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How Safe Is Capital Metro's Rail System?

Today, the legislative Sunset Advisory Commission released its staff report on the Capital Metro Transportation Authority.  Unfortunately, the report raises a number of questions about the safety of the new Capital Metro rail system. 

The first real safety issue involved the bridges along the rail system.  The report notes:

Most of the 200 bridges on Capital Metro’s 162 miles of tracks are timber, and many more than 100 years old.  According to Capital Metro, of the 42 bridges on the 32-mile corridor commuter and freight operations share, experts have determined that, in the near future, 10 bridges need major repairs and three must be replaced altogether.

While there doesn’t appear to be an immediate danger from the condition of the bridges, the report also finds that there don’t appear to be any budget or plans for these repairs.

The second safety finding is that there is no state safety oversight and the federal oversight is inadequate.  The report noted that the Federal Railroad Administration only has the capacity to inspect about 1% off the nation’s rail lines.  Additionally, the FRA hasn’t finished creating railroad bridge regulations.

The report has the following recommendations to improve the safety of the rail line:

  •  The state should require Capital Metro to maintain a comprehensive rail safety plan and to regularly report to the Texas Department of Transportation on the ongoing safety of the rail system.
  • Require Capital Metro to hire a Rail Director to oversee and be accountable for safety, among other things.
  • Capital Metro should prioritize and budget for work on bridges.

Let me also point out the opposite side of the coin.  When Houston’s rail system opened, there was a rush of serious accidents between the trains and motorists or pedestrian.  We haven’t seen that yet, and some of that success has to be attributed to the work that Capital Metro has already done.  But safety has to be the first priority, and Capital Metro needs to demonstrate that continuing commitment.

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