Monday, May 16, 2011

NJ Transit Unveils New Diesel/Electric Engines

NJ Transit unveiled its new DMU engines last week, which allow the engine to switch from a diesel mode to an electric mode, depending on whether overhead catenary lines are available.
On the Morris-Essex line, which is electrified in some portions and diesel powered on others, a dual-mode train would allow passengers to get on in Hackettstown and travel into New York Penn Station without having to transfer, said Kevin O' Connor, vice-president and general manager for rail operations.

But users of the Pascack Valley and Main and Bergen lines, which are powered by diesel fuel, will still have to make transfers in Secaucus to electric-powered trains because diesel trains cannot go into the tunnels into New York, NJ Transit spokesman Dan Stessel said.

Ironically, it was the Bergen and Passaic commuters that were originally supposed to benefit when NJ Transit in 2008 purchased the first 26 dual-mode locomotives from Canada-based Bombardier Transit Corporation for an estimated $310 million.

The cost includes design, engineering, manufacturing, training and spare parts, with the option to purchase additional locomotives in the future. In July 2010, NJ Transit purchased an additional nine dual-mode locomotives.

They were originally purchased as part of the agency’s $8.7 billion project to build two new rail tunnels — a plan that included building a direct connection from the Bergen, Main and Pascack Valley lines to the Northeast Corridor lines which feed New York’s Penn Station.

The project, known as ARC, for “Access to the Region’s Core,” would have allowed Bergen and Passaic counties’ commuters to board a dual-mode powered train on the Pascack Valley or Main and Bergen lines, switch to electric power near Secaucus, and then travel directly into New York Penn Station without transferring.

That option died last October when Governor Christie killed the ARC project, citing projections that the project could go as much as $5 billion over budget.

Still, NJ Transit moved forward with the purchase of the locomotives. Stessel said NJ Transit did have the right to cancel the order.

“However, we were pretty far along with design and production; the cost to cancel would be significant,” he said.

“We can use them on the lines in Bergen County,” Stessel said. “Those would be in diesel mode. In the future, if there ever was a project that builds a loop or Amtrak builds the ‘Gateway tunnels’ … this gives you maximum flexibility because wherever you are in the NJ Transit system, you can operate.”

Alfred Doblin of NJ Transit complains about the purchase, and specifically questions why NJ Transit made the purchase when the ostensible purpose for the purchase is no longer there. The trains were purchased in anticipation of the ARC tunnel, but the project was killed by Gov. Chris Christie. NJ Transit went ahead with the purchase anyways.

I disagree with Doblin on the new trains' utility. They can be useful to reduce emissions at terminal stations like Hoboken, where the diesel engines could switch to electric mode and use the overhead wire system to reduce emissions around Hoboken. This is particularly useful because the station and the surrounding area can be overcome by a haze of diesel particulates from the idling diesel locomotives. They may also actually save the agency on energy costs by using less diesel fuel over the life of the locomotives.

Doblin further notes that the trains could be used to help provide a one-seat ride sooner rather than later - if NJ Transit goes ahead and builds the loop connector for the North Jersey rail lines (Bergen/Main/Pascack) into Midtown.

That would not only be possible years ahead of any tunnel expansion project in providing the mythical one-seat ride. However, NJ Transit lacks the capital resources to make that happen - or the operating budget to expand service for North Jersey to add one-seat rides to Manhattan from Northern New Jersey. This has been one of my bones of contention with the ARC project and the Gateway projects - NJ Transit doesn't have the operating budgets to expand its schedule along these routes - and has taken to cutting train service on the Bergen/Main line so unless it simply diverts trains from Hoboken to Midtown, this isn't likely to happen anytime soon (assuming that NJ Transit can shoehorn additional trains into Manhattan through the existing tunnels).

Now, what exactly could NJ Transit have done with the $310 million instead of buying these new locomotives? Well, it could have upgraded station parking at locations where demand is greatest (increasing ridership and improving access). It could have increased the number of stations receiving high level platforms to meet ADA requirements and reduce dwell times at stations due to passengers having to literally climb aboard at the low platforms.

Still, all this boils down to a simple question: was this the best use of limited resources?

If NJ Transit can show that the new locomotives will save money in the long term by using electric power instead of idling on diesel power and can reduce delays and improve overall reliability, then the new purchases may well be worth it. However, knowing how NJ Transit has squandered its limited resources in the past, don't count on seeing a cost savings from this purchase.

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