What's Taking Austin So Long?

Capital Metro was originally supposed to start operations in November 2008.

Austin would have been Texas’ third city to offer its citizens light rail service had Capital Metro opened its new MetroRail line as planned last November. But serious safety and operations difficulties have led the FTA and local authorities to repeatedly delay the corridor’s opening, and now the city is afraid to make any estimate about when trains will begin running. In four weeks, the project might enter service, but no one’s sure. Has Austin cost-cut its project to death?

Capital MetroRail is intended to connect downtown Austin to Leander in the northern suburbs along 32 miles of existing freight tracks. Trains are planned to run every thirty minutes during rush hours on weekdays — 10 daily round trips. Unsurprisingly, only about 2,000 people are expected to take advantage of the service everyday. Yet the city envisions the line as the potential backbone of an entire network.

What’s interesting about Austin’s experience is that it demonstrates some of the potential problems of attempting to use existing freight tracks to build a functional rail transit system. Most the operating delays for the project have been a result of problems with implementing train control systems that are designed to ensure that trains don’t butt into one another. But those would not have occurred had the tracks been built brand-new for the use of commuter trains alone, as they are for most new light rail systems. The fact is that it’s difficult to improve a freight line to passenger use standards without putting operations on hold. Shared operations between freight and passenger trains on a mostly single-track system aren’t exactly ideal, either.

Austin wanted to save money; it was unwilling to put in the sort of large investment made by its peers in Dallas or Houston, which are in the process of developing huge light rail systems. The result is not only a nonfunctional train line but also one that will serve very few of the city’s commuters at very inconvenient frequencies.

You get what you pay for.

13 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • It seems misleading to even put Austin in the same category as as Dallas or Houston. What they’ve built is a commuter rail system that uses small, non-FRA compliant vehicles so it can have a street-running section downtown.

  • Andrew in Ezo

    “You get what you pay for”
    Nothing truer can be said. I am wary of these railway contractors promising operations on the cheap (Veolia in Austin’s case) that are hired by government agencies- they have a spotty safety record, at least in the U.S. Los Angeles’ Metrolink has decided not to renew their contract with Connex, another European firm like Veolia:

    http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-metrolink-crews28-2009may28,0,2947007.story

  • Anders

    Interesting situation down there. Funny how a “progressive” city like Austin has cut so many corners on transit. In some senses this reminds me of the situation up here in Minneapolis. Whether it’s lawsuits saying LRT will hurt minority property owners (Central Corridor) or NIMBY community groups fighting against LRT in the densest areas of the city (Southwest Transitway), there’s always something holding us back in spite of our reputation and history.

  • This sounds more like commuter rail than light rail.

  • Robert Jackel

    This reminds me of the Riverline in Camden/Trenton, as well as the proposed Patco extension in south jersey. Do they have the same long term problems? NJ is really into sharing with freight. I’ve been skeptical, but I’ve ridden the riverline and it actually works pretty well. So, is this an endemic problem that comes with sharing lines with freight, or is Austin just doing a bad job of it?

  • Wad

    Andrew, Connex is Veolia.

  • Adirondacker

    Robert, the RIver Line doesn’t meet it’s ridership projections. Doesn’t run often enough, from what I hear, to give everyone a seat. . . because they were projecting 5,500 riders a day when it opened and soon afterward were carrying 7,300. Can be hard to get a seat because five years after opening they are carrying 9,000 riders, they are at capacity…. Just awful what happened with that… .

  • By the standard of the other chordal light rail system in Jersey, 9,000 is really pitiful.

  • Andrew in Ezo

    @Wad
    Thanks, actually it makes even more sense now. Something about these companies with their contrived, marketing dept. created names (veolia?- might as well be a brand of margarine!) selling “solutions” makes them suspect in my eyes.

  • Wad

    Veolia Environnement is one of France’s biggest companies. Besides transportation, Veolia also has substantial energy and water holdings.

    Veolia legacy transport companies in North America include Connex and National Express, which in turn was made up of ATC/Vancom, McDonald Transit and Durham school transportation.

  • Steve

    ..or if they had just chosen an FRA Crash-Compliant vehicle in the first place.

    I also disagree that freight tracks cannot meet passenger rail’s demands and rigors. It can, but only through proper funding and cooperation. And with a vehicle that meets crash standards for freely mixing traffic. Please – someone out there engineer a worthy replacement for the RDC!

  • It IS commuter rail; CM has flirted with misrepresenting it as light rail to try to win back center-city residents who have begun to realize they voted for a system that provides the most dense residential parts of the city no service whatsoever (other than a dubiously named Rapid Bus line on what is the only rail corridor in the city that makes any actual sense).

    More here:

    http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.com/blog/archives/cat_dont_hurt_us_mr_krusee_well_do_whatever_you_want.html

  • Oh, and as for:

    Yet the city envisions the line as the potential backbone of an entire network.

    The city does nothing of the sort; the city has gradually come to realize (as some of us said back in ’04) that the commuter rail system proposed by Capital Metro will never be able to help Austin in any way, shape, or form; which is why Austin is spending its energy on the “CAMPO TWG plan” (the downtown-to-old-and-new-airport ultra-light-rail proposal).

    Keep in mind that Capital Metro is not Austin; CM is at the mercy of the state (legislator Mike Krusee single-handedly destroyed the far superior 2000 proposal) and is dominated by suburban interests; and is currently led by a GM who never believed in rail to begin with – the true rail leader (Karen Rae) left after the 2000 election failed to go work for the FTA.

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