State needs to purchase more ‘green’ trains

Another passenger rail crisis brewing
New train station construction in Schenectady.
New train station construction in Schenectady.

It is certainly good news that, after several delays, the construction of a new Schenectady Rail Station has started.

Yet there is another passenger rail crisis brewing that effects not just trains to the Electric City, but Amtrak service across upstate New York.

The crisis involves the “Dual-Mode” (DM) locomotives that currently haul trains on the New York City-Niagara Falls “Empire Corridor” reaching the end of their 20-year service life without replacements on order.

Their specialized design is the reason why this is not a matter of simply ordering new off-the-shelf locomotives.

What makes a DM unique is that while it’s an otherwise standard diesel-electric locomotive with a diesel engine generating electricity to power the traction motors that drives the wheels, it also can run, with the diesel engine switched off, in pure electric mode from electricity fed from a third rail.

This ability is necessary because trains running into New York City can only run on electricity due to the undesirability of hot choking diesel fumes below ground.

Amtrak’s current DM locomotives were manufactured by General Electric Co. in the 1990s and are only used on the Empire Corridor. Each operates over 125,000 miles per year, and their average age now exceeds the locomotive’s 20-year service life.

GE has also stopped manufacturing new replacement components, which combined with age and intense use makes it difficult and costly for Amtrak’s Rensselaer Maintenance Facility to keep these locomotives in service.

The average failure rate in service for the DM fleet is increasing leading to more frustrating delays to passengers. 

This is why New York state should buy new DM locomotives for the Amtrak’s Empire Corridor now. Under changes in federal law (PRIIA Section 209),

New York state financially supports all Amtrak “corridor service” from New York City to Albany, Niagara Falls, Toronto, and Montreal.

This financially puts the ball squarely in the state’s court for replacing these locomotives, since they are only used for New York state-supported trains.

The PRIIA Next Generation Equipment Committee, of which I was a member, developed a standardized specification for a new DM (DC 3rd Rail) Passenger Locomotive.

This specification was developed to meet the needs of Amtrak, Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road. Metro-North plans to issue a procurement in 2017 for about six DM locomotives to begin to replace their aging fleet.

The state Department of Transportation can reduce the costs of buying new DM locomotives for Amtrak by joining with Metro-North to buy them as a joint order. To replace and expand the existing fleet, about $250 million in state funding is required for 25 new DM locomotives.

Beyond keeping the trains running, the new DM locomotives will also have several other benefits, including saving the state money in future years by reducing maintenance costs and eliminating “rent” payments to Amtrak, since the new DMs will be state owned.

They will be “greener machines,” with much reduced noise and air pollution. The diesel engine will be more efficient with reduced emissions, while the locomotives will spend more time in electric mode by making greater use of the third-rail on Metro-North.

At the Rensselaer station and maintenance facility, new DM idling locomotives will be able to “plug in” to electric “shore power,” while “Automatic Engine Start Stop” will automatically turn off the diesel engine when the temperature is above freezing in winter.

This will greatly benefit the health of the residents of Rensselaer, who have strongly protested about air quality in the community.

Now is the time for the state Legislature and the governor to fund new locomotives this year.

Several locomotive manufacturers have modified their PRIIA diesel-electric passenger locomotive designs to meet the PRIIA DM specifications. And with Metro-North making the first move to buy new DM locomotives, the state could piggyback on that order to save time and money and ensure that your first train trip from the new Schenectady station doesn’t come to a sudden halt. 

John V. “Jack” Madden of Hudson, N.H., is a registered professional engineer in New York. He retired from the state Department of Transportation’s Rail Bureau in 2015 after 17 years. Previously, he worked for Conrail for 15 years and served in the U.S. Army Transportation Corps.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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