- By Ben Wear American-Statesman Staff
Who would have thought Randy Clarke’s first challenge would be to keep the trains running on time?
Clarke, Capital Metro’s president and CEO as of last Wednesday, had intended for his first few days in Austin to be mostly about meeting and greeting the public, political pooh-bahs and his employees. That first morning began, for instance, with some dark-thirty media interviews at the Republic Square bus stop on Guadalupe Street, where Clarke (who has made much of being a regular transit user in his previous work spots of Boston and Washington) was boarding a bus.
But Wednesday also meant a flurry of reporter inquiries (including from me) about why MetroRail trains since January have been chronically late, sometimes by as much as 45 minutes. After the commuter service’s regular customers had become publicly restive on social media about the tardiness, the agency had finally acknowledged the problem Monday in a breezy blog posting that in general terms blamed the problem on track and signal construction that, for worker safety, has forced trains to run slower.
The blog had a certain “well, that’s life” quality to it, portraying the delays as a necessary evil of improving the MetroRail line. It said that any real mitigation of the delays — probably a revised schedule to give the trains longer run times on the 32-mile route during the coming year or so of construction — would have to wait until after the 10 days of South by Southwest mania.
No, Clarke said Wednesday, after a series of internal meetings with his new top staff. He ordered the construction (on three new passing track sections and the signal system) shut down during rush hours for the next two days, Thursday and Friday. And then he showed up Thursday afternoon at the downtown MetroRail station to talk to customers about the situation.
I went there as well to watch for a while. I couldn’t help but notice that almost the entire senior leadership team of the agency — including the executive vice president, the vice president of rail, even the agency’s chief lawyer — was on the platform. And the first train to arrive after Clarke was set to be there at 4:30 p.m. actually rolled into the station six minutes early.
“Beautiful train, isn’t it?” Clarke said to some folks boarding the 4:53 p.m. northbound train. “I came here from Boston, where unfortunately you have 40-year-old trains held together by duct tape.”
A few minutes later he talked to Scott Werkema of Pflugerville, who works in the tech industry and was waiting for a second train set to leave at 4:58 p.m.
“Customer service is our No. 1 priority,” Clarke told him. “I appreciate you staying with us.”
It’s easy to be cynical about this sort of thing, of course. But having watched Capital Metro closely for almost 15 years now on this transportation beat, I found that Clarke’s energy and urgent attitude do seem different and at least hold the potential to give a historically beleaguered and often lethargic agency a necessary jolt.
The MetroRail delays come at a particularly unfortunate time.
The 8-year-old commuter’s line ridership has for several years been a good news-bad news situation. About four or five morning trains coming in from Leander and Northwest Austin were often at capacity — the two-part cabin can hold about 200 people with standees — and so were a similar number of afternoon trains. And Capital Metro for a long time couldn’t do anything about it because it had only six train cars and just three passing tracks along the old single-track freight railroad it uses for MetroRail. The trains could run only in 34-minute intervals because of the passing problem.
And, outside of those crowded morning and evening trains (and only in the main direction of commuting each rush hour), the MetroRail cars tend to have almost no one in them much of the time. So that has meant monthly ridership (other than spikes in March for South by Southwest and October for the Austin City Limits Music Festival) has been stagnant at about 65,000 per month. That’s around 2,600 a day (the trains don’t run on Sundays).
But then the agency bought four more cars, and by January it had done enough testing to put them into service.
That meant Capital Metro could begin running “paired” trains in the morning and afternoon, with two of them queued in Leander or downtown. The second train leaves five minutes after the first one, providing double the capacity inbound in the morning and outbound in the afternoon. At the very least, people forced to stand previously on what is an almost hourlong ride would be able to sit if they wait five minutes for the second train. The change occurred in mid-January.
And change was needed. MetroRail ridership overall increased just 0.7 percent in 2017, and monthly ridership (compared with the same month in 2016) went down in four of 2017’s last six months.
But then came the construction of the added siding track near the Lakeline, Howard Lane and Crestview stations, and the delays. MetroRail’s January ridership of 54,604 was almost 10 percent lower than in January 2017. Not at all what the agency would want to see, or expect, when capacity has been doubled during peak commuting times. February numbers are not yet available.
I drove up to the Lakeline station early Thursday morning, parked in the station’s huge lot and bought a $7 day pass on Capital Metro’s app for the 7:45 a.m. train, the second of the pair at that hour. The car was about half full. We left two minutes late.
The ride, even eight years into MetroRail’s life, was smooth, the train completely clean. The Wi-Fi worked, and all the passengers buried their noses in phones or laptops. It was quiet and relaxing.
But we were five minutes late by Howard and, after a mysterious two-minute stop just south of East Seventh Street — there’s no passing track there — arrived downtown at 8:36, nine minutes late.
I immediately rode the northbound train to get back to my car at Lakeline. Because the southbound train had arrived late, we were already eight minutes behind schedule when we pulled out of the downtown station. Then, north of the MLK station, we paused for eight minutes until a southbound train passed us on the second track alongside. There was another pause of about two minutes at the Kramer Lane siding.
We pulled into Lakeline at 9:41 a.m., 13 minutes behind the posted schedule.