After several stops and starts and some controversy over the alleged dangers of steel rail ties, Austin�s Capital Metro opened its 32-mi MetroRail commuter line between the city of Leander and the Convention Center in Downtown Austin on March 22, a year later than originally planned.

Austinites Riding Rails Over Questionable Ties
Photo: Capital Metro

Citing safety concerns, Capital Metro on March 23, 2009, postponed the planned MetroRail opening. At a board meeting, according to official minutes, chairman Margaret Gomez said she was disappointed but having waited 30 years for a rail line, “I can wait another few weeks or so because safety is the most important issue.”

It was one day shy of a year when Capital MetroRail opened the commuter line, more than five years after voters approved the “All Systems Go Plan” referendum to allow the agency to build phase one of the commuter line. The agency owned the rail line and ran freight on it. Capital Metro added passenger rail service, with freight continuing to run on the same line during nighttime hours.

Capital Metro spokesman Adam Shaivitz says, “the overall integration of the CTC (centralized traffic control) train control system took longer to implement than anticipated.”

The agency originally contracted with Veolia for approximately $113 million including a 15% contingency to run its commuter and freight rail through 2013. In December 2009, during disputed contract negotiations, the agency terminated its contract with Veolia and immediately awarded  contracts totaling $94.9 million to two new firms. Herzog Transit Services, St. Joseph, Mo, was awarded  $61 million to operate and provide maintenance for the passenger rail. Watco Cos. Inc., Pittsburg, Kan., already a subcontractor for Veolia, won a $33.9 million contract to operate Capital Metro’s freight.

Shaivitz says that was “based on a contractual issue regarding insurance.” This is not an answer about the ties, but about what happened with Veolia.

The agency said it would save $3.1 million under the new passenger rail contract alone—plus an additional $10.7 million in contract negotiations that prompted the agency to fire Veolia in the first place. These predictions, however, did not include any payments Cap Metro might have to make to close out its contract with Veolia. Neither do they address the cost of replacing steel ties with wood, some of which were sold at a loss. However, Shaivitz says steel ties are less expensive in the long run, because they last 1.5 times longer than wood.

Capital Metro had encountered a litany of problems while testing its proposed commuter line. In August, board meeting minutes indicated, it was experiencing difficulty with Vital Logic programming during field testing. Vital Logic is the system used for switching from freight to passenger rail.

An article in the Austin American-Statesman first focused public attention on a more bureaucratic controversy surrounding how the steel ties may have contributed to  problems. Steel ties are not normally used by U.S. rail lines. Cross ties maintain gauge, which is the width of the track; surface, so the rails do not sink into the ballast; and line, so the track remains straight, says Jim Gaunett, executive director of the Railway Tie Association of Fayetteville, Ga. He reports that wood is used 93% to 94% of the time, because of its lower initial and lifecycle costs and that is more “forgiving” and not as stiff as concrete. About 6% of rail lines use concrete, particularly when the railroads are in heavy-haul situations with high traffic density, and some freight yard sidings use steel when longer tie lengths are needed.

“Steel ties are pretty rare in North America,” adds Al Reinschmidt, vice president of commercial programs for the Transportation Technology Center in Pueblo, Colo. “They’ve had a very poor history in North America. The signal issue has been a big one and lateral stability of the track has been a big one. They slide sideways too easily.”

Steel ties historically tend to interfere with signaling systems, Reinschmidt says. He explains, the rails connect a battery and signal source. Normally, when the train’s solid-steel rail set is on the track, it shorts the circuit, and operators know where the train is located. But if the steel tie is not sufficiently isolated from the rail, the steel tie will short the circuit.

“Then we’ll think there are trains out there when they’re not,” Reinschmidt explains. “It fails on the fail-safe side, but it’s not good for operations if you are constantly getting signals when there are no trains there.”

Locating the steel tie that’s causing the short can be difficult Reinschmidt adds. Proper insulators can help prevent the problem.

Shaivitz says the “steel ties are working fine. They are OK with the signal system.”

On the positive side, Reinschmidt says part of attractiveness of steel is that steel could be cheaper, depending on the price of steel and wood at the time of purchase. They also are environmentally better, since wood ties are treated with the preservative creosote. 

It is not clear why Capital Metro chose to use steel ties. Shaivitz says the decision was made several years ago. Generally Capital Metro allows the contractor responsible for maintenance, in this case Veolia, to make recommendations for what type of ties they prefer. He adds that, although the rail line originally had wood ties, the two maintenance contractor purchased both steel and wood.

Alaina Freeman, spokesperson for Veolia Transportation, says it is not policy to comment on locations where Veolia does not provide service. “However, we can tell you that Capital Metro made the decision to purchase and install the steel ties before they contracted Veolia Transportation to operate and maintain the railway,” she says.

Lockwood, Andrews & Newman of Houston provided program management support. LAN was not involved in specifying ties, says Sian Imber, spokesperson for LAN. “We could only speculate what may have happened and our contract with Cap Metro prevents us from doing so.”

LAN, meanwhile, in a joint venture with partner, AECOM of New York, secured a contract to provide preliminary engineering services for a new urban rail route in Austin, which will be overseen by the city, not Capital Metro. A vote on the plans had been scheduled for November, 2010, but Mayor Lee Leffingwell, in a statement on March 10, said “…the City will not be prepared before November to propose an exact rail route” across the city. He added it was his “hope and expectation” that the city would be ready to hold the election “before the end of 2011.”

That LAN/AECON contract is not to exceed $100 million, says Karla Villalon, spokesperson for the recently consolidated and expanded the transportation department for the city of Austin. Villalon says that as the department becomes more active it will focus on access to Central Austin, adopting some of Capital Metro’s studies. “We can advance on [those] and get into a more detailed and expanded approach while focusing more on mobility issues for Austin, now that the need is clear.” As the city becomes more active in transportation, she says, it will work with Capital Metro, Texas Dept. of Transportation and other transportation agencies toward more planning efforts.