The type of commute rail car that travels the 70-mile Sonoma-Marin corridor will set the tone for how the transit system looks and feels.
The selection process, which is now under way, will take almost two years.
This is crucial to the success of this entire project, said Carol Russell, a Cloverdale councilwoman and a member of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit operations committee.
The rail cars envisioned for the tracks between Cloverdale and Larkspur are made by several Canadian, European and Asian companies.
The cars, called diesel multiple units, come in two weights, heavy and light, a measure of crash-worthiness that determines whether they can run alongside freight service and how the station platforms will be built. The SMART trains likely will share the track with freight service.
The trains can be configured to have restrooms, kiosks for food and drink and room for bicycles. At an estimated cost of $88 million and with a manufacturing time of two to three years, the vehicles are one of the costlier of SMARTs expenditures.
SMART officials two weeks ago heard presentations by six rail car manufacturers from Canada, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Spain and Japan. Those companies already have vehicles in operation, and have U.S. manufacturing or assembly plants. The only U.S. manufacturer, Colorado Railcars, initially identified by SMART as its vehicle preference, went out of business in December.
In the next two weeks, the SMART committee and planners will take day trips to gauge operations of systems in San Diego and to Portland, Ore., which are representative of light- and heavy-rail vehicles.
A lot of the subsequent planning and design work that SMART has to engage in to develop a rail system starts with the vehicle type, said Lillian Hames, SMARTs executive director.
The North Coast Transit District in San Diego is a light-rail system, using cars produced by Siemens, a German company with an assembly facility in Sacramento.