With Modest Expectations, Austin Opens Rail Line After Years of Delays

» Diesel Multiple Unit vehicles will make trip between downtown and Leander just a few times a day, with the goal of attracting more than 1,000 daily riders.

For a city that is noted for its progressivism, especially as compared to the state that surrounds it, Austin’s transit politics are notoriously backwards. Unlike Houston and especially Dallas, which have pushed forward with light rail systems at a rapid pace over the past few decades, the capital of Texas is getting modern rail service for the first time only today, despite its large and growing population. And with a cost of $105 million and with trains only running at peak times, the Capital MetroRail Red Line is a humble project that will attract few riders.

When voters approved the project in a referendum 2004, it was promoted as a demonstration line, to be implemented cheaply along an existing rail corridor using just six diesel multiple unit vehicles stopping at nine small stations. “Ride, then decide,” proponents suggested: People would be exposed to the advantages of rail service, and then want to invest much more in it.

But the 32-mile project, which saw its first passengers at 5:25 this morning, is two years late and over budget: it’s hard to see the system as a model for future major capital investment in transit in the Austin region. The route between Leander and downtown Austin, passing through northern parts of the city, was supposed to be complete in early 2008, at a cost of $90 million. Instead, its cost eventually escalated to $105 million, not including affiliated parking, bus service, and other amenities. The trains provide slower service than competing buses within the urban core and have incredibly spread-out frequencies, arriving just every 35 minutes during rush hour and not at all other times. The terminal station is separated from the downtown business core and far from the University of Texas.

If this is what people in Austin are expected to experience as efficient rail, it’s hard to envision them pushing for more beneficial forms of transit, like frequent light rail operating in the city’s denser zones.

That is, if they experience it at all: Capital Metro expects 1,700 to 2,000 daily riders for the line in a city of 750,000. The MetroRapid bus rapid transit system the city hopes to open by 2012 (and which recently received promises of a federal funding commitment), for instance, will provide service to a far larger swath of the city, more frequently and faster.

Even if the line does become exceedingly popular — a very remote possibility — the corridor can only handle 3,800 daily boardings, maximum. That’s because only 11% of the line has two tracks, so the number of trains able to run back and forth is quite limited. Cost-cut stations are too short for trains made up of more than one car. Readying the Red Line for a capacity upgrade would cost hundreds of millions of dollars Capital Metro does not have.

In the run-up to the project’s opening, the City of Austin had basically given up hope on the advantages of the Capital Metro project. Municipal leaders recently committed to pushing an inner-city light rail or streetcar project that may be put up to another citizen referendum in November next year. That project could cost up to $1 billion, but a route has yet to be confirmed. Despite the significant technological and experiential differences between the proposed light rail and the now-open commuter rail line, though, locals seem unlikely to approve a major funding program if the Red Line project is seen as ineffective, especially for inner-city residents who will continue to rely on the bus for almost all commutes.

Nonetheless, Central Texas has had a troubled experience with rail implementation over the years, so the opening of anything at all should probably be seen as a coup in itself. Capital Metro has been around since January 1985, when voters approved plans for a $500 million light rail system after a decade of on-and-off discussions about whether to implement such a project. Various studies performed in the 1990s concluded in a 52-mile, $1.9 billion project proposed to the electorate in 2000 in a measure rejected 51-49%. So the Red Line, as limited as it is, was seen as a politically feasible compromise and voters agreed to it in 2004.

At only $90 million, the project was never meant to emulate the success of other cities’ much more expensive light rail systems, and on a per-passenger-mile basis, it would have fallen at the median in cost-effectiveness of similar projects built in the United States over the past 10 years. At only $4 million a mile, the line was relatively cheap to build. Yet cheap does not always mean effective. The Portland Westside Express and the Nashville Music City Star, the most equivalent projects in the country, have both suffered from ridership vastly lower than foreseen in initial estimates.

But the real mistake has been Capital Metro’s complete mismanagement of the project’s implementation. The understaffed agency — with virtually no experience in rail operations — signed a contract with private operator Veolia that turned into a disaster once it became evident that no one knew how to make a freight rail corridor into an operable passenger line. The Federal Railroad Administration delayed the start of services repeatedly because of signal problems and safety violations, and Veolia was replaced with Herzog Transit Services last year.

It’s too late to sound the alarm about this rail line’s problems; on the other hand, it’s been obvious that the line has been ill-fated from the start, victim to an attempt to get rail service at the lowest cost possible, no matter the limitations. Electoral support for future rail expansion in the Austin region will be difficult to assemble if the populace isn’t impressed by what it gets, and the Red Line just won’t provide many benefits to very many people. Starting too small is sometimes problematic: other cities should learn from Austin’s mistakes here.

Image above: Austin Capital MetroRail train, from Capital Metro

21 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Max

    Wow, that’s ridiculous. It’s barely functional, not much of an exposition line.

  • Thanks for the links, Yonah.

    Max, this line was really, truly, the result of a naked power exercise by a state rep whose constituents aren’t even in the Cap Metro service area – in an attempt to, in the long run, raid Cap Metro’s sales tax dollars for more suburban highways (or, if you’re feeling generousish, for a second commuter rail line which heads up to where even more of his folks live).

    He supposedly had a conversion since 2004, but still, he singlehandedly destroyed the prospects of effective rail transit in Austin for a generation or more.

    http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.com/blog/archives/000079.html

  • John

    1000/day?? Are you serious?

    NYC only has like 3 bus routes with such small ridership:

    http://www.mta.info/nyct/facts/ridership/ridership_bus.htm

  • OceanRailroader

    If they build a streetcar line or a light rail line somewhere else in this city they could build a branch line to link this lone rail line into the larger streetcar system. Oddly though I think some historcal streetcar systems such as the one in Tampa Florida carry four times as many people and cost about 25% as much to build.

  • EngineerScotty

    Wow.

    Compared to this line, WES looks positively wonderful. :)

  • herenthere

    Veolia?! Aren’t they the really horrible rail operator in Europe and Australia? ouch…

  • Jason

    Let me start by saying I believe America should go back to rail as the major mode of transportation for both products and passengers. In saying that, what’s wrong with trying something on a smaller scale first? It cost less money and you still get an understanding of how popular or unpopular it is with citizens. It’s like a child saying he wants mango ice cream supersized but he has never tried it. As a parent I would ask for a sample size first, which would be less expensive, and if he likes it then I would buy the bigger version. I also believe, in some cases, you only get one chance to make a good first impression. If efficiency is the problem you’re having okay, but if you think building transit lines on a much grander scale will work you’re wrong. In the end if bigger doesn’t work you’ve just cost tax payers hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars. It sounds just like big government making tax payers fit the bill for grand projects that could have started out on a smaller scale first.

  • First day of pay service saw 917 boardings (one-way trips)

    http://www.statesman.com/blogs/content/shared-gen/blogs/austin/traffic/entries/2010/03/29/rail_boarding_down_cap_metro_o.html

    Projections for the 2000 light rail line (same route as the Red Line for the suburban 2/3; then transitioning to run in the street to go right past what little urban residential density exists in our city, and right past UT and the Capitol) were 40,000-ish.

  • We dubbed it the MetroFAIL.

    I was thinking about this more the other day and realized daily boardings is not a very good metric, because you don’t know about repeat boardings.

    It would be much more interesting to know weekly boardings (as in unique people in a week) and then you’d really know how many people were actually using the train.

    My bet is it would have been much cheaper to buy them all a Prius.

  • Yes, but be careful of the “buy them all a car” retort – the cost of the car is not the primary concern; it’s the cost of the extra freeway lane that would be required to carry those cars (IF, unlike this debacle, the train were actually carrying people who didn’t previously ride the bus).

    • Bear in mind that outside the US, it’s rare to see any urban rail line go over $10,000 per weekday rider, especially when said line is light rail and not a subway. But even then the train/Prius comparison is specious, because cars depreciate over 15 years and urban rail lines depreciate over 100 years.

  • Mark Dunlap

    Having lived in Austin for 35 years until retirement, I can safely say that most people want transportation issues for that grown out of control city solved by “throwing concrete at it”. I used to say (half jokingly) to those believing that was that I would have better bikeways when the cars stopped. Yes, not a totally well thought out program and, as its turned out, something that gets it from the “car only” folks and the Mass Transit fans who should loudly about its failure from the start….so how does it end. I love the folks that say we need systems like in Europe….DUH. Those systems evolved (maybe even from bad starts) over many, many years and from a populace who has long since been used to very high gas prices and subsequently a combined willingness to utilize those systems. We’re going to complain ourselves into those rusted hulks…shoulda, coulda, woulda. At least now Austin has something. This country has such a sense of self deservedness…we won’t do the right transportational thing until we’re forced to by out of control oil prices (which I don’t bemoan) and to illustrate my “walk” didn’t own a car in Austin for eight years starting at age 50.

  • Mark, there’s no chance of evolving the Red Line into a system that works – it’s objectively worse than existing bus service.

    A shortened version of the 2000 light rail line? Yes. The city’s urban rail plan? Yes. But can the Red Line ever grow into something that works for more than a handful of people? Hell no.

  • How did this line ever get funding? 1000 – 2000 passengers a day won’t even cover running costs and upkeep of the line / trains. The $105m investment will never get any payback, and its slower than the bus alternative (but ‘greener’ I guess). By the way Veolia are my water company !

  • It will be interesting to see where the riders come from and go. Aside from using an existing ROW, how was this alignment planned? eg what is the population to be served? Is there a particular employer subsidizing? or just the good ole taxpayer?
    To Mike who at 50 did not own a car in Austin — very creative of you. However, it is obvious that you did not have a family with multiple obligations or that you needed to get to work clean and in a suit. Texas weather? Yikes.

  • Harold Sterler

    105 million for 1000 passengers a day. What a bad joke on the citizens of Austin. Guess you deserve it however for the people you elect to mayor and city council. They don’t care if it works. They just want to go expensive conferences and smugly say “oh yes I’m from the self proclaimed live music capitol of the world and we have light rail.”

  • Now down to 450-ish passengers/day (sub-900 boardings at end of April).

    As for how we ended up here, check the archives of my blog – it was inflicted on us by Mike Krusee, state rep from the suburbs; as an attempt to kill urban rail (successful, as it turns out). Even though he apparently had a conversion later on and now serves on the CNU board, it’s his baby.

  • Nathanael

    This is indeed one of the stupidest lines ever. The route was *never* a sound one, and this was obvious from day one.

  • The Red Line debacle has now pushed the city’s urban rail election to 2012 or later: http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.com/blog/archives/000653.html

  • Now that ridership is languishing in the low 800s (boardings), the next shoe is dropping: cancelling express buses to try to goose ridership on this thing:

    http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.com/blog/archives/000660.html

  • Ben

    This is very unfortunate! What a waste of funds and a way to sour the population on the benefits of rail. I’m all for starting small, but why would they try to execute a small scale suburban rail system, the distances are vast. If they are intent on urbanizing the city it would make sense to create urban rail, with plans to expand to a few park and rides.

    Or another good start would have been to connect downtown with the airport, and have future plans for additional stops along the way as the neighborhoods east of the city become more dense.

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