Long before the overcrowded rail cars began backing up on DART tracks Saturday, the transit agency knew that it could never handle more than a fraction of the crowd expected for the sold-out Texas-OU game that drew nearly 100,000 fans.
And yet, for weeks leading up to the game, it continued to promote the new Green Line as the best route to Fair Park, despite the likelihood of huge crowds.
Dallas Area Rapid Transit President Gary Thomas conceded Monday that the agency simply was not prepared for the crush of football fans and other fairgoers who overwhelmed the rail system on Saturday. Many fans endured trips of longer than three hours and arrived at the Cotton Bowl after halftime or later.
"Obviously, the demand was a whole lot larger than we expected," Thomas said. "I am certainly apologetic for those riders who didn't get to where they were going in a time frame they felt was appropriate."
Thomas said the agency will take a few weeks to study what went wrong, and how it might improve next time. A number of ideas are already under consideration, such as running backup buses or dedicating rail lines exclusively to game-day traffic.
DART's new board chairman, Bill Velasco of Dallas, said the huge interest in DART rail service thrilled him but said the agency failed to deliver when it was needed the most.
"I heard about this last night and Saturday night, on the television, on the radio, on the Internet, and in the newspaper," Velasco said. "On Saturday, I heard we had thousands left at the stations and there were more coming. I just thought, what can we do now to help? I just know that wherever those passengers came from, they paid our fares and got on our trains. We were caught off guard."
Velasco said he and other board members were briefed earlier by DART staff about the capacity of the system and assumed it would be adequate.
"Can I tell you something honestly?" Velasco said. "We were told there was a plan in place, and all systems were up and ready to go and we could handle X amount of people. I don't remember what the figure was, but I remember thinking, 'There is no way we'll have that many people wanting to ride.' So I was satisfied. I thought we ought to be able to handle it."
On Monday, Thomas said the agency never had a firm projection of how many fans would seek to ride the trains. Given that the rail service to Fair Park was new, the agency was forced to deal with a lot of unknowns, he said.
But this much DART did know: Under the best of circumstances the agency can't deliver more than about 4,000 passengers per hour to Fair Park. Even with jam-packed trains stopping there every five minutes, with standing passengers overflowing the aisles, each two-car configuration would typically carry about 350 passengers.
DART said 36 trains were scheduled to arrive at Fair Park between 8 and 11 a.m., though it is not sure how many actually arrived due to delays on the tracks. But had every train arrived on time crowded, that would have provided rides for only about 12,000 fans.
No exact figures were available for service during those hours, though DART said that its entire light rail network provided passengers about 40,000 round trips Saturday, about 25,000 more than a typical Saturday.
Many of those riders headed to Fair Park arrived at DART's Victory Station after riding the Trinity Railway Express commuter line in from Fort Worth and the in-between suburbs.
For example, a single TRE train arrived at Victory on Saturday morning carrying 1,300 fans, DART spokesman Morgan Lyons said. Add to those commuters walk-up traffic from area hotels and those who had parked in the area, and there were probably about 1,500 or more fans ready to board the Green Line for the four-mile trip to the game.
But the Green Line trains had room for only 350 passengers under normal circumstances. That meant many of those 1,500 fans were going to have to wait for the fourth, fifth or even sixth train. Meanwhile, more commuters were arriving. With trains running initially every 10 minutes, that equated to significant delays.
What's more, those same trains that filled up at Victory arrived at every other stop along the way to Fair Park already full, frustrating riders who had gathered at other stations ready to catch a train to the game.
"Hindsight is perfect," Lyons said Monday. "Would I have like to have some things to do over? Sure. ... I just know it didn't work the way we wanted to work."
Still, Lyons said the agency was right to advertise the Green Line as the best route to Fair Park, despite the obvious limitations of its rail cars.
"Based on the things we knew – that we would have a lot of people wanting to ride – and based on our experience throughout every day of the fair when we had good service – it was still the right thing to do, to tell people that [the Green Line] is the best way for people to get to Fair Park," he said.
Council members pleased
Members of the Dallas City Council were pleased by the big response to DART, and appeared to give the agency some room for growing pains.
More stops beyond Fair Park on the line are scheduled to open in December 2010.
"I think it bodes well for the future of the city," council member Ron Natinsky said.
"What happened on Saturday I think is a great thing, even though some of [the fans] got to the game two hours late," council member Carolyn Davis said.
Not everyone agreed.
"DART advertised for months that the Green Line would be the best way to the Fair, and guess what? It was the worst," said one reader who was among scores who left comments about the delays on the dallas news.com transportation blog.
All things considered, Velasco said, "this is a great problem to have, but it's one we have to solve."
"Here we are with a brand-new rail line, and we have got huge overcrowding. What if we didn't have anybody wanting to ride?" he said. "Now that would be a problem. This case was a perfect storm."
Staff reporter Rudolph Bush contributed to this report.
CLOSER LOOK: POSSIBLE IMPROVEMENTS
EXPRESS RAIL LINES
Dedicate rail cars that will go straight from one end of the line to Fair Park without stopping.
Why it can't work: Without a second downtown line, there would be no way for the express train to get around trains stopped at stations ahead of it on the line.
What might: DART says it might consider shutting down regular train service on game day. Green Line trains would probably still have to stop at each station to make sure there is enough time to safely get through the bottlenecks. But once they are full, they would no longer let passengers on or off until they reached Fair Park, reducing delays at platforms.
BACKUP BUS SERVICE
Run dedicated buses to Fair Park.
Pros: Whether they left from suburban Park & Ride lots or from Green Line rail stations, the buses would give passengers tired of waiting for a train an option.
Cons: Given the already crowded streets, bus passengers may find traffic delays just as frustrating as rail riders. DART officials say they may discuss with city officials the possibility of establishing a dedicated bus lane for just that day.
Post signs in rail cars and at platforms to tell riders when an approaching train is full.
Pros: It's a simple solution that would let those waiting know when an approaching train is full and how long they might have to wait for an empty one.
Cons: More information alone won't provide options for fans who want to ride transit.