The Cotton Belt: an addendum to the conundrum


Mention the Cotton Belt Route in north central Texas and it brings to mind the St. Louis Southwestern Railway's former main traveling northeast out of Fort Worth's famed Stockyards, past the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, across Dallas' northern suburbs and into the "ArkLaTex" region. Dallas Area Rapid Transit owns the corridor from Tower 60 (North Fort Worth) to Wylie, at which point the line falls under state ownership by way of the Northeast Texas Rural Rail Transportation District (NETEX). The Blacklands Railroad, proclaimed "Short Line Railroad of the Year" in 2011 by the Railway Age, operates 73 miles of line from Greenville (about 29 miles east of Wylie) to Mount Pleasant and a junction with today's Union Pacific.

The existing DART-owned portion can be effectively divided into three segments: Fort Worth to the D/FW Airport and D/FW to Plano (with each stretch representing approximately two-fifths of the total distance), thence Plano to Wylie.

The trackage east of Plano to Wylie isn't currently a part of any specific public planning documents. In fact, it was during my tenure at DART that I learned a valuable (but distressing) truism concerning professional Planners: for all their talents, they aren't necessarily future-minded. To put it another way, they can occasionally be far too practical to allow themselves the luxury of dreaming. [That's not a bad thing, of course; occasionally, one needs level heads to prevail.] Still, it was a DART Planner who taught me what I came to call the "N" word and the "C" word: "never" and "can't."

"Wylie? Oh, we'll never go there. We can't do that."

This is despite the fact that NETEX specifically identified the purchase of their Wylie/Greenville right-of-way (the track infrastructure having been previously removed by the SSW) as being based upon its connection to the DART-owned portion of the corridor, which will enable "future rail passenger connections to/from the [Dallas/Fort Worth area]."

Hmmm. Don't they understand what never and can't mean?!

Oh, well.

We've previously discussed the former Cotton Belt Route within Dallas and the various issues which only serve to undermine attempts at the restoration of passenger service along that line. Now, in an effort to gain a more complete understanding of the matter, we'll shift our focus to Fort Worth.

Call this the west side story, if you will.

It's that western segment - Fort Worth to D/FW by way of Grapevine - which, at least in theory, holds the best chance for near-term development.

The Fort Worth Transportation Authority (known locally as "The T"...although, in deference to the MBTA, I just can't bring myself to use that moniker) has been working on this project in its current form for the past six years. Now, they're not only attempting to segue into the preliminary engineering phase, they're also trying to secure various avenues of funding for the 600 to 750 million dollar price tag (depending upon whom you ask and what all is included).

Certainly, there are the usual issues with NIMBYs. Some locals, failing to understand the promise of rail-based transit (or falling for the standard scare tactics) are gearing up for a protracted fight. The two most vocal areas are the City of Colleyville and the Mistletoe Heights neighbourhood in Fort Worth (which, interestingly, is not actually located along the original SSW main, but on a proposed former-SLSW line extension intended to serve the medical district).

Naturally, all the homeowners are asking is that their "legitimate concerns" be addressed. Concerns which have made their "legitimate" short list (how 'bout that qualifier?) include, of course, automobile traffic and noise, neighbourhood encroachment, and (wait for it...) property values!

I've done this sort of thing on a professional basis before, standing between virulent property owners on the one side and progress on the other, through some of the most difficult "new starts" territory we've yet to see in north central Texas. I bear the scars to prove it.

"Legitimate" concerns notwithstanding, what most the NIMBYs actually believe they want is for the bad ol' trains to just GO AWAY! Short of that, they'll hold out for additional landscaping and "visual mitigation" walls - substantial barriers which will not only block the station site from the homeowners, but also block the homeowners from the station site!

In one word, they are afraid.

The saddest thing? Presuming the antis get their way, folks living nearby who are blessed with a healthy dose of common sense will end up being deprived of a convenient way to and from the trains - and all the noise and "encroachment" will still exist, even if the trains don't stop at all!

The NIMBYs have precious little to do with my primary concerns, however.

To me, the distinct possibility that the project will be seriously hobbled from the outset is truly depressing. As we've already pointed out, due to the previously negotiated DART agreements, operations along any segment of the Cotton Belt may be required to use the so-called Light Rail New Technology (L.R.N.T.) vehicle (a.k.a. the North Texas Regional Rail Vehicle) - not yet developed, but presumably similar to Stadler's G.T.W. (something else we've discussed before). Might that be enough to shoot the project in the flange? Who knows? When a government agency mandates the use of specific technologies which have yet to be developed, strange things can happen. Ever hear of P.T.C.?!

There are no public discussions being held regarding through service, whatsoever. DART and the F.W.T.A. are busy planning within their respective vacuums - and if tomorrow's rider wishes to go from, say, Grapevine to Addison, they'll be required to physically change trains, probably within the airport grounds (adding a sizeable chunk of time). Worse yet, if I was a gambling man, I'd bet my bottom dollar there will be no true coordination between service schedules, whatsoever.

The hardest thing to take is the terminal situation within the D/FW Airport property, itself. Here in our "modern" society, airfield security has long been an established fact of life. It's now two completely different worlds on the secure and unsecure sides of a passenger terminal.

At D/FW, several individual terminals exist, all connected by the relative new Skylink "bus-in-a-gutter" people mover (which replaced the original Airtrans system). Unfortunately, Skylink is on the secure side of things. Once a passenger arrives at the airport by train and passes though security (requiring a valid ticket, don't you know), she can always use Skylink to reach any terminal desired. However, upon arrival at D/FW, her baggage will be claimed on the UNsecure side of things - instantly making Skylink inaccessible as a transfer agent and causing the train depot to be that much more difficult to reach.

Finally, there are ongoing issues with the entire series of Cotton Belt projects which clearly indicate the powers-that-be are willing to agree to almost anything in order to get their individual segments rolling.

Regarding the western stretch, what may prove most interesting revolves around preliminary negotiations with one of the three primary property owners.

There's no signed document with DART, yet; but, knowing the agency, I find it difficult to believe that will be a problem. President Gary Thomas is an honourable man and you can take one of his verbal promises to the bank. All that's left to hammer out are the details.

The Fort Worth and Western (owners of the ex-Frisco extension) is haggling over improvements (including signaling and stretches of second main) intended to effectively eliminate delays to their own traffic. Nothing mind-boggling there. The FWWR is only looking after their customer's (and investor's) best interests. I'd be shocked with (and extremely disappointed in) any road that did otherwise.

No; in this case, it's the UP who's doing the posturing. They've brought a completely unrelated matter into the discussion as a negotiating ploy. If nothing else, it'll be fascinating to see how it all plays out.

UP owns a couple of puzzle pieces: one which joins the Texas & Pacific Railway Building downtown to the FWWR main line west of that depot and the other running a couple of miles between interlocking plants at 6th Street (the Trinity Railway Express [nee Railtran] connection) and Tower 60 (the junction with DART).

The two parties currently stand in agreement that access to the T&P station will require a separate lead dedicated to passenger service. It's the other stretch which may prove to be a sticky wicket.

According to several sources, in exchange for capacity north of downtown to the Cotton Belt line, UP wants Amtrak (Amtrak?) to operate their existing service between Fort Worth and Dallas (AMTK 21 and 22) over the T.R.E. route instead of the former T&P.

The T.R.E. alignment between the two cities - already heavily used by commuter trains - may indeed be a reasonable choice for today's Texas Eagle, but it is not for a myriad number of other future trains (such as, for example, a Galveston/Houston/Dallas/Fort Worth/Oklahoma City service - one possibility which isn't too far-fetched).

Once you remove the only scheduled passenger service from the T&P, you've effectively redefined that corridor as "freight only." This will dramatically increase future costs when any sort of passenger service is restored.

Personally, I see a LOT of potential downsides for the T.R.E. in signing a deal with Amtrak, including daily operations, Amtrak's presumed superiority over all other services, the distinct possibility that Amtrak trains will be late as often as not (which may eventually cause a reduction in the number of overhead trains the T.R.E. can handle on a given day, directly affecting UP and BNSF movements over that line - the T.R.E.'s bread-and-butter), various mechanical matters, Amtrak's ostensible desire to use the CentrePort station for airport connections (or at least some other group's desires that Amtrak do so), liability issues and so forth.

In all fairness, I must mention the two best reasons to support the Texas Eagle's operation over the T.R.E. (and, for that matter, any other Dallas/Austin/San Antonio service): no reverse moves involved to reach the Fort Worth station (in this case, the regrettably named Intermodal Transportation Center, or I.T.C.) and only one trip through Tower 55 per train instead of three. In addition, there's something to be said for setting a precedent whereby the T.R.E. becomes the "official" passenger railway corridor connecting Dallas and Fort Worth, firmly establishing that line's right to claim any future intercity improvement capital allocated by the feds.

To be honest, I just find it regrettable that so many other players claim the right to make plans involving Amtrak and the T.R.E. Of course, government agents have been doing that to the Class Is for years, so I should be used to it by now. Even BNSF has involved the T.R.E. when publicly outlining their hopes for solutions to congestion at Tower 55, so UP certainly has company.

I figure UP's stance may also have something (a whole bunch of things?) to do with local planning efforts regarding future commuter traffic on that same T&P line through Grand Prairie and Arlington. For the record: the North Central Texas Council of Governments has already promised UP that construction of a third main line track will be part of any "regional rail" bargain, even though improvements to Tower 55 and an expansion of Davidson Yard would do far more toward keeping that corridor fluid.

We'll see.

I must admit, when things get this interesting, they are rarely dull!



  • Yet another great piece!  Thanks for your efforts.  As I have mentioned on previous threads, I have used the TRE a couple of times and I applaud the service.

    Your mention of "N" and "C" words reminds me of a trend I have observed at rail conferences in recent years.  There appears to be near a complete generation gap in attendees.  Up until recently I was concerned that this generation gap may pose significant concerns as the elder group looks toward retirement.  My feelings have changed in recent months. (I'm closest in age to the elder group and so I am essentially pointing the finger at myself as well).  I'm beginning to wonder if perhaps not having anyone in the middle to assume the "way we always done it" reins may not actually benefit the industry, particularly the passenger side, as time progresses.  

    We may end up replacing "never" and "can't" with "now" and "can"; "N" and "C" words that offer promise for future generations!