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.
And using a separate $4.3 million federal grant, the agency will shift the MetroRail track between Interstate 35 and Plaza Saltillo, opening that mostly vacant land to development.
Taken together, the work represents the first major overhaul of Capital Metro’s rail system since the $130 million MetroRail service opened to passengers in March 2010. The changes, officials say, 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 one additional train during the morning and evening rush hours.
Although many of MetroRail’s 76 train runs each week are lightly used, the trains each weekday are generally packed on four morning trains and four afternoon trains at the “peak of the peak,” officials say. The added rush hour runs and other changes should increase weekday boardings, now stalled at about 2,500 to 2,700 a day, by 10 percent or more, Capital Metro predicts.
Other proposed changes that could sharply increase capacity and ridership — principally the purchase of up to six more train cars at about $7.5 million apiece — are not funded at this point and will have to wait awhile. But the track additions and other work that will occur in the short term, Capital Metro vice president of rail operations Melvin Clark told the agency board last week, will put the agency in a good position when further grants or other money is available.
“We’re laying the foundation,” Clark said.
That could include asking Austin voters this November, when they are likely to vote on several hundred million dollars in bonds for a separate rail system, to also approve money for additional Capital Metro train cars.
Capital Metro officials said they are in discussion with the city about this possibility.
The project west of Plaza Saltillo likely will be the first to occur, officials said. Capital Metro since 1986 has owned the prime real estate, about 10 acres between East Fourth and East Fifth streets. The train track roughly bisects several blocks now; moving it south alongside East Fourth, officials say, will make it worthwhile for developers to acquire the land.
John Hodges, the agency’s vice president of real estate and asset management, said that completing the track design, obtaining city permits and choosing a low bidder to do the work should take the rest of the year, putting the construction start about a year from now. The project should be done by June 2015, officials said.
The other work won’t start until later in 2015 and will be complete at various points in 2016.
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.