Regional Passenger Rail Equipment Options for Service in Vermont

In recent years, a variety of new regional passenger rail services have been instituted in the United States and Canada. In most cases these new lines have used entirely new equipment, primarily utilizing Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) train-sets and thus had a high initial start-up cost, typically exceeding $3,000,000 per car. Yet the option exists for a less cost-intensive approach as well. 

The Budd Rail Diesel Car (RDC) from the 1950/60s remains in viable, daily service in North America, under demanding operating conditions ranging from the cold forests of northern Ontario, Canada to the temperate climate of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, to (until very recently) the high heat of north Texas. Fully renovated RDC cars can be obtained for about $500,000 per car. This report will compare the possible use in Vermont of Budd RDC cars to the option of entirely new DMU vehicles.

Advantages of the RDC include:

In 1949 the Budd Company of Philadelphia, PA, introduced the Rail Diesel Car (RDC). This was a remarkable self-propelled passenger car, that would prove ideal for use on regional, branch line and moderate demand routes. The RDC used the body of a standard streamlined 85-foot-long intercity passenger car. But the RDC could move by its own power, because of the use of under-the-floor-mounted compact diesel engines, to independently power the trucks at the front and back of each car. 398 RDCs were constructed for 32 different railroads, with the last new cars built in 1962. Budd’s engineers invented the “electro-shot-welding” technique, which used electric current at high voltage to reach 2600 F degrees, which instantly bonded the stainless steel outer car body to the heavier structural steel interior car frame. This effectively created a very strong single piece of metal, by eliminating rivets and bolts. Testimony to Budd’s workmanship/design is that the entire western long-distance fleet of VIA Rail Canada today consists of standard locomotive-hauled cars built by the Budd Company in the early 1950s. Budd RDC cars remain attractive, comfortable, efficient and sensible for train services where likely patronage will not justify the higher crew levels and increased expenses of locomotive-hauled trains.

Fully renovated RDC cars have recently sold for around $500,000 per car. This contrasts to the $3,000,000+ cost for new DMUs.

Sufficient RDC cars remain to allow the creation of a regional rail network in Vermont without the much greater cost of all-new equipment.

RDCs could be used in Vermont to provide regional rail service, particularly on the St. Albans-Essex Junction-Burlington-Middlebury-Rutland Westside Corridor and between Burlington-Essex Junction and the Montpelier/Barre area. In the 1950s/60s RDCs were used on several Vermont routes. RDCs could provide a connecting service from Burlington to the Amtrak ETHAN ALLEN at Rutland at much lower cost than for a locomotive-hauled Amtrak train, both for operations and for needed station construction. Because RDC cars are bi-directional, among the savings from using RDCs would be the elimination of the need to construct train turning facilities at Burlington. With the lower operating costs of RDCs, added frequencies might be possible on the Westside Corridor, as well as potential service south of Rutland to Manchester, and Bennington and across the state to Okemo, Ludlow, Chester and Bellows Falls.

Another advantage of the RDC is the ability for a single train to serve multiple destinations by dividing enroute. Because the RDC is self-propelled, no switch engine (and its added crew) is needed to do an enroute division of the train. This is a feature of the RDC design not precisely duplicated by contemporary DMUs. Recent DMUs built for service in North America have been delivered as at minimum fixed two-car units. To add a car requires doubling the train with another 2-car set, or a very costly rebuild of the trainset to permanently insert an added car. The RDC eliminates this problem, as cars can be easily added/cut enroute in a matter of minutes. An RDC train’s ability to divide enroute would work well at Essex Junction, Rutland and Burlington, allowing a single train to ultimately serve multiple destinations. 

A train made up of RDC cars can be very efficiently run. RDCs can be operated by a much smaller crew than a traditional train, needing only an engineer and a conductor. By contrast, Amtrak trains in Vermont run with 3-4 person crews. Thus, an RDC cuts crew costs in half. An RDC could even be operated with an engineer only, if honor system fare collection is used.

Maintenance of an RDC car is quick and simple, because of the compact design of the RDC’s engines. Unlike a traditional locomotive, where replacing a power unit required virtually disassembling the vehicle, on an RDC the compact engine can be swapped out from under the car in about an hour.

Acceleration by an RDC car is very good. On level track an RDC can climb to 44mph in 60 seconds. 54mph is attainable in 90 seconds and 80mph in under four minutes. The top RDC speed is 85mph. The highest speed allowed on any track in Vermont is 79mph, on the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) “Class Four Track” of the New England Central RR between White River Jct. and Brattleboro. Most Vermont rail lines that might be used by passenger service would be maintained to FRA “Class Three Track” 59mph standards. RDCs meet the requirements of all potential Vermont passenger routes.


Configured for regional rail service RDC cars can comfortably carry as many as 96 passengers per car. This compares very favorably to contemporary heavy-rail single-level locomotive hauled coaches, as well as to most recently delivered DMUs. For example, the new DMUs for TEX RAIL seat 60 per car, but devote large areas to accommodate 50+ standees in each car. The RDC is more comfortable for seated riders.

The largest fleets of RDC cars were historically operated in new England. The RDC car’s use declined not because of any mechanical flaws, but because of changing population, travel and shipping dynamics in the 1960s and 70s. RDC cars built over 60 years ago, continue in daily service today!

The Budd RDC car remains a remarkable and practical vehicle in the 21st century.

Other Recent North American DMS Acquititions

Texas: Denton County A TRAIN: Denton County, TX started a new 21-mile long Regional Rail service in 2011 between Denton and Carrolton, TX. The Swiss/German Stadler company received an order for 11 Model GTW DMUs for the A TRAIN, at a cost of $73,800,000. For the 22 individual cars in the 11 train-sets this is a per car cost of $3,354,545.00. These are the first European-designed/built DMUs to qualify under the US crash-safety standards.

California: SMART RAIL in Sonoma and Marin Counties: The new SMART RAIL system linking San Rafael and Santa Rosa, CA over 43 miles of track opening in 2017 will utilize the first new fully US standard cash-compliant DMUs assembled in the United States in the last decade. Total equipment costs for seven 2-car trainsets was $46,700,000, or $6,667,000 million per 2 car set. Thus, the per car cost for these DMUs was $3,335,714. SMART DMUs utilize high-level platform boarding, which dramatically increases station costs, by requiring much more expensive platforms and the addition of passing/gauntlet tracks. 

Ontario, Canada: UNION PEARSON EXPRESS: This 14.5-mile line from Toronto Union Station to the Pearson International Airport uses DMUs essentially identical to the SMART cars. Total DMU costs in US dollars were about $75,000,000 for 18 individual cars, or about $4,160,000 per DMU coach. Interior design is different than for SMART, with higher-density seating, given the short ride times and there is more provision for luggage, given the airport/union rail station destinations. As with the SMART DMUs, only high-level platforms can be used with these cars.

Fort Worth, Texas: TEX RAIL: Eight 4-car DMUs have been ordered for the new 27-mile-long TEX RAIL line, over the former Cotton Belt RR tracks from Fort Worth to Grapevine and the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. Service is to begin in 2018. Once again, the cars will be built to US crash-compliant standards by the Swiss/German Stadler car-builder. This will be the first use of Stadler’s “Flirt” DMU in the United States. The 32 DMU cars are budgeted to cost $100,000,000, making the price for each 4-car unit $12,500,000, or $3,125,000 per DMU car.

Note car costs above run from a low of $3,125,000 to a high of $4,160,000 per DMU coach, compared to an estimated $500,000 per RDC car. As pressures increase to contain passenger rail costs the option to use the still viable technology of the RDC car in new services is increasingly enticing.


White paper report prepared by:

CHF Rail Consulting LLC
Carl H. Fowler, President
178 Meadowrun Rd
Williston, VT 05495
1 (802) 310-3476