Capital Metro, looking to provide more capacity for a commuter rail line that is basically maxed out during rush hour, will spend about $27 million over the next two years to add a second track at three stations as well as to improve signal and crossing equipment.
The work, paid for by an $11.3 million federal grant and the transit agency’s general revenue, also will include track modifications in East Austin and other places to increase speed, and modifications to Capital Metro’s six trains that will make them sturdier. The federal and local money will also be used to repair or replace aging bridges and track on parts of the Capital Metro line outside the passenger rail corridor.
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MetroRail changes, a breakdown
Capital Metro plans the first major overhaul of its Austin area rail system since the $130 million MetroRail service opened to passengers in March 2010. Officials say the changes, listed below, could shave up to four minutes off what is now a 53-minute trip from Leander to downtown Austin and allow the agency to run an additional train during peak rush hours.
- Trains. The agency’s trains currently do not meet Federal Railroad Administration standards to run concurrently with freight trains, causing the agency to strictly separate when freights and passenger trains can occupy that 32-mile commuter corridor. If the agency makes about $2 million of modifications to the cars, Clark said, federal regulators likely will relax those rules. This change wouldn’t improve commuter service but could boost the agency’s freight rail revenue by increasing the times they can run.
- Passings. The agency currently uses only four of its six trains at a time. The other two are left in reserve or on a regular maintenance schedule, and trains can run no closer than 34 minutes apart. The primary reason, officials say, is that the 32 miles include only about four stretches, totalling about 2.7 miles, where there are tracks side by side. That means that northbound and southbound trains must be timed such that they pass at one of those locations: near the Leander station, just west of Parmer Lane, near the Kramer Lane station and at the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard station. The agency expects to spend about $6.2 million adding about two miles of so-called siding track at the Crestview, Howard and Lakeline stations.
- Signals. Clark says that the system’s signal and crossing equipment was designed, by and large, for trains going 40 to 45 miles per hour even though the trains are capable of going much faster. The agency has budgeted $3.5 million for various changes to those signals and crossing gate equipment that would allow greater train speeds.
- Other track changes. The agency also plans to alter the track near the “wye” — a triangle-shape rail intersection in East Austin where southbound commuter trains make a hard right and head west to downtown and freight trains turn left toward Manor. The changes at the wye, where freight trains a couple of times have had minor derailments and delayed commuter rail service, will allow trains to take that corner somewhat faster. The agency also plans to increase the banking angle of the track in various places, which also would allow the trains to move faster. “We may end up cutting four minutes, give or take a couple of minutes,” Clark said, from the Leander-to-downtown commuter trip, which now takes 53 to 55 minutes.