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California just got 125-mph trains. Here’s why they still can’t outrace your car

New Charger locomotive brings speed, muscle and a greener outlook to Amtrak rails

The Charger locomotive, built in Sacramento by Siemens, has speed that exceeds original requirements along with a greener environmental profile. Many of the engines soon will be pulling trains along Amtrak routes in the Pacific Northwest.
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The Charger locomotive, built in Sacramento by Siemens, has speed that exceeds original requirements along with a greener environmental profile. Many of the engines soon will be pulling trains along Amtrak routes in the Pacific Northwest.

The cleanest and fastest diesel locomotives in the country began rolling on rails in Sacramento and through California last week, but unfortunately for railroaders, the new machines aren’t allowed to travel anywhere near their 125-mph top speed.

The Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin passenger rail services each put one of the new “Charger” diesel-electric locomotives into full service last week, calling it a major step toward making California train travel cleaner, quieter and faster.

The Charger locomotives, which cost nearly $7 million a piece, are built in Sacramento by Siemens Mobility, subsidiary of the newly merged European-based giants Siemens and Alstom.

They are among the first locomotives nationally that meet federal 2015 emissions requirements, called Tier IV standards. The new limits cut particulate matter emissions by nearly 90 percent compared to many older locomotives built before 2000, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Capitol Corridor rail service head David Kutrosky touted them as the next step in making rail travel more relevant.

“They are cleaner, and more reliable,” he said. “They have faster acceleration, higher horsepower and improved braking.”

Another major California passenger service, Metrolink in Los Angeles, launched a similar all-diesel locomotive last week.

Statewide, officials plan to integrate more of the locomotives into their fleet of Amtrak-operated trains over time, part of a push to dramatically increase ridership through 2040. A draft 2018 State Rail Plan published this month set a goal of upping passenger rail travel from 0.34 percent of all trips in the state to nearly 7 percent in the next two decades. That involves investing as much as $85 billion in upgrades in that time period.

To do that, train travel will have to be quicker. The state rail plan notably calls for trains to hit 125 mph on the Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin lines into and out of Sacramento by 2040. But that may be tough to achieve.

The Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin trains currently are limited to a 79 mph top speed under federal railroad safety regulations. The two passenger services run on rail lines owned by private freight rail companies, Union Pacific and BNSF, both of which built their lines for trains to run at that speed or slower.

In contrast, California’s planned all-electric High Speed Rail or bullet trains may hit 220 mph, and the popular Acela passenger trains between Washington, D.C., and New York can hit 150 mph, traveling “grade-separated” tracks that do not intersect with roads or highways.

Speed has become an important issue for train lines such as the Capitol Corridor as congestion increases on Interstate 80 and Bay Area freeways. The Capitol Corridor system runs from Auburn to San Jose.

Currently, Capitol Corridor trains take 1 hour and 50 minutes from Sacramento to Jack London Square in Oakland. In contrast, freeway drive time varies, from 1 hour and 20 minutes in light traffic to more than two hours in heavy traffic, and even worse during peak hours or if there is a crash.

A price check by The Bee last week found basic Capitol Corridor round-trip train fares – with no monthly pass or other discounts – of $50 to $54 for the Sacramento-Oakland ride. That is typically more expensive than the cost of gas and vehicle wear and tear on a car drive that distance.

To run trains at higher speeds, officials said they would need freight railroad companies’ approval and partnership to invest billions of dollars into upgrading rail lines and eliminating thousands of “at-grade” street or highway crossings. Currently, the San Joaquin passenger trains cross streets on average of once every mile, officials there said.

Achieving top-end speed, though, is not the critical factor in improving travel times, said Paul Dyson, president of the Rail Passenger Association of California. It’s more important to reduce the number of slow curves and to improve acceleration out of train stations so that trains can run at higher average speeds.

Capital Corridor official Kutrosky said his agency is looking, for now, at a series of less expensive steps to speed trains by a few minutes here and there.

“Right now, we are looking at 5 to 8 minutes of reduced travel time,” he said. He said the agency plans to reduce train dwell times in stations from two minutes down to one minute. It also has applied for funds to bank some train curves to allow trains to roll more quickly through them, and money to bolster gates at some crossings and to eliminate other crossings.

That work has been ongoing for years, as money becomes available. The state notably built a $22 million second set of tracks over the Yolo Causeway between Davis and Sacramento in 2004 to expand and speed service.

In the Sacramento region, Capitol Corridor and local officials are cobbling together funds to build a new track between Roseville and downtown Sacramento for passenger trains only, which will allow more commuter trains to run between the two cities, and likely at faster speeds. Currently, Capitol Corridor’s passenger trains between those two cities run on busy UP-owned rail lines where freight trains have primary access and right-of-way.

Federal officials are likely to increase train speed limits in the future as more passenger and freight railroads meet the upcoming federal requirement to install a computer speed and braking control system called Positive Train Control.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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