Monday, March 08, 2010

Passenger Perspective: On rail matters, “Big D” mixes daring, grace

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By Douglas John Bowen, Managing Editor

 

doug-bowen.jpgDallas gets it. It’s expanding its existing light rail transit network, augmenting regional rail, and bolstering existing Amtrak service, even as it faces the bumpy realities of advancing high speed rail. Texas’ second-largest city has a real-world, practical hold on matters mixed with a vision of what can be. Combine those elements with the ubiquitous optimism and “can-do” attitude all Texans seem to carry, and you have a potent force much of the U.S. would do well to emulate.

 

And please forget “right” or “left”; in this case; Dallas is front and center, in some ways perhaps the ambitious edge of the current U.S. passenger rail renaissance.

 

My latest trip to Dallas in late January only reaffirmed this, even as I delighted over the passenger rail progress the city has notched. More than many places, Dallas residents and officials, be it DART President Gary Thomas or a taxicab driver, mix that powerful Texas pride with a practical “what’s up in your town” inquiry. Where other cities pump up boosterism to an extreme, Dallas (I’ve found) seeks real information. “We’ve got this problem; do you? How are you guys dealing with it?” reflects an honesty, an open-mindedness, that bodes well both for urban rail transit and any future HSR development.

 

DART President Thomas and his staff are justly proud of the agency, and it shows. But more than they might know or sense, DART is a pointed refutation of the naysayers insisting passenger rail transit will not work and does not affect development, that it’s meant for only us “rat-grey New Yorkers” (in author Tom Wolfe’s words) who don’t know any better. It’s bolstered and energized Dallas’ downtown, a downtown long ignored per many U.S. “cities” but reasserting itself as a real place with a real purpose.

 

I base that not just on the gracious guided tour of new construction provided me by DART Director, Media Relations Morgan Lyons—a task he performed with relish and with obvious pride—but on my own multiple trips on DART’s Red and Blue lines. I saw “those people” (commuters) but also saw students, shoppers, and travelers with other purposes, generating on-off traffic for many stations along the routes.

 

One of those stops is at Union Station and the Reunion Center complex, served by DART, Trinity Rail Express (TRE) regional rail service linking Dallas with Fort Worth, and Amtrak. In the 1980s, a refurbished Union Station stood more as a monument to the past—almost a mausoleum—with few passengers coming or going. Not anymore; it may not yet be 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, but rail passengers now are in evidence throughout much of the day. A  modest four Amtrak trains per day don’t do Dallas justice. But it’s  more than six trains a week and, along with TRE’s presence and DART service, the station is set to welcome whatever HSR (or even just HrSR) might lie ahead.

 

That last component won’t arrive immediately. Advocates gathering at the historic Magnolia Hotel for the 6th Annual Southwestern Rail Conference, “Turning Vision into Reality” Jan. 29, were clearly  disappointed when FRA Deputy Administrator Karen Rae, the luncheon speaker, affirmed what the group already had heard the day before: Texas wouldn’t get the big bucks for any HSR project, at least in the first round. Rae delivered the “bad” news as diplomatically as she could, saying, “Should you be disappointed and concerned? You should be focused” on proceeding with HSR cohesively.

 

Indeed, even before Rae addressed the group, Texas DOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz allowed that the state needed a “comprehensive” approach to HSR, noting Texas submissions to FRA during 2009 were “fractured” into nine distinct projects or pieces. But Saenz remained upbeat, noting TexDOT now has a Rail Division to guide the state “in focusing on a comprehensive [statewide] rail plan.” The words and labels matter, Saenz said: “Not too long ago, we all were ‘the highway department.’”

 

Beyond accepting reality, and vowing (in Saenz’s words) that “we learned from what we did” and perhaps didn’t do, Texas HSR advocates also showed their magnanimous side to the FRA “winners.” Those assembled bore no demonstrative grudge in congratulating California, Florida, and Chicago-St. Louis for their first-round fiscal victories. Many took time to  congratulate conference moderator Fritz Plous, a Chicago resident and longtime rail advocate, for Chicago’s successful HrSR bid,  something perhaps Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) could learn to emulate rather than acting as a sore winner. In Dallas, they get it.  Here’s hoping they get the real thing, HSR, real soon.

William Vantuono

With Railway Age since 1992, Bill Vantuono has broadened and deepened the magazine's coverage of the technological revolution that is so swiftly changing the industry. He has also strengthened Railway Age's leadership position in industry affairs with the conferences he conducts on operating passenger trains on freight railroads and communications-based train control.