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Will adding later morning runs help the Red Line?

We have now entered an exciting new phase of the Red Line Rescue Plan:

(thanks to reader @T_Starry for the posterized version).

I still have charts ready for a post about double-tracking, but that's a longer-term effort; in the meantime I'd better address this one.

Ben Wear reports:

At least some members of the public have complained trains began running on March 22 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, aside from whatever ridership the runs might have, likely would increase morning and afternoon ridership as well. More potential commuters would be comfortable using the train, Hemingson said, if they knew they could catch a train back home early if need be.

Most of the other media coverage is even fluffier - uncritically accepting that additional runs will lead to many more passengers. But is it true? For instance, KVUE uncritically reports:

"The last train where I pick it up in Leander it leaves at 8 o'clock, so if I leave later than that it would be convenient if there was one that ran a little bit later coming into Austin," said Angie Hurtado, who rides the Red Line.

"It works out great for me in the morning but sometimes I work doubles, especially on the weekends, so it would be nice if they had some trains going on the weekends," said Philip Schroeder, who rides the Red Line.

So, let's see: KVUE's evidence of prospective non-trivial increased ridership with later trains comes from one person who already rides an earlier train and one person who already rides the train during the week but might also ride on the weekend. Anybody see anything wrong with this evidence?

The fact is that the only large population of potential commuters to Central Austin who would see any benefit out of later trains are UT students - and the Red Line doesn't have any stations where very many students live. The UT traffic we see now on the Red Line is almost completely faculty and staff - and almost all of those folks have to (or want to) get in by 9:00 (meaning the last train out of Leander is actually too late for them, not too early).

What about the theory that people are nervous they won't be able to take a train home in the middle of the day? Well, those same express buses that have more riders than the Red Line run all day - and in the middle of the day the freeways are unclogged; so they're even faster. I find it vanishingly unlikely that any more than a handful of people would start riding because of the possibility of an earlier trip home on a train versus the superior express bus.

What WILL adding these runs DEFINITELY do? It'll raise the operating cost of this service even higher - making the subsidy per passenger look even worse, and resulting in further cuts to bus service. In other words, even more screwing of Austin in favor of Leander (who at least pays Cap Metro taxes) and Cedar Park and Round Rock (who don't).

So, in conclusion: will adding a couple of later departures from Leander or Lakeline add a non-trivial boost to Red Line ridership?

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , Don't Hurt Us Mr. Krusee, We'll Do Whatever You Want , I Told You So , Red Line Myths , Transit in Austin , Transportation


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I had the same skeptical response to this "plan." I just couldn't put it into coherent sentences. Nice job.

Can't wait to hear about double tracking (btw, is there room to double track?).

I think the late night is the best idea. But they need to be consistent. Make it essentially a night owl route or not. People aren't going to take your commuter rail if they can't remember if it's running.

I’ve agreed with you from the start that the Red Line is a bad idea, and I don’t think it’s likely that this will improve things, but don’t you think it’s at least worth trying to see what happens? You say “We have now entered the ‘throw stuff against the wall and see if it sticks’” as if it’s a bad thing, but how else can you learn what works?

Yes, it would have been great if we’d done something more similar to what’s worked in other places but, given that this system is in place, doesn’t it seem like a decent idea to experiment a bit to see if things can be improved? Do you think that the system is so broken that the best idea is to stop running everything entirely? Even if that’s true (and from a pure cost/benefit perspective, that seems likely), the political cost of doing so might be so high that it would prevent light rail, or other viable alternatives from getting off the ground in the future.

Hi Breadth (or Mr. First?), thanks for reading.

Key here is that the measure they're talking about here will dramatically increase operating costs with little to no influence on ridership.

My preferred option which is within the range of politically feasible is to keep running but spend no more capital dollars and keep the operating dollars tightly controlled - so that more money is available on the capital side for rail that will actually work for Austin in the future, and on the operating side for buses that actually work for Austin now.

Need to address both of these, because if CM is not stopped, they will ruin us on both counts. The #9, #21, and #22 buses are being cancelled or truncated as we speak - and the operating costs of the Red Line are a big reason why.

It doesn't matter what the subsidy per passenger comes out to. All that matters is the contribution margin for operating the line after hours. It's the incremental revenue gain less the incremental cost of service. If it's positive, and they aren't bumping freight from the rails, they should run it. Simple business decision.

That's right, Ruben, but the subsidy is gigantic right now (I'm comparing to the baseline of bus service - I'm not asking for no subsidy; not even a small one; just one that's smaller than roughly 35 bucks per ride).

There would be fewer, not more, people riding trains leaving Leander at 9:00 AM compared to existing traffic. Hence, an even higher operating subsidy.

Nights/weekends is a harder case. A lot more guessing - I don't think the trains would be full because people would still have to drive back from the stations way up there (and people in Austin itself would have no good way to use the train just like today). Might be worth the trouble and might not, but we're not talking about cutting into UT students hitting 6th street here - you're drawing from the pool of Leander and Cedar Park and Round Rock at best.

Yep, you still need sober drivers at the Park N Rides. And I could see frequent weekends being problematic with freight losing a huge chunk of availability every week. They should probably stick to special events like Pecan so the freight schedules can be planned well in advance.

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