Utah’s Stadler rail plant rolling out clean trains to replace diesel

Switzerland-based Stadler’s only North American plant, near SLC airport, quenches California’s thirst for emissions-free travel. Contracts promise to bring more jobs to the Beehive State.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Railroad trucks near final installation on electric trains at Stadler Rail's plant in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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If America is going to have a clean-train revolution, a plant at the western edge of Salt Lake City will provide the rolling stock.

Swiss rail car builder Stadler is filling huge orders for electric and hydrogen-fuel commuter trains for California from its Utah plant, and more transit districts are looking for clean alternatives to the diesel locomotives that power most of the nation’s trains.

“The interest in the industry is relatively big,” said Martin Ritter, president and CEO of Stadler US.

The Stadler plant’s largest contract — nearly $1 billion — provides 24 trains to Caltrain, which is converting its San Francisco-to-San Jose line to fully electric by year’s end.

Cleaner and faster

The seven-car trains run on electric motors that drive wheels on every car, making them more efficient than traditional trains that have power only to the locomotives. The electric motors also allow faster starts and stops.

As a result, the roughly half-million riders that Caltrain carries each year will get a small gift when the new trains start running: a few extra minutes. The trains run about 10% faster, so the schedules are being overhauled.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Martin Ritter, president and CEO of Stadler US Inc., gives a tour of a bike car on an electric train, which is bound for California that will soon connect San Jose to San Francisco, at Stadler Rail's plant in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024.

They also will ride in higher style. The new trains are equipped with Wi-Fi and have power receptacles at every seat. Each train has two bike cars, where commuters can park their bikes on a lower floor and find a seat on the upper level. All the seats have drop-down tables like on airplanes, and each train has a restroom that meets standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The company has been building trains in Utah since 2017, but it is still adding workforce. There are about 475 workers at the Stadler plant just off Interstate 80 west of Salt Lake City International Airport, and Ritter said that will grow to 600 soon.

“We’re investing heavily in engineering in Utah,” Ritter said. “We want to do more design work here.”

Still adding workers

Stadler has an incentive from the state that gives it a tax break for employing up to 1,000 workers, and Ritter believes the company eventually could reach that. “We have a step-by-step approach (to hiring) because we have high standards for quality.”

Ritter said the company also is encouraging its suppliers to relocate to the Salt Lake City area. One company that makes the fronts of trains from composite materials has done that.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crews maneuver composite train parts at Stadler Rail's plant in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024.

Stadler also assembles diesel-electric trains. The diesel engines drive generators that produce electricity, and that electricity powers the wheels on the cars. That makes it easier to upgrade them to fully electric trains or even battery-powered trains. The company is starting work on a battery-powered trai in a partnership with Utah State University’s ASPIRE center.

The battery-powered train will roll out as a demonstration next year with the idea that it could one day be a replacement for Utah Transit Authority’s FrontRunner line from Ogden to Provo. FrontRunner currently runs on diesel locomotives that contribute to air pollution along the Wasatch Front.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) An electric train bound for California nears completion at Stadler Rail's plant in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024.

In another big train order from California, that power will come from hydrogen. The company has been testing a FLIRT train that is driven by fuel cells that convert hydrogen to electricity. That train was built in Europe, but up to 28 more “FLIRT H2″ trains will be built in Salt Lake City under a contract with Caltrans, California’s transportation department.

‘A 21st-century marvel’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Senior electrician Ivan Bialotski works on an electric panel at Stadler Rail's plant in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024.

That contract comes after the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority (SBCTA) partnered with Stadler on the development of that first hydrogen-powered train, which will begin service later this year on a commuter line from San Bernardino to Redlands.

“More than a decade ago, SBCTA recognized a need in our community to not only expand passenger rail service, but to come up with a greener alternative. This partnership gets us there,” said Ray Marquez, SBCTA board vice president and a Chino Hills City Council member. “We’re also inspired by the innovation, engineering and brilliance of our partners at Stadler. The FLIRT H2 is a 21st-century marvel and something that we’ll be admiring for decades to come.”

Both can take advantage of a common energy-saving technology in electric and hybrid cars: regenerative braking. Any moving gas- or diesel-powered vehicle has kinetic energy that is wasted in traditional braking systems. Electric-powered vehicles can capture and store energy from braking.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Electric subway cars bound for Atlanta are assembled at Stadler Rail's plant in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024.

The plant also has contracts to build diesel-electric FLIRT trains for Dallas Area Rapid Transit and cars for Atlanta’s subway system, MARTA.