Light at the End of the Track

Statesman.com ran the following Op-Ed about MetroRail on Friday:

Gilliam: Cap Metro plans to deliver on its promises for MetroRail
by Fred Gilliam, PRESIDENT & CEO, CAPITAL METRO

Capital Metro and all of Central Texas can see light at the end of track. Capital MetroRail, our 32-mile passenger line from Downtown Austin to Leander will begin service on March 30, 2009. Of course, there are still many moving parts, but we are confident in our ability to meet that date. Our goal has always been to build and operate a safe, reliable and high value rail system for Central Texas; we believe we are taking the necessary steps to deliver on that promise.

Capital Metro committed to provide the community with updates on the rail project, the issues we are facing and any adjustments to our timeline and budget. With that in mind, I wanted to take this opportunity to share with the citizens of Central Texas where we are in the process and the remaining path to a successful passenger rail operation.

Several factors have played a role in setting the opening date, including construction issues associated with a couple of stations, the installation of an enhanced safety control system, and our ongoing work with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which has oversight of rail operations, as well as some of the most rigorous operating and safety requirements of just about any regulating authority in the country.

We are beginning construction of the stations at Howard Lane and Kramer Lane; completion of these stops is anticipated by early March. Capital Metro could operate MetroRail without these two stations, but we cannot operate without the completed installation of the safety control system and proper training. The Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) system allows dispatchers to see where every train is on the line at all times and manage all signals and switches. Installation of the CTC is dependent upon completion of track work. Over the summer we determined that track work was not progressing as quickly as we planned. We replaced the contractor but lost time in the process.

CTC installation is expected to be completed in mid-December. Then we can begin an intensive 45-day training period. This “pre-revenue” testing is critically important to a successful opening as it allows us to identify and resolve any problem areas before we have passengers on board.

With regard to the FRA, we have worked with the agency over the last several months and have reached consensus on how to address each of its stringent requirements. One area in which we have worked closely with the FRA is the safety of the railcar fuel tank.

This very same fuel tank is in use in San Diego as well is in Europe and has an impeccable safety record. However, Capital Metro and the FRA agreed that minor modifications could further enhance safety. Our engineers developed a plan to surround each fuel tank with an aluminum cage that will provide an additional layer of protection on any additional rail cars we purchase. When the cages are manufactured, we also will install them on our existing fleet.

The MetroRail project budget stands at approximately $105 million. The increase in cost compared to what we projected in 2004 is due to a number of issues, including the change in locations of the Howard and Kramer Stations, rising steel, concrete and fuel costs, and enhancements we have made to improve safety and quality of service.

Capital Metro believes spending money on these improvements is in the absolute best interest of Central Texans. Some good examples of these enhancements are the CTC system I discussed earlier, the bridge we built over the Union Pacific line and additional track to allow more places for trains to pass.

Even with this increase in cost, Capital Metro is still developing one of the most fiscally-responsible rail projects at approximately $3 million per mile – compared with the two other similar rail projects in this country, New Jersey’s River Line at about $30 million per mile and San Diego’s Sprinter at $22 million per mile.

The MetroRail project is a critical piece in how Central Texas will grow as a region. As a result, we want to deliver the best product possible in terms of safety, efficiency and value. We are not willing to sacrifice any of these by rushing the project. For this reason, we are confident in a successful rail opening on March 30, 2009. In the next few months, we will be scheduling some special events in the community to give future MetroRail passengers a chance to see the train. We know this will be a service of which all Central Texans can be proud.

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