You might have wondered why I haven’t written about the efforts by Capital Metro to claim their commuter rail service is “light rail” now that the FRA is giving them much more trouble than anticipated with their regulatory oversight. The answer is that I’ve been slammed by the worst bout of Austin allergies yet, and have had to marshal my diminished concentration on the day job. Important excerpts, since the Statesman’ news site will probably age this off before too long:
After all, supporters of the plan said, it won’t be powered with electricity, like most light-rail systems, but rather with diesel engines like commuter rail. It will originate 32 miles away in the suburbs and haul in commuters. The stops would generally be far apart, especially those first few out northwest. This is not light rail, they said. I eventually bought into all this, becoming a bit of a prig about correcting people who called it light rail.
Turns out that dubbing it commuter rail meant, at least to Uncle Sam and in conjunction with the freight hauled on the same track, that regulation of the line falls under the auspices of the Federal Railroad Administration, not the Federal Transit Administration. And that first agency’s rules for running a passenger train on a line that also has freight trains — albeit at different times of the day or night under Capital Metro’s plan — have much tougher standards for the track control system and the construction of the cars. Capital Metro has been trying for more than two years to get the railroad agency to say yes to its plan, a final nod it has yet to secure.
Earlier this year, Capital Metro tried to change referees, petitioning to have the transit administration take over and waive certain requirements. In pursuit of that effort, Capital Metro chief Fred Gilliam wrote a letter May 22 to James Simpson, administrator of the transit agency.
“Our MetroRail project is clearly an urban rapid transit or light rail system,” he wrote. It was “initially” referred to as urban commuter rail, he said, “to avoid confusion with an earlier proposal that involved electric vehicles.” You know how confused voters can get
I’ve been too overwhelmed with that allergy attack to focus enough to write a good piece, but I couldn’t wait any longer, especially after they posted this on their blog. Here’s my response in their comment section:
This is a misleading article. Nearly nothing in traditional light rail lines would apply to starting DMU service on an existing freight line, and to say that 8 of the 9 stations are within Austin is also incredibly misleading as the two northernmost, the ones that actually have parking, are right on the edge of the city limits and expected to serve primarily non-residents. The remaining “Austin” stations are largely for drop-offs only, and have hardly any residential development within walking distance.
This is a sharp contrast to the 2000 light rail route – which served the same suburban constituencies but also served central Austin.
There’s really nothing urban OR light about this line. It’s standard commuter rail – buy trains and stick them on freight tracks. Period. Just because the FRA gives you trouble is no reason to join Lyndon Henry’s brigade of serial misinformation artists.
In a second comment, I add:
The other key difference, of course, is that a “light railway” could easily be brought straight to UT, the Capitol, and right down the heart of downtown – like that 2000 route does. Our commuter rail vehicles will never be able to do any of those things – they are designed to run on freight railways and cannot make turns that would be necessary to run on anything like a normal light rail route through a true urban area. As a result, essentially every single passenger that rides this thing will be forced to transfer to a shuttle-bus at the work end of their trip. You can’t get any farther away from the idea of light rail than that.
By the crappy arguments promoted by agents of misinformation like the aforementioned Lyndon Henry, if we bought a DMU and ran it in between freight traffic on the UP line that runs down Mopac, that would, too, magically turn into a “light railway”. Of course that’s complete and utter bullshit – everybody knows what ‘light rail’ is – it’s rail and vehicles that can be run through cities without having to demolish a bunch of buildings to make turns, and that doesn’t have to maintain compatibility with freight traffic.
You can expect more from me when I feel better – I need to focus my periods of concentration on my real job in the meantime, but don’t buy this nonsense – it’s NOT light rail – it’s a standard, stupid, shuttle-bus-dependent commuter rail service, even if they do what they’re claiming they might and add a bunch more stations because it will never be capable of running to UT, the Capitol, or even turning downtown to make it to Seaholm. It’s still fundamentally a freight rail line, and the trains we bought are designed to run on freight railways with long turns.
And, my email to our city council:
Please be aware that the decision by Capital Metro to attempt to rebrand (at this late date) their commuter rail service as “light rail” in a desperate attempt to avoid FRA oversight is not supportable by the facts. By their flimsy arguments, if we somehow got Amtrak to increase frequency a bit on the UP line, it would magically turn into a “light railway”.
What we’re building is standard-issue commuter rail (service started on the cheap that only runs on existing freight tracks – and uses vehicles incapable of navigating the turns it would have to take in central Austin to get anywhere worth going without transferring to shuttle buses).
I hope those of you who are board members will disabuse Capital Metro of the notion that simply calling it “light rail” makes it so. It’s still an awful commuter rail service that barely serves Austin at all and can never take passengers to any major destinations without a ridership-killing transfer at the work end of their journey. The city of Austin would be best served by continuing down the path undertaken by the CAMPO TWG which is an actual urban rail system that can and will serve Austin residents in a way commuter rail can never do.