Opinion By Noel T. Braymer
The heyday for Turbine powered passenger trains was back in the 1960’s and 70’s. The conventional wisdom is rising oil prices and high fuel consumption with Turbine Trains caused their days to be numbered. One reason for the decline was the leader in building Turbine Trains was France. The prototype TGV train built in the 70’s was a turbine train which still holds the speed record for turbine trains of 198 miles per hour. The decision to electrify the TGV trains was largely political. During the oil uncertainties of the 70’s the French Government began building more Nuclear Power Plants. The government soon found they had a glut of electrical power from these new power plants so it ordered the railroad to electrify more lines and the TGV trains.
Turbine trains have high power yet are light weight and the engines take up little space. Turbine passenger trains don’t have locomotives, they have power cars which hold the power plant as well as carry passengers and control cab. Turbines are actually very efficient at full power. The problem is they are not efficient at low power or at idle which is why they were considered inefficient. There is a solution for this: instead of using a big turbine engine on a train it is better to use several smaller ones. With 4 smaller turbines you could use 1 for Head End Power and for going at slow speeds in and out of stations or sidings. With 2 turbines you could cruise at medium speeds while a third engine would let you cruise at high speed with an extra turbine for steep grades or quick acceleration. This is like a car’s engine that can shut down engine cylinders than are not needed to save fuel . Unlike diesels, turbines can be started and shut down quickly.
During the 1990’s the Federal Rail Administration paid Bombardier to build a new turbine train as part of the contract for the Acela. Called the Jet Train, it was a tilt train meant to provide high speed rail service to places without electrification on existing rights of way. The Jet Train had a top speed of 150 miles per hour. At this speed with tilting trains it is possible to provide rail service with running times close to those of faster non-tilting HSR services. This has been successfully done in other countries such as Sweden. The Jet Train was actually a hybrid with both diesel and turbine power. The diesel was a small engine for Head End Power and travel at slow speeds. The turbine was used once the train was under way. The basic concept was sound but High Speed Rail projects in this country went into hibernation by the the Jet Train was finished.
Where could we use turbine tilt trains in California? Metrolink is planning faster express service in the near future. A major part of this to to provide faster service to Palmdale. Improved tracks and reduced curves in the mountainous area between Sylmar and Palmdale are planned. This is a perfect place to use a tilt train combined with the high power and low weight of a turbine train in a mountainous region. Such turbine services in Southern California could reach down to San Diego up to Palmdale and west possibly as far as Santa Barbara. Turbine tilt trains would be useful along the entire California Coast though the chance the UP will allow it north of Santa Barbara is unlikely. In the North ACE is looking at creating a higher speed (125-150 mile per hour) service between Sacramento, Stockton, San Jose and possibly as far as Merced.This will require new separate tracks to get off the UP to allow the speeds and frequency of service to justify higher speeds. In the Altamont Pass tilt service and higher turbine power would make such a service faster.
On the Initial Operating Segment (IOS) of the High Speed Rail Project between Merced and the San Fernando Valley running turbine trains from San Diego to San Jose via the Altamont Pass via the IOS are a possibility. So would trains from San Bernardino to Sacramento or Chatwsorth to Oakland. This could give direct service blending old and new tracks for high speed from day one. This could be run in addition to electrified trains running just on the IOS. Turbine trains would also be an option to use on the entire IOS to provide High Speed Rail Service while postponing electrification of the line which is a major expense. Reducing capital costs and starting a viable service sooner is a possibility in wake of unsure financing. The California High Speed Rail Projects needs to get fast trains running to as many markets with good ridership numbers as soon as possible to attract investors to improve and expand High Speed service in the future. Turbine Tilt trains can give major flexibility to quickly provide State Wide High Speed Rail service in a short time and low cost.