Coaster train fleet downsizing after transportation funding fizzles

The Coaster train rides along the beach in Del Mar on June 25, 2021.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

District to sell two of its newest locomotives and five old passenger cars, as service expansion stalls


North County Transit District is selling five of its Coaster passenger cars and two newly acquired locomotives after a proposed service expansion stalled.

NCTD agreed to cap its commuter train’s expansion recently after the San Diego Association of Governments identified a funding shortfall in the TransNet sales tax revenue earmarked for public transit, said Devin Rouse, a consultant for the transit district working in Washington, D.C.

Four recently delivered Siemens Charger locomotives are undergoing testing and certification in preparation for being added to the NCTD fleet, and 11 new two-level passenger cars will be delivered by the end of this year. In all, the district soon will have a total of 11 locomotives and 39 cars.

“A portion of this fleet that’s being delivered was actually intended for Coaster service expansion,” Rouse said Thursday, June 15, in a video presentation to the NCTD board.

Additional trains were to be added in two phases. The first occurred in October 2021, when the Coaster went from about 22 daily trips to 30 daily trips, with 32 on Fridays and 20 on weekends. A second phase was expected to expand service further to 42 weekday trips, but it was canceled because of the lack of Transnet funding available to help pay for ongoing operations.

The Coaster has eight stops in the 41 miles between San Diego and Oceanside. At Oceanside it connects with NCTD’s Sprinter line, which serves 15 stations east to Escondido, and with the Orange County Transportation Authority’s Metrolink, which has train lines and stations in five Southern California counties.

The Coaster cars to be sold were purchased for $1.5 million each in 1995 and are well past their 25-year expected service life, Rouse said. The district has a tentative agreement with the Utah Transportation Authority to buy them for $200,000 each, or a total of $1 million.

“There is really not a big market for these,” he said, but they could be valuable to an agency such as the UTA that already uses that type of vehicle.

NCTD paid $15.5 million for two Siemens Charger locomotives that were delivered May 7 and are being outfitted and tested before they can be placed into service.

Negotiations are under way to sell those two vehicles to California State Department of Rail and Mass Transportation, the Southern California Regional Rail Authority or some other interested party. District officials hope to recover the full cost.

The sale will leave the district with seven complete train sets and some backup vehicles.

“With the fleet that remains we should be able to do another expansion, should funding become available,” said district Executive Director Matt Tucker.

More money from SANDAG is unlikely in the near future unless county voters approve a new sales tax increase, Tucker said.

The NCTD board approved the purchase of five new locomotives in June 2018 and ordered more soon afterward. The new quieter, more fuel-efficient vehicles are gradually replacing the old engines in the fleet, some of which were purchased used in the mid-1990s.

There should be a good market for the two locomotives because new ones are now selling for $8 million to $10 million each, and there’s a delivery time of 48 months for any new orders, Rouse said.

The district’s use of revenue from the locomotives’ sale is more restricted than the money received for the passenger cars because grant money was used for the recent purchase. Possible uses for the revenue include to retrofit existing vehicles to be more energy-efficient or purchase new zero-emissions vehicles.

Rouse also talked about the need to replace vehicles in the Sprinter fleet, which is a separate light-rail passenger system launched by NCTD in 2008 between Oceanside and Escondido.

The Sprinter is a different type of transportation system, the only one of its kind in the United States, that has an engine in each car, he said. Because it is so unusual, repair parts are hard to obtain for the Sprinter and are likely to become more so as the system ages.

“Replacing the Sprinter fleet is a priority,” he said.

Regulators require all mass transit in California to completely switch to zero-emissions vehicles by 2047.