By Noel T, Braymer
At the LOSSAN Joint Powers Authority Board Meeting on January 29, 2018, plans were discussed to run a third round trip train between San Diego and San Luis Obispo, a distance of 350 miles between the whole LOSSAN Corridor route. Also discussed at this meeting was the need for the LOSSAN corridor to have more passenger cars to carry more passengers and run more trains. There are 49 new cars on order by the State which are not expected to be delivered for at least 2 years. This doesn’t include plans to lease Talgo equipment originally built for the State of Wisconsin. The lease contract for these cars is still being negotiated which have been on going for well over a year. There are plans to start up a commuter service this spring between Ventura County and the city of Santa Barbara. This will likely also need more equipment. At the same time the age of most of the Amtrak passengers cars used on the Surfliner service range roughly from between 20 to 40 years old. Contracts for new Amtrak cars in the last 8 years have lately produced cars that were either delivered late or with no cars being built.
What can be done about this? There is a limited supply of usable rail passenger cars in this country and most of these cars are old. Buying new equipment is expensive and it often takes time to start production. There are plenty of companies overseas which build good rail passenger equipment. But to get Federal Funding there is usually a build in America requirement. Also a special order would be needed to build cars overseas to meet FRA standards for passenger cars in this country. The only exception to that could be China. Chinese Railroads were originally designed by american engineers and built to AAR standards. The Chinese would likely be more than happy to build rail passenger cars for less than they would cost to build here. A major factors in getting new equipment cheaper and sooner is if the equipment is already in production. There aren’t many productions lines open for rail passenger cars now in this county. There is the production for the 49 single levels cars for California at the Siemens plant in Sacramento. These new cars which also include more new cars for the Midwest will basically be the same car built for the Brightline trains in Florida. Since the production line for the Brightline order was already in place, this allowed Siemens to go right to work for the car order for California and the Midwest.
Another rail passenger car which is in production now are the Bombardier bi-level cars used on Metrolink, Coaster and Caltrain’s Baby Bullet Trains. These cars have been built since 1979 and are used by several commuter services in both the United States and Canada. They are still in production with Go Transit recently placing a big order for more Bombardier Bi-Level cars. This order for Toronto will keep the factory in Thunder Bay, Ontario busy until at least 2020. The question is can an intercity version of this Bi-level car be built? This question was asked over 20 years ago. The Thunder Bay factory which builds the cars didn’t have a problem with building an intercity version of their Bi-Level car then. Such a car would need some changes over the Go Transit cars now in production. These include different seating, electrical systems and different windows to meet FRA standards. A major selling point for these cars was because they were in almost continuous production since the late 1970’s there was no need to start up a new production line to build new orders which made production of new car orders faster and cheaper than the way most rail cars are made in this country. In the past the construction of these cars could be done in Canada instead of needing to be built in the United States because of the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA. This usually included use of American made hardware for these railcars for the American transportation market. If this is still possible, using new Bi-Level intercity cars built in Canada can be built faster and cheaper than the way such equipment have been bought recently. As bi-level cars these would be bigger and carry more passengers than low level equipment. But they could be used with existing and future low level cars since they would have matching vestibules. The existing Surfliner cars have their vestibules on the upper level which are much higher than the standard height for single level rail cars.
What is needed for the Surfliners and other California regional rail services is standardized equipment. Instead we have a odd collection of passenger cars built over a span of over 40 years which don’t share common parts, a common vestibule height or even a common number of steps to climb from the platform into the passenger cars. Standardizing rail passengers equipment will reduce maintenance cost and improve operational reliability for California’s regional rail services. Also having faster loading equipment on all trains with allow shorter times stopped at stations and faster, more reliable schedules. As it is now on the Surfliners all trains have either have some cars that need attendants to open their doors and one trainset which has no doors that can opened remotely. California soon will need not only more rail passenger equipment for its regional rail passenger services. It will also need to replace existing equipment, the newest of which is almost 20 years old. Much of this equipment is owned by Amtrak which charges the State for its use. The State of California would save money in the long run by buying more of its own cars for its regional rail services and stop using Amtrak’s equipment. Also having new equipment will reduce operating costs while more equipment will increase rail passenger ridership and revenues.