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Brooks Schuelke
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Should Austin Be Worried About Passenger Train Wrecks, Part 2

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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post asking "Should Austin Be Concerned About Los Angeles Train Wrecks?" where I questioned whether wrecks similar to the LA commuter rail wrecks could occur here when Austin’s first commuter rail line opens (which have now been delayed until March 2009).

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one asking questions. Yesterday, the Austin American Statesman ran a front page story looking into the safety of the upcoming commuter rail. In MetroLink Disaster Here? Not likely Capital Metro says, I found comfort in some things, but concern about others.

The notable Los Angeles train wreck occurred when a commuter rail ran into a freight train. Capital Metro is convinced that such a collision will not occur here. LA tracks were dual-purpose, with several entities all running trains at the same time. Unlike their counterpart in LA, Capital Metro has exclusive rights to the rail lines here, and freight trains will not be running at the same time as the commuter trains. Thus, because of exclusive use, the likelihood of a similar wreck is probably small.

Does that mean the trains are absolutely safe? I’m not so sure about that. First, there will be several commuter trains sharing the tracks. In the morning, the occupied trains will be moving from North Austin into downtown with the empty trains going back north. In the afternoon, the occupied trains will be going from downtown to North Austin with the empty trains coming back downtown. These trains, sharing a track and moving in opposite directions, will provide a potential opportunity for collisions.

But the biggest problem or risk is train/vehicle collisions. The first route will cross public streets or privately owned roads in 75 places. Because these trains will be going much faster and will be much more quiet than typical freight trains, each stop will be a potential problem. The article quoted Bill le Jeune, Capital Metro’s director of commuter rail, as saying:

The toughest thing to predict is vehicular traffic. You just don’t know when you’re going to meet the next idiot.

So these newer, faster, more quiet trains will present many potential problems for drivers.

I’m also a little concerned about what’s already happened. The article reports that Capital Metro had hoped to run some of the trains at 75 mph in rural areas but that the Federal Railroad Administration was concerned about the strength of the rail cars’ superstructures and limited them to speeds of no more than 60 mph.

Federal regulators were also concerned about the fuel tank attached to the bottom of the cars exploding in the event of a wreck so they ordered Capital Metro to install steel cages around each tank. However, the regulators gave Capital Metro permission to wait to make those changes on the its first six cars until it orders more cars.

It will be interesting to see. For whatever reason, some motorists, most notably in Houston, have had a great deal of difficulty safely adjusting to the addition of commuter rail. I hope Austin won’t have the same problem.