Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Train News: A-Train Opens Up Wider Desitnations

Denton RC.com: A-Train Opens Up Wider Desitnations
Denton, you are now free to move about the country — by rail.

With the June 20 launch of the A-train, Denton County residents now have a direct rail link to the rest of the U.S. that hasn’t been available for more than 40 years. At the end of the A-train’s 21-mile journey to Carrollton awaits a whole new world via many of the same rails our forefathers traveled.

Denton County Transportation Authority’s new rail line puts Denton on par with a handful of other light- or commuter-rail savvy Texas cities that not only can access the U.S. rail network but are now aligned with state and national timetables to further develop passenger rail.

And although a cross-country rail trip takes longer than by the friendly skies, traveling to New York, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles or San Francisco is now within reach from the downtown station on Hickory Street. More so, Denton is now at the cusp of the government’s planned high-speed rail network in and outside of the Lone Star State.

But traveling in Texas and to the rest of the country by rail is nothing new to Denton residents. Until 1968, when the Dallas section of Santa Fe’s Texas Chief ceased service, passenger trains rolled out of Denton and connected Fort Worth and Dallas to the south and St. Louis and Chicago to the north. Travel to the Texas Gulf Coast, the Big Apple or Tinseltown was just connections away.

Golden era
The arrivals of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas and Texas & Pacific railroads to Denton in 1881 first opened the gateway. Beginning in 1900, both offered passenger service out of the spacious Union Depot to the nearby bustling communities of Fort Worth and Dallas while also providing freight service that transported goods to and from the county.

Over the years, the M-K-T (or “Katy”) and T&P, as well as the Santa Fe, provided connections with some of the most storied passenger trains in the golden era of rail transportation out of two Denton stations.

In 1946, the T&P left Denton and connected in Texarkana with the Missouri Pacific’s Sunshine Special, which proceeded to St. Louis.

In 1955, the Santa Fe extended passenger service to Denton with its Dallas section of the Texas Chief. A new station in the southwest part of town was built to handle the train from Gainesville, where the Chicago-to-Galveston Texas Chief stopped and set out cars to Denton, White Rock and Dallas.

While trips were long — Denton to St. Louis took 31 hours in 1946 — passengers could ride in comfort in either coach cars or sleepers. Over time, dining cars offered hot meals and cold beverages.

But as the skies began filling with jets, and the interstate highway system webbed farther outward, train travel started to fade from the landscape.

In early 1959, the Katy ran its last passenger train from Denton. The Dallas connection of the Texas Chief ceased operation in 1968.

Today, neither station exists. Union Depot was razed in 1964 and is now a parking lot about 100 yards away from the new A-train platform, and a beer distributorship looms near the site of the old Santa Fe station, demolished in 1999.

Rail travel reborn
Reaching those same faraway destinations, however, is once again possible with the A-train’s connections to Dallas Area Rapid Transit and Amtrak. St. Louis is about 20 hours away and Chicago 26 hours from the downtown Denton station.

On a much greater scale, the A-train positions the city to be in the mix of a growing state and national march to develop high-speed commuter rail.

When the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act passed in 2009, federally designated high-speed rail corridors throughout the U.S. started coming to life.

A number of corridors, including two in Texas, were established to run trains 110 mph and faster and connect 80 percent of the U.S. population to high-density centers within the next 25 years.

The slingshot-shaped South Central High-Speed Rail Corridor stretches from San Antonio through Dallas-Fort Worth and on to Texarkana and Little Rock, Ark., on one branch, and from Dallas-Fort Worth to Tulsa, Okla., on the other. The Gulf Coast High-Speed Rail Corridor runs east from Houston to Beaumont, New Orleans and Mobile, Ala.

Denton is no longer outside looking in on the proposed network, says Peter LeCody, president of Texas Rail Advocates, a nonprofit group that promotes the development of rail service.

“Every time you connect a point A to point B, it’s going to do nothing but enhance the entire system here in Texas,” said LeCody, who lives in Dallas. “We still have quite a long way to go to connect the dots and make it easy for people to get around.”

But the pencil is getting sharper.

To date, a chunk of approximately $5.7 billion obligated throughout the country for rail projects has gone for developing new corridors or improving existing networks.

In May, the Texas Department of Transportation was awarded $15 million by the federal government to fund the state’s planned high-speed rail corridor between Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston under the Federal Railroad Administration’s Core Express segment within the high-speed rail plan.

Most of the funding will be used for engineering and environmental work for the state’s planned Dallas-Fort Worth to Houston Core Express Service line, which would link two of the largest metro areas in the U.S.

The funding is not only significant since it’s the TxDOT’s Rail Division’s first, but also because the money is to be used as a project rather than a study, said LeCody.

“This is considered a project, which elevates it to a much higher level and creates a sense of urgency,” he said. “It falls under specific criteria for the Core Express project and in line with what the FRA is looking to develop. It’s not to be used for a study. We’re past that.”

LeCody said the time is right for cities like Denton to climb aboard as demand for rail service increases.

Studies and ridership of light rail, commuter and inner-city rail show in recent months that the masses are embracing a transportation mechanism once thought to be a pipe dream, when Amtrak launched a national rail system in 1971 after U.S. railroads sent passenger trains to the scrap line as fast as they once traveled the countryside.

Amtrak announced in May that it has set annual ridership records in seven of its last eight fiscal years, including 28.7 million passenger boardings in 2010. May marked 19 consecutive months of year-over-year ridership growth with 2.6 million passengers.

The Texas Eagle, Sunset Limited and Heartland Flyer — three of the railroad’s Texas trains — each have posted ridership gains year over year.

Light-rail agencies have also realized growth, capitalizing lately on special event service runs.

DART and the Trinity Railway Express set ridership records for service provided during the Dallas Mavericks parade on June 16. DART Rail provided more than 151,000 rides, surpassing the record 132,800 set during a Texas-Oklahoma football game, according to the agency. TRE’s record 26,500 rides is the highest since July 2006.

Meanwhile in May, Austin’s Capital MetroRail broke a ridership record with 6,516 rides during special event service.

Also, a study last year conducted by a University of Texas research group posted on the Texas Rail Advocates website reveals that a significant number of Texans residing along the Interstate 35 corridor are willing to spend tax dollars to improve the state’s rail system. Almost half of the 2,000 polled were in favor of funding a high-speed rail network.

“If you can’t move your people and goods around, that’s a basic necessity,” LeCody said. “We can’t keep pouring miles and mile of concrete. The vast majority of people want to use funding for passenger rail.”

Another necessity, he said, is for state and county agencies to work together on scheduling so taking the train is a more attractive option. That means not only coordinating schedules but packaging timetables so that travelers don’t have to visit multiple agencies’ sites to get connection information.

“We have to make sure we put all the mechanics into place to make it easier for people to find so they can travel,” LeCody said. “There is no reason why we can’t. If we don’t, then people may give up on taking the train.”

And miss an opportunity to travel the rails even faster from Denton to Chicago.

Trip to Chicago
Want to take the train to Chicago? By using the A-train and making connections to DART and Amtrak, traveling to the Windy City from downtown Denton is now possible.

A-train and DART cars are passenger-friendly and have room for luggage, so farther commutes aren’t a chore. And there are no body scans to worry about.

Getting to Chicago takes planning and about $238 one way. The trip revolves around the Texas Eagle’s 3:40 p.m. daily departure from Union Station, so a little back-tracking is necessary.

Start by hopping aboard the A-train — or the Station Shuttle bus — to get to Carrollton’s Trinity Mills Station.

Once in Carrollton, take the Green Line to Dallas’ West End Station. On the way to Dallas, there are 10 stops but the ride is right at an hour, about the time spent on Interstate 35E in typical rush-hour traffic.

Transfer to the Red Line for the two-minute jaunt to Union Station, and plan to arrive well ahead of time for the Texas Eagle’s 3:40 p.m. departure for Chicago.

Once you’re in Chicago, the door is open for travel to the East Coast. Similar scenarios can be run for travel to Los Angeles.

TIM BLACKWELL is editor and publisher of Cowcatcher magazine, a publication dedicated to model railroading and rail enthusiasts in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana.

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