How Safe Are the Rails?

On today’s front page, the Austin American-Statesman took a closer look at Capital MetroRail safety:

How safe are the rails?

By Ben Wear

Even for Texans caught up in the approach and violent arrival of Hurricane Ike, the Sept. 12 images of twisted train cars in Southern California and news of the collision’s toll — 25 dead, dozens more seriously injured after a freight train and a commuter train hit head-on — were sobering.

With Central Texas on the cusp of having its own passenger rail service, how likely is it that a calamity like that could occur here after Capital Metro begins service next year?

Unlikely to the point of near impossibility, says Capital Metro’s rail manager, given that passenger trains will run during the day and freight trains only at night, and that the agency is taking several measures to ensure that freight trains — all of which are operated by Capital Metro — will be quarantined outside the 32-mile Red Line corridor when it’s time to carry people.

But Capital Metro has other safety challenges. The MetroRail passenger trains will run in both directions between Leander and downtown Austin during the morning and evening rush hours on what is primarily a single thread of track. So, the agency will have to depend on a few stretches of siding tracks, signals, electronic monitoring and good communication to ensure that two passenger trains don’t collide.

Then there are automobiles — public streets cross the track at 61 places along the route, along with 14 privately owned crossings — and pedestrians to avoid. “The toughest thing to predict is the vehicular traffic,” said Bill Le Jeune, Capital Metro’s director of commuter rail and railroad management. “You just don’t know when you’re going to meet the next idiot. But one thing I say with confidence is we aren’t going to meet a freight. Because we’re going to lock them out.”

Keeping passenger trains from hitting one another will be the most urgent issue. Capital Metro plans to initiate service on March 30; the trains are expected to have about 2,000 boardings a day. At least initially, Capital Metro plans to run passenger trains every 30 minutes, with the first trains leaving from Leander in the morning and from downtown Austin in the afternoon. There are no plans for midday or weekend service in the beginning.

However, there will be some trains going the opposite direction during both rush hours. To accommodate this, Capital Metro will have siding tracks 3,000 feet to more than a mile long at the Leander station and at three intermediate points: at the MLK Jr. Boulevard station in East Austin, at the Kramer Lane station in North Austin and just south of the Lakeline Boulevard station in Northwest Austin. The locations were chosen based on those 30-minute intervals to minimize or eliminate train delays, Le Jeune said.

This is how it’s supposed to work: Trains would arrive at the MLK and Kramer stations and, after letting passengers disembark and board, would face a red light. A train operator would have to make a conscious decision to ignore the light and get the train moving. This is in contrast to the situation in the California wreck and on shared tracks across the country where the engineer of a moving train has to actually spot a warning or stop light and then act to stop the train.

The station stop lights (or a light along the track south of the Lakeline station) would not switch to “go” mode until the train heading the opposite way had safely passed. That might sometimes require a wait of several minutes, Le Jeune said. But he said the train forced to wait would always be the one running against the rush-hour flow — the train heading to Leander in the morning or to Austin in the afternoon.

In all, Capital Metro is building 3.6 miles of siding track. The agency says it will spend $6 million on sidings but only $3.3 million of that is for passenger rail. The rest, spokesman Adam Shaivitz said, is a freight rail cost.

If Capital Metro were to buy more trains so that it could increase capacity by running in 15-minute intervals, more sidings would have to be built to accommodate more such passing maneuvers, Le Jeune said. Capital Metro officials said this week that their long-term intention is to build a second track from downtown to the Howard Lane station in North Austin, but it is not clear when that would happen.

What if an error occurs and engineers on a passenger train see a train ahead? The Federal Railroad Administration earlier this year, concerned about the strength of Capital Metro rail cars’ superstructures, mandated that the cars run at no more than 60 mph on the Red Line. The agency had been hoping to run them at up to 75 mph on more rural stretches north of Howard Lane.

The Swiss-manufactured cars, according to data provided by Capital Metro, can stop much more quickly than a freight train or a typical two-decker commuter train powered by a locomotive.

Even at 60 mph, Capital Metro’s rail cars can stop within 600 feet, the agency says. A typical commuter train in that situation would need 1,200 feet to stop, the agency says, and a long and loaded freight train would lumber on for more than 3,700 feet. The agency says the MetroRail passenger trains are likely to travel at 45 mph or less in the urban sections.

Capital Metro, in response to federal regulators’ concerns that the fuel tank attached to the bottom of each passenger train might rupture in a wreck and cause a fire, agreed to install a protective steel cage around each tank. However, the agency has federal permission to wait to do so on its first six cars until it orders more cars.

The cars also have a feature requiring the train operator to respond every 30 seconds to a signal within the cab. If there is no response, because the operator is asleep or otherwise incapacitated, the train will automatically shut down its power and brake to a stop.

Agency controls all freight trains

Capital Metro has no plans to install “positive train controls,” devices that automatically shut down trains (or allow dispatchers to do so from afar) when a train bypasses a stop signal or otherwise ventures where it shouldn’t go. In the wake of the Sept. 12 Metrolink disaster in California, some safety advocates have been calling for widespread installation of the devices, which the railroad industry has long resisted because of the cost.

Told about Capital Metro’s plans, Barry Sweedler, a San Francisco-based transportation safety consultant, said the agency “has a pretty good handle on the freight situation.”

A key distinction: Capital Metro’s track will have only freight trains run by the agency’s subcontractor and thus directly under the control of agency dispatchers. Metrolink shares the Southern California track with freight trains from many companies.

Sweedler said that 90 percent of the roughly 3,000 rail accidents reported each year are caused by human error: drug use, fatigue, inattentiveness, miscommunication. The train engineer thought to have caused the Metrolink accident had more than 20 years of experience, according to Le Jeune, who used to work on the Metrolink system. The engineer might have been distracted; he sent a text message on his cell phone 22 seconds before the crash, investigators said last week.

Without a system that can shut down a train when it enters a danger zone, “anything can happen,” said Sweedler, a former National Transportation Safety Board accident investigator.

Such systems, Sweedler said, can cost as much as $35,000 per train. He said it’s harder to estimate the additional cost of associated dispatch and track equipment because of different central control systems.

“What we’re going to have is ‘positive separation,’ ” Le Jeune said.

Capital Metro’s track is 162 miles long, extending far west and east of the 32 miles that will have passenger service. The agency, using subcontractors, has run a freight operation for years, primarily hauling rock from the Hill Country.

Capital Metro is installing “derails” at either end of the passenger corridor, switches that dispatchers would activate early each morning when the switch from freight to passenger service is about to occur. A freight train approaching the corridor during passenger service hours would encounter this derail switch and be routed off the track. “It just derails the train off into the ditch,” Le Jeune said. The system will have two derail switches within the passenger rail corridor should the need arise to cordon off another section of the track. The cost of the four derail switches: $900,000.

But what if afreight train happens to be within the 32 miles when it’s time for MetroRail to run? Le Jeune said dispatchers will have two ways electronically to spot them.

Each of the agency’s 14 freight locomotives (as well as the self-propelled passenger cars, which can carry 108 seated passengers and 90 or so standees) will have global positioning devices, allowing dispatchers to see where they are. In addition, Le Jeune said, the agency has electric “track circuits” on its freight trains that show if a train is within certain segments of the line. Finally, dispatchers will conduct a roll call of all freight trains before passenger service begins at 5 a.m. weekdays.

The likeliest candidates for a collision with a train? Cars and trucks at the 75 places Capital Metro’s rail line crosses roads or private drives. Up to now, motorists have had to worry about only a handful of rumbling freight trains each day, moving half as fast as (or slower than) the passenger trains to come. Even so, Le Jeune said that in his eight years at Capital Metro, cars on three occasions have slammed into the side of a freight train on the Llano-to-Giddings track.

The problem, quite often, is that impatient motorists will drive around the signal arm blocking their side of the road when a train is approaching. To prevent that, Capital Metro in the past four years has installed “quad” gates at 38 intersections at a cost of $150,000 to $250,000 per intersection. With four arms in place, two per side of the track, cars can’t get by. The other 23 public crossings will have more typical dual gates. The private crossings will have signal lights, old-fashioned railroad crossing signs or, at seldom-used crossings, chains blocking the way.

As for pedestrians, Capital Metro is installing almost 24,000 feet of chain-link fencing along the line (covering about 7 percent of the run), all between U.S. 183 and downtown Austin. The fencing will have breaks at cross streets, so people determined to walk along the tracks will be able to do so. The agency has put signs in the rail right of way warning of the faster, quieter trains to come.

And Capital Metro officials for months have been making presentations at the 71 schools within two miles of the line, telling children that “tracks are for trains, not for playing games.” Working with Girl Scout officials, they even managed to create a train safety patch.

Kelly West/AMERICAN-STATESMAN – Capital Metro had hoped to run its trains up to 75 mph, but the Federal Railroad Administration said the Swiss-made cars may not exceed 60 mph on the Red Line.

Jay Janner/AMERICAN-STATESMAN – Capital Metro’s single thread of railroad track is 162 miles long, used now by freight trains. MetroRail will use 32 miles for its rush-hour passenger service between Austin and Leander.

[Blog editor’s note: This represents MetroRail stopping distance under normal stopping conditions. In an emergency, an engineer would be able to stop the train in about half the distance of what’s indicated on the red line in this chart.]

Dual gates

Traditional two-armed gates will be installed at 23 intersections of public streets, primarily lesser traveled roadways.

Quad gates

Quad gates — with four arms that prevent cars from driving around the lowered barriers when a train is approaching — have been installed at 38 busy intersections.

Signals and signs

The 14 private roads and driveways that intersect the rail line will have signs or blinking lights to warn cars of approaching trains or, in some cases where a road is used only occasionally, it will be blocked with chains.

13 thoughts on “How Safe Are the Rails?

  1. lastnamehand

    It sounds like CapMetro has thought about this, but there is always a chance for human error. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

    But your post raises another issue for me:

    With the freight trains running at night, what impact will that have on the local neighborhoods, specifically East Austin.

    Will freight trains use audible horn signal warnings at crossings?

    What level of noise can these neighborhoods expect at night?

    What hours will the freight run?

    Will homeowners be able to sleep at night? A lot of new development has been going on in East Austin and this seems like an issue that should be addressed for any resident or prospective resident of East Austin. Without the din of the city in daytime, the freight train will significantly amplify the noise pollution in the area.

    Have any impact studies been done on this?

  2. Adam Shaivitz

    Capital Metro is installing quad gates at 38 crossings within the 32-mile line. This includes all crossings between Highway 183 and Downtown Austin. This allows the designation of quiet zones so trains, both freight and passenger, will not have to sound horns. Horns would still sound at any crossings that are not designated quiet zones and in emergency situations such as a car or pedestrian on the tracks. Freight trains will run after 8:30 p.m. once all MetroRail trains are off the tracks. On the East side our freight operator typically runs one train out and one train in per day.

  3. Don Dickson

    Maybe I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t realize until now that these trains will need to run in both directions on a single track…and won’t run after 8:30 p.m.

    So much for serving the hockey games at the new arena, huh?

  4. EasyRider

    Don-I dont think they’ll worry too much about getting people to a venue outside the cap metro boundaries. But you can chalk that up to the list of reasons why it was a stupid move for Cedar Park to vote out of cap metro. Anyway I’m pretty sure they’ve said all along that the trains would only run during rush hour.

  5. Boswell

    Yeah, they’ve always said the trains would run a commuter schedule like the express buses do.

    And here is the study I did on the noise that trains make. I was raised between the New York Central and Pennsylvania lines. If we kicked a ball too hard in the backyard, it went on the tracks. Trains ran all night and all day. We saw there were tracks next to the back yard before we moved in. We paid less money for our trouble but we slept at night just fine and nobody, not even our cousin Eric who was kinda on the slow side, got killed on the tracks. The only people who were ever killed on the tracks were drunks.

    We had common sense, I guess. Hopefully the folks in east Austin (and the tracks go through just a little bit of east Austin…I reckon you aren’t as concerned for the welfare of folks in north Austin and Williamson County)have a little common sense too. Sure, folks run across I-35 every once in awhile but not even government can completely eliminate the heavy hand of natural selection.

  6. BC in Cedar Park Town Center

    I live in Cedar Park Town Center and hear the trains coming LONG before they arrive and long after they continue out of our community because of the incessant whistle blowing. I sometimes will hear the whistle blowing 10 or more minutes before and after the trains actually rumbling through our community (and, yes, do rattle on the walls!!) Why are the trains blowing their horns/whistles if the quad gates are in place. Does there need to be a city council vote to designate Quiet Zones of does there need to be a community initiative??

    Brian in Cedar Park

  7. Adam Shaivitz

    Brian, establishing quiet zones is a lengthy process beyond the installation of quad gates. We are working to set up quiet zones at the following intersections in Cedar Park: Blockhouse, New Hope, 1431, Discovery, Park and Brushy Creek. The application for these quiet zones was submitted to the FRA on October 10. Following the application there is a 60 day comment period. After the comment period a letter of establishment will be issued. Following that letter there will be a 20 day notification period. After the notification period we can actually activate the quiet zones. Once quiet zones take effect, trains will not be required to sound horns at those crossings. However, horns will still be used in the event of an emergency such as a vehicle or pedestrian on the tracks.

  8. BC in Cedar Park Town Center

    Adam, thanks for the update on that. I had read somewhere that the quiet zones were to go into effect last July.

    So, nothing NORTH of NEW HOPE?


  9. Adam Shaivitz

    The Blockhouse crossing is north of New Hope. Both will be quiet zones. Blockhouse is outside of Cedar Park and in Williamson County’s jurisdiction. So technically New Hope will be the northernmost quiet zone crossing within Cedar Park.

  10. BC in Cedar Park Town Center


    I was quite disappointed to hear that ALL the current freight train traffic will be rescheduled to run between 8:30 PM and 12:30 AM.

    This means that on a typical evening of the usual 4 Freight trains….we could have a 15 minute freight train event roughly once every hour rumbling by the house between 8:30 and 12:30. Each train generally starts blowing its horn about 5-10 minutes before it actually proceeds through our community; or, least, that is when we start to be able to “Hear” the horn(Cedar Park Town Center), it the takes 3-4 minutes for the entire train to go by and then as it continues away….we can generally hear it for another 5 minutes or so (horn is now pointing away from the community),…so, each train can be a 15-20 minute “Noise Event”, and yes, pictures do rattle on the wall, and it is impossible to carry on a conversation if we happen to be outside enjoying the backyard.

    Since the commuter light rail will run in the early mornings and evening “rush hours” Why can’t we schedule the Huge (16 feet high) rumbling, horn honking (generally 5 diesel electric engines and 100-150 cars loaded with rock)to run in the middle of the day when most of us are at work. Then those of us who live near the rail line can at least have a relaxing evening in our back yards without having it repeatedly disrupted by these earth shaking, noisy monstrosities.

    Brian in Cedar Park

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