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MetroRail opens to positive numbers and only minor confusion

Tuesday, March 23, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

Austin’s brand-new commuter train, MetroRail officially opened yesterday and with it came the first report from Capital Metro staff on the status and progress of the line.


At yesterday’s meeting of the Cap Metro board of directors, Project Manager Kenneth Cartwright (sitting in for an injured Elaine Timbes, Cap Metro’s executive vice president) announced that the Red Line was off to a “successful start.”


Cartwright told the board that all nine trains running as part of the morning schedule, six southbound and three northbound, ran on schedule and without major problems. Contrary to some media reports, he said, there were no malfunctions at crossings. According to early numbers (MetroRail ridership numbers will take 24 hours to verify), there were a total of 2,942 boardings. That includes 716 passengers who rode the train during the morning rush hour—561 on southbound trains, 155 on northbound. In the evening, Cap Metro estimates 2226 people took advantage of the free ride.


Approximately two-thirds of exiting passengers at the MLK, Jr. station and a quarter of those departing at the Downtown station went from their trains to connector buses.


During this first week of service, tickets for the MetroRail are free. As such, Cartwright told In Fact Daily, it is hard to gauge how those numbers stood up to our expectations. “We do know that the majority of (riders) were commuter passengers, but there were a certain number of those who were out there to ride just to test out the system. Also, there’s a certain number of people who are staying away the first week.”


Though things appeared to run smoothly throughout the day, there was concern among members of the board and Cap Metro staff about scheduling idiosyncrasies that might strand riders if they aren’t careful. For example, a first-time rider taking the 7:54am southbound train from Leander looking to then turn around at the downtown station to take the 9:05am train back northbound may not realize that the 9:05 train only runs as far as the Crestview station, four stops before Leander.


Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, the board’s chair, expressed concern that new passengers may not be aware of those scheduling particulars and might get frustrated as a consequence. “Our scheduling is such that there are times when you can get on a train at a station but not be able to make it back because the service changes between southbound and northbound,” he told Cartwright. “I just wanted to make sure that we emphasize – especially this week when it’s free and people are just joyriding and testing the system out — that we announce that if you get on in Leander on that last time it’s pulling out southbound, that there will be no service back to Leander until tomorrow morning.”


Cartwright told the board that during the first two weeks of Red Line service, Cap Metro would have staff members and volunteers on platforms and trains to educate riders about the schedule and about what their options are.


According to Cap Metro spokesman Adam Shaivitz, there were a few riders yesterday who didn’t realize the train they were on wouldn’t be going as far as their destinations. Shaivitz told In Fact Daily that staff and volunteers helped by pointing those riders toward the next express line or, in some cases, actually driving riders to their destinations.


Former Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty and his buddy Jim Skaggs were in the one place you’d expect them to be on the first day of Austin’s commuter rail service – right there on the platform, counting the passenger boardings for the 32-mile MetroLine’s first day of rail service. Contacted by phone, Daugherty said he and Skaggs continue to campaign against mass transit, saying the return on investment is too steep for either a single rail line or an entire rail system.


Paid service begins next Monday, March 29.


This Saturday, Cap Metro is holding kick-off receptions and ceremonies at the Leander and Downtown stations. Festivities begin at 7:30am at Leander with opening remarks, an informal reception, and live music. A reception with live music begins at the Downtown station at 8:30am, followed by a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 10.

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