» A train line adds to the Dallas region’s plethora of rail options.
There are many competing reasons to invest in new transportation capacity, the most compelling of which is often to expand mobility — that is, to increase the number of places an individual can get to within a certain period of time. The need to decrease travel times between major destinations is an essential question for transit, since its major competition, the private automobile, usually provides quicker, more convenient trips.
In cities with high levels of highway capacity per capita, the only transit mode that can compete relatively well in terms of mobility is commuter rail, as its limited stopping pattern and sometimes very high speeds allow it to move faster than even free-flow traffic in some cases. The value of commuter rail is of course disputed since its fast running times tend to encourage decentralization from the center city, but assuming one purpose of transit is to increase mobility, it can be quite productive.
That is, it can be productive if it’s designed to fulfill a real travel need.
Some recent commuter rail lines, like Minneapolis’ Northstar and Austin’s Capital Metrorail, have produced somewhat mediocre ridership because of their limited frequencies and inaccessible downtown termini. They both offer relatively fast transit times from the suburbs to the business core, but their inconvenient operating patterns and difficult-to-get-to stations diminish their value, which explains why few people ride them.
The nation’s newest commuter rail line may be even more questionable and raises significant questions about what its designers and planners were intending when they funded it.
Opening this week, the 21-mile Denton County A-Train connects the far northwestern suburbs of the Dallas region, including Medpark, Lewisville, and Hebron, with the Trinity Mills light rail station in Carrollton — a stop that is itself 38 minutes from the region’s central business district via the Dallas DART Green Line light rail, which opened for service late last year. The new $320 million project is expected to attract 4,000-5,000 passengers a day.
Unlike peer systems almost everywhere else in the county, the A-Train does not provide direct access downtown. Rather, it offers connectivity between suburban destinations, with the possibility of a transfer downtown via DART light rail at North Carrollton. The whole route, including the 8-minute connection? About 80 minutes. Compare that to the express bus service between Denton and Dallas that was offered until now, which could make the link in about one hour.
The now-longer ride will not provide much convenience for people who make the daily commute, and in terms of speed itself it is a downgrade from the old service (though of course the train offers more station stops). To make matters worse, the service is only offered during morning and evening rush hours, with a very occasional bus route filling in the gaps during the midday. While there is currently congestion on the highways between Dallas and its northwestern suburbs, the state is about to begin a $4.4 billion expansion of I-35 East, which follows a route similar to the train. This construction project may increase transit ridership in the short term as people look for an alternative, but its reopening is likely to spur a significant decrease in the advantage of taking the train, especially since it is significantly slower than the express buses it replaced.
Could there have been a feasible alternative? One option could have been extending the DART Green Line (already the nation’s longest light rail route) further north, but this would have come at an incredible cost; the construction expenditures required to install a pair of dedicated tracks and the catenary required for light rail would be far higher than that needed for infrequent and diesel-powered commuter rail operating on tracks shared with the freight railroads, as is the A-Train.
Another possibility could have been extending the commuter rail line all the way into downtown Dallas along a mostly single-tracked freight line. But this would have been difficult to justify, as it would require upgrades to a track almost directly adjacent to the Green Line.
Then there is the third option, which arguably would have been the most effective: Allowing A-Trains to run express along Green Line tracks. Using tram-train equipment now increasingly common in Europe, the commuter trains could use occasional bypass tracks to make their trip around light rail trains stopped at stations. This is effectively what occurs in Lyon, France, where the Rhônexpress airport train shares a portion of its tracks with the T3 tramway. Not stopping at the majority of the T3 stations allows the airport train to save five minutes compared to a 25-minute trip on the tram.*
Unfortunately, this compromise approach never had the chance to come into being. The fact that Denton County is not a sales tax-paying member of DART (but rather operates its own agency, DCTA) poses a major obstacle; why would DART make an effort to incorporate services by another entity into its plans if the two did not cooperate? This project may come to be interpreted as yet another failure of American metropolitan areas to act regionally.
Similarly, the Federal Railroad Administration’s rules on the sharing of tracks between freight and lighter passenger trains make it almost impossible to foresee the A-Train simply continuing along Green Line tracks as an occasional service from downtown Dallas, even though the trains purchased to be added to the A-Train fleet next year would be able to do so technically.** Even without bypass tracks, the ability to avoid the transfer at Trinity Mills would save commuters at least eight minutes. But this would require true cooperation between Denton County and DART. The A-Train is planned to have a connection into the proposed Cotton Belt rail line that will run somewhat circumferentially around the region, but that project has yet to be funded.
The fact that the A-Train never reaches downtown, however, could be interpreted as a positive feature of the system, reflecting on the area’s dispersed living patterns. In a highly suburbanized metropolitan area like Dallas, this may make sense; after all, shouldn’t a city attempt to adapt its transportation offerings to the living patterns of its citizens? And indeed, estimates of the train’s ridership suggest that the majority of its users will be reverse commuters, taking the trip into the suburbs in the morning and and back towards the city at night. Denton and the surrounding towns host a number of universities and medical centers that attract thousands of daily commuters heading out from Dallas County.
Even so, the point remains: If the goal of the A-Train is to encourage mobility — and mobility means speed — the system could have been designed in a way that ensured that those reverse commutes were more effectively quickened.
Whatever the relative benefits of the line, though, perhaps the greatest success of the project’s backers was getting it funded in the first place through the creation of a 1/2-cent sales tax in 2002, approved by the electorate by a wide margin, and the redirection of road tolls, which covered 80% of the cost (no federal dollars were involved to speed up the process).
Denton County is no progressive place; its voters supported McCain over Obama by a 62% to 37% margin in 2008. But for residents of these suburban areas, the promise of a train — in whatever form — was enough to merit their contribution through taxation. One hopes similar networks, which clearly benefit from popular support, can be better designed to satisfy the needs of more people in the future.
* On the shared portion from Gare Part Dieu to Meyzieu.
** The A-Train is currently running with older trains borrowed from the Trinity Railroad Express, which runs from Dallas to Fort Worth.
Image above: Light rail in Dallas, from Flickr user Retail Mania (cc)