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Rapidly Improving Transportation

In Texas, the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system provides a model of efficient transportation, one that weans us from petroleum and the automobile

By Garl Latham

As society confronts 21st century challenges, accepted activities of the past are often subjected to public debate. One of these is our over-reliance on the private automobile for transport. Dwindling petroleum reserves and a desire among many for a “green” approach to living spur renewed interest in a time-proven alternative to an auto-centric world: railroad transportation.

Many potential benefits of the rail mode are self-evident, with environmental friendliness, efficiency, and public safety among them. Even nebulous selling points such as sustainable development favor mass transportation in general and rail-based operations in particular.

In a time when citizens often vote down mass transit referendums and politicians clamor to derail Amtrak, a shining star among modern mass transportation systems has emerged: the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system in Dallas, Texas. Local citizens take pride in DART, patronizing it in huge numbers, and it serves as an example of what dedicated planning combined with community-wide support can accomplish.

“DART's record for quality construction and on-time and on-budget performance in building the rail system is well-known in the transit and engineering communities,” says Tim McKay, the agency’s senior vice president of project management and a graduate of Michigan Tech University. Speaking to McKay and his staff of engineers, I sense both their untiring dedication and single-minded desire to create a lasting legacy, one that answers, in part, the question of passenger transportation for the future.

Dallas once boasted a comprehensive network of electric-powered railway transit lines, including a far flung streetcar system and a series of interconnecting interurban routes second only to Indianapolis, Indiana in geographical coverage. Streetcars lasted until 1956, only to be abandoned in a misguided attempt at modernization.

Today’s DART, while relatively young in the scheme of things (its light rail system celebrated its tenth anniversary in June), has already become a fixture in north central Texas life. The system covers 13 cities, including Dallas and surrounding towns, and includes not only light rail but buses, high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, and van service. DART also partners with the Trinity Railway Express on its diesel locomotive commuter rail service to connect Dallas and Fort Worth. DART’s bright yellow trains carry almost 18 million riders annually, and that number is expected to grow exponentially as increased routes and services become available over the next few years.

Besides providing efficient transportation, DART’s expansion efforts have enabled what city officials see as an emerging new transit-oriented lifestyle. Livable communities, not based on the automobile, have sprung up near stations and include residential, retail, and commercial developments.

The Fun Part
DART’s currently programmed expansion projects include new lines to the Dallas suburbs of Farmers Branch, Carrollton, and Irving; operations through the Las Colinas Urban Center; and front-door service to Dallas’ famed Art Deco landmark, Fair Park. “We’re going to start turning dirt here pretty soon, and that’s always fun!“ says DART President/Executive Director Gary Thomas, who once held McKay’s position. He hopes to have many opportunities to do just that as DART strives to double the size of its light rail system over the next seven years and bring its trains to new locations throughout the region.

“I enjoy managing the design and construction of a project. It’s always fun to see things actually happen, and in this role, that’s still a big part of what I do,” the personable Thomas relates. But, as DART’s CEO, “it’s the whole picture now. It’s really sort of fun to have some influence over every aspect of what DART does, including our on-going operations. Certainly, I get a lot of satisfaction from watching almost 350,000 people use our services every day – safely, efficiently and effectively – from one point to another.” Thomas has an unusual background, as he not only holds a B.S. degree in civil engineering but also a bachelor’s of architecture degree, both from Texas Tech.

Another visionary in the mix is Eduardo Ugarte, DART’s assistant vice president of facilities engineering on McKay’s team. Ugarte graduated from Youngstown State University in Ohio with a master’s degree in structural engineering. He enjoys his role as an integral part of the organization responsible for re-establishing rail-based transit in Dallas. “I’m working to provide service to the community. I feel I am doing something for others. It is very rewarding.”

DART’s staff engineers maintain areas of specialization, allowing their individual strengths to work for the greater good. For example, Ugarte supervises basic engineering and design work. In turn, Diane Gollhofer, assistant vice president of construction management, oversees the completion of DART’s various capital projects, while Fariba Nation, the agency’s director of systems engineering and integration, helps to bring those finished projects online.

Gollhofer, a Texas Aggie with a civil engineering degree from Texas A&M, describes herself as “a true believer in mass transit.” She adds, “One thing that makes a job with a public agency rewarding, particularly this public agency, is seeing what you’ve accomplished, seeing the yellow trains, seeing how we’ve changed the face of Dallas! In the end, it is very rewarding to do things on such a massive scale!”

Fariba also holds a B.S. in civil engineering, and in addition to her basic responsibilities, she handles most of DART’s system safety and security issues. An example of Fariba’s work is the way she logistically maximizes the number of train movements over a given stretch of main line by considering physical characteristics of the trackage, the route’s operational schematic, its signaling system, and areas of possible conflict.

Existing Lines Present Challenges
One way DART’s engineering group relies on individual strengths while working as a team is typified through its process of selecting precise light rail alignments, specific design criteria, and construction techniques within a given corridor, then seamlessly dovetailing that new service into the existing network. Throughout its history, DART built most of its light rail lines along railroad rights-of-way, either as the sole occupant of an abandoned corridor or by an arrangement where it shares space within an active line. This saves area taxpayers tons of money in real estate acquisition costs, but in turn, it presents the agency with interesting challenges.

The simplest method of handling this has been to purchase a railway line, abandon operations, and then build a completely new light rail route in the corridor. In the process, original guideway materials are removed down to the subgrade. Additionally, most other infrastructure, such as bridges, culverts and retained fills, are either rebuilt or replaced. Ugarte likes this straightforward approach, saying the use of an existing railroad alignment “makes everything much easier. It’s very challenging when you don’t have the right-of-way.”

DART Facilities Engineering Project Manager Reza Shirmanesh does his best to mitigate any problems that may be inherited with the purchase of these long-lived railroad rights-of-way. Reza, who graduated from the University of Houston with a master’s degree, has managed several major light rail projects, including a large portion of DART’s Northeast Corridor route, built along the former Missouri-Kansas-Texas (“Katy”) Railroad main line between Dallas and Garland.

Among other things, Shirmanesh is concerned with the differences in design criteria between today’s light rail systems and the original railroad builders. “The criteria when they built their lines would be totally different than ours,” he remarks. Many difficulties are readily apparent when attempting to dovetail the two eras’ handiwork. “It becomes very challenging.”

Another way for light rail transit services to use existing rail corridors is to share the right-of-way with active railroad operations. An example of that approach is seen along the Blue Line within the city of Garland, where DART light rail trains run side-by-side with freight trains of the Dallas, Garland and Northeastern Railroad.

In such an instance, Ugarte explains, “The biggest challenge is clearance and which side of the right-of-way…the existing railroad occupies.” In other words, is the current track laid down the center of the corridor, which would push the light rail line to one side or the other? If so, should the existing railroad be relocated to give the new rail transit operations more room? Which side of the right-of-way contains the most industrial sidings and spurs? Which side do planning documents identify as the ideal location for passenger facilities? And he adds, “When you have an existing rail line and it remains active, that creates some special conditions, because now you have affected operations,” Ugarte states.

New Corridors Even Harder
One thing DART has not done before is establish a completely new right-of-way where a transportation corridor has never previously existed; however, that is precisely what they intend to do when building the proposed light rail line to Irving. Gollhofer understands some of the pitfalls that may await the group. “I think it’s going to be a lot harder,” she predicts.

“You see, when you deal with an existing right-of-way, there’s a lot of precedent,” Ugarte emphasized. “The people are used to having a railroad. Even though they might initially oppose DART…it is an existing corridor, so we are not bringing to the community something totally foreign. So that’s a new challenge we’re going to be facing in Irving. It’s a new thing for them.”

Beyond the political realities lie several construction-related issues that need to be addressed. Ugarte continues, “When you have an existing right-of-way, the railroad has already determined the best way to go, the guideway elevations, the curvature the track needs to have, and so on. It’s fairly well defined for you. When you do not have a right-of-way defined, now you have to create all of that from scratch.”

Furthermore, problem areas along established routes will have long ago been discovered by the previous operators – through trial-and-error, if nothing else – but, with a totally new alignment, DART is required to do all the “discovering” for themselves. Ugarte offers an example: “Let’s say there might be…soil issues. In the case of established rights-of-way, we know, if there are settlements in the rail, it tells us ‘well, this area may be wrong’; but, if you see the existing railroad being in very good condition, it will give you an indication that perhaps you are going into a good area. It makes a big difference from an engineer’s point of view.”

Rail Car Innovation
As an industry innovator, DART continues to experiment with many aspects of rail-based transit. Several of these projects have long-term implications for not only DART’s service, but other systems throughout North America as well.

One of the more interesting studies taking place within the agency concerns the move toward low-floor boarding, involving changes in the current station platform design and a re-configured light rail vehicle: DART’s new “C Car”. A joint venture of DART and the car builder Kinki Sharyo, the “C Car” is an extended version of DART’s current standard L.R.V. (light rail vehicle), complete with an add-on center section. This new area of the car would allow low-floor, step-free access. One of the many benefits is that riders in wheelchairs can roll right onto trains, rather than having to use what DART calls “high blocks,” actually special raised platforms. (Deriving its name from traditional street railway designations, the “C Car” is the middle car between engines on either end, creating an articulated combination that can pull in either direction.)

“From the outset,” Gary Thomas says, “DART has enjoyed a wonderful working relationship with Kinki Sharyo. Both organizations provided parts and expertise for the ‘C Car’ project, and through that effort, the prototype set – car 170 – was developed.” The car is now operating over DART’s system, almost on a daily basis, and has generated positive passenger response.

Thomas thinks the “C Car” concept will save taxpayers a great deal of money as DART continues to expand its fleet. “Not only that, our customers are going to be able to board our trains much more easily. We’re going to raise the platforms; DART’s ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) focus group is excited about it; some mobility-impaired passengers have been part of the tests and reviews we’ve done from the start. The ‘C Car’ is one of those really neat success stories. We didn’t realize everything we envisioned in the beginning; but, now that it has evolved, it’s pretty cool!”

Any public venture, no matter how successful, will have its share of detractors, and regrettably, DART proves no exception. But it must be reassuring to know that one of the biggest challenges the agency faces is the fact their station-area parking lots are becoming too small to handle the crowds!

Eduardo Ugarte speaks of the pride he feels when he’s with his family, enjoying his handiwork. “My grandchildren love the train. It’s neat to ride with them!” Diane Gollhofer probably sums it up best when she says, “Helping the environment, helping the community…that means a lot to me. That makes a lot of this worthwhile. And when my kids see one of our bridges and say ‘that’s Mommy’s bridge’ or watch some L.R.V.s speed by and say ‘that’s Mommy’s train’, well, that’s kind of cool, too.”

For more information on the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system, visit www.dart.org


Garl Latham is a transportation consultant and railroad enthusiast in Dallas, Texas. He once worked for DART.


Progressive Engineer
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©2006 Progressive Engineer