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Boston Area Trains to Save Fuel and Cut Pollution

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority beefs up its rail fleet with energy-efficient locomotives.

by / May 27, 2011

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s (MBTA) newest commuter locomotive made its more than 40-mile inaugural trip from Worcester to Boston on Feb. 7 — and Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray went along for the ride.

The purple and gray train is one of two advanced locomotives the MBTA purchased from the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) for $3.5 million each, marking the first time in more than two decades that the MBTA has added new locomotives to its fleet. “These new locomotives are more fuel efficient and more reliable, improving on-time performance for the benefit of the commuters,” Murray said in a statement.

The existing MBTA fleet burns 228,000 gallons of fuel per year, which releases 241 tons of nitrogen oxide. This upgrade, however, is projected to lower fuel costs, prevent the locomotives from unnecessary idling and reduce those nitrogen oxide levels by 20 tons per engine annually. The newer locomotives also will burn 36,500 fewer gallons of fuel, saving $78,000 per locomotive each year, based on a cost of $2.13 per gallon.

It’s these efficiencies created by the technology in the trains, said Steven Mudge, the MBTA’s director of vehicle engineering, that are causing more governments to consider updating their rail fleets.  

Let’s Make a Deal

The new locomotives became available when the economic recession reduced Utah’s rail fleet needs, according to UTA Senior Media Relations Specialist Gerry Carpenter.

“We wanted to have extra locomotives available as our system grew and as we increased our frequency,” he said. “But we were really planning for long range — a 2030 time frame.”

Due to the recession, however, the UTA decided it could manage a smaller fleet size. After making revised estimates and projections to the service plan, the UTA looked into selling three of its locomotives — the MBTA purchased two. At the same time, the Minnesota-based Northstar Corridor Development Authority established a leasing agreement for the third locomotive with the intention to purchase it.

Grand Locomotive Plan

The MBTA’s purchases are part of a larger procurement plan. In July 2010, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board of directors approved a $114 million contract with Boise, Idaho-based Motive Power to supply 20 new diesel-electric locomotives, according to the MBTA. These 20 locomotives are expected to be in service starting January 2013 with rollout completion anticipated by the end of that year.

The MBTA operates under a contract with the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co., which includes a fleet of 410 coaches (140 bi-level and 270 single-level) and 80 locomotives that carry about 148,000 passengers roundtrip each weekday. Mudge said the MBTA’s 18 oldest locomotives have been in service since 1979; the newer units joined the fleet in 1997.

“Some of this equipment that was originally built in ’79 is getting fairly expensive to maintain,” Mudge said, “and we’re facing obsolescence on a lot of the components we need on a day-to-day basis.”

Unlike freight trains, locomotives for passenger service need to power lights, electricity, heat, air conditioning and other amenities in the passenger coaches. Newer designs use two engines — one for propulsion and one for auxiliary power loads — but the MBTA’s oldest locomotives use the main engine for both. While the locomotive is stationary, the main engine needs to run at a high RPM to power the coaches and keep the heat, lights and air conditioning on, which consumes more fuel and creates more emissions.

The 20 locomotives to be purchased from the Motive Power will replace the 20 oldest locomotives in the fleet. The new locomotives are equipped with a control system linked to all of the train’s auxiliary devices. According to an MBTA report, the control system includes a fuel-saving feature that automatically shuts down the locomotive’s main engine during extended periods of idling and restarts the engine only when needed.  

“We were able to utilize this technology on the new locomotives,” Mudge said, “because in the older [locomotives], if you were to shut down the main engines, then you’d also shut the lights, air conditioning and heat off on all the coaches behind it.”

A Helping Hand

Besides the technology efficiencies, the new locomotives have improved safety features in the crew cab that meet the American Public Transportation Association’s crashworthiness standards, which were put into effect in 1999. These include conventional strength-based requirements for equipment used at less than 125 mph, crash-energy management for equipment used above 125 mph, and dynamic sled testing of occupant seats.

Due to a past locomotive accident, Mudge said there’s been a push to employ crashworthiness techniques and crumple zones to ensure crew safety should an accident occur.

And if the new locomotives encountered other emergencies, such as problems with the equipment, the UTA would be available to provide a helping hand, since commuter rail transit is very standardized, said Todd Provost, the UTA’s senior program manager of systems development. So during emergencies, the MBTA could use equipment from the UTA and vice versa.

“If [the MBTA] were to have a huge issue out there — catastrophic — and they needed to borrow vehicles immediately, the nice thing is we’re all pretty consistent,” Provost said. “We could share if we needed to.”


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Sarah Rich

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. She wrote for for Government Technology magazine from 2010 through 2013.

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