Red Line (METRORail)

A Houston METRORail train arrives at Preston station
Type Light rail
System Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County
Locale Houston (Texas, USA)
Termini Fannin South (south)
UH–Downtown (north)
Stations 16
Services Red Line, route 700
Daily ridership 34,155 [1]
Opened January 1, 2004
Owner Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County
Operator(s) Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County
Rolling stock Siemens Avanto S70
Line length 7.5 mi (12 km)
Minimum radius 350 ft (107 m)
Electrification overhead catenary
Highest elevation at grade, shared with streets
Route map
Red Line map

METRORail is the 7.5-mile (12.1 km) light rail line in Houston (Texas, USA). It is the second major light rail service in Texas following the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system. With an approximate daily ridership of 34,155, the METRORail ranks as the fourteenth most-traveled light rail system in the United States, with the second highest ridership per track mile. METRORail is operated by the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO).



The opening of METRORail on January 1, 2004, came 64 years after the previous streetcar system had been shut down.[2] Houston was the largest city in the United States without a rail system after the 1990 opening of the Blue Line in Los Angeles.

Since its inception, METRORail has been the source of several political controversies in Houston. During the 2003 expansion referendum, critics of the system, including Texans for True Mobility (TTM), questioned METRO's financial practices. METRO itself was criticized for spending public funds for "educational advertisements" about the proposed system, which were said to promote the referendum.[3]

The main political action committee (PAC) supporting the bond was accused of having a conflict of interest due to the relationship between its main contributors and METRO. The PAC received over US$100,000 in contributions from contractor firms and equipment suppliers for METRORail who stood to gain financially from its expansion.[3] This includes a US$50,000 donation from Siemens AG, a German engineering corporation, which has the contract to build METRORail's train cars.

The Houston Chronicle was accused of a heavy bias in its coverage designed to promote METRORail. The newspaper became embroiled in controversy following the accidental posting of an internal memorandum on its website that urged the "specific objective" of making "rail a permanent part of the transit mix" in Houston through news, editorial, and op-ed columns.[4] The memo included a "ground zero for November" proposal of attacking the finances of groups and individuals opposed to light rail, and specifically, then U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay and former Houston Mayor Bob Lanier.[5]

In the beginning of METRORail's operation, the line averaged 11 crashes per track mile per year, compared with the national average of 0.55 for similar rail systems. Critics of the METRORail gave the line local nicknames such as "Streetcar Named Disaster", "Wham-Bam-Tram", and "Danger Train".[6] METRO has consistently blamed driver error as the cause of the high collision rate and the transit agency's police department regularly tickets motorists who cross paths with the train. For accidents occurring during almost the first year and half of operation, the METRO and its police have blamed all but one on pedestrians getting too close to the tracks or motorists making illegal turns or running red lights. [7]. Red light running is the main cause downtown, whereas near the Texas Medical Center illegal turns are the main cause.[8] Some of the people involved in the crashes have claimed that poor signage and signal layouts have contributed to the problem. Critics argue that such a high rate of driver error must be attributable to an environment conducive to it.[6]. Critics have also noted the fact that the system is at-grade [9], while supporters contend that lack of federal funding due to political opposition to the METRORail made construction of a grade separated rail line unfeasible. [10] Supporters of the METRO also claim that the Main Street corrider that the train travels upon had a high accident rate even before the METRORail entered service.[11]. METRO has rearranged some signals and altered some sign arrangements to try to make things clearer.[12]. These new signal arrangements decreased the accident rate to a fourth of its former level by August 2005, approximately 20 months after opening. [13]


Today, the average daily weekday ridership is 34,155. Notable records in ridership have occurred on the following dates:[14]

  • 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

Rolling stock

Houston operates a fleet of 18 Siemens-built Avanto S70 light-rail vehicles, delivered in 2003-2004.[15] Each 96-foot (29 m) long, double-articulated vehicle has four low-platform doors per side and has a capacity of 72 seated and approximately 169 standing passengers, or a total capacity of around 241 per car.[16]

METRO Red Line train approaching the UH–Downtown station
The inside cabin of a METRORail train

For future expansion of the METRORail system, Metro had turned to CAF USA, with a total order of 105 cars.[17] This order was cancelled as it did not meet the "Buy America" clause. CAF gave a refund, which METRO will apply to new cars.[18] In the meanwhile, METRO purchased 19 cars that were originally slated for Utah Transit Authority's UTA TRAX system. They are slated to be delivered in October 2012 and enter service by that December.[19]


November 2007 gave rise to an investigation by the local NBC station, KPRC Local 2, that showed problems with METRORail and a lack of response to disabled patrons, resulting in one particular handicapped person being stranded on the rails until people noticed. The story showed that despite all the requests, nothing was done, save for a new sign on METRORail vehicles that explained that the priority seats for the disabled do indeed flip up, a sign that finally appeared after three years of complaints.[20]

The METRO agency has found itself in a long string of complaints and allegations, the most grave and significant being the document shredding accusations that were brought about in January 2010 (becoming news in February 2010).[21] This led to an investigation that would be led by the Harris County District Attorney,[22] followed by a seizing of documents by the investigators involved in the investigation.[23] Furthermore, in the midst of the investigations, Mayor Annise Parker would replace five members on METRO's board in order to move ahead.[24] Frank Wilson, the CEO at the time, would resign in May and the case would be settled by June 2010.[25] METRO was acquitted of any wrong doing July 27, 2010, by the Harris County District Attorney.[26] However, Mayor Parker also asked for further investigation, and the result showed that while decisions were being made at METRO, there were no real records of how those decisions were reached.[27] A report done by Michael Reed, unrelated to the mayor's call for an outside examination, showed that METRO had been deteriorating financially under Frank Wilson as well.[28]

Coupled with the lawsuit was another allegation that METRO was lying about the income from their sales tax revenue that would allow them to pay for all five expansions of the light rail (as discussed in the section below) and gain $900 million in federal funds to use on these lines.[29] The Houston Chronicle would counter the story as it broke,[30] but for the time being the Federal Transit Administration is withholding its approval for the money until further figures can be examined.[31]

Public opinion is also varied, with critics for and against squaring off, both in blogs and comments. One critic likened METRORail to that of the San Francisco model of light rail,[32] and has brought to light information that appears to point out that METRO is being unfaithful to its constituents.[33]Another critic, quoted by the previous critic, expands the argument to addressing the "myths" of METRO's operations with light rail,[34] while elsewhere bringing to light various funding hang-ups[35] and criticizing how the system has been planned out as a whole.[36]

The Woodlands (an affluent unincorporated north Houston suburb) became entangled with the City of Houston when it agreed to pay a sum of money in order to avoid annexation. This has led to the Woodlands area funding another METRORail project in which light rail stations would be better connected and walkways expanded. However, comments about this news in particular have given rise to allegations of extortion.[37]

"Buy America"

The Federal Transit Administration is investigating whether the Metropolitan Transit Authority intends to build light-rail vehicles in Spain in violation of federal “Buy America” rules. All federally funded projects require rolling stock to be assembled in the United States. The trouble dates back to February 2008 when the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) responded to an inquiry that was made by a prospective rail car supplier. In March 2008, the FTA outlined this as one of the issues regarding the North/Red Line Extension and Southeast/Purple Line. Assuming that METRO has not been adherent to the policy, the $900 million that the government would allot to Houston to help fund the project would be rescinded.

METRO was planning on buying the rail cars for its five new transit lines from a Spanish company, Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles (CAF). The FTA wanted a response from then-president Frank Wilson to a letter they sent in April 2010 regarding the issue,[38] the same time he was embroiled with the document shredding scandal. Whether or not Frank Wilson responded is unknown. METRO has said that the current cars in use were purchased because the Red Line was constructed using local funds, and therefore didn't require them to adhere to the "Buy American" rule; they have been looking at different options to resolve this.[39] (Wilson resigned as METRO president in May 2010.)

The FTA was still investigating the matter in July 2010 as noted in a Record of Decision to environmentally approve the University Line. In it, the FTA instructed METRO to refrain from even considering the purchase of any light rail vehicles for that line (or for any line it operated).[40] In August 2010, an article from the Houston Press shed some light on Frank Wilson and his approach to CAF and Siemens, the two companies being considered for the 29 new light rail cars for the Red Line/Red Line Extension and the East End/Green Line. After choosing CAF, Wilson was approached by Siemens with a lower bid on the cars, but Wilson simply patronized them by allowing a presentation in which METRO communicated nothing with them, as planned out via email.[41]

September 2010 brought about more uncertainty as the METRO board convened to put together their new budget to be completed by the twenty-eighth of that same month. The biggest uncertainty revolved around the acquisition of the funds that the FTA had not yet granted them for construction purposes.[42] Even so, on September 8, 2010, the FTA found METRO in violation of the rules, stating that METRO must rebid the contract in order for there to be any federal funding.[43] According to the FTA, the previous METRO administration was at fault and that the findings were "both alarming and disturbing". METRO was essentially blamed for working together with CAF to avoid numerous provisions in "Buy America" to the point that CAF had an advantage over other domestic firms.

The FTA has also stated that the $150 million laid aside would still be available and the $900 million in grant money be put to consideration again should METRO rectify the situation.[44][45][46][47] An online copy of the signed report dated September 3, 2010, can be found here.[48]

The resulting decision handed down from the FTA also brought about multiple consequences for both METRO and the citizens of Houston alike. First was the announcement made by METRO, the day after the FTA handed down their decision personally, to "clarify" a previous statement and stated that all construction on the new lines would be pushed by up to a year.[49] On the same day, Texas Governor Rick Perry made a statement in which he stated that former Houston mayor Bill White needed to own up to his decision to appoint Frank Wilson as the CEO of METRO.[50] Previous stated was that METRO would have to rectify the situation - the FTA stated that it would be by METRO rebidding the contract, opening the floor to the other companies that had made bids on providing equipment for METRO. A stop-work order was issued by METRO to CAF USA, and METRO considered what could be done to retrieve the $40 million invested already.[51] CAF is not barred, per se, but it does face an investigation of its company in order to confirm is it still qualified to be a potential bidder.

Unrelated to CAF, the Uptown and University lines are also threatened due to the lack of money.[52] CAF USA announced it was none too pleased with the decision made by the FTA and made an official request for the FTA to reconsider.[53] Both sides stated that they were ready to face litigation, CAF to sue METRO if they rebid,[54] METRO to retrieve the $40 million already invested.[51] METRO also began shrinking its budget by $430 million, albeit it was reported that it was done in a slightly bizarre way: removing 160 printers.[55] Residents and former property owners were also appalled to learn of METRO's wrongdoings as many lost their land due to eminent domain based on promises from METRO that progress would be made.[56] Other details were also revealed, including more regarding Frank Wilson's tactics in obtaining the federal funding.[57][58]

The "Buy America" situation did not stop at the acquisition of the light rail vehicles, either. It was reported not long after on a website called in the article titled "Houston METRO Transit uses local money to bail out another 'Buy America' problem" that this also disqualified 1,200 radios that were purchased under similar circumstances.

Future expansion

Commencement of construction on the new North, Southeast and East End lines is tentatively scheduled to be completed no sooner than 2014, according to an announcement by METRO made in September 2010.[59] Fannin Station will also be added to the current Red Line in order to provide transfers to/from both the Southeast/Purple and the East End/Green lines.[60]

In August 2010, a budget shortfall of $49 million was announced by METRO, which has halted progress on the University/Blue Line. The line has already received a final Federal Record of Decision but there are no official words regarding when construction would start or how the line would be funded.[61] METRO previously claimed that the completion of construction and opening of the Red Line Extension would be by 2013[62] and the East End/Green Line by 2014.[63] However, between the need to rebid the rail car construction contract, the potential loss of the $40 million invested in CAF due to the rebid, the budget shortfall, and the delays now implemented in construction due to the uncertainty of gaining the $900 million from the FTA, METRO announced on September 9, 2010, that the commencement dates for the North,Southeast, and East End lines were pushed back to 2014.

Following METRO's 2010 annual audit, the agency has decided to cancel the Burnett Plaza project. This is part of a US$168,000,000 asset liquidation. The price of the land US$21,000,000 is valued separately.[64]

Go METRORail Maps

Map of downtown routings
Line Name Distance Route
     North/Red Line Extension 5.3 mi (8.5 km) UH–Downtown Station to the Northline Transit Center
     Southeast/Purple Line 6.1 mi (10 km) Smith Street in Downtown Houston to the Palm Center at MLK & Griggs Street
     University Line 11.3 mi (18 km)[65] Hillcroft Transit Center to the Eastwood Transit Center[65]
     Uptown Line 4.7 mi (8 km) Bellaire/South Rice Station on Westpark to the Northwest Transit Center
     East End/Green Line 3.3 mi (5 km) Smith Street in Downtown Houston to the Magnolia Transit Center

See also

Portal icon Houston portal
Portal icon Trains portal


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External links

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