Saturday, January 3, 2009

General Railcar?

Imagine you're a political leader of a region that has a few low-traffic, unelectrified freight lines, and you want to use these lines to bring transit to your area. Or maybe you've got existing, relatively low-passenger diesel service on a branch line where each train has a single locomotive pulling no more than three coaches, and you're looking to expand service or cut costs. Either way, you've got a tight budget (just like everyone in the transit business) and you can't afford to electrify the line. You'd love to run some kind of diesel multiple-unit trains, but they have to be FRA-compliant because freight trains share the line. Oh, and it'd be great if it could be made as locally as possible. Maybe you even get enough Federal dollars that you're bound by the Buy American Act.

Until recently, there was a company that seemed tailor-made for your needs. Colorado Railcar toured the country showing off its new diesel multiple-units, and transit agencies couldn't place orders fast enough. Unfortunately, many of those orders may go unfilled.

Last month I wrote about the fortunes of rail service in Vermont, which seem to have gone from the prospect of two or more runs a day to the elimination of all service. In the comments, my much more prolific (I think he's paid) transit blogger colleague Pantagraph Trolleypole pointed us to an article in the Oregonian that lays out all the details of the Colorado Railcar mess. As a Philip Morris executive wrote in an internal memo discovered by the paper, in Colorado Railcar there was a "fine line between stupidity and dishonesty and I think we’re right on it."

According to the Oregonian, the Portland, Oregon transit agency TriMet had contracted with Colorado Railcar for trains to run on its under-construction Westside light rail line. Faced with the prospect of getting no railcars after paying the company $17 million, TriMet paid $5.5 million to take control of the company and force it to complete, test and deliver the trains.

When I read this, I thought, "That's a brilliant step. They should go in with Vermont's Agency of Transportation, the Southeastern Wisconsin RTA, Florida Tri-Rail, the (Raleigh, NC) Triangle Transit Authority and anyone else who's interested. Bring on someone who knows how to build a company, and keep making DMUs for whoever needs them. Fund it until it gets a solid product built and is well-run, and then open it up to private investment." The last step is actually optional, but I don't know about the long-term legality or wisdom of a public transit agency running a train manufacturer.

The main thing, though, is that this is clearly a product that would be beneficial to transit agencies around the country, so anyone who cares about transit would probably consider it to be of national importance. How much would it take to keep it going for five years - $50 million?

But no, sadly, TriMet kept this zombie Colorado Railcar alive just long enough to deliver the trains, and then pulled the plug. On Tuesday, the company shut down, laid off all personnel, and is being liquidated. Meanwhile, GM has already gotten $4 billion. Couldn't we have used some of that to convert a GM plant to make DMUs? They're not much bigger than Escalades, after all.

On a related note, yesterday I posted about New Jersey Transit's $156 million plan to run passenger service on the currently freight-only New York, Susquehanna and Western main line. Here's a quote from NJ Transit's 2007 press release: "The project will introduce FRA-compliant Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) technology into the NJ TRANSIT fleet of rail equipment and will provide new passenger service along more than eight miles of existing freight track." Uh-oh.


Dave said...

Great post and site... I ran across this site because you linked to in this article where you have Chicago RTA. I think that should probably be SE Wisconsin RTA to be accurate.. Thanks for the link and I'm now a new reader:)

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks, Dave! I had no idea that SE Wisconsin had its own RTA. I've fixed the text. Welcome, and good luck!

Dave said...

Yea it is a really an uphill battle to get funding for rail in Wisconsin but the RTA is closest they've been in a long time to getting funding for our first (well years ago had tons) commuter rail line... Interestingly enough if built the KRM would terminate at the Metra line:)

Cap'n Transit said...

Yes, my dad used to tell me about the interurbans that went from Milwaukee to Chicago. He said they had gigantic wheels, taller than me. You know the kind of things dads say.