Wednesday, August 3, 2011

When rail spending is depressing and an outrage

Earlier today, Secretary LaHood announced an additional $336 million in Federal funding for the purchase of new intercity locomotives and rail cars. This brings the total of such awards to $782 million for a total of 33 locomotives and 120 passenger cars. This is, quite frankly, an absurd amount of money. At an average of five million for each vehicle, the utility of continuing to purchase individual locomotives and cars rather pales. Diesel or electric multiple unit train sets, even FRA compliant USRailcar models, become a far better value for the money as they offer increased performance over traditional locomotive and car consists. Their relative novelty to American passenger railroading may also offer a useful public relations boost with a "futuristic look."

Consider, for instance, that NCTD in San Diego County was able to purchase twelve Siemens Desiro DMUs at a total price of 52.2 million when they set up the Sprinter rail service, a price of 4.35 million per unit. For this price, instead of receiving 6 locomotives and 42 rail cars, California could have purchased 48 such multiple units. Four unit consists would enable 478 coach seats and 24 business class seats, using Desiro Classic specifications and assuming each end car contains business class seats. These twelve trains would be capable of taking over, in part or in full, for any of Amtrak California's routes and providing increased service in the process, perhaps allowing even for an authentic Surfliner Express rather than the paltry 15 minute savings currently offered.

As a further note, it is outrageous that California is the only state to spend substantial sums of it's own money on increasing capacity through this measure. 42 million, 20% of the total funding, came from California's own funds. Only Illinois paid as well and their funding amounted to a paltry 11.6 million, barely 5% of the purchase that was made for and about 2.5% of the total projects Illinois is involved in. Further Federal funds should require a state match similar to that of California's.


  1. (a) The problem is regulation, in this case. Siemens' Desiro is a fairly standard DMU model, but due to FRA and Buy America and other nonsensical regulation, they have to, at the very least, be built in a industrially-duplicate factory building here--often tailored for just one order--and if they have to be FRA-compliant, then they must be weighed down.

    To see an example of such ridiculousness, check out Amtrak's Cascades. The gutted F40PH that forms its cab car end is literally weighed down with cinder blocks to meet FRA's excessive regulations.

    It's because of complications such as these that new railroad equipment purchases are so unbelievably expensive--and it's in part because of their expense that agencies purchase new equipment so rarely, which (in turn) keeps the market too small to support any domestic passenger railcar manufacture, even when agencies tailor their equipment requirements so that only a domestic manufacture can meet them.


  2. I'm definitely aware of the main problem being one of regulation, but even still, at price levels that high, regular locomotive and car consists should be ditched. Even FRA compliant DMUs aren't going to be terribly more expensive, and Vermont was going to purchase Colorado Railcar FRA-happy DMUs at only 3.7 million each. That's my main problem, that even allowing for the absurdities of bad regulation, there is still poor use of money and what seems like a continual desire to plod the same old path rather than try something new.


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