Author: Steven Vance

I tried to see the Vatican City train station

Vatican City has a train station but you cannot see it. You can, however, see the large gates within the papal state’s wall that enclose the train station and separate it from the main railway network in Italy. 

Beyond the gates is the Vatican City railway station
Beyond the gates is the Vatican City railway station

The Citta Vaticano railway station is on a branch on the Roma-Capranica-Viterbo mainline and nominally connected to the Roma San Pietro train station which serves Trenitalia regional trains, including the numbered Lazio region commuter lines

Railway branch to Vatican City

There is one way to visit the train station and that’s to take a Vatican City-sponsored day trip from the station to the Pontifical Villages about 15 miles southeast of Rome. In 2022, the trips are offered on Saturdays through October 29 and cost about €43. 

A proposal intended for visitors interested in taking part in a tour of the Vatican City and the Gardens of the Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo.

Every Saturday, a modern and comfortable electric train connects the historic Vatican City railway station with the Pontifical Villas for a Full Day visit that, starting with the wonders of the Vatican Museums and continuing through the Vatican Gardens, will lead the visitor to discover the Gardens of the Pontifical Villas.

Pope Francis opened the villas and Castel Gandolfo in 2015. Watch an AFP video in English or in French about the news.

Watch this video from The Round the World Guys – skip to 5:58 – for a view of the station and their ride to the villas. (I thought The Tim Traveller also made a video about the Vatican City railway station but I cannot find it on his YouTube channel.)

When I was in Rome this month – part of a longer trip to Rome, Florence, Lyon, Strasbourg, the Netherlands, and Germany – I wanted to see what I could see, so I walked south and west around the wall towards the San Pietro station. A street follows the southern wall; walk along this and you’ll come to an entry to a railroad viaduct. At this point, it’s at ground level, but to the left (south) the ground quickly slopes down several stories. The viaduct holds the branch from the main line and you can walk across it to San Pietro station. 

If that’s too difficult to follow, go to the San Pietro station, go up to binario (platform) 1, and walk towards the large St. Peter’s Basilica you see to the right.

Railway to Vatican City

Chicago Crash Browser is back

ChicagoCrashes dot org was, for many years, the only source for people to get information about traffic crashes in Chicago. I started it in 2011.

Chicago Crash Browser v0.2
A screenshot of Chicago Crash Browser v0.2 showing what the website looked like on December 30, 2011.

It was updated annually with data from two years ago, because of how the Illinois Department of Transportation processed the reports from all over the state. I shut it down because it had outdated code, I was maintaining it in my free time, and I didn’t want to update the code or spend all the time every year integrating the new data.

In 2015, the Chicago Police Department started testing an electronic crash reporting system in some districts that meant police officers could write reports and they would immediately show up in a public database (in the city’s data portal). The CPD expanded this to all districts in September 2017. (A big caveat to using the new dataset is that it has citywide data for only four and a half years.)

Since then, whenever someone asked me for crash data (mostly from John to illustrate Streetsblog Chicago articles), I would head to the data portal and grab data from just the block or intersection where someone had recently been injured or killed. I would load the traffic crash data into QGIS and visualize it. I found this also to be painstaking.

Now, with renewed attention on the common and unfixed causes of KSIs (“industry” term for killed or seriously injured) that we’re seeing repeatedly across Chicago – read about the contributing cause of Gerardo Marciales’s death – I decided to relaunch a version of Chicago Crash Browser.

The new version doesn’t have a name, because it’s part of the “Transportation Snapshot” in Chicago Cityscape, the real estate information platform I operate. It’s also behind a paywall, because that’s how Chicago Cityscape is built.

I wanted to make things a lot easier for myself this round and it comes with a lot of benefits:

  • Explore all crash reports in a given area, whether that’s one you draw yourself or predefined in the Cityscape database.
  • Quickly filter by crash type (bicyclist, pedestrian, etc.) and injury severity.
  • Download the data for further analysis.
A screenshot of a map and data table visualizing and describing traffic crash reports in Columbus Park.
What the crash data looks like within Chicago Cityscape.

How to access the Chicago Crash Browser

The crash data requires a Cityscape membership. I created a new tier of membership that cannot be signed up – I must grant it to you. It will give you access only to Transportation Snapshots.

  • Create a free account on Chicago Cityscape. The site uses only social networks for creating accounts.
  • Mention or DM me on Twitter, @stevevance, saying you’d like access to the crash data. Tell me what your email you used to create an account on Chicago Cityscape.
  • I’ll modify your membership to give you access to the “transportation tier” and tell you to sign out and sign back in to activate it.

Once you’re in, this video shows you how to draw a “Personal Place” and explore the traffic crash data there. Text instructions are below.

  1. From the Chicago Cityscape homepage, click on “Maps” in the menu bar and then click “Draw your own map”.
  2. On the “Personal Place” page that appears with a large map, decide which shape you’d like to draw: a circle with a radius that you specify (good for intersections), a square or rectangle (good for street blocks), or an arbitrary polygon (good for winding streets in parks). Click the shape and draw it according to the onscreen instructions. For intersections I recommend making the circle 150 feet for small intersections and 200 feet for long intersections; this is because intersections have an effect on driving beyond the box.
  3. Once you’ve completed drawing the shape, a popup window appears with the button to “view & save this Personal Place”. Click that button and a new browser tab will open with something called a “Place Snapshot”.
  4. In the Place Snapshot enter a name for your Personal Place and click the “Save” button.
  5. Scroll down and, under the “Additional Snapshots” heading, click the link for “Transportation & Jobs Snapshot”; a new browser tab will open.
  6. In Transportation Snapshot, scroll down and look for “Traffic crashes”. You’ve made it to the new Chicago Crash Browser.

S-Bahn, RER, and Overground

This blog post was inspired by Steven Lucy’s comments on Twitter about three different “regional rail” networks.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced in her State of the State speech the other day that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), a state authority that operates New York City’s transit, would do a feasibility study for the “The Triboro” (or “Interborough Express”).

The line would use existing freight railroad rights of way to connect Queens and Brooklyn (ironically there isn’t a third borough connection).

Screenshot of a tweet from @RegionalPlan on January 5, 2022. Text of the tweet: “🚨 TRIBORO IS MOVING FORWARD 🚨 @GovKathyHochul just announced @MTA will launch an environmental impact statement for Interborough Express, an above-ground rail line using existing tracks through Brooklyn and Queens, and two-thirds of RPA’s Triboro proposal #StateOfTheStateNY

Transit Twitter has been abuzz, as reusing infrastructure is a really good idea!

John Surico, a professor in New York City, tweeted, “Wonder if NYC is about to have its London Overground moment. An overlooked transit project using freight lines, ended up being way more popular than expected. Since led to new routes, changed where Londoners saw themselves living, and connected otherwise disconnected locales.”

Steven Lucy, a business owner in Chicago, said in response, “Everyone says ‘Chicago RER’ or ‘Chicago S-Bahn’ but I think Chicago is ripe for a London-style Chicago Overground.”

I think all three – RER, S-Bahn, and London Overground – can be grouped as “regional rail”, which constitutes passenger trains running between center cities and their suburbs, stopping at the major stations and a few key stations in the cities, at frequencies higher than commuter and intercity rail and lower than rapid transit.

Regional rail is not quite a walk-up-and-board service, but it’s better than having the hourly or every other hour off-peak service that most United States cities with passenger trains endure.

What are they?

Someone asked Lucy, “What’s the difference between those three?”

Lucy: “My view: they all kind of operate similar service but have different histories.”

I’ll summarize those, and show some of my photos since I’ve ridden and experienced all three types of regional rail.

S-Bahn

Lucy: “Most S-Bahn systems share tracks and stations with long-distance trains (Berlin huge exception) and mainly serve one corridor in city center with branches to burbs.”

An S-Bahn train at the Munich Hauptbahnhof
Most S-Bahn trains in Germany have the same livery: Blocks of red with white around the doors. The Munich S-Bahn train is shown above. The Berlin S-Bahn, pictured below, is the oddity.

The “S-Bahn” branding, in particular, is used only in German-speaking countries, while in Denmark you’ll find the S-tog. The Wikipedia article for S-train reports a few other networks with similar branding.

S-Bahn trains typically use the same fare structure as the metros (rapid transit) they intersect with. And, in Germany, most S-Bahn trains look the same! Berlin is a major exception, and there are also some smaller networks with unique liveries. German regional transit is owned by cross-state cooperative transit agencies called “zweckverband” (a singular word there) who can operate lines themselves or contract them to other operators, and often S-Bahn services are contracted to DB, the federally-owned railway corporation.

An S-Bahn train passing the O2 World stadium

RER

Lucy: “RER was built from scratch post-war, mostly underground in city, to relieve both metro lines and traditional commuter rail.”

When used without qualifiers, RER means “Réseau Express Régional” in French, for Regional Express Network, and the term refers to the hybrid system used in Île-de-France, the region that includes Paris and its suburbs. Many of the lines are interlined, meaning they share routes and stop at some of the same stations. That means that some stations will have high-frequency service and appear to have a “walk up and go” function, but not all trains stopping there are going to the same place.

RER double decker commuter train with level boarding
RER trains are double decker. This model also has very wide doors with level boarding. Sydney’s regional rail trains (SydneyTrains) also have very wide doors and level boarding, which facilities expeditious boarding and deboarding.

The acronym works great in English, though –Regional Express Rail – and it’s being used in Toronto to denote a project to increase frequencies on the GO Transit commuter rail lines.

To call something that’s not in Paris “an RER” would mean that a transit authority is increasing the frequencies and service hours (later runs) of a commuter line and adjusting the fare structure to make it usable for more people.

The goal is to build a transit system that supports non-work trips at any time of the day for everyone; rather than weekday rush hour commuters that many regional trains in the United States (cough Metra cough) serve.

It’s debatable whether the Long Island Railroad (LIRR), Metro North Railroad (MNR), and New Jersey Transit (NJT) in the New York City metropolitan area are a type of “RER”. There are some periods in their schedules, outside of peak periods, when there is better than hourly service, but the two systems do not have fare integration with buses, PATH subways, or NYC Subway, adding a barrier to people using the complete network.

London Overground

Lucy: “Overground took over some underused / disused lines and is kind of a lower-capacity mesh to the complement the Underground, mainly non-radial trips.”

On the Transport for London map, all Overground lines share the same hue of orange, and are identified by their geographic names. S-Bahn lines are typically called “Sx” where “x” is a number, and the five RER lines are letters A through E.

Hoxton Overground station
Hoxton station on the East London line.

I think it’s neat that the London Overground runs on original embankments between buildings in the city, making its presence very visible, much like the stations on Chicago’s four-track North Side Main Line (all of the Red, Brown, and Purple Line stations north of North Avenue).

One thing that several people noted in the various branches of conversations on Twitter were the effect on land use and development after the London Overground lines opened. I don’t know the details, but some said it accelerated gentrification.

London Overground train arriving into Hoxton
A London Overground train arrives into Hoxton station.

In Chicago, I don’t think converting Metra to an RER system would accelerate gentrification across the system because the current characteristics that inhibit or mitigate gentrification in many of Chicago’s neighborhoods (one of that characteristics is Chicago’s segregation and aldermanic privilege situation, which is better described by the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance).

The situation would be a little different if Metra added new stations or restored historic stations, as stations change market and neighborhood development fundamentals. For example, there used to be a station (with trains from Metra’s BNSF predecessor) two blocks from where I live in Little Village. The station area is now John G. Shedd Park.

Metra’s current leadership has indicated their desire to increase service frequency, but remains opposed to electrification (a key change to increase service frequency and operational efficiency and reducing costs) and has not indicated a desire to revamp their operations “style”.

INVEST South/West funding sources come from several corporations and philanthropies

It’s always been clear that the dollar figures in Mayor Lightfoot’s administration’s INVEST South/West talking points was a combination of existing city-funded projects and future projects to be funded by city and non-city funded sources.

Now I have a better idea of where the non-city funding comes from.

In November 2021, Lightfoot announced the two-year anniversary of ISW and said it “generated $1.4 billion in investment commitments to date”.

Here’s how they get to $1.4 billion:

  • $525 million in city investments
  • $300 million in the RFP projects in the ISW corridors (mostly mixed-use with an affordable housing component)
  • And $575 million in “corporate and philanthropic commitments”
The vacant lot on the left of Ogden Avenue is one of the INVEST South/West RFP sites. The police station parking lot on the right will also be redeveloped. Both are getting mixed-use (housing + retail) developments.

It’s the last funding source, of “corporate and philanthropic commitments”, that I was most interested in, so I asked the Chicago Department of Planning & Development to break that down. The breakdown follows:

  • Over $200 million in commitments towards housing and small business support from Community Investment Corporation (CIC) and JP Morgan Chase
  • ~$95 million in project costs for Amazon distribution centers in Humboldt Park and Pullman
  • ~$33 million in investment towards the new Southside Discover (the credit card company) call center 
  • $20 million commitment by Fifth Third Bank towards the South Chicago community 
  • $20 million from Fifth Third Bank for opportunity zone investments in ISW neighborhoods 
  • $12.25 million towards the Reclaiming Chicago housing initiative in North Lawndale
  • $10 million from Pritzker Traubert for the Chicago Prize winner on the Auburn Gresham corridor 
  • Over $2 million for the Pre-Development Fund launched by the Chicago Community Trust for minority developers involved in ISW RFPs or Chicago Prize finalists 
  • ~$8 million in capital from the Entrepreneurs of Color Fund
  • $10 million committed from Starbucks for small businesses in ISW neighborhoods 
  • $10 million committed to United Way from BMO Harris Bank in Austin community

Two-flat journal 7: Plans are issued for bid

My architect has issued architectural plans for bidding!

(This happened a month ago, and I don’t dedicate enough time weekly to send the bidding instructions to general contractors and to follow up with them asking if they’re still planning to send a bid.)

If you’re an interested GC, look at the “bid package” where you’ll find…

  • links to the architectural plans
  • structural plans (for the basement)
  • photos of the interior and exterior
  • schedule book

What’s happening in the neighborhood

The house is one block away from the Kedzie Green Line station, which offers a 20-minute ride to downtown or to Oak Park. Behind the station is The Hatchery, a major shared commercial kitchen and food business incubator.

The Cook County Land Bank Authority owns several properties on the block and is marketing these to developers for new housing.

Starting in 2022, the City of Chicago began the process to redevelop land it owns adjacent to the Kedzie station into mixed-use buildings.

How I’ve found general contractors

I’ve already had a few GCs walk through the house and tell me they’re going to submit a bid. I found them either by asking architects I know, and by scouring the Building Permits Browser on Chicago Cityscape.

I filtered the permits, looking for “renovation/alteration”, set the estimated project cost from $100,000 to $400,000, and then skimmed the project descriptions for words like “two-flat” and “rehab”.

I made a list of those contractors and found their phone numbers and emails elsewhere (the city used to include their phone numbers in the building permits dataset, and took it out in 2019 or 2020).

This photo gives you a glimpse of some of the exterior issues (look at the cornice, especially at the far left corner). All of the windows and doors are proposed to be replaced. The awning will be removed eventually (it helps keep the snow off the front porch).