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Railbus gets a tryout in New England

It's a bus, it's a railcar, it's a. . . . Leyland Vehicles Ltd. calls it a railbus -- and that's exactly what it is. The big British vehiclemaker, in its search for a lower-cost way to transport people on rail in low-density corridors, has come up with a self-propelled "bus on rails."

The diesel-powered Leyland railcar, dubbed the LEV-2, rides on railroad tracks but is actually built out of the front ends of two buses, back to back, with a midsection between.

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Surprisingly, the vehicle gets an astounding 6 1/2 miles to a gallon of fuel, compared with the average self-propelled "train," such as the well-known Budd car in the US, which gets only a small part of that figure.

Too, the purchase price of the Leyland railbus is far less than a conventional railroad car. The British unit costs an average $460,000. By comparison with the railbus, the same passenger load on a conventional train would require an engine and two cars at a capital cost of about $4.5 million.

The British company now is trying to sell some of its cars in the US as a low-cost way of providing commuter rail service in areas where the passenger demand is low.

"The railbus is a new concept in providing passenger service outside our major metropolitan areas," asserts John M. Sullivan, head of the Federal Railroad Administration.

The British-built railbus, developed by British Rail in conjunction with Leyland Vehicles for light-density commuter service or possible feeder routes to mainline service, is expected to go into regular service between Lowell and Concord, N.H., in early December, the first revenue test in the US. It is part of a $3.2 million research and development agreement between the State of New Hampshire and the Department of Transportation.

Conventional trains have been running between Boston and Concord since the experimental service began in January. A selfpropelled Budd car, the new SPU- 2000, also was operated during part of the experiment.

"The need for more rail service in greater than ever," asserts Ernest T. Coutermarsh, floor leader of the New Hampshire House and a railroad man himself. "We could save more energy by instituting rail service than anything else we can do," he adds.

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To continue the service beyond the test period, the New Hampshire Legislature will have to come up with the funds. "I expect we'll get money from the Legislature," Mr. Coutermarsh declares, adding: "The communities themselves will have to put up some money, too."

The railbus experiment should help to reorient people in the area to the railroad again.

What makes the British-built railbus less costly to run and operate? For one thing, it has only two axles compared with four in the conventional train. Also , its much-lighter construction saves considerable weight, and less weight means far higher mileage on the track.

It has a driving compartment at each end of the vehicle and can carry 56 seated riders and 40 standees. It can go more than 60 miles an hour when full.

An earlier version of the railbus was some 12 feet shorter than the LEV-2.

The vehicle now is being evaluated by British Rail in revenue service in England between Ipswich and Lowestoft, a 45-minute run, so as to test rider reaction in actual operation. That's the point of the research run between Lowell and Concord. If riders generally accept the concept, the railbus could be off and running on a wider basis in the US. If the response is negative, the manufacturer will either have to make the required revisions in the vehicle or drop the idea in the US altogether.

As far as the ride is concerned, it is less soft than a new Amfleet rail car, but that is to be expected. After all, instead of riding on two-axle trucks and far heavier suspension, the railbus runs on two axles alone.

The aisle is narrower than a standard railcar as well. Further, some of the riders on the Boston-Concord test run struck their head on the horizontal standee grab rails because the rails are so low. Boarding and unboarding were easy, however.

Indeed, the British-built railbus is one more alternative in the drive to get more commuters out of their cars and into mass transit, whether it's a bus on the road or a "bus" on rails.

The experimental runs will last until next summer, according to Mr. Sullivan of the FRA, who sees the railbus as an important test of commuter will to return to the trains.

"Its versatility on the track and low cost of operation and fuel efficiency will make the railbus an important element in future rail passenger programs," he asserts.

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