What’s in a Name?

A column in Monday’s Austin American-Statesman generated some chatter about what type of passenger rail system Capital Metro will soon be operating. Is it light rail? Is it commuter rail? Is it something else? Will it really matter to a customer riding the train?

To avoid the “less filling – tastes great” dilemma, I usually stick with the brand “Capital MetroRail” or “Red Line” since that’s how it appears on the map. But if the differences between light rail and commuter rail are keeping you up at night, let’s take a closer look.

The reality is MetroRail crosses the traditional lines between light rail and commuter rail. It really is an innovative version of both. It’s quite possible that the Red Line will serve as a template for future rail systems in other cities.

Here are the industry definitions of commuter rail and light rail (courtesy of the American Public Transportation Association); then we’ll review some of the Red Line’s characteristics.

Commuter rail (also called metropolitan rail, regional rail, or suburban rail) is an electric or diesel propelled railway for urban passenger train service consisting of local short distance travel operating between a central city and adjacent suburbs. Service must be operated on a regular basis by or under contract with a transit operator for the purpose of transporting passengers within urbanized areas, or between urbanized areas and outlying areas. Such rail service, using either locomotive hauled or self propelled railroad passenger cars, is generally characterized by multi-trip tickets, specific station to station fares, railroad employment practices and usually only one or two stations in the central business district. Intercity rail service is excluded, except for that portion of such service that is operated by or under contract with a public transit agency for predominantly commuter services, which means that for any given trip segment (i.e., distance between any two stations), more than 50% of the average daily ridership travels on the train at least three times a week.


Light rail
is lightweight passenger rail cars operating singly (or in short, usually two-car, trains) on fixed rails in right-of-way that is not separated from other traffic for much of the way. Light rail vehicles are typically driven electrically with power being drawn from an overhead electric line via a trolley or a pantograph.

If you’ve been following our project, you can see that MetroRail is the best of both worlds, although it seems to fit more into light rail than anything else. Here are some of the key characteristics:

-Eight of nine stations within City of Austin
-All stations within census-designated urbanized area
-Bi-directional service
-Street-running operation in central business district of Austin
-Station to station movement is a major function of the system
-100% of ridership within urbanized area
-77% of projected morning ridership within City of Austin
-Less than one-third of alightings at downtown Austin station
-Substantial existing and major new development near mid-route stations
-Startup service will be during peak hours only
-Proposed expansion includes addition of midday, evening and weekend service, and increased frequency
-Additional stations anticipated

The Statesman column also covered the issue of federal oversight of the Red Line. Our system was originally designed around operating procedures and equipment that were similar to the River Line in New Jersey and the Oceanside Line in California. Those lines have oversight from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) which is common for light rail. Commuter rail systems typically have Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) oversight. The regulations for each agency are different since passenger rail lines under FRA typically use larger, heavier, locomotive-hauled vehicles. MetroRail uses a light-rail type vehicle, but FRA retained oversight since we have characteristics of both.

Whatever you prefer to call the Red Line, we’re committed to delivering passenger rail service with the highest levels of quality, safety and customer service.

3 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. M1EK

    This is a misleading article. Nearly nothing in traditional light rail lines would apply to starting DMU service on an existing freight line, and to say that 8 of the 9 stations are within Austin is also incredibly misleading as the two northernmost, the ones that actually have parking, are right on the edge of the city limits and expected to serve primarily non-residents. The remaining “Austin” stations are largely for drop-offs only, and have hardly any residential development within walking distance.

    This is a sharp contrast to the 2000 light rail route – which served the same suburban constituencies but also served central Austin.

    There’s really nothing urban OR light about this line. It’s standard commuter rail – buy trains and stick them on freight tracks. Period. Just because the FRA gives you trouble is no reason to join Lyndon Henry’s brigade of serial misinformation artists.

  2. M1EK

    The other key difference, of course, is that a “light railway” could easily be brought straight to UT, the Capitol, and right down the heart of downtown – like that 2000 route does. Our commuter rail vehicles will never be able to do any of those things – they are designed to run on freight railways and cannot make turns that would be necessary to run on anything like a normal light rail route through a true urban area. As a result, essentially every single passenger that rides this thing will be forced to transfer to a shuttle-bus at the work end of their trip. You can’t get any farther away from the idea of light rail than that.

  3. One of my favorite customer service quotes is “Here is a simple but powerful rule – always give people more than what they expect to get.” -NELSON BOSWELL”

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