Get serious about fixing the QLINE or admit that it's just for show | Opinion

Randy Essex
Detroit Free Press

During the Detroit Free Press/TCF Bank Marathon last month, about 25,000 runners were tracked via GPS technology. Friends and family could follow their progress via phone app and could pretty accurately estimate their arrival time at certain points.

So, while operators have an explanation, it seems baffling that QLINE riders cannot see streetcars' location via the system’s app or get consistently reliable estimates of when the trains will arrive at stations. (In recent days, customers get no information at all about arrival times because the NextBus cloud “solution” used by the QLINE has been down.)

This is just one of many flaws with the system that invites this question:

Is the QLINE functional public transit or a novelty for show?

Right now, it is neither, and at times is an embarrassment. 

M-1 Rail, which runs the QLINE, acknowledges that it is “not where we want with reliability at this moment,” spokesman Dan Lijana told me. Improvements are being made, he said, in arrival estimates and staffing that will improve reliability, though they aren’t visible yet.

This is after two and a half years of operation. This is exasperating. Already, many Detroiters scoff at the streetcar, complain about its unreliability and don’t consider it among transportation options.

As a downtown resident who would like to count on the train, I can say confidently that it has eroded considerably from its first anniversary in May 2018, when Matt Cullen, CEO of M-1 Rail, gave operations a C+ to B-. Last Sunday, early in the Lions’ home game, train arrivals were more than half an hour apart. While that's a high-traffic time, it's also exactly the sort of event during which the trains should be packed and people should be able to count on a reliable alternative to personal vehicles. 

This matters to continued progress in restoring the vitality of the city core. While the rest of Detroit absolutely needs investment and attention — and reliable public transportation must be part of that — the recovery of downtown is not complete, and it's not a certainty that it will grow as an economic engine and magnet for new residents.

Being able to get around downtown without a car — not dealing with congestion and parking costs — makes living in or visiting the city core much more pleasant. That in turn improves the environment for commerce. 

As I've written previously to amusing criticism, my wife and I gave up car ownership in June 2018. Early on, we expected to rely on the train for trips to destinations such as the Detroit Institute of Art, Whole Foods and Midtown restaurants. While we do sometimes take the streetcar to those places, "rely" isn’t quite the right word for using the QLINE. In good weather, scooters or walking often are faster, happier options.

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The Qline heads north on Woodward as heavy snows hit metro Detroit on Monday, Jan. 28, 2019.

The southbound train is particularly troublesome. The cars charge at each end of the line, which is supposed to take 3-5 minutes. But drivers can take breaks only at the north terminus, just past Grand Boulevard. If no relief drivers are available — and Lijana says Transdev, the contractor operating the system has not hired and trained enough drivers — the cars can just sit, as we learned on a very cold day last winter.

This backs up the system in both directions, leaving riders to lean out from stations to peer hopefully but fruitlessly up and down Woodward.

After this much time, these continued problems and, in fact, the deterioration of service, are inexcusable.

Lijana explained the delay in rolling out a better system to give riders a reliable estimate of when the next train will arrive at a stop — a change that was promised early last summer. The reason we don't get to see where the next car is — like we can see the location of an Uber or a marathon runner — is that simply showing location could be deceiving. The streetcar can’t change lanes, so if it’s blocked by traffic or an obstruction, arrival might be several minutes off even if the train car is just a few blocks away. 

A better integration with the NextBus app is in the offing and should happen yet this year, he said. 

The design of the system, with the train sharing Woodward with vehicle traffic, is a daunting, perhaps insurmountable challenge. The system will always deal to some extent with vehicles parked on the tracks, and towing will always take some time. 

At times, I've seen transit police vehicles traversing Woodward with the streetcar at 6 a.m., when the streets are all but empty. But I see this only occasionally at high-traffic times — when parking enforcement might be needed. 

The fine for blocking the tracks can be $250 (plus towing costs), which seems like an adequate deterrent. Perhaps more prominent warning signs would help. The city must commit to clearing snow so people can see the tracks, park legally and not block the rails. 

Serious attention, not incremental tweaking, is needed to keep the QLINE from being a white elephant rumbling up and down the city’s fabled main drag, the butt of jokes like the People Mover — though the latter is, in fact, quite reliable.

Yes, let's make the QLINE as good as the 30-year-old, rattly, squeaky, dependable People Mover. 

Randy Essex:I don't have a car in Detroit: How it went during polar vortex

Contact Randy Essex at REssex@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter@randyessex. Read more on autos and sign up for our autos newsletter.