The one beef Sarah Gonzales has with Trinity Railway Express service is that there simply isn't enough of it.
"They still don't have enough trains to accommodate all the people," said Gonzales, who lives in Fort Worth's Riverside area and otherwise enjoys riding the commuter line each day to a job at CentrePort, the corporate park south of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. "Any day between about 4:30 and 5:30 [p.m.], it's still too crowded and people are just standing, because they can't ... find a place to sit down."
Her complaint was echoed by one rider after another during a recent afternoon aboard the train from downtown Fort Worth to Dallas. During peak periods, riders want more frequent trains — and more cars to give passengers a little elbow room. During less crowded times, such as midafternoon, they don't want to have to wait two hours on a lonely station platform for the next train.
But while many rush-hour trains are packed to the gills with riders, overall the TRE's popularity is in a bit of a funk these days. Ridership as a whole is down for the fourth consecutive year. Officials at the commuter rail line, which is owned jointly by the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, also called the T, and Dallas Area Rapid Transit, are resorting to some unusual, creative steps to try to get ridership back up to its historically high levels in 2009.
They're now offering wireless online access in every train car and trying to lure new customers with discounted family-pass tickets to beef up Saturday business. There is even preliminary talk about adding Sunday service, to lure more weekend pleasure riders and to serve more commuters who work odd hours.
All of these efforts point to a certain reality for TRE. The service, which started in December 1996 in Dallas County and was expanded to downtown Fort Worth in December 2001, is no longer a fledgling darling of the region's transportation system. It's a mature commuter line — and one that will have to do more to satisfy its customers and keep them coming back.
'I know more riders are out there'
Although there were weeks in 2008 when TRE ridership spiked to record levels — spurred on by gas prices in the $4-a-gallon neighborhood — the best overall year in the history of the service was 2009. That year, when the opening of a 10th train stop at Victory Station in Dallas was celebrated, an average of 9,870 riders boarded trains each weekday, DART figures show.
But ridership has steadily declined since — and through August the average weekday ridership is now down to 7,535 people. That's the lowest since 2002, the first full year TRE served downtown Fort Worth.
"When gasoline prices were very, very high, we were around 11,000-a-day ridership, so I know there are some more riders out there," said Tim McCay, DART executive vice president for growth and regional development. Citing estimates from the North Central Texas Council of Governments, McCay added that "we may be capturing half or two-thirds of what they estimate the ridership population to be."
McCay said DART and the T have to do a better job feeding the TRE line with connecting bus service. For example, Arlngton's MAX bus service — a two-year experiment that began in August, with buses connecting TRE's CentrePort Station to the University of Texas at Arlington — brings in potentially hundreds of new riders per day who perhaps used to think that the nearest TRE station was too far away.
"One of the challenges we generally face is that last mile connection," he said. "You can get people close, but how to you get them to their final destination? As the system grows we have to modify our bus service and feed our ridership."
By itself, the TRE corridor has limited potential to grow much beyond its current bounds, said Peter LeCody, president of Texas Rail Advocates, which pushes for increased passenger rail service in the region. LeCody agrees that TRE needs better connections with bus and other rail services that can reach out several miles beyond the TRE's tracks to begin growing again.