Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Why commuters are still waiting on Cap Metro's train

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Capital Metro in Austin, Texas, didn't know what it was getting itself into, the Austin American-Statesman reports. That might sound like a shot from one of the transit agency's critics. Instead, it is in effect the agency's explanation for why its MetroRail commuter line from Leander to downtown Austin is now 15 to 18 months late in opening. And still counting.

Capital Metro, by its own admission, didn't know when it asked voters in 2004 for permission to build the 32-mile line how complex an undertaking it faced, or the full scope of the project, or the work and time required to fix glitches and malfunctions that would arise along the way.

The agency didn't know that:

• It would need a computerized track control system to coordinate train traffic rather than a much simpler approach based on engineers and dispatchers talking on radios. The decision was made in mid-2006 to install that network of trackside signals connected to a central dispatch center.

• Buying components of the track system from two suppliers, to get the lowest bids possible, would lead to communication trouble between the equipment.

• Final installation of the track control equipment would take as long as it did.

• The operation of crossing gates at 65 junctions with roads would be hampered by a variety of factors, among them rain, rusted track and electronic interference in the steel track caused by having multiple intersections in a short interval.

And when it put the project on indefinite hold 16 days before the March 30 opening date - the third launch date - the agency did not know how long it would take to analyze and repair those control systems and crossing gate glitches.

"We had anticipated that as the construction got done and the various systems got installed and turned on, that they would work as intended," said Doug Allen, Capital Metro's executive vice president and chief development officer. "Ultimately, it became obvious that wasn't going to happen."

The agency says that if the line were to open soon, about five years after the referendum that authorized it, start of service would still be earlier than for comparable projects. The New Jersey River Line from Camden to Trenton, for instance, was approved by its transit board in November 1996 and opened in March 2004. That 34-mile line, which Capital Metro cited as a model before the 2004 vote, uses diesel-propelled, light-rail-style cars similar to Capital Metro's, shares a line with freight service - and has centralized track control.

Capital Metro officials say the MetroRail project will come in around $105 million, about 17 percent above the original $90 million spending estimate. That final figure, however, does not include the cost of several items closely connected to the project, including a park-and-ride lot built at the Leander station and money spent on "transit-oriented development" near the stations. The agency is losing about $40,000 in projected fare income every month that the line stays dormant.

"The lesson to be learned is that before we get involved with any future rail activities, we have to be much more deliberate and careful to vet it, to make sure we get good information so we don't have any surprises," said Terry Bray, an Austin lawyer who serves on a transit working group created by state Sen. Kirk Watson and former Austin Mayor Will Wynn in 2007 to review passenger rail proposals.

It remains unclear when the MetroRail line will open. This year, agency executives adopted a policy of making no predictions.

In the latest of what have become monthly status updates, Capital Metro said Thursday that it was developing a timeline for remaining work and would provide another progress report in October.

Capital Metro, responding to the series of problems and at the request of its rail contractor Veolia Transportation, recently began a "hazard analysis/risk assessment," a rigorous last look at the system that involves a top-to-bottom examination of the system and its components.

That work, which officials said has already identified about 20 problems, continues. The agency is also working to fix "vital logic" signalization software that failed to trigger the correct track signals when Federal Railroad Administration inspectors tested the line in late August.

Allen said the agency will ask federal regulators to take another look when Capital Metro believes the opening is a month away. But that "final" review could, of course, cause another delay, should regulators find more problems.

Officials with Veolia advised against setting the March 30 opening date. The agency had told voters before the referendum that it could open MetroRail in spring 2008, then later changed that to fall 2008. Veolia's Austin rail general manager, Gord Ryan, said he told Capital Metro at the time that "what I need is a fully functional railway to train engineers and dispatchers. I also made it very clear that here we have a major freight line (operating on the same track) and we have to construct around it. And you have to expect some of those anomalies are actually going to surface. It's the old adage: You don't know what you don't know."

Capital Metro officials blame the delay in part on a 1997 state law requiring Capital Metro to hold a referendum before building a passenger rail line. It is the only transit agency in Texas with that requirement, although in practice most agencies put bonds before voters to borrow money to build light rail or commuter rail.

The agency says that it did not sufficiently plan the project before the 2004 vote - and then faced time-consuming surprises later - because early planning would have cost $5 million to $10 million. That would have opened the agency to criticism for spending that much money on a project that voters might not authorize, which could have threatened the success of the rail referendum.

Officials could have delayed the vote by two years - the law at that time said Capital Metro rail referendums could occur only in November of even-numbered years - something that agency leaders didn't want to do.

The "agency now has a more comprehensive knowledge regarding costs and scheduling of the project that were not fully known in 2004," the transit authority wrote in a "self-evaluation report" it recently submitted to the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission as part of a legislatively mandated review of Capital Metro. "Had more time and funds been available to adequately analyze various options, certain unknown costs and environmental factors might have been worked out earlier."

Weeks before the scheduled March grand opening celebration, Capital Metro was still completing construction on the last two of the line's nine stations and on siding track in East Austin. Since calling off that opening, it has been fixing a multitude of problems. Among them:

Centralized track control: After the system was installed in early May, the agency discovered problems of various kinds at the 12 control points along the line. Signals, bought from two companies and installed by one contractor, were not communicating properly with the control system at the operations center, built by yet another contractor.

That task is not yet complete. The Federal Railroad Administration has been concerned that Capital Metro have fail-safe systems to assure that freight trains, which will run at night on the track between Manor and the Burnet area, don't find their way into the passenger corridor during daylight hours when the commuter trains will be running.

"The system is functioning for the most part very well," said John Almond, Capital Metro's commuter rail project manager, who said he recently rode the entire line and observed no glitches. "Day in and day out, it's not always like that. We want that higher degree of reliability before we put people on that line."

• Crossing gates: For much of the summer, many gates either did not come down when a train approached, came down too slowly or stayed down much longer than necessary. To combat that, the agency hired equipment to grind rust off the tracks that was corrupting the electronic pulses that activate the gates. It changed the location of "termination shunts" critical to those electronic messages and tinkered with gate equipment and even the rock underlying the tracks to adjust for the electrical conductivity of rain. And it made adjustments for gates that are near stations, such as at Lamar Boulevard, where a train approaching the Crestview station would trigger lowered gates but then stop at the station for 45 seconds or more.

• Missing gates: At federal regulators' behest, the agency in July installed crossing gates at two quarry roads on the Robinson Ranch in Northwest Austin.

• Signal house fire: Faulty wiring caused a signal installation on East Seventh Street to go up in flames in early May. It was replaced by late May.

• Damaged track: Capital Metro spent over $200,000 this summer fixing track damaged by years of passing cars and trucks where the line crosses Parmer Lane and the U.S. 183 frontage roads.

• Signal pre-emption: The agency completed work at several crossings that are near traffic lights to make those lights go green and allow waiting vehicles to clear the railroad tracks. This included doing the work twice at MoPac Boulevard, where because of inaccurate engineering plans, the pre-emption equipment was installed on the wrong frontage road.

The Federal Railroad Administration has had six people allocated full time to the Capital Metro project since August 2006, said Rob Castiglione, the deputy regional administrator. In March, in particular, he said, "we did have some extra vigilance to make sure all the loops were closed.

"But they weren't ready for prime time, and here we are."

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