Austin Capital MetroRail train
(Photo: L. Henry)
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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.
Passengers wait to board a southbound train, headed downtown, at the central-city Crestview station on Opening Day.
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
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.
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.
Here's a summary of key features of the MetroRail Red Line:
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.
Stadler GTW-2 railcar running on MetroRail alignment through scenic rural countryside between central Austin and Leander.
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.
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:
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:
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."
Crowd of Opening Day passengers deboard MetroRail train at Downtown station next to Austin's Convention Center.
Light Rail Now! website