INTRO: Commuter rail expansion continues in the USA, with trains due to begin serving the cities of Albuquerque and Nashville within the next few months. Julian Wolinsky reports

Although no starting date has been officially announced for two new commuter rail projects taking shape in the USA, Rail Runner Express in Albuquerque appears ready to be first out of the gate.

The $75m project has reached fruition much faster than most similar proposals, having been first submitted by New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson in the summer of 2003. According to Lawrence Rael, Executive Director of New Mexico’s Mid-Region Council of Governments which is responsible for the project, trains may be running before the end of 2005.

Bombardier Transportation is supplying 10 bi-level cars for the project, including four driving trailers; deliveries began in August for completion in October. Five 3600hp diesel locomotives being built by MotivePower are due to arrive this month.

Rail Runner Express services will initially serve seven stations on a 74 km route between Bernalillo and Belen via downtown Albuquerque, where a temporary rolling stock maintenance facility is being erected adjacent to the station. An eighth station is due to open a few months after the start of service. Like the others, it will be a simple platform equipped with a shelter and ticket vending machine.

No ridership forecasts are being released prior to opening. Herzog Transit Services Inc has been selected to operate and maintain the line, which utilises a BNSF Railway right-of-way that the state of New Mexico hopes to purchase - a draft agreement has been reached, but talks were still underway as we went to press.

The ultimate goal of Governor Richardson and his transport planners is an extension north from Bernalillo to the city of Santa Fe. This will require up to $250m for 22 km of new track and upgrades to existing routes, but this is unlikely to be completed until at least 2008. Meanwhile, the state has purchased from BNSF the 29 km branch from Lamy to Santa Fe which could be used for the future commuter service.

Nashville’s new star

Named to reflect the city’s long connection with the country music industry, Music City Star is a proposed five-corridor commuter rail system focused on Nashville. Planning of the first phase, a 51·5 km route linking downtown Nashville with Lebanon using Nashville & Eastern Railroad infrastructure, began more than seven years ago but the local share of the required $40m funding package proved difficult to put in place. By mid-2004, funding had been finally sorted out and a contract was awarded in September last year to upgrade track and signalling.

Unlike New Mexico, which decided to order new traction and rolling stock, Nashville’s Regional Transportation Authority has purchased used equipment, including 11 ex-Metra gallery cars from Chicago and three F40 locomotives formerly operated by Amtrak. The passenger vehicles, despite being about 30 years old, are in excellent condition and will need only minor modifications for disabled access and some cosmetic improvements. The locos will simply be repainted.

Five of the six stations will be plain platforms equipped with shelters and TVMs. However, the City of Nashville decided that it wanted to make the downtown terminal an attractive landmark and is erecting a building in late 19th Century style that will have amenities such as a cafe and other retail businesses.

Music City Star is now tentatively scheduled to start revenue service in late January or early February 2006 with three weekday peak-hour trains using two trainsets. One of these will return to the Lebanon terminal to make a second journey, thus providing one service for reverse commuters. Ridership within the first few months has been forecast at 1500 passengers per day. The RTA hopes to have all five routes operating by 2020.

East Side Access

Without doubt, the most ambitious and expensive commuter rail scheme now underway in North America is New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s East Side Access project, which will bring Long Island Rail Road trains into Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal (RG 8.04 p476). ESA works are now underway in Queens and tunnelling in Manhattan, due to have started in 2004, could begin soon.

Costed at $6·3bn, ESA requires boring a new tunnel from the LIRR/Amtrak yard in Sunnyside, Queens, to the lower level of the existing 63rd Street tunnel beneath the East River to Manhattan. Another new 1·8 km tunnel is to be dug using tunnel boring machines from the existing rock face at East 63rd Street and Second Avenue to Park Avenue, thence south to a new eight-track terminal below the lower level of Grand Central.

Major reconstruction of Sunnyside Yard and the adjacent Harold Interlocking is also required, increasing capacity through the 3·2 km section controlled from Harold from 42 to 66 trains/h. Although completion is scheduled for 2012, the project will probably be delayed because approval of MTA’s current five-year capital spending plan, containing significant funding for ESA, was delayed by more than six months. The 2005-09 plan was finally approved on July 13, but total spending was cut by $6·2bn from the figure originally proposed by the MTA to $21·1bn.

More capacity in Chicago

Metra in Chicago expects to complete work by the end of this year on a large-scale capacity improvement scheme costing $558m. Three routes are involved. The North Central line is being double-tracked between Antioch and Franklin Park, allowing an increase from 10 services operating only at peak hours on weekdays to 20 trains a day, some running in the middle of the day.

The 62·7 km Southwest line is being lengthened by 17·7 km from Orland Park to Manhattan. In addition, existing track and structures are being upgraded and in some places doubled, a new signalling system is replacing antiquated equipment and two new stations have been built. The improvements will increase the number of weekday trains from 16 to 30. Finally, the 58 km Union Pacific West line is being extended 12·9 km westwards from Geneva to Elburn. Two new stations are being added along with a third main track.

A number of extensions and new lines around Chicago are in various stages of planning. The long-sought 53·1 km extension of Metra’s Union Pacific North line from its current terminal in Kenosha, Wisconsin, to Racine and Milwaukee will probably come to fruition first. Being managed by the state of Wisconsin and costed at around $152m, this project has strong financial and political support from communities along the route. A $4m preliminary engineering study is underway, and revenue service could start within three to five years.

Funding will be sought under the six-year TEA-LU federal transportation act for advanced studies for the proposed 88·5 km Suburban Transit Access Route in the region’s Northwest Corridor, which would cost a total of $1·2bn to put in place. The project would have 17 stations and is designed to deal with soaring population and employment growth in Chicago’s outer suburbs.

Initially, there would be a new line along the Northwest Tollway (Interstate 90) road linking Metra’s existing O’Hare International Airport station on the North Central line to the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway route in Hoffman Estates. This is expected to take at least 10 years to bring to fruition. Subsequent phases would extend STAR south to Joliet over EJ&E infrastructure to provide an outer orbital route serving over 100 towns.

Further down the road would be a branch off the electrified South Shore Line in northern Indiana to serve the towns of Lowell and Valparaiso. The Indiana state legislature recently passed a bill allowing counties and towns in northwest Indiana to levy taxes that would fund the local share of the extensions.

Tri-Rail running late

Work on a $334m project to double-track 69·2 km of the 115·8 km Tri-Rail Miami - West Palm Beach route in southern Florida is now scheduled to be completed in March 2006, around 12 months behind schedule. The line is also used by Amtrak and CSX freight trains, and has been operating at full capacity with frequent delays to passenger trains. When the work is complete, the route will be double track throughout, giving capacity for Tri-Rail services to be increased from 28 weekday runs between Miami and West Palm Beach to 48, including new mid-day trains. Peak-hour headways will be reduced from hourly to every 20min, and the end-to-end journey time will be cut by around 15min to 1h 45min.

Looking towards future expansion, Tri-Rail has commissioned a study of a proposed 25·7 km extension along the Florida East Coast Railway route to Jupiter. Preliminary analysis puts the capital cost at between $800m and $1bn, and FEC has agreed to accommodate commuter trains on condition they do not interfere with its 25 to 30 daily freight services. The new service would leave the existing Tri-Rail route at 25th Street in West Palm Beach to join FEC metals and then continue north to Jupiter.

New starts line up

Several new commuter rail routes are ready to begin construction, awaiting only federal approval or the completion of design and engineering. In the latter category is the Utah Transit Authority’s 70·8 km line linking Salt Lake City with Ogden and Pleasant View. The Federal Transit Administration has already granted UTA permission to begin purchasing the 140 parcels of land needed for stations and other facilities. A Full Funding Grant Agreement expected by the end of 2005 would allow major works to start.

The line will cost about $500m and have nine stations. In early August UTA ordered 12 Bombardier bi-level driving cars at a cost of about $29m, with an option for a further 29. The agency had earlier bought 30 gallery cars from Metra of Chicago, and plans to obtain remanufactured 3600hp locomotives, the specifications for which are now being drawn up. Initial weekday ridership has been conservatively estimated at 5900, growing to 12600 by 2030. Future routes are planned from Salt Lake City to Provo, Brigham City and Payson.

The 45·2 km commuter rail line linking Raleigh with Durham in North Carolina is awaiting FTA approval, but in the meantime United Transit Systems has agreed to begin design work on 32 DMUs tentatively ordered by the Triangle Transit Authority. UTS, a consortium of Rotem of South Korea and Sojitz Rail & Transit of Japan, offered to proceed at its own risk in the expectation that FTA approval would be forthcoming during 2005. The $694·6m scheme was listed as ’not rated’ this year by FTA because of doubts over TTA’s ridership and highway congestion projections. This has pushed back the start of revenue service from December 2008 to mid-2009.

FTA demands for further cost reductions have also hindered progress on the $103·5m, 23·6 km Washington County project in Oregon, linking Wilsonville, Tualatin and Tigard with the Portland MAX light rail station at Beaverton. Preliminary engineering and environmental studies are complete, and final design is about 70% finished. A federal Full Funding Grant Agreement was anticipated late this year, but in March the FTA announced a new, more stringent, standard for issuing FFGAs, jeopardising the Washington County scheme based on its cost per passenger.

Previously-agreed savings included rehabilitating rail bridges instead of replacing them and purchasing five DMU cars rather than eight, but these were not enough. However, local elected officials heavily lobbied the FTA seeking ’grandfather rights’ for the project under the previous rules as it is almost ready. Their efforts proved successful, and on August 2 a commitment was received from Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta to remove the FTA roadblock.

Colorado Railcar was the only bidder to supply three powered and two trailer DMU cars, but the purchase cannot be made until the financing is secure. The line is now set to open in September 2008.

In the longer term, at least three new systems are being planned that appear to have a reasonable expectation of completion, although only two have reached the engineering phase. The 64·3 km Northstar line linking Minneapolis to Big Lake finally began receiving funding from the state of Minnesota this year. Progress on the $265m project, whose length had previously been truncated by 50% to meet federal funding guidelines, had slowed over the past several years because the state legislature failed to approve the local contribution to the total funding package. Final design is now underway but several hurdles remain, including thrashing out an operating agreement with BNSF for use of its tracks and obtaining additional funding from the state, which must pay one-third of the cost. Revenue service with eight weekday return trips is now tentatively scheduled to start in 2009.

More for Texas

Engineering design is underway for the planned $60m, 51·5 km commuter line linking the Texas state capital at Austin with Leander. The federal government is to provide 50% of the $60m required for the scheme, which will fund track and signalling upgrades, station construction and rolling stock acquistion. The local share is already in place in the form of a sales tax. The route will have nine stations and is already owned by local transit operator Capital Metro. Opening is expected in 2007 or 2008.

Voters in Houston and Denver, Colorado, have approved wide-ranging regional transit expansion programmes which include light rail, commuter rail and bus. However, both schemes are just getting underway and will require five to 10 years to complete.

Houston revised its ambitious Metro Solutions high-capacity expansion programme last June to include less light rail but more regional rail and bus rapid transit in an effort to meet federal funding standards and provide more route-km for less money. There would be two commuter rail routes in place by 2012, a 32·2 km segment northwest along US Highway 290 and 13 km following US Highway 90A linking Houston with Missouri City. A future route would extend to the port city of Galveston.

In Denver, environmental studies are already in progress on both diesel commuter rail and electric light rail alternatives in a corridor from Union Station downtown to the remote Denver International Airport. Construction is not scheduled to begin until the start of 2011, with revenue service due to start in late 2014. Also on the agenda is commuter rail along the North Metro Corridor from Union Station to 168th Avenue and from Union Station to Longmont through Boulder.

Still in the early preparatory stages, and without complete funding packages, are projects focused on Atlanta, Georgia; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Orlando, Florida; Las Vegas, Nevada; and in Denton County, Texas.

The latter will connect outlying suburbs in Denton County with a future extension of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit light rail network to Carrollton. The Denton County Transportation Authority has selected a former Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad route paralleling Interstate 35E through Lewisville, Lake Dallas and Corinth as the preferred alternative for environmental studies and preliminary engineering.

There will no doubt be considerably more expansion of commuter rail North America in future years, depending only on the availability of funding.

CAPTION: The first of four driving and six intermediate bi-level cars being built by Bombardier for New Mexico’s Rail RunnerExpress was delivered at the beginning of August

CAPTION: Contracts were awarded inSeptember 2004 for track renewal and resignalling work on Nashville &Eastern Railroad’s 51·5 km line to Lebanon, which will carry the first of five planned commuter rail services radiating from Nashville

CAPTION: On July 22 New York MTA exercised two more options for M-7 EMU cars now entering service with Long Island Rail Road (right) and Metro-North. Bombardier will supply 36 cars for $80m, taking the MNR fleet to 336 vehicles. LIRR has ordered 158 cars for $345m, increasing its M-7 order to 836. Further options could increase the M-7 fleet to 1 266 cars at a total cost of $1·55bn

CAPTION: The United Transit Systems consortium of Rotem and Sojitz Rail & Transit has already started design work for 32 DMUs tentatively ordered by Triangle Transit Authority in North Carolina. The trains are intended to work a proposed 45·2 km commuter rail line linking Raleigh with Durham. This is expected to open in mid-2009, but the $694·6m project has yet to receive formal FTA approval

TABLE: Current and planned US commuter car orders

Agency No of cars Builder Vehicle type Status

MBTA, Boston 33 Kawasaki Bi-level loco-hauled Deliveries underway

Metra, Chicago 26 Sumitomo Gallery EMU Deliveries underway

Metra, Chicago 300 Sumitomo Gallery loco-hauled Deliveries to be completed in 2005

Connecticut DoT, 340 n/a EMU (M-8) Specification under development New York - New Haven

Metrolink, Los Angeles around 45 n/a Loco-hauled Specification under development

New Jersey Transit 231 Bombardier Bi-level loco-hauled Six prototypes to be delivered in September 2005

LIRR, New York 836 Bombardier EMU (M-7) Deliveries underway

Metro-North, New York 336 Bombardier EMU (M-7) Deliveries underway

SEPTA, Philadelphia 104 n/a EMU Specification under development

UTA, Salt Lake City 12 Bombardier Bi-level driving car To be delivered in June - October 2006; will work with second-hand Metra gallery cars

Virginia Railway Express, 11 Sumitomo / Gallery loco-hauled Ordered May 20 2005.Deliveries expected to Washington DC Nippon Sharyo start in late 2006