Is DFW’s new rail link the best option?

Dallas-Fort Worth International airport became the 22nd airport in the USA with a direct rail connection to its terminals when Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) trains began running during the wee hours of the morning today.

Source: DART

Source: DART

The 8km (five mile) extension of the Orange Line ends at a new station adjacent to terminal A at the airport, commonly referred to as DFW. Trains will run every 15min to 20min on weekdays with a one-seat ride to central Dallas’ West End station taking about 49min. An estimated 300 daily passengers are expected initially with that number projected to grow.

“This is a momentous day for our customers and for DFW airport, because passenger rail is a critical component to DFW’s status as a top-tier international gateway,” says Sean Donohue, chief executive of DFW, in a statement. “With the DART Orange Line connecting DFW to downtown Dallas, DFW is now on a par with global hub airports that have integrated rail.”

The connection adds an important US airport to the ranks of those connected to regional rail systems. DFW was the fourth busiest in terms of passenger enplanements and continues to grow rapidly with numbers up nearly 3.6% in 2013, US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) data shows.

With the new link, more than 45% of all US air passenger traffic – or 334.9 million passengers – now have access to an airport-rail connection, an Airline Business analysis of FAA enplanement data from 2013 shows. This is up from about 37% in 2012.

While certainly a powerful symbolic achievement for the airport and Dallas, questions remain about the actual benefit of the new line. First, the station only connects to terminal A, which is solely used by hometown American Airlines. While passengers on other airlines with boarding passes and only carry-on luggage can pass through security there and take the Skylink people move to their respective terminal, those in need of additional assistance or checking bags will need to take a shuttle bus to their respective terminal.

Asked why the station was not located further south where links could have been built to terminals A, B, C and D, the airport says that the location was the closest point a station could be built to a terminal building based on the DART alignment into the airport from the north.

The airport station for the proposed TEX Rail line from DFW’s other namesake city Fort Worth will similarly be located at the northern end of the airport’s terminal complex adjacent to terminal B and the DART station. The line is tentatively scheduled to open in 2018, however, construction has yet to begin.

Another issue is whether a light rail connection to downtown Dallas is the best rail option for DFW. In a recent analysis, transportation blogger Alon Levy found that major international airports may be better served by mainline or high-speed rail due to their large catchment areas while city or domestic airports could be better served by more regional rail links as their catchment areas tend to be more local.

“Primary international airports draw their departing passengers from a much wider shed than mainly domestic airports,” he writes. “In metro areas with such separation of airports, the international airports – [Paris] Charles de Gaulle, [New York] JFK, DFW, [Seoul] Incheon, etc – draw riders from faraway suburbs and even from adjacent small metro areas, whereas the domestic airports draw riders primarily from the city and its nearby suburbs.”

Looking at the Dallas-Fort Worth area, which is also served by Dallas Love Field, Levy cites US Department of Transportation (DOT) data that only about 3% of DFW’s traffic is in the “Texas triangle” – including Austin, Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio – while 27% of Love Field’s traffic is in this market.

Based on Levy’s analysis, one can conclude that more passengers could benefit more from a mainline rail connection serving the triangle and other nearby cities than just the light rail line. However, lack of passenger rail service through much of the triangle makes such a connection only a long-term possibility.

DART’s Orange Line runs along Love Field’s western border on Denton Drive but lacks a stop less than 3.2km from the terminal building, even though it is visible from trains approaching the Burbank Station from the south. A direct connection to the airport was shelved prior to construction due to cost constraints while a promised people mover or similar fixed-guideway connection has yet to materialise.

The new line will likely produce benefits for Dallas. A recent American Public Transit Association (APTA) and US Travel Association report found that cities with airport-rail links attracted more large meetings and events, with hotels near rail able to charge nearly 11% more for rooms and reporting nearly 13% higher occupancy compared to cities that lack rail connections. This in turn creates benefits for the regional economy.

“We found that cities with airport-rail connections have a competitive advantage in generating revenues for the private sector and the overall city tax base compared to similar cities that do not have direct rail connection to the airport,” said Darnell Grisby, director of research and policy at APTA, in an interview with CNBC.

Airport-rail connections continue to be built at a rapid pace in the USA, despite the mixed opinions they generate. There are rail links to four more airports under construction across the country, including to Oakland International opening this November, Denver International opening in early 2016, Washington Dulles International opening in 2018 and Honolulu International opening in 2019.

Rail links to Los Angeles International, Orlando International and Sacramento International airports are in planning or design phases, while connections at many other airports are being considered.

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