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Sharing the Tracks with Commuter Rail

Experts project the growth of the metropolitan Houston area to increase rapidly in the next few decades — and with that comes the increased need for mobility. Serious talks have been ongoing about using some existing freight rail lines for commuter service. Pat Hernandez says many are optimistic that will soon become a reality.



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It’s the noon hour and a freight train is carrying tankers on a line near the Gulf freeway. And as fast as that train is moving, the need to connect Houston to other regional centers is becoming more apparent.

Experts say a couple of freight track corridors, one going to Galveston and the other that runs near Highway 290 from Hempstead, have been identified as those that can support commuter rail.

Joe Adams is vice president of public affairs at Union Pacific. He says talks have included the need to preserve capacity and prepare for future growth.

“There’s that opportunity with the Hempstead line, by recreating the freight capacity that would be lost by adding a third track to the Hardy toll road line and the second track to the line that runs from Spring to Navasota.”

The Gulf Coast Rail District has been identified as the local entity that could develop a commuter rail project.

Former Houston Councilmember Mark Ellis is chairman of the Gulf Coast Rail District. He says he and other local leaders are meeting in Washington this week with the city’s congressional delegation about funding the project through the Federal Railroad Administration.

“What we’re proposing right now is phase-1. And phase-1 is to look at how we move commuters from Hempstead on the Hempstead line all the way in to the Metro Northwest transit center, and how we move commuters back and forth from the Galveston line and Clear Lake, all the way into tower-30, and it would probably tie into the Magnolia lines.”

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett is included in the group going to Washington. He says commuter rail could become a reality within three to five years.

“We have to use our rail lines to move people, but we also have to make sure that the commuter rail system ties into whatever Metro is doing. So that the good thing about the Hempstead line, for example, it comes into Eureka yards, up near Northwest Mall. That’s an easy connection to the Northwest transit center, and then the one on the southeast side, probably we need to figure a way to make sure it gets to the Harrisburg transit center.”

Christof Spieler is with the Citizens Transportation Coalition. He says it’s about much more than just moving people.

“Ultimately, what you’re trying to here, is you’re trying to help grow a better region and a better city, and that’s about connecting people to places they want to go. And that’s not just home to work commute — it’s students, it’s business trips, it’s leisure trips. We have to think about all those other trips as well.”

It’s estimated that it would cost less than a billion dollars to refit the two freight lines for commuter rail, much less than than the 18 to 20-billion for a brand new high speed rail line.

Pat Hernandez, KUHF-Houston Public Radio News.

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