A steady, low-level "whoosh" is the only sound you can hear as the cushy, bilevel car sways slightly. You'd think you were traveling at a leisurely, Sunday-drive pace if it weren't for the steady stream of freeway traffic that you can see being left behind.
Welcome to the world of commuter rail, as afforded by the Utah Transit Authority's new FrontRunner north train line. Test service began on March 15, with trains running close to their regularly scheduled times in preparation for the start of passenger service this spring.
UTA spokeswoman Carrie Bohnsack-Ware said the testing/training phase has gone very well and a date for the start of operation "will be announced in the very near future."
Bohnsack-Ware spoke about the new commuter option on a media test-ride Monday.
"The opening of FrontRunner service, along with the new Legacy project, is going to dramatically change the environment for commuters living north of Salt Lake City," Bohnsack-Ware said.
Riders will be able to catch trains about every half-hour during the morning and evening rush hours, with off-peak service running hourly. Service times on weekdays will be 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., with Saturday service from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. No Sunday service is currently scheduled.
Bohnsack-Ware said UTA is estimating about a one-hour commute time from Salt Lake to Ogden. The fare schedule for riding FrontRunner will be a base charge of $2.50 for service to one station, with each additional station adding 50 cents to the fare, up to a maximum of $5.50. A monthly pass is expected to cost about $150, with discounts for seniors and students at Weber State University and University of Utah. The monthly passes and the single ride ticket stubs will allow connecting passage on UTA bus and TRAX service for no additional charge.
Commuter rail service is expected to be extended to Provo by about 2013.
In addition to a quiet and efficient ride, the 12 commuter rail cars, which were manufactured by the Canadian company Bombardier at a cost of $29 million, have seating with small worktables in about half of the sections, on-board high-speed Wi-Fi Internet access and power outlets at all the worktables. Passengers will also find restrooms on the lower level of each car.
During the test phase of service, trains are required to issue warning horn blasts at each of the 43 crossings on the 44-mile line, but will discontinue that practice at the start of regular service. Each of the crossings are double-gated to prevent a driver from going around the safety guard.
Part of the purpose of the test phase, in addition to tweaking schedules and putting new equipment through its paces, is training a new corps of train engineers, almost all of whom are coming from the ranks of UTA bus drivers and TRAX operators.
Doug Jones is a former TRAX operator who was in the locomotive on Monday morning's test run to Ogden. Jones has nearly completed his training as one of FrontRunner's new engineers and talked about the transition from the light rail of TRAX to the heavy-rail FrontRunner.
"It's a whole different world," Jones said. "It takes a lot to stop these things and a lot to get them going. ... There are a lot more rules and a lot more to think about."
Jones said he is just about at the end of his training process, which has required him to take six weeks of classes, an additional two weeks required for his federal certification and 120 hours of operation under the supervision of a licensed engineer. Jones is looking forward to the start of service.
"It's going to be great when we've all completed our training. ... I'm excited about it and I think everyone else is," Jones said.
Zach Thiessen is another operator-in-training who's working toward his certification. He explained that, though there is a lot that requires the engineer's attention during operation, fail-safes are integrated into the system to ensure passenger safety.
"At designated points, where the train needs to slow down, sensors will give the driver about five seconds to make the adjustment," Thiessen said. "If they don't do it, the safety system will take over."
As the train passed beneath a partially constructed overpass that will be part of the new Legacy Highway, Thiessen smiled."Things are really changing ... and this train will be a big part of it."