Portland, Oregon's transit agency TriMet has acquired two former New Haven Railroad Budd RDC's from the Alaska Railroad in order to provide back-up protection service on its Westside Express Service (WES). Portland becomes the second city in America after Dallas to reintroduce the Budd RDC into regular commuter service more than sixty years after they debuted. TMTC 1711 and 1702 make their first station stop at Tigard, Oregon at 6:39 am on January 24th, 2011.
Time Travel in Oregon? TriMet Turns to the Venerable Budd RDC
By Alexander Craghead/Photos by the Author
The vintage interior of TMTC 1711 harks back to Budd's original design for long-distance coaches. While the units have been refurbished in-house by TriMet, elements of the original Art Deco design survive.
Portland, Oregon's transit agency TriMet introduced two new cars into its Westside Express Service (WES) commuter rail line in late January 2011. These cars, however, were new only to the system, and upon their first day of service on January 24, they became the oldest equipment operated by TriMet. Their task? To provide protection service for the agency's fleet of 4 Colorado Railcar "Aero" Diesel-Multiple Units (DMU), transit vehicles some fifty-six years their junior. The cars in question were TMTC 1702 and 1711, members of the venerable clan of the Budd Rail Diesel Car, or RDC.
The purchase and refurbishment of the RDCs by TriMet is laden with ironies. When WES was still in planning stages, the use of second-hand RDCs from the Dallas-area Trinity Rail Express was contemplated and then rejected in favor of new equipment. At the time, however, no manufacturer had in production a DMU that was FRA safety-rules compliant. The only DMU close to production was Colorado Railcar's model, which it had built primarily to sell to the Alaska Railroad for rural passenger service. The saga of this choice is long and complex, involving delivery delays, build-quality issues, allegations of financial mismanagement, legal disputes, and cost overruns. In the end, TriMet took delivery of three powered DMUs and one trailer, making them one of only three entities owning the CRC product. CRC went out of business shortly thereafter. The sleek-looking DMUs were plagued with problems, the most notable of which was an on-board fire sparked by an electrical short resulting from screws that had pierced electrical wires during the car's assembly.
With only three powered units, the agency held no protection cars, and disruptions from mechanical problems meant that the only option for dealing with an out-of-service DMU was the use of bus substitution. The ride quality of these buses was poorer than the DMUs and the schedules proved problematic (doubling the end-to-end travel time from 27 to 55 minutes). The longer commute time not only meant that commuters were stuck on transit longer, but it also meant missing closely timed connections with regional bus systems in Wilsonville, on the southern end of the line. Backup cars became an acknowledged need, but with CRC out of business and no new manufacturer offering FRA-compliant DMUs in production, TriMet had no choice but to turn to the used equipment market.
In late 2009, TriMet purchased Alaska Railroad 702 and 711, both built for the New Haven as their 129 (1953) and 121 (1952), respectively. Aside from renumbering, the agency made a series of serious upgrades to the cars. Notable changes included installing cab signals, upgrading the event recorders, and updates to the air brake system. Other refinements included cosmetic changes inside and out, and modification to accommodate wheel-chair access. Upon their first day of revenue service in January, they became the latest Budd RDCs to enter regular service with a North American transit agency. The total cost of purchase and modification for the two cars was $550,000 — less than 1/6th the original list price of a single CRC DMU. Currently, TriMet plans to use the cars at least one day per week in regular service, in addition to substituting for the DMUs when they are taken out of service. Their first role as backup power began just five short days after their introduction, when DMU 1003 ceased to function while out on the line.
The resulting cars, of course, are hardly new. Even after a thorough cleaning and redecorating, the pair show their age. In subtle places, the interior paint is scuffed or peeling. The seats, though recently reupholstered, are the typical "walk-over" upright transit seating of the past, not the cushy seats of the DMUs. The doors do not sit perfectly flush with the high platforms along the line, and must be manually opened from inside. Likewise, stop announcements must be made by the conductor. Just as the automated announcements are missing, so too are the modern cars' built-in WiFi Internet access. From an operational standpoint, the cars are half the power of the DMUs, and accelerate slightly slower, making WES's tight schedule more challenging to maintain.
TriMet's RDCs are certainly old soldiers, yet their entrance into regular transit service is a testimony to the brilliance of the Budd design. The interiors have a warm, vintage feel to them, especially inside car 1711, which still sports its original Budd Art Deco style interior lighting. Their smooth ride quality and quiet engines are equal to if not better than the two-year-old DMUs. But more importantly, when the newest technology failed over and over, the agency turned to a proven design that dates back to 1949. Budd's stainless steel RDCs are still towing the line — six decades later — to ensure that commuters get to and from work on time, every time. Is this really the Portland metropolitan area, in the second decade of the 21st century? Or is this, say, the New York Central of 1962? Perhaps time travel is possible after all.
—Alexander Craghead is a writer, photographer, watercolorist,
self-described "transportation geek" from Portland, Oregon.