Railroad after the family that owned it, a rare case of naming a railroad after its owners. Later the 'electric' was dropped so freight shippers would not be misled to think that the railroad did not handle carload railroad freight. President of the railroad was Simon Bamberger who was elected governor of the State of Utah 1916-1920 at which time his son, Julian, became president of the railroad. He served to the end of operations. It provided a general hourly passenger service, with local, limited and in its later years, 'flyer' service that made the trip in one hour flat, including stops. Flyers were typically operated by one of the five Brill Bullet lightweight cars capable of 120 km/h, purchased second hand during the 1930s. The Bamberger succumbed to highway competition later than most interurbans, dropping passenger service in September 1952, and freight a few years later, in 1959.

The success of the Bamberger Electric Railroad prompted development of several other electric interurban railways. During 1912-1913 the Salt Lake & Utah Railroad was built southward from Salt Lake City to Orem and Payson, 107 km. This line used 1500 V dc, well suited to its longer distance. Its trains could also run on 750 V in Salt Lake City. It shared a union terminal with the Bamberger. Up to 18 trains a day were operated, with a train every two hours being typical. This reflected the low population in its region as well as two competing steam railroads, the Union Pacific and the Denver & Rio Grande Western. SL&U also had a branch to Magna, 24 km west of Salt Lake City. A 1945 timetable listed four trains a day each way. The SL&U was never profitable, and ended service in May 1946.

Another 1500 V long haul interurban was built north from Ogden. The Utah-Idaho Central Railroad absorbed several predecessor companies in 1918 serving the sparsely populated Cache Valley via a 'Z' shaped route following that valley. It served several small communities, and competed with the Oregon Shore Line of the Union Pacific Railroad. The U-IC always suffered from low traffic, and even in its better years operated only three to five trains a day over its 150-km route. It succumbed to highway competition and was abandoned in February 1947. It shared a small station in Ogden with the Bamberger. Ogden had its own local street railway, the Ogden Rapid Transit Co., absorbed by the U-IC. All local tram service ended by 1935.

(To be continued)

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