Dallas, Texas: rail all over the place, including light rail.
Dallas is a rail town, once dominated by many short line railroads, those that operated freight and/or passsenger service locally or even regionally, and big name railroads such as the Sante Fe Railroad. Even though most of these railroads are fallen flags or consolidated into other railroads, there is still a lot of railroad to be had by everyone. Amtrak takes care of intercity rail, BNSF (Burlington Northern and Santa Fe) and Union Pacific take care of the majority of freight. DART (the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system) and sister agencies take care of the rest.
DART has an extensive system covering 12 member cities including Dallas, Richardson, Garland, Plano, Irving, and Carrollton. Light rail, operating since 1996, serves most of the member cities, with 90 miles of light rail, the largest light rail system in the United States in terms of route miles. Each line (Red, Blue, Orange, Green) averages over 20 miles one-way, all of them serving the downtown artery along Pacific Street. There are 163 cars in the fleet, serviced at either the East Dallas Facility by Fair Park Station or the Northwest Facility near Walnut Hill-Denton Station. They are all made by Kinkisharyo and are high-floor, low-entry cars. They were originally made as two-unit articulated cars from 1996-2006, until someone at DART had the bright idea to insert a low-floor wheelchair-accessible middle section to increase the capacity of the cars without purchasing brand new low-floor cars. The 2010 units were built new as three-unit SLRV (super light rail vehicles) cars, while the rest of the cars were retrofitted. The platforms had to be redone in many areas since they weren’t wheelchair-friendly. (During the old days of the DART light rail, wheelchair customers had to board the very first car at the mini-high platforms which were built to accommodate them.)
The Dallas cars were built with many features to make them ride more comfortably than other light rail cars including heavier trucks, airbag suspension, and a larger body for capacity and for smoothing out high-speed rides. The Dallas cars are capable of traveling as fast as 65 miles per hour, and there are several spots in the system that allow trains to travel that fast. For example, the Plano end of the Red Line allows for speeds of up to 65MPH for at least half of the branch from Mockingbird Station to Parker Road Station, the line running along parts of US-75/Central Expressway. There’s opportunities on the Orange Line from Bachman Station to University of Dallas Station across the Trinity River, on the Carrollton end of the Green Line north of Bachman Station, and on the Blue Line from Mockingbird Station to LBD/Skillman Station. Even with the addition of the infill station at Lake Highlands, where there was previously a 7-mile non-stop section of track between White Rock and LBJ/Skillman, the line passes through enough back woods and low-density suburban areas to allow for higher operating speeds. Though the light rail cars don’t have coach seating, these trains are built for comfortable high-speed travel from the suburbs to downtown Dallas.
The Achilles heel of the system is the downtown portion of the system, between Pearl-arts District Station to West End Station, for two reasons. First, the tracks are, for the most part, by themselves crossing a number of streets at-grade at low speeds and often have to wait several lights to cross, whether waiting for passengers or proceeding to the next station. This issue is not unique to DART but nevertheless can be painstaking. Second, the downtown portion is served by all four lines and each line runs at 20-minute intervals during most hours to maintain a 5-minute spacing between any train on any line. Only during peak hours do trains operate shorter than 20 minutes or add extra cars to each train (Green Line only). If there is a stall for whatever reason downtown, the entire system experiences delays.
There have been studies for a downtown relief line that would practically bypass West End and Akard Stations (two of the busiest stations downtown) and operate to Union Station, the Convention Center, and City Hall. I would speculate the Green and Orange Lines would detour to this new alignment and the Blue and Red Lines would continue running the original alignment via Akard Station (DART headquarters nearby). The Green Line would gain access to Union Station for Trinity Railway Express (TRE) and Amtrak trains as well as allow for shorter trains more frequently compared to 20-minute service all day and extra-long three-car trains during peak hours. The Orange Line would access City Hall and the Convention Center to allow business people and tourists alike to access civic and entertainment venues via one-seat rides from both Love Field and DFW Airport.
This system is a two-track system, not unfamiliar to me, much like HBLR and other light rail systems. Like HBLR, there is one tunnel station, Cityplace-Uptown Station, built in a 3-mile-long tunnel deep underneath US-75/Central Expressway, with connections to the McKinney Avenue Transit Authority (The free “M-Line” Trolley). There are several sections of elevated track and/or elevated stations, such as the Orange and Green Lines between Southwestern Medical District-Parkland Station and Downtown Carrollton (Green Line) and University of Dallas Stations (Orange Line). Among the most picturesque stations include University of Dallas Station (Orange Line), Mockingbird Station (Blue/Red/Orange Lines), Las Colinas Urban Center Station (Orange Line), West End Station (all lines), Cityplace-Uptown Station (Blue/Red/Orange), and Park Lane Station (Red Line). Among the most unique are Convention Center Station (underneath the Dallas Convention Center), Fair Park Station, with its Art Deco-style design to match the adjacent Fair Park Fairground art style, Union Station and Victory Station (intermodal stations with cross-platform connections to intercity rail), Trinity Mills Station (cross-platform connection to DCTA’s A-train), and Kiest Station (built on a downgrade towards Ledbetter). Most stations are two-car stations, with Green Line stations built new in 2006-2010 as three-car stations. They all are wheelchair-accessible with humps in certain spots to make the platform more level with the middle section of each car, and most platforms have troughs for people to legally cross the tracks mid-station at the designated crosswalks.
Most of the Dallas area can be accessible via DART, whether it’s light rail, bus, or a combination of both. Downtown Carrollton is an historic neighborhood with good eating, nice shops, and a Main Street feel you don’t find in too many towns in this country. Rowlett recently got an extension of the Blue Line which originally terminated at Downtown Garland, 5 miles to the west, and has a lot to explore a short walk from the station. The Arts District is a short walk from several DART and M-Line stops and has a lot in store for those who like performing arts and fine arts. Love Field has a shuttle to the Inwood-Love Field Station for direct service to downtown, and DFW Airport will soon have an Orange Line extension that will add another 3 miles to the 90-mile light rail network. The Green Line has many medical institutions, with the University of Texas medical system on one end, and Baylor University medical system on the other end. Fair Park has direct access to the Green Line so that residents and visitors can travel to the annual State Fair of Texas. Even if you just want to take a ride on the DART light rail, a $5 Local day pass will do the trick, but if you are just traveling for a few hours during the day, a $1.75 Local Mid-day pass good for any travel between 9am and 3pm will suffice. If not, $2.50 will get you two hours worth of local rides systemwide.
As a transit mode, DART does more than enough, with service to almost every corner of Dallas County. The light rail system is very much an oversized Hudson-Bergen Light Rail with many more miles, many more cars, longer trains, and access to both area airports and major rail and bus infrastructure. A winner in my book. After three visits, DART feels like my old home away from home. Next up, Houston, as a comparison, or maybe Portland, Oregon.