Pop Up Metro aims to provide affordable passenger transportation service

Two refurbished British railcars, prototypes of the Pop Up Metro project, wait to be operational in Rockhill, Pa. (Dan Zukowski)

ROCKHILL, Pa .– Rail entrepreneur Henry Posner wants to make passenger service more affordable and available. He calls it Pop Up Metro, and to do so, he is betting on batteries, refurbished UK multi-unit cars and a bold business model to reduce risk for potential rail operators.

If it was anyone other than Posner, this project might be considered a crazy idea with little chance of success. But Posner is the co-founder of Railroad Development Corporation (RDC), which owns the Iowa Interstate Railroad as well as operations in England, France, Germany, Belgium and Peru.

A German subsidiary, RDC Deutschland, won a contract this year to operate five lines in northern Germany that will use the new Stadler battery-powered electric trainsets. [see “Railroad Development Corp. wins contract to operate battery regional trains in Germany,” Trains News Wire, Feb. 16, 2021].

Posner spent three years developing the concept of Pop Up Metro, a subsidiary of RDC. “We felt it was the right time,” he says. “One, due to the evolution of battery technology, and two, we felt that there would be increased attention to the environment. “

White passenger car interior with black seats and orange trim
The interior of one of the Pop Up Metro cars. (Dan Zukowski)

The trains News Wire met Posner in Rockhill, Pa., Where Pop Up Metro leased track rights on the 1.8-mile line from the Rockhill Trolley Museum. In April, two refurbished Vivarail 230 multi-unit power cars arrived from Britain.

These 60-foot wagons, each weighing 36 tons, were converted to run on lithium iron magnesium phosphate (LiFeMgPO4) batteries. These batteries have a longer lifespan than lithium-ion batteries and are considered to be safer. Two battery rafts, each containing 60 cells, can travel the train for up to 60 miles on a full charge, depending on speed and inclines. For now, the train is limited to 15 mph on the Rockhill line, which Posner says will be upgraded to 40 mph.

Freewheeling and braking regenerate energy to charge the batteries, much like an electric or hybrid automobile. With a fast charger at the edge of a line at a station or marshalling yard, the batteries can be fully recharged in as little as 10 minutes. Traction motors are rated at 350 hp.

Meg Richards, Project Manager for Pop Up Metro, was in command for the demonstration. She graduated in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University, where she met Posner. He asked her to help him with an electronic standard common to automobiles that he wanted to apply to the Vivarail train. “I’ve found that if you just say yes to Henry, something interesting happens,” she says.

Woman in high visibility vest at the controls of railcar
Pop Up Metro project manager Meg Richards demonstrates the equipment. (Dan Zukowski)

She learned to drive the two-car train, which requires a skillful hand on the desktop single-lever throttle / brake controller, while keeping a pedal depressed at all times. Releasing pressure on the pedal activates the Driver Alert System (DRA).

Posner expects two more cars, which will be trailers. They will be coupled to each of the motor coaches to create two oars. The cars can be trucked, which is the essence of Pop Up Metro’s business plan.

The business model is to rent a complete package. “Pop Up Metro is the train, the platform, the operating rules for time separation and various other supporting elements that will make it easier for people to go from maybe to yes in terms of a demonstration operation. ”Says Posner.

The Pittsburgh entrepreneur sees a variety of opportunities for low cost passenger operations. An infrequently used branch line or short-haul railway could coexist with mass transit by providing freight transport at night and passenger service during the day, a concept he calls time separation. Small communities and transit agencies, or large agencies looking to expand service to less populated areas, are candidates for Pop Up Metro.

Posner is also awaiting interest from the private sector. The trains spoke to a commercial real estate developer in Maine who is excited about the concept as a way to spur transit-oriented development in some of the state’s smaller towns.

“We think this serves an important role in the transit industry,” Posner says, and the major transit agencies in the United States seem to agree that battery-powered trains have a future.

The Long Island Rail Road has announced plans to test a two-car battery-electric train on its 13-mile Oyster Bay branch [see “Long Island Rail Road announces plan to test battery-electric equipment,” News Wire, April 20, 2021]. The train would switch from third rail to battery power beyond the electrified territory.

NJ Transit has also expressed interest in battery-powered trains [see “NJ Transit awaits funding for plans to test battery-electric commuter equipment,” News Wire, May 11, 2021] for its North Jersey Coast Line.

A New Jersey passenger rail advocate attending the demonstration in Pennsylvania suggested the 2.7-mile Princeton branch of NJ Transit as “the perfect demonstration line for its technology.”

“Most valuable is the design of the trains and the proof that the design works and performs well in a North American environment,” Posner said. “And that’s what our demonstration operation proves.

The orange railcar approaches the switch on the railway line surrounded by trees
The Pop Up Metro train performs a demonstration on the Rockhill Trolley Museum Line in Pennsylvania. (Dan Zukowski)

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