Many Austin visitors are surprised to learn how limited Austin’s Capital MetroRail system is. It consists of only one 32-mile route that starts in Leander, a few miles northwest of Austin, and ends in downtown. Since it’s geared around commuters, there are usually not many late-night and weekend routes available. However, during major events such as SXSW and Austin City Limits Music Festival, the schedule is expanded to meet increased demand.
The train is clean, comfortable and usually on time. If you can work around Capital MetroRail’s somewhat limited schedule, it’s one of the best ways for visitors to get around Austin. In combination with the Capital Metro bus system, you can get just about anywhere in Austin at an affordable price. The bus system also has an app that makes it simple to use your smartphone to buy passes.
As of May 2018, safety improvements are underway on the red line to implement new technology that has been mandated by the federal government. Most riders don't mind the inconvenience because Positive Train Control (PTC) technology has the ability to prevent the kind of accidents that have occurred recently in the northeast corridor. While most of the changes have been made, there is still a months-long period of testing ahead.
You can buy your pass online or at any train station. One-way fares start at $3.50, but you can get significant discounts if you plan to ride the train for several days.
Stations and Nearby Landmarks
Leander, 800 N. Hwy 183. The northernmost station is located in a residential area near FM 2243. It’s adjacent to a 600-space parking lot.
Howard, 3705 West Howard Lane. Located near the MoPac Expressway, the Howard Station is the first station actually within the Austin city limits. An adjoining parking lot has 200 spaces. Hospira, a pharmaceutical and medical device company, is one of the large employers in the area. The largest nearby neighborhood is Wells Branch.
Highland, 6420 1/2 Airport Boulevard. The former Highland Mall building, located a few blocks from the station, is now occupied primarily by Austin Community College, making this a popular stop for students. A Texas Department of Public Safety office is also located near the MetroRail station.
MLK, Jr., 1719 Alexander Boulevard. Located a few blocks east of the University of Texas campus, this station is also widely used by students and professors. It’s also not far from UT’s Disch-Falk baseball stadium.
Plaza Saltillo, 412 Comal Street. Also in east Austin, the Plaza Saltillo station is close to many of the area’s most popular bars, such as The White Horse. It’s only a few blocks away from the 6th Street entertainment district.
Downtown, 401 East 4th Street. Located near the north side of the massive Austin Convention Center, the station is also within walking distance of most of downtown Austin. It’s close to the 2nd Street shopping district and the Warehouse District, which is home to many of Austin’s most popular gay bars.
Plans for improving Austin’s light rail system seem to come and go every couple of years. But there’s at least one plan that seems to be gaining traction. The line would go from Republic Square Park in downtown over to South Congress Avenue and then south all the way to Slaughter. Since the existing line goes north to Cedar Park, it would make sense that the next step would be to go south to far-south Austin. Another part of the plan proposes a line that would run along East Riverside and eventually go all the way to the Airport in southeast Austin.
An east-west route along East 7th and Lake Austin Boulevard has also been proposed. City leaders are eager to find a way to better coordinate rail service and bus service. The common problem for all of them is the “last mile,” the distance between a person’s home and a rail or bus stop. One pilot program involves offering free rides from people’s houses to bus stops using Austin’s non-profit ride-sharing service, Ride Austin. Of course, the most inexpensive rail plan proposed would cost over $1.5 billion, so voters may be hesitant to commit to such an ambitious project.