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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Trinity Railway Express

This past Monday (October 16), I was in Dallas to attend a meeting. Because of time constraints, I had to fly there and back, but I wanted to use the opportunity to ride the Trinity Railway Express -- a Dallas commuter railroad which was recently extended and now provides limited service as far west as Richland Hills, a suburb of Fort Worth. TRE is one of the few rail operations in the United States that still uses Budd Rail Diesel Cars operating under their own power, so it would provide me with a rare opportunity to ride these cars, which I recall so fondly from my youth.

Our meeting, held in the DFW Airport Marriott Hotel, concluded about 3:45 p.m., and after returning to my room in a nearby motel, I left at 4:20 p.m., intending to catch the 4:51 p.m westbound train to Richland Hills at the West Irving station, about eight miles south of my motel. I made one stop and ended up making a wrong turn and running into some traffic, so as a result it took me nearly half an hour to get to the West Irving station, and I barely had time to purchase my ticket before the train arrived.

Like all stations on this new commuter route, the West Irving station is rather simple in design. It has a large parking lot which can accommodate several hundred cars, but the lot was less than half full when I arrived there. It is located near a residential neighborhood, but it appears that most passengers at this station -- as well as the other stations on the line -- arrive by car. A DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) employee whom I met on the return train commented to me that, in his opinion, this station was poorly located rather far from any major road, and stated that this would explain why there are plenty of empty parking spaces here, while the parking lots at other stations are overflowing beyond capacity.

All trains are boarded from a single low-level platform, located on the far side of the tracks from the parking lot. There is a pedestrian grade crossing at the south side of the platform. Although there is only one track through the station at present, the platform is built to accommodate another track on the opposite side. There are two special elements incorporated into the station design which could be termed "art": rough-hewn stone blocks are placed in several places along the platform to serve as seats, and plaques imbedded in the platform relate the story of various historical events that took place in the area over the last century and a half.

Like most new rail transit systems, Trinity Railway Express operates on the "honor" system. You are required to purchase a ticket before boarding the train, which is then validated by a time stamp. Tickets may be inspected by operating personnel or police on board the train, but they are not sold aboard. Tickets are obtained from machines on the platforms. Since I would be traveling between two zones, I purchased a "premium" day pass for only $4.00. The label "premium" conjures up visions of special seating and perhaps complimentary refreshments, but on TRE it is just used to designate a two-zone ticket (as opposed to a one-zone ticket, called "local"). You can buy either a one-way ticket or a day pass, and the day pass is priced at only twice the price of a one-way ticket. That is a really nice arrangement for railfans, as you can ride back and forth all day for only the price of a single round-trip (which itself is very reasonably priced!).

My Train #2929 pulled in a minute early and left at 4:51 p.m., exactly on time. It was pulled by engine #565 and included bi-level cars 1051, 1002 and 1003, the latter two of which are cab cars. TRE now operates three types of equipment. First, of course, are the Budd Cars, of which it owns thirteen. Then it has four bi-level cars, of which three are on our train. It was supposed to have ten of these cars by now, but Amtrak -- which is rehabilitating them for TRE -- did not deliver the rehabilitated cars on time. As a result, Amtrak is lending TRE a trainset made up of Amfleet I cars, apparently taken from equipment formerly used on the Pacific Surfliner route in California and now no longer required there due to the arrival of the new Surfliner equipment.

These bi-level cars are quite similar in design to those used by Metrolink in Los Angeles and by Tri-Rail in Dade County, Florida. Entry is on the lower level, and at each end of the car there is an intermediate level that connects to the next car. Passengers reach the upper level by stairways that connect to the intermediate level. The seats are in facing pairs, and some seat pairs have small tables between them. The seats are very comfortable if no one is sitting opposite you, but if you have to sit opposite someone else, your legroom is rather limited. The cars are painted on the outside in an unusual red, white and blue scheme which features a large white star against a blue background, which, I think, is the state symbol of Texas. One annoying feature is that the design also covers the windows with a grid of small circles. This somewhat interferes with your view out the windows, but you can still see reasonably well, and there isn't all that much to see along the route, anyway.

Quite a few people got off at West Irving, but the train was still at least half full, and I had to sit opposite other people until our next stop, Centreport/DFW Airport. This is a very popular station, and the parking lot here seemed quite full. After we left Centreport, I was able to find an unoccupied group of four seats for the rest of the trip to Richland Hills.

Although most of the route is only single track, between Centreport and the next station, Hurst/Bell, there is a long segment of double track, which is used for meets with opposing trains. As scheduled, we met eastbound Train #2934, made up of Budd cars. After stopping at Hurst/Bell, we arrived Richland Hills exactly on time at 5:12 p.m. It is interesting that there is no slack time built into the arrival of the train at its final destination.

Since my return train would not be leaving for another 19 minutes, I had some time to get off and explore the station and its surroundings. The Richland Hills station is located in an industrial neighborhood, so virtually all TRE passengers arrive by car or bus. The parking lot is rather small, and it seemed to be completely full. This is understandable, considering the fact that it is now the westernmost station on the line. (Service is scheduled to be extended to downtown Fort Worth in another year or so.) At this point, only very limited service is provided west of the Centreport station -- three eastbound trains and two westbound trains in the morning rush hour, and three westbound trains and two eastbounds in the evening. As a result, there are no ticket machines on the platforms here, but an agent is stationed at a folding table during hours when trains run to sell tickets to anyone who does not have one.

As might be expected, my return trip departed on time at 5:31 p.m. Only 17 passengers were aboard leaving Richland Hills, but this is not surprising, considering that most passengers commute to Dallas, and that there is no return train to Richland Hills late in the evening. I soon discovered a unique feature of these cars which, to the best of my recollection, does not exist on Metrolink equipment. In the front of the cab car, opposite the engineer's cab, there is a window, and a pair of seats -- which is open to all passengers -- is located right behind the window! On trips operating with the cab car forward (as our return trip would operate), this provides the perfect location for a railfan to get a bird's-eye view of the track ahead. A woman with her young son was sitting in these seats leaving Richland Hills, but she got off at Centreport, and for the rest of the ride, I had these seats to myself.

A rather unusual feature of the timetable for this line is that six minutes are allowed for the westbound trip from Hurst/Bell to Richland Hills, but nine minutes are allowed for the eastbound trip. Apparently, this scheduling quirk is due to a speed restriction on eastbound trains resulting from some signal limitation.

Again, we met a Budd car-equipped train on the double track between Hurst/Bell and Centreport, and this delayed us slightly. As a result, we left the Centreport station two minutes late.

Between Centreport and West Irving, the train passes by the yard where TRE trains are stored and serviced. I noticed in the yard six Amfleet I cars, including two cab cars, and two engines (#396 and #399) which apparently were also leased to TRE by Amtrak. Around this time, the conductor came by to check my ticket (no ticket inspection was conducted on the outbound train to Richland Hills).

A few more passengers boarded at the various stops, but -- as might be expected -- the train was largely empty all the way into Dallas. As we approached South Irving, I could see from my vantage point at the very front of the train that we were headed directly into the path of another train! Of course, I knew that we would not have a head-on collision, and as we approached the South Irving station, we were switched onto the side track on the opposite side of the platform. Ahead of us and unloading passengers was Train #2735 from Union Station, scheduled to arrive at South Irving at 6:02 p.m. This train, which seemed quite full, was made up of four Budd cars. Our train was now running about two minutes late, and we departed at 6:03 p.m.

Between here and the next stop, Market/Medical Center, the rail line crosses two rivers on overhead truss bridges which are obviously the original bridges from the Rock Island Railroad, which formerly operated this line. It was interesting being able to watch from the front as our train passed through these single-track bridges.

We arrived at Market/Medical Center at 6:13 p.m. This station -- as its name implies -- is adjacent to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and many workers at the medical center use TRE to get to work. Ordinarily, I would have continued on to the next and final stop, Union Station, but I wanted to meet my online friend John Mann Gardner II, who told me that he would be on Train #2937, which leaves Union Station at 6:13 p.m. and stops at Market/Medical Center at 6:20 p.m. This is the final train of the evening that goes all the way to Richland Hills. So I detrained here and waited for westbound Train #2937 to arrive.

As might be expected, Train #2937 arrived on time. It consisted of three Budd cars, 2001, 2011 and 2012. From the outside, these cars look almost the same as they did when they were first built about 45 years ago (except, of course, for the rather bold design painted across the cars), and it was really a thrill to see such cars still being operated in revenue, regularly scheduled passenger service. Only the first set of doors was opened for boarding and detraining passengers. I climbed up the steps and boarded the first car.

Inside, these cars have been completely refurbished, with fixed seating replacing the original walkover seats. However, the two-and-two seating configuration has been preserved. Each car has seating for 96 people. The new seats are attractive and comfortable, but they have a very different look from the walkover seats that I recall from the 1960s (and which have been preserved in the NYS&W M-1 car that I helped restore).

Not finding John in the first car, I walked back to the last car, where I finally located him. I sat down next to him in a backwards-facing seat, and we talked for the remainder of my ride to West Irving. I noticed that, leaving Market/Medical Center, almost every pair of seats was occupied by at least one person, but relatively few were occupied by two people. When we arrived at West Irving on time at 6:37 p.m., I detrained, returned to my car, and drove to the home of another acquaintance in North Dallas for dinner.

Although I had ridden three TRE trains -- including the Budd cars -- I still had not covered the small segment of the line from Medical/Market Center to Union Station. Since my plane did not leave until 10:05 a.m. on Tuesday morning, I decided that I would ride the line again the following morning.

I arose early on Tuesday morning and left the hotel about 6:35 a.m. This time, I proceeded directly to the West Irving station. On the way, I heard a traffic report on the radio: "Downtown Dallas is a mess -- avoid it like the plague!" What could be more appropriate for this morning, when I would be riding TRE into downtown Dallas, thereby bypassing the entire "mess"!

I arrived at West Irving at 6:51 a.m. -- just as westbound Train #2901 to Richland Hills, made up of three Budd cars, was pulling into the station. But my plan was to take eastbound Train #2906, scheduled to leave at 7:05 a.m. I proceeded down to the platform, where I purchased a "local" day pass for only $2.00. Commuters gradually found their way down to the platform, and when the eastbound train arrived at 7:07 a.m., two minutes late, there were about 40 people waiting to board.

Our train included four Budd cars: 2007, 2010, 2004 and 2008. The train was quite full, with two people sitting in many pairs of seats, but I did find an unoccupied pair of seats for myself in the first car. When we arrived at South Irving at 7:13 a.m., westbound Train #2503, which had arrived a minute earlier and terminates here, was on the opposite track. This train, too, was composed of Budd cars. Quite a few people got on here, and when we departed, there were not very many empty seats in my car. A number of people detrained at the next stop, Market/Medical Center. Here we met westbound Train #2705, which had the same bi-level equipment that I rode out to Richland Hills yesterday. We arrived at our final destination, Union Station, at 7:30 a.m., one minute late.

My time here was limited, since I wanted to take the following Train #2907, leaving at 7:44 a.m., back to West Irving. But I did detrain and walk into the station itself, which was quite deserted at this early hour of the morning. The Amtrak trains don't arrive until late in the afternoon, and there is no need for the many commuters on TRE and DART lines who use this stop to walk into the station at all -- they can simply walk from the platform directly out to the street.

I did observe a number of DART light-rail trains pulling in and out of the station. The first DART train was a Red Line train to Park Lane, and it consisted of three cars, all of which seemed quite full. I observed quite a few passengers who had arrived on my TRE train boarding that light-rail train to continue their trip. (One nice feature is that TRE tickets are also valid on the light-rail lines.) And I noticed the converse, too -- a number of people who had gotten off a southbound light-rail train proceeded to board the TRE train.

When our train departed on time at 7:44 a.m., there were about 40 passengers aboard. The rear car was closed off, since it was not needed for the relatively light passenger load on our westbound train. Soon afterwards, we passed eastbound Train #2708, scheduled to arrive at Union Station at 7:50 a.m., which was made up of Amfleet equipment. At South Irving, we met up with eastbound Train #2910, the final morning run out of Richland Hills. This was the turn-around of the westbound three-Budd-car train that I observed when I arrived at 6:51 a.m. at West Irving. About half the passengers detrained at Market/Medical Center, and only one other passenger (besides me) got off at West Irving, where we arrived on time at 8:08 a.m.

On the train, I picked up a discarded copy of the Star-Telegram and noticed a headline in the Northeast Metro section: "Railway to expand rush-hour service." The article explained that, because of a demand for increased service, TRE will be adding two westbound trains to Richland Hills next month. It noted that about 4,500 people daily have been riding TRE trains since paid service began on October 2nd, and that this figure has exceeded the expectations of the local transit authorities that operate the service. The article also stated that "side rails that enable trains to pass each other just east of the Richland Hills Station are almost ready." It was heartening to read such news aboard the TRE train!

I very much enjoyed my rides on TRE, and found it to be a well-patronized system which is part of an integrated regional transportation system. The punctuality of the service was noteworthy, and patronage should substantially increase once additional service is added and the route is extended all the way to Fort Worth.

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Dan Chazin / Other Writers

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