..http://www.statesma n.com/news/ content/news/ stories/local/ 09/30/0930capmet ro.html
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Feds OK Cap Metro's passenger rail cars
Service likely to start in March.
By Ben Wear
Federal regulators are no longer standing in the way of Capital Metro
opening its passenger rail line.
March is the likely opening date now for the Leander-to-downtown Austin
rail project, about a year later than original estimates. One of the feared
reasons for delay — a lack of federal permission — was cleared up
That means that Capital Metro board members, when they meet
Wednesday to set a tentative opening date, will be looking only at
construction timelines to determine when to cut the
The federal approval was an issue because of concerns that the Swiss-
made, light-rail-style cars might not be sturdy enough to run on tracks
shared with freight trains.
But Federal Railroad Administration and Capital Metro officials said
Monday they have agreed that as soon as possible the transit agency will
design and install a steel cage to surround fuel tanks on its six trains,
tanks that the railroad administration said in February were insufficiently
Cap Metro will also prepare a number of other documents requested by
the regulators, principally outlines for testing, inspection, safety and other
operational issues. The 32-mile passenger line can open without those
cages in place, Capital Metro Executive Vice President Andrea Lofye said,
and will be installed on the train cars later.
"The constraints on our schedule, at this point, are caused by the
issues," Lofye said.
The agency has begun building the last two stations only in the past few
days, as well as two siding tracks that will be needed for northbound and
southbound trains to pass each other.
To open the line in December, which had been the target date for the past
couple of years, the agency would have had to do so with just seven of
the planned nine stations open; the Kramer Lane and Howard
Lane/MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) stations would still be under
"The gist is that we have reached consensus with the FRA on how we will
address each of the issues" raised by the federal agency in February,
Capital Metro in 2006 first asked the railroad administration for a general
waiver for the cars, believing that its project was similar in character to
passenger lines in New Jersey and San Diego that ultimately fell under
the auspices of the Federal Transit
That federal agency's physical requirements, since it normally deals with
light rail systems running on tracks where there is no freight traffic, are not
as demanding as those of the railroad administration. The San Diego
Sprinter vehicles, for instance, according to Lofye, have fuel tanks
identical to those on the Swiss-made Capital Metro vehicles.
And in all three cases — Austin, San Diego and the New Jersey River
Line — the vehicles are self-propelled, diesel-powered train cars similar in
character to light rail vehicles. Freight cars use the same track on all three
systems, albeit at different times of day.
But the railroad administration in this case, perhaps influenced by Capital
Metro's decision to refer to its Leander line as "commuter rail" rather than
light rail, decided that it should retain authority over the project. There
were questions in transit circles about
how long the federal agency might
take to grant Capital Metro authority to open the line, or if it might reject
the vehicles outright. That will not be the case, provided Capital Metro
follows through on the promises it is making now.
"My understanding from the team who went down there and sat down with
them for a week is that all of these issues are being hashed out
satisfactorily, " said Warren Flatau, a spokesman for the railroad
His agency, Flatau said, will give its official sanction later, "assuming they
do everything they promised to do. And that's a big if."bwear@statesman. com