After St. Louis, my next stop on this late-summer 2014 U.S. tour was Dallas (28-30 Sept), which boasts the largest light rail system in the country, so I was curious to find out whether it is also a good one. At least, it's not bad, although it has a few flaws, too.
The light rail extension to Dallas DFW Airport was only opened about a month ago, and ahead of schedule, so I was lucky to use it both on arrival and on departure. While generally it is a great thing to have a train go directly from the city centre to the airport, the location of the airport station is rather inconvenient as it still requires a bus ride in one of these minibuses called TerminalLink to get to the respective terminals except for those who fly with American Airlines (which I hope not to do too often in the future as I was almost victim of their overbooking practices, something long banned in Europe!). So they should really build a second peoplemover on the land side of the airport to distribute departing and arriving passengers with their luggage. Because upon arrival when you collect your bag you're dropped outside the security area and need to find the shuttle bus to the DART rail station, and given the size and layout of DFW this may take some time and you may end up rather dizzy because of all the loops the buses have to run through. Anyway, sad also that there seem no provisions to extend the DART line further into the airport to serve all terminals directly. But, all in all, it is a very cheap way to get to the airport as it only requires a local fare of $2.25. But it also takes 50 minutes from the city centre, and add another 30 minutes to get to your terminal! On the way in, I was also a bit disappointed as it has lots of slow-running sections, notably around North Lake, I guess this is to reduce noise emissions in this affluent area. On the way out, there were not too many air travellers on the train either, although they do a lot of advertising for the new extension. Maybe, DFW is not so much a destination but just a hub?
The DART system is indeed rather large and you can feel its size when you travel on one of the long outer legs. In fact, except for the downtown section it feels more like an S-Bahn, a feeling emphasized by rather long intervals of 20 minutes during off-peak, so taking a picture on these outer sections often brings with it long waits between trains, and with clouds coming and going, it can be frustrating when they reappear just in the moment when your long-awaited train finally arrives and you were hoping to get a good shot.
Probably DART's major flaw is the use of high-floor vehicles with low-floor platforms, so boarding a train often reminded me of our Tatra trams back home in Berlin. In Dallas, however, all trains have been extended with a central low-floor section, so at least it is fully accessible for wheelchair users or people who find it hard to climb the steps. The low-floor section is, however, very short so you tend to avoid it and leave it for the people who need it most. This is the same problem with many European tram system that use old stock with this kind of added low-floor section. In Dallas I usually travelled in the first car, not just for safety reasons, but because seats are orientated in the driving direction and you can get quite a nice view out through the driver's cab. High-floor vehicles generally have the advantage of providing a smoother ride, and generally it is quite good on these Kinkisharyo trains. I never liked their front design, they look too clumsy for urban routes, they should have a somewhat more gentle front, instead they appear like heavy rail trains. Also the bogies should be covered somehow. They also blow a horn at road intersections, and ring a bell when entering a station, but not too excessively, rather according to the crowd waiting on the platform. They generally run 2-car sets, but on the Green Line they used 3-car sets during my stay. I don't know whether this is the norm or just because of the Texas State Fair taking place at the moment so more people travel to Fair Park station. From the platform length, however, I would think that this is the only line able to use 3-car trains, because especially at stations on the older Red and Blue Lines, there are short slightly raised platform sections (like those found on the Hamburg U-Bahn) to match the low-floor entrance, and these would only coincide with the doors of 2-car trains. Newer stations have a platform height that matches the low-floor entrance throughout.
The stations are all pretty substantial structures, with rather wide platforms and roofed sections. As a general feature, all have a sort of vaulted roof, although this may have various shapes. The one most typical for Dallas is certainly the full vault, although this is always divided into 3 or 4 sections, i.e. in between there are always sections without a roof. What makes the stations quite pleasant are the trees planted on most of them. Some sort of artwork can usually be found on the columns that carry the roof or on the wind shields between them. All the stations have ticket-vending machines which were quite easy to handle, and also maps and timetables. The next-train indicators also function well, they display up to four trains, shown in the line's colour but also written out as 'Blue Line' for those not able to clearly distinguish colours. They don't, however, show where the train is going to, which may be confusing for those not good with orientation. The trains are announced accoustically about one minute prior to arrival. Onboard, the trains identify themselves accoustically before junctions, like 'This is the …. (and then there is an artificial break as if they had to look something up) Orange Line – the final stop is Parker Road station'.
In fact, DART has an easy-to-use fare system and it is also rather cheap. While a 2-hour ticket costs $2.25, a day pass is only $5.00. If you travel beyond the DART area, which is already quite a huge area, you can get a 'regional' ticket or pass for $5.00/$10.00, and this includes all of Fort Worth or the A-Train to Denton. The TRE, the commuter railway between Dallas and Fort Worth is also fully integrated, with a 'local' ticket you can use it up to Centreport/DFW station. So, as far as fare integration goes, Dallas is a good place. DART also has a centrally located customer service centre right next to Akard station in their headquarters. The old bearded man behind the window was not too friendly, though, just saying, we've run out of system maps, when a passing lady heard my dispair and said she would bring one if I waited. After a few minutes she came back with a full box of material and filled up the rack. The old bearded man behind the window should have done the same or at least have taken the trouble to organise such a refill, else he shouldn't be working in a customer service centre!
Headways could be better, though, not just for trains but also for buses which often only run hourly. Although with a 15-minute headway on four lines during peak hours, traffic already gets pretty busy on the downtown transit mall. It's also on this section where the trains are rather loud, probably worn out track combined with litter in the grooved rails, while otherwise the ride was fine. The trains are speeding up properly on most outer sections. Many stations are laid out as rail/bus transfers, and interestingly, in Dallas I saw lots of small neighbourhood buses connecting to the trains. These are often indeed needed as, like in many other U.S. cities, stations on outer sections are far apart, too far to my taste. Just travelling through once, I spotted various locations where I thought a station is missing as the train passes through what can be called a dense neighbourhood for American standards, for example between Mockingbird and White Rock or between Lake Highlands and LJB/Skillman (as the latter is on the eastern side of the freeway it is of no use for people living on the western side!) on the Blue Line or a second stop in Las Colinas at the southern side of the town, just like a stop between North Lake College and Irving Convention Center (well looking at the satellite image, there seem to be a provision exactly where I missed it at Green Park Drive). I know there is always the argument of 'more stops mean longer travel times' which is right, but for those people with no direct stops near them despite a line passing by directly, travel times become excessively much longer, and those people have paid the same share towards construction as others in the area. Other stations, like Irving Convention Center, seem to be badly placed, in the middle of nowhere, far from the namesake venue and not accessible at all for residents across the wide road. Why wasn't it placed some 300 m further west on the viaduct across West Las Colinas Blvd? And what about University station? Is this station actually accessible on foot or only by bus?
DART also features one underground station. Cityplace/Uptown station is quite nice, but too deep to be true (and both inclined lifts were out of service on Sunday!). It is a shame in the first place that such a long tunnel was built under a freeway. Why didn't they just use two road lanes to build the light rail line? The other shame is that there is at least one station missing. I read that actually at Knox-Henderson provisions had been made but as all the money had been spent on the superdeep and superlong tunnel, this important area is not accessible by train! If the area next to the southern tunnel portal is hopefully redeveloped one day soon (five years after the Green Line opened the old tracks of the original tunnel approach are still visible!), another stop might be useful in that area, too.
Dallas also has a streetcar system, the McKinney Avenue Trolley or the 'M-Line'. It is a free service, so we shouldn't complain too much, but I thought it is a pity that a timetable can only be found at very selected places, so one never knows when the next streetcar is coming as in fact, one never knows whether it is coming at all. So the least they could do is put up a timetable at every stop and reduce the number of stops, they are ridiculously frequent, but obviously as it is a heritage service they also want to maintain the user-unfriendly part of an old-style streetcar service. I think they should rather include a more modern approach and instead, charge $1.00 or so for a ride. Luckily, the line is currently being extended in the city centre, as so far it had terminated several blocks from the nearest DART station. Interesting to watch the turning loop at the Uptown terminus, a bit like San Francisco but operated electrically.
And as Dallas wants it all, it is now also building a modern, though initially hardly useful tram line. It starts at Union Station, well, to its south rather than in front and clearly visible, and runs on the Houston Street Viaduct to Oak Cliff. The line will be mostly single-track and without overhead wires, but I doubt it will have much success until it is properly extended at both ends. At the Union Station side everything seemed to be in place, there is also a track link to DART as I assume the streetcar will share the DART depot.
I didn't ride TRE, the commuter railway between Dallas and Fort Worth. At Union Station, it seemed quite busy with passengers in the afternoon peak, but again as with all these lines, I think how sad, why don't they convert it into something proper RER/S-Bahn-like with trains running on clear headways every 20 or 30 minutes and electrify the line, in this case, as DART is pretty S-Bahn-like anyway, integrate it into the DART network. Looking at the almost rapid transit-style alignment of the northwestern Green Line branch, with kilometres of elevated sections through/above industrial estates, money can certainly not be the problem. And I would add another downtown station in Dallas in the West End.
I did, however, try the A-Train, this Swiss made regional train which is a sort of extension of the Green Line. It is o.k. for the service it is meant to provide and it was surprisingly busy late morning. What is not satisfactory, however, is the timetable, which sometimes matches quite well with arriving Green Line trains, while at other times there is a 20-minute wait to continue, which is quite a long time considering that the entire journey to Denton is only 30 minutes. Their timetable indicates when the Green Line arrives, but you have to figure out by yourself when this Green Line train leaves downtown Dallas.
The most bizarre means of transport in the Dallas area is the Las Colinas people mover, once thought to be come a larger distributor in this also bizarre new town. The trains mostly run on demand, but not like the automatic people mover in Morgantown, but manually operated! So at least two drivers are always on stand-by until they receive a call to pick up someone in one of the four stations. Each of the two lines actually operates on its own track back and forth. Two stations are somewhat hidden between or inside office blocks, another is connected to the DART station and the forth to a parking garage. Taking pictures can be tough if trains pass very irregularly on demand. The last driver who brought me back to the DART station was, however, very nice and waited for a few minutes until I got down on the lawn to take a picture of his cabin coming out of the station again – unfortunately by the time I got there to take my pictures, clouds had again covered the sun... Anyway, thanks for the nice gesture.
Next stop: Houston
DART at UrbanRail.Net