Thursday, June 21, 2012

WALLY in Texas x 2

Yes, two very similar projects in Texas are a lot like WALLY, the Washtenaw-Livingston commuter rail projects.

Both the Texas projects head north from a larger city to a rural/suburban area, just as WALLY will. The two Texas lines are the Capital MetroRail, from downtown Austin to the northern suburb of Leander; and the Denton County Transit Authority's A-Train, from Carrollton (itself a northern suburb of Dallas) to Denton, a town even farther north. I've had the opportunity to talk to the people who spearheaded each of these rail lines, and over the past few days have ridden each line from end to end.

Capital MetroRail

I blogged about this line in 2009 (links below) before it opened for business. Austin to Leander service started in March of 2010 on 32 miles of existing freight railroad with improvements to allow higher speeds and avoid conflicts with freight traffic. Like WALLY, the rail line is actually owned by the government - in this case, by Austin's Capital Metro itself. And like the Michigan's state-owned rail lines, it was purchased in the 1980s (1986, to be exact) when the original railroad-owners put it up for abandonment.
The line serves nine stations, including some in Austin's urban area and others with large park-and-ride lots in suburbs.When service started in 2010, trains ran only in rush hour, but now 18 trains are run in each direction Monday-Thursday. Beginning this month (June 3), six more trains were added each way on Friday evening, plus Saturday service with 14 trip-pairs in the afternoon and evening, to allow riders access to Austin's sports, music, and entertainment. During the first year, ridership averaged 1800 daily, but overall ridership will probably go up now that extra trains are running.

I say "trains", but that may be a bit misleading. Capital Metro runs single, articulated Stadler GTW 2/6 rail diesel cars, with seats for 108 and standing room for 92 more - a total of 200 passengers. These are run in the street for a couple of blocks in downtown Austin, and on the shared track the rest of the way. Because they are built in Switzerland to European standards, they are not allowed to at the same time as freight trains, so the freights are allowed to run only when the Stadler cars aren't running. The Austin and Western Railroad, the short-line which runs the freights, is not apparently inconvenienced by that arrangement.

Among the improvements made before passenger service began: the line was leveled for higher-speed (I believe they run up to 79 MPH), and passing-tracks were built at several of the stations. Schedules are arranged so that northbound and southbound trains meet at these stations; there were no delays due to late trains when I rode on June 18, so the arrangement seems to work well.

What about transit-oriented development? There is some, but it's not coming as fast as former Leander Mayor John Cowman hoped. I didn't have a chance to talk to Mr. Cowman or look around as much as I would have liked, and I can't find any evidence that the Valence Technology plant (mentioned in the October 23 blog) was actually built.
I discussed the rail initiative with Mr. Cowman in October, 2009, at the Rail~Volution conference in Boston. You can read the summary in my October 31 entry (linked below). One thing that stood out: it took a tremendous amount of energy, "moxie", and political maneuvering to arrive at agreement to go forward with the rail initiative. It didn't just happen through the normal bureaucratic process!

I'll blog about the Denton County line next time...
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