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COASTER trains
SANDAG Chair and Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear and Rep. Mike Levin during a media event held to celebrate the roll out of new COASTER locomotives and passenger car renovations. Photo by Samantha Nelson
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Regional transit agency rolls out new locomotives, updated passenger cars

OCEANSIDE — The North County Transit District (NCTD) celebrated its rollout of five new, ultramodern locomotives and several refurbished COASTER passenger cars on Feb. 8 at the Oceanside Transit Center.

Regional leaders including NCTD Board Chair and Encinitas Deputy Mayor Tony Kranz, SANDAG Board Chair and Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear and Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano) gathered Monday morning at the Oceanside Transit Center for a ribbon-cutting ceremony that showcased the new locomotives and renovated passenger cars.

Supervisor Nathan Fletcher also tuned in virtually on behalf of the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District Board.

The COASTER commuter trains have been in service for 25 years as part of NCTD’s transportation system, which also includes the BREEZE buses, SPRINTER hybrid rail trains and LIFT para-transit services.

In 2019, the COASTER provided more than 10 million passenger trips throughout North San Diego County and into downtown San Diego. That amount dropped significantly in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced NCTD to reduce COASTER operating hours.

The system currently only runs Monday through Friday with no weekend services and will continue to do so until ridership increases.

The regional transit agency hopes to increase ridership with the implementation of the new locomotives and the overhaul program that has updated the passenger cars’ insides.

Through the overhaul program, all of the outdated cars will be gutted to a shell and installed with new seating upholstery, upgraded LED lighting, new carpet and more charging ports at some seats.

“The seats are much softer than the previous model and some of the stations that you sit at will have charging ports,” Kranz said.

The cars are also to be painted with a new color scheme. All 28 of the COASTER passenger cars will be finished with the overhaul program by 2026.

While the passenger cars were in good enough condition to be upgraded the locomotives pulling the cars weren’t, which is why the COASTER system received five new Siemens locomotives as replacements. Additionally, NCTD will be receiving two additional replacement locomotives and two more locomotives for expanded service. NCTD will receive these four additional locomotives by June 2023.

COASTER passenger trains
COASTER passenger cars are undergoing a renovation process that will install new seating upholstery, upgraded LED lighting and more charging ports. Photo by Samantha Nelson

The total of nine new locomotives cost approximately $70.3 million, most of which came from various state and local funding opportunities. The new locomotives run more efficiently with lower emissions and are significantly quieter than the older fleet of locomotives.

“In addition to being cleaner and quieter, it does mean you need to be well aware that the trains run on the tracks,” Kranz said. “So if you see tracks, think train, because there could be one coming and it could be so quiet that you don’t hear it.”

Sean Loofbourrow, NCTD’s chief of safety, told the Oceanside City Council during its Feb. 3 meeting that the district has finished safety testing of the new locomotives and rail improvements. The process included testing signals, flagging and effectiveness of crossings.

“We want to make sure that as the locomotives approach the crossings that the crossings recognize the equipment that’s coming and make sure that the gates are lowered down,” Loofbourrow told Council.

Funding for the five new replacement locomotives that were launched on Feb. 8 came from a $10 million grant from the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District Carl Moyer Program, and nearly $47 million from the State of California Senate Bill 1.

COASTER trains
SANDAG Chair and Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear, NCTD Chair and Encinitas Deputy Mayor Tony Kranz and Rep. Mike Levin celebrate the rollout of new COASTER locomotives and renovated passenger cars with a Feb. 8 ribbon-cutting ceremony. Photo by Samantha Nelson

“The new COASTER locomotives will increase service reliability, improve the rider experience and are more environmentally friendly,” Kranz said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

NCTD will also be receiving 10 expansion bi-level passenger coaches, and one replacement rail cab with the hope of increasing train frequencies from 22 to 42 trains per average weekday over the next three to five years. The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) is funding the expansion equipment with nearly $58.8 million in funding.

“We need to invest in our trains if we’re going to have a functioning transit system,” Blakespear told The Coast News. “We have had trains that are really old and threadbare, and barely keeping it together, so this is an investment in the next generation of trains so that we can provide more service that goes more frequently and is faster so that people feel that transit is a reasonable option and they want to take it.”

Blakespear noted there was some controversy on the SANDAG board over whether or not this investment in the COASTER rail system was worth it.

“There are a lot of priorities in this county and $50 million is a lot of money, and there were some on the SANDAG board who were wondering if this was really a good investment,” Blakespear said. “It fell to members like me and Councilmember Kranz, and a lot of other advocates and staff members at the agencies to say that if we want to have good transit we have to invest in the trains themselves.”