Today marks a monumental day in North Texas transportation. A full 30 years after the creation of the region’s public transportation authority, Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), and 18 years after the initiation of DART’s light rail service, DART light rail trains will finally provide a direct mass transit connection to DFW Airport. In fact, by the time you read this, the first Orange Line trains would have both reached and departed the airport, with the first train having been scheduled to arrive at 3:50 A.M. this morning, with the first departure scheduled 28 minutes later, at 4:18 A.M. This really is a big deal for the region, not quite as big as the upcoming lifting of Wright Amendment restrictions from Love Field, but still an important milestone, making DFW one of only a dozen or so airports nationwide with direct rail service, according to DART. So how did we get here, and how useful will this new service be for residents of and visitors to the Metroplex?
History of Mass Transit at DFW
North Texas didn’t have a regional mass transit system until 1983, when Dallas and about a dozen or so other cities throughout Dallas and Collin Counties decided, after a rather contentious election process, to dedicate a 1-cent sales tax to create a new agency, DART. One of the promises made from the beginning was a futuristic light rail system that would one day connect to DFW Airport. The agency had a bit of a checkered history during its early years, with scandals and poor bus service making DART something of a joke around the region. DART finally began getting its act together in the early 90s, and the first spokes of the light rail system opened in 1996, with the system now extending north to Plano, northeast to Rowlett, northwest to Carrollton and DFW, and south throughout the Oak Cliff and Pleasant Grove sections of Dallas. The 90-mile system is the largest light rail system in the nation (note that this is light rail – other systems that use heavy rail, such as NYC, are larger).
Prior to the opening of the DFW Airport Orange Line station, there were ways to get to the airport via mass transit, but none were particularly convenient. From the late 90s until the mid-2000s, there was an express bus that would take you to the North Remote Parking Lot, at the far north end of the airport property, from where you could take the remote parking shuttle bus to the terminals. Or, you could take the Trinity Railway Express train that runs between Dallas and Forth Worth from CentrePort Station in Irving, a couple of miles south of the airport, and take the shuttle from there to the terminal. However, there were several limitations: express buses ran only during weekday rush hours and the TRE didn’t run on Sundays (and only on hourly frequencies during weekdays, except at rush hour), and the shuttles ran on only 30-minute intervals. That means that if you didn’t time your flight just right, you’d be waiting a long, long time to get going. I once tried the TRE from the airport to my office at the Chase Tower downtown, and it took more than two hours. Since the opening of the Belt Line Orange Line station, you could take a bus from there to Terminal A, but again, infrequent bus service and the need to transfer (and let’s face it, “transfer” is a four letter word when it comes to getting people to use transit) made it of limited utility.
Will Orange Line Service Really Work?
This article from Sunday’s Dallas Morning News provides an excellent overview of how rail connectivity/access works from the airport, but reproduced below is a copy of the rail system map, which shows which sections of the Metroplex are served (DFW station is not shown on this map, but the airport is shown, to the left of Belt Line Station on the orange line).
Map courtesy Dallas Area Rapid Transit
The question is, does the arrival of light rail really live up to the hype? Clearly, from a prestige standpoint, this is a big deal. North Texas has been the butt of derision from modern urban planners due to its car-centric culture and far-flung suburban sprawl, and the completion of the rail line goes a long way to showing that the area is more than just a one-trick pony. A direct rail connection to the CBD is also sure to be an additional selling point to convention and international visitors, who may be weary and/or unfamiliar with Dallas traffic and provides them with a no-hassle option to get to town. Plus, DFW now has rail service to its main airport but Houston doesn’t, which I’m sure will be used as a fork in the eye of every Houstonian in the ongoing competition between the two cities. But will it actually provide convenience to travelers to and from the airport?
If you’re headed to downtown Dallas or Irving’s Las Colinas business park, then the Orange Line is a major improvement. Instead of multiple transfers, you can now take a single train and make it to Las Colinas Urban Center station in 20 minutes, or Akard Station (roughly the center of downtown) in 52 minutes. Granted, travel times to/from downtown aren’t optimal. Even if you head to the airport from downtown right into the teeth of rush hour at 5 P.M., you can usually make it to DFW in roughly 35-40 minutes, or about 25 minutes without traffic. But, the train is only $2.50, vs. a $50 cab ride or $20 on the Super Shuttle, so the cost savings are fairly substantial. From a personal perspective, as someone who works downtown, regardless of the time penalty, the idea of hopping the train to the airport for a flight after work has signficant appeal. I ride the train to work daily anyway, so there’s no additional cost to heading to the airport after work instead of going home. Plus, I don’t have to worry about arranging for a cab or a shuttle, and there is value in knowing that my ride will take exactly 52 minutes, regardless of weather, how many stops the Super Shuttle will make en route, or whatever havoc some moron decided to wreak on the freeway.
If you’re headed elsewhere, though, then it really does depend on your personal time vs. money analysis. Using myself as an example, the Orange Line will take you directly to Parker Road Station in Plano, the nearest to my house, in 1 hour and 32 minutes, for the same $2.50 one-way fare. Getting to the airport from home is a 35-50 minute drive depending on traffic, and involves either an $80 cab ride each way, or gas, tolls, and $9 a day to park in the el cheapo remote lot (so let’s just say $40 total for a three day trip). Using a shared ride service cuts the cost to about $50, but you’re looking at around an hour and a half if you end up at the back of the line anyway, so no real time savings there. I live only a few miles from the station, so in a worst case, if the wife can’t drop me off at the station, I’m only a cheap Uber or Lyft ride away to catch the train – resulting in major cost savings overall. The major drawback, though, is that Orange Line service only runs to the northern suburbs during weekday rush hours, so if you’re not traveling at those times, you’re going to have to transfer to the Red Line, and add another 5-10 minutes in travel time. Plus, DART trains aren’t very well equipped to handle luggage and have no storage areas, so if you’re checking heavy and/or bulky bags, getting them on and off the train is likely to be awkward (I have gone on the trains with carry-ons, and those are manageable).
Now, all of this doesn’t even begin to address the benefits of the direct rail connection for DFW Airport employees. Many employees live in the city of Dallas or other DART service area member cities, and this will be a tremendous benefit for them. As it stood before today, employees faced long commutes plus toll charges, or would have to transfer multiple times to reach the airport, assuming they could even use transit at all. Some early shifts began before trains started running, an issue that is rectified with the opening of the Orange Line extension; DART even publicizes in its schedule change notification that several early morning/late night trips have been added specifically to accommodate employee shift timings.
So the bottom line – the train is a convenient (if longer) option to Las Colinas or downtown Dallas. But for elsewhere in the Metroplex, especially the northern and eastern suburbs, you really need to decide for yourself the relative value of time vs. money. Hopefully one day, DART will complete an east-west train line to the northern suburbs, making the value proposition stronger.
Accessing DART Rail from DFW
The DFW Airport DART station is located outside of Terminal A, near the A10 security checkpoint and airport entrance. DFW allows you to clear security at any checkpoint at any terminal, so if you’re not checking bags and already have your boarding pass, you can clear security at the A10 checkpoint and then use the SkyLink people mover system behind security to access gates in other terminals. Note that AA flies out of terminals A, B, C, and D, so if you’re on AA, you can print a boarding pass/check bags in Terminal A, then clear security there and use the SkyLink to reach your gate. All othe airlines fly out of Terminal E, so if you need to check bags or obtain a boarding pass, take the TerminalLink shuttle (on the lower level, same as the DART station) to Terminal E and check-in from there.
If you’re arriving and don’t have to claim bags (or if your flight arrived at Terminal A), take the SkyLink or walk to the A10 exit. Go down to the lower level, turn right, and you’ll see the walkway to the station immediately to your right. If you do need to claim bags at another terminal, claim your bags, then take the TerminalLink to the Gates A1-A15 stop, outside Gate A10 on the upper level. Go down to the lower level and follow the same instructions above. Trains will show a destination of either “Parker Road” or “LBJ/Central” depending on the time of day. Schedules can be found here (inbound to DFW) and here (outbound from DFW). CAUTION: signage to the walkway/station was nonexistent, but these may be added by Monday. Nonetheless, just turn right when you walk out of the elevator to the lower level at A10, and you’ll find the walkway.
I had nothing better to do on a blast furnce hot Saturday afternoon, so I headed over to the airport to take a few photos of the new station.
Terminal entrance nearest DART station
Entrance to walkway to station
Walkway to station with guide signage
Automatic ticket machines (credit cards accepted)
Platform with two test trains