Austin commuters like to lament the traffic but the city took its first step toward a more viable mass transit system with the launch of the MetroRail last month. The premiere of this alternative transportation was postponed after technical glitches proved too risky. With those glitches resolved, the system experienced new ones last week so apparently, it isn’t glitch free but the rail does brings a sophisticated solution to traffic congestion that even urbanites will appreciate. I should know. I made my maiden commute last week.
Joined by Capital Metro public relations specialist, Misty Whited, I learned that the rail extends north to Leander and south to Fourth and Trinity, right in front of the Austin Convention Center. I met Whited at the Highland Mall stop to catch the 3:13 p.m. Southbound train. There are three Park and Ride locations at the northern end of the line, but Highland Mall, with its growing number of empty parking spaces, is not one of them, so parking near the stop can be risky. Without using the mall parking lot or across the street at the Work Force Solutions lot, the stop would be extremely difficult to access.
Fares vary depending on the number of zones traveled—$2 for one, $3 for more than one each way. Students and active military pay $1 for one zone and $1.50 for more than one, and seniors ride for free. An all-day pass, which includes unlimited rides on the rail or Capital Metro buses, costs $6. Regular commuters can choose from various passes, five- day to 31-day.
With a barrier free system, riders are not barred from entering the trains without a ticket so paid ridership is based on the honor system for now but Capital Metro does plan to assign fare inspectors in the near future.
Once onboard, I was immediately impressed with the train’s pristine interior. Comfy crimson red accented velour seats on each train welcome riders and at the front of each car, seats with tables (two with a flat-top and eight with drop down trays) are available. Best of all, however, is the free wireless that commuters can use on the one-hour ride into Austin or back home.
The train arrived on schedule at the mall and while the trip from the mall to downtown took 13 minutes, it felt like five. It was smooth, quiet, clean, and reminded me of commuting while vacationing in more cosmopolitan cities. At the downtown hub, riders can opt to catch three connector routes around downtown, akin to what the Dillo used to do.
Most impressive, however, was the fact that I avoided traffic on IH35 at 5 p.m. Even riding a full train was extremely appealing—the return trip found ridership escalate to practically full. As for the environment, the trains are diesel electric hybrids with a top speed of 60 miles per hour.
“Bicyclists have really embraced the system,” added Whited. Each car includes bike racks that hold two bikes. City of Austin employees ride free, as do students and staff at Austin Community College and the University of Texas.
On the down side, the rail does not run on weekends and on a limited basis between Leander and downtown in the afternoons, and it shuts down in the early evening. The last train to downtown from Leander leaves at 5:23 p.m. and the last train north from downtown leaves at 6:40 p.m.
Overall, I was very impressed with the MetroRail and will certainly consider hopping onboard when the opportunity arises. But I also urge Capital Metro to partner with Highland Mall to designate it a Park and Ride.
For information on fares and routes go to www.capmetro.org.