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Cap Metro committee looks at rail service, considers improvements

Tuesday, April 13, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

With two weeks of full, pay-to-ride commuter rail service under its belt, the Capital Metro Rail committee met yesterday to discuss what has gone right with Metro Rail, what needs to be fixed, and what the future looks like.


According to Todd Hemingson, the transit agency’s vice president of strategic planning and development, preliminary ridership numbers from this past week averaged about 1,000 a day, which is consistent with the week before but down considerably from the Red Line’s first week of service, when tickets were free.


One very positive sign, Hemingson said, is that the line has experienced higher reverse commuter ridership – northbound to Leander in the morning, southbound to downtown in the evening – than had been expected.


Despite mostly positive feedback, Hemingson told the committee that customers did have suggestions and questions about Metro Rail service, primarily concerning the extension of service hours, train capacity, and frequency of service.


Staff is already looking into expanding service to include midday, evening, and weekend service. Currently trains only run on weekdays from 5:25am to 9:25am and from 3:10pm to 7:42pm. Hemingson said that expanding service times would depend on budget and policy. But, he said, “clearly there’s a desire for midday service. Plus, you will get different markets if you’re running in midday.”


Cap Metro staff is considering extended evening trips on Fridays. And though expanding service to evenings and weekends will require budget considerations, as well as coordinating schedules with freight service and making sure of “operational feasibility in terms of service maintenance,” Hemingson pointed out that it is relatively easy to do because “you don’t have to buy more trains or invest in the capital infrastructure of the railway to do either.”


The same can’t be said, however, for adding capacity or increasing train frequency. Both will require considerable capital expenditures. One way to increase capacity, for example, is to run two-car trains, which means the agency will have to extend platforms and buy more cars. In addition, Cap Metro will have to expand the line’s maintenance facilities and storage yards.


Early staff estimates for such an endeavor put the cost at $60 million.


Which is small potatoes when compared to increasing frequency. The agency’s objective would be to double frequency, with trains arriving about every 15 minutes instead of every 30 minutes. To do that would require double tracking the line, which, according to staff estimates, would cost about $175 million, an investment that would require additional federal money.


“When you’re talking about adding capacity or running two-car trains at the same level of service, your operating costs are slight higher but not substantially higher,” Hemingson said. “But when you’re talking about doubling your frequency, you’re talking about doubling your operating costs.”


Hemingson then took the committee through an analysis of how the agency can take professional assessments and riders’ comments to, as he said, “build on early success.”


At the Downtown station, Hemingson said, the first priority will be to trim back the number of connector bus routes. When Metro Rail first opened, Capital Metro assigned two buses for each of the three connector routes in both the morning and the afternoon as a “fail-safe measure.” That number can be trimmed to one, he said, which will save the agency money while still satisfying commuter demand.


Capital Metro Board Member Norm Chafetz asked when such a change might go into effect. Hemingson told him that the reduction will be a part of service changes introduced in late May or early June.


Though connector bus routes are important, at certain stations staff is looking at other alternatives to increase connectivity with the surrounding community, Hemingson said.


At the MLK Jr. Station, for example, staff is considering a pilot van shuttle service program for employers who want to provide a direct transportation service for their employees between the station and their businesses. Cap Metro would provide the vans to employers, who would have to provide their own drivers. This could be particularly effective for increasing connectivity with the Mueller development, which, Hemingson said, is a “growing activity center near MLK but not within walking distance.”


“The problem with connector alternative routes,” Hemingson said, “is if you don’t have a large destination like UT or the Capitol complex, or if you have dispersed employment locations, the question is can you make the loop and get back to the station in time for the next train. A direct van shuttle goes direct from station to employment stop. In certain cases it would be better than a connector route.”


The van shuttle partnership concept could also work well at the Kramer station, Hemingson said, which is close to several big target destinations, among them National Instruments, IBM, the J.J. Pickle Research Campus, and the Domain. So far ridership to Kramer has been higher than expected, but, as Hemingson put it, connectivity between the station and its most popular nearby destinations (most of which are not within walking distance) is “non-existent.”


Cap Metro Interim CEO/President Doug Allen agreed with Hemingson’s assessment of the current state of Metro Rail service and the need for enhanced connectivity with popular destinations like the Domain but said that such improvements will come over time.


“What we’ve found is that there is a reverse commute” to stations like Kramer and MLK, he said. “There are people going both directions. But in order to really enhance that and get the best out of it, we need to have connections to those destinations. It’s a matter of budget and growth. What the train opening has demonstrated is there’s a demand for it. We just need to be adjusting on the service side to take advantage of it.”

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