As a railfan, I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to live in the old days, the so-called “Golden Age of Rail Travel” of the 1920s through the 1940s, when you could get on a train at a station in just about any town, no matter how small, and it would take just about anywhere you wanted to go. The train was literally your gateway to the world.
I got to experience a little bit of that this past weekend. Kathy and I had gone to the D/FW area to visit some family and friends and do some antiquing and shopping in Denton, where our daughter Brittany lives. We were also there for our niece’s housewarming party, which was in downtown Ft. Worth. So, while Kathy & Brittany did the mother-daughter shopping thing, I took the train from Denton, through Dallas, and on to Ft. Worth, where we met up and went to the party. (I’m so blessed to have a wife who tolerates this hobby of mine!)
The first leg of the trip was on the Denton County Transportation Authority’s “A-Train.” Now, just saying that makes me think of the classic Big Band-era tune, “Take the A-Train,” which I suppose is what their marketing people were going for when they picked that name. (You can listen to the song through the player at the bottom of this page.) The line is built on the old M-K-T (Katy) corridor, and runs from downtown Denton to Lewisville, then to Carrollton. I bought my ticket from one of the vending machines on the platform and sat down to wait. I’m happy to report these trains run on time.
When I rode the A-Train in December, 2011, they were still using refurbished 50-year-old Budd RDC coaches they had leased from the Trinity Railway Express (TRE). This time, though, they had brand new equipment built by Stadler Rail of Switzerland – they’re also the manufacturer of choice for Capitol Metro in Austin. Very modern, very clean, very quiet. Also very comfortable.
The coach was empty except for one other passenger, and I sat down at the front, right behind the operator’s control room, also known as the cab. I understand that Saturday ridership is usually somewhat sparse, but it’s busy during the week. (I’ve also heard that they expect ridership to jump even more when TexDOT begins tearing up I-35E for their new construction of that freeway and turns it into even more of a parking lot than it is now.)
The engineer gave the traditional signal that the train is about to move – 2 short blasts from the horn. So, as my friend Joe Calvert (himself a retired railroad man) used to say, “Toot-toot and gone.” These modern trains are very quiet, and acceleration and braking are both quick and smooth. We were up to speed in no time.
It’s interesting, the things you see while riding a train. For example, we’re used to sitting at crossings in our cars, watching trains go by. It’s a different thing to be in the train going by, and look out at the drivers, sitting there waiting for you to go by. Another thing: the strange, almost voyeuristic feeling of looking over into people’s backyards. You know, most people keep their front yard neat, to keep up appearances for their neighbors, if nothing else – but backyards, it seems, as a different matter.
We arrived at the Trinity Mills station – the end of the line for the A-Train. I stepped out to wait for the DART train – Dallas Area Rapid Transit – that would take me to downtown Dallas. Those trains also run on time, and it arrived in 3 minutes. The all-region ticket I had bought earlier was good for all trains, all day, and I stepped aboard.
Unlike the so-called “heavy rail” equipment of the A-Train, DART trains are “light rail.” That’s a bit of a misnomer – it’s the equipment that is light or heavy, not the rails. DART trains are electric, drawing their power from the catenary wires overhead.
If you haven’t ridden a DART train, you really should try it the next time you have to go anywhere near downtown Dallas – they are amazingly clean and convenient. You don’t have to worry about traffic, and there’s no hassles or expenses for parking. Wanna go to the Dallas Zoo? Take the Red Line. Need to visit the VA hospital? You want the Blue Line.
So here I was on the Green Line, which runs through Carrollton and Farmers Branch, south past Love Field, and on towards downtown and then to Fair Park. This picture is looking east along Valley View Drive in Farmers Branch. See that little building on the corner where the white truck is parked? I think it’s a Chinese restaurant now, but it used to be a little diner called “Mr. Hilton’s Railroad Crossing.” I working there as a short-order cook in 1978, the summer Kathy and I got married.
As we continue south, part of the time the line runs at ground level, part of the time on elevated tracks, part of the time under ground. But always, fast. In a few minutes we were approaching the American Airline Center downtown and DART’s Victory Station, where I again would change trains.
Once again I was REALLY glad the trains ran on time, because as we pulled into the station, there sat the westbound Trinity Railway Express, which would take me to Ft. Worth. I stepped off DART, walked across the platform, and stepped onto the TRE. The doors closed, and toot-toot, we were gone.
The TRE has been operating since 1996 along the old Rock Island corridor between Dallas and Ft. Worth, and is quite a success story, with annual ridership of over 2.5 million passengers. I first rode it about 2001, when I took it to Dallas Union Station, to attend a Promise Keepers rally at the old Reunion Arena.
The TRE mostly uses American-built EMD locomotives and bi-level coaches built by the Canadian company Bombardier. Their coaches are also clean and quiet, and their added height means they have a more pronounced side-to-side motion – not so much to make you seasick, but enough to notice that you are “rocking to the gentle beat, and the rhythm of the rails is all you feel.”
They operate numerous trains between downtown Dallas and downtown Ft. Worth, daily except Sunday, with intermediate stops in Irving, D/FW Airport, Hurst and Richland Hills. The train also stops at the Ft. Worth Intermodal Transit Center where you can connect with Amtrak intercity trains, Greyhound Bus Lines, and The-T, Ft. Worth’s city bus service.
The TRE’s western terminus is the old T&P train station, on the southern edge of Downtown Cowtown. This old building is an Art Deco palace, and has been given new life in recent years, and turned into a high-rise complex of luxury condos.
The building has these cathedral-like ceilings, with intricate masonry, tile and burnished aluminum. The chandeliers in the lobby have to be seen to be believed – it’s easy to see why it’s become a popular spot for wedding receptions. The diamond-shaped T&P logo can be seen everywhere – even in the door handles.
Standing in that lobby, it’s easy to imagine that you are a traveler from the 1930s, arriving to board the train. Maybe you’re heading west, taking the T&P to El Paso, and changing trains to go on to Los Angeles. Or maybe you’re heading to Chicago, or New York. They’re all just down the hall.
Another cool thing here – the T&P Tavern. This is the refurbished cafe-lounge area adjacent to the main waiting room in the station. It’s a fun and funky little place with some really cool railroad memorabilia, giant travel posters on the wall, good food, and a nice selection of craft beers. It’s easy to imagine travelers from the past, sitting there, enjoying a meal or a drink while waiting for their train.
I sat at the bar and sipped a glass of rye whiskey and felt very connected to the past.