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More US cities board the commuter rail train

01 Jan 2007

Commuter rail is arguably the most dynamic segment of North America's urban rail sector, reports Julian Wolinsky, with two new networks opening, construction underway on three more and others in various stages of preparation. Existing systems are expanding, and orders for rolling stock are robust

THE OPENING of Nashville's Music City Star in Tennsesse on September 18 2006 added another network to the growing ranks of North American commuter rail projects, coming just two months after the start of Rail Runner Express operations in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Commuter rail has come to dominate the US urban rail market in recent years, with projects finding a receptive audience amongst politicians, the business community and the public as their costs are significantly lower than those for metros and some light rail schemes. The use of existing rights-of-way avoids expensive tunnelling or other grade separation, and completion is quicker, which is always attractive to elected officials. Undeniably, the latest schemes have been quite limited in scope but many systems have plans to expand.

Recent openings

The 51·5 km Music City Star route links Nashville with suburban Lebanon, serving six stations along the Nashville & Eastern Railroad. Forecast to generate about 1 500 weekday trips, the line only attracted a third of that figure during its first month of operation. The peak hour-only service had been scheduled to start before the end of 2005 but was delayed by various reasons including construction problems.

The project is one of the least expensive in recent years, with much of the $40m cost picked up by the federal government. Nashville Regional Transportation Authority was able to keep the budget low by acquiring second-hand rolling stock: 11 gallery coaches retired by Metra after 30 years of service in Chicago and three surplus F40 diesel locomotives from Amtrak. All were in excellent condition and needed only cosmetic touches, plus modification to provide disabled accessibility. NRTA plans to open at least four more routes by 2020, serving Hendersonville and Gallatin La Vergne, Smyrna and Murfreesboro Brentwood and Franklin and Bellevue and Kingston Springs. As well as Nashville's status as a centre for country music, the name Music City Star reflects the seven-branch, star-like shape of the ultimate network.

The 27·3 km initial segment of New Mexico's Rail Runner Express, between Albuquerque and Bernalillo, which opened on July 17, was also late, having originally been expected to be ready by the end of 2005. In this case the cause was slow negotiations between New Mexico Department of Transportation and BNSF Railway for purchase of the 383 km right-of-way from Belen to Trinidad in southern Colorado. BNSF would not permit station construction or upgrading of track and signalling to start before the deal was completed.

The state has managed to keep the budget to a minimal $75m despite buying five new 3 600 hp MotivePower MPXpress locomotives and 10 bi-level coaches from Bombardier. Operating only at peak times on weekdays, the service was initially free, helping to attract 200 000 riders in less than three months. A $2 flat fare was introduced on November 1, and a zonal fare structure will be established this year that is expected to recover about 10% of the $10m annual operating cost. Only three stations were ready when the first phase opened, with one more in Belen following on December 11 and three others scheduled for 2007. Detailed planning is now underway for a northern extension to the state capital at Santa Fe in 2008.

Construction underway

The latest scheme to get underway is the 23·6 km Washington County line near Portland, Oregon, where right-of-way rehabilitation began on October 24 after 10 years of planning (RG 12.06 p762). This $117·3m project is being managed by local operator TriMet as a feeder to the MAX light rail network. It will be the first new exclusively suburb-to-suburb commuter rail line in the USA.

Trains will use the Portland & Western Railroad from Wilsonville, Tualatin and Tigard to Beaverton, where passengers will transfer to and from MAX trains at a regional transit hub. P&W will control dispatching, operations and maintenance, and will be paid about $1·5m a year by TriMet plus a $300 000 bonus for a 98% on-time performance. TriMet plans to buy five Colorado Railcar DMU vehicles that will meet FRA crashworthiness standards for mixed operation with freight trains. Revenue service is scheduled for late 2008, with a 30 min headway during weekday peak hours.

Utah Transit Authority's FrontRunner is the most ambitious new North American commuter rail project for more than six years. Work is well advanced on the $581m first phase, with revenue service on the 70·8 km between Salt Lake City, Ogden and Pleasant View scheduled to start in 2008. The route uses UTA-owned right-of-way parallel to the Union Pacific main line as far as Ogden - UTA's deal with UP included a combination of outright purchase and trackage rights. Over the final 8 km to Pleasant View passenger and freight trains will share the same tracks.

Helping to keep the project within budget, UTA has bought 29 used Comet 1 coaches from New Jersey Transit. As with the Nashville cars, these vehicles will be overhauled and upgraded by UTA to improve accessiblity. In addition, 12 bi-level cab cars and 10 trailers are being delivered by Bombardier Transportation, with an option for up to 13 more. MotivePower will supply 11 MPXpress locomotives. A future route is planned from Salt Lake City to Provo, Brigham City and Payson, also on a separate track within UP's right-of-way.

Another DMU-operated line is under construction by Capital Metro in Austin, Texas, at a cost of approximately $90m. Dubbed MetroRail, the 51·5 km route between central Austin and Leander is due to open around mid-2008. Track and signalling work is underway, along with the construction of nine stations.

Six Stadler Bussnang DEMUs are on order for $32m, with the first scheduled for delivery in September 2007. Based on the 70% low-floor GTW family, and powered by two European-made Cummins engines, the DEMUs will initially work 12 weekday round trips with a peak-hour headway of 30 min. They are not FRA-compliant in terms of buff load strength, so freight and passenger services will have to run at different times as now happens on the River Line in southern New Jersey.

The next project to get underway will be the $307·3m, 65 km Northstar commuter rail route linking Minneapolis and Big Lake, on which work should begin in 2007. On August 23 the FTA approved the start of final design, and a Full Funding Grant Agreement is expected by early summer. This will allow the purchase of rolling stock, the start of station and yard construction and upgrading of the BNSF line that will carry six daily round trips beginning in 2009.

Chicago's ambitious expansion

Major expansion and/or reconstruction of existing commuter rail networks is underway in Boston and New York while similar programmes have recently been completed in Chicago and Miami. Each of these is costing far more than any of the new systems.

Finished in January 2006 after four years of work was a $558m project to improve three Metra lines radiating from Chicago. The UP West route was extended 13·7 km from Geneva to Elburn. The North Central route was double-tracked between Antioch and Franklin Park, with signalling and infrastructure improvements along the entire line and the construction of four new stations. And the SouthWest route was lengthened by 17·7 km from Orland Park to Manhattan, with improvements to another 19·3 km of track.

Still on the drawing board are a plethora of projects which will add lengthy new routes to the Chicago network. Farthest along is a 51·5 km route from the Kenosha, Wisconsin, terminal of Metra's UP North Line to Milwaukee. Preliminary engineering administered by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission should have been completed by the end of 2006. DMUs have been suggested to operate the eight-station extension, which could open in 2011 at a total cost of $152m.

Also in progress is a detailed feasibility study for a 25·6 km extension of the UP Northwest route from Harvard, Illinois, to Clinton, Wisconsin. An alternative analysis has begun into a proposed extension of the Milwaukee West line from Elgin to Belvidere and Rockford, and nearing completion is a similar analysis for the 88·5 km Suburban Transit Access Route.

The orbital STAR would initially run along Interstate 90 linking O'Hare International Airport station on the North Central line to Hoffman Estates via the Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railway. Future phases would extend the route south along the EJ&E to Joliet, providing an outer circumferential service serving more than 100 towns. Frequent all-day service would be provided, possibly using DMUs.

Still in the very early planning stage is a new SouthEast Service to Crete and an extension of the Metra Electric Line south from University Park to the site of a proposed new regional airport. Capital funding for these future schemes has not been identified, but a large federal share would be needed.

The region's other commuter railway, the South Shore Line which serves much of northern Indiana, is pushing forward, albeit slowly, with its ambitious West Lake Corridor project. This calls for a branch off the main line at Hammond, Indiana, to Lowell, with a spur from Munster to Valparaiso using existing freight railway alignment, adding a total of 82 route-km. The project is currently at the alternatives analysis stage, and there has been overwhelming political and community support.

Progress on the east coast

New York's two big projects are by far the largest regional rail development schemes ever attempted: the LIRR East Side Access and the Trans-Hudson Express tunnel. Five years into construction, the $6·3 bn ESA, which will bring the Long Island Rail Road into Grand Central Terminal, continues to grind on: completion is now expected in 2012-13. A major step forward came in July 2006 when a $428m contract was awarded for tunnelling in Manhattan from the existing East River tunnel at 63rd Street to Grand Central. Track work in the LIRR's Woodside yard linking the railway's main line with the tunnel and expansion of the adjacent Harold Interlocking are also underway.

Preliminary engineering and an environmental impact statement has begun for THE Tunnel, formally known as Access to the Region's Core. The central element in this $6bn project is a second double-track crossing under the Hudson linking the existing passenger rail network in New Jersey to a new underground terminal at 34th Street and Eighth Avenue, adjacent to Penn Station in midtown Manhattan. Numerous infrastructure improvements on the New Jersey side would facilitate the entry into New York of trains from various NJ Transit commuter rail lines. Funding will come from the federal government, the states of New York and New Jersey and the Port Authority of NY&NJ.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority expects to restore services on the 28·5 km Greenbush line to Scituate south of Boston in mid-2007. The Greenbush Line is part of the three-branch Old Colony route, on which passenger service ended in 1959 services on the other two branches resumed in 1998. Work on the $497·5m project began in 2003 after nearly a decade of delay caused by several of the five towns along the route. The complex job requires complete rebuilding of the long-abandoned trackbed through environmentally sensitive areas, a 244 m tunnel beneath the centre of Hingham, and constructing new stations.

Construction is planned to begin this year on two stations in Rhode Island, financed by that state, which will be served by the extension of MBTA trains now terminating at Providence. The more important of the two is a new transportation interchange near T F Green Airport in Warwick, which will be linked to the airport terminal by a moving walkway.

In the longer term, MBTA has started advanced planning for a two-branch route to Fall River and New Bedford in south-eastern Massachusetts. Using an exisiting alignment, the $850m project has widespread political support, but it could be five years or more until a 50% federal funding much can be obtained.

Double-tracking of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority's 116 km Tri-Rail line between Miami and West Palm Beach was largely completed in March 2006, about nine months behind schedule. Costing $334m, the work began in June 2001 and was divided into four phases. Still to be completed this spring is a new double-track bridge over the New River in Fort Lauderdale, eliminating the last single-track bottleneck.

Mixed fortunes

Meanwhile, planning continues on numerous projects, with some moving ahead and others becoming stalled.

The low point for commuter rail in 2006 came on August 18, when Triangle Transit Authority announced it was abandoning its proposed $810m, 45 km line linking Raleigh with Durham in North Carolina. Planning had been underway for about a decade, but the project failed to meet the tighter cost-benefit and ridership standards for federal funding applications introduced by FTA about two years ago.

United Transit Systems, a consortium of Rotem and Japan's Sojitz Rail & Transit, had been selected to build 14 DMUs, and began designing the cars although TTA could not sign a contract without FTA approval. In Las Vegas, a tentative plan for a 53·1 km DMU-operated line connecting the city with suburbs to the north and south was dropped by the Regional Transportation Commission on April 13.

In November Georgia DoT reached a tentative agreement with Norfolk Southern which could clear the way for a 41·8 km route from Atlanta to Lovejoy, potentially the first element of a multi-line network. Funding for the $106m scheme is available, but it has been repeatedly delayed by political opposition. The latest ageement gives NS $54m for capacity expansion measures, and the politicians backed off after the November elections, allowing transit officials to anticipate that revenue service could begin in about two years.

Moving very slowly, despite completion of preliminary engineering and environmental work, is CorridorOne linking Lancaster with Harrisburg in Pennsylvania. Harrisburg's Capital Area Transit has submitted engineering data to FTA and plans to begin final design during the first quarter of 2007.

In Canada, Montréal's Agence Métropolitaine de Transport will begin peak-hour revenue service on a 15 km extension of the Blainville Line between Blainville and Saint Jérôme on January 8, serving one intermediate station. AMT has recently unveiled a C$175m expansion programme for the Deux Montagnes route, which suffers from severe peak-hour overcrowding. The money would be used for the purchase of new rolling stock and doubling of the segment between Bois Franc and Roxboro-Pierrefonds, allowing shorter headways.

AMT is also negotiating with Canadian Pacific Railway for more passenger train paths on the Dorion-Rigaud line. In the longer term, AMT wants to buy up to 150 multi-level cars and 20 electro-diesel locos, expand its existing maintenance depot at Sainte Eustasche and build a new servicing facility.

California's Orange County Transportation Authority has approved a major expansion of Los Angeles Metrolink commuter services as an alternative to the now-defunct CenterLine light rail scheme. OCTA will finance seven locomotives, 59 coaches and other equipment to allow half-hour headways from 06.00 to midnight between Laguna Niguel and Fullerton. Southern California Regional Rail Authority has already ordered the coaches from Rotem and locomotives from MotivePower. OCTA is adding a second track in Santa Ana which will alleviate chronic congestion on the route.

And commuter rail is finally coming to central Florida, under a complex plan announced in August 2006. This calls for a north-south route through Orlando, serving Volusia, Seminole, Orange and Osceola counties costing about $475m. Half will come from the federal government, with the state providing 25% and county and city governments contributing the remainder. The state will also cover operating expenses from the expected start-up in late 2009 until 2015. In the San Francisco Bay area, an environmental impact report has been certified for a proposed $92m, three-station extension of the Caltrain commuter rail line from Gilroy to Salinas, using trackage rights obtained from Union Pacific. Design, engineering and right-of-way acquisition are expected to start towards the end of 2007, allowing revenue service to begin in late 2009.

Rolling stock orders

Table I shows a steady stream of orders for new rolling stock during 2006, the most impressive being Kawasaki Rail Car's deal for 380 M-8 three-voltage EMU cars to work MTA Metro-North Railroad's New Haven line. The base contract calls for 210 units at a cost of $522m, with options for another 170 at a price of $359m. Negotiated by the state of Connecticut, the order will allow MNCR to replace the 342-car M-2 fleet which is life expired and becoming increasingly unreliable. Connecticut will fund 65% of the capital cost and New York the rest, based on the track-km in each state. The first 50 cars are to be delivered by the end of 2009.

Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority awarded a $244·2m contract to United Transit Systems for 104 Silverliner V EMU cars to work Philadelphia suburban routes. The 34 single cars and 35 married pairs will allow Septa to retire 73 life-expired Silverliner II and Silverliner III cars, which are about 40 years old, and expand the fleet by 31 vehicles. Scrra has placed a $176·3m contract with Rotem for 87 double-deck coaches, 33 cab cars and 54 trailers. It also approved two options for 10 cab cars each, although these will not be built until funding becomes available.

In the more distant future are many more projects or extensions in the metropolitan areas of such cities as Detroit, Dallas, Miami, Fort Worth, New Orleans, Houston, Tampa, Charlotte and Denver. All have been subject to serious planning efforts and should keep the commuter rail pipeline full for the next decade or two.

  • CAPTION: Serving Nashville's Riverfront station, the Music CityStar network uses refurbished gallery cars from Chicago
  • CAPTION: New Mexico's RailRunner Express trains carry a colourful and instantly recognisable logo; crowds at Albuquerque sampled free rides on the opening day
  • CAPTION: Serving Nashville's Riverfront station, the Music CityStar network uses refurbished gallery cars from Chicago
  • CAPTION: Bombardier is close to completing orders for a total of 836 M-7 series EMU cars to Long Island Rail Road, as well as 336 similar vehicles for Metro-North
  • CAPTION: New Jersey Transit has started taking delivery of 231 double-deck coaches from Bombardier to raise capacity on its busiest routes into New York's Penn Station the low-profile vehicles are designed to fit through the Hudson tunnels on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor
  • CAPTION: Utah Transit Authority has started construction of the FrontRunner commuter rail route between Salt Lake City and Ogden, which is expected to open in 2008 using new tracks parallel to the existing freight line
  • CAPTION: This Harsco P811 relaying machine has been used to upgrade the Portland & Western line in Oregon ready for the start of Washington County commuter rail services