Sprinter (light rail)

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SPRINTER logo.svg
NCTD SPRINTER College Blvd.jpg
A Sprinter train near College Blvd. in July 2020
Owner North County Transit District
Locale North San Diego County, California, United States
Termini Oceanside Transit Center
Escondido Transit Center
Stations15 [1] [2]
Website gonctd.com
Type Hybrid rail
System North County Transit District
Operator(s) Bombardier Transportation [1]
Depot(s)Escondido Storage and Maintenance Yard
Rolling stock12 married pairs of Siemens Desiro diesel multiple units [1]
Daily ridership4,000 (weekdays, Q4 2021) [3]
Ridership1,245,100 (2021) [3]
Commenced2005 (2005)
OpenedMarch 9, 2008; 14 years ago (2008-03-09) [4]
CompletedNovember 28, 2007 (2007-11-28)
Line length22 miles (35 km) [1]
Number of tracks Single: 56%
Double: 44% [5]
CharacterDMU service along time-separated freight right-of-way
Track gauge4 ft 8+12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
Operating speed50 mph (80 km/h) (top) [6]
25 mph (40 km/h) (average)
Route map

Oceanside Transit Center
Amtrak Coaster icon.svg Metrolink (California)
Coast Highway
Crouch Street
El Camino Real
Rancho Del Oro
College Boulevard
Melrose Drive
Vista Transit Center
Civic Center–Vista
Buena Creek
Palomar College
San Marcos Civic Center
Cal State San Marcos
Nordahl Road
Storage and Maintenance Yard
Escondido Transit Center
Parking available at all stations
Handicapped/disabled access all stations accessible

Sprinter (stylized as SPRINTER) is a diesel multiple unit hybrid rail route (light rail with some commuter rail features) operating in the North County area of San Diego County between the cities of Escondido and Oceanside, California, United States. The service uses the pre-existing 22 miles (35 km) Escondido Branch trackage of the San Diego Northern Railroad. Station platforms were constructed for the line's fifteen stations [2] [7] serving the cities of Escondido (eastern terminus), San Marcos, Vista, and Oceanside (western terminus). The line provides service to California State University, San Marcos and Palomar College. Sprinter service operates every 30 minutes and is targeted towards students and commuters.

The Sprinter is operated by Bombardier Transportation on contract with the North County Transit District, the area's public transit agency. The agency also operates the Coaster commuter rail line and the BREEZE Bus routes. At Oceanside Transit Center, the Sprinter connects to three commuter rail lines (the Coaster, the Metrolink Orange County Line, and the Metrolink Inland Empire–Orange County Line), as well as to Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner regional rail line and it also connects with Greyhound Bus Lines at again Oceanside Transit Center and Escondido Transit Center.

A 2007 study by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) predicted that the Sprinter would reduce road trips by 5,000 a day (a round trip by car would be two road trips). It also predicted over 11,000 riders (trips) per day by the end of the first year. [8] Ridership numbers did climb after opening, reaching just under 8,000 people per day as of March 2008. [9] In 2021, the line had a ridership of 1,245,100, or about 4,000 per weekday as of the fourth quarter of 2021.


The Sprinter is the first passenger train service along the Escondido Branch since the Santa Fe Railroad discontinued passenger service in 1946. Originally built in 1888, the entire line had to be rebuilt to accommodate more traffic and be elevated because the line runs along a river. [10]

The funding for Sprinter originated with the TransNet Tax (Proposition C) measure passed by San Diego County voters in 1987 to relieve traffic congestion. A third of the tax was dedicated to mass transit. [11] [12] The $477 million project also was funded through a $152 million Full Funding Grant Agreement from the Federal Transit Administration. [10]

NCTD purchased the line in 1992 from the Santa Fe Railroad. Construction started on the line in 2005 [10] and was scheduled for completion in December 2007. The Sprinter was previewed on December 28, 2007, [13] [14] with full revenue service scheduled to begin on January 13, 2008. Opening was delayed due to safety and other concerns, [15] [16] and began on March 9, 2008. [1]

While the DMUs are not much narrower than freight cars, the space for employees hanging at the sides of cars considerably increases the free space required, and gangways were designed into the stations that fold up after end of service to allow the BNSF trains plus employees at their sides to pass through. At the eastbound side of the Escondido Avenue platform, the tracks curve so sharply that a gap existed between the outside edges of the gangway and the side of the DMU. The California Public Utilities Commission stated that such a gap is unsafe, and as a result, the Eastbound platform at Escondido Avenue was not used for six months after the opening of the Sprinter. On September 12, 2008, the station was completed and on September 15, 2008, the station became operational.

Sprinter was the least expensive rail project per mile of 10 rail projects built or planned in California in 2005. [17] American Public Works Association (APWA) awarded Sprinter the Transportation Project of the Year for projects valued over $75 million. [17]


The Sprinter runs every 30 minutes in both directions seven days a week, from approximately 4 am to 9 pm. [7] Trains run later on Friday and Saturday evenings, to approximately 10:30pm (westbound to Oceanside), and to approximately 11:30pm (eastbound to Escondido). [18] Saturday/Sunday/Holiday trains operate every 30 minutes between 10 am and 6 pm and hourly before 10 am and after 6 pm. [7]


Sprinter at Oceanside, 2007-11-03.

The Sprinter serves a total of 15 stations, [2] including the two termini at Oceanside and Escondido. Three of these stations are transit centers – the two termini, Oceanside Transit Center and Escondido Transit Center, along with the Vista Transit Center station.

Due to its shared right-of-way with freight trains serving businesses in Escondido, the Sprinter platforms had to be set back from the tracks a sufficient distance to provide enough room for employees riding on the sides of freight cars.[ citation needed]

Location Station Connections
Oceanside Oceanside Transit Center Amtrak: Pacific Surfliner
Metrolink: Orange County Line, Inland Empire–Orange County Line

North County Transit District: COASTER
NCTD Breeze: 101, 302, 303, 313, 318, FLEX 392, FLEX 395
Riverside Transit Agency: 202 (temporary suspended due to COVID-19 pandemic)

Coast Highway
Crouch Street NCTD Breeze: 318
El Camino Real NCTD Breeze: 309
Rancho Del Oro NCTD Breeze: 311, 318, 323
College Boulevard NCTD Breeze: 315, 318, 323, 325
Melrose Drive NCTD Breeze: 318
Vista Vista Transit Center NCTD Breeze: 302, 303, 305, 306, 318, 332, 334
Civic Center–Vista
Buena Creek NCTD Breeze: 305, 332
San Marcos Palomar College NCTD Breeze: 304, 305, 347, 445
San Marcos Civic Center NCTD Breeze: 305
Cal State San Marcos NCTD Breeze: 347
Escondido Nordahl Road NCTD Breeze: 305, 353
Escondido Transit Center NCTD Breeze: 305, 308, Rapid 350, 351, 352, 353, 354, 355, 356, 357, 358, 359, FLEX 371, 388
Metropolitan Transit System: Rapid 235, Rapid Express 280
RTA: 217


An image of the Sprinter's middle truck and articulation system.

A one-way fare on the Sprinter costs $2.50 per rider, $1.25 for Senior (60+)/Disabled/Medicare riders (children under 5 years old ride for free; up to 3). [19]

In addition, riders can buy 'passes' (e.g. Regional 24-Hour Pass, Regional 30-Day Pass) which allow for unlimited travel not only on the Sprinter, but on other NCTD and MTS systems, such as the San Diego Trolley, and Breeze and MTS buses, for the duration of that pass. Rides on those systems, plus the Coaster commuter rail, and express buses, requires a "RegionPlus" pass.

Pronto Fare System / Former Compass System

The Sprinter, along with all other NCTD and MTS services, utilizes the new Pronto contactless fare system introduced in September 2021 by INIT Systems and SANDAG; the Pronto system succeeded the first-generation Compass Card system." [20] As a replacement for the original "Compass Card," the Pronto fare system allows for a tap-on, tap-off approach, so riders on the Sprinter can tap-on when entering the station platform (using one of the station's validators), and tap-off when arriving at the destination stop, in order to deduct the correct fare. [21] General Pronto cards can be physically purchased at Pronto ticket vending machines at NCTD facilities, or in customer service centers; electronic versions can be purchased through the website or through the mobile applications. [22]

The Sprinter previously utilized the aforementioned contactless "Compass Card", made possible by Cubic Transportation Systems, Inc. The "Compass Card" allowed passengers from MTS and NCTD to store regional transit passes and cash value on a rewritable RFID card. Customers would have purchased passes and added cash value on the Internet or at any ticket vending machine. Prior to boarding a train, customers tapped their Compass Cards on the ticket validator located on the train platform. The LED display on the validator would then light up with lights resembling that of a stoplight, and the LCD display showed text regarding the passenger's fare account. [23] The new Pronto system now used expanded upon many of the design concepts previously employed with the Compass Card system. [24]


A SPRINTER at the NCTD Vista Transit Center

While pre-opening studies of the Sprinter line projected an average weekday ridership of 11,000, average weekday ridership in 2012 was 7,800, [1] 70% of the original projected daily ridership. For 2012, this corresponded to 2.4 million annual ridership. However, the average weekday ridership for the Sprinter in the first quarter of 2013 was 8,500 according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Transit Ridership Report for Q1 2013, [25] which is 77% of the original projected daily ridership for the system.

Rolling stock

Sprinter vehicle at maintenance shop in Escondido

Sprinter service is operated with Desiro-class diesel multiple units (DMU) manufactured by Siemens in Germany and widely used by main-line regional railways. Twelve married pairs of Siemens VT642 Desiro DMUs were delivered to the Escondido Transit Center in August 2006. The vehicles were in acceptance testing in California during the early part of 2007. The passenger trains are not FRA-compliant for operation in association with freight trains; therefore freight operations on the route are not permitted during passenger operations. For this reason some publications, including the American Public Transportation Association, refer to this line as light rail but it does not conform with the usual understanding of that term.

Future service plans

Being a relatively new transit service, future development plans for the Sprinter are currently focused on increasing the frequency of the service to 20 minutes per train departure, from the Sprinter's current 30-minute schedule. [5] An increased schedule will require more double-tracking of the Sprinter rail line [5] as currently only 9.6 miles (44%) of the Sprinter's rail line is double-tracked. [5] The preferred alternative project for more double-tracking on the rail line involves increased double-tracking around Crouch St. station through College Blvd. station, and around Palomar College station through Nordahl Rd. station. [5] It is projected that this project will require six years to reach completion. [5]

Additionally, NCTD would like to implement Sprinter Express train service that would stop at only the five stations (Oceanside Transit Center, El Camino Real, Vista Transit Center, San Marcos Civic Center, and Escondido Transit Center) with the greatest ridership along the route. [5] The Express service would use freight track east of San Marcos Civic Center station to bypass a station and an eastern portion of the regular route in order to further reduce travel times between termini. [5]

Longer-term, SANDAG's 2050 Regional Transportation Plan projects one extension of the Sprinter by 2050. [26] The extension would be from the Sprinter's current eastern terminus at the Escondido Transit Center, south (presumably along S Centre City Parkway) to the Escondido Westfield Mall/Del Lago Transit Center. [5] [26] No other extensions of the Sprinter (e.g. to San Diego Zoo Safari Park, or to McClellan–Palomar Airport) are included in the plan.


The Sprinter has encountered some dissatisfaction in northern San Diego County. For example, business owners in Oceanside have attributed flooding in November 2007 and January 2008 [27] to the Sprinter, since its construction raised railroad beds and narrowed creeks. Some have also criticized the limited schedule. [28] In response to the limited schedule, NCTD expanded Friday and Saturday Night service in 2011, the last trips leaving out of Escondido (Westbound) at 10:33pm and out of Oceanside (Eastbound) at 11:33pm. [18]



On March 11, 2008, just two days after the first passengers were carried, a westbound Sprinter train struck a man who was lying on the tracks under a State Route 78 bridge in San Marcos. It was not immediately clear if the man was aware of the approach of the train. However, the man, who was covered by a sleeping bag at the time he was struck, spoke of suicide while in the emergency room. [29]

On March 23, 2012, a man was struck by a westbound Sprinter train at the West Mission Road and North Pacific Street crossing. The victim's death was ruled a suicide by the San Diego County medical examiner's office. The operator of the train applied the brakes and sounded the horn, but was unable to avoid the collision. The victim died at the scene. [30]

Service suspension (2013)

On February 28, 2013, the California Public Utilities Commission conducted an inspection of the Sprinter vehicles. During that inspection, the CPUC discovered accelerated patterns of wear on the central axle brakes of all 12 vehicles. As a result, on March 8, 2013, NCTD suspended service on the entire line. NCTD established bus replacement service for the duration of the Sprinter service interruption which lasted 70 days. [31] The Sprinter resumed regular service on May 18, 2013, with the last day of the supplemental express bus service on May 24. [32]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f "SPRINTER Fact Sheet" (PDF). North County Transit District. 2018. Retrieved December 9, 2018.
  2. ^ a b c "Sprinter Stations – NCTD". North County Transit District. Retrieved October 4, 2019.
  3. ^ a b "Transit Ridership Report Fourth Quarter 2021" (PDF). American Public Transportation Association. March 10, 2022. Retrieved June 7, 2022.
  4. ^ Burge, Michael (March 10, 2008). "Passenger train sprints into service". The San Diego Union-Tribune. Archived from the original on April 22, 2008. Retrieved August 4, 2021.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i "The Time Is NOW – Making the Transportation System Better: SPRINTER Improvements" (PDF). North County Transit District. Retrieved August 15, 2013.[ dead link]
  6. ^ SMA Rail Consulting (April 2016). "California Passenger Rail Network Schematics" (PDF). California Department of Transportation.
  7. ^ a b c "SPRINTER – NCTD". North County Transit District. Retrieved September 8, 2013.
  8. ^ "the rEgion: SANDAG's Electronic Newsletter". Sandag.org. January 13, 2008. Archived from the original on July 24, 2008. Retrieved April 26, 2011.
  9. ^ Sisson, Paul (March 20, 2008). "Sprinter ridership nudges toward 8,000 passengers". North County Times. Retrieved June 9, 2008.
  10. ^ a b c Cotey, Angela (January 2008). "San Diego's North County Transit District launches SPRINTER light-rail service". Progressive Railroading. Retrieved October 25, 2014.
  11. ^ "Transnet Tax for Congestion Relief". Thumper.tmisnet.com. Archived from the original on December 3, 2009. Retrieved April 26, 2011.
  12. ^ "San Diego At a Glance – Annual Fiscal Year 2005 Budget" (PDF). City of San Diego. 2005. Retrieved July 28, 2013.
  13. ^ Burge, Michael (December 29, 2007). "Oceanside-to-Escondido VIP ride goes smoothly". The San Diego Union-Tribune. Archived from the original on May 25, 2008. Retrieved April 26, 2011.
  14. ^ "Sprinter Inauguration – December 28, 2007". Rail Passenger Association of California & Nevada (RailPAC). January 2, 2008. Retrieved July 28, 2013.
  15. ^ Burge, Michael (January 18, 2008). "Sprinter could start on Jan 27". U-T San Diego. Retrieved March 10, 2008.
  16. ^ Burge, Michael (January 25, 2008). "Sprinter won't ride the rails until March 9". U-T San Diego. Retrieved March 10, 2008.
  17. ^ a b Nichols, Chris (December 12, 2009). "REGION: Sprinter wins 'Project of Year' award". North County Times. Archived from the original on April 19, 2010. Retrieved April 26, 2011.
  18. ^ a b "SPRINTER Schedule". North County Transit District. June 24, 2012. Archived from the original on September 13, 2013. Retrieved September 8, 2013.
  19. ^ "Sprinter Fares And Passes – NCTD". North County Transit District. Retrieved October 4, 2013.
  20. ^ "Public Meeting For Proposed Fare Changes" (PDF). San Diego Metropolitan Transit System Information. San Diego Metropolitan Transit System. Retrieved April 2, 2021.
  21. ^ "Goodbye Compass – Hello PRONTO!". San Diego Metropolitan Transit System Information. San Diego Metropolitan Transit System. 3 March 2021. Retrieved April 2, 2021.
  22. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions – PRONTO". Ride PRONTO. PRONTO. Retrieved September 5, 2021.
  23. ^ "Introducing Compass Cash via YouTube". San Diego Metropolitan Transit system. June 27, 2017. Retrieved February 8, 2021.{{ cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status ( link)
  24. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions". Ride PRONTO. PRONTO. Retrieved September 5, 2021.
  25. ^ "Transit Ridership Report – First Quarter 2013" (PDF). American Public Transportation Association (APTA). May 24, 2013. pp. 3–4. Retrieved August 6, 2013.
  26. ^ a b "2050 Regional Transportation Plan – Chapter 6 – Systems Development: Offering More Travel Choices" (PDF). SANDAG. October 28, 2011. pp. 6–15. Retrieved August 15, 2013.
  27. ^ Sherman, Lola (January 9, 2008). "Businesses flooded along Sprinter rail line". U-T San Diego. Retrieved March 10, 2008.
  28. ^ Kovrig, Neill (January 15, 2008). "Sprinter already a disappointment". North County Times. Retrieved March 10, 2008.
  29. ^ Burge, Michael (March 12, 2008). "New Sprinter train hits man lying on tracks; legs severed". U-T San Diego. Retrieved April 9, 2008.
  30. ^ Morris, Nick (March 23, 2012). "SAN MARCOS: Pedestrian struck, killed by Sprinter train". North County Times. Archived from the original on March 28, 2012. Retrieved March 24, 2012.
  31. ^ "SPRINTER Service Interruption FAQ". North County Transit District. March 9, 2013. Archived from the original on March 12, 2013. Retrieved March 10, 2013.
  32. ^ "SPRINTER Returns to Service". North County Transit District. May 16, 2013. Archived from the original on October 26, 2014. Retrieved October 25, 2014.

External links

Route map:

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