SMART, the Sonoma-Marin Rail Transit agency, has decided to use heavy, clunky, Amtrak-style trains for its new, 21st-century passenger rail line.
When voters in Marin and Sonoma counties (just north of San Francisco) approved a $700 million transportation sales tax measure, they were promised “modern, sleek, 21st century” trains.
In fact, trains would look something like this:
This is the “heavy” (FRA-compliant) DMU made by Coloardo Railcar. If that company had not gone bankrupt late last year, SMART almost certainly would have gone with this vehicle.
To put in perspective, a here is a photo of a standard class 644 “Talent” as used all over Europe:
Besides looking like a “modern” train (the Talent 644 is more than 10 years old now), the performance characteristics of a modern DMU are far better compared to the heavy Amtrak-style trains favored by SMART. Because the European DMUs are light-weight, they have far better acceleration and braking — which allows for better dwell time at stations. More importantly, they have fuel economy that is 35%-100% better, meaning that for the same operating cost SMART could run a LOT more service.
What’s really going on here is a classic case of Not-Invented-Here Syndrome (also known as Buy America policies). Rather than adopt industry best-practice and purchase the best off-the-shelf rail vehicle the market has to offer, SMART instead has defined its procurement requirements such that only a domestic manufacturer can comply.
Since no other rail transit agency on the planet is interested in running archaic, heavy, Amtrak trains, and since the only manufacturer of those types of trains is now bankrupt, SMART has decided to design its own trains from scratch.
Designing a new rail vehicle is a major undertaking. Given SMART’s minuscule budget and staffing resources, this task is way beyond the agency’s skill level. In many ways, this is a repeat of Acela fiasco, when Amtrak also tried to design a new train (a tilting high-speed train no less). As in the case of Acela, we can expect SMART to produce a train that is unreliable, heavy, slow — and years late to get up and running.