How to Prepare Passenger Rail Service for Special Events

Posted on November 15, 2012 by Brittany-Marie Swanson, Associate Editor

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When Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) opened a new light rail line to Fair Park — the location of Texas’ annual state fair — and the Cotton Bowl in anticipation of the 2009 “Red River Rivalry” football game, officials planned for a 50% rail ridership increase. Instead, 132,000 people boarded the system during the playoff between Oklahoma State and the University of Texas — a 150% increase.

What resulted were passenger queues stretching over 300 yards, long train delays and overcrowding. It took five hours to clear the crowds, and the traffic signaling system in downtown Dallas crashed after becoming overloaded by the trains operating at street level.

“It didn’t take long after the state fair was over that year for our Executive Director Gary Thomas to give us his charge: ‘Fix it for next year.’ That’s all he said; that’s all he had to say,” says Larry Gaul, assistant VP, rail operations, for DART.

Preparing rail service for special events can be a daunting task. Experts from four transit operators who shared their stories during this year’s American Public Transportation Association (APTA) rail conference in Dallas spoke with METRO Magazine about lessons learned during high-stress events in their areas of service.

Keep track of lessons learned
The first thing DART officials did following the new Green Line kafuffle was to develop a list of lessons learned, according to Gaul.

“We put everything we could think of on pieces of paper,” he says. “This was done by a large group that was assigned by DART and had reps from all across the agency. From that list, we developed a set of objectives for 2010.”

DART altered its service to reduce congestion, implemented a direct shuttle service from the commuter rail station to the fairgrounds, established an emergency communication center and ran multiple simulations prior to the big game in 2010. While minor adjustments have been made in the years since, the agency now has a strong plan to provide reliable service during the event.

Similarly, officials from Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) keep a record of lessons learned in a book in the system’s control center, so that key stakeholders can review what went wrong and what went right following each special event.

RTD’s C and E light rail lines run past the Sports Authority Field at Mile High, home to the Denver Broncos. RTD will be adding a third line next April.

The operator’s light rail system also serves the Pepsi Center and Coors Field.

Find a point person
Austin Jenkins, assistant GM, rail operations for RTD, says that when there’s a big game, he appoints a central manager to coordinate service.

“One of my three senior managers or one of their delegates will be responsible for the actual onsite coordinator of the train movements,” Jenkins explains. “We have about two hours where we are taking passengers into the game. A couple of hours prior to this service, we add 14 extra four-car trains.”

Having a central figure to oversee service and make difficult decisions is vital, explains Gary Howard, director, rail transit, for the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (Metro) in Houston.

“One of the big things as far as how to really get organized is to designate somebody who is going to come up with the plan as opposed to establishing a committee,” Howard says.

Each year, Metro light rail serves attendees of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which is billed as the largest rodeo in the world.

Currently, one of Metro’s chief controllers writes the operation plans for major events, such as the rodeo and football games at Reliant Stadium.

“I find that working with the control center is best — if they’re going to have to control the train movement through the area, they have the knowledge of what it is going to take, as far as getting the train in and out of the area,” says Howard. “They are also good references as far as building that relationship with the field units and so forth.”

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