State of U.S. Passenger Rail – Texas

You might not expect it, but passenger rail in Texas is experiencing a boom time right now. Amtrak ridership is up 69% from 2003 to 2014, making it the 14th fastest growing state in the country over that time frame, and two new regional railroads have begun service this decade: Capital MetroRail serving Austin and its northern suburbs, and A-train, connecting Denton County to the Dallas-Ft. Worth light rail system. They join Trinity Railway Express, which started in the 1990s. A fourth regional railroad, Tex Rail, is planned for the Ft. Worth area, with the opening date uncertain. Let’s take a look at Texas’ three existing regional railroads.

Trinity Railway Express began service in December 1996 with service from Dallas out to three stations. The railroad saw two big upticks in ridership in its early years for two reasons. In the fall of 2000, new stations opened four new stations, effectively doubling its size. And in December 2001 it was extended to Ft. Worth, which remains its terminal. Ridership on the 34-mile, 10-station route has held steady since then, with a current average of 189,000 passengers per month. Compared with where the railroad started, ridership is up 628% from the 25,960 passengers per month being carried in December 1997, after TRE’s first 12 months of service.

Trinity has recently been joined by two new regional railroads. Capital MetroRail began service in March 2010 on a 32-mile route with nine stations from downtown Austin north to Leander. Average monthly ridership has grown to 68,233, up from 18,183 in its first year of service, an increase of 275%! And not far from Trinity Railway Express, Denton County’s A-train began service in June 2011 on a 21-mile route with six stations. Similar to the Westside Express Service I covered in Oregon, A-train functions as a feeder service to the local light rail system. A-train passengers can connect to Dallas’ DART Light Rail system at Trinity Mills for continuing service to downtown Dallas. A-train has grown to carrying 46,850 passengers per month, up a very healthy 51% since its first full year of service in 2011-2012.

On an operational note, Texas is showing the rest of the country the way toward passenger rail expansion with the two latest startups. Capital MetroRail and A-train are made up of two-car diesel-powered self-propelled trains. This configuration allows for flexibility to provide frequent service to areas without enormous demand that would require longer trains. But the traditional longer trains being hauled by diesel locomotives — as used by Amtrak — are alive and well in Texas. Amtrak ridership, as noted, is booming. Here’s a station-by-station ridership breakdown.

Amtrak doesn’t directly connect with A-train, or Capital MetroRail. Amtrak’s Austin station is a 14-block walk from Capital MetroRail’s terminal in downtown Austin. But it does connect at Dallas and Ft. Worth with Trinity Railway Express. Ridership at Ft. Worth, already the highest in the state, has doubled over the last dozen years, rising to 129,438 in 2014, from 64,247 in 2003. But, as in other states, the fastest growing stations are some of the quieter ones. The fastest growing station in Texas is Mineola, which rose 194% to 6,776 in 2014, up from 2,308 in 2003. Next is Marshall, up 176% to 10,184 in 2014, then Alpine, up 165%, San Marcos, up 158%, and McGregor, up 144%. All stations in Texas but one have recorded healthy ridership increases over the past dozen years, even quiet Sanderson, which is sometimes the least busy station in the entire United States. Annual ridership there rose 23%, to 238 in 2014, up from 194 in 2003. The only station to record a decline was Gainesville, which fell 20% since 2003, to 7,178 in 2014.

Here we have the same information, in stacked column form.

These figures cover riders on Amtrak’s three routes in the state: The Texas Eagle, daily between Chicago and San Antonio, and extended three days a week to Los Angeles, the Sunset Limited, three days a week between Los Angeles and New Orleans via Houston, and the Heartland Flyer, daily between Ft. Worth and Oklahoma City. Here are the same figures expressed as a pie chart.

This shows that, broadly, Ft. Worth accounts for just under a third of the state’s ridership. San Antonio, Dallas, and Longview account for about another third, and Austin, Houston, and the state’s 13 quieter stations account for the final third.

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