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Updated Budd Cars In Passenger Rail Mix

Condon, Tom

September 12, 2013

On Sept. 6, The Boston Globe reported that Massachusetts was creating a train service between two of Boston's most vital -- but heretofore poorly connected -- neighborhoods, Back Bay and the Seaport District. Two things caught my eye.

The service will run on a little-used track owned by the state. It was one of several rail lines the state bought in 2009 from freight operator CSX, The Globe reports. Because the state owns the line and doesn't have to negotiate with a private owner, the service can be up and running in two years, a veritable eye-blink in the transit world. The lesson is to buy these lines whenever possible -- they can at least become rail trails, hopefully rail with trails.

Then there's the rolling stock. Instead of the typical train set, with a locomotive pulling passenger cars, plans call for this one to use self-propelled cars, what The Globe describes as "an updated version of the Budd cars used in the 1950s and 1960s."

Budd cars! If ever there was an idea whose time should come again, it is the Budd car -- as long as certain mechanical issues, well-remembered in Connecticut, can be avoided. The Budd Company, founded in Philadelphia nearly a century ago, made a number of products, notably stainless steel rail cars (and still makes auto body components), but is mostly known for its distinctive self-propelled railcars -- a "train in one car" -- known as Budd cars.

Budd built nearly 400 of these between 1949 and 1962. They were mostly used in suburban or rural areas or for short-haul commuter runs, as is proposed in Boston. They were less expensive to operate than conventional trains. They were reliable, convenient and comfortable enough, even profitable.

Budd cars plied the primary and secondary tracks in Connecticut. My friends in New London who went to school in Worcester in the 1960s would hop on a Budd car at Union Station, zip up the Thames Valley and be there in no time. Ah, the good things we took for granted.

The Budd company stopped making the cars in the early 1960s as rail travel gave ground to cars and planes. But in the energy crunch of the mid-1970s, Budd thought there might be a market for light rail vehicles so it brought out a new generation of Budd cars. They made about 30 of the new cars, according to an online company history. There were two serious problems. They weren't reliable and the state of Connecticut was the largest single customer, buying 13 for about $1 million each in 1980. New York bought 10, the King of Morocco, six.

Connecticut officials actually had a good idea -- they would use Budd cars to increase train service on the New Haven-Hartford- Springfield line as well as the Waterbury and Danbury branch lines. It might have worked, except that the Budd cars kept breaking down. Like a British car I once owned, the Buddliners were reluctant to move in the cold. Criticized for being over-engineered, the cars had virtually every mechanical problem possible -- wiring fires, frozen air compressors, broken manifolds, etc. The great Meriden rail activist James M.S. Ullman termed the experiment "a disaster." It was, as it was with the 10 cars New York bought. I'm not sure about Morocco; I suspect the worst.

But the idea is compelling, and it worked the first time. In 2002, the Colorado Railcar Manufacturing Co. came out with a new self-propelled railcar called the DMU (for diesel multiple unit) that has two engines. That company went bankrupt in 2008, but its assets were purchased the next year by an Ohio-based firm that has restarted the business under the name US Railcar Co.

Ted Schaefer, the company's vice-president of operations and chief engineer, said the new DMUs have more than 2 million miles of service in Florida, Oregon and Alaska, and have proven themselves reliable. Unlike earlier Budd cars, the new ones comply with Federal Railroad Administration safety standards. They can run individually or as two- or three-car sets. US Railcar will contend for the Massachusetts contract.

In an era that cries out for conservation and a better balanced transportation system, a new generation of Budd cars could be a welcome addition.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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