American trains – Part 2: Electrics all the rage


In Part 1 “Trains: The American electric,” what was presented was a portrait – albeit a rather concise one – of the American electric train. The developmental history and reasons for the domestic electric train’s existence were all detailed.

Discussion today, meanwhile, centers on the classes or types of these “electrics,” if you will, and offers up an up-close-and-personal evaluation of several notable and representative-of-the-industry examples.

To better clarify, and put things in perspective, when we talk about “modern” in the context of the American electric train, we are talking about such trains entering frame from the 1970s on. Why the ‘70s? Well, this was the decade during which the birth of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (better known as Amtrak) happened, that plus the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform (the 4R) Act being passed. These events – along with others – enabled the American-rail industry, after coming oh so close to figuratively bottoming out, i.e., the lowest of lows for which recovery would have been darned-near impossible (trust me, I know about that of which I speak) during the 1950s and ‘60s, to again stand upright and, in a manner of speaking, on its feet again, and once more assure it had a place, position and presence, not to mention, assert an influence in the bigger transportation arena. As it happened, it was at this very time that a San Francisco Bay Area coalition had organized for the express purpose of creating a second passenger rail option – besides the commute service that the Southern Pacific Transportation Company had been providing between the City by the Bay and San Jose on the peninsula portion located on the west side of the bay – as a means of addressing the nemesis known as commute-traffic congestion that was indeed endemic in this region. That second passenger rail alternative, by the way, came to be known as the Bay Area Rapid Transit or BART system.

This then thoroughly modern adaptation of an old technology, resuscitated and delivered in a new package and given a new lease on life – a life that probably most, up until that time, had completely written off, in fact – was the catalyst that set the wheels in motion for a comeback (for this mode-type) of historic proportions. Less than a decade later, the San Diego Trolley, likewise an electrified affair, opened its doors.

Finally, and just to provide a bit more background, there are but two categories or groups of trains: 1) electrics, and 2) diesel-electrics, a characterization that can be applied universally, I’m confident in saying. And, it is on the former that our attention is focused today.

The trains

Deciding on what systems to profile can be a complicated process being there are so, so many to pick and choose from. To make that process easier, the electric rail systems presented here are ones I have first-hand experience riding. I’ve decided to separate these into two camps based on location of operation, those being principally in the American West and East Coast regions. Those on the East Coast including Amtrak on its Atlantic-seaboard-based Northeast Corridor are reserved for Part 3.

I earlier mentioned BART and the San Diego Trolley. I rode them both. Plus that of the Greater Phoenix (Arizona) metropolitan area-based Valley MetroRail light rail train. On the East Coast, meanwhile, I’ve ridden on the Baltimore Subway (as well as on one in New York City when I was a child in the 1950s but, this one isn’t going to be covered at all because, in my opinion, it predates the more modern pikes), all of which, incidentally, are electrified.

Rapid Transit-ing, the Bay Area way: The rolling, momentum-building snowball, if you will, that started it all

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system marked its 50th anniversary on Sept. 11, 2022. It is the oldest of the newest transit networks.

BART is currently operating on 131 route-miles of track serving 50 stations in five counties in all. The trains’ wheelsets are non-standard in the sense that the two rails on which the trains’ wheels roll is considered broad gauge and are set at 5 ft., 6 in. apart.

“As an all-electric system, BART harnesses the flow of infinitesimally small electrons to move a gargantuan amount of metal and people everywhere from the hills of Pittsburg to the tunnels under San Francisco,” the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District explained in an Oct. 4, 2016 news release. “All that weight—nearly a million pounds per fully loaded 10-car train—requires a staggering amount of power to start (and stop).”

The trains are powered with 1000 volts DC (direct current) and train-shoe contact with the electrified third-rail provision is how the trains get their power.

Under the Trolley wire

Opened in 1981, when the Trolley came into existence, it would be the first in a string of domestic, “modern-age,” light-rail-transit systems to operate in the United States. The trains themselves were manufactured by Siemens.

A later addition now allows riders access all the way to La Jolla, located to San Diego’s north, while another stretch reaches all the way into the inland town of Santee. Parts of the system play host to rail-freight activity during the overnight hours when the trolleys aren’t running.

Here’s some of what the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) said in its “MTS Brings First-Ever Trolley Car out of Retirement With 80s-themed Celebration,” Jul. 11, 2019 news release. “As part of the 1000 series of trolley cars, the Siemens U2 Light Rail Vehicles (LRVs) were the first to run on the MTS trolley system 38 years ago.”

“The 1001 Trolley marked the beginning of a new era in public transportation for San Diego. The success of the South Line, later renamed to UC San Diego Blue Line, sparked the light rail renaissance in North America in 1981.”

“Since then, MTS has introduced five generations of Trolley cars, each more advanced than the previous one. Trolley cars like the 1001 had no built-in computers and cost around $825,000 to build. The most recent generation of Trolley cars, the 5000 series unveiled last April, have 27 computers and cost close to $3.6 million. With each new generation of vehicles introduced to the public, there is an improvement in the riding experience for customers.”

Traveling light, light rail-like, that is

The Greater Phoenix, Arizona metropolitan area is home to the Valley MetroRail’s 28.2-mile-long light-rail transit network. The system, when initially built and completed in 2008 and termed a so-called “starter” system, then consisting of 20 route-miles of track and serving a total of 28 stations, cost $1.4 billion, or $35 million per mile, very reasonably priced as far as light-rail-transit-system installation and integration go. It should be noted that Valley MetroRail is a part of the bigger Valley Metro public transit endeavor.

An in-depth analysis comparing road- and rail-based modes in which the Valley MetroRail served as an example, whereby the attributes of emissions-savings, efficient utilization and value, were all given serious consideration. To gain even more of an understanding, see: “Rails vs roads for value, utilization, emissions-savings: difference like night and day.”

Weekday boardings, meanwhile, are 26,500. Interesting, considering that before the system even logged its first passenger-paid or passenger-fare mile, weekday boardings were projected to be 26,000. The highest number of weekday rides averaged 52,910 in Apr. 2017, according to information on Wikipedia. Current communities served are Mesa, Phoenix and Tempe. Expansion plans are in the works. Moreover, since the network’s opening, a connecting trolley operation was pressed into service in the town of Tempe and at the 44th and Washington street station in Phoenix, passengers can transfer to and from the light rail provision from and to an elevated people mover to allow for direct access out of and into the massive Sky Harbor airport complex. Both these connecting services, as far as I’m aware, are likewise electrically powered.

The Valley MetroRail trains themselves have a sleek and snazzy-looking appearance and are powered by a 750-volt, direct current (DC) electrical-distribution feed, fed via an overhead supply wire. The track on which the rail vehicles roll is standard gauge, the rails spaced 4 feet, 8.5 inches apart on centers. There are a total of 38 stations. Maximum train speed, according to Wikipedia data, is 58 mph.

First-hand accountings

Bay Area

The person I was to become roommates with at college was a Bay Area-based resident. Over one of the holidays in 1974, he invited me to join him in spending the time at his family’s digs, which I did. Though the visit was nice, what left the biggest and most lasting impression on me, understandably, was the ride he and I took on BART. We rode the then entire 71.5-mile-long length which probably took all of 2 or 3 hours to complete. As long as we remained onboard, the one fare price each of us paid covered it. BART had been in operation for about two years then.

The stations were clean and it was all self-serve. If the exact amount of coinage was dropped into the ticket-dispensing machine a ticket was issued, that could then be inserted in the slot in the gate mechanism (a variation on the original turnstile theme in this case) to allow passage to the train platform where the train upon arrival could then be boarded. The line consists of sections or segments that are above, at or below grade.

Maximum train speed was 79 mph. My roommate and I took advantage of the two empty seats behind the motorman’s compartment which afforded an unobstructed view inside which afforded us two the opportunity to see the train’s speed being digitally displayed on the operator’s console. And you can bet that while we were watching the train’s speed via the digital readout on the operator’s console, never once did the speed go over the 79 mph limit.

San Diego

It was in the 1980s that I had the privilege of riding the San Diego Trolley or just Trolley. Rather than being an actual trolley, the conveyance configuration is more along the lines of a light rail train. The line, as I remember it at the time, tapped the City’s Old Town district, ran all the way to the U.S.-Mexico border at San Ysidro, with a branch that connected the main trunk with the community of Lemon Grove.

Like with the BART trains, I remember the ride being fast – 55-mph-top-speed, fast – and smooth.

Boarding for me occurred at the San Diego Santa Fe Depot – a main station. Unlike with BART where I rode from end to end, in the case of the Trolley, I only traveled to the southern terminus and back. The ride was both comfortable and quiet.

Greater Phoenix, Arizona metropolitan area

I’ve had the good fortune of riding the ValleyMetro Rail light rail, not once, but twice. The initial 20-mile-long, 28-station so-called “starter” system launched for all practical purposes in Jan. 2009.

Being that I used to make the drive to and from the area on average once every year for a time to visit family, after the Valley MetroRail commenced operations, there was no way I could not take a ride (or two) on the at-the-time state-of-the-art mobility offering. My travel destinations were both ends of the then current line passing by all locations along the corridor in between. It was one of the best of the many ride experiences I’ve taken in the numerous jaunts I’ve enjoyed on mass transit trains.

The system is still being added on to and improved and, as far as I’m concerned, it just gets better by the day!

Last updated on Mar. 27, 2023 at 6:34 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

⁃ Alan Kandel

Copyrighted material.

Above and corresponding, connected home-page-entry images: Alstom