The area transit agency added new trains in January to the MetroRail Red Line to provide relief to crowded rush hour trips, but recent construction to add a second set of tracks called siding that will allow trains to pass in opposite direction has caused delays of up to an hour.
Commuter frustration over the delays, which are expected to continue through the end of 2018, led the agency’s new President and CEO Randy Clarke, who started work March 7, to respond.
“These projects are an investment in the future of Capital Metro’s rail line and will pay off with doubled frequency and capacity,” he said. “Having said that, we owe it to our customers to communicate any delays and modified schedules in a more proactive manner.”
Capital Metro also decided not to continue its new schedule that launched in January aimed at offering double capacity on its three highest-use morning and afternoon trips. Because its platforms are not long enough, Capital Metro could not link two trains together. Instead, a second train followed the first one five minutes later.
On March 19, the agency rolled out a new temporary MetroRail schedule aimed at alleviating construction delays.
Need for more frequency
Capital Metro launched the Red Line on March 22, 2010, on 32 miles of existing freight railroad tracks initially as a commuter line offering trips during peak morning and afternoon hours.
Since then ridership has increased and so has the need for more rail trips.
When the siding work is finished in December and the new permanent downtown rail station opens in 2021, the agency would like to expand service and run trains every 15 minutes.
“That is the thinking around here: We ultimately want a seven-day-a-week service to cover all stations and provide as much service as we can possibly deliver,” said Roberto Gonzalez, Capital Metro’s director of service planning.
Many residents have asked about expanding service to run later on weekdays, Saturday mornings and on Sundays, but expanding service hours would require funding more engineers to operate more service, Gonzalez said.
Increasing frequency from currently every 34-60 minutes to 15 minutes would require the second set of tracks, called siding, that will allow trains to pass in the opposite direction. The line only has two passing points, so Capital Metro began work last December to add siding at the Lakeline, Howard and Crestview stations as well as at the Austin Junction in East Austin near Sixth Street and Pedernales Street.
Once the work is done, Capital Metro can revisit its MetroRail schedule to see how to tweak it, Gonzalez said.
“We have some draft schedules, but we’re still working on those because a number of other projects are also underway on the system,” he said. “Overall the goal is to become more frequent and offer more bidirectional service.”
Commuters weigh in
Northwest Austin resident Necah Cannon has been riding MetroRail almost daily since 2012. On a Thursday morning in early March at the Howard station, she said the newly added trains have helped capacity during rush hour.
“It’s a great service, and I’m glad that we have it,” she said.
Cannon is one of many residents who would like to see service hours expanded, especially during weeknights and Saturday mornings.
“I’d like to have it later during the week instead of just on Fridays,” she said. “If it went until, say, 8 p.m. that way you’d be providing business to downtown-area revenue. If you were having a drink downtown you could take the MetroRail back and have somebody pick you up.”
Many Round Rock residents pick up MetroRail from the Howard station because of its proximity.
Last August, Capital Metro launched a new Express commuter bus route from Round Rock that makes a stop at the Howard station. Vanessa Stampley, who commutes from Round Rock to downtown Austin, said she cannot rely on Route 50 because of the schedule.
“It runs once an hour,” she said. “If you miss either of those [buses], … [you] have to call Uber or are stranded [at the rail station] or have to catch a cab to get home because the connection here is really bad.”
Both she and Round Rock resident Shelley Kerr said Capital Metro needs to offer another MetroRail train that would stop at Howard between the 6:44 and 7:15 a.m. stops.
“It’s a really long gap that’s unnecessary,” Kerr said.
A permanent downtown station
Capital Metro’s largest short-term MetroRail upgrade is building a permanent downtown station on Fourth Street between the Austin Convention Center and the Hilton Austin hotel. The agency plans to finish design on the project in April, and construction could begin in 2019 and wrap up in late 2021.
Construction is underway on a Hilton-funded skybridge connecting to the convention center over the station, but the station project was set back a few months because of permitting issues with the city of Austin, Project Manager Markus Guerrero said.
In proposed designs unveiled Feb. 19, renderings show the new station will include two platforms and three tracks with enough space to accommodate five trains. The existing station has only one track and one platform.
“The design we have today is the evolution of a lot of public outreach done over the last couple of years,” Guerrero said. “When we first started the project in 2014 we went out to the community asked what the community wanted. A public plaza was part of that and how that might play into redevelopment of Brush Square [Park].”
The new station also will move one block east directly between the Hilton and the convention center. Traffic in front of the Hilton on Neches Street will end in a cul-de-sac, and Fourth will become part of a public plaza that could host community events.
“If you’ve been out there on busy days there’s a lot of traffic that goes between the front door of the Hilton and the side of the convention center,” said Kenneth Cartwright, Capital Metro’s vice president of capital projects. “Right now people have to cross the tracks. Pedestrians will no longer have to cross tracks to get back and forth.”
Once the new station is finished, it will allow Capital Metro to also expand its special events service, such as for South by Southwest Conference & Festivals, Gonzalez said.
“That station also allows us to look at things in the future beyond the Red Line,” he said.