To overcome a surge in locomotive breakdowns that delay passengers, the Metrolink commuter railroad plans to spend about $200 million for some of the most sophisticated low-emission engines available.
Rail officials want to buy 29 so-called Tier 4 locomotives — powerful, fuel-efficient vehicles designed to slash potentially harmful releases of nitrogen oxide and fine particles of diesel exhaust.
Metrolink is set to take delivery of its first locomotive in December and the rest next year. When it does, the railroad that serves about 41,200 daily riders from six Southern California counties will become the first passenger line in the nation to operate the state-of-the-art engines.
“We thought that rebuilding our old locomotives was a good deal, but we’ve learned that buying new engines is better,” said Art Leahy, Metrolink’s chief executive officer. “It’s the right thing to do. The business case is there.”
The new locomotives are part of a broader program to improve customer service and rebuild ridership that has been lost since 2008. It includes replacing faulty ticket machines, adding trains to the schedule, and experimenting with lower fares and amenities such as Wi-Fi.
Rail officials say the Tier 4 engines, built by Electro-Motive Diesel in Illinois, are necessary because breakdowns have grown steadily for several years, reaching 111 during the first seven months of 2015.
R.T. McCarthy, Metrolink’s deputy chief operating officer, said many of the railroad’s 54 engines were built in the early 1990s and have traveled upward of a million miles each. He added that the railroad also has deferred costly overhauls, opting instead for reactive maintenance when mechanical problems arise.
“The engines,” McCarthy said, “are worn out and tired.”
Like the one that powered Train 633 on Metrolink’s Orange County Line. On Friday, June 5, the engine was taken out of service at Irvine station when a piston rod failed at the end of the morning rush hour. In operation since 1995, the locomotive was one of the higher-mileage vehicles in the fleet.
Metrolink officials said passengers had to wait 10 to 26 minutes to board other trains. Because the engine was no longer available, two trains on the Orange County Line that would have used the locomotive had to be canceled.
The railroad then placed notices on social media and made arrangements for riders to take transit buses if they could not find another way to reach their destinations.
“When this happens, it’s a real bummer,” said Cathy Crayton of Claremont, an administrator at USC who has commuted on the San Bernardino Line for 20 years. After a breakdown, “it can take two to three hours to get home.”
She recalled that the engine of a train she once rode was taken out of service in Covina and passengers had to take transit buses to the Pomona station, where everyone boarded another train to Claremont, one stop away. Crayton also has experienced delays of 30 to 45 minutes because of other locomotive breakdowns.
“It’s a real issue” for passengers, said Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson, chairman of the Metrolink board of directors. “People have expectations about arriving on time that must be met.”
Metrolink officials say the Tier 4 engines have up to 1,700 more horsepower, use less fuel, have longer service lives and are more reliable than rebuilt engines.
The added power will allow trains to climb grades faster and haul more passenger cars, which could ease crowding on the busiest lines. In addition, the new engines are easier to repair because their modular components can be replaced quickly.
The locomotives also will help Metrolink reduce air pollution across its 512-mile network. Starting this year, federal standards require that rebuilt locomotives and new engines purchased by passenger and freight railroads must cut nitrogen oxide emissions by 80% and particulates by 90%.
Nitrogen oxide and fine particulates, which are minute pieces of exhaust, can penetrate deeply into the lungs and contribute to respiratory illness and aggravate heart disease. In extreme cases, premature death can occur.
Paul Dyson, president of the Rail Passenger Assn. of California, acknowledged the need to comply with emission standards and replace worn-out engines. But he said he was concerned the new engines could have “plenty of teething problems” as they go into service.
Dyson contends the railroad has not adequately considered rebuilding many of its existing locomotives and that Tier 4 engines are so new they don’t have any service history for passenger use.
“This is all brand-new technology,” he said. “There are quite a few issues with them.”
Some Tier 4 engines are being tested for freight service at Union Pacific Corp. and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co., two of the nation’s largest carriers. Lena Kent, a spokesperson for BNSF, said the railroad’s prototypes have “experienced operating issues,” but she declined to elaborate.
“We look forward to continuing to test these locomotives and phasing them in when the technology proves to be operationally reliable for freight transportation,” Kent said.
McCarthy, Metrolink’s deputy chief, disagreed with Dyson, saying all Tier 4 components have been tested successfully. “We are not concerned,” he added. “It’s a tried-and-true locomotive.”
Metrolink plans to pay for the engines with $41.2 million in state funds, $58.9 million in grants from the South Coast Air Quality Management District and contributions from transportation authorities in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties. The agencies are supporting members of the railroad.
“We need Tier 4 locomotives much more quickly than will happen given the regulatory requirements, which is why we are helping to fund purchases of these new, cleaner engines,” said Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the air quality management district.
Metrolink has an option to buy 20 more Tier 4 locomotives, which would allow the railroad to replace almost its entire fleet of engines. Leahy says he will probably exercise the option, which expires in October.
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