Austin FC Fans Prepare to Pack the Trains on MetroRail
The Red Line turns Verde
By Benton Graham, Fri., Oct. 14, 2022
On a steamy Saturday night in September, a group of passengers shirked Capital Metro's code of conduct requiring patrons to wear shirts. Boarding the MetroRail Red Line at Kramer Station, the six young men, two of whom had removed their shirts, bellowed, "Olé olé olé olé, Austin FC!" in honor of their team's come-from-behind draw against Nashville SC.
As the packed train forged ahead, their chants became increasingly hoarse but no less passionate. Disembarking at Plaza Saltillo, they extended fist bumps to the conductor – who had patiently informed them earlier in the trip that they could not stand on the train's seats. One member of the group turned back to shout, "Good luck!" in the conductor's direction. The incredulous conductor looked around. "Good luck to me? Good luck to y'all," he said with a chuckle, as the delirious group staggered across the East Austin plaza.
Two years into Austin FC's existence, the Red Line has established itself as a key piece of the pre- and post-game experience for some fans. It has also provided a boost in ridership for the city's lone operational rail transit line. In August, 14,317 of the 45,918 passengers who used the Red Line came on game days. In other words, over 30% of the rail line's ridership in August came on four home soccer game days.
Isabel Anguera moved to Austin over the summer and doesn't own a car. She's a big soccer fan, but thankfully her allegiance to global powerhouse Real Madrid doesn't conflict with her support of a new club in Austin. Taking the train from Plaza Saltillo to Q2 Stadium has been her first foray into Austin transit. "I like the atmosphere," she said at the train station. "You can tell everybody showed up here with their jerseys."
Offering train service to and from games that go late into the evening falls squarely on the shoulders of Cap Metro's employees. Twanna Andrew began work as a MetroRail conductor in January. A great-granddaughter of legendary East Austin pastor the Rev. S.L. Davis, Andrew's roots go deep in Austin, and when she thinks of sports, the University of Texas comes to mind before the local MLS team. "I didn't know anything about the kickball, the soccer game before I started working here," she said through a laugh.
Andrew said she slightly prefers working game days to normal days, but both have their pros and cons. On normal days, Andrew has her regular customers. She knows their stops and wakes them up if they happen to doze off on the comfortable ride. On game days, the train takes on a different energy. "You're picking people up going to the game who are very excited and hoping they're going to win. And they pump themselves up on the train," she said. "I'm telling you, the yelling, and the screaming, and the chanting, so it's an experience for me. I enjoy it. I enjoy seeing people happy. There's some things I don't enjoy."
What doesn't Andrew enjoy? The beer. She said that some inebriated passengers give her a hard time when she tells them it's not allowed on the train. However, now that she's been in her role through a full regular season, she claims the team as her own. "I am a fan. If anybody says, am I a soccer fan? Austin FC," she said.
The train to Q2 is just one component that makes the project an interesting case study in mobility and urban planning. In addition to the Red Line, the 803, 3, 383, and 392 buses run near Q2, and there's a bike valet on the stadium's east side. Cap Metro plans to open its new McKalla Station, designed to serve the stadium, by late 2023.
Alex Karner, a UT-Austin planning professor, said the Red Line was built out of convenience in the 2000s to use the existing freight rail tracks owned by Capital Metro since the 1980s. (The track network stretches from Llano to Giddings, and the future MetroRail Green Line to Elgin also will use them.) While those types of rail lines tend to perform poorly as transit alternatives, he noted that the train's auxiliary use for games is a good thing. He said the type of commuters using the train to get to the stadium are probably more affluent, comparable to people who might take a train to the airport. "And that's fine. Like I feel like all of that is fine. It's great, especially if it actually makes sense and you can say, 'Okay, if we provide service … we expect to generate this much revenue, and it's going to bring money into our system. It's going to expose people to public transit.' That's all great," Karner said. "But you need to make sure that that service is not at the expense of the people who actually need transit not to go to the stadium, not to go to the airport, but to get groceries, to get their kids to day care, to go to medical appointments, to get to work."
Miriam Solis, also a UT-Austin planning professor, has taught a course on the social impacts of sports stadiums. She said research indicates that stadiums tend not to yield the economic returns that justify the level of public investment they often get, and that they can lead to increases in cost of living. Nonetheless, Solis, who considers herself an Austin FC fan, said MetroRail could mitigate environmental concerns that often surround stadiums. "If we see a statistically significant use of the Red Line for the games – it's possible that that'll either take a long time or will never happen – but if we were to see significant use of the Red Line for the games, then obviously that really helps the city meet its Climate Equity Plan goals."
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