How long will we wait for the train?
There's both good news to report this week and bad – or perhaps just not great.
As we reported last week, MetroRail was supposed to begin testing its evening schedule Nov. 16, but not all of its vehicles were ready for action, so train runs were not on the planned timetable. Three days later, I went out to the Crestview Station at North Lamar and Airport – partly because it's my neighborhood depot, and partly because it's where Cap Metro has had substantial problems getting crossing arms to work properly.
The good news: The train was indeed hitting its schedule. (In fact, one car arrived five minutes early, which caused a problem we'll detail in a bit.)
The bad news: Those gates are still really screwy. But, ironically, they're screwy because they're working exactly how they're supposed to.
Problem One: As northbound trains approach the Highland Mall Station right before Crestview, their speeds trigger the gates at Crestview – the sensors don't realize that the train will be stopping at Highland. Thus, five minutes before the scheduled arrival at Crestview, the gates drop for no apparent reason. This is only a minor inconvenience – the gates stay down for about 20 seconds, then raise once it's apparent a train isn't immediately coming. Once the train finally begins its very short trip from Highland to Crestview, the gates work fine. Nonetheless, in a city with Austin's traffic woes, we hardly need anything stalling cars unnecessarily.
Problem Two: This is the bigger one. As trains are coming southbound into Crestview, their speeds again trigger the gates too soon; similar to the first problem, the sensors don't realize the train will be slowing down to stop at the next immediate station – this time, Crestview. If you're sitting at the train platform, the gates drop well before the train even comes into view around a long bend – and they stay down as the train approaches, idles for a couple of minutes to pick up passengers, and then moves through the intersection.
For the first train I watched, the result was a mess. Scheduled to arrive at 4:55pm, it showed up five minutes early – thus blocking the North Lamar crossing for a good seven minutes. You can imagine the result: Cars backed up on Lamar as far as the eye could see, with a few irate drivers. (One, seeing me taking notes, yelled at me – perhaps thinking I was a Cap Metro employee.)
Later arrivals went more smoothly, with the gates only down for 2½ minutes each time. Engineers on-site worked at tweaking the signal box for a more appropriate time frame.
At least the trains are running on time, so let's raise the arm one notch.