The Houston Metro system, serving the majority of Harris County with bus and rail service.
The light rail here is a relatively new system, roughly 10 years old, and it runs all the way down Main and Fannin Streets in a north-south alignment. The original light rail line (now called the Red Line) ran from The University of Houston Downtown Campus to Fannin South Park-and-Ride, passing downtown Houston, Main Street Square, the Downtown Transit Center, the Museum District, and the massive Texas Medical Center District, one of the largest clusters of medical institutions and hospitals in the country. The Red Line extension north of the University opened recently and passes by the Burnett Transit Center, Houston Community College, and the north side of Houston. Two new lines are being built, slated to open later in 2014, will take riders from Downtown Houston to the East End and the Southeast via Capitol and Rusk Streets. These two lines will run past the Convention District, The Theater District, BBVA Compass Stadium, The University of Houston Main Campus, and Magnolia Park Transit Center.
The entire Houston MetroRail system is made up of street-running, except for a few portions in a private right-of-way, and vehicles and stations are narrow enough to fit along parts of Main Street and still carry a decent amount of ridership. Most trains are two-car trains during the peak and midday hours, but otherwise, single cars dominate the system. Most of the Red Line runs along Main Street, with some sections along Fannin Street, and most stations are in between the two tracks. Most stations in between the tracks (or “island Platforms”) are primarily comprised of two separate platforms, one each for northbound and southbound trains usually next to each other or across and intersection from each other. As an example, the northbound and southbound platforms at the Downtown Transit Center Station are on opposite sides of Pierce Street; in another example, the northbound and southbound platforms at Ensemble-HCC Station are separated only by a pedestrian walkway with ramps to either platform. The platforms have metal and glass shields to help differentiate the platforms for either direction. In some other stations, such as Reliant Park and Fannin South, the island platforms are for both directions, like a regular train station. Other stations, like Wheeler, are side platform stations like a normal light rail system. Museum District Station is unique as the platforms are on two different streets due to the one-way street configuration, so the light rail line runs one-way southbound on Main with its associated station and one-way northbound on Fannin with its associated station. Several cities have this type of alignment in different spots (Portland, Sacramento, and Newark come to mind), so getting used to that isn’t really too hard.
The system uses two generations of Siemens light rail vehicles, both Siemens S70 “Avanto” light rail vehicles. The first generation (numbered in the 100-series) was a Houston design and later adapted by Portland, Oregon; the second generation (numbered in the 200-series) was a later redesign that was first adapted by San Diego and used by many other S70 operators such as those systems in Salt Lake City, UT; Norfolk, VA; Charlotte, NC; and Minneapolis, MN.
Being that it’s a street-running system, the speeds in most sections of the system aren’t that great, mainly around the 25-35MPH range, and there isn’t enough of private right-of-way to really stretch these cars out as in many other systems with similar cars. Even though Houston is the 4th largest city in the United States and is car-country much like Los Angeles, the system doesn’t have any available space for high-speed alignments without tearing down homes and businesses much like how the freeways were built. There are freight lines in the area but not nearly as many as in Dallas, and most locations do not have enough street space to warrant an elevated right-of-way like the Expo Line in Los Angeles. Rail was an after-thought in Houston, with much emphasis on the automobile and the freeway system to the point where any new rail expansion would need to be built on the street, as the Green and Purple Lines are being built. Two other lines are being planned for the region, one serving the University Blvd corridor and another serving Uptown and the Galleria, but those may be Bus Rapid Transit when all is said and done. One redeeming part of the Red Line though, even if cosmetic, is the Main Street Square fountain that trains must go through in order to continue up Main Street. It is a light-rail-only setup, where Main Street for auto traffic is interrupted by this square in front of an office complex, but was redesigned to accommodate a fountain within the tracks. Outside of that, the street-running is nice to go through for a tour of the central artery of the city, but for speed, there isn’t much of it.
The Q-Card, Houston Metro’s smart card, is the best way to get around the system, especially since every platform has smart card machines for reading, buying, and adding value to smart cards. It’s made even better by allowing for Day Passes to be added to the card. The Day Pass is really just $3 worth of regular rides and the rest of the rides are free after the $3 price cap has been met. In other words, each time you pay $1.25 including a transfer to ride the bus or light rail, it goes towards the $3 price cap for the day, making the third bus ride 50 cents and any other ride afterwards free. As long as you don’t ride any Park-and-Ride buses, you can only spend $3 a day and ride as many buses and light rail trains as you want. Houston’s light rail is proof-of-payment (POP), so Metro Police roam the system and periodically check fares at certain stations.
Overall, the Houston system looks very clean and modern for a city whose fascination with the car (and pickup truck) overshadows an otherwise neat system. Never mind the fact that in its first few years of operation, the system saw on average an accident every 3 days with cars turning left or right on red. Since those bad ol’ days, the system hasn’t had too many issues, other than the accident about a month after my visit, where a woman drove her van with her two kids around a downed crossing gate and was struck by a northbound train. Sometimes, judging by the speeds and how stations are designed to fit the streets for cars and trains, I believe that Houston would have been better served by elevated or underground tracks, whether underneath main streets or in the medians of the freeways, but I’m guessing money and NIMBYism may have deterred that. Too bad, since the system really has potential for decent expansion, much like Dallas. Nevertheless, a nice system.