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Light Rail Now

Austin's Capital MetroRail Returns Rail Transit to Central Texas

Light Rail Now Project Team • April 2010

Austin, Texas — It took nearly 40 years of struggle by local rail transit advocates, plus several major public vote campaigns, and an uphill climb against highway-oriented officials and the fierce opposition of pro-road, anti-transit forces ... but at last, on 22 March 2010, rail transit trains finally started running in Austin for the first time since the World War 2 era (the city's earlier electric streetcar system had been abandoned in 1940).

Before dawn, a self-propelled diesel multiple unit (DMU) railcar carring the first commercial passengers pulled out of the MetroRail Red Line's northern terminus station at Leander, Texas and headed south along the 32 miles of rail line toward downtown Austin.

 xxxxxxxxx Passengers wait to board a southbound train, headed downtown, at the central-city Crestview station on Opening Day.
[Photo: L. Henry]

"Smooth start"

With that initial train run, the new MetroRail system of the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Capital Metro, or CMTA) was officially launched.

The opening elicited both relief and applause. As the industry magazine Railway Age noted in a news story on its website that day, "Texas' state capital joined the ranks of U.S. cities with rail service Monday as Austin's oft-delayed 32-mile Capital Metro Red Line opened for service."

Begrudging acknowledgement of the successful opening came even from local Austin American-Statesman reporter Ben Wear, a locally familiar critic of CMTA's rail transit efforts. In an article headlined "MetroRail launches with smooth start", Wear reported that

MetroRail's first day of service Monday went off smoothly, with trains running on or near schedule all day. ...
Morning trains heading from Leander toward downtown Austin made their runs, by and large, with many empty seats, but several of the outbound afternoon trains were packed with both commuters and plenty of folks giving the new curiosity a spin.

 photo Ridership on Opening Day included both commuters and many passengers just trying the new service for fun. Passengers found the new Stadler DMUs quite comfortable.
[Photo: L. Henry]

System features

MetroRail's Red Line operates over a portion of Capital Metro's 160-mile railway, a former Southern Pacific branch line stretching between the Central Texas towns of Giddings and Llano, and shared with contractual short line freight railroad operations – although "heavy" freight railroad service is shut down when MetroRail service is scheduled, and vice versa.

This procedure, known as temporal separation (and implemented by similar light railway operations elsewhere, such as the San Diego Trolley and the RiverLine between Camden and Trenton, New Jersey), fulfills one of the rules exceptions granted by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which also holds responsibility for federal regulatory oversight of MetroRail. (The Federal Transit Administration, or FTA, does not have oversight, since FTA funding was not involved in the project.)

[It should be noted that the sharing of railway infrastructure – mainly tracks – between the operations of "light" transit-type passenger rolling stock and those of "heavy" intercity-type railroad rolling stock – locomotives, freight and passenger cars, etc. – is currently a warmly contentious issue between US transit agencies and FRA regulators. The FRA's prohibitions particularly stand in contrast to the widespread – and demonstrably safe – practice in Europe of running light rail "tram-trains" – trams (streetcars) – on major intercity railway lines shared with "heavy", highspeed intercity trains.]

Following the existing railway, the Red Line proceeds from the northwestern community of Leander in a generally southeasterly route (much of it running through scenic rural and suburban countryside); in the central city, several miles north of the Core Area, the railway crosses diagonally from the more affluent northwestern and northern suburban areas to pass through the neighborhoods of East Austin (historically an economically depressed area with a predominantly ethnic-minority population), then turns tightly to head west into the lower part of Austin's downtown (see map, below). At the eastern edge of the CBD, the alignment passes under the Interstate 35 freeway and then runs over several blocks of East 4th Street to its terminus (Downtown station) at Austin's Convention Center.

[Map: CMTA]

Here's a summary of key features of the MetroRail Red Line:

• Line length: 32 miles (52 km), predominantly single-tracked with passing sidings
• Tracks shared with freight rail operations via temporal separation
• Signal system: Centralized traffic control (CTC)
• Stations: 9 (single-car highfloor platforms)
• Rolling stock: 6 diesel-multiple-unit (DMU) railcars
• Capital investment cost: Approximately $120 million
• Unit cost: Less than $4 million per mile ($2.5 million/km)
• Ridership: Averaging about 1,000 rider-trips a day
• Operating profile: Weekdays only, AM-PM peak periods only

Keeping initial investment costs as low as possible was a major objective in planning the system. From this standpoint, electrification was perceived as a superfluous expense, and in addition key promoters wished to portray the project as "commuter rail", intending a definite departure from the light rail proposal that had been rejected by voters in 2000.

Despite the disdain for electric light rail, the core planning team desired to keep options open for some type of rolling stock suited to negotiating city streets. The result was to embrace a self-propelled diesel multiple unit (DMU) railcar such as those widely deployed in European Schnellbahn (regional "fast rail") operations, with the capability of operating in powered trains ("multiple units") as desired.

In addition, Capital Metro's rail project designers opted for a "light" car – i.e., slightly smaller and lighter than common US "heavy" railroad rolling stock, and non-compliant with the buff strength requirements set by the FRA to meet its stringent crash-worthiness benchmarks.

A major aim in the selection of such a "light" vehicle apparently was to try to replicate some of the versatility of true (electric) light railcars, as equally comfortable on urban streets as on higher-speed, exclusive railway alignments. Unfortunately the FRA was not consulted on car selection – a mis-step that would lead to later problems.

The rolling stock ultimately chosen for MetroRail has been a Swiss-made Stadler GTW-2. Some of its major specifications are listed below.

• Length 134 ft. (40.8 m)
• Width 9 ft. 8 in. (2.6 m)
• Floor height 23 in. (585 mm)
• Double-articulated
• Diesel engines (center unit)
• Traction motors (center truck), outer trucks non-powered
• Maximum speed capability: 75 mph (120 km/hr)
• Service speed 60 mph (97 km/hr)
• Seating capacity: 96 seats, 12 jumpseats, bike racks
• Passenger capacity: 230 total seated + standing passengers

photo Stadler GTW-2 railcar running on MetroRail alignment through scenic rural countryside between central Austin and Leander.
[Photo: Patrick Phelan]

A "bare bones" project

Currently, MetroRail provides an extremely "bare-bones" level of service – just 6 southbound and 3 northbound train runs in the morning peak period, and 6 northbound and 4 southbound runs in the afternoon, with trains at mostly 35-minute headways. The end-to-end trip time is 62 minutes, resulting in an average speed of about 31 mph (about 50 km/hr). The base single-ride fare is $2.00 for one zone and $3.00 for two zones (the zonal boundary is located between the Kramer and Howard station).

Transit opponents, and the somewhat adversarial news media, have been publicizing an expectation of ridership of "2,000 a day" supposedly starting with MetroRail's first day of service. However, the basis for this claim is unclear – a March 2007 CMTA study found that "Capital MetroRail service is expected to generate 1,600-2,000 daily passenger trips within six months of opening." Nevertheless, the "2,000 per day" ridership benchmark (applied from Day One of service) is reflexively used by political leaders, the media, and community opponents alike to disparage the system's success.

And so far, the line's ridership performance has not been meeting that contrived benchmark. Since its opening, MetroRail ridership has been averaging roughly 1,000 rider boardings per day.

Bypassing the heart of Austin

A major part of MetroRail's ridership problem is that, in adhering to a venerable railroad branch line that skirts the central part of the city in a kind of "dog leg", the route completely avoids the high-traffic Lamar-Guadalupe corridor, some of the inner city's densest neighborhoods, and the heart of the Core Area – which includes the University of Texas (UT) campus and surrounding neighborhoods, the Capitol Complex of Texas state legislative and administrative offices, and most of the city's downtown.

In other words, the Red Line circumvents the heaviest traffic flow, the heaviest population concentrations, and the most important activity centers of central Austin.

As a result, Capital Metro must run Connector bus service, specially dedicated solely to meet up with train arrivals and departures. This means not only that the vast majority of passengers must transfer to relatively slow buses at a considerable distance from their final origins and destinations, but it imposes a major additional expense on the transit agency.

Project background

The original concept for a light railway DMU service using CMTA's railway infrastructure envisioned it as merely a demonstration project, designed both to assess the feasibility of rail service at relatively low capital expense, and to demonstrate to the Austin-area public what a modern rail transit service could offer. In this sense, the DMU light railway service was envisioned to serve as a kind of precursor to a more fully functional electric light rail transit (LRT) system that would in part use the railway infrastructure, but would also run down the major arterials of North Lamar Blvd. and Guadalupe St. to serve that key inner-city corridor and access the crucial activity centers of UT, the Capitol Complex, and downtown.

That, in fact, was precisely what Capital Metro's 2000 LRT plan would have done. The full $1.9 billion plan broadly proposed a 52.3-mile (84.4-km) rail system, with multiple routes and 41 stations, projected to carry 59,400 daily rider-trips by 2007 had it been implemented.

The first-phase "starter" LRT line would have served the very busy Lamar-Guadalupe corridor with a 14.6-mile (23.5-km) Minimum Operable Segment, running on the CMTA railway from McNeil Road to North Lamar, and then largely in transit reservations and dedicated lanes on Lamar and Guadalupe into Austin's CBD, with 16 stations, at a projected investment cost of $642.7 million. Ridership for this "starter" segment was forecast to reach 37,400 average weekday boardings in 2025. [Federal Transit Administration, Light Rail Corridors, Austin, Texas, Nov. 2000]

Under a unique Texas law targeting Austin, Capital Metro must submit any proposals for rail development to a public vote – irrespective of whether or not the proposed project is funded (funding was already available for a local match for the project, together with federal funding). Unfortunately, this LRT plan was narrowly rejected in November 2000, with a margin of fewer than 2,000 of the votes cast. (See Campaign Continues for Austin Light Rail.)

Despite the defeat, planning for LRT, including the crucial Lamar-Guadalupe link, continued for several years.

However, in mid-2003, a simpler, "minimalist" rail alternative, originally presented as a "commuter rail" line, was championed by Republican State Representative Mike Krusee to serve a portion of his district by running trains almost exclusively over a segment of Capital Metro's railway line – and the present Red Line route structure was moved to the fore, presented as an "urban commuter rail" approach. This meant that rail would bypass the heart of the inner city and the heavy traffic flow of the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor, instead following the railway into and through East Austin, then turning back west to terminate at the lower east section of downtown.

For the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor, a "Rapid Bus" service (with hints of "Bus Rapid Transit" characteristics) would be substituted for rail.

Victory for Light Rail Now!

Promoters of the "urban commuter rail" plan positioned it as a "foot in the door" approach that could facilitate an ultimately more comprehensive (and fully functional) urban transit system. (See Austin: Light "Commuter" Railway Proposal Offers Mobility Relief for Congested Northwest Corridor.) Presented to voters as a comprehensive plan called All Systems Go, this package of rail and bus service was finally approved in November 2004.

On one hand, this transit initiative victory represented a major triumph for community activists and public transport advocates who had struggled for several decades to materialize rail transit for Central Texas – particularly, several public transport advocates involved with the Light Rail Now Project, who had originally proposed the concept of a rail transit system, influenced the design of both LRT and DMU proposals, and labored for decades to build community momentum behind such proposals.

Particularly important, as these supporters recognized, the pro-rail vote was a clear rebuff to the Road Warrior-led campaign of pro-highway, anti-rail activists, politicians, and media forces that had long eyed CMTA revenues for potential diversion into road projects.

In addition, while some supporters of the rail initiative recognized the serious deficiencies in the approach of running a "commuter rail" on a circuitous route that bypassed the heart of the inner city, they recognized that upgrading the railway infrastructure and installing rail stations to enable such a system would redound to the advantage of any future effort to resuscitate the 2000 LRT plan and open the possibility for an eventual conversion to an LRT system using both the railway and the Lamar-Guadalupe arterials for its route.

A very troubled project

However, as the "urban commuter rail" project developed, it became increasingly apparent that it was encumbered by serious problems, in two respects:

• In terms of fulfilling the long-range hope of inner-city rail transit supporters that the rail project could eventually develop into a reincarnation of the 2000 LRT concept, this became increasingly less likely, as CMTA's management and rail planning team seemed more and more to perceive "urban commuter rail" and "Rapid Bus" as ends in themselves, while any plans for LRT to serve the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor and the Core Area receded further and further from consideration.

• In terms of the basic execution of the "urban commuter rail" plan itself, major shortcomings began to emerge, to a point that the MetroRail project ultimately became possibly the most seriously troubled rail project in recent US public transit history.

At the request of local political representatives, the Light Rail Now Project team summarized its assessment of the most egregious problems in a memo, "MetroRail Project Mis-Steps and Problems", issued in November 2009.

According to the LRN evaluation, by far one of the most serious initial drawbacks was the absence of a rail project manager with a strong background in the successful completion of at least one or more new rail transit projects.

The absence of rail transit project management expertise seems to underlie much of the trouble that engulfed the MetroRail project, producing delays and budget overruns that cost Capital Metro much of the community trust and good will it had previously earned.

As summarized in the LRN memo, some of the most serious weaknesses and mis-steps include:

• Rail project personnel apparently neglected to coordinate closely early on with the FRA, although it had been clear for more than a decade that, because of CMTA's freight railroad operations, there would be regulatory involvement by the FRA.

• The issue of comprehensive regulatory oversight of the rail project was not resolved at the outset – a situation that was certainly not helped by some confusion introduced by federal and state regulatory officials. However, it should have been clear that some measure of federal regulatory oversight would need to be settled, including some degree of intervention by the FRA. In any case, because of this confusion, some key design elements of the MetroRail project were initially not adequately coordinated in a cooperative relationship with any appropriate regulatory agency, such as the FRA – particularly crucial, as it turned out, especially in regard to rolling stock selection and signal system requirements.

• Lack of experience with the actual challenges and requirements of rail transit projects may have contributed to the serious under-estimation of the projected investment cost of the "urban commuter rail" project presented to the public. This budget under-estimation then became a constraint, since the project team did not want to appear to be exceeding the established budget as the project progressed and other unforeseen requirements emerged.

• Some of the capabilities of DMU technology (as a replacement for electric LRT as the technology for a future urban system) seem to have been misjudged – particularly in regard to the reduced capability of DMUs to operate in an urban street environment (e.g., turning radius constraints), their lower acceleration compared with electric LRT (and the adverse impacts of this drawback on schedules in closely spaced station stops), and their limitations in climbing grades as steep as those of electric LRT (and thus the impact of this limitation on route profiles, such as approaches to hills and bridges). By far, however, the most serious mis-step in terms of rolling stock was the failure to initially coordinate rolling stock selection with the FRA and its regulations affecting the railway alignment to be used.

• One of the most critical features of the CMTA railway is an at-grade, interlocking-protected "diamond" crossing of the heavy-traffic north-south main line of the Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) at McNeil Junction, north of Austin, and CMTA rail project designers proposed for the MetroRail alignment to retain this level crossing. Despite skepticism voiced by knowledgeable rail supporters (including leading representatives of the Light Rail Now Project), the need for a grade separation with the UPRR was initially rejected, and continued reliance on an interlocking-protected, at-grade crossing was assumed. As it turned out, this may have contributed to the under-estimation of the ultimate investment cost of the project.

• Although it eventually became clear that a grade-separation (viaduct) over the UPRR was truly necessary, the narrow, single-track viaduct design that emerged omitted any provision for a future double track, thus incorporating a serious capacity constraint.

• Ultimately, the segment of the MetroRail viaduct over the surface grade of the UPRR and a parallel siding was constructed approximately 18 inches (457mm) too low for adequate clearance of the interchange tracks – in turn necessitating the lowering of one of the underlying tracks, incurring drainage problems and substantial additional costs.

photo MetroRail train on single-track viaduct over UPRR freight train on main line at McNeil Junction (CMTA railway's freight tracks cross UPRR below, via an at-grade interlocking). Interchange tracks (visible at far left of photo) had to be lowered because viaduct was constructed without adequate clearance.
[Photo: Rickey Green]

• MetroRail sidings – to enable passing of trains in opposing directions on a predominantly single-tracked alignment – appear to have been improperly located, thus adversely impacting the system's schedules and capacity.

• At some point into the project, in the effective absence of coordinated, systemwide project management, the project became split into at least three somewhat independent activities – civil, information technology (IT), and operations – subject to very poor coordination.

• In 2006, approximately two years into the project, the decision was made (apparently at the behest of the FRA) to dispense with plans for a simpler system of train movement control, and to implement a safer, more industry-standard centralized traffic control (CTC) system. However, Installation of the CTC signal system, together with level crossing protection controls, seems to have been poorly coordinated, with different contractors reportedly implementing incompatible components in different segments of the line. Furthermore, according to the LRN analysis, signal system components were initially improperly installed – for example, poor insulation reportedly made the system vulnerable to rainwater infiltration.

• As the project neared completion, the rail project team and CMTA executives began seeking oversight from the FTA, together with a request for designation of the new line as a "light rail" system – only to find that the FRA was assuming oversight, seizing on CMTA's original portrayal of the rail project as "commuter rail", and imposing much more rigorous regulatory requirements applicable to a "heavy", intercity-type railroad operation (the FRA basically has difficulty recognizing the compatibility of a "light rail" type of system under its jurisdiction).

As a result of its regulatory interpretation, the FRA imposed a mandate to operate MetroRail trains at significantly slower speeds and to partially retrofit the DMUs to meet FRA safety standards. (FRA granted an exception to its railcar buff strength yardstick on the premise that the Stadler GTW-2 DMU incorporated a crash-energy management, or CEM, capability that met the FRA's crash-worthiness standards. However, significant – and expensive – modifications to the car fleet were still required.)

Moreover, the signal system repeatedly failed to satisfy FRA performance guidelines. These and other violations resulted in relentless delays and recurrent fines imposed by the regulators.

A heroine to the rescue

Only in mid-2009 – after a series of rejections by the FRA and a number of embarrassing "opening-day" postponements stretching over roughly a year and a half, plus a mounting barrage of media criticism and community hostility – was the project finally rescued with the appointment of CMTA Vice-President Elaine Timbes as de facto project manager. Despite having no prior experience in managing a major rail transit project, Timbes was able to bring the MetroRail project under control, resolve the chaotic signal system problems, enforce an effective safety and testing regimen, and target and meet the opening date on March 22nd. She now serves as Capital Metro's Chief Operating Officer for MetroRail.

Since MetroRail's launch, public reaction has been predominantly very positive. Capital Metro's management, agency planners, and community transit advocates are waiting to see how well ridership holds up on a longer-term basis, particularly as travelers contend with round-trip fares of $4 to $6 together with very limited morning and afternoon schedule options.

Also to be seen is whether the experience of MetroRail will help to re-ignite interest in installing LRT in the crucial Lamar-Guadalupe corridor, as originally planned.

In its opening-day web article, Railway Age cited longtime light rail advocate Lyndon Henry (also a part-time CMTA employee and a technical consultant to LRN) who, in 1973, proposed a rail transit line routed in part on what is now the CMTA railway segment used by MetroRail.

"While everyone involved is thrilled, it's only a relatively small start" Henry told Railway Age.

"At present, this is a very minimalist, bare-bones, 'demonstration' type of operation: mostly single-tracked, running only five cars (with one in reserve), and operating at peak times only" said Henry. "It's designed to demonstrate that even on a very small scale, rail transit can work well, can attract ridership, can help mitigate traffic and environmental problems, and can win over public enthusiasm for a more ambitious system. So far, the project appears to be on track to achieving those goals."

photo Crowd of Opening Day passengers deboard MetroRail train at Downtown station next to Austin's Convention Center.
[Photo: L. Henry]

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2010/04/03

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