Commuter rail, meet light rail. Light rail, meet commuter rail.

Dartunionstation

While light rail gets the attention, studies continue for commuter rail in Houston. HGAC is evaluating possible routes, and TxDOT’s selected alternative for the SH35 corridor includes commuter rail. As I’ve said before, commuter rail isn’t an alternative to light rail. But the only way we’ll have an effective commuter rail system in Houston is if it connects well to light rail. And that means it makes sense to include commuter rail in light rail planning and vice-versa.

The fundamental problem is this: commuter rail needs to use existing railroad rights of way. And none of those rights of way enter any of the major employment centers in the urban core. So every commuter rail passenger will need to transfer to another mode of transit to get to work. And, since that mode should be as frequent, fast, and reliable as possible, it should be light rail, not buses in traffic lanes. And, of course, the transfers between commuter rail and light rail need to be as easy as possible.

Commuterrail-Lightrail Small

METRO’s plans already include two light rail-commuter rail transfer stations: the Intermodal Center (just north of Downtown) and Northwest Mall. Both serve the 290 line, connecting it to Uptown, Greenway, and the Texas Medical Center as well as to Downtown. But the other commuter rail lines need to be connected to the activity centers as well. And that means creating more transfers at key points where the light rail lines intersect commuter rail. The most significant of these places:

  • At Hillcroft Transit Center, the abandoned railroad right of way used by the University Line continues onwards to West Houston and Fort Bend County. Here, commuter rail and light rail might actually share the same right of way: if this commuter rail line is to make sense it needs to continue on to Downtown, and the only way to do that is to use the same 50 foot strip of land along the Westpark Toll road that the University Line will. Obviously, that will happen only if the light rail line is designed to permit it.
  • Bellaire Junction is where the University Line crosses the north-south Union Pacific railroad line which could carry commuter rail to Sugar Land and Rosenberg. There’s not much here, which is why there’s no station here in METRO’s current plans. But the elevated light rail tracks over the railroad could be designed for a future station platform where commuter from Fort Bend could change trains to get to Uptown and Greenway Plaza.
  • Eastwood Transit Center is already a connection for local buses and commuter bus service to Clear Lake. But it could also be a commuter rail transfer point, since the rail line that leads to Alvin ducks under I-45 here.
  • Lockwood and Harrisburg will get a station on the East End Line. But it’s also on a logical eastward extension of the University Line and alongside the railroad tracks that could carry commuter trains to Galveston. This could be how light rail riders from the East Side and commuter rail riders make ti to UH, TSU, the Texas Medical Center, Greenway, and Uptown.

At this point, commuter rail is still speculative. The lines on the map above are those rated highly by HGAC (with the exception of the I-10 line, which HGAC studied despite the fact that the railroad line is now occupied by the Katy Freeway) as well as the SH 35 corridor studied by TXDOT. Some of these may be built; it seems unlikely all of the will be built, and it’s entirely possible none will. But transit systems have long made provision for possible future expansion.

It may seem a bit premature to plan a transit line around another speculative future line. But it would seem really stupid if 10 or 20 years from now a commuter rail line crossed a light rail line that connects to a lot of jobs, and there’s no way to transfer from one to the other.

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