MetroRail Late arrival due to safety concerns

Leah Mulaly

     Owning a car provides a means of escaping the boring suburbs to go downtown for the day, but the ever-prevalent cost of gas and the bumper-to-bumper traffic is a definite deterrent.  A potential solution to this dilemma is the new MetroRail, a train that goes between the Convention Center in Austin and Leander, with several stations in between, including one located on Lyndhurst Street at Lakeline Boulevard near CPHS. However, the train only runs on weekdays, during the morning and afternoon rush hours.

      “It’s a starter line,” Misty Whited, Capital Metro spokesperson, said. “We will provide service in the morning and afternoon only for those commuter-type passengers. We’ll look to expand as soon as we can, but we’ll have to determine our demand, first of all, and then there’s a couple of things we need to do before we can expand. We also run freight rail on these tracks, so when passenger rail’s not running, freight rail’s running, so we have to find a balance between the passenger and the freight rail services.”

     The MetroRail has nine stations along its 32-mile route. Service was scheduled to begin March 30, but has been delayed due to violations committed by the rail contractor, Veolia Transportation. In addition to several safety violations, including running trains down the tracks without approval and moving trains onto unauthorized sections of the track, it was discovered that some Veolia employees did not take their required hearing and sight exams.

     “We were [also] having some complications with some of our railroad crossings; they weren’t coming down properly when they should have been,” Whited said. “So it was a number of things that made us decide that it wasn’t ready to be open to the public. We wanted to make sure that it was the safest system possible before we opened.”

     Because of these issues, Capital Metro is taking more time to test the signal system and to ensure that the MetroRail is safe. They even plan to bring rail experts from Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority into Austin to help for three days. Capital Metro is currently working on a plan for completion and will release the status of the project to the public by May 15.

     The MetroRail project was estimated to cost $112 million, despite the fact that it runs on a pre-existing track. Funding for the MetroRail came from government grants as well as Capital Metro bus rider fares and a one percent sales tax. A decent portion of the $112 million went towards the six self-propelled diesel-electric rail cars that can each hold a little over 200 riders.

     “That is the only… debt that we have… what we still owe for the trains, but we’re paying for that through a lease-purchase program,” Whited said. “The MetroRail project has been paid for through our own existing revenues. There have been reports in the Statesman saying that basically we’re broke, we’re in the red, and that’s not accurate either. We have lowered our reserves by spending quite a bit of money on Capital projects, but all of those projects went towards transit facilities, park & rides, buying new busses, all types of projects that the community had asked for. So we do have a smaller reserve amount of money than we have in previous years, but we’re going to be building that back up pretty quickly, through savings and budget cuts.”

     The rail cars will have bicycle and luggage racks along with free WiFi, but despite these amenities, the cost to ride will be inexpensive. Fare basically depends upon how far one is traveling—the route is split into two zones—and age. Students (18 and under) and active duty/reserve military members, both with ID, travel for half the regular adult price. For a student to go downtown from Cedar Park (two zones), for instance, it will cost 75 cents, as opposed to the adult fare of $1.50. When travel is limited to one zone (Cedar Park to Leander), student fare is 50 cents while adults travel for $1. A day pass is $3 for everyone, and a 31-day pass for students/military is $18, compared to the adult price of $36. Both passes include bus travel, which is available directly from the train station, and goes to designated bus stops.

     The only real downside is that you can’t go to the exact location you want,” Easley said. “That, however, is nothing your own two legs can’t fix.”

     Other people would rather not walk or take the bus to every place.

     “When I go downtown, I usually don’t just stay in one area and would not like taking buses or cabs to get around once I was down there,” Phillip Guebert, junior, said. “So, I would much rather take my car instead. But I can see the enormous benefit this provides for people that commute from out here in CP or Leander who only go to and from work.”

      Taking the train makes people completely dependent on public transportation, which presents the disadvantage of the fixed train schedule. During the afternoon rush hour, a northbound train arrives seven times every half hour, and a southbound train takes off three times. During the morning rush hour, a southbound train arrives seven times every half hour and a northbound train arrives three times. Many people think that a half hour of downtime between trains is too long of a wait.

     “If someone happens to be running a little late, they wouldn’t be able to catch another train to make it in time,” Peter Johnson, sophomore, said. “When I was in D.C. there was a train every few minutes, which made it convenient in case traffic was bad and we weren’t able to make the train we had planned on.”

     However, running a train every few minutes is not possible with the current system.

     “We only have six vehicles, and one will be held in reserve, so with only 5 vehicles, we’ve built a schedule so that we can only run [a train every] 30 minutes,” Whited said. “Something else that plays into that is that we have a single track. We’ve built what we call siding track, so that the trains can pass each other at exact points on the rail line, so they’re timed to run 30 minutes between each station and be able to pass each other going back and forth.”

     Despite the possibility of punctuality being a problem, the MetroRail seems to be a great idea overall. To many people, a train is exactly what is needed.