Recently my wife and I decided we want to check out Austin’s new “Metro Rail” commuter train service. It runs from up North in Leander all the way down to downtown Austin, dropping you off at the Convention Center there where the yearly “Thomas The Tank Engine” shows up for kids all over the area! The tracks run right into downtown, and it’s “perfect” for commuters!
We started early on a Friday morning (the service currently only runs during the weekdays) and met at the train center in Cedar Park. The parking was easy, and the area was well manicured. It was not a manner station. We purchased our tickets from a machine there at the station. It was very efficient! All of the routes, both for buses and the train were posted on large maps there for you to refer to. Additionally, they had brochures and maps to take with you, for later reference.
The service was opened back in March of this year, covered by Examiner writer Robert Sharpe, Austin Green Living Examiner, in an article he wrote, “Cap Metro commences rail service from Leander to downtown Austin”. We wanted to give it some time to “gel” before we checked it out! As the Austin Social Media Examiner, Blake Sunshine stated in one of her earlier articles in April of this year, “Austin’s metro rail service is in full swing, but that doesn’t mean everything is perfect in commuter land.” We knew that “things” had to be worked out, so a trip in July seemed “perfect”!
The train, uh “Metro-Rail”, arrived as scheduled and on-time! We got to wait in a very nice seating area, with shade and information to help us to pass them time, in case we arrived too early. It is interesting to watch the folks that arrive, who are on their way to work, using the rail system. Their cars are parked, with no worries whatsoever of traffic accidents on the way to work or back. Nor do they have concerns for fender benders in traffic, which drive your insurance rates up! They approach, newspaper in-hand, with a cup of coffee, a computer bag, and a mission on their mind! They take a seat in these nicely done terminals as they wait, and enjoy the morning as the run begins to rise. Sipping on the most popular coffee around, as Starbucks Examiner Cindy Tickle would put it, they wait for the sound of the train whistle off in the distance, for that sound signals the upcoming arrival of “their ride” for the day!
When the train arrives, the would be passengers already know that you need to get in line to get a good seat! In fact, I noticed that many of them know “exactly” where the train will stop and the opened doors will be! And as we settle into the nicely decorated, air-conditioned coaches, we find the seating is “two-by-two”. Since there is “three” of us, we’re going to have to split up. But wait! They have “group seating”! At either end of the passenger cars there are seats that face each other, with a break table in between them to allow for a place to sit your paper, magazine, or your notebook computer. These seats are at a prime, and since we’re at the 2nd station, they are already taken.
We get to use what I call the “jump seats”. These are fold-down seats in the area where the bicycles hang. Yes, if you bring your bicycle, there are places just inside the car to hang your bicycle. If no bicycles are present, there are several fold-down seats to allow for additional seating. These are where we settled in the final stages before departure. I was surprised to find that many of the passengers are “not” riding all the way into Austin but some are only riding a few stations down. As space began to clear with passengers disembarking we got to move to the more plush, comfortable passenger seats by the windows. I must remark again, it was very very nice to have the cool air inside! This made the ride “pristine” in comfort!
As we passed the many stations on the way, and made our frequent but very brief stops, we marveled at the views and enjoyed the onboard WiFi service provided. There is ample low-noise and comfort for normal conversations, but personally I think it’s time for the iPOD and a musical experience for the remainder of the ride!
There is one note … like many facilities that offer “free WiFi”, the Metro-rail system does not take into account that you may NOT be using a notebook computer. The WiFi, like Starbucks, McDonald’s, and so many others, requires you to go to a web browser and “log in” or “confirm” your acceptance to their provisions and provisions. Now no one really ever reads these or takes them seriously, they just want to get access … “now”. The browser approach works ok for a notebook computer, but if you’re on an iPhone, a Blackberry, a Palm Treo, or some similar gaming device that uses wireless, going to a web page to “activate” your access just might take as long to accomplish as the entire trip to your destination!
This pretty much takes the simplicity out of using “their” wireless. And this is what I encountered with my iPhone. Since I have little patience for this, I simply turned “off” my wireless and used the built-in cellular WWAN connection on my iPhone, and the WWAN on my notebook computer. Nice try Metro.
*NOTE to Metro-Rail folks: You might want to consider getting rid of the web browser confirmation – just put in an “open” wireless access point that talks “B”, “G”, and especially “N”, and you will please “all” of your passengers! It’s easy, quick, painless, and it adds to the ambiance of the experience! Nobody wants to have to spend “time” trying to figure out their wireless connection. With a wireless access point the connection is quick and painless. You step into the car, approve the connection with the push of one button, and viola’! It’s done!
ARRIVAL in Downtown Austin!
Well, we arrived in downtown Austin Texas within a very short while of our departure from Cedar Park! All-in-all, I’d rate it a big “plus” … it was a nice ride! Short from the WiFi, we had no complaints at all …
We spend the day in Austin, touring the city (on foot). We toured the lower regions of the State Capital, we visited the Texas Constitution documents, and we navigated our way around town with my built-in GPS app on my iPhone! We used the “Motion-X” GPS app for iPhone. It kept track of everywhere we went, and recorded a breadcrumb trail so we could return exactly the same way we came, if we wanted, to locate our return train station. We had a wonderful time in Austin, but this is another adventure!
The Return Trip
On the trip home, we found the same courtesies as before. The Convention Center was open, and “nice” and cool for a July afternoon! The ticket booth was there at the station terminal itself, allowing us to purchase our return tickets! At $3.00 a pop, it’s not a bad rate at all!
This time, though, I wanted to enjoy the face-to-face seating of the “group area” so that we could all sit together this time! So, in order to do that, I had to be the first in line. Since we were the 1st point of departure, I felt we’d have no problem there. When the train arrived and the passengers departed the train, I immediately headed for a group section. Somebody had apparently left their bag on the train so I set it where the conductor could find it and we settled in!
We had a wonderful return trip! We knew not to try and go through the long process of logging into the onboard wireless so we just used our phones normally, and visited and discussed the events of the day!
If you’ve ever given consideration to riding the Metro-Rail system, I’d strongly suggest giving it a try! It’s a pleasant trip, easy to find, buy your ticket, and enjoy the ride! I’m sure they’ll eventually fix the wireless, but if you’ve got a notebook computer just get on it and get “authenticated” when you first get on. Then you’ll have time to use your pc for the ride.
I did have one concern. They don’t allow “drinks or food” on the train. Now I know we want to keep it clean, but hey? I’m used to drinking a “Starbucks” on my way … I wonder if you can put a cappucino in the water camelback on my backpack? Hmmm …
– rich –
Mobile Computing Examiner – Austin Texas