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Dallas: The US urban rail pathfinder

Kinki Sharyo-supplied car 107 leads a coupled set awaiting departure to Rowlett on the recently-opened Blue line southern terminus at UNT Dallas on 18 May 2017.

The growth of urban rail across the Dallas Metroplex continues at an astonishing rate.

In the 18 months since TAUT last visited, all modes of rail-based public transport have seen significant extensions, including DART’s Blue light rail line, the Dallas Streetcar and the McKinney Avenue heritage trolley (M-Line). But the ambition doesn’t stop there.

There are two planned commuter rail routes linking both ends of the metroplex to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) either in the construction or planning phases. With the downtown LRT corridor being close to capacity at peak periods, a second partly-underground city crossing }(D2) is the next big light rail expansion – this project promises to be transformational.

With all this going on a little background may be helpful for the uninitiated.

Dallas-Fort Worth is the fourth-largest conurbation in the USA, with a population approaching ten million – and growing rapidly. Located in the north-east of the State of Texas, it is a hub for both north-south and east-west links by all modes. The metroplex includes a number of smaller cities, such as Grand Prairie, Arlington, Irving, Plano, Richardson and Garland, all of which are also growing.

DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) was created in 1983 to provide transport services in the east of the area, the boundary being roughly from DFW southwards. A total of 13 cities subscribe via local sales taxes; service is not provided in those cities that do not subscribe to DART. West of DFW, public transport is largely the responsibility of the Fort Worth T. Presently the T operates buses only, but it too is moving into rail-based services with its under-construction diesel rail line to DFW. Regular train services between the two cities (Dallas Union Station – Fort Worth) are operated as the Trinity Railway Express (TRE) six days a week. The line is operated by push-pull locomotive and coach sets.

Dallas currently has four light rail lines (Red, Blue, Green and Orange) that serve the city, DFW Airport – the fourth-largest in the US – and the surrounding municipalities, all of which come together in the transit mall on Pacific Street in downtown Dallas. With a service on each line every 20 minutes for most of the working day, and the slow running speeds caused by signalled crossings in the core (despite limited signal priority) the downtown corridor has reached saturation point; added extra services mean there is a train every three minutes during peak hours.

The latest addition, which opened in October 2016, is the 4.2km (2.6-mile) two-station South Oak Cliff Blue line extension (SOC-3) south from Ledbetter to University of North Texas at Dallas (UNT). With five bridge structures, accounting for half of the length and designed in part to minimise disruption to wildlife along the route, the new alignment cost USD101m – USD3m under budget and also opened two years early.

Significantly, an innovative approach to the contractual model between DART and the SOC-3’s designer and contractor saw each incentivised under a fixed-price agreement to open the new route early. Any savings were divided in a three-way share between the partners, and additional incentives were put in place for each month that the new line opened ahead of schedule.

As most of the city’s growth is currently to the south, the new line forms a key part of the GrowSouth initiative that is prioritising development in the southern sector. SOC-3 serves one of the key focus areas identified by this initiative: The Education Corridor. This comprises the new UNT Dallas campus as well as Cedar Valley and Paul Quinn Colleges. The extension brought light rail directly to the first, while the latter two are linked to it by short bus connections.

Although the UNT campus is a major traffic objective, there appears to be little current development along the route, although as this line is very much focused on the future a large park-and-ride facility at the new terminus will relieve pressure on very well used Ledbetter park-and-ride.
A number of bus services were recast to link with both UNT and the new intermediate station at Camp Wisdom. This extension brings the total DART light rail route mileage to 93 (149km) with 64 stations. No additional LRVs were required for the extension.

As with earlier projects, great care has been taken to integrate the new stations with their immediate environments. For example, UNT Dallas station features a range of materials and colours designed to echo those of the school’s buildings, and the three gull-wing canopies – a DART signature – sport the university’s colours. Other elements reflect the rural nature of its setting, with wavy glass panels embedded in the guard rails that reflect the area’s many creeks. Camp Wisdom Station took its design cues from the recreation centre that was to be built later.

As part of the project, DART has also updated the former terminus at Ledbetter. Design changes have improved sight lines, making the station safer for passengers, with enhancements such as concrete walls replaced with open metal railings and trees trimmed back and replaced with lower-level vegetation. Additionally, DART has added a traffic light, turn lane and a passenger loading/unloading area on the east side of the station.

Streetcar and McKinney Trolley

Dallas Streetcar, owned by the City of Dallas but operated by DART, opened in April 2015. Providing a new connection across the Trinity River, a short two-stop extension further into the Bishop Arts District opened in August 2016 with a connection to bus service 723 that takes passengers around the district in a loop. The extended 3.9km (2.45-mile) system is still offered fare-free, seven days a week, with 20-minute headways. There are no immediate plans to charge fares. With an 11-minute end-to-end running time, two Brookville Liberty streetcars are needed for service; there are four in the fleet.

Starting just outside Union Station, the route crosses the historic Houston Street Bridge where the double-ended Liberty cars’ off-wire battery capability is utilised – a US first when introduced in 2015. Once across the bridge, the overhead is picked up by the pantograph allowing the batteries to be recharged. There are four stops between the bridge and the terminus at the intersection of Zang Boulevard and Davis Street.

The McKinney Avenue Trolley is a free heritage streetcar service operating from a northern terminus at Cityplace/Uptown to the downtown area where a loop has recently been opened on St Paul, Olive and Federal Streets. Although at first sight this is a tiny extension, it is strategically vital as, following the earlier construction of a turntable at Cityplace, it enables single-ended cars to be used. This provides a greater variety to the operational fleet. Three cars are generally in service at any one time with a round trip taking 50 minutes. The Cityplace terminus is above the underground DART light rail station of the same name with both lift and escalator access.

There are 163 Kinki Sharyo LRVs in the DART light rail fleet, originally purchased as single articulated units and assembled locally. All vehicles have had low-floor centre sections added, extending them to 37.4m and increasing the internal seating capacity by 25 while also doubling the standing area to 200. Additional upgrades have taken place over the years, including the fitment of a new wayside cab signal system and the installation of Automatic Train Protection (ATP) and a GPS-based Vehicle Business System (VBS) (for more see TAUT 924).

There is also a short diesel light rail line running from Trinity Mills Green line station to the Downtown Denton Transit Center to the north-west of Dallas, using Stadler-supplied diesel LRVs. This is operated by the Denton County Transportation Authority (DCTA). There are aspirations to extend this further south to link with the TRE, just south of DFW, although there are no costs
or timescales for this. The service has 32-minute end-to-end running with generally 20-minute headways. It comes within the Dallas regional fare zone.

DART’s zonal fare system is split into two: The ‘Local’ zone includes all DART buses and trains plus the TRE as far as CentrePort/DFW Airport station, while the ‘Regional’ zone adds the full TRE service, plus The T in Fort Worth and DCTA (both buses and diesel light rail) in Denton County.

The basic fare at September 2017 was USD2.50 for Local services and USD5 for Regional, with two hours of unlimited travel on either rail or bus or both. Day passes are double the price of a two-hour ticket. There is also a reduced-price midday pass valid between 09.30 and 14.30 and discounts are available for students, those with mobility challenges and seniors. Seven-day and monthly passes are also available. The latter two cannot be purchased on buses, but instead from the DART store and online or from a TVM; all other tickets can be purchased at all points of sale, including from bus drivers.

Transformational plans

The most advanced new project is the D2. This underground diversion of the Green and Orange lines beneath central Dallas includes the creation of an at-grade Streetcar extension from Union Station to link up with the McKinney Avenue Trolley enabling through service to Cityplace/Uptown. As desirable as the thought may be to some, the heritage cars used on the McKinney line will not be able to run through to Bishop Arts as they lack off-wire capability to cross the Houston Street Bridge. The streetcar extension is expected to cost almost USD130m, USD40m of which is planned to come from the FTA Small Starts grant programme.

The final D2 alignment was agreed by the City of Dallas Council at the end of August 2017: a 3.7km (2.3-mile) route will leave the existing Green and Orange lines south of Victory station where it will head east on a DART-owned, but not currently-used, alignment through the Victory Park Development. After this it is planned to turn south-east to enter the north tunnel portal near the Woodall-Rodgers freeway and continue under Griffin Street until it is beneath Commerce Street. From there it will turn north-east before coming to the surface just short of a triangular junction with the existing Green line near Deep Ellum station. Four new stations are planned, one of which – Museum Way north of the Woodall Rodgers Freeway portal – will be on the surface. The other three, Metro Center, Commerce and CBD East, will be underground. The project is expected to cost USD1.3bn and it is hoped to open in 2024.

DART submitted the final scheme to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) for approval in September 2017 seeking approximately 50% in federal funding.
When built, the D2 will release capacity in the system enabling more frequent headways on all lines and removing bottlenecks in the city centre – also increasing network resilience in a similar manner to the recently-completed scheme on Manchester Metrolink (UK) – including a major interchange with the existing alignment on Pacific near the West End station.

Another major expansion programme is the Cotton Belt scheme. This cross-suburb line would link the north-eastern suburbs with DFW Airport. Apart from its obvious additional airport link, this new line would interchange with the Red line in Plano, the Green line at Downtown Carrolton, a connection at DFW Airport and at peak times with the Orange line in Plano. The proposed 42km (26-mile) line would have 11 new stations. The future of the Cotton Belt line is currently uncertain as its critics suggest that DART cannot simultaneously work on two major projects and that D2 should take priority.

Scheduled to open in 2018, the Fort Worth DFW link will be operated with
Tier 4 EPA emission-compliant diesel multiple units (DMU) that would be considered ‘heavy rail’ in the European context but are known as commuter rail
in the USA.

Known as TEXRail, the new line is a 43.5km (27-mile) DMU commuter rail route starting at the existing T&P Station that follows the existing TRE alignment through downtown Fort Worth Intermodal Transit Center, with its bus, TRE and Amtrak connections. From here it is planned to head north-west just east of Fort Worth. It then follows an existing railroad right-of-way through five intermediate stations at North Side, Mercantile Center, N Richland Hills (two stations – one at each end of the conurbation) and Grapevine, before turning south to the DFW North station with its future Cotton Belt link, and on to DFW Terminal B. All stations will feature covered seating and TVMs.

With a planned 52-minute end-to-end running time, service would be every 30 minutes at peak times reduced to every 90 minutes off-peak and at weekends. The off-peak service will be increased to hourly when the full service is brought into operation by 2030. Eight five-section FLIRT3 DMUs are being built by Stadler Rail in Europe with final assembly in Utah to comply with Buy America rules. Each unit seats 229 passengers with up to a further 259 standing with a provision for two wheelchair spaces and four double-doors on each side.

The Frisco corridor is another part of DART’s longer-term planning. This runs
due north from downtown Dallas following a disused railway alignment roughly parallel with the Dallas North Toll Road. The alignment has not been fully finalised, but DART is planning to proceed further with its evaluation.

Catering for growth

DART President and CEO Gary Thomas outlined the funding plans for the
Cotton Belt and explained that the new Tier 4-compliant DMUs will be leased rather than purchased. He explained that as the trains used on the Denton route will not be compatible (the existing units are to a different specification) no through service will be available to DFW or Fort Worth from Denton via the Cotton Belt.

D2 is a key piece of the jigsaw that will tie together the LRT network, Thomas explained, and he is keen to see this progress as soon as is practicable. Platform lengths on the original sections of the Red and Blue lines will require lengthening to 129m, to match those on the Green and Orange lines, thus allowing three-car trains to operate throughout the system.

Thomas was keen to emphasise the need for the growth in urban rail in the metroplex as the population within DART’s service area is currently growing by a staggering 100 000 each year. This also highlighted the need for the Frisco link, he added, which, in his opinion, is a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ it will be approved for construction. He pointed to the incredible growth of the city of Frisco from just 2000 people in 1984 to over 168 000 in 2017. Further projections, according to City of Frisco information, suggest that this could grow to around 375 000 by 2035. Part of the planning difficulty, Thomas explained, is in providing new transit links to cities that do not subscribe to DART but have an obvious need for greater connectivity. Financial implications must be addressed before service, in any form, can be provided.

When asked why so much of the new Blue line extension was on an elevated alignment, Thomas conceded that while elevated construction was costlier in
itself, additional outlay is balanced out by making overall works much easier and reducing disruption. He also highlighted the ongoing Transit Oriented Development now happening around the extension. DART calculations suggest that USD10.8bn in public and private sector development has been seen along its rail corridors, well justifying the estimated USD5.5bn spent on construction over the past 25 years.

TAUT also met Fort Worth T’s Richey Thompson, Chief Engineer for TEXRail
who explained that the new route to DFW will cost around USD1.3bn with a USD499m FTA contribution. Local funding will come from a combined funding arrangement from the cities along the alignment. The majority of the route will be single-track with passing loops and Positive Train Control. The T also has aspirations to eventually link to Plano, but there are no plans in place yet. It is now 20 years since TAUT first visited Dallas. In that time we have witnessed first-hand the massive transformation from a short starter line to the creation of the largest LRT network in the US. With almost 70m passenger trips per annum, it is clear the city’s highways would be gridlocked without DART rail service and the expansion of new forms of urban rail such as the streetcar as proving to be a boon for regeneration aims. The city region is not standing still, just witness the expansion plans.

For more information, see and Grateful thanks are due to Gary Thomas and Morgan Lyons from DART and Richey Thompson from Fort Worth T for their assistance in the preparation of this article.

Feature originally published in November 2017 TAUT (959).