Rail car favored by transit planners is sleek, comfortable — but is it safe?

12/27/2013 9:49 PM

12/31/2013 2:42 PM

A rail car favored by North Texas planners as the vehicle of the future may be too light for its own good.

The sleek, streetcarlike rail cars already in use by the Denton County A-train commuter line sometimes have trouble making a crucial electrical connection with the tracks, a problem that if unaddressed could mean the vehicles might not trigger gates and flashing lights at crossings.

The lack of an electrical connection – or “shunting” – can also allow a train to disappear from a railroad dispatcher’s computer screen, raising the possibility of a collision if two trains are cleared to travel on the same tracks.

In August 2012 a dispatcher lost track of an A-train for about 10 seconds near Lewisville’s Hebron Station – an incident blamed on shunting that alarmed a Federal Railroad Administration inspector. It was determined that rust and other build-up had appeared on the tracks, and most likely interrupted the connection between the steel wheels and rails.

Officials from several transit agencies say the problem has since been fixed, and is no longer a major concern.

But a former Trinity Railway Express chief mechanical officer said he continued raising concerns about safety and operating costs of the rail cars and argued against using the vehicles on future projects. He said the dispute was partly to blame for his termination in September from the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, also known as the T, which co-owns TRE along with Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

“The concern about the vehicle being favored by the T and DART as the regional vehicle has been met with indifference and inaction,” said Sal DeAngelo, who was laid off from the T in September.

TRE, a commuter line connecting downtown Fort Worth to Dallas, doesn’t use the new rail cars. But an entire fleet of the new cars would be bought for use on TEX Rail, a proposed line from Fort Worth to Grapevine and Dallas Fort Worth Airport scheduled to open in 2017. Transit officials are under intense pressure from local elected leaders to get the long-awaited TEX Rail project open, even though federal funding hasn’t been secured.

Even so, officials with the T say they won’t ignore safety to get TEX Rail up and running. They also say DeAngelo’s departure was purely a budgetary move — not disciplinary — as his position was eliminated in a cost-saving measure.

Ideal design

The rail car, known as a diesel multiple unit, is considered an ideal design for North Texas because it gives riders a comfortable, streetcar-like experience, yet it is also built to run on freight railroad tracks and to withstand crashes with much heavier trains. Most of the commuter lines planned in the Metroplex during the next two to three decades are expected to run on tracks shared with freight trains.

Diesel multiple units offer a smooth ride with panoramic windows, ample standing room and low floors that make it easier for seniors and people with disabilities to climb aboard.

“It’s not very noisy. It’s nice and quiet and you can relax on it,” said Alicia Wray of Dallas, a Collin County college student who on a recent afternoon was riding to Denton to visit friends. “It’s not bumpy at all.”

The rail car, which carries its own diesel engine and doesn’t need to be pulled by a locomotive, weighs about 160,000 pounds empty. A more traditional diesel locomotive, such as those used by the TRE, weighs about 260,000 pounds.

The Federal Railroad Administration in 2012 granted a temporary waiver for a diesel multiple unit vehicle built by Switzerland-based Stadler Rail — known as a Stadler GTW car — to operate on the A-train line, even though those tracks are still sometimes used by freight trains.

Denton County officials say that their initial experience has been positive and that the lone shunting-related glitch has been addressed.

“Believe me, we’re focused on it,” said Jim Cline, Denton County Transportation Authority president. “We were on top of that immediately.”

For example, Cline said, since the August 2012 incident, an overnight crew now goes out on the 21-mile line three times per week, and polishes the rails with a scrubbing machine to ensure the metal remains smooth, for an optimal electrical connection.

They also plan to perform a more thorough maintenance of tracks in their corridor at least a year ahead of schedule. And outside experts have been brought in to review the steps taken, and to recommend any further changes.

Upfront cost

Diesel multiple units also cost more than older passenger cars and locomotives. The T will likely have to spend $90 million buying the vehicles for its TEX Rail line, about $25 million more than if the T would instead buy the older model bi-level cars currently used on TRE, according to an analysis provided by the T.

However, in the long-term the cost of maintaining and fueling the diesel multiple units will be much cheaper — about $10.2 million annually compared to $13.2 million for the older equipment. According to that analysis, buying the more modern diesel multiple unit vehicles would pay for itself in less than nine years.

Although the diesel multiple units cost more upfront, supporters believe it’s a worthwhile investment in trying to not only persuade motorists to take public transportation to work, but to ensure commuter rail systems aren’t overly intrusive to the neighborhoods they roll through.

“The question is, ‘How do you introduce something that can be accepted by a neighborhood?’ This system is working well. For the neighborhoods, it’s more like getting a light-rail system than a freight train,” said Cline. “The lighter vehicles are more susceptible to shunting issues. So the question is, how do you manage it?”

Common problem

In August 2012, after the A-train disappeared from a computer screen for about 10 seconds, Gregory Likness, a Federal Railroad Administration chief inspector based in Colleyville, wrote a memo to Herzog Transit Services Inc., the company that operates the A-train for Denton County.

“I started reviewing the loss of shunt data that has been accumulating and I must say that I am very concerned about the capability of the Stadler vehicle to provide adequate and sustainable shunting capabilities as required by the federal regulations,” Likness wrote in his Aug. 22, 2012, memo.

Likness didn’t return repeated calls and emails seeking elaboration, and requests for further safety information from the FRA regarding the Stadler vehicles were still pending.

DeAngelo, who worked for TEX Rail for six years before being terminated, tried to raise questions about safety performance and operating costs of the vehicles. He said he was discouraged from talking about it publicly because it might hamper developing the TEX Rail project.

T officials, meanwhile, strongly denied they are ignoring safety issues related to the diesel multiple unit as they try to get TEX Rail open by 2017. They said they will scrutinize each rail car manufacturer’s safety records carefully when they sit down to compare proposals to purchase vehicles for the TEX Rail line, a process that could begin by the middle of 2014.

Stadler and several other companies are expected to compete in that process.

“Once we start looking at the proposals for vehicles we will certainly address and ask questions about any shunting problems manufacturers may have had,” said Rob Harmon, the T’s chief financial officer and vice president of commuter rail. “But at this point we’re not looking at it.”

Shunting issues are common with small rail cars and can usually be easily addressed, said Stephen Bonina, president of Stadler US Inc., a branch of the Swiss company.

“Small vehicles have had problems with shunting since the 1950s,” Bonina said.

He said shunting is much less of a problem with heavy freight trains and older passenger trains, which, because of their weight, tend to inadvertently clean the railroad tracks as they move along. They also tend to slide sideways — several millimeters back and forth — as the wheels roll down the racks. The sliding, he said, creates a sweeping motion that in effect polishes a larger surface of the rails and ensures an electrical connection can be maintained.

Lighter passenger cars such as those made by Stadler tend to run “true” — in a straight line, with little side-to-side swaying — which means the wheels have less contact with the rails, he said. That’s one of the reasons the cars are so much more comfortable for passengers, who don’t have to deal with motion sickness.

“Our cars have very smooth movement,” Bonina said. “That’s one reason we have a higher ride quality” than rail cars manufactured by other companies.

For commuter rail services, he added, dealing with shunting problems isn’t a major inconvenience. He said it’s just a matter of being diligent in inspecting the rails to ensure they’re always clean.

In many parts of the country, he said, cleaning and inspecting the tracks is a daily routine because falling leaves can even pile up on railroad tracks and cause shunting problems.

Stadler is also adding brush-like devices to the wheels of its cars, to further polish the rails as the car moves along.

The lighter-weight Stadler Rail cars are also being run on a commuter line in Austin, and another passenger service in New Jersey.

Officials with DART, which owns much of the track the T plans to use to run its TEX Rail line, have insisted for years that the T use the diesel multiple unit vehicles on the line rather than old-fashioned rail cars like those used on TRE.

Even so, the T won’t buy any vehicles in whose ability to operate on North Texas freight tracks is questionable, said Nancy Amos, T senior vice president. The agency still has a few months to settle on a specific rail car design before it makes its roughly $90 million purchase of cars for TEX Rail, she said.

“We wouldn’t do anything that violated the FRA’s recommendation or findings,” she said. “We’re still in a research mode on this.”

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