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Diesel light rail rolls at last in North America

01 Nov 2002 | by William D Middleton

A short route in Ottawa has pioneered diesel light rail operation in Canada, and New Jersey Transit is close behind with a 51·5 km line between Camden and Trenton. William D Middleton reports

AFTER MORE than a decade of discussion and planning, diesel light rail technology is finally moving off the drawing board and into operation in North America. A modest initial route began operating in late 2001 in Ottawa, while New Jersey Transit's much more extensive Southern New Jersey Light Rail System is scheduled to begin service by mid-2003. Several more diesel LRT systems are in design or planning, while still other projects are being planned around diesel multiple-unit designs that meet Federal Railroad Administration standards for mixed operation with other trains.

Ottawa transit operator OC Transpo began a pilot operation over a leased Canadian Pacific branch in October 2001. The 8 km, single-track O-Train route serves five stations, with a passing loop at Carleton station near the mid-point of the line. Trains provide a 15min interval service throughout the day on Mondays to Saturdays, with a 30min service during the early morning and late evening hours, and on Sundays and public holidays. The line is linked with OC Transpo's extensive Transitway bus system at each end, and serves a major destination at Carleton University. Level access to the cars is provided at stations by platform extenders, which can be retracted for freight operation outside the normal passenger operating hours. Total cost for the trial operation, including operating costs for a two-year period, has been less than C$30m.

Three Bombardier Talent VT643 DMUs were acquired for the service under an arrangement that provides for buy-back of the equipment if the service is not continued after the two to four-year pilot programme. These are German-built three-unit articulated, low-floor vehicles. Each of the 48m, 72 tonne vehicles carries a total of 285 passengers and is capable of a 120 km/h maximum speed. Each train is powered by two 315 kW engines through a mechanical transmission.

Ridership for the service averaged 5500 to 6400 during an initial three-month period when no fares were charged, and has since dropped back to a weekday average of 4500 when the university is in session, and about 3000 during the summer months. OC Transpo reports that the DMUs have worked well, while rider surveys show an extremely high level of satisfaction with the service. O-Train may very well presage a much wider role for light rail in Ottawa, which has North America's largest network of routes reserved for the exclusive use of buses. Consultants are due to complete a long-range public transport plan for the city late this year that is expected to consider an extension of O-Train further south to the airport, as well as possible light rail routes to suburban areas east and west of the city, and across the Ottawa River to Gatineau in Québec.

Southern New Jersey

A much more extensive diesel LRT service will come on line in mid-2003, when NJ Transit expects to open the 51·5 km Southern New Jersey LRT linking the state capital at Trenton with Camden, across the Delaware river from Philadelphia. The system will serve 20 stations, three of them with park-and-ride facilities with a total of 3500 parking spaces. The terminal at Trenton will link the line with Amtrak, NJT and SEPTA rail services, while at Camden interchange will be provided with the PATCO metro. Services will operate from 06.00 to 22.00 seven days a week, and NJT anticipates an initial daily ridership of 4500.

The DMUs will operate over a former Conrail branch now shared by CSX and Norfolk Southern, where freight trains will continue to run six days a week during the hours when passenger service is not operated. The route is largely double track and has been upgraded with extensive sleeper replacement, continuous welded rail and resurfacing. The entire line is being signalled and some 50 level crossings are being equipped with automatic protection. Two bridges have been replaced, while others have been reconstructed.

NJT will operate the line with 20 Bombardier GTW articulated low-floor vehicles built in Germany. Each 31·24m long vehicle weighs 52 tonnes, with a diesel-electric power group mounted in a short propulsion unit at the centre of the three-section vehicle. Each vehicle accommodates a total of 200 passengers and can attain a maximum speed of 96 km/h. Up to four of the vehicles can be operated in multiple.

NJT has developed the project under a design, build, operate and maintain contract that was awarded in June 1999 to the Southern New Jersey Rail Group, a joint venture of Bechtel Infrastructure and Adtranz (now Bombardier) that will operate the route for 10 years. Total project cost, including financing, is $864m, all of which is coming from New Jersey's Transportation Trust Fund.

Work began in May 2000 and has now passed the 95% mark for engineering and design, with construction over 80% complete. The first vehicle arrived from Germany in spectacular fashion in mid-August when it was rolled out of an Antonov 124 cargo plane on its own wheels at Atlantic City International Airport. The car should begin trials on the route soon, with deliveries of the remainder to continue through to the end of 2003.

NJT has selected the locally-preferred alignment and recently completed environmental studies for the 2·1 km Capitol Extension along State Street in Trenton to serve the state house, other government and commercial buildings, and retail and entertainment destinations in the downtown area. NJT's long-range plans for 2020 also include a 31 km extension south from Camden to Glassboro in New Jersey.

Californian plans

Work is about to start on a third diesel LRT line in Southern California. North County Transit District in northern San Diego County plans to launch service on a 35 km former Santa Fe branch line between Oceanside and Escondido. This will serve a total of 15 stations, providing interchange with Coaster commuter trains to San Diego, Metrolink to Los Angeles and Amtrak inter-city services at Oceanside, and to NCTD bus services at other stations. Three segments of the line will be double-tracked, while a new loop will be built at San Marcos to serve a station on the California State University campus.

NCTD plans to acquire 12 low-floor two-car DMUs with a capacity of 250 to 350 passengers. Trains will operate at 30min headways from 05.00 to 23.00. NCTD has forecast an initial daily ridership of 12000.

Approval of a federal full funding grant agreement for the project is expected late this year. Final design should be complete by the end of this year, with construction expected to start in June 2003. Service should begin by the end of 2005. NCTD has already issued a request for proposals for the vehicles, and anticipates issuing a notice to proceed to the successful supplier in March 2003.

Other prospective diesel LRT services are at varying stages of study and planning. The US National Park Service, for example, has planned a 14 km system to link peripheral car parks to points within Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park, although the $100m project has been delayed as less expensive bus alternatives are studied. In the San Francisco Bay Area, diesel LRT extensions of BART's existing Pittsburg and Dublin lines to Antioch and Livermore have been proposed as an interim method to provide rail service in the two corridors until full-scale heavy metro extensions can be built.

Wider market

Because of rigid FRA buff strength and other requirements, existing diesel LRT vehicles cannot be operated together with standard heavy rail rolling stock. Consequently, potential diesel LRT projects have been limited. A much wider potential market exists for FRA-compliant DMU equipment that can operate in a mixed traffic environment.

Thus far, the only available alternative has been the use of refurbished RDC vehicles, originally delivered by Budd between 1950 and 1962. While several manufacturers have offered re-engineered versions of European designs or 'paper' designs for compliant vehicles based on existing EMUs, the lack of a modern, off-the-shelf vehicle that can meet FRA requirements has discouraged the DMU option.

This barrier began to disappear earlier this year when Colorado Railcar produced a prototype that fully complies with the FRA's stringent CFR Part 238 structural requirements. The 25·9m long vehicle weighing 67·3 tonnes can carry up to 200 seated and standing passengers, depending on the interior configuration. Two Detroit Diesel Series 60 engines each rated at 640hp (477 kW) drive the car through Voith hydraulic transmissions to provide a top speed of 145 km/h. The vehicle successfully met all requirements in several days of testing at the Pueblo Transportation Technology Center in late August before beginning a round of demonstrations at the American Public Transit Association's annual meeting and exhibition at Las Vegas in late September. Colorado Railcar is also offering a bi-level version that can carry more than 300 passengers in a commuter configuration.

Likely to be the first new start using FRA-compliant DMUs will be a project now taking shape in North Carolina. Triangle Transit Authority is planning a regional network serving the Raleigh - Durham - Chapel Hill area. Final environmental studies have been completed and preliminary engineering should be complete by the end of the year for the first phase, a 56 km route with 16 stations running from Durham to Research Triangle and Raleigh. TTA hopes to have a record of decision by the end of this year and to begin final design in 2003, with a federal full funding grant agreement in place by late summer or early autumn in 2003. A 12-station initial segment between 9th Street, Durham, and downtown Raleigh could begin operation by the end of 2007, with two extensions completing the first phase soon afterwards.

The first phase will operate on separate tracks located within existing North Carolina Railroad and CSX Transportation rights-of-way. Double track will permit service frequencies of 71/2 to 15min during peak periods, with 15 to 30min service at other times. Trains will operate 18h a day, seven days a week. TTA anticipates that daily ridership will reach 31000 by 2025. Second phase extensions would serve Raleigh-Durham International Airport and Chapel Hill, although the latter is likely to emerge as a busway.

Because the service will operate in freight railway corridors, TTA plans to acquire FRA-compliant DMUs. These will feature 2+2 commuter-style seating with two doors on each side for high platform boarding, and will operate in two-car married pairs. An initial order for 26 cars is planned. A draft specification and request for proposals should be complete by the end of this year, although procurement will not be initiated until full funding is in place.

New or extended commuter, regional and inter-city passenger services now under consideration for close to 20 North American urban areas represent a sizeable potential market for an FRA-compliant DMU. In Chicago, for example, Metra has developed long-term plans for two orbital routes that would operate on existing freight belt lines. In Washington County, Oregon, just west of Portland, a DMUcommuter service has been planned for a 24 km route on an existing UP freight line linking suburban Wilsonville to Portland's MAX light rail system at Beaverton. As suitable modern equipment begins to come on the market, still more operators may turn to the DMU alternative for projects with limited capacity requirements, or to provide economical off-peak services.

Un métro léger diesel roule enfin en Amérique du nord

En Amérique du nord, la technologie du transport urbain à traction diesel passe enfin de la table à dessin à la réalité de l'exploitation. A Ottawa, dans l'Ontario, une première ligne modeste de métro léger a commencé à fonctionner fin 2001, tandis que, à la mi-2003, le Southern New Jersey Light Rail System appartenant au New Jersey Transit, doit entrer en service entre Camden et Trenton, capitale de l'état. Plusieurs autres réseaux de métro léger à traction diesel sont en cours de conception ou sont prévus tandis que d'autres projets sont envisagés en faisant appel à des concepts d'automotrices diesels répondant aux normes de la Federal Railroad Administration pour l'exploitation le long de lignes sur lesquelles circulent des trains de fret et de voyageursDiesel-Stadtbahnen nun in Nordamerika

Dieselbetriebene Stadtbahntechnologie kommt nun aus den Konstruktionsbüros und geht in Betrieb in Nordamerika.

Eine bescheidene Diesel-Stadtbahn nahm den Betrieb Ende 2001 in Ottawa, Ontario, auf, und das umfangreichere Southern New Jersey Light Rail System von New Jersey Transit zwischen Camden und der Staats-Hauptstadt Trenton Mitte 2003 mit dem Fahrplanbetrieb beginnen soll. Verschiedene weitere Diesel-Stadtbahnsysteme sind im Bau oder in Planung, während dem andere Projekte auf Diesel-Triebzüge bauen, welche den Normen der Federal Railroad Administration für Mischbetrieb mit regulären Güter- und Reisezügen entsprechen