The lack of modal diversity in the corridor hinders choice and is a tangible and emergent threat to future economic growth in the region. Enter Lone Star Rail District.
A Mulitmodal Solution
Lone Star Rail District, originally dubbed the Austin-San Antonio Intermunicipal Commuter Rail District, was created on paper by an act of the Texas state legislature in 1997. The agency, an independent local government entity, was formally constituted in 2003 when the cities of Austin and San Antonio and the counties of Travis and Bexar voted to join each other in planning the new rail service, which was a condition set in the original legislation. Since that time, membership in the rail district has expanded to include most of the political jurisdictions in the district’s service area, the transit authorities in the two keystone cities, Capital Metro in Austin and VIA in San Antonio, and the two rural transit authorities, CARTS and ART. It also includes the region’s two major metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), CAMPO in the Austin area and SA-BC MPO in the San Antonio area. Since its inception, the sole purpose of the agency has been the planning, construction and operation of passenger rail service in the corridor between Austin and San Antonio.
In 2009, the district conducted a market analysis and branding effort. At its conclusion, the analysis offered many insights into the potential market for passenger rail service in the corridor, the most important of which was the discovery that the final product expected by the traveling public is much more than just a commuter service. In fact, many of the trips that the trains could serve are non-work-related. Discoveries such as that one, and the desire to formulate a better identity for the service led to the renaming of the agency to Lone Star Rail District, and the branding of the proposed rail service as the LSTAR.
The planned 117-mile line includes the current UPRR freight corridor, plus two greenfield “extensions” — on the north an alignment based on the former Mo-Kan Railroad right of way, and on the south a route from the west side of downtown San Antonio to south San Antonio. A total of 16 stations are planned, from Georgetown, located north of Austin, to a station at City South, adjacent to the Texas A&M University campus in south San Antonio. Current plans include the use of FRA-compliant rolling stock, most likely diesel locomotive-hauled bi-level coaches with cab control cars for push-pull operation. Maximum operating speed at initial deployment is planned to be 90 mph, made possible by the installation of positive train control and the maintenance of track and roadbed at FRA Class 5 standards. At full build-out, current plans include double track in the entire corridor (with the exception of a short segment in the vicinity of the Colorado River) to bolster reliability, and full centralized traffic control (CTC) dispatching, which will be under the direction of the rail district. Additional infrastructure to support continuing local freight service is also being designed into the project, so that customers in the corridor need not worry about losing their access to the national freight rail network.
A two-tiered service plan is in the works, including a mix of local and express service throughout the service day, seven days per week. Half-hour headways are planned during the morning and afternoon weekday peak periods, with hourly service during the mid-day and evening weekday off-peak periods. The latest train performance calculations, based on a preliminary understanding of the configuration and characteristics of the new line, show that LSTAR express trains operating between the Austin and San Antonio downtown stations and making just two mid-line stops en route will have a travel time of one hour and 15 minutes, making that service quite time-competitive with automobile travel times between the same end points. In addition, special event service is planned to serve the diverse sporting, cultural and entertainment events and venues featured in many cities along the route, including the annual South by Southwest conference, Austin City Limits music festival, and University of Texas football games in Austin; Wurstfest in New Braunfels; and NBA Spurs games and the River Walk in San Antonio.