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.