LIRR Evaluates Use of DMUs for Low-Ridership Branch Lines

» Service changes on Long Island would reduce the number of one-stop rides into Manhattan but lower operations and capital costs.

Though the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) is the busiest commuter rail operation in the United States, with more than 300,000 daily boardings, its 700 miles of track make frequent services to all parts of the island too expensive to be economically viable. The stations at the end of the system’s two longest branches — to Greenport and Montauk, at the eastern tips of the island — are out of convenient commuting distance to Manhattan, so the LIRR provides only a few trains a day. From Montauk, a more than three-hour commute, there are only five trains daily to Penn Station; from Greenport, there are only three.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which runs the LIRR as well as the New York City Subway and other regional services, is planning to buy new diesel multiple unit trains (DMUs) to serve these and other lightly used routes, with the aim of reducing operations costs.

The very limited service to the system’s far extents results in suffering ridership; Greenport, for instance, had on average only five daily passengers in 2006. Yet as a result of the trains the LIRR currently has in its fleet, the system uses very heavy, diesel-guzzling vehicles for these routes. There is little room for more services to these far-off locales because of the high operating costs of these trains and the limited capacity along the LIRR’s routes approaching Manhattan.

Though much of the LIRR system is electrified and use electric multiple unit trains, several major sections of the system remain reliant on diesel-powered vehicles, though all trains with direct service to Manhattan must be able to switch to third rail electric propulsion as they enter the city. With 45 diesel dual-mode locomotives and 134 bilevel railcars, the LIRR serves the less-populated portions of the island, including unelectrified tracks east of Ronkonkoma and Babylon along the Ronkonkoma and Montauk branches, as well as along much of the Port Jefferson and Oyster Bay branches. Those latter routes have more service than do Montauk or Greenport, but their offerings are still constrained to about one train per hour.

The dual-mode locomotives and C3 railcars that are attached to them are relatively new, having been bought in the late 1990s. Yet they’ve been prone to maintenance problems because of the complications resulting from their dual-mode power systems.

Suffering from limited funds to maintain service levels as a result of the recession, the MTA is looking for ways to cut operating costs. It may have an answer in its decision to consider replacing the locomotive-hauled trains with DMUs along its least-used routes. If the organization determines that the new trains would save substantial operating funds, an $81 million order of about a dozen trains could come online in 2014 at the earliest. The plans are included in the MTA’s recently released proposed capital program for 2010 to 2014.

Unlike the existing locomotives, which are very gas-consuming since they’re designed to pull ten or more railcars at a time — certainly not necessary along the LIRR’s longest routes — DMUs, with only one or two cars, are much lighter and designed for lines with fewer riders. By providing “scoot” services along unelectrified routes to the terminals of tracks with electric operations, DMUs could allow the LIRR to both increase services and reduce operations costs.

New Jersey’s River Line, the Sprinter service north of San Diego, and Portland’s WES route use variations of DMU technology today. So does Austin’s brand-new Red Line.

The most obvious route candidates for these new trains are the Ronkonkoma branch from Ronkonkoma to Greenport and the Montauk branch from Babylon to Montauk. Though these sections of the line would have their direct services into Manhattan eliminated and riders would be forced to transfer to get to the rest of the island, DMUs would make possible all-day operations since the trains would not have to be competing with the more heavily used vehicles from other branches trying to get into the city.

The savings the MTA would accrue from using less fuel per passenger would likely pay for the cost of more daily services, increasing ridership. If transfers were timed, the connection between the diesel-operated lines and those that are electrified could be simple enough to keep all of the system’s current riders.

For the LIRR, the use of DMUs along these far-off branch lines seems appropriate, since the diesel locomotives the system currently uses are designed for far busier routes and fundamentally inappropriate for places like Greenport or Montauk. Indeed, the decision to consider a conversion to these new technologies should inspire other commuter rail operators to switch to more efficient DMUs; Nashville’s infrequently used Music City Star line comes to mind as an obvious candidate. Lighter, more efficient trains could play an important role in reducing the operations costs of transit agencies across the country, all of which need to find savings to survive.

Image above: Bombardier’s VLocity 160 DMU, used in Australia, from Bombardier

41 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Will these DMUs be FRA-compliant, like the ones on the WES in Portland, or will they be “light rail,” like the Sprinter or the River Line? I’m assuming they’d be sharing tracks with conventional LIRR trains, so I’d think the former — but nobody makes those anymore, now that Colorado Railcar is out of business…

    • Steve

      Colorado Railcar’s business was bought by a private investment firm under the name US Railcar, which is partnering with American Railcar (an established freight car builder) to build the DMU’s again. True that they haven’t actually built one yet, but it is a good sign that an established freight car builder is involved.

    • Mark Dowling

      Sumitomo are building FRA compliant high floor Tier 4 DMUs for Sonoma-Marin (SMART) and GO Transit/Metrolinx. Whatever about Smart, Metrolinx needs those cars to run the Toronto Union Pearson Air Rail Link from 2015. The Metrolinx cars are *supposed* to be modular enough to be EMU convertible (25kV AC) without much fuss.
      http://www.railwaygazette.com/nc/news/single-view/view/sonoma-marin-orders-commuter-dmu-cars.html

      Given SMART’s financial worries, perhaps they would let LIRR take some of their delivery slots for a quicker start up and allow them to build up a bit more sales tax revenue before having to give completion payments to Sumitomo/Nippon Sharyo, taking their cars after the LIRR and Metrolinx orders are completed.

  • Robert Kozma

    Yes they will need to be FRA compliant.
    In the article no mention was made of past electrification plans from the past that were proposed, shelved and eventually forgotten. Electrification to Port Jefferson (work on which actually began in the early 1980s – and then stopped), to Patchogue and to Speonk is way past due and would make great good sense.

  • andrew

    If there’s no freight on the lines, LIRR may be able to wiggle around the FRA compliance issue.

    Of course, we could just use this as an opportunity to change that awful regulation. The Colorado DMUs were built like *tanks,* and weighed just about as much.

    On the other hand, Europe continue to use Turbostar DMUs without incident. In fact, they’re very popular on rural lines!

  • 電車男

    This is a great move, but it leaves me wondering why more routes don’t use DMUs in the first place. It saves fuel and reduces track wear-and-tear, and the savings they bring can allow increased services. Also, in my experience DMUs are generally quieter and more modern-looking than most locomotive-hauled trains (I know that Japan never uses locomotives for anything other than overnight trains and freights). Switching to DMUs is not only a good move from a financial perspective, it also improves the image of a rail line in general, by giving it a semblance of modernity.

  • Well, i know on the port jeff line past huntington(electrified track ends) it is not always a one seat ride so this makes sense because it will allow for cheaper and more frequent service because the reason it is so low now is cost. I live up in the Hudson river valley and use metro north to get to NYC and we see this all the time. if you need to get to most stations south of Croton-Harmon and north of Harlem-125, you need to transfer to a local or lower express train to continue on and usually the connection train is right behind the train on the same track, it is very busy. On another note, passengers past the transfer point could see faster commutes because here in metro-north territory for example the 7:10 peak out of Poughkeepsie (northern terminus) and makes stops and the next 2 stations(New Hamburg and Beacon) and runs express to Croton-Harmon and then does not stop until Grand Central Terminal, arriving at 8:43, making the trip in 92 minutes, it is the main peak train and makes limited stops because by the time it reaches beacon it is packed. This theoretically occur on the lines affected. If the Trains are packed by a certain station, the LIRR will make less stations stop and therefore speed the journey up. Thats just my two sense

  • jim

    If conventional trains run from, say, the City only to Ronkonkoma and only DMUs run from Ronkonkoma to Greenport, then I don’t see why such DMUs would need to be compliant. Non-compliant and compliant equipment can share stations, I believe; they just can’t share tracks. There might need to be some minor reconfiguration at the transfer station. I’m not sure what would be required for DMUs deadheading to maintenance facilities.

    If such separation of non-compliant and compliant is OK, then Huntingdon-Port Jeff and Ronkonkoma-Greenport are no-brainers. Babylon-Montauk, on the other hand, is much longer and has more station stops. It’s hard to see the Cannonball Express being canceled.

    • jim

      Cancel that. There’s freight. On the Main Line to Riverhead, on the Montauk Branch to Bridgehampton and all along the Port Jefferson Branch.

      • The LIRR runs the freight business there. It can decide to run freight only at night, guaranteeing time separation. It’s not perfect, but given the low freight traffic levels in LI, it could work.

      • jim

        No. The freight business is franchised out to NY and Atlantic Rail. The agreement runs until 2017.

      • Nathanael

        I expect the freight agreement could be renegotiated for a fairly small fee– if the agreement doesn’t *already* restrict the freight to night hours, which it probably already does!

    • jim

      Oh, and the line from Ronkonkoma to Greenport is single track and unsignalled. Locomotive drawn trains are not the only reason there’s only three tpd service to Greenport.

  • alexjonlin

    The FRA needs to get rid of those ridiculous rules against using regular, light DMUs in conjunction with freight. That would give a lot of relief to transit operators. There are many lines that don’t get that good ridership but could greatly benefit from using DMUs, like the Sounder North line in Seattle, but they currently don’t really have that option.

  • AlexB

    I would hope the DMUs would be FRA compliant. What would happen if ridership increased significantly in the future? Not to mention, the express trains from Penn to the Hamptons in the summer are always packed. I just think it would be really useful to be able to run both, should the MTA one day want to run a train from Penn to any station on the island.

  • Ocean Railroader

    This new train idea looks good to have a smaller less oil using locomtive to do the same work that the big beasts do on the more heaver used lines.

    If this idea of using a smaller locomtive and train to do the work the big beasts is a new idea it’s been around a long time. This train in this photo looks like a retro version of a small train that proved passanger serivce on rural West Virginia Branch lines to small towns where it would be more expenssive to run the giant full sized trains. This looks like a good idea.

  • Winston

    When, oh when can we get rational safety regulations that allow the use of safer, cheaper, more reliable world standard equipment in the U.S. instead of FRA mandated behemoths. DMUs are a good idea, but even better would be ones designed for the developed world instead of the slow, inefficient ones we have in America.

  • Yonah, your Captcha is being an asshole to me. If I don’t hit submit within second after reloading the page, it won’t let my comments through.

  • Walter Sobchak

    I wonder if the MTA could expand this idea to Metro-North, on lines like the Wassaic branch and potentially ask the state of Connecticut to fund a purchase for the New Haven Line branches. DMU’s on the Waterbury line, for example, could be used to increase service from the 6 trains each way daily. Of course, some sort of signal system would have to be put in place first to allow more than one train on the entire line at one time. They could also be used non-peak on the Danbury Line, when ridership is much lower than peak.

    CT could use them on Shore Line East weekends and off peak, since they use diesels on that electric line now; or perhaps they’ll just use an M8 pair or two in a few years?

    Maybe even my pipe-dream of a line connecting Stamford, White Plains, and Tarrytown (and even across the river) could be designed with these in mind.

    Can these be serviced in a traditional shop, or will new maintenance shops need to be constructed?

  • John W

    Coincidentally, there’s a similar issue in Montreal currently in the news. The service to Rigaud is to be cancelled after 111 years of continuous operation. It’s only serving 15-20 round-trip passengers a day, at a subsidy of $15,000+ per commuter per year (up from $8,000+).

    Not sure if DMUs would solve the problem here – maybe if there was a rail equivalent of a shuttle bus to run between Rigaud and Vaudreuil, that would work. Are there any such low-capacity DMUs (ie 30-40pax)? And would that make a significant difference from the cost of a standard DMU trainset?

    In any event, the town council is looking to mitigate the loss of service by bussing people from Rigaud to the station in Vaudreuil. Has anything similar been considered for the further flung reaches of the LIRR?

    • Ocean Railroader

      The Alaska Railroad in the 1900’s-1940’s had a small one car powered train that could carry up to 30 people at a time and it could stop anywhere along the railroad track to pick up passangers and mail. It was almost like a bus on rails and I think if they had something like this on this rail line it could knock down the costs by a $100,000 a year and maybe the small one car train could come at more times in the day.

    • Max Wyss

      There might actually be some vehicles out there, which could handle those loads. I have seen reports of a pair of shuttle bus-sized road rail vehicles used in Hokkaido. Their purpose is different there, mainly to avoid the serious road traffic jam in some villages, by bypassing them on the otherwise no longer in use for passenger rail line.

      Following this reasoning, one might consider Hi-Rail type vans.

      One might also look around in central to eastern Europe, such as Poland, where there are some developments to replace the ageing railbus DMUs.

    • Adirondacker12800

      20 passengers a day, or the 5 or 6 on the LIRR, would be better served by an airport shuttle type of service that brings them from their front door to the train station at the new end of the line – where there are passengers.

  • Adam

    From what I understand, these are going to be European-style DMUs. That’s what the NBC article said at least.

  • Chris

    Boo-Yah!!! LIRR, finally catching up with the times!

  • Adam

    By your logic, most rail operators in this country are behind the times (not that I don’t agree with you; I do).

    And the LIRR has always been more advanced simply because a lot of their service is electric; there are very, very few electric railways in the US. The only ones there are are LIRR, NJT, Metro-North, SEPTA, one line of MARC, and one line and two branches of Chicago’s Metra system (and two of Amtrak’s lines).

    Are any other railways going to become electrified in the future besides the ones I mentioned?

  • J

    There is no need for transfers if the cars can just couple with another train and hitch a ride into town.

    • Why would anyone want to do that? The DMUs are effectively trailer cars in electrified territory, dragging down the rest of the train. In unelectrified territory, the EMUs are trailers, again destroying performance.

      • Nathanael

        It wold be advisable to make the transfer stations stations with two platforming tracks allowing a cross-platform transfer from the DMU to the “mainline” train. How feasible is this at the logical transfer points?

      • At Babylon and Ronkonkoma, this scheme would involve a timed connection of about 3 minutes, allowing people to get from one platform to the next. The connecting train would wait for the arriving train in all cases.

        Alternatively, this could be done zero-penalty at Jamaica. But that would clog the Main Line tracks with trains not going to Manhattan or even Downtown Brooklyn.

      • Max Wyss

        Actually, such a concept would not be such a bad thing, assuming that the “european style” DMUs could be used as non-leading unit on FRA-regulated territory. In such a situation, some limited through-running could be provided. There would be some switching at the main terminal, in order to get the DMU to the rear, but this looks feasible to me.

        Another approach would be bimode MUs, similar to the French “bi-bi” (bi-mode, bi-tension) AGCs (Automoteurs à Grande Capacité; High Capacity Motor Units), which have electrical equipment for running under 1500 VDC and 25 kVAC, plus a suitably powerful diesel-generator group.

  • The Long Island Railroad already tried DMU’s — back when the Budd Company made RDC’s, the Long Island Railroad got some. They were involved in a disastrous wreck and sold. There’s a reason for the FRA’s standards (which were not so strict then).

    • The FRA-compliant trains are more dangerous than the non-compliant ones. Yes, the non-compliant ones crash, too. Countries with an interest in making passenger rail work have solved this by designing crash avoidance systems.

      Besides, the compliant trains just got into a disastrous wreck, too. Do we get to ban them from the tracks?

  • poncho

    it shouldnt be too much of a surprise why ridership is poor on the montauk and greenport lines, service is abysmal… 5 trains a day that manage to be at the most inconvenient times of the day (like leaving at 1am, 4am, 11am, 2pm and 11pm), no direct service to manhattan, no food service, slow travel times, no express (except the once a week cannonball) and a cutback in service in the winter. its not that there isnt demand, the hampton jitney is packed despite its much higher price, and there is another service the hampton luxury liner. the hampton jitney was founded 35 years ago because of the poor LIRR service, and which certainly hasnt improved. all they need is decent rail service and they could fill a locomotive hauled train pulling 8-10 carriages plus a bar car.

    why is it so goddamn difficult to get decent rail service in this country? the public has been demanding it for decades and is willing to tax themselves for it. i am getting sick of having to wait decades for the possibility of seeing minor improvements to our passenger rail system.

    • Rob B.

      Just to follow-up on poncho’s valid points. Yonah, can you write an article one day on why there is no good summer train service from Manhattan to Montauk?

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