NCTD to replace aging Coaster train fleet

A northbound Coaster train arrives at the Poinsettia station in Carlsbad.
(The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Coaster ridership may have plummeted because of the pandemic, but North County Transit District is preparing for a time when passengers return and service reaches new peaks.

The district recently awarded a contract for 11 new commuter rail cars, with an option to purchase as many as 27 more. It also plans to purchase nine new locomotives to replace its original fleet of engines, some of which were built as early as 1975 and were purchased used.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, the Coaster provided 22 weekday trips and eight weekend trips between Oceanside and San Diego, with 45 to 60 minutes between trains at peak travel times, and more than 3.5 hours during off-peak times. The district has a fleet of seven locomotives and 28 cars.

Coaster service was reduced in March, when the district temporarily suspended all weekend trains and some weekday trains because of state and local stay-home orders. In May, the total Coaster boardings were down 94 percent from the same month a year ago. Bus boardings in the district were down 63 percent, and ridership on the Sprinter train between Oceanside and Escondido was down 53 percent.

Ridership throughout the district increased somewhat in recent weeks but remains far below normal, officials said, and it’s impossible to say when it will reach previous levels. Yet, planners remain confident that public transit will remain an essential part of transportation services, more people will ride, and that capacity will have to increase in the long haul.

With the additional equipment, the Coaster is expected to double its service to include 42 weekday trains 30 minutes apart during peak travel hours and 60 minutes apart during off-peak hours.

“With two additional train sets in the fleet, commuters will have a number of train runs throughout the day to meet their needs, and that really makes the decision to try transit an easy one,” Encinitas Councilman and NCTD board chairman Tony Kranz said in an announcement of the rail car contract last week.

A contract awarded July 7 to Bombardier Transportation for $43 million includes the purchase of eight two-level passenger cars and three passenger-cab cars, with the option to buy as many as 27 more cars.

The new cars include upgraded air-conditioning and enhanced passenger amenities such as more comfortable seats with power outlets and USB ports, electronic door systems, LED lighting and increased energy efficiency. Delivery is expected in the fall of 2022.

The transit district’s board approved a contract in 2018 with Siemens Mobility Inc. of Sacramento to purchase five new locomotives for $37 million, with the option to purchase four more. The board approved two more locomotives in March, and the dates for the final two remain undetermined.

Delivery of the first two locomotives is expected Aug. 31, with three more on Oct. 31 and two in 2022.

Locomotives are big, complicated machines that require regular service and maintenance, like a car, only more.

Last week the board approved a 20-year technical support and service agreement with Siemens for all nine engines for $29 million, with an optional seven-year extension for $11 million. Also, the board approved a separate 20-year contract for overhaul services for the locomotives at $47 million, with an optional seven-year extension for $20 million.

“There is a lot of work to be done, and a lot of work going on behind the scenes,” said NCTD Executive Director Matt Tucker at last week’s board meeting.

Two full-time, on-site employees are included with the maintenance contracts, along with remote data analysis, engineering and other off-site support.

The new locomotives will be equipped with quieter, more powerful, more efficient engines that eliminate up to 95 percent of the pollutants produced by the previous engines, a staff report states. They will be capable of a top speed of 125 mph, though they could never go that fast on the challenging coastal route.

The corridor used by the Coaster is the only rail connection between San Diego and the rest of the United States. Freight and Amtrak passenger trains also use the route and are projected to increase in the near future.

Projects planned by the district to accommodate the increased rail traffic include the construction of a passenger station at the San Diego Convention Center, continued improvements to stabilize the tracks on the eroding coastal bluffs in Del Mar, and the addition of more sections of a second track along the corridor.

The 1.7-mile section of track in the Del Mar, where there is only room for a single set of tracks, is one of two bottlenecks in the route between San Diego and Los Angeles. The other is at San Clemente, which has the longest section of single track, about nine miles, on the route, said Ulrich Leister, an NCTD consultant, at the board’s July meeting. It takes a train about 15 minutes to pass through that section, during which no other trains can travel it.

“You can’t get too many trains through that area,” Leister said. “This bottleneck determines capacity. It also constrains schedules for the entire corridor.”

A short-term solution would be to add short sections of a second track so that trains can pass each other without stopping, he said.

Long-term plans call for the entire corridor to be double-tracked. So far about two-thirds has been completed.

— Phil Diehl is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune