Last Friday, Mass Transit Magazine published the following guest blog from our leader:
Bringing Commuter Rail to Central Texas
By Doug Allen
Interim president and CEO, Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority
Beginning this week, commuters in Central Texas have another transportation option from which to choose: the Capital MetroRail Red Line, which began service on Monday, March 22, with a week of free service. First-day boardings exceeded our expectations by nearly 50 percent.
The Capital MetroRail Red Line is a 32-mile system with nine stations using existing trackbed. The commuter line travels between Leander, through northwest, central and east Austin into downtown. Built for less than $5 million per mile, it is one of the most economically built systems in the country for the state-of-the-art features it employs.
Six diesel multiple unit vehicles manufactured by Stadler Bussnang provide incredible safety features, such as state-of-the-art crash energy management systems and passenger amenities. Tray back tables, luggage racks, free Wi-Fi, plush high-back seats, and bike hooks make for a positive rider experience. The system also includes dynamic message boards at stations and onboard trains, and a new Centralized Traffic Control system. Railroad quiet zones have been established to reduce noise pollution through neighborhoods.
Because the system uses existing tracks that will still be used by freight trains — 32 miles of our 163-mile short line, the Llano to Giddings railroad — temporal separation is an important component of the system. As a commuter line, the three northernmost stations accommodate parking for 1,300 cars. At the southern end, two stations incorporate rail connector bus routes designed to be an extension of the train ride to deliver passengers to final destinations downtown and at the University of Texas. These quick bus routes meet the train at the station and drop off passengers at dense employment centers and the university within 10 minutes. Thus far, the rail connector routes are being well-used. More than two-thirds of riders deboarding at the MLK, Jr. Station are using one of two connectors that meet there.
Given a skeptical community and in the wake of an unsuccessful light rail referendum in 2000, the MetroRail project was, by design, limited in scope. Using an existing rail line with only modest upgrades, limiting the number and length of sidings (or double track sections), constraining station size and budget, and buying a starter fleet of only six trainsets all contributed to the highly cost-effective nature of the project. These characteristics allowed for low cost and relatively quick startup, and may be a winning combination for similarly situated cities nationwide. Of course, these benefits are not without consequences, and it should be acknowledged that the level and quantity of service are constrained at the outset by the modest investment levels in the system. Fortunately the system was designed with expansion in mind and plans for doing so are in the works.
MetroRail’s successful launch was the result of the collaborative efforts of Capital Metro, the Federal Railroad Administration and our rail operations and maintenance partner, Herzog Transit Services, Inc., and their subcrontractors.
The development of MetroRail did experience challenges, however. We delayed the system for nearly a full year to address system components that were not functioning as they were intended. A commitment to cost and schedule very early in the process, before all engineering and planning had been completed, created problems for us early on. The design was enhanced with a Centralized Traffic Control system, but integrating that system with the other signal technologies being employed on the line was more complex than had been anticipated and staffed for. We brought in new expertise and better oversight to the project, and signed on a new MetroRail provider, Herzog Transit Services, Inc. With only a few months until our opening date, Herzog spread across our line like army ants, conducting an intensive analysis of the entire line, and systematically attacking and correcting the remaining problems.
The year-long delay was not without benefit. The Centralized Traffic Control System had been designed to operate in two modes, one for our freight operations, the other for MetroRail operations. Sensing that shifting between modes could be a weakness to the operation, the FRA asked that we consider redesigning the system to eliminate the possibility of human error initiating a shift between modes incorrectly, potentially creating dangerous results. We agreed, and subsequently took the time and effort to redesign and reprogram our entire signal network to put a safer system in place — one that we are more confident of and one that will reduce the potential of problems as we begin operating both freight and passenger service on the same track.
With the design modifications complete and the right team assembled, the FRA gave us final clearance to begin passenger service. Of course, Capital MetroRail is just the beginning. With full trains and demands for all-day and weekend service even prior to the first day of service, we will continue planning for expansion even before the trains lose their new car luster.
Capital Metro employees and volunteers are staffing all nine stations for the first two weeks to assist new riders and ensure they have a good first experience. Beginning March 29, valid fares will be required, and a one-way fare from end to end is $3. Capital Metro will celebrate its successful launch of commuter rail on March 27 with a commemorative “Safety Train” ride of community officials and area students who have participated in our rail safety education program and a dedication ceremony at the Downtown Station.
We are savoring this historic moment for our transit agency and our community of bringing the first modern passenger rail system to this area. Our startup is going smoothly and now we are looking ahead to expansion of the service to meet the needs of our growing region.