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TMCNet:  Metrolink bets on kind of new locomotive [The Orange County Register]

[December 02, 2013]

Metrolink bets on kind of new locomotive [The Orange County Register]

(Orange County Register (CA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Dec. 02--Metrolink has bet $130 million and a big part of its fleet on a new kind of locomotive designed to run cleaner than anything like it in the soot-smudged history of American railroads.


If it can deliver on that -- and project managers say they have no doubt it will -- the new locomotive will place Southern California at the forefront of U.S. passenger rail.

But Orange County officials, whose confidence in Metrolink has worn thin, see the project as another cause for concern at an agency dented this year by revelations of accounting and management problems. They question the financial footing of the project, the wisdom of going all-in with such new technology.

These locomotives, they point out, have no track record in passenger service -- and Metrolink has ordered at least 10 of them.

"We have to hold our breath and hope that the technology is going to work," said Carolyn Cavecche, who represents Orange County on the Metrolink board. "Why are we being the first rail agency in the country to do this?" The new locomotives won't look much different from those hauling trains through Orange County today. What sets them apart is a chamber hidden above the engine that will function something like the catalytic converter on a car.

Exhaust from the engine will cycle through that chamber, where chemical reactions will strip away pollutants. Designers expect to reduce particulate pollution by at least 90 percent and nitrogen-oxide emissions -- a key component of smog -- by 80 percent.

That would give Metrolink one of the cleanest diesel-powered commuter fleets in North America, able to meet environmental standards that won't even start to take effect until 2015. Its closest competitor appears to be the rail service in Toronto, which has also paid to develop a cleaner-running diesel locomotive.

The new locomotives are so advanced that Metrolink had to promise potential bidders $150,000 each just to develop the proposals to produce them. Each locomotive will cost around $6.3 million -- $600,000 more than the cost to completely rebuild an existing locomotive to the same environmental standards.

Metrolink landed a clean-air grant to cover about a third of the cost of the new locomotives, a crucial part of its decision to buy. Officials also say the new engines will run more efficiently and more reliably than what Metrolink has on the rails today. Board member Richard Katz called it a "business deal that was too good to pass up." Orange County's delegates to the Metrolink board praise the clean-air goals of the locomotive program and say the agency badly needed to upgrade its aging fleet. But the county's delegation voted a unanimous "no" against the purchase plan.

Orange County board member Michael Hennessey said he never saw what he would consider adequate financial information to justify a $130 million purchase. For example, he said, Metrolink staff deflected his repeated requests for an apples-to-apples cost comparison with locomotives already in service.

At the time, concerns about the rail agency's financial management -- which would lead to resignations and outside audits -- were just beginning to surface. The chief financial officer had recently acknowledged that revenue was falling even though ridership was increasing, and no one could explain how that was possible.

"And then: 'Hey, we want to buy trains,'" Hennessey said. "I found that really concerning." Orange County officials also questioned the need for such new technology when existing locomotives already run cleaner than the old engines in Metrolink's fleet. The risks of going first were made clear earlier this year, when unforeseen operating costs in another Metrolink innovation, a computerized train-control system, contributed to a 5 percent fare increase.

"They were going to do this no matter what," Cavecche said. "No matter what questions we asked, they had already decided." A handful of similar locomotives with the catalytic-converter technology are already in service pulling freight trains. But the Metrolink locomotives will be among the first in passenger service, subject to the stop-and-go strains of commuter rail, not the long-distance grind of freight.

The company building them, Electro-Motive Diesel, has more than 85 years in the industry, and officials there say they have no concern that the new locomotives won't perform as expected.

The underlying engine is a powerhouse, already in wide use, able to yank a line of train cars up to 125 mph. And the catalytic-converter technology has shown itself to be reliable in freight service, said Gary Eelman, the company's vice president of locomotive sales.

"There's no new technology that hasn't been tested," he said. "The engine doesn't know that it's in passenger service." Metrolink officials echo that confidence. "We see it as a proven system on a proven engine," said Albert Scala, the agency's chief project and contract-compliance officer. "We're not really concerned." Metrolink's board voted 7-3 late last year to place an order for 10 of the new locomotives, with an option to buy 10 more, at a total cost of just under $130 million. A big part of its decision to buy -- and a major piece of its funding -- came from the South Coast Air Quality Management District. It has committed at least $34.5 million, and possibly as much as $52.5 million, in clean-air grants.

The first of the locomotives -- a prototype for testing -- is scheduled to hit the tracks in 2015. Metrolink expects to get the rest into regular service in 2016 and 2017.

"It's a great concept, and I understand that we need to lower emissions. I get that," Cavecche said. "It's just, how does it work for this agency and our customers to implement?" "There's no turning back," she added. "Now, we have to make sure it succeeds." ___ Contact the writer: 714-704-3777 or dirving@ocregister.com ___ (c)2013 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) Visit The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) at www.ocregister.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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