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Amtrak takes a different track in Dallas-Fort Worth

Passengers gather as the Texas Eagle pulls into the Fort Worth station, bound for Chicago.
Passengers gather as the Texas Eagle pulls into the Fort Worth station, bound for Chicago. Star-Telegram

High-speed rail is likely many years away in Dallas-Fort Worth, but area officials have made a deal to improve the slower but well-established Amtrak service by changing tracks.

The solution required four years of negotiations, a $7.2 million infusion of federal Recovery Act stimulus funding and an agreement by the Fort Worth Transportation Authority to pay for a roughly $21 million insurance policy that clears Amtrak of liability for injuries and deaths on the line.

Amtrak, the nation’s only coast-to-coast passenger rail company, will begin using the Trinity Railway Express line between downtown Fort Worth and Dallas in February, Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo said. Amtrak’s Texas Eagle runs daily from Chicago to San Antonio, with stops in Dallas and Fort Worth.

Amtrak also runs the Heartland Flyer daily from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City, using different tracks.

The Texas Eagle has traditionally used a Union Pacific Railroad freight line between Dallas and Fort Worth, but the tracks are frequently crammed with freight traffic and Amtrak trains are often delayed, sometimes for an hour or more. The TRE line, on the other hand, is mostly a commuter rail route.

“This is a significant improvement for the long-distance route,” said Peter LeCody, president of Texas Rail Advocates, which pushes for better passenger rail service.

LeCody said the new route will probably reduce Amtrak’s travel times. Now, it takes 23 hours and 40 minutes to travel by train from Chicago to Fort Worth, according to the Texas Eagle timetable.

“They had a lot of padding in the schedule, so hopefully they can take that out,” he said.

In addition to providing better Amtrak service, the plan includes adding track to the TRE line, officials said. By double-tracking portions of the TRE line, TRE will be able to operate more commuter trains, and run the Monday-through-Saturday service more frequently, they said.

Long time coming

Negotiations to move Amtrak to the TRE line dragged on for years, and in 2012 the project nearly had to send its federal stimulus funding back to Washington. A deal was worked out to save that funding.

The Fort Worth Transportation Authority, or the T, got involved because it is working on another commuter rail project known as TEX Rail and needed the cooperation of Union Pacific.

TEX Rail would run from Fort Worth to Grapevine and Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, using a 2-mile section of Union Pacific track north of downtown Fort Worth. The project is scheduled to open in 2018, pending federal funding.

In return for its help with TEX Rail, Union Pacific said the T would have to find a way to get Amtrak off the Union Pacific line running through Dallas, Arlington and Fort Worth, several officials have said.

Amtrak said it would be glad to move to the TRE line but would not accept liability for the line. Amtrak does indemnify — or secure against liability — other railroads when it uses their tracks. But that policy follows laws passed in the 1970s when Amtrak was created and do not cover future agreements, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said.

In the end, the T agreed to pay about $1.07 million per year for the $21 million insurance policy, T President Paul Ballard said.

Amtrak will use the TRE line through September 2025, Dallas Area Rapid Transit officials said.

Although DART and the T co-own the TRE and are even partners, DART officials said they weren’t obligated to share the cost of the Amtrak insurance policy because it was part of a negotiation for the T’s TEX Rail project.

“The T obligation was a negotiated requirement between Union Pacific and the T because the T needs access to UP property for TEX Rail,” DART spokesman Morgan Lyons said.

Ballard, who became T president in April and wasn’t involved in most of the negotiations on the insurance policy, said he hopes the annual amount can be reduced over time.

“Those things, generally, you can bring them down in future years as the insurance company gets comfortable with the risk,” he said.

Some Texas Eagle supporters in Arkansas and East Texas have hoped Amtrak would consider stopping at CentrePort Station, just south of DFW Airport, a very popular stop on TRE. But Amtrak officials said they have no immediate plans to stop there because Amtrak service isn’t frequent enough to accommodate train riders if they miss a flight.

When Amtrak begins using the TRE line, commuter rail passengers will need to keep an eye out for the Amtrak trains as they roll through the stations without stopping. Pedestrians must often cross tracks to get to their TRE platforms and may not be accustomed to trains zooming past the stations without stopping, LeCody said.

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

Twitter: @gdickson

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