When North Texas' transit agencies began planning the proposed Cotton Belt commuter line, they decided early on that they wanted to use low-profile, self-propelled rail cars that would have minimal noise and air pollution impact on neighborhoods.They didn't want smog-belching locomotives churning through residential areas, pulling double-decker passenger cars so tall that train riders could peek into homeowners' windows.But until recently, federal rules didn't allow vehicles with light-rail comforts to operate on freight tracks.In October 2011, the Federal Railroad Administration approved crash-worthiness guidelines for modern commuter rail cars operating on freight lines. The agency was spurred on by the wishes of the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, Dallas Area Rapid Transit and other agencies nationwide that are looking to add passenger lines in freight corridors.The new rail cars ride lower -- a bit like a light-rail vehicle or a streetcar -- and burn diesel fuel far more efficiently than traditional locomotives.They are fully handicap-accessible, air-conditioned and roomy on the inside.The first -- and, so far, only -- company to design a car that meets the new requirements is Stadler Rail Group of Switzerland. The company sold 11 sets of its Stadler GTW cars to the Denton County Transportation Authority, which unveiled them last year on the A-train route from Denton to Carrollton.As the North Central Texas Council of Governments prepares to receive an unsolicited proposal to develop the Cotton Belt corridor from southwest Fort Worth to Grapevine, Dallas/Fort Worth Airport and Plano, Stadler could be among the companies vying to build rail cars for the route.But many other manufacturers, including a few that have a U.S. presence, could also fit the bill.North Texas officials are hoping to lure a rail car manufacturer to the region, to provide cars not only for the Cotton Belt project -- which is also known as TEX Rail in Tarrant County -- but also for streetcar projects in Dallas, San Antonio and potentially many other places."Stadler has got to have the inside track," said Joshua Coran, director of operations at Talgo Inc. in Seattle. Talgo is a Spanish company that has built rail cars in the U.S. for many years, including the low-profile passenger cars used on Amtrak's Cascades route."The U.S. market is so small and so uncertain no one wants to put money into design," he said. "So if you have a design, you're in."Stadler US President Stephen Bonina declined to comment on whether his company will compete for the Cotton Belt project.Stadler has moved aggressively to expand its business in the U.S. In 2011, it opened its American subsidiary in Westfield, N.J.Stadler has sold 37 vehicles to the Denton County Transportation Authority, the Austin area's Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority and New Jersey Transit, according to a 2011 news release."We compete very strongly when a transit agency looks at the life-cycle cost of a vehicle," Bonina said in an interview.In addition to Stadler and Talgo, companies that manufacture passenger rail cars or that have asked the Federal Railroad Administration about the new crash-worthiness rules for rail cars include:Bombardier Inc. of Canada, which has developed a hybrid diesel-electric, self-propelled rail car known as an AGC ( autorail grande capacite).Alstom of France. The Alstom Transport division offers integrated rail systems including rolling stock, signals and other infrastructure.Siemens of Germany, which provides rail cars in the United Kingdom, China and other countries.Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796Twitter: @gdickson
Modern rail cars
Visit www.star-telegram.com to review the Federal Railroad Administration's alternative design guidelines that were used to grant Stadler a waiver for its A-train cars.
A copy of the agency's letter to the Denton County Transportation Authority is also online.