Two New-To-Me Locomotives for MBTA!

New-to-Me MP36 at South Station with passengers disembarking

The riding public was treated today to the sight of two brand-new-to-me locomotives that the MBTA purchased from the Utah Transit Authority.  (Yes, Utah has a transit authority, which has a surplus of trains in preparation for a big expansion in service scheduled for 2013-14).  One of the two locomotives made its first service run today and met a contingent of reporters and VIPs at South Station.  (Note to reporters: let the riders disembark before trying to board yourselves).  The Worcester-to-Boston service was only 20 minutes late, so riders were not eligible for a complementary fare.  Incidentally, the train also had two locomotives — the new one on the front and the usual one on the back.  Not taking any chances with mechanical problems, these transit bigwigs.

Side view

Originally the T planned to purchase or lease as many as nine new-to-me locomotives from the Utah Transit Authority with delivery beginning in the fall 2010, but that number appears to have been cut back and the delivery delayed. Even so, the new locomotive was a welcome shot of good press for the MBTA during a dreary stretch of winter weather.  The units are said to be a little bit more fuel efficient while also being a little bit more powerful than the MBTA’s existing stable of geriatric locomotives.  The press releases don’t mention a model number, which apparently is a variant of Motive Power’s MP36.

No new locomotives?

The Boston Globe reported today that the T canceled its purchase of 28 new locomotives!  Bittersweet news.  Bitter because the T’s contractor, MBCR, can’t seem to run its trains on time.  Outdated locomotives are part of the problem.  Sweet because the order shouldn’t have been for an all-diesel fleet in the first place.  A big part of the T’s rail network is electric, and the locomotives that run on on the electrified section should be electric too.  Electrics are faster, more reliable, quieter, cleaner, more efficient and — important for short-line commuter service — they have excellent acceleration characteristics.  Electrics are good neighbors and good transit!

So why wouldn’t the T want to buy electric locomotives?  One reason: electric locomotives would be different from what it is doing, and different is more expensive.  The electrics would cut the bulk discount that the T received on the canceled diesel locomotive order.  They would complicate rail operations because equipment would not necessarily be interchangeable.  And they might create pressure to electrify other lines, which is cost-prohibitive.

It’s sad that the bailout bonanza raining on automakers hasn’t reached public transit.  But this cancelled contract is a golden opportunity — maybe someday soon we might see electric locomotives pulling 120 mph commuter service to Providence after all!  Something to shoot for, anyway.