Monday, October 13, 2008

Betting on Train Cars

A front-page story on this Columbus Day in today's The Boston Globe is all about how the T has selected a South Korean company which has never built a passenger rail car for an American transit system as the vendor for the 75 new double-decker commuter rail cars. This is either going to be seen as a brilliant or it will become yet another chapter in T follies.

Hyundai Rotem was awarded the $109 million contract, yet the train maker doesn't even have a US assembly plant (a requirement of federal law). Also, while Rotem has built cars for European and Asian systems, the US is a different ballgame as we have much stricter safety standards than in other parts of the world.

The T claims that Rotem made the best offer - both technically and financially and that the four pilot cars will arrive on schedule in October 2010. The delivery of the rest of the fleet is due August 2011.

The MBTA's head man, General Manager Daniel Grabauskas declined to be interviewed for this article. He did reply with the following written statement:
"While the procurement process is only in its infancy, the MBTA is more than satisfied with the contractor's level of responsiveness and diligence to this point," Grabauskas said.
The T also claims the selection of Rotem was not in any way influenced by former T official John K. Leary. Leary's son Richard is now head of operations for the T and John Leary has worked as a consultant for Rotem.

This is starting out like a typical bad Massachusetts-state fairy tale, huh? It gets better.

The only bidder for this project was Japan's Kawasaki, which has built rail cars for the T in the past. Kawasaki's bid was $30 million higher than Rotem's. Rotem is already behind on delivery for two other American commuter rail coach orders - one for Southern California's Metrolink and the other for Philadelphia's SEPTA system. Both lines say they expect deliver of their cars six-months later than first promised because Rotem ran into production issues sourcing the steel that is needed to make US train coaches.

In other news, today's issue of the Worcester Business Journal contains an article about the recent announcement surrounding the state's attempts to purchase the CSX tracks. It is a critical article about the announcement, which initially excited a lot of commuter rail passengers from the Worcester area but then disappointed everyone. The WBJ notes:
But we fear the entire transaction is at grave risk because the single sticking point between the state and CSX for as long as the state has been trying to get more commuter trains between Worcester and Boston still exists: The no-fault liability insurance policy the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority has had to accept since 1994 in order to operate passenger trains on CSX’s tracks is still in place and was not resolved as part of the state’s purchase agreement with CSX.

Murray has come dangerously close to weakening the state’s position by announcing the purchase and allowing the additional trains to run immediately. In exchange for some election season warm fuzzies (U.S. Sen. John Kerry rode the train from Worcester to Boston as part of the announcement) not hammering out a liability agreement could put the state over a barrel in the future.

Yesterday's The Daily News Tribune contains an op-ed written by Lt. Governor Tim Murray about the commuter rail deal.

Today's The Sun Chronicle features a brief article about the increase in parking at MBTA stations.

The Eagle-Tribune outlines how the commute into Boston will be for passengers of the Haverhill line between Haverhill and Lawrence. Due to replacement rail work, the MBCR will be busing commuters between the Haverhill and Lawrence stations on midday and peak-evening rush hour trains starting tomorrow through late November. The busing will not affect morning trains.

Finally, yesterday's Globe also contained an article about the MBTA's Green Line extension.


Anonymous said...

This is going to turn ugly. Hyundai Rotem does not have a good reputation for quality or reliability for trains. Ditto for their automobiles and electronics, no matter what JD Powers or any other survey says. They just don't have the experience as other established companies and have always been playing catch-up. If you had the money to spend, would you rather pay more for a product from a company that is a proven leader in its field or less from a company that tries to imitate the leader?

Anonymous said...

agreed, this isn't a place to cut corners in order to save some bucks.

Anonymous said...

It was almost difficult to wonder if the originator of this entry has actually spent time outside of the United States of America and perhaps even just for the fun of it, considered taking a travel by rail vacation. I have been fortunate to have ridden trains and subways in Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and yes South Korea and am pleased to report that all were safe, well ran, absurdly (Japan) on time, predictable, smooth, quiet, never too hot, never too cold… need I go on. . . Japan by far has rider ship on certain lines that I would not be too surprised surpasses all of that for the entire NYC transit and does this every week day, on each mornings rush hour, That would be the Chuo Line of Tokyo having over 2 million riders each and every days rush hour. Have you ever seen an 18 to 20 car long commuter train? Think over ¼ mile in length, top that with a frequency of one fully packed train every 3-5 minutes. Shocking to say the least. Yes they have had some accidents, but all things considered, far less than our T.

A person commented on’s story as having come from Europe and how far more advanced their system was. I would have to agree. If our standards are so high, perhaps it is because those standards were put in place decades ago well before modern day engineers had a clue what they were doing. Today’s trains are far superior than yester year’s. It is high time that that our antique rails and the cars that ride on them be updated. As unfortunate as it may be, we no choice but look outside our own borders and more often than not, across the oceans wide to import the technology needed to modernize our system. The only other way would be to license it. But overall it is far cheaper this way vs. reinventing the wheel.