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Author of Blog: Daniel Day
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Monday, November 23, 2015

Doing Commuter Rail Right Part I

I would like to admit that I was wrong about something.  In my post Streetcar IV: The Future of Rail in SA, mentioned that if any rail transit would be built in San Antonio, it would be along the rail line that parallels I-10 on the northwest side.  Well it looks to be that I was wrong, for now there's talk about actually building the Austin/San Antonio Commuter Rail and the city council approved the money for the project back in August.


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Now don't get me wrong, I'm all for this project and whatever the outcome may be, I will be using it and encouraging everyone else to use it if only to encourage people to see what a proper protected bike lane should look like. In the end, it's not like it's going to be a great success. Now I'm going to put this in a two part series. In this blog post, I'll be focusing on the train operations.

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If you ever rode the DART light rail in Dallas, or any of the other rail transit systems in the DFW area, you would know by now that this train takes about 45 minutes to get from the end of the line to downtown. It takes the Trinity Railway Express about an hour to get from Downtown Fort Worth to Dallas Union Station. The train makes stops at all the station along the route. To ride this train, you have to buy a ticket to ride from one of many tickets machines at the station. If you happen to board the train without a ticket, you'll most likely encounter a fare enforcement officer of DART and if you fail to produce a ticket, you'll either get a $150 fine or a warning which I received after failing to produce a day pass I purchased earlier on a DART bus. This same situation also is on the Red Line in Austin.

Now when I was in Chicago, I rode the Metra Electric District train. I purchased my ticket from a ticket machine as I've always done when I went to other cities, but I didn't have to. For as I just finished purchasing my ticket, I almost missed the train. It's a good thing that the conductor saw me and open the door to allow me to get aboard. As I was riding the train to Millennium Park, I came to discover that I could have purchased my ticket from the conductor on-board the train. For the record, the conductor's official title on-board the Metra Electric District is Trainman. 
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Now this train doesn't stop at every single stop along the way. Several stops are bypassed and can be requested when informing the Trainman that you want to stop there. If you happen to be at one of the stations which the Metra Electric District bypass, there's a light you can turn on to signal the train that you want to board.
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The PBS News Hour recently did a story on the DART light rail system in which they mentioned the fact that more people ride the light rail in Houston compared to Dallas, yet Dallas has more miles of track. The reason that the story gave was that Houston's Metro light rail system is built where people already go compared to Dallas DART system which is built along old railroad tracks. The Metra Electric District is also build along a railroad R.O.W., it was built back in the 19th century built along an active class one railroad, Canadian National.

So here's a question, if the goal is to get people to ditch their cars in choice of transit, why can't DART, DCTA,  the Trinity Railway Express (TRE), CapMetro, and now The Lone Star Rail District, (LStar) the name for the Austin/San Antonio Commuter Rail, do what they do on the Metra Electric District?  The way we plan for transit here in Texas seems to go against the reason on why we all drive cars. The way we operate all the rail transit service including the way we're going to operate the LStar, is by having the train stop at every station. This is akin to driving your car along the freeway and stopping at all the gas stations along the way from origin to your destination.
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We punish everyone who fails to buy a ticket either on their smart phone or at a station. Instead of punishing the people who are unable to buy tickets early on, why don't we give them a chance to buy them on the train with a small surcharge fee so they're more likely to use the system again especially if they're running late.

If we're going to operate the LStar the same way the TRE, and every other transit system in Texas operates it's trains, I can say with certainty that only one percent of commuters between Austin and San Antonio will ever use it. If we fail to plan for express trains between Austin and San Antonio, driving will still be the preferred choice. If we make it hard for first timers to use the train, we simply make it harder for other people to choose it. We have a chance to not repeat the mistakes that every other system in Texas has done. We can either learn from their mistakes or keep on doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result; the very definition of Insanity.

If you wish to comment on the future LStar, you can click here. Don't be afraid to leave a link to this blog post.

Images: 

46-1: The DCTA Commuter Train at Downtown Denton Station.
46-2: The Metra Electric District Train at Homewood Station. 
46-3: A Lady hurrying off the Train while The Trainman stands watch at Homewood Station
46-4: DART Light Rail Blue Line Arriving at Garland Station
46-5: TRE Arriving at Fort Worth ITC Station. 

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