Texans Take the Train To Avoid Traffic Woes
By Jeff Jones
Monday, February 9, 2004
Editor's Note: Gov. Bill Richardson said recently that a commuter train linking Belen to Santa Fe was "on the fast track." In the second of a two-day series, the Journal examines commuter rails service connecting Dallas and Fort Worth.
DALLAS- The heart of the evening rush has arrived, and traffic- a dozen-plus lanes of cars and SUVs on three intertwining freeways- plods along in an endless line of headlights.
"That's no fun right there," Tony Sherwood points out the window as he relaxes in his seat, smoothly rolling past the gridlock at an average clip of 45-50 mph. "It don't change- it's that way until about 8 p.m. I'm not a big fan of sitting in the middle of the road."
For Sherwood and the thousands of others who board the Trinity Railway Express to and from Dallas or Fort Worth each day, one big reminder of why they like their commuter train is on the jammed roads just outside the safety glass.
Board the sleek, red-white-and-blue diesel liner on any given evening and you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who isn't a fan of the 34-mile, $255 million stretch of tracks, trains and stations that links the two metropolitan areas by an hourlong ride.
A slimmed-down version of the TRE is the kind of commuter train line that Gov. Bill Richardson, the state Department of Transportation and the Albuquerque-based Mid-Region Council of Governments are hoping to soon bring to the Rio Grande corridor between Belen, Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
The Texas train, which began full service from Dallas to Fort Worth in December 2001, may have a few lessons for New Mexico. State Transportation Secretary Rhonda Faught and Council of Governments executive director Lawrence Rael visited the line in December, and the council has hired former TRE head Lonnie Blaydes as a consultant in hopes of quick-starting a Belen-to-Bernalillo commuter leg.
"This is my baby, my child," Blaydes said of the Trinity train during an interview early this month from that service's maintenance yard, a cavernous building filled with the heavy, low rumble of train engines, the hiss of air-brake systems and the occasional, shrill blast of a train whistle.
Now, he said, "I'm going out to (New Mexico) to start learning."
Blaydes' baby first began rolling down the track in late 1996, when a 10-mile stretch between Dallas and Irving- one in a continuous string of suburbs between Dallas and Fort Worth- opened. But formal planning for TRE began about seven years before the first whistle blew, Blaydes said.
Paying for it all
Gaining access to the tracks and deciding how to pay for a service are two of the major hurdles a New Mexico commuter train would have to overcome. In TRE's case, those key questions were answered years before service began.
Dallas and Fort Worth in 1984 jointly purchased the railroad corridor for $34 million after the rail-freight company that owned it went bankrupt, Blaydes said. Most of that tab was picked up by the federal government.
At about the same time, voters created and funded the two transit authorities that jointly operate TRE.
Dallas-area residents pay a 1 percent sales tax for Dallas Area Rapid Transit, known as DART, while Fort Worth-area residents pitch in a half-percent sales tax to fund the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, known as The T.
Of the $255 million price tag to build the service, federal transportation dollars paid about $180 million.
The early cost estimate to build a commuter train service between Belen and Bernalillo is $55 million to $75 million, while building a service between Bernalillo and Santa Fe is estimated at $250 million or more. The New Mexico Department of Transportation recently applied with the Federal Transit Administration in hopes of securing up to $50 million for its projects.
One transportation expert said the FTA at one time paid up to 80 percent of the bill to build a new service, but that maximum number has dropped to 50 percent to 60 percent as more cities have asked for the funding.
For a $4.50 daily fare, riders can catch the TRE as many times as they wish and board most connecting buses or the Dallas light-rail system. But Kathy Waters, current director of TRE, said the sales tax money- not ticket sales- is designed to pay the bulk of the estimated $15 million in annual operating costs for TRE.
Waters said the train with the requisite Texas star now provides about 8,000 passenger trips each weekday and 4,000 passenger trips on Saturdays.
"I would say we've been growing 8 to 10 percent a year," she said.
During a recent morning ride on the train, Waters said on-time reliability is one key reason that many riders choose to hang up their car keys and buy a train pass.
The TRE takes about the same amount of time to get between the two cities as a good day's drive on Interstate 30 or Texas Highway 183, which parallels much of the tracks. But a major traffic snarl is just one bad lane change or tailgating incident away, leaving commuters to ask themselves this question:
Do I feel lucky?
The TRE is a "very, very reliable service," Waters said as the train clickety-clacked over a small bridge crossing the Trinity River, from which the service gets its name. "Ninety-seven percent of the time, we're going to get people there in an hour. You can't say that on the road."
Blaydes said spouses of DART workers who ride the commuter have told him there is another benefit: When their wives or husbands come home each night, they're noticeably calmer than when they drove.
"That's really what people are getting: the stress-free, reliable, day-in, day-out," Blaydes said.
The commuter train- actually a series of trains made up of six diesel engines, 17 passenger cars and 13 self-propelled "rail diesel cars"- runs about every 40 minutes to an hour on weekdays, beginning at 5:35 a.m. and ending at 8:45 p.m.
When the evening-rush trains pull out of Dallas' Downtown Union Station, they're full of passengers who spend their time reading, chatting on cell phones, listening to their Walkmans or napping. After the trains reach the end of the line eight stops later in Fort Worth, they're as empty as an echo.
Trains may be a more exciting mode of mass transit than buses, Waters said, but buses are the true backbone of the TRE. They rumble into the train depots minutes before each train arrives and drive away full of passengers minutes later, delivering commuters closer to their jobs or homes.
Creating that well-timed movement between the train and bus services would be another challenge in starting a New Mexico system.
Chris Kirn, a former Farmington resident who lives in Irving, takes the TRE to downtown Dallas, where he works as an inspector for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
When Kirn steps off the train each evening, he waits a grand total of two minutes for a connecting bus that brings him home.
He said he never imagined himself becoming a train commuter, but car problems forced his hand.
"My car was getting fixed. I rode it about a month solid, and I was hooked," he said one recent evening as he relaxed on the top level of a bilevel TRE car.
Kirn said he can recall one evening commute several years ago, before he began taking the TRE.
Due to an ice storm, "it took me three hours to go 20 miles," he said.
Dana McWhorter propped her feet up on one of the few empty chairs a few rows down from Kirn and listened to jazz on her Walkman.
"It probably helps a lot of relationships," McWhorter mused of the train. She said working moms like herself get a chance to unwind before they come home to cooking, kids and homework.
Lucius Green, who lives in Fort Worth and does home repair remodeling and repair work in Dallas, said his doctor told him to stop driving when he underwent triple-bypass heart surgery. He obliged and grabbed a train pass.
"You've got a lot of people on the highway- they're just 'Rage Rats,' I call 'em. Just waiting to ... blow their horns," Green said.
With the TRE, "it's less stressful," Green said. "The thing I like about the train? It's on time. You can pretty much set your watch by it."
Own the rails
Despite its popularity, the TRE isn't immune from hard times. Waters said a slowdown in sales-tax revenue forced the line to scale back service last October, eliminating weekday trips after 8:45 p.m. as well as some weekend trips.
That angered some riders who may not have been relying on the later trains but liked the idea of having them as backup in the event they were running late from work.
Waters said there's no cookbook to follow when starting a new service. But if there's a choice between owning a line and leasing it from a freight company, she would choose ownership.
That's a possibility in New Mexico: The Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway, which owns the tracks in the Rio Grande corridor on which a commuter train would run, has discussed a possible sale.
Whoever owns the track sets its priorities- and freight trains are the No. 1 priority for the freight companies. Buying a line outright makes commuter trains king of the rails.
"If I had my druthers, I'd want to own and control and dispatch the service," Waters said.
Blaydes added that dozens of cities that have tracks running through them are at least eyeing the possibility of commuter rail.
But the freight companies "want to show their house to people who are buying," he said- so it's important for governments to have a concrete plan in place when they sit down at the bargaining table.
"Get your act together before you go talk to the railroad, so you can speak with one voice," Blaydes said.
A fan of the trains
It's after 8 p.m., and one of the last eastbound TRE runs of the night cuts through the light fog and rain of a cool January night.
Only a few passengers are on the train. Benjie Bender is one of them, reading a Christian book under the white lights.
vBender got a few payments behind on his 1999 Mitsubishi Galant and it was repossessed, so he bought a one-month train ticket to help him pass the time before he reports to Army boot camp.
"It's really opened my eyes," Bender said of the TRE. "You see all kinds of people on the train- people who drive their Mercedes and Infinitis up to the park 'n' ride. I'm not so sure that when my fortunes do change, I might find myself parking and riding," Bender said.
"I suggest you get one of these in New Mexico."