Issues, Reports

The complicated history of the Sprinter

Report and Photo by Noel T. Braymer, RailPAC e-newsletter Editor

The Sprinter started out as a simple project to serve the 22 miles between Oceanside and Escondido. The original proposal by RailPAC’s Byron Nordberg back in the 1980’s was to rebuild the existing single tracked short line railroad between these 2 cities for about 70-80 million dollars. Inexpensive, self-propelled diesel rail cars, proven and in production, would be used. The idea was to finish it in 1988, which was the centennial of these two cities and of the construction of this short line. After that things got complicated. The budget went up and opening day got pushed back to 2000 then 2005, 2007 and it finally opened in March 2008. By then the construction budget was almost half a billion dollars!

Sprinter at Oceanside

A major factor in the inceased cost and delays of this project was the decision to build a largely elevated connection off of the existing rail line for the Sprinter to the new campus of the California State University at San Marcos. This station is used when school is in session but is often quiet the rest of the time. The station is a long walk to the main campus, and shuttle bus service is included. The added cost and delays meant that money that had been budgeted to upgrade the Amtrak/Coaster Line in San Diego County was diverted to finish the Sprinter.

Just days before the planned celebration of the 5th Anniversary of the opening of the Sprinter in the first week of March, 2013, it was discovered that the center truck brake rotors on the cars had excessive wear. This center brake was not in the original design of this diesel powered rail car developed in Germany, but to meet California Public Utility Commission (PUC) regulations for braking for a Light Rail Vehicle a third brake was added to the center truck where the railcar was articulated. The rotor and brake parts for the central truck brakes were not the same as for the other trucks. The rotors are not in production and replacements would require a special order.

The discovery by the PUC that the center brake rotors had excessive wear was basically by accident; the PUC was following up on another brake issue for the Sprinters. The PUC had for over 5 years inspected the Sprinter 50 times, but many of the inspections were of the records, including maintenance records, but rarely physical inspections. The maintenance records recorded what work was done but didn’t include specific information on the condition of the parts such as the rotors. Such information had not been required by the PUC. It was shortly discovered that the North County Transportation District (NCTD) Engineer-in-charge of oversight of maintenance of the Sprinters knew about the excessive wear of the the rotors since 2009, just a year after the service began. This was also known in 2009 by the mechanics for the Sprinter who were employees of Bombardier, which had the maintenance contract for the Sprinter. By 2009 this NCTD Engineer, Richard Berk, was requesting quotes from manufacturers for replacement rotors. He got a reply 3 years later in 2012 and was told delivery would take 44 weeks. Mr. Berk “resigned” his position with the NCTD on March 1 of this year, the same day that the PUC discovered the problem with the rotors.

The issue of how and when the excessive wear was discovered on the rotors of some Sprinter brakes brings up several disturbing questions.

  • 1) Why did the PUC approve the Maintenance of the Sprinters largely without physical inspections of the the trains for over 5 years?
  • 2) How could management of NCTD be unaware of these problems with the rotors going back to 2009?
  • 3) How could a senior engineer go about looking for quotes for new rotors long before these rotors should need replacing without the knowledge of his supervisors?

Such an expense would require approval and justification from supervision sooner or later. Most disturbing of all is that in over four years no attempt seemingly was made to discover the cause of this abnormal wear or find a solution before replacing these very expensive and hard to replace rotors with new ones which would likely need to be replaced long before they should be.

NOTE: From an April 9 NCTD Press Release: “North County Transit District placed an order yesterday for a complete set of split disc rotors for the entire SPRINTER fleet. The replacement rotors are scheduled to be delivered from the European manufacturer by the end of April. Originally, NCTD anticipated the order would be placed in May however; the repair and testing process is proceeding ahead of schedule. While the repair process is moving swiftly and efficiently, NCTD still cannot set a date to resume SPRINTER service due to vagaries in manufacturing and shipping times, extensive testing requirements, and other variables. Once the complete set of rotors has arrived in Oceanside the agency will set and announce a re-launch date for the SPRINTER.”

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