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$16M West Chester, Pa., Metro Plan Could Use Rechargeable Trains

The Metro plan would use one-of-a-kind and much cheaper battery-powered light rail to connect West Chester Borough to downtown Philadelphia. Cutting-edge, fast-charging battery technology with a 60-mile range is envisioned.

(TNS) — West Chester Borough Council unanimously passed a resolution in support of SEPTA and Chester County studying a cheaper alternative to connect the borough to downtown Philadelphia by rail.

The borough rail committee has pitched plans for a $16 million West Chester Metro that is significantly less expensive than a conventional commuter/regional rail line.

The metro would shuttle between West Chester and Wawa in Delaware County, where SEPTA restored commuter rail service in August, running on existing SEPTA right of way where tracks still remain. Direct SEPTA commuter train service from West Chester to Center City ended in 1986 due in part to a lack of riders.

Reestablishing conventional rail service would cost at least $380 million. SEPTA representatives have reported that its $12 billion 12-year capital budget contains a $4.6 billion backlog on critical repair projects, making conventional commuter by rail unfeasible.

Instead, the Metro would use one-of-a-kind and much cheaper battery-powered light rail Class 230 trains built by Pittsburgh-based Railroad Development Corp.

The line would use recycled London Underground cars. Two car shuttles would carry 194 passengers. Cutting-edge battery technology, with fast recharging and a 60-mile range is envisioned.

The trains would make stops in West Chester, West Chester University, Westtown, Cheyney University and the new Wawa station, where commuters would connect with existing SEPTA trains to reach Center City.

The travel time for West Chester to Wawa would be 12 minutes, with plans for 21-round trips daily. Trains might run from 4:45 a.m. to 12:14 a.m. with five-minute connections in Wawa. Shuttles at Wawa would wait for late SEPTA trains.

The rail committee has said that the entire rail trip to Center City would last for 64 minutes, with a transfer at Wawa. Conversely, the 104 SEPTA bus, with a transfer to the SEPTA Market-Frankford El now takes 95 minutes.

Much of what is dubbed by the committee as a "pop-up" metro kit would be rented. Battery-powered Class 230 cars, proprietary charging infrastructure, modular ADA-compatible platforms and technical support would all be used.

With renting at a lower cost, upfront financial commitments would be minimized, and flexibility and fast implementation not found in more conventional approaches are selling points, according to T.R. Hickey, in a PowerPoint presentation at a recent borough council meeting.

Hickey noted that according to the committee, population along the West Chester Branch has grown 70 percent since the line's 1986 closing, with West Chester experiencing rapid and dense redevelopment. Former suburban farmlands have been converted to residential subdivisions and enrollment at West Chester University is climbing.

Hickey also said that West Chester is the only county seat in a southeastern Pennsylvania municipality without rail service or an active program to restore it.

The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission estimates that there would be 1,350 daily riders for the shuttle service.

ESI Consulting, which was commissioned by Chester County, estimates that property values would jump by $145 million, and that rail service combats sprawl, while enhancing mobility for residents and elevating the quality of life for communities along a line.

Access to West Chester and Cheyney universities would also be improved, according to ESI.

Hickey also said that the Metro concept would offer several economies over conventional regional rail standards rather than total placement of existing tracks and "green" grass parking lots.

The estimated $16 million start-up costs are as follows: $7.6 million for track restoration; $2.9 million for platform/parking restoration; $1.3 million for a Quonset hut-style temporary building to house train operations and maintenance activities; and $5 million for a two-year leased train and boarding ramps.

Hickey maintains that no commuter lines nationally run at a profit. SEPTA initially estimates from $20,700 to $602,000 deficit for the first year.

The West Chester Heritage Railroad current operates a mostly weekend tourist train on existing tracks on the SEPTA right-of-way from West Chester to Glen Mills. Some worry that new SEPTA commuter service will exclude the Heritage Railroad from running on tracks that the organization has maintained.

"We can share on the track but not at the same time," said Hickey, Delaware's former state railroad administrator. "The two services are are not mutually exclusive."

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