Houston, Texas

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Siemens "Avanto" 106 at Fannin & Calumet. Photo by Peter Ehrlich.


Houston, Texas's largest city, last saw electric traction in 1940. Although light rail had been talked about and studied since the 1980s, its implementation has always been controversial, as the pervasiveness of the automobile and the freeway system constructed to support auto travel is second only to Los Angeles--and the city has the state's worst air pollution, as a result.

It took a spate of light rail construction and 1996 opening in the state's second largest city, Dallas, to spur city government to consider light rail in earnest. All along the way, however, LRT remained controversial, and a powerful obstructionist anti-rail lobby, supported by influential Houston-area Republican congressman Tom DeLay and backed by right-wing think tanks, tried every effort to derail even the first line. But an energetic city administration managed to bring Light Rail to Houston, despite all the interference.

After 3 years of construction, Houston and Harris County welcomed the starter Red Line, a $324 million, 7.5-mile route connecting downtown Houston with the southern portion of the city on January 1, 2004. The greatest source of riders is the sprawling, mile-long Texas Medical Center along Fannin Street in south Houston.

Trains currently operate every 12 minutes every day. In a few months, schedules will be revised to increase rush hour service from Hermann Park through the Medical Center complex to the Fannin South terminal.

Beginning with the month of testing before opening for service, the Houston Light Rail system has had more than its share of accidents, mostly from motorists ignoring "No Left Turn" signs. Apparently, all along Main St. and at the site of many of the accidents, left turns have actually NEVER been allowed. Motorists have always broken these regulations, but were able to do so without problems by yielding to oncoming traffic. With a train now in the center lane, things aren't so simple. At many other accident sites, however, left turns (and some right turns) across the tracks are restricted (these are new regulations) when a train is approaching. A major re-education program for Houston motorists may be in the offing.

Station By Station

Downtown Segment

Houston's Red Line begins at UH-Downtown Station (University of Houston-Downtown). The trackway rises from Main and Commerce on Main Street's Buffalo Bayou Bridge to the University, which is a converted warehouse. A scissors crossing is just south of the island platform.

Preston Station is next, and northbound and southbound platforms straddle Preston, the cross street. Houston's trendy restaurant district is located on adjacent blocks west and south of Preston Station.

Next station is Main Street Square. Again, southbound and northbound platforms handle boarding. The difference here is that Main Street Square separates the northbound platform, which abuts McKinney, with the southbound platform between Lamar and Dallas. In between is an elaborate fountain, which sprays streams of water as high as the LRT wires, but not when trains pass through. Main Street Square is home to a large shopping district.

Next comes Bell Station, where the line emerges from the canyon of tall office buildings, followed by Downtown Transit Center Station, alongside Harris County MTA (METRO)'s new headquarters building, which was nearly ready to be opened during this writer's visit in February 2004.

Midtown Segment

After passing under I-45 (known as the "Pierce Elevated") just below the Downtown Transit Center, the Light Rail Line passes through the Midtown district, which has been an economically depressed and rundown section of town. The area has already begun to turn around economically, with several dense apartment complexes and mixed use developments springing up with more on the drawing boards. Nearly all development in this area is private, and it is suggested that the anticipation of the rail line was and continues to be a major catalyst for development.

There are three stations along this segment: McGowen, Ensemble/HCC (serving the nearby Houston Community College) and Wheeler. McGowen and Ensemble/HCC, 10 blocks apart, have separated northbound and southbound platforms like the downtown stations. Eight blocks further south, the line does a slight dogleg to the left and enters Wheeler Station. This is the only station on the entire line whose platforms face each other. A shuttered Sears store is located here.

Museum Segment

From Wheeler, the line enters the Museum District and the only location where northbound and southbound trains operate on separate parallel (and one-way) streets. The southbound tracks hug the left curb of Fannin Street, while northbound, the rails run on normal right-side-of-road along San Jacinto Street. Other rail systems which run along the left curb on portions of their lines are Sacramento and Dallas's McKinney Avenue Transit Authority's heritage streetcar.

Hermann Park Segment

Upon leaving the Museum area, the Houston Red Line northbound and southbound tracks come back together for the short jog along the western edge of Hermann Park and Fannin Street. There is one station in the park, Hermann Park/Rice University. The campus is just to the west here. This is an island platform station. Adjacent to this station is a miniature train which runs around the perimeter of the park.

At the south park boundary at N. MacGregor Street, the line begins its plunge into the intensive Texas Medical Center District, and a stop is made at Memorial Hermann Hospital/Houston Zoo.

Texas Medical Center Segment

Beginning at the Memorial Hermann Hospital/Houston Zoo station, the Red Line now enters its busiest and most traffic-congested stretch through the sprawling Texas Medical Center complex along Fannin Street. Although the tracks themselves are generally off-limits to autos, there are many left turn pockets onto the tracks with signs illuminating "No Left Turn" as a train approaches, mostly in the direction of travel. Considering the congestion, the trains travel at a rather high rate of speed (25-30mph) and the potential for accidents is great.

In this mile-long stretch, the hospitals served are Memorial Hermann Hospital, University of Texas Medical School, Methodist Hospital, St. Luke's Medical Towers, Texas Medical Center, Texas Children's Hospital, and others. These provide the bulk of the Red Line's ridership, and during shift changes and rush hours, standing loads are carried on the LRVs to the south parking lots at Smith Lands.

Dryden-TMC Station is the system's busiest. As with most other stations, the platforms are separate for each section, but in the center divider. After leaving the station, the tracks curve to the left, and trains duck under busy Holcombe Blvd, the only flyunder on the system.

Texas Medical Center Transit Center Station is next, and there is a pedestrian overpass for passengers connecting between trains and buses. This is a center island platform. At Fannin and South Braeswood, the line turns right, and runs along a boulevard with gated housing communities on both sides of the road, and yet another hospital.

At Greenbriar, the Red Line turns left again for a short jog to Smith Lands Station, location of an enormous parking lot set up for hospital complex workers. The LRT and shuttle buses provide frequent service here. This is an island platform.

While all of the stations are architecturally the same, each station has locally-crafted artwork unique to the station. Many depict the heritage surrounding the station. A good example of the artwork which graces each Red Line station can be found at Smith Lands Station. On the canopy support pillars, scenes of changing life forms are depicted--seed, cell, fractal, pangaea (for the Greek goddess of the Earth) and Supernova. The changes are depicted here.

Reliant Park, South Fannin Segment

Following Smith Lands Station, the Red Line continues on Greenbriar until it merges with Fannin Street, and continues out Fannin to the south end of the line, where the light rail maintenance facility and yard are located.

The line runs along the southbound traffic lanes of Fannin, interurban-style. A stop is made at Reliant Park Station, which serves the old Astrodome, Reliant Stadium, and Reliant Arena. The 2004 Super Bowl was held here at the Stadium, and the LRVs, configured in 2-car trains, really moved the passengers! Reliant Park Station also has a center island platform, and a separate southbound side platform for use during sporting events--a big help in discharging the crowds.

Just before arrival at the last station, Fannin South, the tracks cross Fannin Street and then run into the station. A public park-and-ride lot is located here, and is handy for Red Line sightseers, of which there are many. Beyond the station, the tracks loop around the maintenance facility, and a small yard is visible from the station.


18 sleek new 6-axle, 70% low floor LRVs built by Siemens provide service 19 hours a day. Normal service is with single-car trains, but the LRVs can be coupled in 2-car sets, which were used on Opening Day and on Super Bowl Sunday. Siemens also provided the power generating system for the trains. The car type is nicknamed "Avanto".

Photo Gallery

Five Random Images

Image 28423

(153k, 720x475)
Photo by: Peter Ehrlich
Location: Downtown Transit Center

Image 28441

(133k, 720x478)
Photo by: Peter Ehrlich
Location: Reliant Park

Image 28450

(138k, 720x526)
Photo by: Peter Ehrlich
Location: Wheeler

Image 28452

(140k, 720x478)
Photo by: Peter Ehrlich
Location: Bell

Image 28453

(173k, 720x478)
Photo by: Peter Ehrlich
Location: Bell

More Images: 1-50 51-77

Photos By Location

Photo locations: UH-Downtown, South of UH-Downtown, Preston, Main & Texas, South of Preston, Main & Walker, Main Street Square, Main & Dallas, Main & Polk, Main nr. Clay, Main & Clay, Approaching Bell Station, Bell, Approaching Downtown Transit Center, Downtown Transit Center, Main & Gray, McGowen, Main & Stuart, Ensemble/HCC, Wheeler, Fannin & Southmore, Fannin & Calumet, Fannin & Binz, Museum District (San Jacinto), Fannin bet. Binz & Ewing, Hermann Park & Golf Course Drive, Hermann Park/Rice University, Memorial Hermann Hospital/Houston Zoo, Dryden-TMC, South of Dryden-TMC, Texas Medical Center Transit Center, Braeswood & Greenbriar, Smith Lands, Reliant Park, Fannin South


Official Site - MTA of Harris County, Texas. Official site of the operator of the Houston Metro, including schedules, maps, fares, and more!

Page Credits

By Peter Ehrlich.

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