Sunday, July 21, 2013

Local Women Ride Train to Austin and Return Unscathed

Published in the Sun July 20, 2013

Metrorail train at the Leander Station

There has been a lot of spirited conversation recently about passenger trains, and whether or not Georgetown needs a passenger train to take us to Austin and San Antonio.  Frankly, most of the conversing has been by people like me who have their own personal automobiles waiting to deliver them door-to-door wherever they want to go, at the exact moment they are ready to depart, and haven’t boarded a bus or a train since their last vacation in London or Vancouver, unless you count the tram at the Dallas airport.


Williamson County already has a new passenger train, of course:  the Capital MetroRail running from Leander to the Austin Convention Center.  I had read a few things about the MetroRail, but I hadn’t met anyone who had actually ridden it.  There is no teacher like experience, so I set aside a day to explore, and my friend Sherry Dana agreed to come along and keep me company.


We arrived at the Leander Park and Ride (or Kiss and Ride as it’s called if you get dropped off) about 30 minutes early for the 8:40 AM train, the last morning train to depart from Leander.  The morning rush was over, and the parking lot was mostly full.  The station is beautifully landscaped with stone walks and native plants.  We couldn’t find any public restrooms though, so don’t drink too much coffee before you go.  We bought day passes from a machine for $5.50 each that would allow us to get on and off the train all day, and ride connecting Capital Metro buses as well.


While we waited for the train, I asked a young man if he was a regular train-rider.  Taking his earbuds out (pretty much everybody under 30 on the train was connected to earbuds), he told me that he likes to take the train to his software job everyday because he can do his extra computer work with the train’s WiFi while he rides.  Or he can sleep.  The trip all the way downtown takes 55 minutes, about the same time it would take to drive and park.  The train, however, never has to worry about traffic.


At 8:40 we got on the train, which was spotlessly clean and cool.  The northern part of the route is scenic through the countryside.  Whenever we came to a crossroad the barriers came down and we barreled on through.  This is nothing like driving on IH 35.  The train made several brief stops and 5 to 20 people would get on or off.  Most of the people were going to work, but at one station a group of three young mothers and five children boarded, headed for an adventure at the Austin Children’s Museum.


Sherry and I got off at Plaza Saltillo, at the corner of 5th and Comal in East Austin.  Hidden behind the station in a nondescript warehouse was Texas Coffee Traders, where they import and roast coffee, and will also brew a cup for a thirsty traveler.  But Sherry and I were looking for breakfast, so we walked one block to 6th Street and found ourselves at Cisco’s.  To me it looked dubious, but Sherry assured me Cisco’s was famous, and that all the Texas legislators used to eat there, and we did indeed have some excellent egg tacos and coffee.  The lawmakers were unfortunately otherwise engaged.


After breakfast we finished our southbound train ride to the Convention Center and walked around downtown.  It turns out 6th street is not that much fun at 11:30 in the morning, especially when the temperature gets up into the 90s, so we decided to take our public transit adventure to the next level – a connecting bus.  All the train stops are coordinated with a connecting Capital Metro bus, so we hopped back on the train and headed north to the Martin Luther King Station.  Waiting for us was the bus taking passengers to campus.  Here again, Sherry was the smart one.  Somehow she knew that Thursday is free day at the Blanton Art Museum.  I love the upstairs part of the Blanton but the downstairs can be strange.  The most bizarre exhibit was a large piece of corrugated cardboard leaning against the wall.  I know some people look at modern art and say, “I could do that,” but really, I could lean a piece of cardboard against the wall, and in fact I have, many times, and never got put in an art museum.


Catching the right bus back to the train station was the only tricky part of the whole journey, because by now of course it is 102 degrees and Capital Metro maps are written in Egyptian hieroglyphics crisscrossed with nanoscopic color-coded lines.  But every bus stop has a number on it and you can send a text to the bus company and immediately get back a text that tells you when the next bus is coming, so you can sit very still at the bus stop under a tree and not sweat too much.  After a ten minute wait we were back on a cool bus and the driver took us straight to the train station.


Back in Leander, MetroRail operator Narvin Logans let me look in the cockpit and blow the horn.  He explained that the operators really do drive the trains; they are not computerized or on autopilot. He also said that the afternoon trains coming back north are usually standing room only.  Sometimes the train is a few minutes late to Leander because so many people unload at Lakeline.


By the way, don’t try to ride the train without buying a ticket.  Tickets are mostly by the honor system, but every once in a while the fare-checker comes by, and he brings a policeman with him.  A young man got caught on our return trip, and the policeman wrote him up.  The fine could be anywhere from $100 to $400.  We got off the train with the perpetrator and asked him if he was a regular rider.  He assured us that he always pays the fare, except just this one time, because he almost missed the train.  That’s his story, and I’m just going to believe it, because he seemed like such a nice guy.

People exiting the train at Leander

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