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Novato Advance: Light SMART trains would give better ride than heavy ones by By Judy Arnold
Thursday 19 Mar 2009, 07:04
Filed under: Marin, Northwestern Pacific Railroad, Railroad, SMART, Sonoma

Novato Advance: Light SMART trains would give better ride than heavy ones by By Judy Arnold.

County Connection

The SMART commuter train vehicle selection process is underway. Last month, the SMART Board of Directors received initial presentations from six potential vehicle suppliers. Recently, some members of the SMART Board took two-day trips to assess “light” and “heavy” DMUs (diesel multiple units) currently operating on tracks that share freight and passenger service.

I went on both trips, as did Novato City Councilwoman Madeline Kellner, which provided an important opportunity to evaluate ride quality and both internal and external noise volume of the DMU types.

These aspects are especially relevant for Novato, since the track portion planned for both freight and passenger service passes through a major portion of our city.

Friday, Feb. 27, was spent in Portland, visiting TriMet, which coordinates and operates Portland’s multiple transit services. The Commuter Rail Service WES DMU is a heavy DMU powered by diesel and runs every 30 minutes on weekdays, only during rush hour.

We heard presentations from the TriMet staff, visited the maintenance facility, and took the 27-minute, five-station WES DMU ride to Beaverton, a suburb of Portland.

Because freight is running on the same tracks as passenger rail, a heavy DMU is labeled “compliant” with the Federal Rail Authority (FRA) and does not need a waiver to run with freight.

A light DMU, however, is considered “non-compliant” and needs a waiver from the FRA and the CPUC to run on the same track with freight.

In order to obtain the waiver, SMART must implement “time separation” that limits freight operations to hours during which passenger trains are not in operation. Time or “temporal” separation is supplemented by positive train control (PTC), an automated braking control system using a Global Positioning System.

PTC is required by new federal legislation for all commuter rail by 2015, and will be part of the SMART system if SMART chooses a light DMU.

We spent March 2 in San Diego, where we rode the year-old light DMU “Sprinter,” part of the North County Transit District’s integrated transit system of buses, light rail and locomotive heavy rail called the Coaster. Our 57-minute ride encompassed the entire length of the Sprinter line, which includes 15 stations. Sprinter runs every 30 minutes from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., with freight operating on the same tracks from 10:30 p.m. to 4:30 a.m.

The staff at Sprinter conveyed their experience obtaining FRA and CPUC waivers to run “non-compliant” cars. Their advice was consistent with SMART staff’s recommendations: That any transit agency interested in developing a shared-use project should begin meeting with the FRA as soon as possible, given the FRA’s broad regulatory authority over shared-use transit projects.

North County emphasized that if SMART’s mission is to move medium-sized passenger loads on shared track where freight and passenger business needs can be addressed within the constraints of a temporally separated environment, then light DMUs are preferable.

If the mission is to move high volumes of passengers where freight and business needs cannot be adequately accommodated in a temporally separated operating environment, they recommend choosing a heavy vehicle.

As to the initial outcome of riding both of these systems, I would say the overall impression of the group in attendance was that light DMUs offer a far superior method of travel than the heavy DMU experience, especially for SMART’s 70-mile trips.

The light DMUs performed significantly better from both a ride quality and noise standpoint. Many steps remain in the selection process, and I will keep you posted.

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