Texas’s Newest ‘Rail’ Transit line, the Red Line


This article for Mass Transit should prove interesting to supporters of the “return of the interurban“, in the Fraser Valley. What should be of interest is the cost of the 32 mile (51.5 km) line is less than $5 million per mile or $3.1 million per km. (CAD $ 3.24 million)!

Let’s see, a Vancouver to Chilliwack interurban line is about 130 km., multiplied by $3.24 million/km. to build equals about CAD $421 million; or about the cost of about 2km. of bored tunnel under Broadway! I wonder if anyone at TransLink, especially those who are earning over $100k a year, are listening?

From Mass Transit

By Doug Allen
Interim president and CEO, Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Beginning this week, commuters in Central Texas have another transportation option from which to choose: the Capital MetroRail Red Line, which began service on Monday, March 22, with a week of free service. First-day boardings exceeded our expectations by nearly 50 percent.

The Capital MetroRail Red Line is a 32-mile system with nine stations using existing trackbed. The commuter line travels between Leander, through northwest, central and east Austin into downtown. Built for less than $5 million per mile, it is one of the most economically built systems in the country for the state-of-the-art features it employs. Given a skeptical community and in the wake of an unsuccessful light rail referendum in 2000, the MetroRail project was, by design, limited in scope. Using an existing rail line with only modest upgrades, limiting the number and length of sidings (or double track sections), constraining station size and budget, and buying a starter fleet of only six trainsets all contributed to the highly cost-effective nature of the project. These characteristics allowed for low cost and relatively quick startup, and may be a winning combination for similarly situated cities nationwide. Of course, these benefits are not without consequences, and it should be acknowledged that the level and quantity of service are constrained at the outset by the modest investment levels in the system. Fortunately the system was designed with expansion in mind and plans for doing so are in the works.

Six diesel multiple unit vehicles manufactured by Stadler Bussnang provide incredible safety features, such as state-of-the-art crash energy management systems and passenger amenities. Tray back tables, luggage racks, free Wi-Fi, plush high-back seats, and bike hooks make for a positive rider experience. The system also includes dynamic message boards at stations and onboard trains, and a new Centralized Traffic Control system. Railroad quiet zones have been established to reduce noise pollution through neighborhoods.

Because the system uses existing tracks that will still be used by freight trains — 32 miles of our 163-mile short line, the Llano to Giddings railroad — temporal separation is an important component of the system. As a commuter line, the three northernmost stations accommodate parking for 1,300 cars. At the southern end, two stations incorporate rail connector bus routes designed to be an extension of the train ride to deliver passengers to final destinations downtown and at the University of Texas. These quick bus routes meet the train at the station and drop off passengers at dense employment centers and the university within 10 minutes. Thus far, the rail connector routes are being well-used. More than two-thirds of riders deboarding at the MLK, Jr. Station are using one of two connectors that meet there.

MetroRail’s successful launch was the result of the collaborative efforts of Capital Metro, the Federal Railroad Administration and our rail operations and maintenance partner, Herzog Transit Services, Inc., and their subcrontractors.

The development of MetroRail did experience challenges, however. We delayed the system for nearly a full year to address system components that were not functioning as they were intended. A commitment to cost and schedule very early in the process, before all engineering and planning had been completed, created problems for us early on. The design was enhanced with a Centralized Traffic Control system, but integrating that system with the other signal technologies being employed on the line was more complex than had been anticipated and staffed for. We brought in new expertise and better oversight to the project, and signed on a new MetroRail provider, Herzog Transit Services, Inc. With only a few months until our opening date, Herzog spread across our line like army ants, conducting an intensive analysis of the entire line, and systematically attacking and correcting the remaining problems.

The year-long delay was not without benefit. The Centralized Traffic Control System had been designed to operate in two modes, one for our freight operations, the other for MetroRail operations. Sensing that shifting between modes could be a weakness to the operation, the FRA asked that we consider redesigning the system to eliminate the possibility of human error initiating a shift between modes incorrectly, potentially creating dangerous results. We agreed, and subsequently took the time and effort to redesign and reprogram our entire signal network to put a safer system in place — one that we are more confident of and one that will reduce the potential of problems as we begin operating both freight and passenger service on the same track.

With the design modifications complete and the right team assembled, the FRA gave us final clearance to begin passenger service. Of course, Capital MetroRail is just the beginning. With full trains and demands for all-day and weekend service even prior to the first day of service, we will continue planning for expansion even before the trains lose their new car luster.

Capital Metro employees and volunteers are staffing all nine stations for the first two weeks to assist new riders and ensure they have a good first experience. Beginning March 29, valid fares will be required, and a one-way fare from end to end is $3. Capital Metro will celebrate its successful launch of commuter rail on March 27 with a commemorative “Safety Train” ride of community officials and area students who have participated in our rail safety education program and a dedication ceremony at the Downtown Station.

We are savoring this historic moment for our transit agency and our community of bringing the first modern passenger rail system to this area. Our startup is going smoothly and now we are looking ahead to expansion of the service to meet the needs of our growing region.



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5 Responses to “Texas’s Newest ‘Rail’ Transit line, the Red Line”

  1. Richard Says:

    While I don’t doubt that rail in the valley would be successful, I suggest finding better examples than this one.


    It is also rather ridiculous comparing this to a subway to UBC which is an entirely different type of project serving an entirely different market. You also should note that in both the cost per km and cost per rider that, due to much higher ridership and capacity, a UBC Line SkyTrain could actually represent better value than this project although, again, such a comparison makes little sense.

    Zweisystem replies: A subway would only be ‘better value for money’ if ridership was in the order of 400,000 a day. The cost $3 billion to $4 billion, we can build a whole lot of TramTrain for that kind of money.

  2. David Says:

    As you know I’m very supportive of passenger rail from Vancouver to the Fraser Valley, but I don’t think it’s realistic to apply the cost/km of the Austin system here.

    SRY freight trains operate at very low speeds on most sections of the route from New Westminster to Chilliwack. Those same SRY trains operate at significantly higher speed on the Langley segment so it’s clear that the limiting factor is the quality of the right of way.

    It would likely take substantial upgrades to track, signals and level crossings to bring the entire right of way up to acceptable standards for scheduled passenger operations.

    There is also the spectre of track rental fees on any route west of the Fraser River Rail Bridge. Our premier used to work for the real estate arm of Canadian Pacific so you can bet they’ll be handsomely rewarded for any use of their track. Luckily the most direct route is over CN and BNSF rails so it’s possible that passenger service could be established at reasonable cost.

    Zweisystem replies: Stay tuned, there is some very exciting news about the interurban that will soon be released. From what I can see, the cost to upgrade the track in Texas would be the same costs to upgrade here.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Hmm, it always seems to be stay tuned, news is coming… I guess I’ll have to be patient…

    About track upgrades, wouldn’t it be realistic to expect that the light rail passenger train wouldn’t need the same high quality of track to travel at the same speeds as a freight train? The mass is going to be massively different. Just like how a car doesn’t need as good of a road as a semi truck?

  4. bulleid35028 Says:

    Why do you think David that the cost/km of the Austin system is unique?
    Studies of European & US upgrades of former `heavy rail’ -freight and surburban lines to Tram-Train, Light Rail Interurban and light metro, indicate that the capital conversion costs including provisions for track sharing and temporal separation are in a similar band – $2.5 to 4.5 per km.
    Does make TransLink look pretty expensive, doesn’t it?

  5. David Says:

    I didn’t say Austin was unique I said the SRY was.

    The ridiculously slow maximum speed says to me that the trackbed and rail is in pretty rough shape. That suggests it would have to be ripped up and completely replaced.

    The SRY operates only daily one through train on the line and a few shunters to service the sidings. It’s unlikely that the signalling is up to the challenge of oncoming trains needing to pass each other every 7.5 minutes or less.

    I haven’t driven along the entire right of way, but I’m concerned about the number and quality of level crossings. They may not be up to snuff either.

    There may also be calls for fencing. The right of way has been essentially empty for so long that people treat it as a walking and cycling path, not a working rail line.

    Zweisystem replies: The SRY has slow speeds for freight because:

    1) Speed is not an issue for the line and the track is somewhat elderly
    2) The geometry of the track was designed for light 40 foot interurbans and 36 foot freight cars, not heavy 40 foot to 60 foot freight cars that are common today.

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