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Transportation

Saturday MetroRail Service Set To Resume As Transit Ridership Shows Gains

MetroRail Red Line Train
Juan Figueroa for KUT
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A MetroRail train at the downtown station. CapMetro says it's resuming Saturday Red Line service for the first time in over a year.

Capital Metro's Red Line — the commuter train that runs from downtown Austin to Leander — is set to resume Saturday service May 29. Saturday service was suspended more than a year ago as ridership plummeted at the outset of the pandemic.

"We've been hearing from customers as the weather starts to get lovely again and our community emerges slowly from the pandemic that they were interested in seeing the return of Saturday MetroRail service," Cap Metro Chief Operating Officer Dottie Watkins said. "We're very excited."

Saturday Red Line service will run from 10 a.m. until just after midnight. Masks will be required on board as ordered by federal mandate. Cap Metro disinfects vehicles every night with electrostatic sprayers that apply a small electric charge to the aerosol that helps sanitizer cling to surfaces.

Transit advocates are applauding the return of Saturday service, convinced that weekend commuter rail lures causal transit users who may be converted to habitual riders.

"Let's say somebody who may have the luxury of driving, but because they're going [out] and they can't park, they'll take the train and realize how easy it is," Tina Bui with the advocacy group Transit for Austin said. "Then, it makes them more apt to do it next time and the next time and next time. And then maybe it becomes a regular habit."

MetroRail ridership remains sharply lower than pre-pandemic levels, but numbers are trending higher.

In March, the latest month for which federal data is available, 16,256 trips were taken on MetroRail. In March 2019 — a month when South by Southwest typically boosts Red Line ridership to its highest level of the year — the number was 98,811. SXSW was canceled last year.

The March 2021 monthly trip numbers were the highest since Travis County issued a shelter-in-place order on March 25, 2020, however.

"We're seeing weekends, especially as folks are able to get out and about, going up," Watkins said.

Transit agencies nationwide are facing lagging ridership, especially with commuter services that tend to target more affluent suburban professionals who are now able to work from home.

"There's no question that transit is experiencing existential crises all across the country," said Robert Puentes, CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonprofit think tank. "They're doing everything to bring folks back. It's just a matter of when."

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