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SMART news: picking the railcar, and Novato Stations
Thursday 19 Feb 2009, 07:50
Filed under: Marin, NCRA, Northwestern Pacific Railroad, Novato, Railroad, SMART, Sonoma

While Colorado Railcar went out of business, there are plenty of other manufacturers willing to produce heavy DMU’s needed to allow freight/NCRA to run at the same time frame as the SMART commuter rail line. Novato wants all Three stations, but only have the Downtown station as a whistle stop, where commuter trains only stop when there is demand.

NA: SMART to pick trains

But even before the SMART board of directors actually selects a DMU manufacturer, board members must decide whether SMART will use “compliant” or “noncompliant” vehicles (sometimes known as “heavy” or “light” railcars). Compliant railcars are allowed by the Federal Railroad Administration to share a rail corridor with freight trains. Noncompliant vehicles must be temporally separated from freight trains; in other words, passenger trains and freight trains are not allowed to use the corridor at the same time.

NA Editorial: SMART should pick heavy trains

Manufacturers have plans to build heavier DMUs that can share the track with freight trains “ but not a single heavy DMU is in production now. SMART initially planned to use heavy DMUs made by Colorado Railcar Manufacturing LLC, but it abruptly went out of business in December.

So now the SMART board has a bit of a gamble: Should it select a heavyweight DMU that’s still in the planning stages in anticipation that it will be manufactured and delivered in time for SMART’s projected start date in 2014?

Or should the board pick a lightweight DMU?

We think that SMART should gamble and go for a heavy DMU. One thing that Novatans living near the tracks have made clear is that they don’t want freight trains running at night.

MIJ: Getting SMART rolling starts with big decisions

Picking the new rail car is job one, due to the necessarily long manufacturing lead time.

SMART General Manger Lillian Hames and board president Charles McGlashan are determined to honor the campaign promise to put the new trains online by 2014.

There’s little debate about what’s needed: Fuel-efficient, comfortable trains with capacity for ridership growth, plus easy access for the disabled.

For the demanding North Bay commuter, amenities ranging from ample room for bicycles to wi-fi capability are a given.

It turns out that the global market for self-propelled trains with such attributes is vigorous.

Given the dismal economy, the manufactures present from Germany, Canada, Japan, Spain, Italy and Switzerland are in a competitive mode.

SMART’s timing couldn’t be better.

No American firm made a presentation. The dismal reality is that there isn’t a single domestic manufacturer of passenger trains. Blame that on America’s habit of considering rail, as Supervisor Judy Arnold once infamously described it, as “20th-century technology.”

The most innovative alternative was presented by the Canadian car builder Bombardier. It presented an off-the-shelf dual-mode rail car that shifts between diesel and electric propulsion without stopping. While an all-electric SMART would be ideal, the cost of fully electrifying the 70-mile commuter line is prohibitive. But electrifying short sections might be doable.

SMART directors should consider the concept. Four short stretches of overhead wire would guarantee quiet and pollution-free operation in the most critical zones.

From Larkspur’s Ferry Terminal through San Rafael to the Civic Center as well as in the downtown portions of Novato, Petaluma and Santa Rosa, an electrified SMART would swat away lingering though unfounded perceptions that light rail is noisy or polluting.

A dual-mode railcar could lift its pantograph to capture electricity in segments totaling perhaps eight to ten miles. Diesel operation would seamlessly resume once out of town.

It’s not an exotic concept. Bombardier has delivered 800 of their dual-mode trains to France.

The Canadian car isn’t necessarily the best or most economical final choice, but it demonstrates options on the market allowing SMART’s to deliver its promise of a viable green alternative to freeway gridlock.

MIJ: Novato pushes for downtown SMART station for a total of three stations.

The Novato City Council has informally endorsed a plan to build three commuter rail stations in the city – one at Hamilton, a second near the Fireman’s Fund commercial park and a third in downtown Novato.

While current plans call for two stations in Novato, members of the City Council – including Carole Dillon-Knutson and Madeline Kellner, who serve on the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit Board of Directors – said Tuesday that the agency had previously promised a third, “whistlestop” station for the city that would be accessible outside of commuting hours.

“Once commuter traffic had gone through, it could stop downtown,” said Councilwoman Jeanne MacLeamy, who noted that a full-service station was not possible at the site because it lacks the space for parking that SMART requires. “There would still be a platform, a ticket machine and all the attributes of other stations.”

But SMART representatives said they’re not sure if the agency ever made such a promise, and that tacking on an additional station to the 14 planned for the line could increase both the cost and construction schedule.

“SMART’s whole operational schedule is structured around 14 stations, as is all of our funding assumptions,” said Matt Stephens, director of public outreach and education. “We’re going to have to do some thinking and find out what’s possible.”

The planned Hamilton station south of downtown and the Fireman’s Fund location north of downtown would serve commuters coming from Sonoma, but
a Grant Avenue station could attract diners and shoppers to Old Town retailers and a Whole Foods Market scheduled to open in spring 2010 – a prospect that appeals to Novato’s business community.

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