Houston's New Tracks

More Light Rail Means Big Changes For Drivers In Downtown Houston

In Part 2 of our series “Houston’s New Tracks,” we talk with Metro’s Vice-President of Public Safety Tim Kelly about how the new light rail system works and what drivers need to know.

MetroRail in downtown Houston
Metro light rail on Main and Rusk streets where all the segments intersect


click here for more in this series

Transcript of Interview

Kelly: We’re standing at the corner of Rusk and Main Street, which is adjacent to the new Central Station Main. And it’s an exciting time for Metro as we’re getting ready to open our new east-west lines across downtown.

Delaughter: As we look into the intersection, describe what we see in terms of tracks, in terms of vehicle lanes. Basically, what kind of layout do we have here?

Kelly: Well, folks downtown are used to the tracks running on Main Street. That continues. What’s new is the trains that will be running on Rusk and Capital. And these cross at Main Street, so we will have trains crossing each other. On Rusk and Capital the trains will run in a shared traffic lane. It means they’ll share the lane with cars.

Delaughter: We’re getting lots of questions about those shared lanes. How do they work and what mechanisms are in place to keep the cars and trains separate from each other?

Kelly: It is a shared lane, and so it is both for cars and trains. You know, there’s a lot more volume of cars downtown. The trains will run every six to 12 minutes through downtown. And cars will use the lanes. They’ll make turns out of the lanes.

All our trains are driver-controlled. There’s a driver in control of the train and he’s going to be aware of cars. The difference is a train can’t steer to get out of your way. He’s going straight, but he’s not going to run over you. He’s going to be aware of vehicles in the lanes. And it is a shared lane. It’s designed that way to allow as much maximum throughput of both cars and trains as possible.

Delaughter: Give us an idea of how you design and plan a project like this. How do you figure out where the trains go?

Kelly: It’s a Metro project but it’s a downtown project. So there’s been a lot of cooperation with the City of Houston, the Downtown Management District, and all the property owners downtown. We regularly have a downtown stakeholders meeting where we discuss issues. The biggest challenge is that it’s something new, and people will have to adapt to get used to the trains. And much of that has been dealt with over the past year with these downtown stakeholders and getting them prepared, and getting their input on how it’s going to affect their properties, their customers who are using the buildings, and just downtown in general.

Delaughter: This is a historic day for Houston because we haven’t really had a system like this since streetcars were in place many years ago. So part of your job is getting people used to this, used to this configuration, used to something totally new. How do you change people’s mindsets in terms of public safety when you have something like this?

Kelly: The biggest challenge really is awareness and to get people back to what we were all taught as children, to look both ways when you cross the street, to observe the pedestrian signals. Trains and people can interact very effectively. We’ve been doing it for over ten years on the Main Street Red Line. We don’t expect any difference on these new lines crossing downtown. It’s just another alternative form of transportation.

Delaughter: What are the biggest things that pedestrians and cyclists need to know about the new rail configuration?

Kelly: The biggest thing for pedestrians and cyclists is that the trains, though they weigh 50 tons and they’re really large, they’re relatively quiet. So you have to be aware of the train tracks and be aware when you’re crossing tracks. Look both ways. Headphones can be a problem if you’re around the tracks, so you’ll want to listen. Trains have three different audible devices and they’ll use those to warn pedestrians, bicyclists and others. So you just have to be aware of your surroundings.


Light Rail Video

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Gail Delaughter

Gail Delaughter

Transportation Reporter

From early-morning interviews with commuters to walks through muddy construction sites, Gail covers all aspects of getting around Houston. That includes walking, driving, cycling, taking the bus, and occasionally flying. Before she became transportation reporter in 2011, Gail hosted weekend programs for Houston Public Media. She's also covered courts in...

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