“Hurry, get on now, it’s coming.
Listen to those rails a-thrumming.
All ’board, get on the ‘A’ train!”
— “Take the ‘A’ Train,” first
recorded by Duke Ellington
Pat Colonna looks at home in a moving train. She sits reclined, a 75-year-old yoga teacher, spread across the double seat at the front of a backwards-moving rail car. She carries her bags, a book, a water bottle, an itinerary and walking shoes for the transfers. As her train passes by the shoreline of Lake Lewisville, a glint appears in her eye.
“I’m so happy Denton was so farsighted to get this A-train service,” she says of the tracks connecting Denton to the world.
For Colonna, riding the A-train resurrects fond memories of the bygone passenger line she and her father rode together 70 years ago.
In September, construction crews working on downtown Denton’s Hickory Street unearthed several dozen railroad ties and spikes, the last remnants of a streetcar line connecting to the Texas Interurban Railway, which was the largest west of the Mississippi. The line stretched 170 miles and carried passengers from Denison to Waco, and all points in between.
The remnants of the streetcar line bear witness to the gilded age of rail — a time before fast cars and mass transportation. Now, with changing attitudes toward automobiles, gridlocked highways and the rebirth of urban centers, trains are making a comeback. More people such as Colonna are riding the rails again, helping make North Texas an epicenter of the nation’s rail renaissance.
For nearly 70 years, the tracks connecting Denton to other cities lay dormant. In 2011, the Denton County Transit Authority opened its A-train, a 21-mile regional rail system that links Denton to Carrollton, following the same path as the Interurban, with updated rails. Attracting new commuters from Denton, Collin and other counties in North Texas, A-train ridership grew 17 percent between 2012 and 2013 and continues to grow every month, according to the DCTA.
DCTA is also contemplating launching service along the Interstate 35W corridor between Denton and Forth Worth.
“The future of rail is really going to be exciting in North Texas,” says John Landrum, vice president of the McKinney Street Transit Authority, which operates decades-old streetcars on their original tracks in Uptown Dallas.
“Connectivity is the key,” says Landrum. “The fact that you’ll be able to come into Dallas on the train, walk across the street, get on a streetcar and go to the Uptown area is amazing.”
Landrum’s mother and father were the last passengers off the last scheduled Interurban on the northern line on Jan. 1, 1948. “My mom specifically arranged to be the last one off,” he said. His parents knew the motorman, and they wanted to say their goodbyes.
“So many people today think that this whole train idea is new,” Landrum said. “The interurbans were a brilliant idea. They were fast, they were economical, and they were ahead of their time.”
“The trains ran past our house in the summertime
But it was the whistles that carried me away.
That’s a feeling that is clear within this heart of mine.
And it gets a little stronger every day.”
— Steve Gillette and Charles John Quarto, “Always
a Train in My Dreams”
Today, a Denton resident can connect with Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s Green Line, transfer to the Orange Line at Bachman Station in Dallas, and ride the rails to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport for a $5 two-hour regional pass or a $10 all-day pass.
By 2025, rail planners predict that Pat Colonna will be able to hop on a high-speed train that will whisk her to Houston in 90 minutes.
This past summer, Colonna, who lives in a Denton retirement community, took a three-week trip by train from Denton to Cleveland, where she toured the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and the world’s first exhibition of yogic art. From there, she took a train to Glacier National Park in Montana, staying in a wilderness lodge before crossing over to Puget Sound in Washington.
“I love riding the train,” says Colonna. “You just sit and look out the window at this great country. I guess I’m patriotic that way.”
Colonna, a native of Denison, remembers her first train trip with her father, a traveling iron worker. When she was 4 years old, her father took her on the Interurban from Denison to Sherman, one of the last trains the operating company, Texas Electric Railway, would run in 1948. “He took me so I’d have the experience, and maybe so he could, too,” she recalls.
Almost six decades later, she’d stepped aboard a train again, this time an Amtrak passenger train in Florida. Colonna was nervous at first. But the memory of riding the Interurban with her steel-handed father, gazing out over the tracks and fields, inspired her to give rails a chance again. She has never looked back, except at the passing view.
“And the steel wheels still ain’t heard the news,
The conductor sings his songs again, the passengers will please refrain,
This train’s got the disappearing railroad blues.”
— Steve Goodman,
“City of New Orleans”
Like other major urban centers, the Dallas area is expanding its passenger rail service.
“Dallas is beginning to look at building more houses in the central city,” says Robert Haynes, curator at the Interurban Railway Museum in Plano. Connections between major cities will aid congested and well-traveled corridors like the one between Dallas-Fort Worth and Oklahoma City, says Haynes. “The goal of all of this is to bring us together, so places like Denton are not so far away.”
To connect these urban populations, Judge Robert Eckels, formerly of Harris County, is spearheading an ambitious high-speed rail project to link the highly trafficked corridor of Dallas-Fort Worth to Houston. His company, Texas Central Railway, plans to use the bullet train N700 — called shinkansen in Japan — in Texas. The N700 trains resemble a cross between a fighter jet and a submarine. Looking outside a N700 bullet train, the world appears on fast-forward.
TCR, financed mostly by domestic backers, expects bullet trains to connect Texas’s major urban centers by 2025.
“High-speed rail in the corridor will meet the needs of the traveling public and generate enough revenue from ticket sales to pay for the system’s operation,” says Eckels.
Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, is convinced high-speed rail is a fait accompli because of increasing traffic congestion, high gas prices, climate change and urban lifestyles that devalue car ownership.
“High-speed rail, when done right, makes a lot of money,” says Kunz. “You can move literally millions of Americans quickly, efficiently, using very low amounts of oil, sometimes 100 percent on renewable energy.”
The Texas Department of Transportation recently announced plans to study the “Dallas-Fort Worth Core Express Service,” a high-speed train that would potentially run between the two cities. According to Becky Ozuna of TxDOT, TCR isn’t directly involved in the Dallas-Fort Worth Core Express. Nonetheless, she says “it could be possible that the DFW Core Express connect with TCR’s Dallas-to-Houston line at some point.”
Why is TxDOT getting behind bullet trains? “With Texas growing by more than 1,000 people daily, passenger rail is becoming more of a necessary conversation,” says Ozuna.
Bill Marvel, a railroad historian and author, says railways are ripe for a comeback because “people are starting to give up on the idea of owning an automobile.”
In 1983 in Texas, 92 percent of adults ages 20 to 24 possessed a driver’s license. In 2011, only 79 percent did.
Rosa Romero, a 19-year-old interdisciplinary studies major at the University of North Texas, doesn’t drive and has little interest in getting her license. “I’m scared to drive because people are totally crazy,” she said.
Romero doesn’t like the two-hour commute by train to her family’s home in Garland. She also doesn’t like that the A-train doesn’t operate on Sundays, but she says she’s getting used to it.
“Where I’m from, Garland, Texas, everyone takes public transportation,” she said. “That’s how we get around.”
Molly Beaufait, 18, on the other hand, grew up in the suburbs of San Antonio, where there was no public transportation. Beaufait took a train for the first time in her life in November, boarding Denton’s A-train to connect with the Green Line and catch a Greyhound bus from Dallas to Austin.
Beaufait became convinced that public transportation was the way to go because of her first drive to downtown Dallas with a friend. The pair of friends “nearly died” wheeling around the clogged streets with unpredictable, workaday motorists. With a train, Molly knows, “I’ll get there in one piece.”
Statistically, Beaufait is making a good choice. In 2013, trains killed 673 pedestrians and injured 7,858, many of them trespassers walking along tracks. In 2013, 32,719 people were killed in automobile crashes, and 2.31 million were injured.
“No one takes the train anymore.
When you really wanna go, the railway is too slow
So no one takes the train anymore.”
— Holly Dunn, “No One Takes the Train Anymore”
DART’s rail ridership is up 2,600 passenger trips per day from 2013. A thousand passengers ride every day to D/FW Airport on the new Orange Line connection. Mark Ball, a DART spokesman, thinks trains support millennial habits.
“Young people want to be driven so they can use cellphones, use their iPads and laptops and communicate,” he says. “If you’re being driven on a train, you can do that.”
But DART faces plenty of challenges to expanding its rail service in North Texas. For one, “DART is built out,” says Ball. “We can’t build without financial partners. There’s no money.”
DART, like DCTA, is funded mostly from sales tax revenue. Both transportation networks make very little from their passenger fares.
Nonetheless, Bob LaPrelle, president of the Museum of the American Railroad in Frisco, believes trains are cost-efficient in auxiliary ways: “You may never ride a train,” he says, “but you are the beneficiary of it because it is relieving congestion on the highways and airways.”
Kenneth Irvin, 70, a retired gasoline trucker from Wylie in Collin County, has fond memories of his grandmother riding the Interurban from Milford to Dallas to work as a caretaker. “I remember my grandmother riding that train like daylight and dark,” he recalls. “I can remember sitting there watching it and waiting for her to wave at us.”
His nostalgic recollections aside, Irvin recoils at the idea of riding a train. “I’ve never rode a train,” he says. “I don’t know whether I’d like it or not. Old as I am now, I’m kind of set in my ways.”
“Listen to the jingle and the rumble and the roar,
She’s rollin’ through New England to the West Pacific shore.
It’s a long time we’ve been waitin’, now she’s been whistlin’ ’round the bend.”
— Woody Guthrie,
“The Farmer-Labor Train”
Pat Colonna, on the other hand, is already planning her next rail trip for this summer. She wants to spend a few weeks on the sunny shores of Los Angeles and visit the city’s famed museums.
In the meantime, Colonna is heading from Denton to Rowlett to visit her son and daughter-in-law. She will disembark at the Trinity Mills Station, the A-train’s terminus in Carrollton, pick up the Green Line and transfer at St. Paul in downtown Dallas for the Blue Line. She’ll alight at the Forest/Jupiter Station in Garland to greet the open arms of her family.
For Colonna, one of the main attractions of passenger trains is the people she gets to sit next to. “I don’t mind who I sit next to,” she says. “I think a lot of us old-timers have those memories, of sitting next to our mothers and fathers on trains.”
Those memories, she says, “stick with us.”