Monday, May 03, 2010

Agency needs Union Pacific accord to achieve Dallas light-rail overhaul

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Six months ago, the biggest day in Dallas Area Rapid Transit history turned into one of its worst when thousands of football fans found themselves stranded at rail stations in Dallas waiting to get to or from the Texas-Oklahoma game. Many fans vowed never to ride the rails again, The Dallas Morning News reports.

If those fans change their minds, DART hopes to have a plan in place by this year's game to accommodate the large crowds, though the agency acknowledges it will need to use scores of buses and make other changes to have any chance of doing so. DART's new approach will rely on buses, a new light-rail loop for some downtown trains that should keep them on schedule, and - if negotiations with the Union Pacific railroad can be salvaged - Trinity Railway Express service direct to the Cotton Bowl.

Crews will test the new light-rail loop soon and DART still is studying how many buses it must use to run the shuttles it says it needs to prevent the kinds of hours-long delays fans experienced last year.

In addition, plans still under development would ease game-day crowds as fans get off the train, by requiring Red Line passengers to get on and off at MLK Jr. Station near the Cotton Bowl instead of at Fair Park Station.

The TRE component of the plan faces the stiffest odds, however, and could be its most critical piece. Union Pacific has so far refused to work with DART to allow its TRE trains access to the commercial tracks that circle behind Fair Park, passing near the Cotton Bowl, according to DART chairman Bill Velasco.

DART spokesman Morgan Lyons said the railroad initially said no. "But we've asked them to reconsider," Lyons said, "and that has happened just in the past few days. We think there is a way to make this work."

Late Friday, Union Pacific corporate relations and media director Raquel Espinoza-Williams said allowing DART to use its tracks would impose unacceptable costs for its commercial operations.

"Union Pacific declined DART's request to run passenger trains for the State Fair on freight lines near the Fair Park area due to the potential impacts on local and national operations," she said. "Major facilities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area would be affected, and it would cause additional passenger and freight rail backups across the country."

The TRE question is critical, since last year's delays were greatly exacerbated by huge passenger loads arriving at once at Union Station, where TRE trains brought 1,300 or more fans at a time. Those fans easily filled several light-rail trains headed through downtown to Fair Park, leaving passengers at stations on the way out of luck. DART vice president Todd Plesko said that if Union Pacific won't relent, DART buses will take thousands of TRE passengers directly to Fair Park.

"It will be a very, very big deal if we can work this out. If we don't, we will have to augment our plan with more buses," he said.

DART's biggest problems arose last year when it marketed its new Green Line rail service as the best way to get to the game and failed to provide bus service as a backup.

Using every available rail car, DART at most can send 4,000 to 5,000 passengers to Fair Park each hour - and that assumes every car on every train has as many folks standing as sitting. It also assumes that the big crowds on the platforms don't slow the trains down, and the trains don't get stuck on the tracks waiting for slower trains ahead of them, as happened frequently last year.

"What I learned last year is that the train capacity for DART is a finite number," Plesko said.

He's hoping that this year bus service and smarter train operations will stretch that capacity further.

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