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TEXRail plans include high-tech approach to safety

A proposed commuter rail line from downtown Fort Worth to Dallas/Fort Worth Airport will be among the first rails in Texas to feature state-of-the-art technology for preventing crashes, an official said.

The TEXRail line, which officials said is on schedule to open by late 2018, will be designed to include a system called positive train control, a Fort Worth Transportation Authority official said.

Project on track

Officials at Trinity Metro are in the final design phase of TEX Rail, and expect to put construction out for bid in December, Baulsir said.

The agency is on track to receive a full-funding grant agreement from the U.S. Transportation Department to pay for up to half the estimated cost of nearly $1 billion in the first quarter of 2016, he said. A full-funding grant agreement is essentially a promise from the federal government to pay a certain sum on a project, although the money can be spread over several years and is subject to approval by Congress.

“We’ve ordered all the rail cars and we’re completing the final design steps now and acquiring real estate along the right-of-way,” said Baulsir. He added that TEXRail will deploy rail cars that are modern and much quieter than those used by the Trinity Railway Express, a service that began in 1996 and now serves downtown Fort Worth to Dallas, following the old Rock Island line through the industrialized Trinity River bottoms corridor.

TEXRail is expected to have about 10,000 riders per day along its 27 miles in its initial year. Demographic modeling shows a good chance of that ridership growing to 15,000 daily passengers, and possibly more, in future years.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments, which helps the T with ridership estimates, has updated numbers showing even stronger job and residential growth in downtown Fort Worth than previously expected, said Dan Kessler, assistant director of transportation.

Getting to work

A handful of residents interviewed at the Intermodal Transportation Center in downtown Fort Worth said they welcomed the opportunity to ride a commuter rail line to a previously underserved area of the county.

TEX Rail will help people who live in central, east, north and south Fort Worth access areas of Northeast Tarrant County where there are lots of good jobs, said Michael Allen, who lives in an apartment near Fort Worth’s historical Stop Six and Meadowbrook neighborhoods.

“We need a train like that,” said Allen, who was waiting for a T bus Wednesday morning to run errands. “A lot of people don’t have vehicles. Some people don’t even known how they’re going to get to the jobs, if they have a job out there. They’ve got to hustle a ride or pay something, and that’s hurting their pocketbooks.”

The complex system, still in development nationwide, uses data from global positioning satellite devices, track-side sensors and other computer technology to determine trains’ locations and watch for human error that can lead to crashes. The system aims to automatically slow down or stop trains as a fail-safe measure to prevent collisions.

After several high-profile fatal crashes nationwide on passenger and freight rail lines between 2002 and 2008, Congress mandated that nearly all rail lines be equipped with positive train control by Dec. 31 of this year. Although railways have been working on the problem for years, those companies have notified the federal government that most of their lines won’t be ready by that deadline.

But the challenge is more manageable for some projects, including TEXRail.

“Basically, it’s a computer system that knows everything about the train — where it is, what it’s doing, how fast it’s going,” said Bob Baulsir, vice president of TEXRail and procurement for Trinity Metro.

“If it’s coming to a curve, it knows the speed limit around the curve, and if the operator is not in compliance with our operating guidelines it’s going to stop the train,” Baulsir said Wednesday, after speaking about TEXRail at a Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition meeting. “It’s a great way to use GPS and new technology. We’ll be the first in this region to have it.”

Slow, steady progress

The nation’s largest railways, including Fort Worth-based BNSF Railway Co., have said they have made progress in recent years, installing positive train control devices in locomotives, along railroad tracks and in dispatch centers. Even so, the Federal Railroad Administration last month released a report showing that most railroads will miss the deadline.

Railroads are expected to spend several billion dollars installing the hardware and software. In most cases, they must retrofit locomotives and railroad tracks that have been in service for decades.

The TEXRail project can use a portion of a $25 million North Central Texas Council of Governments grant to offset the costs of positive train control.

Article on Star-Telegram by Gordon Dickson — Fort Worth Star-Telegram