Monday, June 25, 2007

Transit experts tout electric trains - Toronto Star

Transit experts tout electric trains
GO revamp would accommodate more passengers on faster, quieter trains and reduce diesel fumes
June 25, 2007
Tess Kalinowski

It may have surprised commuters when the Ontario government announced earlier this month that it wanted to electrify GO's busiest rail line along the lakeshore.

But among public transit experts the move really is a no-brainer, says GO's managing director Gary McNeil.

Most commuter rail around the world is electric, employing technology similar to that of Toronto's streetcars but built to run on dedicated rail lines rather than streets and to withstand the impact of locomotive collisions.

The benefits are significant, says McNeil.

Electrification would accommodate more riders on faster, quieter trains and cut down on diesel fumes in densely populated areas.

GO has studied the idea several times, most recently six years ago. But the money's never been there to do it before.

"It's what I consider to be a natural transition," said McNeil, adding that it likely would take about six years and $1 billion to install the electrical systems, deal with construction and buy the equipment.

The conversion would be done as part of an overall expansion of the regional service.

The new diesel locomotives would move on to GO's branch lines to make room for the new trains that would run on overhead wires strung along the track.

Electric trains can accelerate and slow down faster than diesel, shaving time off a commute and accommodating more trains on the line so GO could increase its frequency.

"It's very basic infrastructure. It's readily available throughout the world. The trickiest thing of all is getting the railways onside," said McNeil.

All but about 4.8 kilometres of the Lakeshore line, which carries about 90,000 people a day, is owned by Canadian National Railway Co.

The private railway depends mostly on freight for its business and has been slow to modernize.

Converting the tracks to electric with overhead wire would mean different vertical clearances on freight and re-educating train crews to work in an electric rather than diesel environment.

But there's no reason to believe the railways wouldn't be onside with the conversion, said a spokesperson for Transportation Minister Donna Cansfield.

"We haven't heard anything against the plan from them," said Jamie Rilett. "I was told it could be done without interfering with traditional trains."

The GO conversion would most closely resemble that of the New Jersey Transit system, which put high-voltage systems on some lines in the 1980s.

"Electric trains are smoother and faster," said Sal Conte, New Jersey's chief electrical engineer for transit.

But nothing's perfect and it took the operator a few years to work the kinks out. Icicles would build up under bridges and in tunnels, affecting trains' overhead clearance.

"We had an icicle gang set up who would physically knock the ice off before the rush hour," he said.

And nobody anticipated that pigeons would trip the wires.

"The day we turned the system on we must have killed a couple hundred pigeons," said Conte.
The rail lines are the property of the railways, so they must be on board before any modifications are made to the right-of-way. There is no (convincing) evidence that overhead wires prevent excess-height freight cars from passing, but the private railways in the GTA have been known to put profits ahead of the public good - but can you really blame a corporation for doing so?

Perhaps, when the federal liberals come to power, we can have the debate about putting the needs of commuters and passengers ahead of the need of freight trains on the country's railways.

...And by the way, the MP40PH-3C locomotives that GO has ordered produce 4000 HP. The ALP-46 electric locomotives that New Jersey Transit acquired produce 8000HP, making for quicker acceleration and more pulling power. Also, they are built by Bombardier, making them politically friendly locomotives.

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