Why Sprinter-type DMU's won't be cheaper for Metrolink

High peak-hour train loads for the Metrolink San Bernardino Line dictates that smaller train sets and DMU's are not a cost-efficient solution for the route.

By: Bart Reed, Executive Director

The North County Transit District's Sprinter light rail line and LA Metro Blue Line are both 22 miles long. The Sprinter has a fraction of the ridership of the Blue Line (87,000 vs. 8,300). The decision was for NCTD to use economical equipment for a small ridership route. The DMU equipment was probably the best decision in this case.

Metrolink is a different situation. The San Bernardino route is nearly 57 miles long. Peak hour trains dictate equipment usage, as ridership is north of 700 per trip. There would be zero cost savings in buying and providing off-peak hour train sets, such as a DMU train set. Yes, industry professionals have looked into this idea. New Metrolink Board Members bring this type of idea up all the time. It just ends up costing hundreds of thousands of dollars additional on the crew and operations side, so the idea is addressed and retired.

For example, there is an issue of storage at the terminals. You just can't have a DMU sitting there and park a six car train set. One of these two train sets would have to be moved to a storage yard and the other train set would have to be prepared and tested. The elapsed time to do such as move could take up to an hour. Metrolink off peak trains sometimes have 15 minute turns, so the idea falls apart. This is the same reason that train sets are not shortened in the off peak hours, as this takes very expensive crew time.

In addition, the cutting of San Bernardino service is purely political and was directed to stick it to LA Metro, as LA Metro pays a proportion of the costs to operate the line. San Bernardino could have completely increased revenue, if they created a series of through trains with the Antelope Valley line and folks could get conveniently from the SF Valley to the San Gabriel Valley. The revenue on the Amtrak service from Santa Barbara to San Diego is far higher than trains that terminate at Union Station.

Factually, DMU train sets are not cheaper to purchase. Crew and maintenance costs are exactly the same to operate. Railroad economics are quite different than what would appear to some of the followers of this board.

I hope this clarifies.


  1. I see DMUs like the stages of a rocket. There has yet to be an effective single stage to orbit rocket developed, so I'm not convinced that running a six car trainset will be the most cost-effective answer to all the train needs of the region. With PTC and automation coming into the picture, the crew times issue will be going away. The train can just park itself and be called back out when it's needed again. And just run itself over the route. Also, DMUs are cheaper to operate on trainsets of up to about three cars, but can still be combined with a regular train when necessary. Using them may well be helpful toward getting daily train service to provide connections within the Inland Empire itself. Several routes could be fleshed out with single or two unit DMU trains including Indio-Riverside/(LA/Oceanside), Redlands-Perris, and San Bernardino-Victorville/(Barstow)/(Antelope Valley). Even increased headways on the existing Metrolink service would be welcome and DMUs can help in that regard. Run them as the limited stop option going straight to DTLA to take full advantage of the MetrolinkMAX proposal. A one or two unit DMU consist every 15-20 minutes will certainly be much more appreciated and popular than the 4-6 car option once an hour that currently occurs after the morning peak.


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