February 2008

San Diego's Light Rail Sprints to the Finish Line

by Mike Guardabascio, Assistant Editor

After twenty years of planning and construction, San Diego’s North County Transit District’s (NCTD) vision for transportation is finally realized, with the completion of its Sprinter light-rail service. This vision was funded by aid of a half-cent sales tax designed to benefit local transportation projects including freeway and road work, as well as enhancing public transit.

According to NCTD spokeswoman Sarah Benson, “When TransNet was passed; this light rail line was part of the plan.” Over the last two decades, the rest of that plan has been fleshed out and implemented, with upgrades to area freeways, and construction of other public transit circuits, including NCTD’s Breeze bus line and Coaster heavy rail line, which connects North County with San Diego proper. The Sprinter light-rail service will close the loop and make commuting with public transportation much easier for citizens of Oceanside, Vista, San Marcos and Escondido, which the line will service.

Multi-use rail line

While the new service has a lengthy history, from conception to planning to construction, its rail line’s story stretches back even farther. “The rail line has actually been here in our region since the late 1800s,” says Benson. “It’s 120 years old.” The line came into the picture when NCTD purchased it in 1992, along with the line for the Coaster service.

Technically, the Sprinter is a light rail passenger train, but the rail line itself is actually certified for use as a freight train line as well. One of the agency’s challenges with the project has been to guarantee it can continue to function in that capacity. “We purchased a rail line that still has to be used by freight trains at night, so we had to come up with a system that allows multi-use,” says Benson. “One track will be used by a light rail train by day and then freight trains at night.”

They’ve employed temporal separation so that the two kinds of trains won’t ever run at the same time, but it’s certainly added some character to the Sprinter service. “They don’t really fit into a category,” Benson said.

The trains themselves will be running in a two-car set, with a total capacity of 450 passengers. By the end of 2008 when the service will run at full capacity, NCTD expects to be transporting 11,600 passengers east and west across the county on a daily basis.

The Sprinter railcars are Siemens-built “Desiro” vehicles, which are mid-sized diesel multiple units (DMUs). DMUs are widely used in Europe, but are only being used stateside in New Jersey, and, now, San Diego. While many cringe at the word “diesel,” modern diesel engines have very little in common with their decades-old counterparts, which spewed unsightly black smoke. The new trains have clean-burning engines, which comply with very strict Euro III emissions standards, which Benson says are “stronger than anything we have here in the U.S.”

Vehicle features

The NCTD has also been stressing to potential passengers that any time they leave their car behind; they’re reducing their carbon footprint just by virtue of traveling in one vehicle with other passengers. In addition to their efficient, clean-burning engines the Sprinters will also use low-sulfur content diesel fuel and be able to run at speeds of up to 55mph quietly thanks to the diesel engines and noise-attenuating insulation on the inside surfaces of the mainframe.

Sprinter passengers will also be able to experience a pleasant riding climate, with two roof-mounted air conditioning units on each car and a warm-water re-circulating air heating system. Other vehicle features include extra-large, panorama-style windows to allow for maximum lighting and viewing of the local surroundings.

Passengers will also find multi-purpose areas for stowing bicycles, baby carriages, and oversized luggage pieces that don’t fit in the generous overhead luggage compartments. Seats are padded with comfortable backrests and offer ample legroom as well. Train interiors are also enhanced with wide aisles and graffiti-resistant, textured paintwork that will help keep the interior looking clean, while cutting down on maintenance costs.

Station connections

The 22-mile rail line stretches between two existing transit centers, in Oceanside and Escondido, which provide an existing infrastructure for customer service and support. The Oceanside and Escondido transit centers currently serve as the hubs of the Coaster service and a planned rapid bus system that will provide another link to downtown San Diego.

In between the two transit centers, the trains will make stops at 15 stations, with approximately three to five minutes between stops, and each station will have its own parking lot, where passengers can leave their personal vehicles for free.

All told, the Sprinter service will take 53 minutes to travel from one end to another, and will make 64 daily trips on weekdays once it’s fully operational; it will also run on weekends, with reduced hours. In addition to offering easy connections to Coaster and Breeze stations, the station locations will link to Amtrak, Metrolink and Greyhound locations.

Special considerations were also made for the nearly 10,000 students and faculty of California State University of San Marcos (CSUSM), a university in the Sprinter service area. CSUSM is still currently a moderately-sized college, but is in the process of a steady build out, which should produce dramatically increased student admissions numbers over the next couple of decades. As that happens, the new light rail service has been designed to help ease the burden of increased student commuter traffic.

“Because it was just a couple miles south of our line, we built a 1.7 mile loop off of the existing rail line to connect with that campus,” Benson explains. The Sprinter also services nearby MiraCosta College, which will be a ten-minute connection by Breeze bus, and local college students will be able to purchase discounted monthly student passes.

Service unveiling

The system was unveiled to the public at the end of last year, in a ribbon-breaking ceremony on Dec. 28, 2007, with 700 attendees. The first Sprinter train departed westward from Escondido, breaking a banner at the transit center station as it did so, and giving its more than 200 passengers a first look at the new line, which includes a newly constructed bridge over a local highway. The event marked an end to major construction, which began full force in 2004, as quarter-mile lengths of the rail began arriving.

Two years prior, NCTD had awarded the vehicle contract to Siemens, making a $50 million-plus purchase that marked the largest procurement in the agency’s history. In August of 2006, the first of 12 railcars were delivered to the Sprinter vehicle maintenance facility, located on the east end of the service route, near the Escondido transit center. Since the grand opening, NCTD has used volunteer ambassadors to help with grand opening events and acquaint new passengers with the various services, functions and amenities of the new addition to local public transit.

Challenges to overcome

Naturally, over the course of twenty years, not everything has gone smoothly for NCTD and the new rail service. The budget has been enlarged significantly over the last two decades to $484 million; Sprinter’s final cost looks to be actually around $477 million, or approximately $22 million per mile of railway.

Passengers will only have to pay a low basic fare of $4 for all-day use, or $2 for a one-way trip. There are also 50-percent discounts available for seniors and the disabled, and children aged five and under will ride free.

In addition to the budget, there have been a few environmental snags. The western portion of the Sprinter runs along a riverbed, the Loma Alta Creek, which has been known to have flooding problems when it rains. “We’ve had water runoff issues and some flooding, especially recently with the big rains. Environmental issues have definitely been a concern,” says Benson.

The construction team also had to deal with a minor landslide a year and a half ago, which played havoc with scheduling and costs. “That’s the biggest challenge we faced,” Benson says. “Trying to stay on schedule and deal with these kinds of issues that were out of our control.” There was also a brief delay getting approval from the California Public Utilities Commission, though that was gained in late January, paving the way for the beginning of operation, set for March.

When the Sprinter begins transporting shoppers, commuters and students in the near future, bearing the NCTD’s signature royal blue, white, and teal colors, it won’t just be the introduction of another public rail project to the employees of the agency and the citizens of San Diego’s North County. It will be a two-decade old vision of accessible, convenient and traffic-alleviating public transportation finally coming to fruition.


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