TransitMatters: Train search should focus on basics

Don’t get sidetracked by hydrogen, dual-mode vehicles

THE MBTA’S REQUEST  for information to railcar manufacturers regarding electric multiple unit trains, often called EMUs, was a welcome sign of progress towards electrifying the commuter rail system and converting it into a high-speed, high-frequency regional rail network. By focusing on vehicles compliant with new Federal Railroad Administration standards, long in use in Europe, the MBTA is taking a necessary step forward that will not only pay dividends for metro Boston, but set a welcome precedent for passenger rail throughout the United States.

At the same time, many aspects of the request for information and its responses merit concern. An examination of global best practices applied to the needs and goals of our commuter rail system dictate that MBTA senior staff and the Fiscal Management and Control Board specify a train order consisting entirely or mostly of single-level EMUs. For example, as explained below, any consideration of hydrogen-powered trains should be abandoned for the time being: the underlying technology is expensive, insufficiently tested, and ill-suited to the rail lines identified by the FMCB for early action on electrification (the Providence, Fairmount, and inner Newburyport/Rockport lines).

Hydrogen multiple units represent a technology that is not only still in its infancy, but is simply not needed for this stage. Hydrogen is difficult to store and extremely volatile, as well as expensive. According to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, a kilogram of hydrogen fuel costs about $14, which is the equivalent of paying $5.60 for a gallon of gasoline. For the week of July 29-August 4 of this year, diesel fuel in Massachusetts cost $2.63 a gallon.

It’s true that European railroads are experimenting with hydrogen-powered trains, but so far the use cases have been limited to short, moderate-ridership lines. Electrification is a proven, environmentally sound, and cost-effective technology capable of high performance over a variety of distances. It is crucial that the MBTA remain focused on acquiring EMUs for a frequent, clean, and reliable rail system, and not delay for the sake of speculative technology. We are concerned that focusing on anything other than the acquisition of EMUs at this point is a strategy that uses technology as an excuse for needless delay.

The T’s request for information also makes mention of dual-mode electric-diesel vehicles (meaning vehicles that combine diesel and electric features). There are some potential short-term benefits to this approach. For example, such vehicles would allow for more flexibility with regard to the inner Newburyport/Rockport Line as the branches from Beverly north are lower density, have lower potential ridership, and will take longer to electrify. If the outer branches are not initially electrified, dual modes would enable running all service on the Newburyport/Rockport Line with multiple units. This would prevent the T from needing to run older, unreliable diesel-only locomotives on trips to branches, improving reliability on the line and allowing for higher frequency on other lines before they are electrified.

However, closer examination reveals that the potential benefits may be ephemeral. Dual-mode EMUs are roughly twice as expensive as standard ones. They also have higher maintenance, weight, and fuel costs. This means much of the money saved from deferring electrification would have to be spent in the short-term regardless, so any cost savings are probably marginal. Procurement decisions need to take these trade-offs into account. It may make the most sense to invest in full electrification of the line in the short term, in order to achieve a more optimal, cost-effective solution over time.

The MBTA also solicited proposals for bilevel EMUs, similar to the MBTA’s current bilevel cars. While bilevels have some use on lines with high ridership starting further from Boston, single level EMUs are generally preferable because they allow for reduced dwell times (and therefore better frequencies); this is especially important on the Fairmount Line and the inerr Newburey/Rockport Lines, with tight spacing between stops and potential for additional stations. For a Phase 1 procurement, bilevel EMUs are justifiable for the Providence/Stoughton Line, but only there.

Furthermore, under no circumstances should a single train be a mix of single-and double-deck cars, as some responses suggest. A mixed train has the worst of both worlds: its seated capacity is less than that of a pure bilevel, but its peak dwell times are much longer than those of a pure single-level train. Appropriate choices must be made to optimize both per-train capacity and dwell time.

Finally, it is vital that the MBTA not fall into the trap afflicting many transit agencies in this country of overwhelming potential bidders with excessively long requests for proposals. For example, a recent request for proposals by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority was 745 pages long. A similar request for proposals in Spain was seven pages long. Excessively long requirements only serve to reduce the number of bidders and inflate the price per vehicle.  They are a prime example of how public agencies often, with little justification, transform the straightforward into the complex.

Short, streamlined RFPs are crucial, because EMUs are a highly standardized product. The major vendors have experience in selling in a large number of countries, mostly in Europe, and have learned to adapt to national differences in clearances, track gauge, electrification systems, and platform height. The new Federal Railroad Administration regulations adopted in 2018 are within the normal range of variation for Europe, meaning that a long request for proposal is good for consultants, not so good for taxpayers or process efficiency.

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Alon Levy

Freelance writer, Transportation issues
The bottom line: standardized vehicles used for regional rail abroad will work here as well. The T should make sure to have a small number of in-house engineers on staff to monitor the bids and score them on technical merit, just as it has a design review team for such capital construction projects as high platforms.

With limited resources and personnel, the MBTA cannot afford to be profligate. These personnel and funding resources must be employed in a way that produces the best result; this is no time to experiment with huge leaps in the dark on unproven technology, or timid half-steps with intermediate technology. Electrification works. Boston has known that since the Tremont Street Subway opened in 1897. Now, more than ever, we need to cut harmful emissions and build a transportation system that doesn’t leave our neighbors breathing toxic fumes or our commuters frustrated by a service delivery model that fails to provide them the access they need. It is time for electrified, frequent, and reliable regional rail.

This article is excerpted from a longer response, which can be found on the TransitMatters website. It represents a collaboration among several TransitMatters members, led by Matt Robare, Ethan Finlan and Alon Levy.