The Train! The Train!
What, where, when, and who on the Red Line
Stay off the tracks, folks – the trains are running. And beginning Monday, March 22, you can ride them.
More than five years after voters authorized Capital Metro to build it – and two years behind schedule – the MetroRail Red Line is finally set to begin service to the public. All the questions about whether it will actually accomplish anything, or if the tax money was well-spent or a boondoggle, will be set aside for the moment – the reality is it's here, and it's time to learn how to use it. (Which isn't to say those debates are dead; in fact, once the stats on ridership and traffic congestion start coming in, they'll likely be renewed, hotter than ever.)
Naturally, you, the public, will have questions and will need some help with the learning curve inherent in any mass transit system. We'll try to help not only with the basic mechanics of how to use the Red Line but also by clearing up some misconceptions.
What the Red Line Isn't
Austin has light rail now! No, it doesn't. It has commuter rail. Light rail uses small, electric-powered trains and sometimes integrates with car traffic. The commuter railcars are heavier, diesel-powered, and run on dedicated tracks. That may seem like a matter of semantics important only to transit-policy wonks, but actually, it's key to understanding who will be riding ... and whether one of those people will be you. Keep reading.
I'll take the train to and from SXSW! No, you won't. Note the starting date – one day after the Fest is over. And even if it had opened a week earlier, you still wouldn't have used it for that purpose, because ...
I'll take the train home after Sixth Street (or other late-night partying)! No, you won't. This is where we go back to that label of "commuter train" instead of "light rail." The purpose of this line, in a nutshell, is to get folks from Leander, North Austin, and East Austin to their jobs Downtown. (Just how effectively it will do this is yet to be seen – see the shuttle bus section of this article.) Thus, it has a work-oriented schedule – the trains only run during the morning and evening rush hours, with the morning emphasis on getting people from the suburbs to Downtown and the evening emphasis on returning them home.
Rail will be so much more efficient than the bus! Maybe not. As transit blogger Mike Dahmus (pro-rail but fiercely anti-Red Line – mdahmus.monkeysystems.com/blog) noted, it depends on where you are and where you're going. Best to peruse Cap Metro's website (www.capmetro.org), play around with the online trip planner, and figure out which route works for you rather than just assuming the train is the quickest option.
How Do I Ride?
How much does it cost? This first week will be free; beginning March 29, you pay. The route is divided into two zones, split between the Kramer and Howard stations. If you're traveling one-way just within one zone, $2; if you're crossing zones, $3. (Reduced fare for students and active military: $1/$1.50.) Or there are various MetroPlus multiride passes:
Day pass $6
5-day pass $20
31-day pass $70
31-day reduced $35
Free: seniors; Disability Fare Card-holders; certified MetroAccess users; UT students, faculty, and staff; individuals with employer-purchased passes; uniformed police, fire, and military; and children younger than 6 (with adult).
Where do I buy tickets/passes? Unlike the bus, you don't pay as you enter – you buy one-way tickets from a vending machine at the station, and you need to use it within two hours. Or you can buy passes in advance from Capital Metro's transit store or website or H-E-B.
Can I get change from a ticket vending machine? No. You'll be issued a card carrying a balance that can be redeemed for future ticket purchases. It expires in 15 days. (Cap Metro board members have asked staff to look into a way to redeem the cards for cash, if necessary.)
Can I bring my bike? Yes. Each vehicle is equipped with four hooks (two in front, two in back) from which to hang your bike. But be warned: The hooks are in the mobility-impaired area. If someone in a wheelchair needs that space, you'll have to move your bike and stand with it. And if there's no space available, then you'd better be ready to wait for the next train or start pedaling.
Where do I park? Only the Leander, Lakeline, and Howard stations have parking (600, 500, and 200 spaces, respectively). It is assumed that the more urban stations will draw passengers from the surrounding neighborhoods on foot or bike.
What if I get confused? During this rollout period, volunteer "ambassadors" and Cap Metro employees will be at the stations to help you.
When Does It Run?
Basically, morning and afternoon rush hours on weekdays. No weekend service. Note that not all trips go the full length of the line.
The Shuttle Buses
But I don't work near the Convention Center. Yeah, not many people do. That's a big point of consternation for Red Line critics – it drops people off at a part of Downtown far from the biggest employment centers.
To compensate, Cap Metro will be debuting five shuttle buses to those areas, timed to arrive at the same time as the trains – two from the MLK station (one to and through UT, the other to the Capitol), and three from the Convention Center (east Downtown, west Downtown, and one that dips south of the river to Riverside before cutting back up to City Hall (see maps).
Do I have to pay extra for the shuttles? No – just present your MetroRail ticket or pass. But if you take a regular Cap Metro bus instead (only routes 460, 461, 462, 464, and 465 are shuttles), you'll have to pay regular bus fare unless you have a MetroPlus pass.
Do I need to be a rail customer to ride the shuttle? No – they're also regular bus routes.
If You're Not Taking the Train ...
Then stay the hell off the tracks, whether you're in an auto or on foot. Cap Metro has been trying hard to publicize the fact that these tracks are more dangerous now than before, because the passenger trains run faster and quieter than the freight trains that have used them for years.
The road-crossing gates are designed to turn traffic signals green and clear out any traffic that may be on the tracks when a train approaches, but do you really want to be in the obituaries if the system fails? Don't stop on the tracks.
And don't walk on them. Lots of us who live or work near the tracks have done it (including me), but that was back when the noisy, slow-moving freight trains gave plenty of warning. Plus, it's illegal – the tracks are Cap Metro property, and if you're on them, you're trespassing.