The big news in Austin today was the opening of the new commuter rail. After years of planning and delays, CapMetro announced that it was finally on track and beginning operations. And since we’re public transportation geeks, we just had to experience it for ourselves.

We hopped one of the afternoon trains headed north from downtown, along with a few hundred other public transit geeks. There were CapMetro staff and helpers at each station, the media circus, and plenty of onlookers. Our train was extremely crowded, as everyone tried to figure out how to make space for a few dozen standing passengers, six bikes and two wheelchairs. But everyone seemed to be enthusiastic and optimistic about the city’s foray into public train service.

We’ve had the crazy fortune to ride a lot of commuter rail systems around the US… Boston, New York, Washington D.C., Portland, San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles… so we felt like we could immediately spot a number of potential problems and room for improvement. The trains are extremely small (only 100 seats per car, 2 cars per train) and run on a very limited service (weekday commute times only, which make them not as versatile as they could be). There’s not enough (useful) space for bikes, no handrails for standing passengers, and the air conditioning was malfunctioning. But they’re also the nicest train cars I’ve seen in the US, they offer free WiFi, and you don’t have to step up to board.

Public transit isn’t an easy sell anywhere, and we can only imagine it’s more difficult in Texas. So, we felt like this new Red Line was a really good start for Austin. With luck, they’ll expand the schedule and add more trains over the next few months and years. And with even more luck, they’ll improve the on-board bike facilities (how about a dedicated bike car?), so that it’s easier and more attractive for folks to travel multi-modal.

If you’re in Austin, check out the train this week, while it’s free to ride. CapMetro is requesting comments about your riding experiences, so pick up a postcard or send them an email.