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San Diego Sprinter San Diego area Sprinter light railway
(Photo: Richard Elgenson)


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Sprinter Diesel-Powered Light Regional Railway Opens

Susan Pantell • Light Rail Now Project Team • May 2008

It's running at last – and attracting passengers by the thousands.

On 9 March 2008, after three decades of planning and construction, the Sprinter diesel-powered light railway serving northern suburbs of the San Diego metro area finally opened.

Connections for northern part of San Diego metro area

Sprinter's 22-mile east-west route includes 15 stations in the towns of Oceanside, Vista, San Marcos, and Escondido (see map, below). Trains run every half hour between 04:00 (4:00 a.m.) and 21:30 (9:30 p.m.) Monday through Friday, and hourly on weekends. A project of the North County Transit District (NCTD), the Sprinter service takes 53 minutes to go from one end of the line to the other, and trips average 20 to 30 minutes.
[Map: NCTD]

Sprinter map

One of the major functions of Sprinter is to feed NCTD's Coaster regional passenger rail ("commuter") service running between Oceanside and downtown San Diego; in addition, Sprinter complements the San Diego Trolley light rail transit system that connects parts of the central, eastern, and southern sections of the county. Bus routes (NCTD also operates a 165-vehicle fleet) have been adjusted to serve Sprinter stations. Veolia Transportation is under contact to operate the Sprinter trains.

All of the Sprinter stations have concrete platforms with benches and overhanging shelters. All stations except for Cal State San Marcos have free parking.

The cost of a one-way ticket for a ride of any distance is $2, the same as for bus fare in the region, with no charge to transfer between the two. Monthly passes are $54; for senior and disabled passengers the cost is $16.

By the end of 2008, 11,600 daily rider-trips are expected. There are plans to extend the line southeast from the Escondido Transit Center to Westfield Shoppingtown North County in southern Escondido. Daily ridership would then be projected to grow to 12,850 by 2015 and 18,540 by 2030, and trains would depart every 15 minutes.

Sharing tracks with freight operations

The NCTD gained access to the Sprinter route's railway line in 1992, when Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway sold most of its Southern California track system for $500 million to various public agencies. San Diego's portion was $90.5 million for 82 miles of line, shared by NCTD and the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System. Establishing the Sprinter route required removing the 120-year- old single track used by freight trains since 1946, and rebuilding the bed and replacing the ties and rails so that the passenger ride would be fast, safe, and smooth. The only completely new alignment in the system is the 1.7-mile diversion to California State University San Marcos (see photo at end of article). The entire 22-mile line has eight miles of passing track. [San Diego Union-Tribune, 24 Dec. 2007]

BNSF Railroad will continue to use the tracks for freight customers. The passenger platforms had to be built back a little to accommodate the width of freight trains. Because of this, every Sprinter station has a mechanical drawbridge platform that swings down so that passengers can get on and off the train. The platforms stay down every day during the hours when Sprinter is operating. Three nights per week, the platforms are raised so that the BNSF freight trains can get through. The dispatching and authority for the BNSF freight trains is handled by the Sprinter operations center. [Train Orders, 5 Nov. 2007]

Over 3 decades of planning

The history of the Sprinter project actually dates all the way back to the 1970s, when the NCTD first considered an Oceanside-to-Escondido rail line. In 1987, the project was included in TransNet, the countywide 0.5% sales tax for transportation projects. In 1990, the NCTD board of directors voted to build the line between Oceanside and Escondido. At that time, the project was projected to cost $60 million and begin operation in 1999. In 1991, the plans were revised to include a new stretch of track, a 1.7-mile double-track alignment to California State University San Marcos, for an additional $25 million. And in 1992, as already mentioned, the existing railway line was purchased.

In 2003, the Federal Transit Administration approved $152 million for the Sprinter. By then, the project's budget had risen to $351 million and the startup target date was moved to the end of 2005, in part because of the revisions in plans and design. By the March 2008 opening, actual capital investment costs for the project, pushed higher by inflation, delays, and unexpected problems, reached $484.2 million. Operating costs are projected at about $11 million per year.

Delays contributed to budget escalation

The line was originally set to open by late December 2007, but because of difficulties with the signaling system, the NCTD delayed the projected start date to late January 2008. It was pushed back again to March because of continuing signal system concerns. Several times, the railroad crossing gates in Vista closed and did not reopen when a test train passed. According to Tom Kelleher, an NCTD spokesman, there was a bad shunt that prevented the gates from rising. "The shunt is used to detect the presence of a train" Kelleher told the North County Times. "The broken piece of equipment probably did not register that the train had left the intersection. When the system is in doubt, it goes into a fail-safe mode and the gates stay down until someone can come out and check on it." [North County Times, 31 Jan. 2008.] With 36 at-grade crossings along the line, ensuring proper functioning of crossing gates has been especially important.

Sprinter Dozens of grade crossings led to technical problems with the Sprinter light railway. A Sprinter train crosses Rancheros Drive at San Marcos Blvd as a bus waits.
[Photo: Waldo Nilo]

Delays in the start-up date also resulted from the California Public Utility Commission's safety certification procedures. "Light" Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) trains (non-compliant with Federal Railway Administration specifications) had never been operated before in California, and both state and federal regulatory agencies employed a high level of scrutiny during safety inspections. [NCTD website,]

As noted, besides general inflation, several other factors, including the delays, contributed to the cost increases. Steel and copper prices increased dramatically over that period. Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America, told the North County Times that he was not surprised by the price increase. "I would say 36 percent would be very consistent with what we've seen in increases in materials costs" Simonson emphasized. "Their timing couldn't have been worse."

Cost overruns were also caused by needed revisions to the project. A former project engineer for the Sprinter told the North County Times in 2006 that the original survey of the rail right of way, performed in 2005, was inaccurate and responsible for many of the revisions that added costs. The transit agency intends to negotiate with the project designer about who will pay for these revisions. [North County Times, 9 March 2008]

NCTD also had to deal with lawsuits from two cities, Vista and San Marcos, which claimed that the new train would be too noisy and dangerous to pedestrians; and from several individual property owners concerned about taking of their property. These suits were settled or otherwise resolved. [North County Times, 9 March 2008.]

Diesel propulsion vs. electric power

The Sprinter system's DMU railcars (see photo, below) are manufactured by the German carbuilder Siemens Transportation Systems. Each car is propelled by two 440-horsepower Mercedes diesel engines beneath the floor of the passenger cabin. The maximum permissible speed of the trains is 55 mph. Each car seats 136, with room for 90 standing passengers; and on most trips, the transit district plans to couple two cars together. Through multiple-unit controls, the driver has control of all four diesel engines in a 2-car train. The car body is made of aluminum integral construction; the empty weight is 67 tons. Every car has three different braking systems. When running below 15 mph, the vehicle uses the regular wheel brakes (air brakes). When the train is moving above 15 mph, the cars are slowed by an engine retarder, not by the regular brakes. The third braking system is an electromagnetic track brake (using three electromagnets) located in the trucks (bogeys). When the train goes into emergency braking, all brake systems are applied at once. The initial fleet consists of twelve vehicles provided by Siemens at a cost of $52.2 million.

Sprinter car Sprinter system uses DMU rolling stock provided by Siemens Transportation Systems.
[Photo: Richard Elgenson]

NCTD considered and rejected the idea of electrically powered operation, according to an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune (24 Dec. 2007). Paul Price, who worked for the district from 1977 to 1997, said that the trend in North County had been to bury utility lines, so the agency didn't want to install overhead electric lines. He said that the high cost of electricity was another factor in the decision.

However, as numerous articles in Light Rail Now discuss, it is questionable whether DMUs – despite eliminating the electric power system – actually save money in the long run. The cars tend to cost 30-50% more than electric LRT vehicles (although it should be noted that DMUs deployed so far in North American operations tend to have somerwhat higher passenger capacity than electric LRT cars). There is the added cost of fueling facilities, which tends to offset some of the cost of installing the electric power system. Electric cars accelerate faster, so can keep to a shorter schedule; and therefore, fewer cars may be needed (according to Ed Tennyson, an electric vehicle would take 40 minutes to cover the Sprinter line, compared with 53 minutes for a DMU.) Electricity costs have typically been cheaper per vehicle-mile than diesel, and electric vehicles do not need to go to the fuel depot, which saves some operating costs. In addition, electricity that is produced with a low percentage of carbon-emitting sources, as is the case in Southern California, is less polluting than diesel – and, of course, there are no emissions from the trains themselves, an environmental benefit for both passengers and the general public.

"We can't imagine our world without it"

On the opening day of the Sprinter, more than 100 people showed up for the inaugural ride at 04:33 (4:33 a.m.). Throughout the day, a Sunday, there were 12,921 passengers on 37 trains. "People were having a fabulous time on opening day and were talking about the many opportunities to ride the Sprinter in the future" enthused NCTD Executive Director Karen King. [NCTD website,]

During the first week of service, the number of riders each weekday was about 7000. "I'm amazed at the number of riders" said Gord Ryan, the Sprinter's General Manager for Veolia Transportation. "Any new service generally takes time to build, but they hit the ground running." [San Diego Union Tribune, 16 March 2008] During the second week of service, counters at the stations tallied a total of 7,836 passengers on one weekday, up from 7,294 passengers the week before. "That's 120 passengers an hour on average" said Tom Lichterman, Director of Transportation Services for the district. "It's going very well." [North County Times, 20 March, 2008]

Peter Aadland, the NCTD's Marketing Director, told the North County Times (9 March 2008) that the true measure of the rail line's success will not come overnight. "In 10 years I think the ultimate goal would be for people to say, 'Wow, we're so glad somebody persevered with that train, because we can't imagine our world without it.'"

Sprinter car Sprinter line's only completely new alignment is a 1.7-mile diversion to California State University San Marcos, much of it on an aerial viaduct.
[Photo: NCTD]

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2008/05/25

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