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Cap Metro still hopes for first-quarter MetroRail launch

Monday, November 23, 2009 by Austin Monitor

Capital MetroRail, Austin’s long-awaited, long-delayed commuter rail line could be a mere two-and-a-half months away from making its debut.


According to Capital Metro Executive Vice President Elaine Timbes, the agency believes that at the rate things are going, required improvements to the line’s communications, programming, and operations systems should be completed by the end of the year, at which time the Federal Railroad Administration will be called in to begin its system validation process. If the FRA finds no problems, MetroRail could be operational by the end of January.


Since the last MetroRail update before the Cap Metro Board of Directors in late October, progress has been made in the areas of safety and communications, Timbes said. This month, two staff members from the FRA came to Austin to provide training for Cap Metro staff and signal maintainers on inspection and reporting standards.


Improvements to the communications system, which the board approved last month, are in progress, Timbes reported. Equipment has been ordered, and some time this week, Cap Metro will start installing radio system poles all along the line.


Hazard analysis is under way as well, with improvements to the crossing-gate system at Lamar and Airport scheduled for this week; the agency is streamlining the system so as to decrease the time gates are down when a train comes through an intersection, thereby avoiding the confusion and ire of stalled drivers and pedestrians and potential safety hazards. In addition, small design improvements are being made to several stations, including Plaza Saltillo, where a fence is being installed, and Downtown, which is getting a brand-new handrail. 


All in all, Timbes said, things are going well. During nighttime testing last week, for the first time trains were on time for two straight days, with one train arriving at its last stop in Leander within 30 seconds of its goal.


Unfortunately, not all the news Timbes reported was good. The FRA has notified the agency that it was being issued a violation for failing to report a speed-limit incident. “Any time you change the speed on a corridor,” Timbes told the board, “there are processes you must follow because there’s a direct correlation between speed, time, and distance. In this instance, the speed was increased, and the warning signal that is required was not adjusted properly. Once it was determined, the correction was made and everything was put into a safe mode. However, the contractor failed to report the incident, which he’s required to do, and so a violation was issued by the FRA.” 


Cap Metro still has work to do before it can ask the FRA to begin its final validation process. In addition to completing the installation of the radio communication system and improving “gate down time” at the Lamar station, there are still modifications that have to be made to the line’s programming and operating-procedure systems.


Cap Metro hopes to be done with those modifications by the end of December, at an estimated cost of between $750,000 and $1 million.

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