31 Jul 2010, 11:25pm
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Passenger rail in Asutin and San Antonio

Larry Walsh and the Austin MetroRail

Larry Walsh and the Austin MetroRail

My friend, Larry Walsh, and I finally found the time last Tuesday, July 27, to make a visit to Austin’s new commuter rail line, Capital MetroRail.  This is what is hoped to be the first thirty miles of a city wide system.  This first section runs from the city center at 4th and Trinity to Leander, a commuter colony way to the north of Austin itself.

Larry is, to put it mildly, an avid passenger rail enthusiast.  Now in his eighties, this has been his passion for every bit as long.  He served on boards pushing for the extension of passenger service across the north east of the country.  He can expound, at length, on the unlikely success of commuter rail in Los Angeles.  He sees a myriad of opportunities for it here in San Antonio, if only nay-sayers like me would only look beyond our road bound perspective and see the entire picture.  In fact he and I once traded barbs in the op-ed and letter pages on the San Antonio Express News regarding the proposed passenger service between San Antonio and Austin.

While we continue to disagree on that propoal, I actually have a fondness for the type of service which is now in its infancy in Austin.  Anyone who has used urban light rail in other cities will have a good sense of how successful they can be from any number of points of view.  My personal favorite is the Dublin Area Rapid Transit System in Ireland which runs on elevated track.

In Austin, the system mainly runs on track acquired by the City of Austin from the Southern Pacific when it was announced the line as far as Llano was to be abandoned.  While it continues to move a considerable amount of freight, it has been best known by the public, up till now, as the line used by the Hill Country Flyer, between Cedar Park and Burnet.  Ironically, Cedar Park has yet to acquire a MetroRail Stop so its residents can only watch the new service pass through on its way to Leander but may decide to opt in if the rail commuter service becomes popular.

As things stand, there are only six stops along the thirty mile stretch.  From the newly laid tracks on 4th Street the train head due east under IH 35 until it makes contact with the pre-existing Southern Pacific built line.  It then heads north a while before crossing under the interstate again on its way to Leander.  Rather than give you a blow by blow account of every stop, I think it would be better  to simply give you a link to the MetroRail web site, which is:


 What I can more profitably do however, is provide a consumer’s point of view of what riding the train is like.  First of all, because they are only getting started, the number of trains available is limited only to weekday mornings and evenings.  Because Larry and I were essentially tourists out for a joy ride, we found there was only one train in the evening that would allow us to both ride form downtown and return.  For most commuters this would not be an issue as, presumably, most are coming in from the suburbs in the morning and returning in the evening.  Larry tells me the train ticket is good also for the buses which feed people to and from the rail service.

The train we caught, the 3:45 PM, the first one out, was not at all busy.  Presumably the following five trains would be, assuming most folks don’t get out from work so early.  The last one leaves at 6:40 PM.  Built in Switzerland, the “train” consists of two back to back cars with each having all its seats facing either forward or backwards.  The seats are not really very comfortable.  The padding is thin.  Also the leg space, at least in the seats we chose for an optimal view, was cramped.  The other 52 seats did not look a whole lot better.  But the view was good,  the engine noise level superb, especially for diesel powered rail cars, and the ride very smooth, including station stops and starts.

One of the unexpected benefits of ipods and other MP3 devices is that, unlike boomboxes of the previous generation which used to plague rail cars, the new devices do not cause much, if any, noise pollution.  Smoking is banned on the train and, just to make you feel even more comfortable, a uniformed police officer rides each train.  These also perform crossing guard duties in the event of signal failures but, fortunately, this did not happen on our ride.

A couple of people brought their bicycles on board and utilized some clever hooks to vertically stow them out of the way.  There were only two available with an obvious opportunity for two more to be installed later on if needed.  I don’t know if dogs are allowed.  I forgot to ask and it isn’t mentioned on the official web site.  The trains appear to be ADA compliant, with good ramp access from outside and almost no gap between the platform and the cars, plus set aside space within them.

My most serious complaint about the service is not about the trains at all.  It is about the lack of seating while waiting for the train down town and, far worse, no public restrooms at the large park & ride facilities.  It so happened we encountered a MetroRail board member on our way back, who seemed phased when I asked him why.  While most people will not be riding there and back in one go, as we did, the outbound trip to Leander lasts an hour and who wants to get into a car with a full bladder or worse?

All in all, I impressed with the service.  It was done with an eye to containing costs, by using existing rail lines which may not run through the most heavily populated areas of the city.  Expansion will most likely occur along the old Missouri-Kansas-Texas right of way which is fully abandoned.  Even so, bringing this into service will be cheap in comparison with establishing and building new rights of way if the system is to fully cover the entire city.

The same situation would apply in San Antonio except there are no city owned or abandoned lines available.  The Union Pacific is running profitable freight service to the quarry just outside Loop 1604 near Camp Bullis and delivering millions of tons of coal to the electrical power stations at Elmendorf.  These are the only two remotely possible stub lines.  All the other trackage is Union Pacific owned and operated mainline which carries well in excess of seventy fully loaded, highly profitable, unsubsidized freight trains all day every day.  It is not legal to operate light and heavy trains on the same track at the same time and “bumping” freight service to night hours only is not even remotely possible.  The cost to upgrade existing tracks to passenger standards, complete with signaling and other amenities would be enormous, not to mention the cost of constructing stations and massive parking lots.

The difference between theory and practice is often where Larry and I diverge on this issue.  Wishful thinking is one thing, but as the old army saying goes, amateurs argue about tactics while professionals discuss logistics.  When all is said and down, we could flood the ciy with buses and subsidize the service almost to the point of providing it free for what it would cost to create passenger rail in San Antonio.  There are other “social benefits” that rail brings with it that bus service does not.  However while it’s important to consider more than immediate economics in regards to commuter rail, it’s equally important that we don’t just ignore the numbers in the belief that social engineering, which is what passenger rail proponents principally rely on to make their case, is worth all the money we can throw at it.


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