Monday, June 25, 2012

WALLY in Texas - part 2

In the previous post, I mentioned two WALLY-like commuter rail projects in Texas: Austin and Denton. I wrote about Austin's, so let's take a look now at Denton's.

Denton County A-Train

In conversation with Charles Emery, Chairman of the Denton County Transportation Authority (DCTA), I learned that Denton County began its efforts to use this rail line in June of 2001, the first year of DCTA's existence. Mr. Emery and his friends were very active in promoting the A-Train concept, bringing their message to each jurisdiction within Denton County, to Austin (the state capital), and to Washington D.C.

The Alternatives Analysis, begun in 2004 and approved in 2005, recommended the route now being used, just east of I-35E. The Final Environmental Impact Statement was completed three years later, but rather than apply for Federal funds, DCTA used funds from the Regional Transportation Council and a local sales tax, the latter approved by 72% of county voters in 2010.

As usual with old rail lines, a fair amount of work had to be done to make it suitable for passenger traffic. Stations were designed and built, track was doubled at some of the stations, and an overpass was built to clear a busy highway. A long bridge over an arm of Lewisville Lake appears to have been in good enough condition to leave as-is.

Interestingly, many of the crossings were modified to meet recently-issued "quiet zones" standards, where sounding the train horn is only required if the engineer considers the situation to be of concern. In order to be a "quiet zone", the Federal Railway Administration (FRA) requires measures that prevent motorists from driving around lowered gates. One grade crossing has "wayside horns" which are intended to focus the warning sounds onto the roadway, thus reducing the overall noise level. (These don't meet the noise reduction goal, in my opinion. A train is required to sound the warning pattern only once, but the wayside horns sound the pattern repeatedly, until the train has entered the crossing - and they're loud and ugly-sounding!)

Budd RDCs on DCTA's line approaching Medpark Station from the south
When the line was ready for service, the railcars that had been ordered were neither ready nor approved by the FRA. So DCTA leased ten classic Budd rail diesel cars (RDCs) from DART. These cars had been used by Trinity Railway Express for several years, running between Dallas and Fort Worth. And before that, they had been in use since the 1950s and '60s on various railways around the country and in Canada. Using the Budds, service began on June 20, 2011, and when I rode the A-Train last Thursday, these sturdy classics were going strong. Chatting with the conductor, however, I learned that keeping them running was both expensive and difficult: parts are no longer available for them, so when anything wears out, parts have to be machined individually. They are also heavy, meaning that they use much more fuel than the lighter Stadler vehicles which were on order. But I was thrilled to be able to ride such classic railcars! They give a feeling of solid, dependable comfort, despite their practical difficulties.

It was during my chat with the conductor that I learned the Stadler railcars had arrived several months ago. They are made in Switzerland, not far from Zurich, and are very widely used in Europe. (I saw many of them in local service when I was in Germany last month). As I mentioned in the Austin post, because they are made to European standards, the FRA restricted their use to tracks that have no "heavy" U.S. built passenger or freight running on them. Two weeks previously, however, the FRA issued a waiver for the Stadlers, so DCTA would be running one the first time in revenue service on Saturday.
So with some careful planning, I arrived at Trinity Mills Station, where passengers can transfer from the DART Green Line to the DCTA A-Train. I was in plenty of time to set up my tripod and get video footage of the Stadler's first revenue arrival; that footage (unedited) is up on YouTube.

Left: DCTA Chief Operating Officer, mechanic (in camoflage);
Right: Federal Railroad Administration officer

On board, I found a group of happy officials, including Mr. Emery, several other DCTA Board members, operating officials, a representative of the Federal Railway Administration, a Stadler customer engineer, and a DCTA mechanic - one of the "magicians" who had kept the Budd RDCs going. Oh yes - and several wives, children, and grandchildren of DCTA people, not to mention a few dazed-looking passengers who were just trying to get from point A to point B. I was honored to be the second person to have their ticket checked by the conductor (but disappointed not to be the first!).

From Wikipedia:

A-train (Denton County Transportation Authority)

I want to give the Stadler vehicles a full posting on their own, so I won't say any more about them here. Instead, let's look at the DCTA line and its performance so far. I've said this is like the WALLY line, and it many respects it is. But there are some important differences, too. Unlike WALLY and Austin's MetroRail, the A-Train line does not have a single, well identified "anchor". For Austin, it's the city's downtown. For WALLY, it's the University of Michigan's North Campus and the hospital. A-Train runs from Trinity Mills Station in North Carrollton (population 119,097), a suburb 20 miles north of downtown Dallas, to Denton (pop. 113,383), a suburb 41 miles north. And Denton is home to the University of North Texas (enrollment about 34,000) and a campus of Texas Woman's University (enrollment about 15,000) giving it a student population of about 49,000. (University of Michigan enrolls about 43,000.) DCTA runs the campus bus service for UNT.

The line has a total of six stations. Just south of Denton, served by the Medpark station, is a cluster of medical facilities: Denton Regional Hospital, a 208-bed full-service facility; North Texas Hospital, a smaller organization; and the usual group of doctors' offices that surround hospitals. Medpark station is also the site of an obvious transit-oriented development, an expanding apartment complex.
Apartment complex expanding at Medpark Station

Another obvious TOD is Victoria Station in Denton (not a real station), which looks like a renovated legacy building, but is actually newly built one block from the Denton transit center.
Victoria "Station" - new apartments 1 block from Denton Intermodal Transit Center
South of Medpark are three intermediate stations that are suburban in character and - like all the others - feature large park-and-ride lots.

This Denton Transit Center anchors the north end of the line. It's a new facility that includes a large, air-conditioned waiting room, ticket office, meeting rooms, operator lounge, public rest rooms and parking lot. There are bus bays for several local bus lines. The train platform is across the bus drive from the building and fenced off so that passengers have to walk around to one end or the other to reach the platform itself - a minor inconvenience.
Denton Intermodal Transit Center
Left: Park-and-Ride, Waiting-Ticketing-Meeting
Right: A-Train shelter and platform

Yonah Freemark, in The Transport Politic, has criticized the A-Train pretty harshly. Without actually using the phrase, he described it as a train to nowhere. It is true that the south end at Trinity Mills station isn't a destination in itself - it's a transfer point to the Green Line light rail. Freemark points out that the DCTA express bus (route 101) gets to downtown Dallas faster than taking the train and changing to light rail.

He offers the helpful suggestion of running the A-Train on the light rail line to downtown as a "tram-train", but wonders why DART would want to let DCTA do this. My observation has been that the region's transit agencies are very cooperative with one another - DART cooperates with Fort Worth's system, "The T" and jointly, these two agencies own Trinity Railway Express, the commuter line that connects Dallas with Fort Worth and the DFW Airport. With light rail running at 20-minute peak hour headways, it should be a fairly trivial dispatching exercise to run the A-Train as a limited express to downtown and back, stopping only at stations like Bachman (where the Orange Line branches off toward DFW airport), Inwood-Love Field (Dallas's second airport), Parkland Medical station, and Victory station (sports arena and transfer point for the TRE) before leaving the Green Line and arriving at Dallas Union Station. This doesn't involve any "street running", and the weight of the Stadler units is probably comparable to light rail vehicles; so if FRA and FTA give their approval for the operation (granted: a non-trivial assumption!) all that's needed would be a short track connecting the DCTA and DART lines at Trinity Mills.

Left: DCTA Small Cities Board Member Tom Spencer
Right: DCTA Boad Chair Charles Emery
Freemark certainly makes good points, but much of what he faults the A-Train for is...not doing everything at once. DCTA is making a good start with a view to encouraging sustainable development around transit stations. Mr. Emery emphasized to me his concern about unsustainable sprawl in Denton County, and explained his vision of using the rail service as both an alternative to the high cost of driving, and as a catalyst for more compact, walkable development. Emery is a man of vision who knows how to make dreams come true. I applaud him for that, and wish for the A-Train both great ridership and significant TOD.

Dallas-area Rail Services

To conclude my posts on transit in Texas (for now, anyway), here's a summary of rail in the Dallas area.

The Dallas area has equipped itself with several rail transit services in the last couple of decades:

  • Light rail, starting about 1996: Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) Red, Blue, and Green lines in operation; Orange line under construction.
  • Trinity Railway Express, starting in December, 1996: a commuter line connecting Dallas with Fort Worth and DFW International Airport (main hub of American Airlines)
  • Denton County A-Train, began service in June, 2011: the newest addition, running from North Carrollton to Denton.
DART and Fort Worth's transit agency, "The T", each own 50% of Trinity Railway Express (TRE). They are considering a fourth area rail service, another commuter line using an existing rail corridor originally owed by the Cotton Belt Railroad, and now mostly owned by DART. North Texas is a prime illustration of how an automobile-dominated region can quickly come to realize the important benefits of rail transit. It takes cooperation between jurisdictions, vision, and persistence, but once a single rail line is in, citizens and businesses can't get enough.

To learn more:

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