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.

  • patrick

    In this situation it sounds like they made the right decision. I’m all for the latest & greatest, but only if it makes for a better system, which I don’t think would be the case given the current regulatory environment.

  • kit

    I cannot adequately explain how excited I am about this train. It is the last portion of the Bay Area that is not served by a rail line, and that alone makes this project immensely exciting. 2014 cannot come soon enough!

  • This would be a good example of why the new GM should produce trains/light rails instead of SUVs. Buying American should mean getting a lesser product (though this sounds like the two are pretty equivalent). But why can’t we produce the latest and greatest here in the states?

  • Forgot to say that I very excited about this also. I hate having to get a zip car to head up to the north bay. I would love to take a ferry with my bike, hop on SMART and then have a great day of biking without even touching a car.

  • @mikesonn repeats the mantra trains good buses bad. I have been using GG Transit buses to get to Sonoma County – with bike – for years. Those buses are very nice – though it definitely doesn’t scale…

  • ZA

    While I have a number of issues with this proposal, the subject I’ll tackle is the role this train may play in opening up new areas for weekend bicyclists deep into Sonoma and Napa, now limited to the relative few with the resolve to overcome Whites Hill and/or the Sausalito climb on the return. This may serve to relieve some of the pressure on Sausalito, but may also increase the numbers (and with more casual cyclists) in China Camp, Hood Mountain, Sugerloaf, Gurneville, Occidental, Bodega, Tomales. There may also be more cyclists heading over the border to Calistoga, and RLS State Park. I’m sure weekend food retailers will love the business, but I also hope that these communities are ready to share the road, especially with more casual tourist cyclists.

  • ZA

    Another comment is on the interoperability potential with Amtrak. I just find it unrealistic so long as Napa continues to avoid this project. Sure, there’s a convenient right-of-way near Hwy 37 that could connect American Canyon, Vallejo, and Benicia…but neither the pricing of SMART or the ferry capacity has addressed the sort of numbers needed to make a properly integrated system for the North Bay counties.

  • Daveo

    What’s the latest on the design of the Larkspur ferry to train station transfr design . Last I heard it was still going to be a quarter mile walk or do

  • Have to second murph here on the GG transit buses. You can easily rip up to the Russian River, Petaluma, lots of places with your bike on the express 70/80/101 buses right from downtown San Francisco. Of course the train will be great when it opens.

  • Anyone else very excited about the opportunity to visit wine country and not have to worry about driving?

  • @Evan. again, not to beat the *you already can* dead horse, there is pretty decent service via the Napa Vine bus out of the vallejo ferry terminal.

    You can also do it with a bike + bus + ferry to make it even easier.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    SMART (what a misnomer) has just put back passenger rail transportation in the USA by a couple decades.

    Let’s see … go for a vaporware design which exists nowhere else in the world, the only past attempt at which (Colorado Rail Car) was a unmitigated disaster, a designed which will be untested, is guaranteed to have wretched reliability and atrocious energy efficiency (they exxplicitly _promise_ this!) and to be delivered years late (compare Portland’s “rah rah USA number one” all-American craptastic fiasco with the fabulous Swiss-built Stadler vehicles in Austin (TEXAS!!!!!!!) or in New Jersey) … all based on the premise that they’ll be delivered “sooner”.

    What morons. What complete cretins.

    Note that SMART’s GM was formerly associated with the unmitigated disaster of Portland’s West Side rail earmark pork barrel failure fest.

    Bay Area Transportation: the best the world has to offer!

    I’ll bet a year’s salary that none of budget, schedule nor availability bechmarks will be met by the third world (designed and built in the U-S-A!) vehicles that result from this scam. Anybody at SMART or any of the World Class Rail Professionals at LTK (the World Class consultants who recommended a program that guarantees greatest cost and greatest consultant input) want to take me up on the bet?

  • Donovan b

    Makes me think of what happened to the Acela in the Northeast Corridor. European-style trains selected but dumbed down to American “safety” standards, i.e., made into complete pigs. The extra weight required a complete re-engineering of the brakes and wheels, a need discovered too late and only after the piggish cars wore through wheels like butter. The poor quality tracks they had to run on, with their looser tolerances typical in American rail, didn’t help. Are we heading to the same type of disaster? Doesn’t seem to fit the “world class” moniker SMART would like to aspire to.

  • @murphstahoe yeah, I pretty much hate buses. If it isn’t pretty and fast, then it’s not worth my time.

    Well, murph, I hate to say it, but your smart-ass comment has made me want to give golden gate transit a try.

  • @mikesonn – they are super nice buses and they run on the 101 – aside from Marin City and San Rafael the only stops in Marin County are bus pads on the freeway offramps. A super tactic is to go up Friday night on an express to Santa Rosa, stay the night, then bike on Saturday. The express buses stop a few places in the city, then the GG Bridge, then the next stop is Santa Rosa. Coach buses with nice seats. Some of the expresses run on 45 ft MCIs with a bike bay under the bus to keep your bike nice and cozy and safe.

    Oh, and they have Free Wi-fi.

  • Peter Smith

    there’s so much wrong with this decision.

    first, the ‘buy america’ clause is garbage – unfair, anti-competitive, etc.

    second, are we really throwing away low floors? so i’ll have to carry my bike on-board? on a rail line designed after the year 2000?

    america can put a man on the moon, but can’t make a low-floor rail car?

    can’t make a light rail car?

    can’t get regulations together to unfairly favor domestic production?

    ‘heavy’ is great — i guess — if there’s actually a place for heavy. do we really need a few extra tons zipping up and down the tracks a few dozen times a day? common sense tells me that can’t be good for energy consumption, even despite the larger capacity. if railroads had any funding to do inventive things, then it might not be a big deal, but that’s not the case.

    what is so special about america that only one company in the world would even consider building rail cars for us? are we that hated?

    SMART will have to share tracks with freight? temporal separation if they went with light rail?

    it’s all just insanity.

    let’s take some of the massive subsidies the airline makers get — boeing and all the rest — and put it into rail service.

    let’s get apple to start making rail cars so we don’t have to buy those ugly Portland streetcars if we want to ‘buy american’.

    we wanted to be ‘futuristic’? *#*# me.

    ok – i have absolutely no idea what i’m talking about, here, but damn.

    and DMU? what we got against electricity?

    i wonder if StreetsWiki has some info about why heavy-as-**** rail cars are ‘teh awesome’ and light rail cars are hazardous to our health.

    we have to keep on those fools about the bike/walk path. and we need to make sure we get some great bike parking/repair/etc. facilities at big stops. you heard that, BRT fans? make yourselves useful for a change.

    blah. it’s miller time.

    should be a nice ride up to wine country. get hammered. roll home. nice. ūüôā

    of course, not sure what happens when we get back to Larkspur and the last ferry out left 3 hours ago.

  • bikerider

    For anyone wondering what all the hubub is about, here is the “sleek” “modern” “fuel-efficient” heavy-DMUs purchased by Trimet:

    This is the train SMART staff very much wanted to purchase, except that the manufacturer (Colorado Railcar) is now bankrupt (and accused of fraud). Note that SMART still nonetheless features artist’s rendition of Colorado Railcar vehicle on its home page and promotional materials. The SMART Executive Director formerly worked for Trimet, though now has distanced herself from the whole Colorado railcar fiasco.

    So now SMART’s minuscule staff proposes to build — from scratch — their own very own FRA-compliant railcar — a task WAY beyond their capabilities. The idea that building a custom choo-choo is quicker than filing the paperwork for FRA waivers (which they’ve had a DECADE to work on) just doesn’t pass the laugh test.

    Worse still is all the baggage that comes with FRA-compliant operation. Even something as simple as on-board bike access is a nightmare when dealing with FRA. And, of course, the huge extra expense from running super heavy Amtrak-style trains. Contrary to what was reported, it is very easy to purchase off-the-shelf light DMU trains that get 2x (or more) fuel economy relative to a (hypothetical) heavy American model — meaning SMART could double their train frequency with no extra operational cost.

    Really, when reading through the SMART reports, one sees textbook example of institutional dysfunction and insanity. Note, in particular, the design-goal to have trains compatible with Amtrak(!!). And where staff actually boasts that the manufacturer of Caltrain’s infamously craptastic gallery cars is interested in submitting bids for heavy DMUs.

  • marcos

    There’s nothing wrong with stipulating we buy domestically produced rolling stock. We’ve got to get self sufficiency in mass transit right and we may as well start now.


  • bikerider

    Care to elaborate on why domestic equipment should be a design goal? First and foremost this project should solve a transportation problem….not be some corporate welfare program. Because of counterproductive Buy-America, transit agencies typically pay 2-5x the going World-market rate for rail vehicles.

    Also note, BTW, that SMART’s new preferred “Buy America” vendor is, in fact, a Japanese firm.


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