Connecticut rail car purchase plan is on the wrong track
A well-run rail company buys rail cars that are safe, efficient, and fit demand at the best possible price. For Connecticut local train service, the state needs off-the-shelf trains to keep costs down. Quick acceleration is also crucial, particularly for the steep, curvy rail lines that connect Connecticut’s inland communities with the New Haven Line.
As it stands, the state plans to acquire an inappropriate rail car. It has written its RFP to all but specify the Siemens Venture, which is optimized for express runs where top speed supersedes acceleration and braking. Moreover, the price paid, $5 million apiece, is outrageous for any car, especially ones that will still require a locomotive.
Half that amount should be buying multiple units (MUs), which have a self-contained diesel engine (DMU), electric motors (EMU), or both sending power to every car. MUs accelerate and brake way more nimbly than traditional trains composed of cars hauled by a locomotive.
The reasons why the state is on track to pay double what it should for inferior equipment seem to be internal resistance to the unfamiliar and/or misunderstanding. Even though the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has had rules allowing European cars for two years, the state’s RFP specifies the old rule, a requirement to remain rigid under an 800,000 pound impact, for no discernible reason. The new federal rule, almost a clone of the longstanding Euronorm, requires trains to withstand less than half that force and by all measures gives trains that are just as safe.
Moreover, the state RFP specifies 125 mi/h capability, which is well in excess of the maximum speed trains would achieve on branch line service. That is also well beyond that needed to achieve the governor’s 30-30-30 campaign plank; sustained travel at 90 – 100 mi/h, speeds the existing New Haven Line can support with minimal work, will suffice.
There is apparently no region-wide effort to procure a common car for the whole of greater New York. While LIRR and Metro-North have thankfully stuck with single-level EMUs, NJ Transit is on track to buy Bombardier Multilevels, which are very heavy, have narrow interior stairwells, and need locomotive power. Their sluggish acceleration and slow turnover of passengers adds more than enough travel time to cancel out the small increase in seats per car. Their sluggish performance likely costs NJ Transit peak slots and would have similar detrimental effects if procured for LIRR and Metro-North service.
When it comes to buying the right trains, the chaos caused by COVID-19 could be a blessing in disguise. Connecticut should ditch the car procurement that it approved in April. Instead, it and its neighbors need to buy MUs in a couple different flavors. The European crashworthiness rules make it easier to fit multiple power sources onto MU cars without adding too much weight, giving nimble acceleration and braking. The Connecticut branch lines and other outlying lines in New York and New Jersey should receive electro-diesel bi-mode MUs.
In the short term, it is best not to continue branch line trains on the New Haven Line. The junctions do not have flyovers, unlike elsewhere in greater New York, and the performance gap between a straight electric MU and a dual-mode one drawing electric power is likely to make a difference to run times and reliability. Closing that gap is one more reason, on top of cutting operating costs and emissions, to use diesel engines as a stand-in pending eventual electrification by overhead wire.
For trains going to New York, it makes sense to double down on third rail-overhead dual-mode trains. A trip from Connecticut to Grand Central already requires use of both types of power. A similar car would facilitate one-seat rides between Long Island, whose rails are electrified with third rail, and New Jersey, which uses overhead wire. Better than the M8 would be a lightly modified Class 700, which is lighter and can fit the tightest tunnel in New York, unlike the M8.
Now more than ever, Connecticut needs to pick its investments wisely. The DOT needs to set its rail system up with 21st century cars, not cling to old junk out of nostalgia and comfort.
Robert Hale lives in New Haven.
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