Honkin' Mad

Why was Fort Worth’s TEXRail commuter line delayed? It wasn’t just the federal shutdown

When the January opening of the TEXRail commuter line was delayed, many people blamed the federal shutdown that was going on at the time.

But behind the scenes, a different drama was playing out.

Officials at Trinity Metro, the local transit organization building the TEXRail line from downtown Fort Worth to DFW Airport, were putting out dozens of proverbial fires as they worked tirelessly to get the trains running, a review of agency emails shows. The frantic effort to comply with all federal safety rules stretched back more than year, with the pace increasing as Trinity Metro’s self-imposed Dec. 31, 2018, deadline drew closer, records show.

On Oct. 22, with just 70 days to go before the planned New Year’s Eve celebratory opening of TEXRail, at least 155 items large and small had still not been inspected by the Federal Railroad Administration, a requirement before the trains could open to the public. The pending items included verifying the load capacity of railroad bridges along the rail line, ensuring each locomotive had an identifiable badge in its cab, inspection of emergency lighting and window exits and final approval of TEXRail’s safety and security management plan.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, citing state and federal open records laws, requested a review of all communications between Trinity Metro and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regarding TEXRail from Jan. 1, 2018 to Jan. 7, 2019. About 500 pages of emails were provided by Trinity Metro in response to the request, and many of those communications shed light on the tension between the local and federal government representatives.

For example, on Sept. 26, 2018, one of the emails involved a correspondence between Kevin Lewis, a FRA supervisory signal and train control specialist, and Mike Stolzman, then Trinity Metro’s vice president and chief operating officer for rail. In the note, Lewis lambastes Stolzman for misleading him about whether Trinity Metro was doing all it could to ensure an electrical connection was maintained at all times between the TEXRail cars and the railroad tracks.

That electrical connection — known as “shunting” in the railroad industry — is crucial because it ensures that the proper signals are sent to activate crossing signals at intersections.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2013 reported that some versions of the rail cars bought by TEXRail from Switzerland-based Stadler Rail had issues with shunting, partly because the cars are lightweight.

In the email, Lewis reminded Stolzman that Stolzman had stated in a conference call that Trinity Metro had been “scrubbing the rail” for two weeks to ensure a good electrical connection. But Lewis said he had since learned from others involved in the TEXRail project that that statement was false.

“I made some calls yesterday with several people and discovered that is not the case,” Lewis wrote. “Now, perhaps you were misinformed. I don’t know and I don’t care either. What I do care about is that Trinity Metro gets a handle on the shunting issue at these crossings and on this railroad.”

The issue was eventually resolved.

On Oct. 5, another FRA official, David Lindberg, sent Stolzman, Lewis and others an email saying he had reviewed TEXRail’s shunting mitigation plan and found it acceptable.

texrail email 1 (2).jpg
A copy of an email from the Federal Railroad Administration’s Kevin Lewis to Mike Stolzman of Trinity Metro. Gordon Dickson

After the email exchange, Trinity Metro’s executive leadership talked with Stolzman about the issues raised by FRA, Bob Baulsir, Trinity Metro senior vice president, said in an interview.

Stolzman subsequently resigned from Trinity Metro, Baulsir said. Stolzman could not be reached to comment.

Golden Ticket

In other emails throughout the year before TEXRail’s opening, federal officials on several occasions expressed concern that Trinity Metro was pushing to have an invitation-only “Golden Ticket Train Ride” in which mayors and other dignitaries (including the Star-Telegram and other media) would take a New Year’s Eve trip on the rail cars.

Even though TEXRail wasn’t yet ready to carry the ticket-buying public, Trinity Metro officials wanted to symbolically carry dignitaries on Dec. 31, 2018, to demonstrate that the train service had been delivered by the end of 2018, fulfilling a self-imposed deadline promise the transit agency had made to the Fort Worth City Council.

In an Oct. 17 email, Nathan Wallace, FRA chief railroad inspector, wrote to Stolzman and Baulsir. His email read in part: “I just received an invitation for the GT (Golden Ticket) ride. In order for this to occur without any hick-ups (sic) I need to understand the purpose before the scheduled revenue service date beyond dignitary show-n-tell.”

Wallace said the Golden Ticket ride could only occur if all the “deliverables” — an industry phrase that describes the tasks Trinity Metro would be required to perform for FRA approval — had been completed.

Ultimately, the Golden Ticket ride had to be modified because all the “deliverables” weren’t complete. Mainly, a stretch of track running under U.S. 287 near downtown Fort Worth had not yet been approved for passenger service — so, as a result, the scheduled 27-mile Golden Ticket ride was shortened to 23 miles, and passengers boarded at the North Side Station so they didn’t have to travel on the unapproved tracks.

1231 TEXRail02.JPG
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price talks to passengers during the very first TEXRail journey from North Side Station to DFW North Station on Monday, December 31, 2018, in Fort Worth. Amanda McCoy amccoy@star-telegram

TEXRail email 2.jpg
Email from FRA’s Nathan Wallace to Trinity Metro’s Bob Baulsir Gordon Dickson

There were issues with TEXRail train sets, too.

The rail cars were built for Trinity Metro by Stadler Rail of Buggnang, Switzerland, which opened a new plant in Salt Lake City, Utah to serve its new American customers.

Dozens of emails went back and forth between officials at Trinity Metro and the FRA over waivers that were needed for the rail cars, which were Stadler FLIRT models and built very similarly to European trains (although the U.S. version was diesel powered instead of electric). Waivers were required for the lack of handrails and steps on the exterior of the rail cards, and for an electrically actuated emergency brake valve in lieu of a pneumatic valve.

In a Nov. 8 email, from FRA’s Wallace to Trinity Metro’s Baulsir, Wallace expressed concerns about a recent conference call. In that call, Marcin Taraszkiewicz, a Jacobs engineer working on the TEXRail project, told the FRA that four TEXRail vehicles were 90 percent complete with their testing.

“In our recent communications with other persons on this project, that is not what we understands (sic) to be the case,” Wallace wrote to Baulsir. “We would like to know what the actual testing progress (is) for each train to anticipate when the railroad might be doing full revenue schedule runs on the corridor. I do not want to create undue burden, if possible please send a short written verification from Stadler and the Vehicle manufacturer describing the percent completion of testing for each vehicle.”

texrail email 3.jpg
Email from FRA’s Nathan Wallace to Trinity Metro’s Bob Baulsir Gordon Dickson

Some of the other items that had to be finished before TEXRail could run included adoption and approval of a safety plan, inspections of all new tracks and railroad crossings and installation of quiet zones at roads in Fort Worth, Haltom City, North Richland Hills, Colleyville and Grapevine. The quiet zones would make it possible for trains to pass through crossings without blaring horns.

And, in a way, it remains an issue today. As recently as last week, the crossing arms at a Colleyville intersection were only partly working, according to Colleyville police.

None of the emails in the stack of 500 pages was dated Dec. 22 or later, presumably because most FRA officials had been sent home without pay because of the federal shutdown.

The issue of specifically why the opening of TEXRail passenger service was delayed to Jan. 10 was not addressed. The Star-Telegram’s request for documentation was dated Jan. 7, and federal workers eventually returned to their jobs when the shutdown ended Jan. 25.

Last minute delays

Even in the final weeks before TEXRail opened, an extraordinary amount of work remained to be done.

As of Oct. 22 — 70 days before the “Golden Ticket” trip was scheduled to take place — at least 155 items on the tracks, on rail cars, within passenger stations and within TEXRail’s computer system had still not be inspected and approved by the FRA, according to various emails.

But Baulsir, the Trinity Metro senior vice president, said in an interview the real issue was the piece of track along the railroad underpass at U.S. 287, which was delayed by months because of problems getting a fiber optics utility company to move their lines along the corridor.

The lack of utility work delayed the construction of the U.S. 287 underpass for months, Baulsir said. The area under U.S. 287 was dubbed the “Hole in the Wall” by TEXRail planners, who saw it as the project’s biggest engineering challenge.

The U.S. 287 railroad underpass did eventually get improved, but the construction work lasted until the week before Christmas — and, by the time it was complete, the federal shutdown had begun, which slowed FRA’s ability to travel to Fort Worth and inspect it.

On Jan. 4, less than 12 hours before TEXRail was scheduled to begin hauling passengers, Trinity Metro’s leadership decided to call off the opening of the railroad.

“We made a decision late that day that we would not open, and we believed we didn’t have the authority from the FRA,” Baulsir said.

Finally, on Jan. 7, Trinity Metro received formal, written permission to run TEXRail.

And on Jan. 10, the trains began carrying passengers.

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.