Sprinter (light rail)
|Type||DMU light rail|
|System||North County Transit District|
|Locale||North San Diego County, California, United States|
|Termini||Oceanside Transit Center
Escondido Transit Center
|Daily ridership||7,800 each weekday|
|Opening||March 9, 2008|
|Rolling stock||12 married pairs of Siemens VT642 Desiro DMUs|
|Line length||22 mi (35 km)|
|Track gauge||4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge|
The Sprinter (styled in caps as SPRINTER) is a DMU-operated light rail line operating between Oceanside and Escondido, California, United States. The service uses the pre-existing 22 miles (35 km) Escondido Branch trackage of the San Diego Northern Railroad. Station platforms were constructed for the line’s fifteen stations serving the cities of Oceanside (western terminus), Vista, San Marcos, and Escondido (eastern terminus). The line provides service to Palomar College and California State University, San Marcos.
The Sprinter is operated by the North County Transit District of Oceanside, the area's public transit agency. The agency also operates the Coaster commuter rail line and the BREEZE Bus routes. Sprinter service is operated with Desiro-class diesel multiple units (DMU) manufactured by Siemens in Germany, where they are widely used by main-line regional railways. Twelve married pairs of Siemens VT642 Desiro DMUs were delivered to the Escondido Transit Center in August 2006. The vehicles were in acceptance testing in California during the early part of 2007. At Oceanside Transit Center, the Sprinter connects to three commuter rail lines (the Coaster, the Metrolink Orange County Line, and the Metrolink Inland Empire-Orange County Line), as well as to Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner regional rail line.
A 2007 study by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) predicted that the Sprinter would reduce road trips by 5,000 a day (a round trip by car would be two road trips). It also predicted over 11,000 riders (trips) per day by the end of the first year. Ridership numbers did climb after opening, reaching just under 8,000 people per day as of March 2008. Average weekday ridership for 2012 was approximately 7,800.
The Sprinter is the first passenger train service of along the Escondido Branch since the Santa Fe Railroad discontinued passenger service in 1946. Originally built in 1888, the entire line had to be rebuilt to accommodate more traffic and be elevated because the line runs along a river. The Escondido and Vista stations are the only surviving passenger stations from the earlier era of service.
The funding for Sprinter originated with the TransNet Tax (Proposition C) measure passed by San Diego County voters in 1987 to relieve traffic congestion. A third of the tax was dedicated to mass transit. The $477 million project also was funded through a $152 million Full Funding Grant Agreement from the Federal Transit Administration.
NCTD purchased the line in 1992 from the Santa Fe Railroad. Construction started on the line in 2005 and was scheduled for completion in December 2007. The Sprinter was previewed on December 28, 2007, with full revenue service scheduled to begin on January 13, 2008.
Due to its shared right-of-way with freight trains serving businesses in Escondido, the Sprinter platforms had to be set back from the tracks a sufficient distance to provide enough room for employees riding on the sides of freight cars. The passenger trains are not FRA-compliant for operation in association with freight trains and therefore freight operations on the route are not permitted during passenger operations. For this reason some publications refer to this line as light rail but it does not conform with the usual understanding of that term.
While the DMUs are not much narrower than freight cars, the space for employees hanging at the sides of cars considerably increases the free space required, and gangways were designed into the station that fold up after end of service to allow the BNSF trains plus employees at their sides to pass through. At the eastbound side of the Escondido Avenue platform, the tracks curve so sharply that a gap exists between the outside edges of the gangway and the side of the DMU. The California Public Utilities Commission has stated that such a gap is unsafe, and as a result, the Eastbound platform at Escondido Avenue was not used for six months after the opening of the Sprinter. On September 12, 2008, the station was completed and on September 15, 2008, the station became operational.
Sprinter was the least expensive rail project per mile of 10 rail projects built or planned in California in 2005. American Public Works Association (APWA) awarded Sprinter the Transportation Project of the Year for projects valued over $75 million.
The Sprinter runs every 30 minutes in both directions seven days a week, from approximately 4 am to 9 pm. Trains run later on Friday and Saturday evenings, to approximately 10:30pm (westbound to Oceanside), and to approximately 11:30pm (eastbound to Escondido). Saturday/Sunday/Holiday trains operate every 30 minutes between 10 am and 6 pm and hourly before 10 am and after 6 pm.
The Sprinter serves a total of 15 stations, including the two termini at Oceanside and Escondido. Three of these stations are transit centers – the two termini, Oceanside Transit Center and Escondido Transit Center, along with the Vista Transit Center station – providing substantial bus route transfer possibilities.
A one-way fare on the Sprinter costs $2 per rider, $1 for Senior (60+)/Disabled/Medicare riders (children under 5 years old ride for free).
In addition, riders can buy 'passes' (e.g. Regional Day Pass, Regional 14-Day Pass) which allow for unlimited travel not only on the Sprinter, but on other NCTD and MTS systems, such as the San Diego Trolley, and Breeze and MTS buses, for the duration of that pass. Rides on those systems, plus the Coaster commuter rail, and express buses, requires a "RegionPlus" pass.
In September 2008, SANDAG introduced a new contactless "Compass Card", made possible by Cubic Transportation Systems, Inc.. The "Compass Card" allows passengers from MTS and NCTD to store regional transit passes and cash value on a rewriteable RFID card. Customers can purchase passes and add cash value on the Internet or at any ticket vending machine. When a customer boards a bus they simply tap their Compass Card on the "Validator", usually located near or on the farebox. The LED display then lights up with lights resembling that of a stoplight, and the LCD display shows text regarding the passenger's fare account. When boarding rail vehicles the Validators are located on the platform, and the same process is performed to board the train.
While pre-opening studies of the Sprinter line projected an average weekday ridership of 11,000, average weekday ridership in 2012 was 7,800, 70% of the original projected daily ridership. For 2012, this corresponded to 2.4 million annual ridership. However, the average weekday ridership for the Sprinter in the First Quarter of 2013 was 8,500 according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Transit Ridership Report for Q1 2013, which is 77% of the original projected daily ridership for the system.
Future service plans
Being a relatively new transit service, future development plans for the Sprinter are currently focused on increasing the frequency of the service to 20 minutes per train departure, from the Sprinter's current 30 minute schedule. An increased schedule will require more double-tracking of the Sprinter rail line; currently, only 9.6 miles (44%) of the Sprinter's rail line is double-tracked. The preferred alternative project for more double-tracking on the rail line involves increased double-tracking around Crouch St. station through College Blvd. station, and around Palomar College station through Nordahl Rd. station. It is projected that this project will require 6 years to reach completion.
Additionally, NCTD would like to implement Sprinter Express train service that would stop at only the 5 stations (Oceanside Transit Center, El Camino Real, Vista Transit Center, San Marcos Civic Center, and Escondido Transit Center) with the greatest ridership along the route. The Express service would use freight track east of San Marcos Civic Center station to bypass a station and an eastern portion of the regular route in order to further reduce travel times between termini.
Longer-term, SANDAG's 2050 Regional Transportation Plan projects one extension of the Sprinter by 2050. The extension would be from the Sprinter's current eastern terminus at the Escondido Transit Center, south (presumably along S Centre City Parkway) to the Escondido Westfield Mall/Del Lago Transit Center. No other extensions of the Sprinter (e.g. to San Diego Zoo Safari Park, or to McClellan–Palomar Airport) are included in the plan.
The Sprinter has encountered some dissatisfaction in northern San Diego County. For example, business owners in Oceanside have attributed flooding in November 2007 and January 2008 to the Sprinter, since its construction raised railroad beds and narrowed creeks. Some have also criticized the limited schedule. In response to the limited schedule, NCTD expanded Friday and Saturday Night service in 2011, the last trips leaving out of Escondido (Westbound) at 10:33pm and out of Oceanside (Eastbound) at 11:33pm.
On March 11, 2008, just two days after the first passengers were carried, a westbound Sprinter train struck a man who was lying on the tracks under a State Route 78 bridge in San Marcos. It was not immediately clear if the man was aware of the approach of the train. However, the man, who was covered by a sleeping bag at the time he was struck, spoke of suicide while in the emergency room.
On March 23, 2012, a man was struck by a westbound Sprinter train at the West Mission Road and North Pacific Street crossing. The victim's death was ruled a suicide by the San Diego County medical examiner's office. The operator of the train applied the brakes and sounded the horn, but was unable to avoid the collision. The victim died at the scene.
On February 28, 2013, the California Public Utilities Commission conducted an inspection of the Sprinter vehicles. During that inspection, the CPUC discovered accelerated patterns of wear on the central axle brakes of all 12 vehicles. As a result, on March 8, 2013, NCTD suspended service on the entire line. NCTD established bus replacement service for the duration of the Sprinter service interruption.  The Sprinter resumed regular service on May 18, 2013, with the last day of the supplemental express bus service on May 24.
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