What’s the Holdup on the Sprinter?

By Noel T. Braymer

The PUC gave approval to start service for the Sprinter two days before the March 9th start up


The DMU Light Rail Service between Escondido and Oceanside is now scheduled to start service on March 9th.

The North County Transit District last year had hoped to start service on December 16; then the 30th; then by January 13, 2008; until they finally said March. Going back to the beginning, RailPAC’s Byron Nordberg in the early 1980’s had proposed an inexpensive and easy to build DMU service by rebuilding an existing railroad that could be running by 1988. As part of the half cent sales tax for transportation passed in San Diego County in 1987 the Oceanside-Escondido rail service was budgeted for 60 million dollars and projected to be running by 2000.

Well, things happened in the interim. With the development of Cal State San Marcos, a connecting 1.7 mile, mostly elevated loop was added to the project. This new construction was a major factor in bringing the budget up to 350 million dollars. As projects become more complicated and expensive, it takes longer to raise funding. By 2004 construction for the Sprinter began with the goal of service by the end of 2005. The expectation was construction would be speeded up by suspending freight service on this branch line and having shippers truck shipment currently brought in by rail. After the freight customers objected to this plan, the startup date was pushed back to the end of 2007 so freight service could continue while the Sprinter was under construction. The Sprinter vehicles were ordered in 2004 for delivery in 2005. There was some controversy at the time because the final price for the cars went over budget. This was because the cars were built in Germany and as the dollar was beginning to lose value the cost of importing the cars rose. Given what has happened to the dollar since, the NCTD was lucky to get these cars for the price they did by ordering early.

By January 2007, the track work was on schedule for the December start up. This was despite problems from mistakes on the surveys of the rail line. Because of this, portions of the line had to be resurveyed, and some blueprints redrawn – which delayed progress and increased the project’s costs. This, and inflation caused by increasing cost of energy, steel and concrete, brought the final cost of the project to 478 million dollars. By January of 2007, the Sprinter Project was running two months behind schedule because of slow progress on signaling work. The NCTD was confident at that time they would catch up. But because of delays from the signaling, test trains were months behind schedule for making test runs along the entire line. For the start up of any new service, testing is needed because there is a lot of old fashioned trouble-shooting and fine tuning which takes time to work out.

Another problem with the Sprinter has been the use of high level platforms and getting the approval of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to accept their use. Because of clearance problems when mixing freight trains with high level platforms, the platforms were set back, and drawbridges used to get passengers to the trains. The drawbridges can be raised when there is freight traffic. But the drawbridges only cover the areas by the doors, so the trains have to stop exactly to match the doors to the bridges. There have been problems getting all the bridges to line up properly with the trains.

Escondido St. Station in Vista for the sprinter

One platform at the Escondido Blvd. Station in Vista is on a curve, and has a large gap at the bridge to the train. This station may not be ready by March 9th. Current plans are to add an adjustable metal plate to span the gap between bridge and train.

If there is a lesson to this it would be to try to keep projects simple. The Sprinter was approved because it was a proposed as a simple, low cost project. Expensive projects take forever to be approved because it takes time to find the money to build them. Many light rail systems have low level platforms. Simple raised platforms are available for passengers with mobility problems near the operator cab. Simple bridges can be dropped manually by the operator when needed. There are advantages to having platform level loading at every door. But it also complicates operations and gives you more things that can go wrong.

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