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Three things must happen before North Texans can get TEX Rail commuter trains

First look at new TEX Rail cars being unloaded in Grapevine

TEX Rail is a 27-mile commuter rail line that will extend from downtown Fort Worth, across northwest Tarrant County, through North Richland Hills and Grapevine, and into DFW Airport’s Terminal B.
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TEX Rail is a 27-mile commuter rail line that will extend from downtown Fort Worth, across northwest Tarrant County, through North Richland Hills and Grapevine, and into DFW Airport’s Terminal B.

If all goes according to plan, a year from now the long-awaited TEX Rail commuter train service will make its maiden voyage from downtown Fort Worth to Grapevine and Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.

But that’s a big if.

Much work remains on the commuter line, which is expected to cost more than $1 billion.

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Workers place beams for a new TEX Rail train bridge over the Trinity River north of downtown Fort Worth. Fort Worth Transportation Authority

Although officials at the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, the agency responsible for building the train line, insist they are still on track to open the service by December 2018, many observers believe the construction likely will take several months longer.

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A route map inside a new TEX Rail car on display in Grapevine shows the stations the planned commuter line will serve. Gordon Dickson gdickson@star-telegram.com

But either way, here are three of the biggest challenges in the project that must be overcome before the trains can roll.

1. The ‘Hole in the Wall’

Just east of downtown Fort Worth, the TEX Rail line must squeeze through an extraordinarily tight railroad/highway intersection that project designers have taken to calling the “hole in the wall.” It’s really more of a virtual wall, a place where railroad tracks used by Fort Worth-based BNSF Railway, Omaha, Neb.-based Union Pacific Railroad, national passenger rail service Amtrak and the local Trinity Railway Express all share space.

And, directly above is an overpass for Spur 280, which leads thousands of motorists per day from nearby Interstate 30 and U.S. 287 in and out of downtown.

“Unfortunately, we don't have enough horizontal space to put the tracks in without doing some demolition and rearranging,” Paul Ballard, transportation authority president, said during a recent tour of the area.

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Fort Worth Transportation Authority president Paul Ballard talks about the “hole in the wall,” an area under U.S. 287 east of downtown Fort Worth where railroad tracks are being rebuilt to make way for the planned TEX Rail passenger line. Gordon Dickson gdickson@star-telegram.com

The remaining work includes building new vertical support columns for Spur 280 (the existing columns are in the way), then building a new railroad overpass for the freight trains to use. The passenger trains will use the ground-level tracks.

2. New ‘shop’ for the trains

When you operate trains practically around the clock, you have to have a place to wash them and conduct routine maintenance and repairs. For TEX Rail, an Equipment Maintenance Facility is under construction near Long and Sylvania avenues in north Fort Worth.

The maintenance facility is being built on 17 acres and will include about 159,000 square feet of indoor space (think of a building roughly the size of a Walmart Supercenter, with three sets of railroad tracks running through it.)

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David Campbell, vice president of Huitt-Zollars architectural firm, gives guests a tour of the new TEX Rail maintenance facility last month in north Fort Worth. Gordon Dickson gdickson@star-telegram.com

Eight sets of Stadler Flirt rail cars — each set with four passenger cars and an diesel engine car — will have their wheels periodically smoothed at the facility, said David Campbell, vice president of Huitt-Zollars, the firm overseeing the construction. The process of smoothing the wheels, which tend to develop little flat spots caused by train braking, is called “true-ing.”

3. New tracks and stations

In all, TEX Rail is scheduled to serve nine stations. Only two of the stations already exist — downtown Fort Worth’s T&P and Intermodal Transportation Center — both of which are used by the Trinity Railway Express.

The other stations will have to be built from scratch. DFW Airport is already working on its station at Terminal B, and Grapevine city officials are hard at work developing their ambitious downtown station, which will include a boutique hotel.

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Map of the TEX Rail route. Star-Telegram archives

In North Richland Hills, several intersections have been improved to make room for TEX Rail, and city officials are hard at work developing two stations — Iron Horse and Smithfield.

“Twenty or 30 years from now, people aren’t going to remember the battles and the work that was required to get this done,” North Richland Hills Mayor Oscar Trevino said during a recent tour of the TEX Rail line. “But with the city of Fort Worth and Grapevine and the T (Fort Worth Transportation Authority), we are able to get this done.”

In addition to building new train platforms and parking areas at the stations, the transportation authority also is replacing and double-tracking much of the line.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796, @gdickson

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