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NJ Transit Begins Testing Viability of Electric Trains

To avoid rebuilding billions of dollars worth of rail infrastructure, transit officials are looking to replace diesel locomotives with battery-powered ones. NJ Transit and LIRR are both testing electric alternatives.

(TNS) — Battery operated trains are being tested by the Long Island Rail Road as an alternative to the high cost of electrifying rail lines and NJ Transit has a plan to study the same type of project — if it can find the money to do it.

If battery powered trains are studied and adapted, they could deliver the advantages of converting a rail line to electric power without the billions of dollars of cost to build infrastructure. They also could satisfy the request of environmentalists who want diesel locomotives replaced.

Last Month, LIRR officials announced the railroad would work with Alstom to test batteries that could be installed in a two-car electric powered train after an eight-month analysis. Plans call for testing that train on the 13-mile long Oyster Bay branch, where third rail electric service ends at Williston.

NJ Transit’s idea, to do a similar study on the North Jersey Coast Line between Bay Head and Long Branch, predates the LIRR’s announcement and is part of a five-year capital plan that was unveiled last June by Gov. Phil Murphy.

NJ Transit is actively investigating industry advances in battery electric train technology, said Nancy Snyder, a spokeswoman.

The LIRR and NJ Transit’s plans have similarities. Both proposed a study of battery types that could be installed in a retrofitted rail car. The LIRR proposed creating a two-car test train of older M-7 electric powered cars that would charge when running on sections of the railroad that has electrified third rail power.

NJ Transit’s proposed plan would study lithium-ion batteries to buy and install in either battery-support tender cars, or directly into retrofitted multi-level rail cars, the capital plan said. Pilot non-passenger trips could be run on the North Jersey Coast Line between Bay Head and Long Branch.

“It is the intention, contingent upon available funding, that our ongoing research will culminate in the deployment of a battery train pilot program as described in the 2020 NJ Transit Capital Plan,” Snyder said.

That plan projects a $46 million cost. Riders would benefit with a one seat ride from Bay Head to New York, instead of changing trains in Long Branch. Passengers also would get more reliable service because a battery powered train could operate if overhead power was out.

Batteries would be recharged when the train is traveling on electrified sections of the Coast Line and through regenerative braking, similar to how a hybrid automobile recharges batteries. Both railroads said if battery technology is successful, it could eventually replace diesel powered trains.

Battery powered trains also have the capability to answer the request of environmentalists who’ve called for full electrification of NJ Transit’s rail lines that now rely on diesel powered locomotives.

The infrastructure cost of full electrification is very high. California’s Caltrain is spending $1.9 billion to electrify and buy 19, seven-car train sets for the San Francisco Peninsula line. Service is expected to start sometime in 2022, according to Caltrain documents.

In addition to electrification’s high cost, NJ Transit has a complex rail system of lines that were built in the 20th century, that the agency inherited when it began operating commuter rail service in 1982. Places where NJ Transit lines either operate on or cross another railroad’s tracks would make complete electrification difficult, said Kevin Corbett, NJ Transit CEO.

“We have Metro North territory, there’s Norfolk Southern, we cross Conrail, we’d have to work with them to electrify and they don’t have the need,” he said.

The decision to electrify is also “a little ridership dependent,” Corbett said. That’s one of the reasons the Bayhead section of the Coast Line wasn’t electrified when NJ Transit electrified the Coast line from South Amboy to Long Branch, which was completed in 1988.

The project would help deliver on a goal in NJ Transit’s strategic plan to convert to 100 percent clean energy by 2050. Another goal in that plan is for NJ Transit to create an electrification master plan by 2022.

©2021 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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