More runs for MetroRail?
Capital Metro weighing midday, Friday night, Saturday service
Grappling with lackluster MetroRail ridership, Capital Metro officials are considering expanding service to middays, Friday nights and possibly some Saturdays.
And the existing 19 weekday runs probably will shift to somewhat later departure times.
“The very first trip in the morning, at 5:35 a.m., is not well utilized,” Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro’s vice president of strategic planning and development, said at a meeting of the Capital Metro board’s rail committee Wednesday.
Train riders, unlike bus riders, don’t have to be concerned about traffic getting worse as 8 a.m. approaches, officials said, and thus don’t have the same incentive to leave for work before the sun comes up.
Hemingson said that to hold down costs, the midday train runs probably would originate from and go as far as Lakeline Station, the second-to-last northbound stop. Customers wanting to go on to the end of the line in Leander would have to transfer to a bus for that final leg.
Midday trains, rather than running 35 minutes apart like the current morning and afternoon runs, probably would run an hour apart,
The recommended changes, as well as estimated added costs, will be presented to the board in August, officials said, and a decision is likely then or in September, when the board will approve its 2010-11 budget.
The changes would not take effect until January.
Given the agency’s fragile financial picture, the board will have to balance the added cost of more train runs with estimates of what they would produce in boardings. Fares cover only 5 to 10 percent of the cost of running the train; most of the rest is covered by the agency’s 1 percent sales tax.
In 2004, when the line from Leander to downtown Austin was up for public approval, the agency had estimated that first-year ridership would be 1,700 to 2,000 boardings a day. Instead, average ridership in June was 837 boardings a day, up slightly from 779 in May. April, the first full month of service, saw 901 daily boardings.
Capital Metro later this summer will begin a $230,000 marketing and advertising blitz in hopes of increasing train ridership. Capital Metro had done very little of that in the runup to the March 22 opening of MetroRail.
“We assumed upfront that we would have more ridership generated from what we call ‘earned media,’ ” said Cynthia Lucas, Capital Metro’s marketing manager. But the heavy newspaper and broadcast coverage in the weeks before rail opened did not have that effect once fares kicked in March 29.
Doug Allen, Capital Metro’s interim chief executive officer, said the agency is also pondering tweaking fares.
Currently, riding the train costs more than express buses from the Leander and Lakeline stops — $70 for a 31-day pass for the train, versus $63 for the bus — and shorter train rides cost twice the $1 charged for normal bus rides.
Allen said those might be made equal, but did not say if the train would cost less or if the bus would cost more.
Some members of the public have complained about the lack of service between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., after 8 p.m. and on the weekends.
Capital Metro officials say the midday service probably would increase morning and afternoon ridership. More potential commuters would be comfortable using MetroRail, Hemingson said, if they knew they could catch a train back home early if need be.
In the short run, the transit agency plans to begin running shuttle buses to and from the Kramer Lane station in North Austin, connecting train riders to nearby employers like IBM, National Instruments and the J.J. Pickle Research Campus.