Consultant advises choosing style that faces fewest regulatory hurdles

The face of the Cloverdale-to-Larkspur rail commuter line likely will be a sleek, American-style, heavy-rail car that exists only in the imaginations of engineers.

Although heavy-rail cars are more costly and less efficient than lighter, European-designed cars, they would meet Federal Railroad Administration and Buy American requirements that otherwise could delay delivery time.

"It erases all regulatory concerns and improves the likelihood of achieving project implementation," said Bill Frandsen of LTK Engineering, a consultant for the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit district.

Still, there was a more basic reason that a SMART subcommittee this week recommended to the full board that the agency choose heavy-rail cars over light rail. Members were told that manufacturers are willing to design and build only those heavy cars that will meet the Environmental Protection Agency emission standards that take effect in 2011. Manufacturers have said they would not redesign and build the lighter European-style cars to those EPA specifications because they don't believe there is a market for them in the United States, Frandsen said.

SMART has budgeted $88 million to purchase "diesel multiple units," which are self-propelled cars that can be configured to include restrooms, kiosks for food and drink, and room for bicycles.

The heavier self-propelled cars typically weigh about 800,000 pounds and are allowed by federal regulators to run at the same time of day as regular freight trains, removing the need for SMART to ask for a waiver.

However, the heavier cars cost $8.5 million, compared with $7 million for the lighter cars, and use 37 percent more fuel.

The lack of an option for light rail was a major disappointment for the SMART operations committee, which preferred the ride quality, cost and fuel savings of the lighter cars.

"The look and feel of these trains when people get on them will be their first impression," said Carol Russell, a committee member. "Are they going to get to work with a reasonable ride?"

Committee Chairman Charles McGlashan of Marin County was critical of the ride quality of Portland's heavy-rail vehicles.

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