DALLAS (AP) _ Trench-coated commuters crowd the station platform, waiting for a southbound train and their daily ride to work in the city.

But this isn't New York City or Chicago. It's the wide-open spaces of Texas, where crowded commuter trains are still a novelty.

In order to wean people away from the independence of their cars _ 500,000 cars typically clog Dallas highways during rush hour _ the transit system has had to convince them that the light-rail trains are convenient, safe and reliable.

There is at least one transit officer on each two-car, squeaky-clean Dallas Area Rapid Transit train. Stations boast hand-set bricks and tiles, fancy metalwork, murals and poetry by neighborhood artists.

And the trains have been full. Ridership on its brand new north line has been beating projections by 22 percent since fare collections started on Jan. 20, following a 10-day free period.

Unlike two earlier lines connecting downtown to south Dallas and suburban Irving, the new north line reaches middle-class and affluent areas whose residents can afford downtown parking or have employers who pay for it.

``There were people who said no one would ever ride that train,'' said Andrea Parks, a spokeswoman for DART. ``It's really a very pleasant surprise.''

Supporters hope the light-rail system will bring significant business to downtown Dallas, whose 33 percent office vacancy rate ranks first among large U.S. cities.

The 20-mile system _ with 17 miles now open _ cost $860 million, or $43 million per mile.

Critics, including former city councilman Jerry Bartos, note the costs.

``In the long haul, it's not going to make a dent in the mobility needs of the region, and you're paying an awful lot of money for it,'' Bartos said.

Riders pay $1 for a ticket good for 90 minutes, less than a third the estimated $3.84 cost per rider.

Trains run every 10 minutes during peak times and every 20 minutes at other times.

Commuter Bill Sheehan, a 68-year-old judge, said he likes the DART train better than New York's subways or Washington's Metro.

``It's shorter, cleaner and they're on time,'' said Sheehan, who used to spend up to 45 minutes driving to work. ``It's 22 minutes from my door to the courthouse door.''

Scott Northcutt, a 33-year-old investment banker, said he prefers the train ride to congested roads.

``The only reason I agreed to transfer downtown was because the train was starting,'' he said. ``Otherwise they never could have gotten me to do it.''