Although it is quite a short distance from Dallas to Houston, I took a plane to be able to ride the Skylink peoplemover at DFW Airport before departing as this is only possible once you're inside the security area. It was a swift round trip, the trains only operated in the anticlockwise direction, there was some work going on on the other track, thus taking pictures of a train moving in the opposite direction was impossible (there was one parked along the track, though). Anyway, there are no trains from Dallas to Houston, so as I really don't fancy taking any Greyhound buses anymore after some disgusting experience in the past, the only alternative would have been to hire a car, in the end it would not take longer to drive than to take a plane.
Well, arriving at George Bush's Airport in Houston is not very convenient as Houston is now one of a few major U.S. cities left without any rail transport to its airports. So I had to take a shared van shuttle to my hotel, which compared to DART in Dallas costs exactly 10 times as much.
The purpose of my visit (1-3 Oct 2014) was, of course, to check out Houston's only light rail line, and to start off, we have to re-classify it as 'tramway', nothing negative as such, just to keep things clear. It uses the same Siemens S70 rolling stock as seen on many proper light rail systems in the U.S., but 'light rail' would imply at least some sort of rapid transit-style alignment on outer sections, whereas Houston's METRORail is very much like any modern European tramway, like those you would find in all French or Spanish cities, running on urban roads, though largely on a reserved lane. This is generally marked off from car lanes by little stumps, so emergency vehicles could easily use the tram lane, although on some sections it is also fenced off to prevent people from crossing the tracks.
So, now that we have classified it as 'tramway', it is quite a good service comparable to what you would find in France. On the southern, original section, trams run every 6 minutes which is good for an ambitious photographer, whereas on the northern, new extension, they only run every 12 minutes, and often only with single cars, whereas the southern part, starting from the 3-track Burnett Transit Center station (the only elevated station on the system), they always run in 2-car sets. The southern part serves the downtown area as well as the huge Texas Medical Center area further south. It was interesting to observe that the cars are actually busier on outer sections than in the centre, especially late afternoon, when hundreds of hospital workers take the tram for a few stops south to get to their cars. The northern part, however, runs through low-income neighbourhoods, as it appears, and most people on my tram went to the northern end to change for a bus there.
The ride is reasonably smooth and fast, just the only tight curves between Quitman/Near Northside and Fulton/North Central are run through at rather low speed. Lying on urban roads throughout, all track is grooved rail, which is always a bit noiser than proper vignol rails on segregated routes.
The stations all have a pleasant, though not exciting design, could be anywhere in the world. There are mostly two ticket vending machines and even an area map. What is missing, however, is an overall system map, especially now as no printed version was available either, I guess because they are waiting for the new lines to open soon, which will certainly imply some route changes for buses. There are electronic indicators, but they don't show the minutes for the next train to arrive, instead an accoustic announcement is heard one minute prior to arrival, when also the indicators start showing the next train. All accoustic announcements are made in English and Spanish.
Something particular to Houston are the offset platforms in the downtown and hospital areas, where the road width didn't allow a wide island platform. So wisely, to avoid overcrowding, they placed the north and southbound platforms in a staggered arrangement, at the central stop called Main Street Square, there is actually one block between them (and this section of the road is designed as a sort of fountain where the trams run through, because otherwise there is not much of a square there, except for many people hanging around that area, but that doesn't make it a square...). In view of the opening of the Green and Purple Lines, a transfer station was added between Main Street Square and Preston, called Central Station Main, but this one has an island platform. So while this new station, located between the two intersecting tracks (which run through parallel streets), will help to transfer to the new lines, I was really shocked to find out that the new lines will actually stop one block further east! Whose idea was that? Why can't they just stop around the corner? Instead there should be an additional downtown stop halfway to the next stops to the east. Also on the western side of the new lines, I don't understand why there is no 'final' stop where the trams have to reverse under the freeway bridge? It would certainly serve some people (even the hardcore rail fans to walk to the Amtrak station!) and would not imply any extra time as trams have to go there anyway to reverse. Otherwise they could actually just have built a loop to get from Capitol Street (westbound) to Rusk Street (eastbound), as for the moment there is no plan to extend these lines further west (although there should be!).
The trains are all of the same type, although of two different generations. While the 200-series is basically the standard S70, just with the couplers hidden due to this urban alignment, the older 100-series has square headlights and a more rounded front, but more important to the passengers, the seats are arranged differently, notably the section next to the driver's cab faces forward, so you might get a view out the front window, whereas on the newer ones you'd be travelling backwards. And the seats in the older ones are far less comfortable than in the newer ones, at least for me. Unfortunately I didn't see any of the new CAF vehicles which must be on delivery now for the forthcoming opening of the Green and Purple Lines. In the city centre, everything seemed in place for these lines, but still kind of fenced off as a worksite, so I guess testing has not really started yet. So it might be the end of the year until these lines open, although all Red Line maps already announce their arrival.
All in all, Houston's tramway is quite nice and useful, but considering the size of the city and its 4 million inhabitants in Greater Houston, the size of the network is ridiculous, especially when compared to its northern rival Dallas. The planned University Line will certainly be a needed addition, although I wonder whether it shouldn't run along Westheimer Road instead, i.e. several streets further north, or better, get both routes built. Yesterday I travelled on the 81 bus from downtown to the Galleria area, Houston's sort of City West, the posher part of the city with lots of shopping areas (whereas in downtown there are virtually no shops, just office towers!), and it took me around 45 minutes on a very bad road, so a proper rail link between Downtown and what's referred to as Uptown should be a priority. It felt like going on the bus to Santa Monica in Los Angeles, a never-ending trip!
Houston's METRO is probably among the cheapest to ride in the country, with a single ride just $1.25, but I also have to say, it has been the most confusing fare system I have seen, and even on the third day, it is not really clear to me. On the first day, when I wanted to take the first train at Smith Lands station in the south, I was quite upset that a day pass was not available from the machine, which only issues single-ride tickets on paper. Certainly, I had read about their Q-Card system, but didn't have it in mind. So to start with I bought a paper ticket hoping to find out later where I could get a Q-Card. Well, you can get it in typical grocery stores and at the METRO store next to Downtown Transit Center, but as I was passing on the tram, I didn't see it. So I got my Q-Card in the shop inside the university at UH-Downtown, but none of the four employees knew how you could use it as a day pass. So I added $5.00 in value to it, hoping that it would automatically function as a day pass, at least the next day. The basic idea is not bad, you tap it three times and becomes a day pass, i.e. it is capped at $3.00, a very good deal indeed, but only if you use it with a Q-Card Day Pass smartcard, which on the other hand can also be used as a normal pay-per-ride smartcard. So, to start with, why are there two different cards, why doesn't the capping work automatically for everybody, like for example in Dubai? A normal $1.25 paid with Q-Card gives free transfers within 3 hours! Officially travelling in one direction, but certainly the system cannot detect your direction, so it is a 3-hour pass. So while my Q-Card worked fine most of the day yesterday, I'm not sure about my last trip as it gave a strange message, so I don't even know whether I was travelling 3+3 hours or so, or what. I had a ticket inspection in the morning, and all was fine. Today, on my third day, I actually chose 'Day Pass' at the machine, but as the minimum you can add is $5.00, I added $5.00. The card readers later told me a balance of $-0.50, weird, as I would expect my balance to be at least $0.50 plus $2.00 not spent on this day pass, but even when I put it into the loading machine, it only says, Day Pass contracted and balance $-0.50. So where has my money gone? What is now actually on my card? So, I have to say, this smartcard system is not acceptable. Especially as it is too complicated to obtain and then to use, considering that day passes are a popular choice for visitors not familiar with the system and confronted with it in areas they may park their cars and where there are no grocery stores. The machines, like Ventra's in Chicago, should be able to issue new smartcards, or as is often the case in other cities, issue disposable one-use cards with a chip inside. Or what does it take to issue a simple paper day pass, may it be for the price of $4.00 instead, still a good deal – the important thing for the occasional rider is that it is simple and clear – which in the case of Houston it is not. So if you don't want to get into trouble, just get a single fare paper ticket, cheap enough, until they get this sorted out properly.
Despite the huge urban area (even Houston city as a municipality is the size of Greater London, i.e. twice the size of Berlin), there is no commuter rail service, and I'm not aware that there are intentions to implement one. So Houston, despite its efforts to build a few more line, will remain a car-dominated city for a while still.
Next stop: New Orleans
METRORail at UrbanRail.Net