This article is about the transit system in Houston. For other uses, see Metrorail.
METRORail is the 23.8-mile (38.3 km)[not in citation given]light rail system in Houston, Texas (USA). As of 2015, the METRORail has an average weekday ridership of 56,600 and total annual ridership of 18,335,000. After Dallas' DART Light Rail, METRORail ranks as the second most-traveled light rail system in the Southern United States and the 12th most-traveled light rail system in the United States. METRORail is operated by the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO).
This line was built after an approximately 20-year battle, starting in 1983 when Houston voters rejected a rail plan by referendum. A voter referendum in 1988 approved a 20-mile (32 km) light rail plan; however, Bob Lanier was elected mayor in 1992 and stopped the plan. In 1991, U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay removed $65 million in federal funding for the rail line. Then, Houston drew up a rail plan with entirely local funding. In 2001, several groups sued to stop construction, claiming that the METRO organization was a "private business" and subject to Houston City Charter provisions regulating business use of its streets; they obtained 2 temporary injunctions in January 2001, which were reversed by appeals court on March 9, 2001.
Ground was broken on the original 7.5-mile (12.1 km), 16-station portion of the line (from UH–Downtown to Fannin South) on March 13, 2001. The opening of METRORail, which took place on January 1, 2004, came 64 years after the previous streetcar system had been shut down. The cost was $324 million. Houston was the largest city in the United States without a rail system after the 1990 opening of the Blue Line in Los Angeles.
Tom DeLay strongly opposed construction of the METRORail line and twice blocked federal funding for the system in the United States House of Representatives. Thus the Metrorail was built without any federal funding until November 2011 when a $900 million grant was approved for expansions, under the executive order by President Barack Obama.
In spite of the opposition of some groups to the Metrorail, surveys conducted by Stephen Klineberg and Rice University have shown consistent increases in support of rail transport and decreases in support for bigger and better roads/highways in the Houston metropolitan area in recent years. Klineberg considers these changes a "paradigm shift" or "sea change" on attitudes towards mass transit.
Construction began on the 5.3-mile (8.5 km) and 9-station North/Red Line Extension from UH–Downtown to the Northline Transit Center Station in July 2009. This extension opened on December 21, 2013 (ahead of its projected "early 2014" opening), increasing the line to its current total of 12.8 miles (20.6 km) and 24 stations.
The 6.6-mile (10.6 km) Purple Line, with 10 stations, and the 3.3-mile (5.3 km) Green Line, with 9 stations, began construction in July 2009. Both lines, together costing $1.3 billion, share a track segment in downtown, then run east and diverge. After numerous delays, all but two stations on the eastern end of the Green Line opened on May 23, 2015, while the remaining stations entered service on January 11, 2017 after the construction of an overpass.
The light rail line operates all 7 days of the week. It begins operations at 3:30 a.m. weekdays and 4:30 a.m. weekends and ends service at 12:30 a.m. Monday through Thursday nights, 2:45 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights and, 12:30 a.m. Sunday nights. Scheduled train frequency varies from 6 minutes during the day to 20 minutes off-peak.
The scheduled time for an end-to-end trip through the entire 12.8-mile (20.6 km) Red Line is on average 55 minutes.
METRORail operations are controlled from Houston TranStar, a traffic and emergency management center for the city and surrounding region. Trains have priority signalling at intersections except for six stations near the downtown medical centers. At prioritized intersections, traffic lights for road traffic in all directions turn red when a train passes.
Route and infrastructure
The Red Line is a 12.8-mile (20.6 km)double-tracked, 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge line with 24 stations approximately 1⁄2 mile (0.8 km) apart, running from Fannin South to the Northline Transit Center Station. Almost the entire route is at grade and on city streets. The original 2004 portion from Fannin South to UH-Downtown is entirely at ground-level and at-grade with street traffic. However, on the North/Red Line Extension (from UH-Downtown to Northline Transit Center two small portions are elevated: the Burnett Transit Center station  and a small section of track between Melbourne/North Lindale and Northline Transit Center on Fulton Street. Power supply is from 600/750 volts DC overhead wires, with nine substations (for the original 2004 portion). The line follows Main Street for 8 stations from UH–Downtown to Wheeler Station, then follows Fannin Street for the remainder of the original route until Fannin South. Northbound trains run on San Jacinto Street (rather than Fannin) for a small section of the route between the Wheeler and Museum District stations. The North/Red Extension runs along North Main Street until just after Quitman Near Northside, then turns onto Boundary Street until just before Fulton/North Central, and then runs along Fulton Street until Northline Transit Center.
Significant businesses and institutions along the Red Line route include the University of Houston–Downtown, Houston's restaurant district near Preston Station, the Downtown Transit Center, Houston's museum district, Rice University, Memorial Hermann Hospital, the Texas Medical Center and NRG Stadium.
A Park and Ride parking lot is available at one station: Fannin South. It has approximately 1,200 parking spaces. Parking fees included a daily rate of $3 and a monthly hangtag contract of $40. The Burnett Transit Center will have a Park and Ride facility next to the Casa de Amigos Health Center, scheduled to open in late 2014.
For the original 2004 portion of the Red Line, the architectural firm Pierce Goodwin Alexander & Linville, of Houston, Texas, was in charge of the final architectural/engineering design and design support, with a $2.3 million contract. However, all stations south of Burnett Transit Center were designed by the Houston office of St. Louis-based architectural firm Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum. All stations are of similar design—250 feet (76 m) long and partially covered by glass roofs. Station length was constrained by the distance between crosswalks in downtown city blocks; station platforms are low-floor and 350 millimetres (14 in) high.
The right-of-way and the stations for the original 2004 line were built by three contractors for approximately $115 million: Texas Sterling Construction Co. of Houston, Bencon Management of Houston and Beers Construction Co. of Atlanta. The line construction was divided into five sections, with a resident engineer for each section, to speed up construction.
The 6.6-mile (10.6 km), 10-station Purple Line, and 7 stations of the 3.3-mile (5.3 km), 9-station Green Line opened on May 23, 2015. The final two stations of the Green Line opened on January 11, 2017.
Tracks on all three lines are usually in the center of the street; however, the southbound tracks between the Wheeler and Museum District stations run along the left side, and the downtown Houston tracks along Capitol and Rusk streets run along the south side of the streets. Furthermore, the tracks on Capitol and Rusk run in mixed traffic, sharing a lane with buses and other vehicles, like streetcars.
The light rail lines can handle three-minute headways during peak hours and have a design capacity of 8,000 people/hour in each direction while using two-car trains with such a headway.
A yard and a maintenance facility for the Red Line is connected by loop track to the south of the Fannin South station, and two storage yards are located at the termini of the Green and Purple lines.
The standard fare for this rail line is $1.25 for both cash and MetroQ Fare Card riders; $3 for a Day Pass. The discount fare of $0.60 available for MetroQ Fare Card riders who are seniors 65-69, disabled, Medicare cardholders or full-time students (elementary, high school and university); $1.50 for a Day Pass. All discount riders must show ID (except for elementary and high school students). Free transfers to METRO buses are available with the MetroQ Fare Card only, for 3 hours in any direction. Paper transfers from buses were accepted from July 2015 to March 2016 on a trial basis boarded for free: before noon good until 15:00, after it to end of service day. The MetroQ Fare Card holders can earn "Rider Rewards" of 5 free trips for every 50 paid trips. Tickets and cards are purchased from machines at the stations. No charge applies to Texans/Dash/Dynamo home game days with game ticket, nor to seniors over 70 or to children under 5 who ride with an adult (limit 3).
Fare collection, like most light rail systems in the United States, is based on a proof-of-payment system: METRO's fare inspectors randomly check tickets and cards aboard trains. Failure to pay the fare is a Class C Misdemeanor and is subject to a fine of up to $500. Consumption of alcoholic beverages is prohibited on the train platform and subject to the same fine as a Class C Misdemeanor.
In the first year of METRORail, ridership, though increasing from 12,102 in January to 32,941 in October, tapered off slightly in the last two months of the year, and "fell short of the 35,000 goal transit officials had set" in early 2004, according to the Houston Chronicle. The line reached 75 million boardings in December 2011, four years ahead of schedule, but throughout that year, ridership numbers remained flat or showed small decreases. By 2012, average weekday ridership was 36,250.
The North/Red Line Extension exceeded ridership projections by 62% in the first month of operation, averaging 4,200 weekday boardings in January 2014; this was 1,600 more boardings than projected for the extension through September 30, 2014 (the end of the METRORail's fiscal year).
Notable records in ridership have occurred on the following dates:
- February 1, 2004: 64,005 passengers rode the METRORail to Super Bowl XXXVIII
- February 23, 2004: 54,193 passenger boardings were recorded, the highest weekday at the time
- February 27, 2007: 56,388 passengers were recorded the day of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo
- March 15, 2012: 70,611 passengers were recorded; many of whom attended the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and a performance by The Band Perry after the rodeo at the Reliant Park sports complex.
- March 19, 2014: 76,925 passengers were recorded due in part to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
- February 4, 2017: 109,500 passenger boardings were recorded during Super Bowl LI
METRO currently operates three generations of light rail vehicles. All of them are double-articulated, 70% low-floor vehicles with four low-platform doors per side to provide level boarding.
The original fleet of 18 vehicles was built by Siemens Transportation Systems (a division of Siemens AG of Germany) in Sacramento, California. They were delivered in 2003–2004, for the opening of the first stage of the Red Line, at a cost of $118 million. Designated by the manufacturer as S70 and based on earlier vehicles built for Portland's MAX Light Rail, each vehicle is 96 feet (29 m) long and has a top speed of 66 mph (106 km/h). They have a capacity of 72 seated and approximately 169 standing passengers, or a total capacity of around 241 per car. This approximately 250-person capacity has been reached on certain Super Bowl weekends.
The H1 series cars are distinguishable by their streamlined cab ends and rectangular headlamps, with the electronic destination sign (which have been modified to indicate the line with a colored square) mounted directly in front of the cab rather than above it. They are normally used only on the Red Line and can be operated as single cars or in trains of two cars coupled together, though two-car trains have become the norm due to increasing ridership and the arrival of the H2 series.
In the spring of 2011, METRO purchased a further 19 Siemens S70 vehicles (the same model as its original 18), citing the need to accommodate ridership that was 4 years ahead of expectations and to get cars more quickly. These cars were originally slated for Utah Transit Authority's TRAX system, which METRO purchased for $83 million after UTA decided not to exercise options for them. As with the previous generation, these new cars were built in Florin, California, but they differ slightly from the cars Utah received in detail, including having more air-conditioning units. They were delivered in October 2012 and entered service that December.
The H2 series cars are shorter than the H1 series, at 81 feet (25 m) in length, and are distinguishable by their flatter cab ends and circular headlamps, with the electronic destination sign (which use colored dots to indicate the line) conventionally mounted above the cab. Like the H1 series, they are normally used only on the Red Line and can be operated as single cars or in two-car trains. The H1 and H2 series are electrically compatible and can operate together in the same train.
For expansion of the METRORail system, METRO turned to CAF USA, with a total order of 105 cars placed in May 2010. This order was cancelled in February 2011 as it did not comply with the "Buy America" Act. CAF gave a refund, which METRO applied to the purchase of the H2 series cars.
In September 2011, METRO approved the purchase of 39 vehicles from CAF upon receipt of a new proposal compliant with Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and "Buy America" guidelines. The first six of these cars were delivered in January 2015 and entered service shortly afterwards.
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