Agency said that the light rail system was not built with ice in mind.
By Sriya Reddy
DART buses and trains will resume regular service on Saturday, the transit agency said Friday, after cold weather and icy conditions this week led to multiple bus breakdowns and service shutdowns that left riders confused.
On Wednesday, DART shut down its rail system and limited bus services ahead of the temperature drop and possibility of ice in the Dallas-area.
Riders had to take shuttles from each rail station or catch buses that ran on a limited Sunday schedule. Even on Friday when weather conditions had improved, many riders had to wait hours to find the right buses.
It was the second time this month that winter weather caused DART to alter its services. A hard freeze Feb. 2 caused DART to shut down all rail and bus service for the first time ever. That has led to questions about how prepared the agency is to deal with winter weather.
After that freeze, Dallas mayor Eric Johnson called for DART to be part of a review of how the city responded to the weather. The council will be briefed on the findings Wednesday.
Gordon Shattles, DART spokesman, said that the infrastructure of the light rail system was built in the 90s The steel used was created to withstand typical Southern weather conditions, not cold or ice accumulation. Ice accumulation on the overhead lines and on the rails affects power leading to rail vehicles getting stuck.
“The last thing we want is a passenger stranded, quite literally, on a light rail vehicle because they can’t get power,” Shattles said. “And more importantly, if we don’t have power, we don’t have heat.
Councilmember Omar Narvaez, chair of the transportation and infrastructure committee, said that after communicating with DART, he better understands why the decisions were made.
However, he will still ask DART about upgrading its technology to better suit colder conditions and how to better communicate changes at the upcoming winter storm review.
“This year we’ve had two episodes. Last year in February, we had a week-long shutdown. So between the two years we’ve had at least two full weeks of shutdowns now for the rail system,” Narvaez said. “And when it comes to buses, what can we do to work together to help vehicles like DART buses, so that they can continue to work even when we get ice?”
For riders on Friday, there were many questions about how DART was handling the situation.
Oak Cliff resident Donald Patterson was taking the bus back home and said that although he knew about the limited service, DART should have communicated better about the changes.
“They just put it on the website,” Patterson said. “Everybody don’t even have access to a phone, let alone their website. Not everyone can check the website.”
Donald Herod, a Plano-resident waiting to catch a bus home from the medical district , said he had to take three shuttles to get to his destination and waited about three hours to find the correct route.
DART bus driver Conell Wingo’s bus broke down at the medical district. As Wingo waited for a mechanic, he helped riders find their way by ushering them to other buses in the area.
“They are asking ‘Where is the next bus?’” he said. “That is the norm.”
Wingo said that a lot of buses’ digital signage has been incorrect too. A bus that said “not in service,” was still taking passengers.
Wingo’s bus broke down due to the weather freezing up its air suspension, causing the bus to lower itself and not run.
Shattles said that while that specific problem is not that common, 167 buses broke down or became immobile due to the ice since Wednesday.
To run again, DART staff has to physically check the tracks, overhead lines and electrical circuitry on 229 miles worth of the rail system. After that they do a final run through to make sure signals are working properly. Shattles said that this is what staff has been doing since about 12 p.m. Thursday to make sure that the rails and roads are fit to travel on.
In a letter Friday to Narvaez, DART President and CEO Nadine Lee said that the agency is looking at how it can restore service faster.
“I have asked staff to consider strategies that will allow us to pivot in a shorter time frame, if conditions allow us to restore service sooner,” she wrote.
Staff writer Sharon Grigsby contributed to this report.
CORRECTION, 9:30 p.m., Feb. 25: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that DART began checking the rail systems at 8 a.m. Friday. It was 12 p.m. Thursday.
CORRECTION, 3:30 p.m., Feb. 28: An earlier version of this story said the council will be briefed on the winter storm response Tuesday. It will be briefed on Wednesday.