Jan. 16--Get ready to know your fellow Houston rail riders a little better.
Metro officials said Wednesday that the best solution to an expected shortage of railcars might be to limit trains on the main light rail line to one car rather than two, freeing up cars from the current fleet to serve new lines scheduled to open in September.
Currently, Metro tethers two cars together most of the time on the decade-old Main Street line to ensure sufficient capacity.
Officials acknowledged that the decision would frustrate riders, likely leading some to abandon using the line.
"If you try to use our current fleet to run East and Southeast," said board member Christof Spieler, referring to the new lines set to open this year, "that means leaving passengers behind."
Officials are waiting for 39 new railcars from the manufacturer, CAF U.S.A., but they still don't know exactly when the cars will arrive. At least two are likely to be in service by September, Metro officials said.
The company is months behind a schedule that calls for it deliver the final car by September, and it has yet to deliver a viable vehicle. The first car to arrive in Houston came in December -- five months late -- and still hasn't passed a key leak test. The train also exceeds weight specifications, meaning it will cost more to operate.
Metro's board met Wednesday to examine options for operating the new East and Southeast lines and the existing Red Line with the agency's 37-train fleet. Both new lines are on pace to open in September, said David Couch, vice president of rail construction for Metro.
To have trains arrive every 12 minutes on the two new lines, and assuming no CAF cars arrive by opening day, Metro will have to pull 10 trains from the current route.
Most of the time, officials said, two railcars for trains coming six minutes apart are needed to handle demand. During peak commuting times, having two cars is critical.
Pulling 10 cars from the Red Line would mean about every other train would be limited to a single car. Riders interviewed Wednesday said this would pose a problem.
"I don't know about that," Allen Reynolds said as he headed home from work. "We need more trains now, and they're going to open new lines and take them away? I don't know if that's a good idea."
"We don't want to bastardize our main line," said board member Cindy Siegel. "We don't want to lose riders because all of a sudden we are taking steps back."
Back to the Red Line
As CAF cars come in, trains will return to the Red Line, said Andy Skabowski, Metro's director of operations. "It is real easy," he said. "The more CAF cars, the more we have two-car sets on the (Red Line)."
Eventually, Metro will increase service on all the lines, including a 5.3 mile northward extension of the Red Line that opened last month. Trains run every six minutes from the Burnett stop south on the Red Line, and every 12 minutes north.
Increasing schedules on all the lines to six-minute arrivals, while enabling Metro to shift trains in and out of service for inspections and service, would require all of the 39 CAF railcars.
CAF executives last week assured Metro the leak problem would be resolved within 10 days, and the company committed to hiring 100 more workers to expedite delivery of the Metro cars. CAF made similar upgrades and expansions of its Elmira, N.Y., plant to satisfy a national contract to build new cars for Amtrak, which is also delayed.
CAF, a worldwide leader in railcar building, has limited experience in the American market. During Wednesday's board meeting, longtime Metro critic Paul Magaziner said officials should have considered this factor when they chose CAF in 2011. An earlier arrangement with the company led federal officials to conclude Metro had violated Buy America requirements, threatening a $900 million grant.
Magaziner called the choice of CAF one of many "systemic failures on procurement" by Metro.