Fort Worth

Could the federal shutdown slam the brakes on Fort Worth’s TEXRail commuter trains?

TEXRail takes its inaugural ride to DFW Airport

Community members and officials took the first celebratory TEXRail ride from North Side Station to DFW North Station on New Year's Eve. Hundreds gathered to celebrate more than 15 years of planning and work.
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Community members and officials took the first celebratory TEXRail ride from North Side Station to DFW North Station on New Year's Eve. Hundreds gathered to celebrate more than 15 years of planning and work.

Hundreds of Fort Worth-area leaders and transit supporters celebrated the opening of the TEXRail commuter line Monday with a commemorative train ride.

But even as they basked in the moment, some of the dignitaries privately expressed concern that TEXRail might have a bit of a disappointment Saturday when the rail line from downtown Fort Worth to Dallas-Fort Worth Airport is scheduled to open to the public.

The concern surrounds the federal shutdown, which went into its 10th day Monday with hundreds of thousands of federal employees furloughed and little sign that a compromise between President Trump and the Democrats in Congress can be reached.

At issue is a new railroad intersection just east of downtown Fort Worth. It’s an area TEXRail advocates have dubbed the “hole in the wall,” a tight fit where TEXRail and two freight railroad lines converge under Spur 280, the highway leading to downtown Fort Worth.

Trinity Metro, the transit agency that is building TEXRail, spent millions of dollars to upgrade the rail intersection under Spur 280, and the work has just been completed in recent days. The “hole in the wall” was widely considered the greatest engineering challenge of the $1 billion TEXRail project.

However, even though the improvements have been made, the Federal Railroad Administration still must certify the intersection is safe for passenger train travel, and that may not happen while so many federal workers are furloughed.

Without that certification, TEXRail will not be allowed to travel under Spur 280 to pick up or drop off passengers in downtown Fort Worth, which means TEXRail would only be able to partially open on Saturday. The rest of the rail line from North Side Station near the Stockyards to DFW Airport is already certified for passenger travel, and trains in that area of Northeast Tarrant County would be able to run.

But one of the most important features of TEXRail is the ability to serve downtown Fort Worth.

“I just hope they get it worked out, so TEXRail can run,” Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said.

Paul Ballard, Trinity Metro president and chief executive officer, said he has his “fingers crossed” that someone from the Federal Railroad Administration will be able to sign the paperwork and ensure TEXRail serves downtown Fort Worth on its first day of public service. He said that although most federal workers have been sent home without pay, a skeleton staff is still at work.

“We think we have an arrangement with them,” Ballard said after Monday’s celebration. “We think we’re going to be OK — fingers crossed.”

TEXRail also is waiting on federal paperwork to be completed for several quiet zones along the 27-mile route. Quiet zones are specially designed intersections where railroads can cross roads without blowing their horns, but only the federal government can authorize them. For now, TEXRail operators are blowing their horns at most intersections until that certification comes.

The federal shutdown was only hinted at during Monday’s TEXRail celebration. Speakers told a crowd of 500 people that officials from the Federal Transit Administration, which helped provide nearly half the funding for the $1 billion project, could not attend while the stalemate in Washington continued.

For most of the attendees, it was a time to celebrate more than 15 years of planning, hand-wringing over a lack of funding and negotiation delays caused by railroads whose tracks were needed for the line.

In Fort Worth, guests boarded at the North Side Station near 28th Street and Decatur Avenue. Two passengers in wheelchairs were able to easily board the trains, which feature doors that are level with the platform.

Passengers marveled at the smoothness of the ride, and the lack of noise from metal wheels flapping on the tracks, even as the trains glided at a top speed of about 70 mph.

Monday’s ride was symbolically important because it was a fulfillment of a promise by Trinity Metro to deliver commuter rail by the end of 2018.

Trinity Metro co-owns the Trinity Railway Express along with Dallas Area Rapid Transit, but TEXRail is the first commuter line the agency runs all by itself.

“TEXRail is more than just a faster way to get to DFW Airport. It’s an investment in our community, and it offers great connectivity,” said Carlos Flores, a City Council member whose district includes the station.

Other dignitaries boarded at new stations in North Richland Hills and Grapevine — both cities that agreed to help pay for the rail project as a way to expand transit-oriented development in their neighborhoods.

“It’s going to give other cities outside of Fort Worth an opportunity to see what development can occur at rail stops,” Whitley said. “We’ve got a lot of new people coming here every year, and they are looking for alternatives than just to drive to and from where they are going.”

The line will operate from downtown Fort Worth’s T&P Station to DFW Airport’s Terminal B, where passengers can transfer to DART.

TEXRail will be available for free to all riders through the end of January. The trains will operate seven days a week, nearly around the clock.

Trinity Metro and other Fort Worth officials are already talking about possibly extending TEXRail further south to the medical district, Texas Christian University and into the city’s southwestern edge.

Mayor Betsy Price said she hopes Trinity Metro can quickly extend TEXRail to the medical district, using funds left over from TEXRail’s construction budget.

Ballard said that once all the bills are paid the agency could have “tens of millions of dollars” in surplus funds because the project is coming in under budget — although redirecting the funds to extend the line further south would require federal approval.

“This will give us a golden opportunity for expanding rail, potentially going south toward the medical district, where there are already $40 million worth of jobs,” Price told the crowd.

Extending the line south to the medical district also would require the cooperation of the Fort Worth & Western Railroad, which owns the freight tracks in the area.

Aboard TEXRail Monday, guests were complimentary of the train cars, the first built in the U.S. by Stadler Rail, a company based in Bussnang, Switzerland. The rail cars have safety equipment needed to operate on freight tracks, yet offer a smooth ride more comparable to a fast streetcar.

The cars offer level boarding, which makes it easy for passengers with wheelchairs, strollers and bicycles to climb aboard.

The train that left North Side Station about 10:30 a.m. arrived at the DFW North Station at 10:57 a.m. — passing through stations st Fort Worth’s Mercantile area, North Richland Hills’ Iron Horse and Smithfield stations and Grapevine’s Main Street Station without stopping.

DFW Airport, which helped cover the cost of building a TEXRail station at Terminal B, expects lots of travelers and airport and airline employees to regularly use the trains. However, the TEXRail stations will not allow overnight parking, so passengers who wish to use the trains to catch a flight will need to get a ride to the nearest train station or make alternate arrangements.

And, for train riders who want to transfer to Dallas-area transit services, it will be easy to depart TEXRail at DFW’s Terminal B and walk a few hundred feet to Terminal A, where DART operates a station on the Orange Line light-rail service.

Grapevine Mayor William D. Tate, a long-time advocate of TEXRail, credited Trinity Metro chairman Scott Mahaffey with finally getting the trains running. He called Mahaffey a “nail driver.”

“He had more self confidence than anybody I ever met,” Tate said of Mahaffey. “He said, ‘Mayor I’m going get the trains running.’ And he did.”

Some leaders of other cities have opposed transit, including officials in Colleyville which had a proposed TEXRail station within their city limits removed from the Trinity Metro master plan several years ago.

Oscar Trevino, mayor of North Richland Hills and a long-time transit advocate, said his city is aggressively pursing transit-oriented development around its TEXRail stations because “we don’t want to be stuck in the past.”

“Communities that fail to have a vision and foresight, and refuse to think beyond their city limits,” Trevino said, “will have a hard time prospering.”

Gordon Dickson joined the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1997. He is passionate about hard news reporting, and his beats include transportation, growth, urban planning, aviation, real estate, jobs, business trends. He is originally from El Paso, and loves food, soccer and long drives.

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