Monday, March 22, 2010

Austin’s Cap Metro (finally!) launches MetroRail

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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. An observer on the first train reported approximately 40 “real” people (other than dignitaries and media) boarding the morning’s first train out of Leander, Tex., bound for Austin.

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Austin last operated streetcar service in 1940, with various rail advocacy groups subsequently pushing to restore some sort of passenger rail service for the city during the past 35 years. In 1973, light rail transit advocate Lyndon Henry proposed an LRT line on existing Missouri Pacific (now Union Pacific) right-of-way, with a subway downtown and an above-ground extension north through Hyde Park to Yager Lane.

Surviving years of attacks from Austin anti-rail partisans and several changes in plans, a concept for diesel multiple-unit (DMU) service emerged, then struggled to find its political identity, with the Federal Railroad Administration ruling that the new service fell under FRA safety guidelines and was not a (diesel) light railway operation.

Subsequent difficulties with crossing gates and other safety issues also delayed the line’s opening. In addition, last December Cap Metro dismissed rail contractor and operator Veolia Transportation, replacing the company with Herzog Transit Services.

Henry rode Cap Metro's initial run Monday, and observed subsequent runs (such as pictured at left, a southbound Cap Metro train pausing at Crestview Station en route to Austin). Service will be offered for free during the first week of operations. The light rail advocate is guardedly optimistic that the system will prove itself.

“While everyone involved is thrilled, it's only a relatively small start,” Henry told Railway Age. “At present, this is a ery minimalist, bare-bones, ‘demonstration’ type of operation:mostly single-tracked, running only five cars (with one in reserve), and perating at peak times only. It's designed to demonstrate that even n a very small scale, rail transit can work well, can attract idership, 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.”