The air conditioning conked out on aging light rail trains during last week’s heat wave, upsetting both riders and train operators. Sacramento Regional Transit officials said they are racing this week, with assistance from vehicle manufacturer Siemens, to get trains in better working order before summer temperatures rise again.
“It was pretty miserable for a lot of folks,” SacRT operations head Mark Lonergan said. “We’re really trying to get ahead of it.”
He said when temperatures topped 105 degrees, the systems in some trains began to overheat and fail. Air conditioning on some of those same trains is, however, working well at this week’s lower temperatures, he said.
Passengers weren’t the only ones suffering. Train operators complained that heat was stifling in the small operator cabs, making it hard to do their jobs. The agency met with the train operators’ union on Monday to talk about bringing portable AC units into front cabs, adding shading to reduce sun glare and providing operators with cooling vests.
“Operators need to be attentive and need to do their jobs,” Lonergan said.
Amalgamated Transit Union president Ralph Niz said a deeper issue is in play – aging light rail train cars that are past their useful lifespan.
“Those cars are 30 years old,” Niz said. “Why have you not allocated money for trains in 30 years? You have to fix the system first, before you do anything else.”
Lonergan said RT officials agree about the need to renew its fleet, including bringing in low-floor light rail cars that don’t require riders to climb steep steps. Lonergan estimated it would cost about $160 million to replace the portion of the fleet that has hit the 30-year mark. The agency has struggled to come up with funds for improvements, and has talked about asking the public for a sales tax increase.
Some riders have criticized the agency, however, for committing $25 million this month to help Sacramento and West Sacramento finance a new streetcar system, which is expected to supplement light rail in the downtown and West Sacramento waterfront, but is a separate system from light rail with separate vehicles.
Paradoxically, some SacRT light rail vehicles have stayed almost chilly. Older cars made by Siemens have had the most trouble. Air conditioning in newer cars built by CAF have been going strong. Commuters and other train users can tell the difference: Cars with numbers in the 100s on the sides are Siemens, cars with 200s on the sides are CAF.
Last week’s problems were worsened, officials said, because the agency is behind on general maintenance, and has been unable to run all commute-hour trains with full cars. Instead, the agency is packing more rush-hour riders in three-car trains.