Cap Metro pauses track work this week to address MetroRail tardiness

Updated March 07, 2018

MetroRail trains have been running late periodically since January, sometimes by as much as 45 minutes, Capital Metro officials said Wednesday.

The agency blames the tardiness — MetroRail has been reliably punctual through most of its eight-year history — on construction of new passing tracks at three spots along the line, work on an upgraded signal system and on the January introduction of “paired” trains during rush hour.

Capital Metro’s new leader Wednesday decided to suspend that construction during rush hours Thursday and Friday to avoid the delays. Agency officials over the next two days will consider whether other measures are necessary to avoid the MetroRail schedule slippage.

“The recent delays and the agency’s lack of communication about the delays to its customers were unacceptable,” President and CEO Randy Clarke said in a statement emailed to the American-Statesman. He said all delays of 15 minutes or more will be shared with the public on social media and through agency “rider alerts.”

RELATED: Upgrading MetroRail a several-step process

The track construction requires some trains to run slower than usual for the safety of workers along the track, officials said. And additional trains in the morning and afternoon rush, with a second train rolling about five minutes behind the first, has caused “signaling issues” along the track that Capital Metro had not anticipated, the agency said this week in a blog post.

Capital Metro, in that Monday post, had indicated that a solution might have to wait at least two weeks until after South by Southwest, which has seen MetroRail’s heaviest ridership in recent years. That blog suggested that rail riders, rather than relying on the posted MetroRail schedule, instead upload the agency’s app and use its “Next Departure” feature to gauge when to expect a train.

The MetroRail service runs on a single track from downtown Austin to Leander, using what had been a freight rail line owned by Capital Metro. Since its inception in March 2010, MetroRail has had siding tracks near the MLK Jr. and Kramer Lane stations that allow northbound and southbound trains to pass one another. Having only those two spots available for passing has limited how often trains can run to roughly once every 30 minutes.

But the agency several weeks ago began construction, expected to last about a year, of three more passing-track sections near the Crestview, Howard Lane and Lakeline stations. Those sidings, along with an expansion of the downtown station (scheduled to begin next year and end in 2021) and the addition of four more train cars, will allow trains to run as often as every 15 minutes. That would help with the rush-hour crush, where four to five trains in the morning and a like number in the afternoon have been standing-room-only.

The added train cars have now been put in service for the rush-hour pairings as a stop-gap solution to the capacity problem.

RELATED: ‘Positive train control’ to cost Cap Metro $66 million

Capital Metro also is in the beginning stages of installing “positive train controls” throughout the MetroRail line. This upgraded signal system, required under federal law to be done by the end of 2020, will allow better remote monitoring of the position of each train. And the control system can cause trains to slow down or stop in situations where the MetroRail car, through human or technical error, is in a position to collide with another train.