Recycling Trains

  • Although recycling train cars is good for the environment, Buffalo’s transit authority is also doing it to save some money. (Photo courtesy of the US Department of Transportation)

Some cities are trying to save some money by recycling trains. They’re renovating and re-using their old mass-transit rail cars. Joyce Kryszak went to find out just how you go about recycling a train:


Some cities are trying to save some money by recycling trains. They’re renovating and re-using their old mass-transit rail cars. Joyce Kryszak went to find out just how you go about recycling a train.

It’s hard to say whether there are more roads or train tracks running through the small town of Hornell, New York– a couple of hours southeast of Buffalo. The acres and acres of tracks of the old Erie Railroad yards are here. And for more than 150 years, Hornell has repaired trains in its shops. But recently, it’s started completely rebuilding some passenger rail cars.

We crouch underneath one of the jacked-up 40 ton cars and Mike Bykowski shows us how.

“This is car 114, it’s the furthest along in the rebuild process, you want to step up and take a look inside?…Sure.”

Bykowski is the director of engineering for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority in Buffalo. And he’s in charge of overseeing the renovation of the Authority’s twenty seven light rail cars. Bykowski says after a quarter century of harsh Buffalo winters, the city’s rail cars were showing their age.

“The older cars that are out in the system right now, there’s a fair amount of rust along the bottom of the vehicles.”

“What we have done is when we replaced the frame we also replaced approximately 18 inches with stainless steel, which is a corrosion proof material.”

So, not everything on the old cars is reused. Workers at the Gray Manufacturing Industries shop are stripping down the first two cars to their shells. They’ll put in new sidewalls, new windows and seats. New electronic signage and audio systems also will be installed. But Bykowski says there’s a lot being recycled too.

“You’re saving all the steel, a lot of wiring that would have to be replaced. You’re saving copper. You’re reusing parts that are there.”

Bigger components are saved too.

The trucks and wheels are being patched, polished and eventually reattached to the cars.The motors will be rehabbed and go back into service too.

But, to be honest, Buffalo’s transit authority didn’t decide to recycle its rail cars because it’s good for the environment. It’s just trying to save some money. You see, rehabbing the cars costs about a million dollars each. That’s a third of what new cars cost.

Dave Gray is president of GMI, the company renovating the cars. Gray says they’re rebuilding cars for the Chicago and Philadelphia transit systems too.

“Most transit authorities try to rebuild vehicles. They always reach their mid-life, which is what the NFTA’s vehicles [have] done, and it’s very cost effective, so refurbishing makes a lot of sense.”

Not every city has had to be so frugal. Recently, some cities received federal stimulus money for their light rail systems. And a few of them, such as San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Miami, are simply going out and buying a brand new fleet. It is a whole lot easier and faster. It’s going to take three years to refurbish all of the rail cars in Buffalo’s fleet. Larry Meckler heads Buffalo’s transit authority. Meckler says he certainly doesn’t blame other cities for scrapping their fleet.

“If there’s other jurisdictions that can pull it off and get new cars, I’d say get the new cars because it’s a lot of effort, a lot more work, a lot more engineering – but they cost less. So, obviously, if we had the money and life was great and this was a utopian situation, every time a car hit [the end of] its usefulness, I’d just go out and buy another one.”

Still, being fiscally responsible is paying off. The authority saved taxpayers a lot of money. And in the end, Buffalo’s refurbished cars will look and work as every bit as good as new ones. Plus, even if it was unintended, the transit authority’s decision to reduce, reuse and recycle does let it claim the moral high ground.

For The Environment Report, I’m Joyce Kryszak.

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