SMART to Use Heavier Rail Cars

stadler.jpgThe SMART board decided against using light European-made cars like these Stadler GTW DMUs. Flickr photo: Daniel Sparing
The Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) Board, in a 9-2 vote, has elected to use heavier, American-made rail cars instead of lighter, quieter, low-floored, European-made models that some of the directors originally favored.

A report on the various options, presented by SMART staff to the board Wednesday, noted that while the light cars "offer more operational efficiencies in comparison to an FRA-compliant design on a per vehicle basis," they would be much more difficult to purchase and implement, since the SMART's planned rail service "lies within a perfect storm of American rail service regulators."

For one, the light cars are not Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) compliant, and thus SMART would need to negotiate temporal separation from any freight service, which will soon begin operating again in the North Bay for the first time since 2001. Since the light cars would be produced abroad, they also would require a waiver of the Federal Transit Administration's Buy America clause.

nippon.sharyo.jpgA rendering of the model proposed by Nippon Sharyo, one of at least four manufacturers being considered to build the FRA-compliant cars. Photo from the Nippon Sharyo presentation to the SMART board (PDF).

The light trains would also require various modifications to meet FRA-defined conditions for alternate compliance, and SMART would need to be willing to "construct and maintain its track to tighter tolerances than specified by the FRA class 4 track requirements," the report said. Each of these steps could incur additional costs and delay the scheduled 2014 start date for service.

Stephen Birdlebough of Friends of SMART, which advocates for building the rail line, said his group remained conflicted. There was "enough energy in the direction of wanting to press for futuristic approach that we didn't a consensus," said Birdlebough. "I lean toward the staff's view. Once we heard the board begin to focus down on the issues ... I became convinced for this line this is the right decision."

The report also cited the fact that only one manufacturer, Stadler of Switzerland, was willing to produce the cars, which would lead to far less competitive prices.

Overall, neither car option was expected to run the full 71-mile route faster than the other, with both taking about one and a half hours to complete a one-way trip. The report concludes that their energy efficiency is also roughly the same:

[The light vehicles] achieve schedule performance with 41 percent less energy consumption and 37 percent less fuel consumption on a per vehicle basis; however, the proposed FRA-compliant vehicles will be larger than the proposed alternate-compliant vehicle. As such, an FRA-compliant [diesel multiple unit] will provide about 50 percent greater passenger capacity, so the energy and fuel consumption per seat between the two technologies is practically equivalent.

A full fleet of either type would cost around $90 million.

Some further details from the SMART staff report:

Interoperability. A compliant vehicle makes it more likely that SMART someday can directly connect with the regional and national rail networks, such as Capitol Corridor, Amtrak and, ultimately, high-speed rail. Conversely, a compliant SMART system could more easily accommodate trains from elsewhere entering into the SMART corridor.

Emissions. While the alternate-compliant vehicle is more fuel efficient, the compliant vehicle has a larger passenger capacity. On a per-seat basis, the energy consumption, emissions and carbon footprint of the two vehicles are almost identical.

Electrification. Like Caltrain is currently doing, SMART may someday want to convert its DMUs to electric-powered vehicles, particularly if more electricity from renewable sources is available. Compliant car builders have indicated they can design vehicles ready for relatively simple retrofit from diesel to electric. Stadler told SMART its alternate-compliant design does not and will not allow for this.