Metrorail Commuter Line Opens in Austin

May 25, 2010 32 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

After two years of delay, Austin joins the rapidly growing list of American cities with local passenger rail service. Is Jacksonville paying attention to the economic development these systems bring to a community?

About Capital MetroRail

A Metro Rail train at Austin's Convention Center. Image by davidgiesberg at

Capital MetroRail is a commuter rail service for Austin, Texas under the authority of the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Capital Metro). In 2004, voters within Capital Metro's territory endorsed MetroRail as part of a long-range mass transit plan, which also includes expanded local and express bus service, as well as a possible streetcar system (modeled after the Portland Streetcar), which would connect downtown Austin, the Texas State Capitol complex and the University of Texas at Austin with the master-planned Mueller Community redevelopment project.

Capital MetroRail was launched March 22, 2010, after being delayed three times over two years. It was scheduled to open on March 30, 2009, but was delayed by about a year because of safety issues and construction delays. The system—which was built largely on pre-existing freight rail lines—serves downtown Austin, east Austin, north central Austin, northwest Austin and Leander in the first phase, passing through Cedar Park. On December 9, 2009, Capital Metro terminated its contract with Veolia Transportation and renegotiated a contract with Herzog Transit Services.

Although it provides a commuter rail service, MetroRail uses tram-train operation, with semi-frequent services and street running in the downtown portions of the city. The system is not considered light rail, because it shares the main-line tracks used by freight trains, and because of its infrequent rush hour-focused service.

Google Street View image of Capital MetroRail's Downtown Austin Station.

Plaza Saltillo Station at a February 2009 open house.  Downtown Austin can be viewed in the background.
Image by sashimikid at

The Saltillo neighborhood is a warehouse district just west of Downtown Austin. During the construction of Austin's commuter rail line, several new infill urban developments have popped up within a short walk of the Plaza Saltillo station. Saltillo serves as an example of what rail could bring to the Springfield and Myrtle Street warehouse districts in Jacksonville.

The Saltillo Lofts Transit Oriented Development can be seen in the background.  Image by sashimikid at

Project Goals

Saltillo Lofts is a mixed-income development within walking distance to commercial corridors, major employment centers, and urban neighborhoods. The transit oriented and pedestrian-friendly nature of the project reduces automobile use/air pollution and creates a vibrant metropolitan atmosphere. Eleven of the development's 29 units are priced for residents making 80% of Austin's median family income. This development resuscitated an area of town that was previously considered undesirable, and created housing for an often overlooked group of homebuyers who don't want to live in a suburban area yet can't quite afford central city prices. Efficiency/Programs/Green Building/Resources/Case Studies/multi_saltilloLofts.htm

A Bing aerial illustrating the proximity of Saltillo Lofts to the Plaza Saltillo commuter rail station.

An Google Street View image showing the Saltillo Loft project at street level.

Google Street View

The skyline of downtown Austin can be seen in the distant background from this street in Saltillo.  Saltillo is an example proving that investing in urban passenger rail also spreads walkable scale development to all neighborhoods where stations give residents the choice of using transit over the automobile.

Google Street View

Google Street View

Another new infill development along the commuter rail line in Saltillo.  Image by S-t-e-v-e-n at

Chesnut Commons offers one bedroom flats, two and three bedroom bungalows with garages, starting in the $140k's. Chesnut Commons is located directly adjacent to the MLK Jr. Station and gives residents the possibility of accessing Austin's urban core without the use of the automobile. This development is an example of what an infill transit oriented project could resemble in a Jacksonville neighborhood such as Durkeeville, Metro North, or Englewood.

Transit Oriented Development can be designed to fit in with the character of surrounding neighborhoods. This Google Maps aerial illustrates the location of Chesnut Commons in relation to MLK Jr. Station. The connectivity rail provides to a community allows for urban housing style diversity that may not be feasible in a dense downtown atmosphere.

Google Street View

Capital MetroRail's Kramer Station is an example of a urban scale station constructed within a suburban office park. Although Capital MetroRail is a single track commuter rail line, occasional passing sidings allow trains traveling in opposite directions to pass each other.

The new Austin Metrorail cars at Crestview Station. Service starts March 30, 2009, or not.
Image by Bruce Turner at

The Capital MetroRail trains were manufactured in Switzerland by Stadler Bussnang AG. Each of the six Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) vehicles are self-propelled by two diesel-electric engines and will be able to start and stop faster than traditional commuter rail vehicles.

Our trains meet or exceed the strictest safety standards. The vehicles were built to include a fully-welded and safety-conscious body design and a closed-circuit television security system.

Sit back, relax and get ready for a smooth and quiet ride. Engine equipment is housed in a separate power car, effectively insulating the passengers from any noise or vibration.


•Holds 200 Passengers, 108 seated
•ADA accessible
•Bicycle racks
•Tables or pull-down trays
•Luggage racks
•WiFi service
•Automated station announcements
•Message boards with real-time passenger information
•Travels up to 60 mph

Crestview Station image by cote at

Midtown Commons at Crestview Station is a classic example of how rail also stimulates redevelopment on abandoned industrial properties. This transit-oriented development was constructed at the site of the abandoned Huntsman Chemical plant, which closed in 2005.

BEFORE: Huntsman Chemical in 2003

Aerial by Google Maps

AFTER: Midtown Commons in 2010

Aerial by Google Maps

Midtown Commons at Crestview Station is a 73-acre transit village that provides well-crafted options for creating one’s own style of smart living around direct access to a major MetroRail stop in Midtown Austin. Residents enjoy contemporary housing choices supported by a concentration of office and retail - all in a pedestrian-friendly setting that accommodates minimal dependence on a car through efficient train and bus access, as well as through compelling walk-to-work and work-at-home opportunities.

The Leander commuter rail station and park & ride lot, while under construction in 2007
Image by JimNtexas at

The Red Line has nine stations along 32 miles of track. The northern terminus is the Leander Station and Park & Ride and the southern terminus is the Downtown (Convention Center) Station. Each station features an accessible platform with varying canopy designs, ticket vending machines (TVM), bike racks, and informational displays. Stations in more suburban settings feature Park & Rides for commuters; more urban locations accessible by foot, bike, and bus or parking in nearby public garages.

An aerial of the Leander commuter rail station
Image by JimNtexas at

The Village at Leander Station

Initial planning is currently underway for this 160-acre tract which surrounds the future commuter rail station. Leander is the terminus of the first Austin metro area commuter rail line (The Red Line) running from Leander to downtown Austin, projected to begin full passenger rail operations in mid 2010.

The site development manager is Hughes Capital Management who is coordinating a master plan for a combination of uses to include retail, office, single family, multi-family and vertical mixed use development.

An interior shot during opening week. Image by CoreyPUd at


Like highway infrastructure, rail is critical in building communities. Austin's new commuter rail line serves as proof that rail's ability to spur pedestrian scale development in the city and the suburbs. The phenomenon that Austin is experiencing directly contradicts local thinking that "critical mass" must be formed before a community can support rail infrastructure.

Article by Ennis Davis